Signs & Wonders

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by Charles Martin

  She’ll leave this afternoon or this evening;

  she’ll change out of that sable-lined satin robe,

  put on something a bit more modish

  and less conspicuous, flag a taxi,

  and after zipping down on Fifth Avenue,

  she’ll meet a friend for drinks at the Century

  Club and then leave to catch a red-eye

  flight to the Netherlands on KLM.

  2/ John Koch at the New-York Historical Society: The Party

  Early evening: the summer party people

  meet in a large, airy, sparsely furnished room,

  sorting themselves into duets and trios

  for conversation.

  All except one, who leans out from a window:

  why, that one’s André, the long-lost friend whom I

  last saw years ago! Odd, to recognize him

  just from his posture,

  even before I turn to check the legend,

  Key to The Party : Number 8, A. Kimbrell,

  pianist. A student of Koch’s wife, Dora,

  (Number 3, speaking

  to another pianist and a model,

  Numbers 5 and 4.) With no one to talk to,

  self-reliant André ensconces himself

  in his own niche, while

  out of sight behind him, the conversations

  open, as old friends introduce their friends to

  recent strangers met in the elevator

  on their way up here;

  who, as the Key tells us, are painters, critics,

  dealers, models, pianists, wives and close friends:

  nobody famous but our host and his friend,

  Raphael Soyer.

  All now find themselves in a complex fiction,

  posed, disposed as couples adjoining threesomes

  linked to other couples by tightly rhyming

  postures and gestures;

  groups are dissolved and then reconstituted

  as the eye responds to the overlapping

  figures arranged according to the subtle

  rule of perspective.

  Yet it’s elegiac, this summer party,

  for, though the (mostly) young are clearly taken

  with one another and their situation,

  none has yet noticed

  how very cool the colors of the room are

  in the fading light, and how the wind that’s just

  stirred the lacy curtains has somehow also

  lengthened the shadows.

  All too soon, that moment of watches glanced at,

  looks exchanged; of thanking the host and hostess,

  as with a show of genuine reluctance

  guests make their exit.

  I can picture André, now turning back to

  find the party over, the room left vacant---

  ashtrays full, glasses empty. Another day

  of wine and poses.

  Facing outward, perhaps he had a glimpse of

  what lay ahead: law school, books read and written,

  works and days of environmental---not a


  To Himself

  Though they seem always much to be desired,

  The lives we cannot live are far more wearing

  Than the one we do. If we feel ourselves mired

  In its contingencies, committed to sharing

  Our tatty picnic blanket with the uncaring,

  Or wasting treasure in defense of relations

  Forever in need of, or beyond, repairing;

  If we’ve grown bored with manning the feckless


  It’s only that those other lives, our creations,

  Weightless themselves, oppress us until we falter;

  So, weakened by their effortless evasions,

  We learn this late that the only way to alter

  That situation is to leave off pursuing,

  And try to begin to do what we are doing.

  Brooklyn in the Seventies


  In all the years that I lived there, I doubt

  I once imagined there would come a time

  When I would learn that I had been priced out

  Of Brooklyn’s 19th-century sublime.

  Back then it seemed much likelier to me

  That I would see my small investment go

  Belly-up, taken by the undertow

  Of our increasing urban anomy

  Until the shrinking figures shrank to naught:

  A zero for the brownstone that I’d bought.


  Yet I persisted: property comes with

  The fictions by which it’s inhabited.

  I lived in not a brownstone but a myth

  About a brownstone, as I often said.

  Brooklyn was where I’d wanted to debut,

  The cozy safe but always edgy home

  I didn’t quite succeed in coming from,

  Although the Brooklynites I later knew

  Shared memories that helped me to restore

  A childhood that I hadn’t had before.


  For Brooklyn is, or was then, all about

  The joys of restoration and repair:

  A brownstone, once the fortified redoubt

  Of feuding gangsters or the unkempt lair

  Of junkies, went from shooting gallery

  To showcase in---let’s say eight years or ten

  Of tearing down and building up again,

  With never any kind of guarantee

  That spouse or partner would be standing by

  There at the end, if just to say good-bye.


  The other outcome happened quite a lot

  In those days. Many couples would discover

  That one was satisfied, the other not.

  The one who wasn’t would take on a lover,

  Or take off suddenly for parts unknown,

  Leaving the one who was self-satisfied

  And putting one’s now-outgrown self aside,

  For self-discovery meant moving on

  To find what would suffice and might fulfill:

  One couldn’t find oneself by keeping still.


  I knew two Sisters who had left their order,

  And when I asked what made them both decide

  To venture out into a world much weirder,

  “It was the stillness, mainly,” one replied,

  “People began to ask us what we thought

  Of clergy getting married and The Pill.

  We hadn’t thought much of such things, until

  They started asking us.”

  “Soon we were out

  And living here in Brooklyn, where you find us,”

  The other said, “Where other vows now bind us.”


  Yes, selves were in a frenzy of commotion,

  And those beyond their expiration dates

  Were being tossed despite years of devotion.

  So, whether by one’s doing or by fate’s,

  One found oneself in an unlikely place

  (And back then Brooklyn more than filled the bill

  For sheer unlikeliness) in Clinton Hill

  Or Bedford Stuyvesant, and with a face

  One hadn’t chosen, one was soon immersed

  In a role which one hadn’t yet rehearsed.


  The role may have been unimportant: all

  That mattered was it couldn’t be defended

  By older people: was what one might call

  Unscripted, improvised: and always ended

  At a goal which, once reached, would no more seem

  To be the end one had so long intended:

  “The coach stopped, the door opened, he descended.”

  Beyond such twaddle lay another theme,

  Rich with the still-unriddled mysteries

  Of life in Brooklyn in the Seventies.

  This Organizing Sol

  I have thought that my paintings of gorillas

  in some sense constituted an autobiography.

  —Miquel Barcelo


  Your Life in Letters asks a rearrangement

  Of that very thing---better look before you

  Leap: this can’t be done in stages,

  It’s yes or no, commitment or estrangement.

  I mean if, say, a year from now you’re bored, who

  Would even know where your cage is?

  No one, is who. And only feats of patience

  Will allow you access to those illuminations


  For which you’ve left life, family and Heimat.

  Sometimes a strange new character emerges

  When you’ve disposed of all the clutter:

  “Hello, it’s me! Yes, me! Where am I? I’m at

  No.——, Rue Morgue.” The poor concierge is

  Heard by M. Dupin to mutter,

  “What an ape…” It’s true that your decision

  May lead to changes that none of us can envision;


  Although each metamorphosis leaves traces

  Of the old order, once across the sill, a

  Transformation of your past is

  Bound to kick in. This usually effaces

  Whatever in you isn’t a gorilla

  Dreaming of your mountain fastness.

  The only issue after that is whether

  The forefinger and thumb will learn to work together.

  Theory Victorious

  You’ll know for certain that it’s happened when you

  See how the famished diner spurns his dinner

  Only to fall with relish on the menu---

  Then you’ll know Theory’s been declared the winner.

  II/ Some Romans

  On a Roman Perfume Bottle

  The Romans were not meek,

  And often the results

  Of their inventive labors,

  Towers and catapults,

  Went rumbling off to wreak

  Havoc on their neighbors;

  This tiny, cooled-down state

  Of a once-ardent passion

  Knows nothing of those wars;

  But served, in its own fashion,

  The imperious dictate

  Of Venus’s with Mars.

  Ara Pacis

  The white procession halts at the Altar of Peace

  To give thanks for war ended on such splendid terms,

  And someone deposits a shitstained lump of fleece

  On the high marble table where it writhes and squirms,

  Unquietly bleating, legs slipping and flailing,

  And any prayer of its will be unavailing.

  Ovid to His Book

  (Tristia, I/1)

  Off with you now, my little book, and go

  to the city I am barred from, to my woe---

  from Outer Nowhere all the way to Rome.

  ---Of course, I’m envious that I can’t come

  myself, and had to send you---poorly wrought,

  lacking revision’s second, better, thought

  and all refinement---on this hopeless mission

  to show an exile’s poems and condition.

  A purple jacket? Be sensible, my book,

  go for a serious, more somber look:

  forget your title page’s ornamented

  letters or hand-made paper, cedar-scented

  with deckled edges, trimmed in costly gold

  to keep away destructive dust and mold:

  you needn’t fear remaindering---nor is

  longevity the greatest of your worries.

  Books are well made when fortune’s favor pours

  down on their authors---as it won’t on yours.

  Since it’s my fortune you should keep in mind,

  display no polish of whatever kind:

  better that you seem rugged and unkempt,

  a ragamuffin with complete contempt

  for random stains and blots: each will appear,

  to those who notice it, an author’s tear.

  Go on your way now, book, and speak for me

  in places that I love, but cannot be,

  saluting those whom I have come to meet

  on metrical, if on no other, feet.

  To those who ask of you, “How is our Ovid?”

  say that although I haven’t yet recovered

  my health and happiness, I’m pleased to give

  thanks to the god by whose gift I still live.

  Say what you need to and then say no more:

  say nothing of what I’m being punished for---

  how long do you imagine I’d survive

  if I were to lead off The News at Five?

  When biting words offend you, just recall

  the best defense is often none at all,

  and if you’d really have my exile end,

  go find us both an influential friend,

  someone who sighs to think of my removal,

  and when he reads you gives his tears’ approval,

  silently praying Caesar will relent

  his anger and reduce my punishment---

  we trust the gods won’t make that one atone,

  for seeking to ease my loss, with his own,

  and that the Prince will soon be quieted

  so I may die at home in my own bed!

  But when you have complied with my directive,

  You’ll still find some who’ll say that you’re defective.

  If critics must consider the circumstance

  and time of any act, you have a chance:

  one needs, in order to compose in measure,

  a mind at rest in solitude and leisure,

  not one that’s clouded over with its fear

  because the executioner draws near!

  A judge who understands this will applaud,

  and reading, pardon---though the work be flawed:

  put Homer in a pickle great as mine

  and watch his genius suddenly decline!

  So have no care for the best-seller list,

  and give no thought to readers who resist

  your many charms: my fortunes must be raised

  before anything I write will be praised!

  When I was fortunate, I hungered for

  stardom, celebrity, and much, much more;

  it now suffices that I do not hate

  the poems that have brought me to this state,

  the cleverness I suffer for---and from!

  So go in my place now and visit Rome

  as I would do, and walk about, and look

  upon its wonders---would I were my book!

  Don’t think, because you come here from abroad,

  you’ll pass among the populace ignored!

  I fear my notoriety may hurt you;

  if any guardian of female virtue

  finds you, because of me, fit for rejection,

  offer your title page for his inspection:

  “That work you think I am---which I am not,

  The Art of Love, deserved the thumps it got!”

  Do you suppose I’ll send you, book of mine,

  to Caesar’s home high on the Palatine?

  I beg forgiveness of that lofty site---and

  of its deities---but I am still frightened:

  the blast that struck me issued from that hill!

  Some of its gods, I know, are merciful,

  but how can I not shudder with alarm

  merely to think of those that did me harm?

  The dove you wounded, hawk, now quakes with dread

  whenever feathers rustle overhead;

  delivered from the wolf’s embrace, the lamb

  is loath to leave the sheepfold and its dam;

  the Sea of Icarus assumed the name

  of that young lad who flew too near the flame:

  beware, my book, observe the bottom feeders,

satisfied with ordinary readers.

  From here, I can’t be sure which will prevail,

  whether you should rely on oars or sail;

  just let the situation be your guide:

  if you come near him when he puts aside

  the business of the day, and clemency,

  the thought of it, supplants his rage at me;

  if someone, as you shake with doubt and fear,

  whispers an introduction in his ear,

  approach---and on a day more fortunate

  than your own master, you’ll improve his state,

  for if my wound’s not fatal, it can be

  cured only by the one who wounded me.

  My fears are numerous, my hopes are scant,

  so do not injure what you would advance---

  don’t rouse the sleeping lion in his den,

  or give him cause to punish me again.

  But let’s not think of that, dear little tome;

  rather, let’s think of you, soon to be home,

  back at the townhouse, in the studio

  upon your shelf, and with you, in a row,

  your brothers all in chronologic order,

  the products of my diligence and ardor.

  Most of them show their titles openly

  for anyone at all who passes by:

  There are, however, three that shun the light,

  maneuvering to keep far out of sight,

  huddled together at a safe remove:

  they teach---who doesn’t know?---the art of love.

  I recommend you stay away from those,

  that, like Telegonus or Oedipus,

  slew their own father. If you have affection

  for your parent, fly from their seduction!

  Beside them stand my Metamorphoses,

  survivors of my fortune’s exequies;

  what I owe them, I hope you may amend:

  my daily funeral here at world’s end.

  I bid you tell them now that my own fate

  resembles one of them in his changed state,

  no more as I once was---and now much less,

  with sorrow in the place of happiness.

  I’ve more to tell you, book, if you should ask,

  but that would only keep you from your task,

  and if I filled you up with all my trouble,

  the one who carried you would be bent double;

  and you, if all that you did was repine,

  would not be recognized as one of mine!

  The road is long---hurry, while I bemoan

  abidance in this land far from my own.

  Three Sonnets from the Romanesco of G.G. Belli

  1/ The Good Soldiers


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