from Cantos for James Michener

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XCVI.

He wasn’t sure how the bathroom mirror worked

but decided it must be powered

by the razor blades and aspirin

he found in the engine compartment.

It was a matter of relearning everything

after he surfaced from the coma.

The hospital chapel had bought a battered

fog machine from a local heavy metal band

that broke up after disagreements about

Viking iconography.

Sitting in the back row, he began to pray

for his hospital roommate, who was suffering

under the byzantine complexity of back pain.

He said it felt like he was laying

on top of an architect’s model of a small town

whose five-storey bank building commanded

a view of the plains.

Clouds of steam drifted around his ankles.

 

CI.

The jets move slowly through the sky like they’ll never

reach Denver or wherever they’re going,

and I have the feeling that people are high fiving nearby,

spontaneously, like a saloon brawl where everyone

suddenly starts fighting as if each man has

a preconscious knowledge of which side he’s on

when he enters a crowded room.

And this fight starts with a Polish joke that a man

at the bar begins to tell, but it’s not funny

as it concerns a stillborn child and an alcoholic

slain by the last European wolf, and even after

three hours there is no punchline in sight.

When he reaches the part where a Polish scientist

who has been navigating through millimeters of wilderness

discovers sub-atomic temples in a rust sample,

none of the men are listening,

they are thinking about their own childhoods

about the deep embarrassment of scoring on your own team

and the view from falling behind.

CII.

The waiting room across the hall was filled

with hostile stepsons.

He was studying their faces when his favorite nurse

came in to show him an x-ray of a scarecrow

she had found in the chapel.

Someone had written “the unborn God

of the C8H17NO4S Indians” on the bottom.

“Here, this pill should make you feel like a turtle

tangled up in a dry cleaning bag.”

The nurses are so beautiful, he thought

Try to remember that they are covered in germs.

CV.

He woke up at 12:34 and saw the Mirrornauts

standing by the full-length mirror in their chrome uniforms.

Their scouts had already crossed. They were going to war

on the other side. To fight for the stranger’s right to know,

for the models in the picture that comes with the frame,

and all others who seek freedom from liberty

and movies about movies about movies.

“The room in the mirror is full of carbon monoxide.

That’s why we cannot pass without these chrome suits.

If the other side looks identical, study closely,

you’ll see an object that’s not in the room

you’re standing in. Like a lute on the dresser,

partially hidden by compacts and atomizers.”

The Mirrornauts vanished into the glass.

We are living in unwritten Bible stories, he thought.

That God created forest clearings

so he could spy on the Indians.

CIX.

The Smokers were encamped on a rivulet in the south forty.

Their leader, a tall housewife decorated with medals from the

Virginia and North Carolina state legislatures, sucked on a

menthol 100 as she scanned the cured fields.

I whistled when I got within earshot to let them know

I was coming. The Smoker children ran out to meet me

and I passed out nicotine gum and colorful matchbooks.

I lit up and approached the oak tree where the leader’s

tent was pitched. She stared at me contemptuously as she

opened her bathrobe. I sucked on each breast for a second

and then she motioned for me to sit on the beer chest.

It was my land they were camping on but it sure didn’t

feel like it. She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and I

jumped up to light it.

“Sit down,” she said. “Did you bring the scratch tickets?”

“Here they are.”

“What are they saying in town?”

“There are rumors of a sale.”

 

CXVII.

Deep within the interior of a Polish joke

where time slowly reduces the stairs into ramps

and men with hospital haircuts sit in focus groups

discussing the algebra of back pain

and the “Power of Not Caring.”

Here in some mother-in-law’s version of Poland

where even the magicians are regulated by the state.

He walked to the window and said

“Night, you fucking challenger, here I am.”

Through the mirror he heard the warcry

of the C8H17NO4S Indians.

His back hurt.

 

CXXVI.

From our upstairs porch I watch my neighbor, a small town accountant with a voice like a toy keyboard, begin his walk to work in his navy blue Botany 500 suit, bought used in an L.A. consignment store while visiting his widower son-in-law and blind granddaughter, and according to my neighbor, formerly owned by Gene Rayburn, the semi-retired game show host whose grotesque aura still haunts the seven o’clock time slots of my body’s internal clock along with Merv Griffin, Don Rickles, Cloris Leachman, Bert Convy, Wink Martindale and the tenants of every Hollywood square, those horrible hucksters, sickening adults/hyenas who seem to have had their proteges on every Main Street, the men with perms, tight gray curls erupting over the alcoholic topography of their oiled faces, a legion of salesmen ruined by bad translations of an already disastrous California ideal, their eyes stinking like boiled cocktail onions as they emerged from “sleek” 1980 Thunderbirds, all marinated teeth and snowplow mustaches, fresh from invigorating divorces, dragging tawny S-shaped girlfriends by the wrist to wooden gargoyle waterbeds where stereo systems built into the headboards played “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project endlessly through the night.

These men quietly disappeared sometime during the first Reagan Administration. If the Mirrornauts did come for them, then they must have leapt down through the bedroom ceilings, and the men must have woken up screaming as their carpeting was ripped up, the aquariums smashed with baseball bats, and then angry, insane, “my ex-wife is behind this isn’t she,” obscure cuss words, now lost to us, spilling out of their fat mouths.

 

CXXXII.

Inside an abandoned spa

where Swiss hardcore kids squat in polar rooms

underneath fountains of careless feedback,

or within the funeral home’s fusebox

that operates the violet shadows on the lawn

and the digital eyes of an elk head

bolted above the respirating fireplace,

you, on the edge of rainshot shadows,

con the world into lamenting anything

until no one can recall how the true stories end.

If it existed, we’d be used to it already,

the dream of important mail

like trumpets crashing into men

or oceans cruising through the furious night

while lonely seaside dentists hasten

to incorporate chocolate towers

into their huge immovable desserts.

If we are lured into violent matinees

we are only acting as the agents of coin circulation.

Like stuffed animals sharing coffee in the dorms,

or interstate median castaways with wild children,

we are all auditioning for a newish testament

where perfect kids ride pedestals of surf onto the beach

and Lake Speed’s legendary hair rots

west of the redrock balconies and neutral horses

with fiery games.

 

CXVI.

A man walks into a bar at sunset, takes his hat off and wipes his brow with the back of his shirtsleeve.

“After a hard day’s work you deserve a cold beer,” said the bartender.

“Gimme a cold beer,” he said. “It’s been a long day but it’s all worth it now.”

The rest of the work crew walked into the bar.

“We’ve been working hard and now working time is through,” they said. “There’s nothing like a cold beer when all is said and done.”

“Man this beer hits the spot,” said one, “all day long, while I was working, I was imagining how good this was gonna taste.”

“Yeah, there’s nothing like an ice cold beer after a hard day’s work,” said another.

 

CLI.

A mutt barks at the service entrance

as the foursome, still using their bridge game aliases,

climb up to the bedrooms.

A computer would jam under all the distractions

in a watchdogs eye or, scrolling through a long list

of contemporary enemies (headed by “shape shifters”),

never recognize the Smokers as they scale

the award-winning garden walls.

North goes down on East and the branches out the window

shift like scars on a toymaker’s hand.

When he’s finished he gets up and walks to the bathroom

where a Smoker is waiting and beats him until

his body is rich with contusions.

“Getting hurt makes a doctor a better doctor,” he mutters

as he climbs out the open window.

David Berman is an American poet, cartoonist, and singer-songwriter best known for his work with indie-rock band the Silver Jews.

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