Mudlark No. 55 (2014)


I. Toward the Natural History

Three sisters sit side-by-side-by-side, well groomed for Sunday church. 
I wonder where their mother is? 
Each girl is flaxen-blonde and wears patent leather shoes 
that glint like those in Oz. Each one is playing parent with a doll: 
one dressed in overalls ready for a square dance. A lithesome 
plastic ballerina encircled by a pink tutu posed in a pleat. 
Barbie in war fatigues outfitted for a tour of duty in Baghdad 
or Kabul. With peach-and-cream complexions, these girls appear 
as though they're headed to an Ivory Soap  commercial.  

A man in the adjoining seat wheezes 
repetitiously—it sounds like chronic emphysema. 
I have no choice except to listen. 
He whispers, “you—be careful,” in my ear. 
I certainly won’t look at him or query for elaboration. 
Is he a vigilante or insane or just another harmless recluse seeking 
liberation in the fetid air?
One stop past Columbus Circle, the blessed trio vanished. 
I didn’t see them rise and leave as the car filled up with Yankee’s caps 
and bundled strollers. Only two more stops 
until the Planetarium. Should I stand and walk into 
another car? Be still, I tell myself, maintain your focus, 
glancing at the strip ads for STANLEY KAPLAN courses, 
the GED in Spanish, institutes for long-haul truckers 
and future cosmetologists. His bulk presses in 
on me. His halitosis makes me gag. 
His bulbous head reminds me of Serrano ham 
with eyes. I watch his cosmic gaze transfixed on nothing I can see,
unless his occupation is conversing with the dead.    

II.  Underground Music

Guitarists from Argentina, Cuba and the Cameroon, instruments 
with just one string or two    
                                                 that twang and weep, evoke 
past loves
                                                                                                      to chill the blood.													

A Brooklynite blows Charlie Parker. 
                                                                   Two couples dance a polka, dapper 
                                                                                                                       in embroidered vests.
I have nowhere I must be, no pressing 
                                                                                          Another modern Orpheus 
                                                                       by the current of her scent.

                                  She reads a Balzac paperback with a Degas bather on the cover 
as if we’d met in a long ago lost hour.

                                                                       Black cowboy boots, a floppy red felt hat,
       a guitar case strapped to her back. Her mast, I think. 

                                                                                                              In a moment, she’ll sail off                              
on my pilfered breath.  

                                            One drummer 
   				                                      from Burundi, one drummer from Senegal,                                                                   

Peruvians with wooden flutes summoning 
                                                                             macaws from rain-soaked jungles. 

         Other phyla soon arrive:

                        A barbershop quartet of rats, and a frazzled artist
whose moniker is Cockroach, his carapace a French beret. 

               A stout man in an alpine suit taps his boot to cold cement as he swoons 
                                                              with his accordion.

A white-gloved Michael Jackson clone and a troupe of break dance acrobats 
                      wind their paths 
                                                          in between the “Wet Paint” columns.

       I wish I could follow her and not look back, 

                                                                                                     find myself reborn
                 inside her Cobble Hill apartment, 

                                                                               the music of old plumbing as we ran the bath.        

                                                    It’s grace that haunts me as I wait
never having learned to flow, 
except in some pen-push rage at the solitary desk.

This task seems too arduous:
                                                                                           an original upon the surface.

Like others here I fled and went below 
              to strum and croon and bop
                            for a moment’s admiration 
                            	     and a guitar case strewn with dollars. 

                                          Gaunt hipsters and grizzled folkies stand beneath 
these filthy L train stairs to serenade Kurt Cobain,
John Lennon, and Joe Strummer. 

                                               Earthly life is  
                                                             Hell’s disguise for those who choose 
                                                                                                                   this realm instead.

No skinhead metal, no gangsta’ beats, no nihilistic grooves—

                                                           only harp and gamelan, dulcimer and didgeridoo. 

III. The Horizontal Fires

Level by level I descend
            to the sound of clanging metal.
                        Steel doors open and I enter
                                    and ride what seems like hours
                                                 in a landscape without weather.

No guide except a map enclosed
            in glass like a transparent body 
                        from Gray’s Anatomy, rivulets
                                    of arteries and veins. The signal
                                                on my cell phone to the world 

above gone dead. I walk from car 
            to car to gaze upon this afterlife
                        they’ve led—chained to metal poles 
                                    and handrails and left to beg.
                                                I wouldn’t claim the journey
One car of upright sleepers 
            seems at peace until I witness
                        how they’re shocked awake 
                                    once-a-minute, as nightmares passed 
                                                from brain to brain.
In a car smeared with graffiti 
            the inhabitants are mostly poets and 
                        their critics who mutter to themselves, 
                                    while others read identical newspapers 
                                                with a front page photo of an ice-encrusted skyscraper
and the headline: ARMAGEDDON! 
            I continue forward secretly protected. 
                        Biggie’s ghost infusing me with hip-hop 
                                    wagger. When I reach the front car—
                                                it’s apparent—the train has no conductor, 
so I climb into the driver’s vacant chair where
            I behold a bright metropolis modeled upon heaven,
                        this chariot surging in between the dual necklines 
                                    of the bridge strung with arcs of pearls. Relentless wheels 
                                                in their course, sparking above the ice-chunked river.

IV.  In the Church of Fading Voltage

Gazing down the platform at 5th and 53rd the tunnel lights illuminate 
each nook and niche where wooden saints once stood with missing hands 
and severed heads. Deserted shrines where candles burn upside-down 

and disembodied prayers are hollowed out by grinding metal. 
Now the sole inhabitants are monk-brown rodents, scurrying to sermons 
across the grease-black rails within this church of fading voltage. A train arrives. 

I hide my face behind the gossip pages of the Post. I stand beside a man 
with a giant sequined crucifix suspended from his neck and ferret furred 
along his shoulder. We surge past midnight platforms nearly empty 

except for crumpled pages of Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Metro Cards 
without a ride left. Inside these jangled cars, above 125th, clowns 
and necromancers suddenly appear, nomadic healers hawking pelts

and claws, tortoise shells, teeth and glands in vials.
“TB, Eboli, HIV, which is your disease?” A sickly child asks, tugging 
at my sleeve. “You’ll really need those Gucci loafers even when you’re dead?” 

Lead me out from where I am, Beatrice from Riverdale, Hermes from Canarsie. 
Extract these jittered nerves; forge these dreaded wheels into enduring stars. 
And here upon this rusted nail hang a dawn-light lantern.  

Peter Marcus | Two Mirrors from the End of Autumn
Contents | Mudlark No. 55 (2014)