Mudlark Flash No. 51 (2009)

A Thousand Kim by Kurt Brown

Kurt Brown founded the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and a new collection, No Other Paradise, due out in 2010 from Red Hen Press. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006. He teaches poetry workshops and craft classes at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and was recently the McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and a visiting writer at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

A Thousand Kim

“Dutch Schultz’s deathbed ravings covered a wide range—all the way  
            from mysterious million-dollar deals to assorted pals 
                        and double-XX guys to Communists, of all things.
            One sentence confounded everybody, even 
the poets: A boy has never wept, nor dashed a thousand kim. 
            What did the dying badman mean?” Well, who knows. 
                        History may never repeat itself, but it stutters.
            Time machineguns events at us, and we stagger, 
bleeding from the holes in our hearts. On television  
            a veteran  back from Iraq boasts “I looked death in the eye. 
                        I fought with death and I won.” He glares
            at the camera, minus two legs (below the knee), the left side
                        of his face disfigured, a ruddy lump of scars. 
“How many people can say that?” he asks. No one replies. His image 
            fades, and a commercial for Ambien  splashes onto the screen. 

It’s hard to rest these days. Nightmares gallop through our brains, 
            lids jitter in REM sleep, even our legs lurch and need 
                        to be quieted. Suffering and death are of little interest
            to the artist, thought Gertrude Stein and as the Second
World War approached, remarked: “I could not see why there being
            so many more of them made it any more interesting.”
                        Well, who knows. A hundred kim, or a thousand,
            are hard to visualize. That’s why the government hides the bodies 
and lead still kills, leaching into the brain from the brightly painted surfaces
            of toys.  “No world,” said my friend, “could be stranger
                        than this one!” and I was beginning to see what he meant.


What a poor tool our brains are for making sense of anything. 
            From the Falx cerebri down to the Teritorium of Cerebellum, 
                        we’re stymied, and a bullet doesn’t help, or a fleck 
            of carcinogenic paint lodged neatly in the forebrain. Every time I pass 
a child on the corner I think: “He could be packing a gun.” Then I laugh
            at my own foolishness. But last night in my sleep a child shot 
                        another child, and I did nothing. I didn’t even wake up
            until a garbage truck slammed down our street and for some reason 
I thought of Will Durant, the philosopher, who calculated that there have been
            only twenty-nine years in all of human history during which 
                        there was not a war underway somewhere. 
            Maybe we should wear seatbelts when we go to bed. Maybe 
we should ban lead from the body altogether, so we never have to endure
                        the sight of a mutilated young boy weeping.


If young minds soak up knowledge “like a sponge,” age wrings 
            it all out again until compassion becomes bloodlust and history 
                        is honed to a single point. Perhaps that point, 
            smaller than a period, in which the universe was packed
before the Big Bang ripped it open and out sprang St. Francis and Jeffrey 
            Daumer, Ghandi and Dutch Schultz, each animated by a kind 
                        of brain. “Dinosaurs had two brains,” my friend said, “for all 
            the good it did them—one in the head, and one in the tail.” Scaly 
hook-and-ladders negotiating pre-history’s curves, though a comet 
            did them in, like a stray bullet wandering a neighborhood 
                        until it found its random target, earth, which some
            have likened to a massive brain with its folded mountains,
its bright ideas like evolution or volcanoes spewing lava into the sea.

After World War I the Surrealists wanted to go to sleep forever,
            and poor Apollonaire did, but not before a sliver of the real world
                        pierced his skull and a crowd of citizens massed outside 
            his window chanting Guillaume! Guillaume! like a mother 
calling her child home at dusk, while the movies of George Méliès 
            were melted down to make heels for soldiers’ boots.
                        This was no dream, but a bizarre variant of beating
            ploughshares into swords as the French army plodded off to war 
shod in Méliès’ films, winsome illusions of that inventive movie-house magician. 
            Death longs to infiltrate the world and experience life, if only
                        briefly, borrowing our bodies before turning back 
            into its own emptiness. Just this morning, twelve-feet high on the side 
of a bus, the picture of a man grinning warmly, with blood spattered 
            forehead and cheeks, rolled past with the legend:
                        “America’s favorite serial killer” spelled out in red paint,
            a sentence that might confound anyone, while the rest of us  
shopped for artichokes and bagels, cut-rate carpets and white wine. 


The world  offers up its runes, its daily figments of reality, though 
            I don’t mean  to exclude myself in any of this, as no one is excluded, 
                        but dragged ineluctably into to a wide net
like that purse-seine Robinson Jeffers imagined, all of us victims
            of interdependence until “Now there is no escape. We have gathered 
                        vast populations incapable of free survival each person himself 
            helpless,” and so on. A thousand kim, a million kim. Like this pale 
boy swaggering past, in black denim trousers and t-shirt, chrome studs 
            glittering in his ears and lips in self-crucifixion, Fuck You Very Much 
                        stenciled across his chest. The world to him is a madhouse,
            a threat to his existence. It’s a no-brainer as far as he’s
concerned. Wars and future wars: the same war burning from decade
            to decade, as a pile of leaves catches fire from leaf to leaf, 
                        or a forest from tree to tree. The same spark of anger from ten
thousand years ago when Cain picked up that rock and brained his brother. 


But who can remember that far back? Memory contains its own 
            erasure, each generation another chapter in history’s
                        long amnesia. When a politician on t.v. says “we’re going 
            to see that this never happens again” I laugh out loud, 
though it gives me no pleasure. I think of all the “eternal flames”
            burning around the world, polished cenotaphs 
                        containing nothing but the memory of unknown
            soldiers, their limbs so scattered they couldn’t gather them up
to give them a decent burial. “History teaches us...” he’s now saying,
            the announcer on tv, and I wonder what he’ll say next?
                        If Cain and Dutch Schultz were brothers, 
            what can we expect from two pounds of marbled
gray matter Hippocrates first located as the source 
            of the mind—though long before that the Greeks and Egyptians
thought the mind resided in the heart, which is far more desirable. 


Memories are dreams from which we don’t wake up, until they become
            so distant it’s as if they don’t matter at all, or somehow never existed.
                        Is hope a recurrent dream from which we never 
            wake? The other night my wife half-sat up in bed and said
very clearly, very firmly, “Time promise in paradise everything is well”
            then fell asleep again, and I did too, hoping that dreams 
                        still have validity and forecast the future as they did for the Pharaohs 
            who ignored them at their peril, or woke in celebration of the coming 
harvest, or a daughter’s impending wedding. Who knows. But this morning
            in front of me in line at the bank, I stared at a question mark 
                        tattooed on the back  of a man’s head, there, at the base 
            of his skull where his spinal cord met his brain, a curled 
blue hook of ink floating over a point, no bigger than a period, out of which 
                        the universe might one day emerge, or into which
            it might just as suddenly again, and without  reason, disappear.

Copyright © Mudlark 2009
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