Mudlark No. 20 (2002)

André Breton Works
the Crisis Prevention Hot Line

by Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky’s poems, stories, and essays have appeared in literary magazines and journals including COLLEGE ENGLISH, NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, POETRY NEW YORK, POSTMODERN CULTURE, MINNESOTA REVIEW, and MISSISSIPPI REVIEW. His collection, DEATH, BUT AT A GOOD PRICE, received the Nicholas Roerich Prize for 1991 and was published by Story Line Press. He teaches online courses for SUNY-Stony Brook and is a senior contributing writer for The Gale Group.


The Real Life of Piggies
How the Rain Fell
Bed, lie in it
The Lover I Need
What The Window Cleaner Thought
Dear John:
No Place Like Home
André Breton Works the Crisis Prevention Hot Line
Self-Portrait With Possible Future Problems
From the Diary Of a Closet Shadow
Hide & Seek
Among Them
Trying To Survive The Flood
Tenured Poodle
Going Places
The Situation
Suffering Geniuses
Content to Be Formed
Contributor’s Note
The Ex

The Real Life of Piggies

A youngest child, the first little piggy
preferred poesy to shopping. Or so he said.
But when given the chance,
he’d charge and he’d charge until his skin
turned from pink to a carbony blue.
The second little piggy knew all too well
the dangers of the outside world
and instead chose to roam the land
of, shunning the sun
for months at a time, tending
his acne and keyboard with quiet aplomb,
while piggy three gnawed
at his beef and mayo sub, watching Oprah
lift the souls of housewives through the roof.
The saddest little piggy would have none of it.
An anorexic since eight, she sank
further into herself each day, her skin
slackening like a withered peach.
She wanted nothing to do with her brothers
and their acres of make-believe,
their television gods,
and their plans for e-commerce,
the stories they told themselves
of life at the far end of the heel.
Like the last little piggy,
a manic depressive who twitched
with buttery glee at the promise of a puddle,
she too wanted to run all the way home,
but knew such desire was foolish,
that there was never any leaving
this unwieldy slab of cartilage and bone,
that she was destined to spend
the rest of her days
chained to a row of smelly dreamers.



10: Thinking words the body of thought. A table. On the table a script. In the script directions. For the characters, there is no plot (usually). They do not think of themselves as characters (usually). How do they think of themselves?

9: Consider Connie O’Connell, nineteen-year-old seamstress at the Yardville Yarn & Fabric Factory, unfolding herself for you under the pink incandescence of Cadwalder Park light. Consider Patty Pratico, her racquetball sweat a blister of want spread over her arched back, her muscled thighs, your hands reading her skin, moving her limbs, her deft responses, writhes and resistance, her eyes a bituminous simmer. Weigh the fat seconds it took for Janet Kuchinsky’s smile to deepen there in the doorway of the Broadway Motor Lodge in the middle of your seventeenth year. Consider the urgency, the witness of youth staking its ground, blood like words not yet come by, the beginnings of a map, the need for a scale. Consider Wendy Bujon, Sarah Ruge, Christine Westin, Karen Hummer, Nancy Chen, their faces points on a staggered line charting your past. A is to B as woman is to now. Charts have margins, and something to say. But there’s no escape from the cartographic paradox: to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell lies. Consider the lies.

8: This isn’t like you. You are not the product of your past loves. You are not the sum of your scattered memories, picked at and plumbed like a clutch of fading slides. You are not a retrospective of Kodak desires. You are not like “like.”
      A long rain has caught you, is following you, and the slow shift of light no longer autographs your day. Each date sits, blind in its perfect box, while on the same face everywhere the little hand eats itself clean. Objects and fear collapse into a wall-less corridor of damp air and difficult breathing. Now you stand before the mirror, cataloguing your every body part, each mole and scar and bruise. What do they tell you? That your body is nothing else. That nothing else comes close, comes closest to being your body. That you are an idea, a clever crease in the sleeve of what.

7: What has happened once will happen again. An image arrives, a smell conjures, a touch wakes you. You color by numbers, the numbers find out.

6: People are talking, mouths moving. They hobble along the rail reciting the alphabet, hands linked, tongues flapping like little flags announcing their country of desire. A scent of iodine and cold fish floats by. The familiar ebbs and replenishes itself like all good breath. Places everyone. The actors take their seats, erase their smiles in cautious blinks; the music spills forth, a shimmering and a thud. You know this part, and the one that comes next. Parts are rooms without the furniture.
      It’s where you sleep that counts most.
      Where do you sleep?
      In the knots of dead branches, curled and hot under the hoary throats of white owls, ruffled by their hoots. Inside fists grown moist with fear. In the wheels of slow trains, ground finer with each revolution, your voice a shudderingly slow flower embalmed with dust.

5: On the porch, your neighbors gather, take turns pronouncing your name, sloughing off each syllable like old teeth. They want you to speak, to place yourself, to tell them where, and who. Details, they say. Tell us everything, they say.

4: In the dirt, you sketch a diagram: circles, boxes, a twisted arrow and an ampersand. You take a switch from the tree and scratch it out, raise your head, scan their faces for direction. They’re smiling, heads bobbing like happy geese, their skulls great knobs of mottled flesh keeping time to the warble and slush of their own blood. What you hear couldn’t fit inside the wind.
      You empty your pockets onto the ground: keys, quarters, watermelon rock candy, a half pack of Camels, lint. You take off your shirt and throw it over your things. You’re a mortician with a sense of humor, a waiter without his pad, camouflage looking for cover. You’re a bad neighbor and you know it.
      You point to the figures inked on your chest and shoulders: names curled around skulls, great blue curlicues loping from nipple to navel, a dripping heart... Your neighbors gape, walk toward you, begin poking at your skin. You’ve become the toy you always thought you were.

3: Your mistake has been thinking of time in regard to purpose or direction, being one place and going another. This orientation inevitably leads to disappointment and despair, persistent nostalgia or infinite deferral. Your mistake has been thinking of time as something that happens to you. Your mistake has been timing yourself to think in words. Your words have been your mistake. This time.

2: Detour. The trap door drops and you’re left in the lurch, lighting a cigarette. A cardboard sunset hangs in the background, soaking up the stage. Next to it gas pumps, a rusted Coke machine, and the Mojave Desert spread across the floor. An old man sitting. A few dogs chewing. At your feet a bicycle. In front of you the road. In front of that the horizon, blue and clean — but wrinkled. You get on the bike. You ride off.

1: Cut.


How The Rain Fell

You were slicing apples in the kitchen
and I was on the couch slouching,
a lizard with his neck in the sun.
Someone knocked at the back door:
the executioner with a lunch pail and hammer.

He started in the hall, planing pitch pine
and fitting wood screws to the platform.
All afternoon we watched the dust
swirl through our house like great plumes
of smoke, a team of small tornadoes.

Occasionally, he’d stop to sip coffee
through his hood, steam rising
from his lips like cartoon dialogue,
while the liquid in his level
settled to a slow motion squall.

He ate tongue and feta, complained
about union dues, saw conspiracy
in the newest forms of cancer
to rob him of his job. His breath
hung like fog in the air.

We asked nothing, trusted his work
to speak for him. Trusted his rope
and scaffold, the integrity of his hands.
His long history of helping those
too tired or shy to help themselves.

The contract called for completion
by dusk, when the absence of light
and of darkness would allow us
a double knot of anonymity and angst,
would allow us to fall through

our shadows the way we once fell
through our own mothers, unnamed
and undone through no doing of our own,
the way the rain fell as we watched it,
unable to conceive of doing anything else.



A piano falls from the sky.
A quite beautiful piano, trust me.
A young girl’s head is crushed into seed.
Just like that. Things like this happen
all the time. In Afghanistan
there are three “a”’s. Ideally,
the best sentences make you feel
something without telling you what.
I won’t spoil that.
You want all the journalist’s questions
answered. Doctor’s orders.
I’ll say this once and once only:
“Self-identity is ultimately a symptom
of parasitic invasion, the expression
in me of forces originating
from the outside.”
I lie. Someone else said that.
Insert moral here.


Bed, lie in it

Today you unmake it,
kick the happy pillows across the room.
You slice a hole in the sheet,
pull it over your head,
to mourn the body
you will never lose.
You burn the comforter
with the blue giraffes nibbling leaves,
make toast of the notebooks
you’ve been keeping for years.
You hang the dreams
slopped under the alarm clock out to dry.
And you shoo away the rest.
You beat the bedposts,
the headboard, with your fists
as if you were talking to your mother.
You make kindling of the boxspring,
hay from the mattress.
You feed the wild animals
anything they want.
You have never felt so useful
or exhausted,
as you close your eyes
and think of nothing.
The very shape of it.


The Lover I Need

will score equally well
on artistic and technical marks
but not care about either.
She will spot flattery easily
but be flattered nonetheless, choosing
not to let a good word go begging.
She will sport shirred boleros,
Winnie-the-Pooh boxers, and imitation Birkenstocks
bought off a hapless Guatemalan peddler downtown
whom she couldn’t, she just couldn’t
refuse. In her heart of hearts she would never
ever think the phrase “In my heart of hearts.”
She will know her Wittgenstein cold,
and I’m talking the Tractatus here,
not the “ordinary language” dreck of later years.
She will wear brand names but disdain labels,
think about irony as if it were something
to be solved by thinking about.
She will have all of her teeth.
For lunch, she might or might not eat
with her boss, who will be fat
and sloppy and not stand a chance
against someone like me.
She will know there is no one like me.

What The Window Cleaner Thought

They could have been making love or he could have been beating her.


There were screams, but their pitch was such they could have been peals of a more complex pain, some delicious resistance or erotic taunt.


Descriptive narratives that editorialize frequently fail because they blur the picture.


Her face, what I could see of it, had the expression of expectation and remorse, smooshed all together like a fresh flour paste.


I kept looking in and looking down, checking my belt and scaffold. Half fearful.


Fully hard.


In contemporary male writing, narrative action often gets frozen in an adolescent dreamworld where desire is configured to represent not so much a plot whose protagonist seeks to retrieve some lost relationship to an idealized past, as a mosaic of conflicting wants, an anarchy of motives that refracts more than points, bubbles more than flows.


This morning’s paper again told of a man who talked his way into women’s apartments, claiming to sell encyclopedias of exotic knowledge. Once in, he’d force them to undress and cook for him, while he read to them from the Talmud or a book on abnormal psychology. Afterwards, he’d rub their elbows with virgin olive oil and make them recite from the second edition of The Moosewood Cookbook or the L section of the Franklin Encyclopedia. It was the way knowledge circulated that got him off, the way information made the rounds from one place to the next.


From the mirror on the back wall, I think I see him looking at me. I can’t be sure.


The window fogs.


Once you have selected the key events, determined their relative importance (show and tell), and their connections, rethink the strategy of your plot line. Will simple chronology suffice? ... Such connections in time, place, and character can be virtues, but they do not create a sense that the events have a necessary and logical relationship, a syntax, that allows us to understand the events individually and as a whole.


My belt snaps, as does one of the cables supporting the scaffold.


I hear something inside the apartment. It sounds like guinea pigs gearing up for dinner, or


Going down I see: Graffiti on the side of the building: TERRY LOVES BETH; PUTA MADRE; FLACO RULES; FOR MORE SOPHISTICATED HEAD CALL 900-312-9292; a man dressed in lime green Speedo tights clutching a butcher’s knife approaching a chicken tied to a makeshift altar; a one-legged pigeon on a ledge.


One woman said he wore a monogrammed yarmulke and spoke with a lisp. Another woman said he told her he needed her window to shoot videos of high dive suicides.


The idea of falling: a fevered pitch; taupe-colored water; the first speed on an electric fan; plastic forks; short circuits; a tattooed kidney in lemon; raw sewage a well flossed halo bean dip not missiles conflation hanky tie foil-wrapped morning breath minus eight and


The appeal of cleaning high-rise windows engaged youthful dreams I had about living in the city. Possibility, anonymity, the usual suburban desires. Playing God without the power to change a thing. An omniscient narrator with a point of view. Glass barriers to private lives.


I imagine what they see when they see me, a solitary human figure fifty stories above ground, suspended by wires like some absurd marionette, a huge squeegee in my hands, belt ringed with assorted cleaning paraphernalia. Some gasp, then bang the drapes closed — often with a suddenness that stuns. Others love to perform, to have an audience that’s not a judge, an audience whose only function is to give them an uncontaminated scene, make the world easier to read.


Reading someone reading you, you lapse into the second person, are yourself reflected, in glass, mirrors... World becomes gesture, a pantomime of impulses, a grammar of motion.


The newsstand on Eighth Avenue boasts the largest selection of magazines and newspapers in the city. Sports, politics, skin, cars, trades, current events, etc.


E-pis-te-mol-o-gy: The force of gravitation, which for any two sufficiently massive bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them...   2) Grave consequence; seriousness or importance.

Grav-i-ty: A theory of the nature of knowledge.


They’ll never catch him. There is nothing to catch. There is no man, no singular beast who plots and creates, makes it and takes it away. He is a dictionary entry, a few blips on a chart on a screen in a room. There is nothing to know. Knowing is no thing. Desire is all. Webs. Triangles. Plaids. The gravity of need. The distance between any two points.


Just press the button and in sixty seconds you have your picture. Watch as the chemicals pool, coalesce, figures develop, define themselves before your eyes, providing you with the perfect image.


The roof could use a coat of paint.


Some stains never come out.


Dear John:

Just when I thought I had pockets deep enough
for love, you came along and stole my 3-D glasses,
mocked my wardrobe, and blew holes through my names
for breathing. Aspirations for deeper lungs
you never had. Bad boy, John. Did you think
my time a line of credit you could gobble and chuck?
The only interest I have now is in your departure.
If there were any possibility of making it,
of us barnstorming bliss with eyes and fists blazing
against all oddsmakers and doomsayers, surely
there’s also the chance that Goofy was the bastard child
of Garbo and Mickey. Think about it.
Stranger things have happened, but nothing
as strange as the thought of us together a second longer.
I suppose “best wishes” are in order here.
Well, from my heart I wish you a future
of rotten teeth and loose bowels, of bimbettes
with large boyfriends and larger attitudes,
of old age at mid-age and wrinkles that would
thrill a Sharpei. But most of all
I wish you would read this with an eye towards
collecting your things and finding your way
to the nearest open sewer line.
Sure, we had something, though it was thick
as a stretch of librium and just as fun.
You’re a bore, John, with the attention span
of a helium balloon and the charm of a floodlight.
Farewell my evil über- pooch, my buttercup dipped in vinegar,
my glitzy golden boy with a putty-tough smile
and penny-deep pockets. You’re gone and getting gonner
by the second, my squirrely simpleton, my double
greased lightning bolt, my half-life of an electron.



The window opens onto a sky shot with smoke,
and outside a man falls screaming before a truck.

A summer suicide? A push? A trip?
Only his neighbors know for sure, and they

are out scouring the street for his shoes,
which are under your bed, their flat black tips poking

out like clumsy kittens. They are just your size,
so you slip them on and shuffle off to join the search,

but wind up at a Pizza Hut with the victim’s mother,
celebrating the end of the week by ordering cokes

and a pie with the works. To go. There’s so much
to talk about, you can’t agree on a subject,

and when she insists on being objective about your
appetite, you balk at paying the check,

claim poverty and grief, swear you’re not
the man she thinks you seem to be.

You stand on your head just to prove it,
but she only laughs, tells you to be a good boy

and roll over, then jabs a thermometer
up your butt, says that’s what mothers are for.

Too tired to argue the finer points
of filial relations, you accept the feverish

hand that has fed you this day. Indeed,
you’re almost happy that accidents can happen

this way, over lost shoes, cheap food, and cheaper talk,
the cheap tricks out of which you’ve made your life.


No Place Like Home

Where else would I be at this hour of the millennium
but talking body bags and organ donors with you
over plates of paté de foie gras in the cool aluminum
evening, half listening to the answering machine’s
ventriloqual echo paint the room a shady shade of gray?

Never mind the distance of better lives, the prospect
of quaint moons and Indian summers, knights
on their mythopoetic ponies shouldering out the dark.
Kiss me and I’ll tell you there’s no place
like home, with its slippery floors and half-closed doors,

bulletproof pasts stacked like unopened maps waiting
to be misread. Travel is best at dusk, with your back
to the sun and the stuttering traffic of evening.
Leave the clean-taught questions that don’t talk back
for the milkman; we fired him years ago.



The pulp of afternoon sun
scalds you, calls you bluntly,
pushes its plucky chest
right up to yours.
Sand clogs the horizon
as bathers blunder
in the surf, plugging
their noses and scraping
their knees.

You don’t want to leave
but a giant ear drags you
gagging into the color
of a different word. Listen:
You’ve been listening
to impersonators
hawk their promising impressions
of the future for years now.

Let your hat fall,
the phone is off the hook.


André Breton Works the Crisis Prevention Hot Line

First thing he does is kick the other workers out. Then he records a toilet flushing, plays it back for each call.

“What a life...,” he sighs, dreaming of lunch: a roast chicken plump in the throat of a bicycle.

“Art stinks!” he yells at the fluorescent light quivering above him. “All writing is garbage! I left my renegade pasty waltzing across watercress kneecaps, and just look what the flagship brought in: a beaker of gunpowder, smoking roses!”

All at once the toilet starts to ring and water gushes from the receivers, tiny geysers lip-syncing the souls of tinier lives.

In the two seconds it takes him to shout “Allo!” after dipping his head into the bowl, Breton wonders how bubbles translate at this depth, whether the oxygen that carries speech carries love as well. Love for the drowned. Love for the surface.

What difference? he thinks, suddenly remembering a childhood, where tin cans and strings stretch across sun-fed lawns, the metallic echo of small voices settle like pollen deep inside the ear of tongues, and the promised clouds of heaven hang limp, anvils over the head of every silly breath.


Self-Portrait With Possible Future Problems

Dispossessed of an acute paranoia,
I studied the swimmer in the mirror
with his slightly below average IQ
and undeveloped wrists the size
of puddling votive candles.
I wanted to pray for him, but I couldn’t
remember his hair color, much less
pry those ornery kernels from my molars
to form the words. “Schlabeem, baluubal
lird, crosgwit,” finally leaked out,
which did nothing but echo
my rambunctious thoughts to a tee.
Momentarily forgetting my place
in this heady and quite decorous air
of supplication, a proverb overheard
at the unisex urinal and dump depot
at McWhazits barged uninvited
into my already sluggish synapses:
“A day without your maiden name
is like a day without a bar code.”
I took this as a sign of forgiveness,
and took it with me to the altar
of declining expectations,
and indeed, still take it daily
with my B-12 and sprig of lilac,
my snake oil, and my good luck
daytime sleep.


From the Diary Of a Closet Shadow

I learned to love you in the dark, but there were no windows and I couldn’t tell if you loved me so much or not at all. So many nights I’ve lingered between hangers, cleaving to the pleats in your skirts, pooling among the creases of your shirred bolero, dreaming your body into them. Your body was like lines from a foreign film waiting to be dubbed: I knew them by heart but not the translation.

How many times did I slink into rifts between walls and listen to the other shadows, those house dwellers who dawdled and gossiped outside, planning for when the rooms would again be bathed in the feathery afterglow of dusk, and they could then arrange themselves on your floors and walls in a diagram of rough edges, a palette of penumbral shades into which you could dip your body?

The desire of these spectral amoebae is nothing compared to mine. They want to worship. Adoration simple. Me, I would dart for your throat like a dental mirror, hunker down with your tonsils, glide along your gums like a ghostly catamaran skirting the barrier reef. I would be a student of your darkness, a tenant to your windowless cathedral of night reading with claustrophobic joy the nicks and dimples of your buds, flirting with your fickle frenum in the murky lair of your mouth, catching the taste of your words, being the first to sample your own special recipe of wind and thought and cluck. To live there, a carbon of your every kiss, is what I crave, to cuddle with your corium in your cavum oris proprium, a sub-lingual shade cradled and courted, known but not spoken, there but not quite, at the tip of your...


Hide & Seek

Film as paper, paper as scissors, writing as fucking, penis as leech, leechcraft as writing.

                                                                        — Ira Livingston

And no word for, that’s right, none at all of us dream of becoming mothers, wouldn’t want it that way can always be better than taking it on the chin often leads to Nicks the little guy with the chip on his shoulder rode a parrot who always spoke first and asked questions later that day they found his body covered with soot, raw as an old sock-ing it to him’s what he deserves more than a slap on the back he’s carried that monkey too long now it seems, co-authoring the distance of then and there it goes again, up in smoke the signals came together for a final farewell to what the hell’s that smell could fry a brainpan full of metaphors is like a day without Pound cake tightens the belt that hung my favorite suicide, my funny valentine, don’t leave me now before it’s too late for games like this, though they do offer a means by which to position oneself in a field of dreams, now wasn’t that a great movie?

Bleeding hearts blunder towards predictable endings are predicated upon a horizon of expectations is better than an eclipse your own habits smack of self-fashioning pedantry can be fun if done with the right person just got away, see if you can catch him her it, objective pronouns aren’t substitutes for sugar include saccharin and fructose have been known to cause cancer in laboratory rats we see ourselves in ideal form, said Plato often got headaches thinking of the perfect table supports nothing, has no legs, no ground to stand on


Among Them

I’m not a believer, but I love
sitting among them. They smell
of old books and older salt.
Hatfuls of rain.
Their odor hangs on my skin.
Like sex. Like vinegar.
Cocky mitochondria drunk on their own DNA,
they become what they must.
They fit into the mahogany pews
like petrified saints, their willowy breath
the scent of violets.
I inhale it like raw sunshine.
Among them, I’m a fume of quicksilver,
an anti-body fighting the urge
to crush well-groomed poodles,
a syringe loaded with sodium pentothal,
ready for anything, and ready to confess.
Believe me, I love the empty gesture
as much as the next guy.
But there’s something about a Sunday
full of blue hair and promises,
old ladies rinsed in the same words
over and over again.
I admire their sturdy fuselage,
the way they accommodate the mundane
and the spectacular. Walking among them
I’m a wind sock
humming itself white, an orgasm
of pentecostal proportions
just within reach.
Touch me and I’ll deny everything.


Trying To Survive The Flood

To live is to lose ground.

            — E.M. Cioran

The trail to your own body leads you nowhere,
so you start again with a dictionary, a salt shaker
and a mouthful of seeds. You’ll get that bird
if it takes a lifetime of false starts.
If it takes a lifetime of false starts
eventually the phosphorescent cave will dim,
spit its tubercular message-in-a-bottle
headfirst into the neon boat docked
somewhere south of Volcano Ridge, twenty minutes
by python from Gypsy Creek, as the vulture flies.
“Kiss me, I’m Dying,” it will read,
a triple-your-love-back, good for all seasons,
fine print guarantee scrawled in invisible red ink
missing from the bottom of the page.
Pretty tricky, you think, slipping on your detective’s
cap and coat and breaking your ankle.
If only I could bail sewage from my bloodstream,
connect the dots of my low watt neurons
till they came out right, this black-light sleep
might get me somewhere. But somewhere isn’t
in the cards for you dear, and the radio has
already reclaimed your thought, sent it packing
with the latest recipe for dangerous
elegies over the air-waves, back from whence it came.


Tenured Poodle

He struts
down the halls
proud & shaved,
& unashamed,
a frilly pink bow
on his head.
You can almost hear
him thinking,
Fuck the dachshunds,
what do they know?


Going Places

Going Places

Get out of bed. Got out of bed.
I do what I’m told, erase myself
for breakfast, shake the naughty lint
of sleep into the sink.

Go figure. Two crows have taken ill
near the sugar bowl. Not a wink between them.
What’s all this talk of infiltration,
cows in the bean dip, raspberries on the soap?

Horoscope says I’ve got it all wrong.
I should be shucking pansies in Ottawa,
frisking glowworms outside Beirut. Enough
is enough. If my hairline recedes

any further, please inform my agent,
the one with the pigtails and carbuncular handshake.
Ah well, you know what they say. And if you don’t,
nothing, nothing I can do will help.


The Situation

“I must be where I am, you go ahead though.”

                     — William Harmon

   “This is not the hokey-pokey,” she said. “You can’t just come around for a peek every now and then, stick your head in and look around.”
   “Shake it all about, you mean.”
   “You can’t.”

“My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.”

                     — Richard Brautigan

   Whatever was in his mind was never clear. At the beginning, she cultivated the art of reading him and grew so accurate in her assessments that she could predict his next gesture, anticipate the thrust and parry of his remarks. The prepositions of his behavior declared themselves in the most obvious of manners: a plaintive sigh signalled more distance, a retreat to some dusty crook of his past; hunched shoulders and squinted eyes said “watch this, I’m about to stagger you with my knowledge of popular culture.” These physical announcements never became endearments or facsimiles of, and they weren’t self-conscious signals on his part, designed however strategically to elicit a desired reaction on her part. They were closer to a set of ad hoc tactics built up through memory and habit, and claimed as his own. He used them, if one could employ such a word to describe his behavior, to steady his own sense of emotional imbalance. Once he became aware of his actions, embarrassment overtook him like a sun shower, for he was certain then that she knew as well.

“The nature of life is that good behavior becomes carcinogenic too. Drinking milk eventually gives you heart attacks, and sunshine, cataracts.”

                     — Edward Hoagland

   So I changed. No longer able to surprise or motivate her or myself, to catch even a hint of what it was that brought me this far, I moved further away from the second skin of my gestures, my expressions, my shrugs and tics and nods, my thoroughly telegraphed life. I cultivated the stone-hard stare, the indifference of sky. I became opaque, so dense at affecting indifference that soon I no longer cared how she responded. I gave the appearance of apathy — squared; I was the silent vowel, the “e” in hole. I continued with my work and I knew what my work was. There was something I needed to know, and there were places I had to look.

“My vocabulary did this to me.”

                     — Jack Spicer’s dying words

May 25 — fidelity to revision can ruin a life’s plunge into darkness remains better than a day without sunshine (or overhead fluorescent lamps), than a body without grammar, a gesture without movement we can’t get to the next point I want to make will be assigned # 41363 has been named Prisoner of the Year I learned of her death was already too late for me to say Look, make up your fucking mind, buddy, can you spare a hug’ll get you anywhere you want to go, this is a free country for the rich can afford to be humble; who said that’s a great sweater you’re wearing Mr. Potatohead, ditto for those Italian frames have got to go where no man has gone down my pants without permission from the person I’d become were that to happen, who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men a tiny pinworm jockeys for position with a major law firm, ’s how I’d describe my decision to go ahead with our next project will involve you and yourself have got to agree on something’s always bett

“True happiness consists of getting out of oneself, but the point is not only to get out, you must stay out, you must have some absorbing errand.”

                     — William James

   Quite frankly, he could never see beyond the shape of his own mouth while he was talking. So consumed was he with his own motions, the processes of his own body that it wouldn’t have mattered if I were a calzone or a dog. Well, that’s not fair. The fact that I am a woman counted for him. That way I could be a buoy in his daily wanderings; I’d clap or scream or cry or scold or congratulate him. When he’d look at me it’d be as if he were looking at himself. He could never stay or stay away for very long. I was the flippers in his pinball machine.

“Paranoia is the natural state of a skidding organism. Volatility is the inevitable condition of angels.”

                     — John Updike

   If you ask me, they both had problems. He’d spend the day cruising neighborhood trash bins for books and magazines and spend the night in the basement sorting them into piles and tossing them into the incinerator or pasting them into scrap books. He was always angry, pissed off about something or other, claimed everyone ignored him, showed him no courtesy. He reminded me of a cartoon character; he had this eggplant shaped head and this greasy smirk like he was always up to something, like he knew something. God knows why they stayed together. All she did was stare at him and hum. That awful hum. Once, after shopping at the A&P down the street with her, we walked home to our building together, and on the way back ran into him. He was on his knees picking through somebody’s trash, thoroughly engrossed in some scrap of paper, when she almost tripped over his legs. I can’t describe his expression when he looked up and saw her. It was the only time I ever noticed anything close to vulnerability in that man. I thought he was going to cry. But neither one of them said a word. They just stared at each other for a good thirty seconds; she had her jaw set real hard and she hummed, like a refrigerator or some night animal or something. And the way he looked up at her, kneeling there in the midst of all that rot and squalor, that kitchen stink — fetid vegetables, old clothes, cans, diapers, paper, always paper — it was pathetic. Neither of us talked the rest of the way home.

“Maybe you’ve got a kid. Maybe you’ve got a pretty wife. The only thing that I’ve got’s been bothering me my whole life.”

                     — Bruce Springsteen

   The body of a middle-aged man was discovered on the steps of the county library yesterday afternoon buried under a mound of debris. The cause of death was not immediately known, but the city coroner said the man’s tongue and lips were black with newsprint, apparently from ingestion. Newsprint covered more than ninety percent of the man’s body as well, the coroner said, possibly a result of having smeared himself with magazine and newspaper pages. A chalk outline marked the space where the corpse was found, but it was not known whether the deceased or someone else made the mark. The identity of the man was not released.

“Just because you’ve stopped sinking doesn’t mean you’re not still not underwater.”

                     — Amy Hempel

Q: How do you manage now?
A: Manage what? What’s there to manage?
Q: What do you do with your day?
A: You mean what does my day do with me.
Q: I mean how can we help you, what can we do for you?
A: Do for you?

“To operate effectively, a system must transform input from the environment into a form that meets its needs, but must also observe and regulate the actions of its component parts, thereby assuring that their respective activities are carried out and coordinated. This constitutes its monitoring function. Such monitoring is essential to any system to assure the effective implementation of its primary task, whether that system is a living organism, a social organization, or a factory. The system must have an apparatus for monitoring its components. In the living organism, its nervous system serves this function, and in social organizations and factories it is some form of management structure.”

                     — Marc Galanter

Suffering Geniuses

gladly is best left to other geniuses,
those little guys with a knack for calculating
the algorithm of whatever,
or a flair for memorizing phone books.

Their gears are so smooth, you want
to watch them clutch and shift
through a window implanted into their skull.

These fat cows of so much thinking.

At parties you’ll find them slobbering
into random cleavage, taking pains
to hide their gifts. Other times
they’re so serious you want to scream,
“Fuck you and your blue hair,
go eat a hamburger!”

Of course they’re men.

True geniuses can see through poetry.
They’re comfortable being
of at least two minds, one of them
counting the vowels in Tuscaloosa,
the other watching the small

constellation of lights brighten
in their heads, one after another
as the world slowly slides
into its right name.


Content to Be Formed

Dispossessed of an acute paranoia, I assumed a vagrant
hospitality, played checkers with any pedestrian
who could fish or whittle while waiting in the rain.
My manners preceded my speech and before long,
the entire experience was lip-synched for the benefit
of the literally impaired. Imagine mixing the sounds
of falling with the future prime of random birthdays.
What do you get? Another day deeper and another year leapt.
Poor lump of potato pancake, sorry excuse
for a contradiction, can’t you see the intercom
is in need of repair, that all the king’s horses
and all the king’s ken couldn’t keep empty Humpty
from studying zen? At the School of the Loaded Cipher
we learn ways to keep our glasses half full,
a parenthetical smirk at the end of every fork.
Equivocation leaves room for doubt, which opens
the door to thinking about ways to relieve
the ontologically constipated, who, though for deader
or worse, insist on making speeches
from the podium of lost causes, themselves high
on codeine and imodium. What’s a poor existentialist to do?
Q-tip the inside of egg creams? Disappear
into the tail end of a plot to save guinea pigs
from experimenting on their captors?
History is what gets written, someone once wrote,
and if you don’t believe that, then read it again.


Contributor’s Note

Mr. X claims fluency in salt, razor blades, and water, and has been known to use sex as a tool for opening new dictionaries. He can also hold his breath for days at a time. Associates and prominent academics in the field assert that he’s so proficient at the Dead Man’s Float he should be a professional corpse, rent himself out to pranksters and insurance swindlers, glide into the good life, nose to the ground. Instead, he writes: poems, skits, recipes, monthly profit reports for Millennial Angst Ltd., a clothing and footwear concern headquartered in Hamilton, New Jersey, a quasi-affluent suburb and Republican stronghold snaking like a moat around the state capital. Hamilton boasts a mild climate, low property taxes, clean water, nationally ranked schools, and a healthy respect for diversity, having recently elected two handicapped Tongans and an ex-NBA trans-species cheerleader to city council seats. The council, however, immediately issued an edict outlawing all acts of deletion, including (and especially) those associated with words, both written and spoken. Since nothing could be taken back once uttered or inscribed, everyone in Hamilton grew reticent to speak or write, lest they be misunderstood. It is a matter of historical record that underground groups formed shortly afterward, trafficking in the technologies of erasure. And it is here that our Mr. X staked out a name for himself, among the clatter and splash of words and their owners, among the thought of, the wished for, and the unsaid.


The Ex

For reasons unknown or semi-known or not wanting to be known
my ex-wife is back in town. “Ex” meaning exactly what you think
when you think of that word. She’s a good egg in her own
tenement to middle class but aspiring to upper-middle class and
just about there unlike me kind of way. She’s tall and thin and blonde
and given to the fluttery greeting, the witty anecdote,
the sudden outrage at sport utility vehicles and declining air quality,
America’s increasing reliance on third-world sweatshop labor.
She believes in what we all believe in, give or take a metaphysical
position here or there, the existence of extra-terrestrials,
the relentless infallibility of National Public Radio.
She even questions the idea of belief, my ex-wife does,
while simultaneously pushing the necessity for “sustaining fictions,”
and a “really good Chardonnay, not too oaky, with just a hint
of apple.” The last thing she wants is to seem a caricature,
a fear this speaker does not share, though he will
acknowledge his previous dishonesty and admit
to his lifelong bachelorhood and the need to
however imperiously inhabit the great big world of as if-dom,
as if the imagination were some new Home Depot and he had
the dibs on all the good tools, instead of it being the historical construct
arising out of the formation of the capitalist state
in the late 17th–early 18th century that we all know it is,
where he is forced to take the advice of his now ex-ex, as humiliating as that may be.
He lives a limpy little life with a used ferret and tattered dictionaries,
random plates of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches,
the sadness of a one-cup coffee maker bubbling away.
Sadness! Oh polyvalent, polymorphous, Keatsian blue
complicated companion! Sadness that he can’t have the real ex-wife
of his imagination only the post-romantic, pre-whatever comes next
made up one that now seems as delicious as it does... well, I’ll say it,
cartoony. I can write that because it’s my poem,
(third person nothwithstanding)
and as my students might say, if I were a teacher of poet students
at an exclusive Northeastern liberal arts college, “I can write whatever I want.”
Wanting can be so overdone, I’d warn my never were students,
especially in “boy” poems, as my former ex might have said, scornfully,
those paeans to desire and male bourgeois anxiety
and shifting selfhood so popular these days,
the ones claiming to be here and not here at the same time,
as if they were written out of this frippy blue nowhere
or somewhere equally unreal, claiming this and claiming that.
I’d tell my students to forget about love and poetry
and ex-wives who may or may not be what they seem.
I’d tell them all kinds of things.

William Slaughter, Editor
Department of English & Foreign Languages
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida 32224-2645


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Contents | Mudlark No. 20