Prose Poems by Gerald Fleming
from The Bastard and the Bishop

In Silence

The strength of her silences sometimes frightened him. Most of his were temporary, had questions implicit in them, and if a companion were perceptive, he or she would allow that silence its time, then ask the buried questions.
        Sometimes his own questions to her were a challenge—what he would have hoped to have been asked—Is that what you really mean, or is it more than that?—or sometimes they were just fillers against the void—What do you have in mind for dinner?
        So in a sense, there never really was silence with him: only incipience, a mute hesitance more pause than silence, a window-shade drawn on a tightly-wound spring.
        Hers, though, held a solidity, a sense that there’d been no time before or after, and though Zen masters might have deemed it “centered,” it was not that—its time was neither circular nor linear: time itself puddled in front of it, useless measure ticking its hours.
        Was it productive? Was it calming? Did it serve to deepen, was it idle, hostile?
        None of these things. It was as if she were a diamond setter by day and by night she worked to tweeze the diamonds out.
        And it was the draw-string velvet bag of her diamonds, he knew, that he kept in his pocket, fuel cells for his movements, for his nerves, for his own silence, rarely inquired-about by her, and so rarely answered.


He gets out of bed. That is, his nurse gets him out of bed and sits him up and arm-by-arm leg-by-leg dresses him, and today is Tuesday, no-shaving day, and the nurse is glad of that but he is not glad of that, for he misses the warm water, the white shaving cream, and the sight of her hands on his face in the mirror, so gentle, always so gentle.
       And now she brings him to the kitchen, puts oatmeal into his mouth and wipes it from the sides and places into his mouth the straw for the fruit juice and he sucks at it, loses some of it, she expects that, sponges it, and now slowly spins his chair around, finds his scarf, his hat, stands him against the sink and puts his jacket on, says Can you stay there? and he cannot quickly answer but can nod, so nods, and she gets his chair and settles him back into it, wheels him out the door on this warm November day, and they head down rue d’Assas toward the Luxembourg Gardens.
       She does not speak in the four blocks there, and neither does he. She wheels him down the gravel ramp and finds a place beside the rectangle of grass in front of the Senate, sun low in the sky but still warm, hothouse dahlias in bloom at the edge of the low iron rail.
       Now she pulls up a metal chair beside him; he can hardly move his head, his black hat casts a shadow across his face, his lower lip is wet, and she takes out a glossy magazine and begins reading to him.
       The nurse is a young woman, a third his age. She might be from his country, she might not. Her hair is dark & long, bound at the back with a simple bamboo stick. She wears frilled leather boots, yellow and black. Her skin is lustrous black.
       She is reading aloud what must be a story, and she’s a good reader, an emphatic reader, and though they’re in a public place and many people pass on the gravel path behind them, she doesn’t care—she reads the dialogue in varying voices, and it’s clear he’s listening, for he laughs once in a while a nearly inaudible laugh, minimally convulsive, leaning forward, a slight smile on his face, and she continues reading as he stares off across the garden to the distant trees and Montparnasse Tower, soon slumps a little forward, testing the straps that hold him, falls asleep.
       An English-speaking couple passes behind them.
       “Not for me,” the man says. “Pull the plug. Agony in the garden.
       The nurse, multilingual, hears this, turns her head and watches them as they walk away.

At the Lighthouse

He saw her turn over in sleep, and though he couldn’t count the times he’d seen her do that, the way she did it this time was not comfort but barrier, not soft shoulder but steel wall. One day she’ll soften, he thought, but I have work to do.
       Was it last year they’d climbed around the ruins of the old lighthouse? Great circle of rubble, the stones horse-drayed to that remote granite peninsula two hundred years ago, the rock not native, but a kind of fieldstone. But it wasn’t the stones that failed:it was the mortar—too much beach sand, too little lime, salt in the water.
       The foundation was just the right height for sitting on, so they sat and ate their lunch there—she at twelve o’clock in the circle, he at three.
       They claim this is the foggiest place on earth, she said, and when she said it she was in the clear, her black hair blown sideways. He looked down at his sandwich to take a bite, and when he looked up again she was lost in the fog, the rest of her words trailing off.
       Are you still there? he asked, but she couldn’t hear him. He could no longer see her, and now his feet, his legs, his hands disappeared, the fog pouring and pouring down.

He wondered if his parents were too kind to him,

and when he looks back over the forty-eight-year canyon he sees mere line-drawings that he wishes could be holograms, not these sparse graphics of his father’s image—his father who demanded his son call him Leonard, or of his mother, neither a drunk nor a drug addict, but a woman at the distant end of the table, long brown hair, “never heard to speak an ill word.” He could hardly bring to mind the details of her face: depended on photographs to remember.
        Once when he was very young he’d seen on TV that kids “ran away from home,” so he announced he was doing that, and (“supportive of his independent decision”) they said, “All right, son, if that’s what you wish,” and did not call him back as he started out the door with his grocery-bag “suitcase,” did not, even for their own amusement, warn him of wolves.
        When he was a teenager he’d awaken at midnight and bring his binoculars into the hills and look at the stars for hours, yearning (for what, he didn’t know), sometimes falling asleep in the long grass, not returning until morning, when nothing would be said as he walked in the door. Leonard was standing in the kitchen one morning when, hair rumpled, backpack muddied, the boy came in at six. Good morning, said Leonard. That was it. Good morning.
        Once, in high school, he’d been in a supermarket with a friend when the friend stole a bottle of suntan lotion, which upset the boy. When he told his parents about it, they listened, nodded. At the end of his narrative, when he spoke of his ambivalence—part admiration for the friend’s audacity, part revulsion at the theft, Leonard said, “Good, son. No need to tell us more.”
        At school he’d been studying geology, and one night at dinner said to his parents, “Can we go somewhere for vacation sometime? Can we go to the Alps? There’s this geologic seam that runs through the Alps that’s...”
        “Our town is entertaining enough, but that’s an intriguing idea,” he remembered the father saying, chuckling then nodding to his mother, who smiled and nodded back.
        It was not as if they were rich and he was brought up by salaried others. It was not as if they were poor and his parents worked brutal jobs, long hours day after day, had no time for him. His father was a pastor, his mother the local postmaster.
        And did he miss them, these almost-faceless ones, now that they were gone? Had they stolen his curiosity, his measure of adolescent anger? Lover after lover had been in his bed, and he could hardly tell one from another.


He’d written a freelance political article for a major magazine—draft after draft he’d worked on it, cutting, changing dashes to colons and back again, then working briefly with an editor—he was known for his style, clean copy—and the article came out, was widely praised, called timely, necessary.
        A week after it appeared the editors notified him that they’d received a letter in response, that they’d like to run it; they’d give him a chance to “weigh in.”
        The letter writer, a woman from Chicago, had taken him to task for the imprecision of a phrase: “nothing comparable in the least.” Her complaint had to do with comparatives & superlatives, and she’d tried to get a little gentle humor into her letter, but then pushed it further, challenging fundamental ideas, implying that an inability to differentiate fine comparatives ultimately affects a writer’s conclusions, “invalidating, for me, the very raison d’être of the article.”
        The writer was embarrassed. Something about the French affectation in her last sentence enraged him. He drafted a response, crafted & articulate. The magazine, keen to keep his services (they sold more copies when his name appeared on the cover) gave him twice the column-inches as that of the correspondent.
        “Did you see my response to that letter?” he asked his wife as she arrived home from her long subway ride, take-out food in a thin plastic bag for their dinner.
        “I saw it.”
        “What’d you think?”
        “I saw a woman mugged at the bus stop today.”

At last the monochromist couldn’t sustain it

all that gray, all that black, that endless white! Gray hoods, black pants, white shoes, black police cars striped with white, asphalt roofs, ebony violins strung with tail-hairs of old gray mares, black fedoras, black tea, squid-inked noodles, whitewashed rooms backlit with black lights, each jail cell black-barred/gray-bunked, brands of black wine drunk at every sad feast... and coffins, of course: black dirt thrown on those steel-gray lids.
        Black Sunday, Black Monday, every disease Black Plague.
        White people who hardly saw the sun—skin so white it became a precept that even within the confines of their dark bedrooms a white man and wife may not expose more than a flash of teeth, no more flesh than a face-worth, lest it blind.
        Then one day it happened—the supply of stain, no longer available. Then the supply of dye. Then the tea, then the extinction of ebony and the overfishing of squid, gone the ingredients of asphalt, the industrial mixers of white & black to gray—all of this remediable, they told themselves, and though the President-for-Life forestalled panic across the land—Go back to your homes, he said, we’ll have the black back soon, the white, all the gray you’ll need for days—panic was imminent.
        And of course we can fill it in. Years pass, nothing done, the old garments fading, tattered, hardly worth wearing, the asphalt rutted, blanched weeds poking through, the roofs decayed, the walls’ black pigments flaking, and this was no new Great Awakening, no Miraculous Averaging, this was just something that Time does—there in her orchestra seat, twelfth row back, sketchpad in her lap.
        Pass the pastels, she says to her assistant.
        The assistant, sleek bronze skin half-lit in the stage lights, yellow cowboy hat, legs crossed, blue jeans, toenails painted red, touches Time’s knee, slides her the big box of pastels.
        Let’s see how this goes.

The Jokers

“So I told you, Frank, I never trust anybody I can’t tell a joke to—especially a bad joke,” the bartender said. “So yesterday I say to my boss, ‘Did you hear about the gardener’s impatient wife? She pre-seeded him in death,’” I say.
        “‘What?’ the boss says.
        “‘She pre-seeded him in death,’ I say, and he says, ‘That’s not funny. My father was a gardener and my mother died first,’ and it came to me then that jokes are really just a way of talking to each other about death, don’t you think?”
        I told him no, I think they’re a way of saying fuck off to time.
        “Isn’t that the same thing?” he said, and I said, “Sure, I guess you’re right,” but I didn’t see it at the moment, really, and in a way I lied, and thought a little, then wondered if lying, too, was a way of buying time...
        And then he said, “How’s this one: two roosters, two randy roosters, perched on a stone wall. One says to the other, ‘A cockatoo will do...’”
        I laughed, thought it was a great joke, and he said, ”You know, you’re one of my most trusted friends.“
        “You can’t be serious,” I said.

Gerald Fleming’s most recent book is One, an experiment in monosyllabic prose poems (Hanging Loose Press). His most recent editing works are The Collected Poetry and Prose of Lawrence Fixel, out this year from Sixteen Rivers Press in San Francisco, and One (More) Glass, a limited-edition vitreous magazine. The poems here will appear in his next book, The Bastard and the Bishop, due out from Hanging Loose next year.

Copyright © Mudlark 2020
Mudlark Posters | Home Page