Aztec Joke | Poems
by Frederick Pollack

The Cactus | Along Tenth | The Day Room | Appearing
The Reward | Submission | For P. | The Conference

The Cactus

Was it perhaps a mini-stroke? 
My previous mild silence
in social situations, only broken
by anodyne male grunts often enough 
to keep me accepted, has turned
to humor. Drawn from the dusty
abandoned frontiers of learning, twisted tales
from Continental philosophy 
(some continent or other), and other cultures,
especially those with bigotries. Turkish joke
about the Laz, a minority along the Black Sea;
it involves buttocks. Setup requires
three scholarly minutes, puts listeners into
a kind of mental weightlessness
or blank-tank, perhaps perceiving
personality as a quantified waste of time.
Then there’s my Aztec one. Aside
from eating people, Aztec society
was repressive and censorious. But if you
made it past sixty (few did), they let you
sit around, blind drunk on pulque,
insulting passersby. So one geezer says

Along Tenth

A strong, fortyish fellow (bit of a gym-rat,
in fact) wasted time
saving his work, then walked down thirty floors,
neither having occasion 
to help anyone nor be helped. Coughing,
disoriented by
the dust, he made his way slowly
across the plaza. Jumpers
struck near him, then the North Tower fell.
Too preoccupied to remember 
wife, kids, or phone, he walked the eighty blocks 
to his condo. He wasn’t religious, 
and his work had involved
trade, dangers to and costs of,
in many parts of the world, so his focus
had always been on that. What he thought of
(“saw”) during this walk wasn’t
vengeance — that would be
a minor, ongoing part of it — 
or a growth in understanding (though
some phrase like that occurred to him); 
he understood things. No, what he saw 
was a beautiful, transparent, 
rotating cloud. In which those who were eaten
knew they were food, and didn’t mind, and loved
the mouth, and were loved in return; so that
whatever hate they had to feel 
was a mere seed or skin. He saw crowds
dying in grace. He was among them; 
so was everyone he passed, 
and he almost embraced and spoke to them.
But the love of his wife
and kids when he reached home
distracted him (he also found he was hungry).
The marriage solidified, work returned,
and in three years he developed asthma.
Faiths bloom every moment
in the shadow of what used to be
the imagination; some few flourish.

The Day Room

Outside, a sullen wind forms
the dust of leaves from many autumns
into a fervid vortex like
Malczewski’s “Melancholia” — but his figures
were martyrs, poets, heroes, while yours
are the usual. Their stupidity is such
they can’t see you through the window. Which
may change, but for now
you’re a bystander, next to the real;
what is real for a bystander
is fear. The room behind you
is big, bright, clean, quiet,
exempt. Though at your back
stands one who could lock your arms, snap your neck,
or summon those who would, for the moment
he’s invisible, kind.

He wonders what you see and you’re smart enough
to answer, A bird, and describe it;
then wreck it by saying He likes snow,
if only as a diversion
from chronic near-starvation.
And the one behind you mildly asks
how you feel about the people
out there. They must be mad, you say,
to be abroad in such weather,
but are warmed — fired — by a shared
desire to be alone,
sovereign, king and chief rapist
each of his tiny country, obeying
no law except those cleverly disguised
as instinct. As I recover, I’ve learned
theirs is the vital bond.

And he would answer, counsel, chide,
rephrase, but behind him
at the big table a patient
formerly in the health field weeps, an artist
describes at length how a new, gross
parody of an old, subtle 
parody will make her career, 
a poet crosses out and crosses out
lines already heavily crossed and decides 
that’s the poem, while others protest
the hurtful presence of those
who think themselves superior. Your keeper turns.
The bird is still there — pecks and finds
some frozen thing. Its eye
meets yours a moment, helping to resolve
the Problem of Other Minds.

Pavel Malczewski, Melancholia, 1894

Pavel Malczewski, Melancholia, 1894


Parmenides, appearing
in a distant future, looks as he did
to Raphael, stern and forceful. He ignores
ephemera, smog, cellphones, tyrants, 
asks only two questions: How might I eat?
and Where might I
be relatively safe? — not out of pragmatism,
but because physical needs
are part of fate, which has always already happened.
He endorses Einstein’s partial endorsement
of him, refutes Smolin
with math he picked up somewhere. Which sets
some scientists running; others
talk eagerly with him, although
it’s hard since he omits the future tense.
“Spacetime is a block. Yes, there’s a sixth great extinction.
No, we all die from fire, thirst,
and drowning. The successor species
evolves from rats. They don’t 
have time to develop fully, but are pleasant enough. 
Joy exists elsewhere, but generally
one’s smart enough to keep it to oneself.”
One of the scholars (Parmenides
doesn’t catch the name of her field) is as lovely
as the nameless goddess he invoked. “I suppose,”
he says, eating takeout,
“you want to protest my patriarchal
loathing of process.” “Not at all,” she replies.
“I only wonder
why the poem that contains us
has summoned you in person, not just your idea.”

The Reward

The reward of the historicist
is to read obsolete poems
on JSTOR and become
the poet’s new best friend by buying him drinks.
It’s summer, the cloudy ale
almost cool from its cask. The tide
recedes, the Thames stinks,
but only the historicist notices.
A sergeant-major obviously off
to the colonies wipes
his mustache on his wrist,
emotions reconstructable though complex
like those of the whores outside.
The poet loosens neither tie nor vest,
both worse for wear. He has
a week before a horse-cab, less
absurd than a colleague’s fall from a bar-stool,
beats syphilis to him. Opinions
about darkies and Israelites are there,
but pleasantly subordinated to
despair. He accepts being questioned
however rudely
by a chap from the future, especially when
the latter relates how revered the work
will be, taught in schools; rattles off
the titles of critical studies. Sated,
dabbing away
a tear, the poet 
asks questions of his own, untypically
(from all that is known of him) generous. No war
with France, he is assured; the new,
more distant enemy turned aside,
replete with retailed colonies; balloons
filling the air, a Workers’ Earth . . . . The pub,
the river, poet, sergeant, whores 
and endless clop and cursing fade
again into the quietness around
the historicist, who has no love for pain.


I used to have a character called the Elitist.
He was witty, snarky, and generally alone.
He never signaled virtue, since
he had no currently valued virtue
to signal; and though he never 
said anything un-p.c., you were always 
afraid he might. So he never caught on
with editors.

                           I’ve been thinking
of reviving him. He sits across a wide
bare glass aggressive uncompromising
desk from his afternoon appointments.
“Did you really think I’d be interested
in this?” he snarls, returning a stack
of manuscript. It depicts
mild bourgeois horrors. Is barely literate
according to an ancient standard (his), and
hand-written — she thought the strain
of doing it that way would prove
sincerity and pain. He turns
to the boy, who seems undecided
between pseudo-hipster loose and corporate tight,
and has a film. It’s a mashup
(as its maker would say) of everything — games, posts, 
instas, grades, failed
vacations, prescriptions; “at least no guns,” 
the Elitist growls. On the verge
of dissolution, the two young people 
glance at each other, thinking he’s just
an asshole; but the next supplicant
is also old — it’s unclear
what he has, but the Elitist tears him a new one.

He looks out his enormous window. Below,
amidst regimented trees, families, couples, 
potential couples genteelly glide, 
then, as if at a signal, turn
to ravening hordes. The moon is visible.
Perhaps, he thinks, I should demote
Art from its position of primacy
again to be a subaltern of Nature.

For P.

Amazed that you don’t recall
the risk of breaking an axle 
on our impossible descent into
that impossibly pink canyon
at Sedona.

And you, that I’m blank about
a great-aunt’s last appearance
at some niece’s bat mitzvah;
while neither of us is sure
in which Latin city . . .

You, likewise, your cellphone, me
the other notebook or my pills,
but that’s how it goes:
if you forget, I remember;
if I forget, you remember.

The Conference

Though jetlagged and grimy, I’m not driven
to the hotel to shower, sleep,
and schmooze with fellow poets, but to
a windowless grey basement. Beneath
a swinging hanging bulb I confront
what looks like the criminal element
though it insists it’s official. “You’re here
for the Conference,” says the boss,
an obvious sociopath; asks in their language
if I speak the language. I don’t,
“but I love some of your classics. In
translation,” I burble, naming names;
he points out with a smile that they’re all dead.
“Using what you know of our culture,
I’d like you to adopt the point of view
of one of our poets. What would he
or, excuse me, they write about?”
The picture on the wall behind him
may be the Palace or some mall. “Well,” I say,
“the poets at your universities
are probably linked to the international
avant-garde, which currently tends—” He shifts
in his chair, exposing a .38. “Otherwise
I’m sure they write about their grandparents
and parents,” I go on, “if they’re around, or 
if not, depending on why they aren’t;
and . . . cows, and your beautiful scenery,
and endlessly about childhood—” One 
of the goons makes a slapping gesture
as if missing a cosh. “And what do you think,”
asks the chief, “is the underlying theme of
these poems?” Insofar as a madman
can ask a serious question, this one is,
and I ponder a moment. “‘Don’t hurt me.’”

Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both from Story Line Press; the former to be reissued by Red Hen Press. Two collections of shorter poems, A Poverty of Words, (Prolific Press, 2015) and Landscape with Mutant (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018). Pollack’s work has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Magma (UK), Bateau, Fulcrum, Chiron Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, etc. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Hamilton Stone Review, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Mudlark (2007, 2016, 2020) Rat’s Ass Review, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, etc.

Copyright © Mudlark 2022
Mudlark Posters | Home Page