Like a Furnace.
as if hissing sparklers had been tossed into my room
Other evenings the silence is so pronounced no sound of mine can cut through it, and then the lamps seem to drink from the dimness of the molecules.
It is a room in which, overnight, all of the cat's moods rattle about. By morning the rugs are clumped. The crewelwork fabric on the back of the old rocker hangs in longer shreds. Dirt from the potted Norfolk pine peppers the walls. Bad, bad moods. The isolated freaks of an indoor cat who must play through the long wakeful cupboards of the night.
When I open the door to let her into the kitchen, she rolls quickly, luxuriantly, on her back, loudly purring, opening her spiny mouth to mew. The bliss of companionship. Fun with string. Bird watching. She runs at her dish of food.
After fifty, it's harder to see the skin of your knuckles or heels without the help of glasses. You are more wakeful but less agile.
Sometime during the indefinite past the other side of fifty, there was a hair under my chin that I could feel, but not see. I asked my daughter to pluck it. This she did helpfully, efficiently, and I could feel that memorable warm breathing that only comes against the skin of your face when someone who loves you with calm love is looking at you closely, from nearby.
Affection also occasionally overflows the material world. Certain writers seem to meet its hard surfaces with such intuitive tact that these bend and open. Montale, for example. He wrote of a hotel's revolving door that it "moves shiningly upon its four leaves--/ One leaf answers another, flashing a message!" He also spoke of souls at a crossing like bottles that could not open themselves. Montale the shining, genius of secondary spirits, who knew how needful it may be to reflect upon the grime that made the silver of appearance sparkle so.
But then there is the world of Homer, in which brutality overwhelms composure and dignity, even if, far from the battle, the horses of Achilles weep silently at the death of Patroclus.
From the brutality of Homer it is little relief to move to the anomie of someone like Beckett, who puts the self in a jar: all words, held up in glass, a rivery mania of language, but no chance to change in time. Not even a missed chance.
All the apartment blocks in Dostoevski, the misguided sprawl of Brasilia, the crumbling landings of Cabrini Greens: zones poorly built and cracked apart by wretchedness. Crowded emptiness of endless labor. Turbines: Salgado. Scorched earth: Nachtwey. Windows out of which one sees only dead ground and closed horizons and more buildings--and then the random cruelty after.
Yet the apartment blocks in Kieslowski's "Decalogue" rise away from the dour materials to which they seem, superficially, reduced: this clump of 1950s multi-storey buildings that is the setting for the ten films is the home of surprisingly human beings who radiate the spirit's strength to work against its own weakness, even by caving in. (Well, another sort of caving in. The commandments are broken.) There is tragedy and honor and betrayal and mistaken devotion and clever, desperate fallibility and love redemptive, unfolding, being tested--and withstood--inside those prefab concrete rooms into which the always grey light travels only part of the way.
Is my impression accurate?--that the film could not have unfolded in Florida or Des Moines? That it must be Warsaw with its metallic geometries and carefully preserved allegories of ice and destitution? How do the people survive there, where melancholy is so highly evolved: No rain against green things, only rivulets of gray slag. Even in springtime, a temperature only ten degrees above freezing.
But even as I write about such morbid weather, something starts to flame in my heart.
There was a thin layer of wet snow last night, snow-rain falling today through the unpleasantly green-gray overcast now deepening into dusk. The cold has been
startling sent over the pools of standing water like messages of scorn these first thin calluses of ice
Graupel floats in the thickness of some pines near the dump:
discs of darkness coast near the weeds braceleted with froth and over the ankle depth of muddy water as if from the tentative pressure of hands Wind throws down small birds like bits of brown felt Big wet snow starts to fall
It starts amid thunder and, eventually, lightning, the lightning not as surprising because the snow had already made the air so bright. But the thunder is awesome and wrong, creating nausea.
This was the weather of Hewin Castle (by the dark waters of Tarn Wathelyne in Wales) where Arthur's knights fell under enchantment, and of the sixth circle of the Inferno, scene of distortions midway between the inhuman and the human, in which Dante's gluttons crowd in, under a storm of filthy hail and black snow, howling like hounds, then trying to shield one flank with another by hopeless squirming. A remnant of human sense makes these bestial changes more sorrowful. These beings howl in the rain like hounds, that is, in Dante's thought, more like things than people.
A friend I don't see much any more, at the Y, sitting at various places, on the steps going down to the warm pool where the five-year-olds are having a lesson; in the locker room, half-dressed, facing away on a stool, completely still. Her students who had been battered as children. One of them had a Le Creuset mother. "I was a crockery girl myself."
Summer frisson. The pleasant dapple from the leaf canopy speaks differently to us than to them (the animals who hide in the shrinking woods, who are driven by the thirst that also drives the insects, to lunge and gnaw). In late summer
even the days pass away like smoke grass gray and sharp to the touch foil wrappers soft heat-thinned
In the alley a young girl and boy, she with her legs over his thighs as if on a seesaw too small for her. One finds them here and there in the network of service roads, occasionally veiled by the dust of junk trucks and jalopies playing rap ... crows poking in each other's gullets for food ... the beat of coarsening desire which the young learn to look through, almost not hearing the snap of "the silver leash of the will" (Sylvia Plath). The two are still as birds on the edge of a poisoned quarry.
Like Birds who wait a call to startle them south precocious un- protected early marked out to leave before their time condensing their will into detonations of tampered pleasure At the end will the sawed-off tree as an unpleasant scripture says bud and put forth branches dripping pain
Well before it occurred to me that I might become a poet, I moved about under an horizon of disapproval. Its frown roved
like a swollen wave yet full of splinters light shrieking at each entry paring the present away until until it pounding nerves too torn to On the other hand there was the expanse of boredom hard to gauge its tape its contour the no-thought slick adherent Shrieking and boredom.
Much testy, approximate, preoccupied birdsong. Birds strut about after landing, dark, large, unchallenged. Amid all the chaffing
another knowledge sinks in a spirit glides past her face its symptoms constant recent grief the love that bleeds trouble sleeping the pillow hot the darkness hungry exhaustion the hand too heavy for itself thoughts of self-destruction what if she were not what if the world were to be without that living hand inability to eat (the psalmist too let fall his crust)
Once, I was in the housekeeper's stage. Now, I am in the pilgrim's--yet it's she who has moved far away and I who remain behind, dimmer, diminishing.
her thinking I am cowardly her knowing I postpone her having to take charge of packing the books before the move before last Perhaps I am near dead I am almost all dreading-to-be-gone as if I were sitting at a bedside where there lies a log half burnt.
Without her I am being pressed into the world where, after listless unfolding, bereavement draws in. Sweet, the temptation to give up being human and become fire burning down to the germ of wooden life.
My bones too burn like a furnace Occasionally, I can still see us, together yet far away, in the yard of his house
one warm day in autumn.
As usual he stays indoors.
Although it is not something that interests her, she feels kindly about my gardening. She chatters about what we are doing:
"She planted and snipped and let her daughter dig for a while."
Perhaps she imagines that I am wholly
absorbed by this raking and stripping and prying open of the ground to hide the bulbs the way we believe that any person alert to her work is thinking in one single complete preoccupied coherent and unwavering way and that there is delight in a skill all pointed upon one task
Perhaps it is only when you have been near someone over time that you know their thinking is a braid of thoughts all mixed the pertinent and the not and that some thought never stops
and some is never formed
Were we starting an epoch together, artists in arms, his drawings, my poems?
Would we warm the world and make all heads to turn
Or would the feeling of power with no real object except ourselves simply ...
I imagined it as a path down which our walking would illuminate an intimacy more enormous than anything to which.... It may have been too much to dedicate myself to, without coming unstuck, un-ed. Eventually, the image shut, its beginnings dry, its gestures , all feeling a grimace.
It turned out my  was not required in the affair. At work was something like the maxime from Kafka (about the savior who comes only when no longer necessary).
I glowed on some dark  which no ships passed so near to as to need to be [warned?] away a light raking the expanse no moth was tempted to [burn?] toward Among rocks that slid underfoot knocking in the water time-smoothed nearly identical I  my way
Then, anxious for a large renunciation, I went back to the other. Still glowing a little, but [quelled?] and .
I go out like a cinder
Scraps of paper on which I wrote out the excuses he dictated for me to give over the telephone to the people he worked for.
Heracles brings Alcestis back, veiled, to her husband Admetus, whose life she had saved by giving up her own, asking him now to keep her as a servant. There rises up in Admetus the barely perceptible fear, with this trembling wraith, that he will not be able to obey his wife's dying injunction to be faithful after her death. What if, to change Euripides, Admetus knows the servant is his wife Alcestis, yet refuses to welcome her for fear of seeming to break his pact. How shallow the loneliness of his duty: pitfalls all round, everyone observing.
We sit and observe.
Alcestis remains hidden because she despises Admetus's cowardice but is careful of his self-esteem. Her burden: to have unalterable mastery over her desires despite the unworthiness of their object.
Eventually, when winter was savagely long and seemingly permanent, the fate card fell. I heard her humming with her entire body (she could not yet speak). It was my girl waiting
without oxygen knocked about by quickly cooling flares
Her breath is warm and comes into my nose. The child is looking closely at me, moving her eyes from one side of my face to the other, gliding with her attention but nevertheless looking with great alertness, and the simplicity of devotion. Does she imagine what my features amount to, what they are like? for she is breathing onto my face as if to fix her vision on that other thing, down here in that pool whose upper surface I peer from.
Each sound in the upper world is coldly symbolic. Boom of traffic like surf, children after school spilling across the streets, flashes of relentless music yanking people this way and that, creatures that
shrill and chirp following the sun branch scrapes on branch (Q: what may be trying to get in limb on limb waving down to me reach up shed your skin come away
Then time's segments are called out: by the gears in an old steeple or by minutely eroding crystals on the wrist. Later
down the eons the quartz that measures smaller it will get later each day. Once a given mass of matter is spent how harness the ruined molecules stored in caves from the reactors Except that except that in time at last time gives out On the highway, distant trucks make a music like the sea in a cave or wind through a hole.
How fast how far do they drive?
All the way to the longest river.
First they whine along the arable fields, flat as baking sheets; then skirt the bumpy places where the glacier stopped. Lower, as they race down the stump of the Panhandle, the winds pick up speed and ghost towns flicker beneath their veils of orange dust. From the roadside, all this:
Salt flat. Mineral spring. Gypsum scar. gypsum scar sulphates borax dust bowl bromide yellow spar lime mudstone oxides isoteline trilobite catastrophic mud blanketing during major prehistoric storms The cabs of the trucks are covered. The drivers cough.
The red desert, how Antonioni saw the soul: shocked into color, blue smoke stack billowing yellow soot; permanent rust on a quarantine ship that can never dock, because, among the passengers, are no lovers who would want to sail forever.
At the edge of the vanished river, orange stain on the tree stumps, the heavy blue sky, water in mirages as black as oil though none of the area is now fed by it in any form. Y2K census: fewer than two hundred inhabitants.
Then the trucks, driving along the wind, veer around Dallas and scream down to the gulf.
There is a story about the poet Paul Carroll, around the time of the Big Table anthology, at a party in Chicago. He had gone out the back door of the apartment to the landing, and someone had locked the door after him. He knocked and banged and called out that he was in Dante's hell, but the people at the party refused to let him back in.
Sometimes when I hold the second cat up to my face, she puffs against my skin something warm that smells both spicy and dusty, like nice well-groomed fur, but the second cat isn't aware of me. She stretches elegantly, removes the grit from between her claws with her little tongue, orders her fur so it is plump, but she does not try to read my face.
When the first cat became too ill to drink water, my daughter had to name the time her friend would be taken. Although the thin creature could still put her paw against your hand, she was too weak to push. The last moment began to close. Aftertime stretched, ashen. Ash (1) ON askr IE osen LAT ornus mountain ash; any of a group of timber and shade trees belonging to the olive family having pinnate leaves winged fruit and tough elastic wood with a straight close grain suited for the haft of hammers axes spears (2) ME asche akin to ON askr; the gray or silvery powder left by something after burning this color pallor.
Pinnate leaves drought wind thirst pallor the Pelian ash spear against which Achilles leaned thoughtfully when Athena promised him Hector
"Like a Furnace" appears in MARY KINZIE'S California Sorrow, which Knopf will publish this November.
photograph by Phoebe Kinzie-Larson
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
|Previous Article:||The Empire of Now.|