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Like a Furnace.

Voices and music from another house mock the darkness with their sharp self-knowing.

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
 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

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-
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 in the water time-smoothed
 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

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
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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Author:Kinzie, Mary
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:The Empire of Now.
Next Article:Borderlands.

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