Friday, September 24, 2010
The Book of What Remains
Today, I'm posting a poem that orginally appeared in the American Poetry Review. It forms a part of my latest collection of poems, The Book of What Remains, published by Copper Canyon Press.
Arriving at the Heart of Tragedy
No medicine in the world can do thee good
There are certain things that cannot be
Undone. Lot’s wife glanced back at Sodom as she was
Fleeing—and just like that she became a pillar of salt.
Who knows, maybe she adored her beloved city
More than life itself and only wanted to say adios.
Maybe she was thinking I can’t believe that God is doing this.
Or maybe she wanted to see if she could escape
With one little transgression in her pocket—
Like cheating on your diet. I wonder if she had time
To curse herself for her arrogant stupidity or curse God
For being such a stickler? Him and his fastidious conditions
For salvation. I wonder if there was one last moment
Of terror and wonder, too, how one last moment of terror
Would feel. Lightning and thunder in the heart.
That’s what I think. One of my ex-wife’s ancestors lost
Everything—his cows, his horses, his barn, his house,
His property. Everything lost in a lousy game of poker.
What in the hell was he thinking? I picture him walking
Home, grumbling at his great misfortune, shaking
His head, cursing his life and wondering what words
To use when he made the sad and solemn announcement
To his wife corazón, I have lost everything we have ever
Worked for. Would he add: I had a full house, a good hand
But—I think he must have talked himself into believing
That it was meant to be, that it was fate, that it was all
A part of a grand scheme—that he was nothing more
Than heaven’s pawn. He kept his wife’s glare in the darkest
Corner of his heart till the day he died. He would never
Be sure if she had truly forgiven him. You can’t take back
A poker hand. Another thing you can’t take back: the words
You speak. Everyone knows that. Somehow it doesn’t stop us
From saying inane, insipid, hurtful things. Family courts
Are teeming with women and men who couldn’t take
Back all the mean things they said to one another.
At a certain point I’m sorry becomes a hollow phrase. I want
A divorce. You can’t take back those words.
Hell, you just drown in them.
The whole world is littered
With what ifs. What if Eve hadn’t tasted of the fruit
From the tree of good and evil. If she hadn’t done that,
Then everyone would adore snakes and none of us would
Have to work. Imagine, hanging around naked all day, not
Having to go to work. You know, if we had to hang around
Naked all day, maybe we would take better care of our bodies
Instead of covering them up with designer clothes. No
Work would mean we wouldn’t have to worry
About illegal immigration (and we would have to invent
Another reason to hate poor Mexicans). What if Othello
Hadn’t believed that low-life, manipulative, lying bastard,
Iago? He and Desdemona would have had a nice life
And beautiful biracial children. What if Orpheus
Had not doubted, had not looked back to make sure
Eurydice was following him out of the underworld? If
Only he hadn’t doubted. Instead, his promise broken,
Eurydice descended back to live at the side of Hades
And Persephone, and he, Orpheus, drowned himself.
All that work for nothing. Sometimes, I think we look
For ways to be unhappy. And more than that, we want
To elevate our unhappiness into the realm of tragedy
As if we were all auditioning for a leading role
In the Royal Shakespeare Company. But why
Does everything have to be so tragic? Who can stand
To watch the dysfunction of the Macbeths? It’s all
Such a bloody mess and what’s so original about
Ambition? And what if La Llorona hadn’t drowned
Her children in the river? What story would we tell
To scare our children into behaving? And what
Kind of solution was this, anyway? See, Mexicans
Are like the English: They are in love with tragedy.
Only Mexicans take their tragedy home every night—
The English leave it at the theater.
All of this has something to do
With Catholicism and Protestantism and history.
I hide keys in the garage
So I don’t have to worry when I lock myself out.
I have spare glasses everywhere so that I will always
Be able to see. I have more than taken Elizabeth
Bishop’s advice to lose something every day. But
None of this qualifies as tragedy. I keep thinking of the man
Who forgot his infant child in the car as he rushed off
To work. He was in a hurry, running late, preoccupied.
His wife called in the middle of the afternoon, wanting
To know why their son was not at daycare. In a panic,
He rushed out of the building. I keep seeing this man
As he reaches the place where he parked the car, knowing
That the heat of the day must have—no, please, God, how
Could I have forgotten, no, God, no I see him as he flings
Open the back door to the car. He is inconsolable
As he holds his limp son in his arms. How could I have
Done this? What have I done? What have I done?
Many years ago, my ex-wife gave me
A sculpture as a gift: Quetzalcoatl is lying down
On a small and lonely boat. He is in mourning.
He, too, is inconsolable. Tenochtitlan has been razed
To the ground. Cortéz has won the day. Quetzalcoatl alone
Has escaped to tell the others: Mexico has fallen. He is
Floating out to sea, holding in his hands an image of a world
With a cross firmly planted into its core.
The Christianized world has arrived
With an army that cannot be turned back. The Aztec
World has been destroyed by fire. For Tenochtitlan
There will be no resurrections—and for Quetzalcoatl
There is only this eternal and solitary travel in a sea
Of endless sorrows. I try to imagine what it is like to feel
The weight of that kind of grief. Lightning and thunder
In the heart. I keep seeing the man, a dead son
In his arms why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? The world is in ruins.
We are left cursing and clutching at our bitter hearts,
Wondering, wondering why we are not dead.