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W.S. Di Piero

Out of Notebooks

Late in the P.M. I’m riding BART through its bay waters tunnel, coming home from Berkeley, where whenever I emerge from the Downtown Berkeley station I feel culturally confused and morally disoriented. I’m surrounded by scolding righteousness and a classmotley nuttiness that comports itself as if it were exquisite entitlement. The speedy angry wheelchairs, the ganja aromatics, the dopey cheer of gutterpunks (and their pits and rotts), the streetfolk indistinguishable from grad students—that Shattuck Avenue corner induces a vaguely precious congestive disgust and primes me to find even more disgraceful than usual the other Berkeley where I was headed, the tamped-down, moneyed gentility of College Avenue, where good behavior is on its best behavior. So I’m happy to be going home to San Francisco, when a young woman sits next to me. “Excuse me, sir. Sir? Can I ask you something?” Hard to guess her age. Anglo, heavy-bodied, sweaty, pimples disfiguring her nose and forehead, nicely dressed, but she stinks of piss. “Sir? Tell me, if you knew somebody was going to die tonight. I mean you knew it, and you knew when. And you know the person. What would you do?” Whose life? Anyone’s real life? Is she in her right mind? Does it matter? My existence on earth in an instant contracts to our shared seat. Any words that might pass between us, beyond what she has said, are fraught with urgent intimacy. My head feels pressured by the water around the tunnel our train is pushing through. The sea is just down the street.

***

If you live a long time with chronic pain, when the levels spike it helps to have a map. Tonight I imagine my body as a night sky, and certain stars are hot spots. They constellate to form a picture, a self-portrait. Star light, star bright.

 ***

Poetry is cellular matter, connective tissue, interstitial stuff, not skeletal. “Life,” writes a friend, “is lived in its transitions.” Thus the fatigue of writing: it comes from sustaining that awareness of a life that never quite arrives or leaves.

***

Daylight Saving Time. Saving Light in Time. Late day, sunlight breaks into the kitchen but along the way diffuses into powdered ores on my unwashed windows. Yesterday, a fat, faintly opaque moon like buff linen. In the A.M. the whiter light of morning spreads west across white buildings to the blue-gray plateau of the Pacific. A raven’s shadow wipes the rooftops.

***

How I love Schiele. His “Sunflowers” is nature as root cellar, drab greens and browns, all snotty effluvial color, the blooms sickened, failing, and in the middle sky a sun blanched of its fires, its sunfloweriness.

***

Back in Marfa and its high-desert West Texas heat. Winds today at 30+ mph. I’m accustomed to the sea wind in San Francisco—it’s frontal, it comes at you. A windstorm here comes for you. It’s a woman’s voice halooing right outside the door late tonight, trying to slither into the house and harmonize with the Figaro I’m listening to. It shimmies, it turns corners, it bullroars, in this otherwise silent place. How can you not believe that the wind carries the voices of the dead, long interred but now singing again for us to come to them and their sweet fine nothingness.

***

What if death is just another country of contingency, contingency we can’t imagine, so we have to believe it’s an empire of pure necessity. Then imagine death not as a state, not non-being, but a condition where consciousness is free in a way that it cannot be free in life.

***

Dreams are the deranged, disguised partners of our clarified waking mental life. A recent twosome:

1: A young Asian woman walking with a much older man, their arms sexily around each other, the image rich with feeling of a lasting passion undeterred.

2: A neurologist shows me three sketches he’s made of the interior of my skull; on each one, a mark indicates the same abnormality: “Priapism.”

***

Fat Tuesday then Ash Wednesday. Runny pork fat chased by dry charred atonement. An excess of ashes is as inviting as an excess of meat and beads and bacon grease. Poetry treads water in the stream of the process, wet to dry, fat to dust, superfluity to barely surfeit. In my childhood the ashy forehead smudge was more a mark of fallenness than sign or promise of rebirth. We were already—at eight years old—consigned to earth or urn. What had we children done to cause this to be required of us?

***

Riders on public transit bent to the shape of piety, ensorcelled by smart phone, iPad, BlackBerry. The prayer beads of our time. Checking, checking. How’s the universe doing today?

***

I’ve decided to sell off or give away most of my books. If I read them well in the first place, I’ll always own them. They have certainly owned me, which is a reason for letting them go. I want them out of my apartment, out of my sight, and me out of their sight, for they’ve watched me—watched over and examined and compassed me—long enough. Time to go now, old friends, old obsessors, forsakers, forget-me-nots. Give me reprieve finally from that life of mind and heart that has come to oppress me. Time for you (and me) to go.

***

Concentration is a distraction. Hiking the rim of Taos gorge I was looking down so I could get as close as possible to the verge, I wanted to see the river running below where it combed in explosive little bursts over the rocks, I wanted to feel the rush of suddenly falling, but while looking down I missed the two bald eagles my companions saw flying above the river at eye level.

***

Aspirations. I wanted to write a poetry that enacted what it felt like to live in that impossible moment when a lived instant seems to recapitulate every previous instant—I wanted to engage consciousness as it lived into its own layers or zones. Reading all those books I’ve been selling off was as aspirational as it was instructive. And as a prettily pious Roman Catholic child I muttered my way through who knows how many thousands of aspirations, though a short walk through online dictionaries doesn’t give up that meaning: a prayer or devout utterance that’s no more than a breath.

***

The country of contingency is full of rain.

***

In the Museum of Modern Art, my heart’s adrift and achy with thoughts of young sons who lose their fathers when I hear a guard—from the islands, from St. Vincent, it turned out—softly singing to himself what sounded like Gospel, and was Gospel, he said when I asked. The sound of song in public—doesn’t matter if it’s Gospel, opera, tuneless humming, or rap: it thrills the air. (Today in a streetcar, a high school kid improvised a rap he was still pattering when I got off after several stops: as riders entered he worked into his song their clothes or shoes or belongings or skin type.) After that museum song came the formless sorrow I feel before one of Rothko’s dark-smoky pictures, the nocturnal palette, always enchanting and unsettling, and I overhear a father tell his son how R’s pictures were like windows and how you can see or imagine all sorts of feelings looking out windows, right? “He wasn’t a happy man,” he tells the boy. While I’m thinking about wisdom and tradition, R’s mental agony, the hurt heart, I hear somebody call my name (sharply, like a cell phone dropped on a hard surface) but when I look around, nobody’s there.

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Starting Over

I can’t not keep coming back
to this place that’s not a place,
its pepper trees, olive trees, lilac,
narcissus, jasmine, here with me
and mock orange and eucalyptus
and working words that fill in others,
an earthquake-enlivened rose bush,
pollarded plane trees and sycamores,
and cypress flat-topped by sea wind.
Here are Interstate concrete,
desert dust, hardpan,
here are cobblestones
and woven bricky streets,
Death Valley’s salt flats,
here are red granite domes
that cool at night and groan.
They are here. The imagination
rushes toward the world
in fear of forgetting anything:
witness and invent, it says,
and stay in motion in every
invented place. It tells me,
here you are the nothing
that is this place,
and all places are you,
none of them yours to keep.

 

W. S. Di Piero, who lives in San Francisco, is a poet, translator, and essayist. His latest works include the essay collections When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Water) and City Dog (Northwestern University Press). His forthcoming book of poems is Nitro Nights (Copper Canyon). “Starting Over” is one of his three poems published in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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