By Frederick Pollack
The most significant photo
of my childhood isn’t of me
but a man three stories down,
alone, galoshed, earflapped,
woolen (long before parkas
even for soldiers), bent against the wind
(there was always wind), responding
tactically to ice ahead. It could
be noon but is almost as dark
as the brick apartment buildings
in their long lifetime
of soot. An age and neighborhood
of small deals, nominal
top tax rate 94%, the B-36s
of the Strategic Air Command
protecting us. (I could sell you
reasonably the damp grey
dry-rotted windowsill above
the radiator, over which
I could almost see.) All I know
for sure about the walker
is that he’s dead. So I can
hope that his small deal
that day went through – that
the girl, lawyer, shop steward
accepted the line
he was rehearsing. And
coopt him for other purposes, as
he was already.
What if art had been different? During the
rappel à l’ordre
of the 1920s, everyone shifts
to tapestries. (What manifests ordre
more than a tapestry?) Not just a few
luxury experiments – the norm:
more weavers, brought in from the provinces,
in Paris than lithographers
(someone always profits). Leger’s robots,
Braque’s tremulous (head-wound) yellow-greens,
fuzzy. A creeping if not creepy
nostalgia for pre-artillery
stone walls sets in; Maurras and his cane-
wielding monarchists approve;
Dada withers, Surrealism
never takes off. Everywhere
texture, pastels in the light
of calla-lily lamps, covert vertical
frottage. Bonnard’s twelve-meter offering
at the Hôtel de Ville. Even
the poor nail up their linsey-woolsey
reproductions of “Verdun.” Soon, portraits
of various Leaders assume
this presence all over Europe,
wall-posters vaguely déclassé. In an
Italian film (the “White Telephone” school
absorbs neorealism), a girl
of the people, being kept by
an aristocrat, pulls
a tapestry from his wall and
wraps herself in it,
lying on a patch of parquet; her dark
eyes flash as she cries,
“My whole family could sleep under this!” …
You can see her, can’t you.
One of the Names
I came voluntarily.
It was nicer than I’d hoped.
They were pleased I’d given up
without a fuss my tent beneath the overpass,
brought nothing but a clipping,
didn’t fight (like some I knew)
for every plastic bag. Accepted
delousing, tests, shots,
without screaming. And the jumpsuit.
Answered their questions, said I had no skills
(which gratified them after days and weeks
of shamans, lathe operators,
superannuated sex workers, agents
of or against the secret masters, ex-
Didn’t ask for a drink.
There but for the grace of God,
I’d like to think they thought.
On the benches in the big room,
the shadows of four windowless towers
(more going up) crossed
my comrades, who, if they talked at all,
said one way or another
It won’t hurt. One yelled we’d be killed
immediately, or our spoiled bodies
flushed in a year or two
down some hole; he was dragged away. Few
speculated when we’d be awakened.
I thought of nothing else.
Didn’t imagine a fresh start,
cures, kindness. Only
the power keeping on and on,
concrete remaining whole, letting us out
finally on a former
sea floor. What I’d really like
is just eight minutes as the sun goes nova …
the sun will need me.
Thousand Aves Told
With the demise of monasticism, there is now no place where one can
professionally execrate the world.
After the Revolution, we take seriously
Cioran’s lament. With the joyous, self-congratulatory
élan that comes with the demise
of money, we build in forests and waste places
negative structures: not pseudo-ancient
or aggressively austere.
The chapels at their heart
lack altars, but the chairs are hard
and widely spaced, the quiet quieter.
With our usual warmth, we ensure
that those who wish to enter
have not attempted suicide too often,
or killed, and probably won’t. Offer
counseling, leave a number
they can call if they want. (In all this
we show a consideration
not extended to religion.)
Left alone, they tend to adopt
a partial code of silence, banning
the loudest and most defensive. Make their beds,
grow their food. Through
the windows in the common room
or, often, from narrow hallways
they stare at cherished birds and trees and
sometimes, on the horizon,
us building. Nights they see a face
they wounded, or their own. They consider
the dark beneath the earth. Whisper
curses shaped over years and carefully
inscrutable. Gods and things like gods
exude like sweat or winter breath; despite
the care they have for each other,
to some the place feels always hot or cold.
And they fight and break up fights, and eat in dimness.
Co-ed. Flirtation frowned upon.
But sometimes two wind up in the same cot.
With the understanding that, tomorrow,
they will leave without goodbyes,
fasten each other’s pack, descend
to the trailhead and the nearest town
with its windmills, brass band,
and equivocating, indispensable banners.
Eventually they return
my passport, jacket, tie,
phone, and hat. One declaims
haltingly their sorrow
for any inconvenience; I sign
a form saying I have no complaints.
Become almost tearful,
seeing again my stickered, scuffed,
beductaped leather suitcase.
It will look as suspect and as quaint as I
(I know – I’ve followed the world
on television) among
those twirling, weightless things
that people pull along
like aphids dragging pupae. These
unfurl, I’ve heard, into well-appointed
shelters for those homeless who can afford them.
Prepare hot meals on the run.
Equipped with stirrups, can be ridden
or (for all I know) flown.
Are in touch with the great mainframe
and commiserate with their owners
on the horrors of travel. My smartphone,
likewise, will seem no longer
smart. No more will I – must reinvent
my look as “aged but resolute.”
Nor, I must say, do the officials,
whose uniforms were redesigned
(and not to their advantage) during my stay.
They hesitate, handing back
my suitcase. Will they subject it
to yet more dogs, decryption, x-rays, profiling?
“Would you like to check … ” asks one
with unauthorized compassion.
I smile as if I scarcely care.
After so long, I know what’s in there.
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. Also two collections of shorter poems: A POVERTY OF WORDS, (Prolific Press, 2015) and LANDSCAPE WITH MUTANT (Smokestack Books, UK, 2018). Pollack 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, Rat’s Ass Review, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, etc.