You may recall from an earlier poem that I was kicked out of heaven for using the N-
Well –

Not exactly – it was more of a bardo … and I was really just quoting

But it made me wonder – what’s the difference between shame and karma?

This is not figured out by thinking so much as by returning from the dead
Which means I guess if poetry were television
this would be a kind of Season 6 of Buffy
I mean I’m back
My friends have brought me back
As from a dream I woke into my life and wondered at the architecture
It was nothing special: Farragut North
But coming up from under it was sweet to smell the earth
It was sweet to hear the young pronounce on what the critics to date have
I had the last three words of my novel composed but I couldn’t make the story
reach them
Part of me was thinking, wait, that time-warp-island show is still on the air?
Part of me thought, shut up journalism and act like the advertising you are
Walls within walls / a clear enclosure / Roman fountains and a curvature that
always keeps you safe / If you want to be safe
And from my window you could see the weapons corridor
I followed it down hollows, I followed it down dales
Virginia, Alabama, California –
But once again my story became a poem: a poem in which I wake to find I’ve missed
the social history that added a “z” to “for real”
False fronts on the empty condos / balconies that aren’t / unpaid rent and plant life
tacked on as an afterthought
It was sweet to smell the earth
The poem was the horizon
Meanwhile against the grain of the general austerity the capital rebuilds itself
Holes dug deep by work crews drawn from far beyond DC – DC feeling layered like
an Alexandria
And what does a poet know about that? Next to nothing –
Though I do wonder, what if all the little cafes had names that were just three-letter
acronyms, and the property developers were called Aquarius and Paradise?
Meanwhile against the grain of the general austerity, I’ve got time away from work
Watching a newborn, especially at night, is like watching someone return from the
forest – someone you can tell has only just now folded up a tent –
Or in reverse – a tent fold up itself – become just sticks – at last geometry – slim
enough to get beneath the rind of the world and slip back out …
Standing over him at night I wish I understood topology
How does the soul come back around? Is it shuffled like a deck of cards? Is it
instantaneous? Does it happen only at antipodes?
At midnight on the first of March – at 38 degrees and 50 minutes – I lay in dreams
I wobbled mid-meridian
I did though have a vivid sense of coming back into the size of things
Night had knit the streets together
Child-world / diorama / miniature of valley under stars
Then the melancholy feeling that the miniature had maybe been the actual size – that
what I took for actuality was just projection …
4am – embarrassed by the unegoic chirring of the birds – ego drowning out what’s
evident from even just the lightest breeze –
Connectedness –
Environmentalists of a certain stripe like to point out scornfully how many diapers the
average American baby goes through in its first few years –
Sure –
But there’s also simply what it means to be a species, which is to soak up resources and
create waste —
I mean look at that goose shit —
The species-shame, the American shame we feel on the left – we teach ourselves that
shame is what will mark us off us from the right – it’s immobilizing –
The thing that should distinguish us from the right is the refusal of all exploitation —
I just don’t think self-hatred is what shame is for
I do think shame is a species of pride – crushed, inverted pride – and speaking as
someone who has been continuously ashamed since the age of 13, I think I can
say regret is better
Those dancers make me feel I’ve wasted my life
On the other hand so be it
At least in middle age I have intermittent access to this mostly un-trippy sense of
cosmos, which I’ve come to see as a poetic resource –
That doesn’t suck –
There’s a kind of Colorado in me
Alpine valley under stars –
There’s a lemon-yellow sunlight over the harbor in Sydney –
And in poetry I sense that everyone can go there
We don’t suck, do you hear me?
If we failed it was by cruelty to each other, not because of human nature
There’s a moment near the end of “Down at The Cross” where Baldwin writes,
“When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those
wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered,
What will happen to all that beauty?”
This never fails to make me think of Hurston, startled and amused by white
standoffishness –
“How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She calls the vantage from which this thought is possible “Cosmic Zora” –
And you wonder why I was curious about the N-word
Here in Union Station – pigeons sailing through the ductwork overhead
At intervals along the wall a gleaming video of plans for renovation
It alternates with episodes of a single long low-budget telenovela by TSA –
It is glorious
But whoever builds it – who will build the ductwork in the 22nd century?
I remember Chris Sturr telling me about a date he had once with a little Cambridge
preppy, eating underneath the atrium of some 80’s Atheneum, and saying with
staged innocence, gee, I wonder what all this will be used for, after the revolution …
“Gleaming” is an Oppen word, he uses it for opulence, for decadence
It doesn’t apply right now – DC’s no New York – but it may gleam yet
Speculation architecture for the contractor class
Rooftop pools and tiki torches
And underneath all that? And inside it?
I wrote a little book of poetry
while Rome burned. Rome burned
in 2001. In Latin
it was called, It’s All Good –
Friends far away
Poetry a joke
Alone on my memory foam
When the sun rose —
Rome is in Seattle
The ferry ride is nine songs long
This one wants to be late grunge but it’s just grunge-themed
This one’s bridge is in a minor key, toying with dolor
I want to say “roil” and have it mean “head-rush”
I need to write “sound” and have it mean “history”
Making time pass – accumulating stuff to make a shape with – it’s not even experience, it’s too thin –
Shapely stupor
Stupid vapor
The roil of the sound
I almost called that one “Prose Merlin,” since I kept rewinding the playlist
Also because loneliness is prose, if in prose you feel the world pass by around you
But maybe that’s more Rip van Winkle –
Heroes, sidekicks, anti-heroes –
Each more lonely than the other
It’s a delicate thing, to touch down lightly on heroic narratives for purposes not epic
I’d hate to end up Alexandrian – making snarky little lyric figures out of earlier escapades, thinking there’s          no future –
“And if one’s life is meaningless and existence is pointless, if the emperor
should fall from his parade horse or choke on a fishbone and the bad
times rush back, sweep through the boulevards, burn down the library?
Idle, foolish, neurotic thoughts. There is no danger here …”
That’s WR Johnson on Callimachus – completely charming – but boy that passage
makes me blush –
Twice over actually – first because what poet living in the great metropoli today
doesn’t recognize her city in it?
Second because elite obliviousness is always coded gay
To feel as if by actual touch the curve of the pulsing forearm gripping the handle in
front of your seat –
To look up saying sorry as you bump the elbow of that forearm on your way out of the
train –
The kernel of that feeling – the part that comes from far away –
I think whenever you felt it, in austere modernity above a skyline, or in the back of some
pub on the pilgrim’s way –
I think wherever you are when you feel this, you’re in a kind of meadow –
And – I don’t know how to explain – I think no matter how we all go down together, by
whichever combination of terminal failures –
Whether the landscape after is a ravaged wasteland or a wide plain, hushed –
I think however we die out, we’ll have died in that meadow
On the final night of the insomnia in which I wrote this poem I had a visit from a demon
named Lysander
It was a homoerotic demon – he was shirtless, and muscular, and wearing headphones,
which he placed on me
The purpose of this I think was to make me feel my heteronomy
The headphones played the sound of suffering
It made no harmony – it wasn’t like white noise, or any threnody –
It was the sound of time itself in agony
And throughout the long expanding minutes when that sound was all I heard, I spun
around the axis of Lysander’s eyes – his statue-eyes and creaturely eyes    by
turn –
Then something entered them – he was beseeching me –
I saw what demons are
And just when I could bear no more he slipped the headphones off me –
Just as I was crying out,
“No! Please – will this never end?”
All the monads silent –
“Of course,” he said,
and touched my ear.


Chris Nealon is the author of two books of literary criticism, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall, and The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in The American Century, as well as two books of poems, The Joyous Age and Plummet, and a recent chapbook, The Dial.  He teaches in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University, and lives in Washington, DC.

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  1. Pingback: Issue Six, November 2013 | Matter

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