HETERONOMY

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