frankmatter

Four poems by Moneta Goldsmith

Short Talk on Booksellers

Anonymous asks: what is your opinion of booksellers?

The earliest Assassins belonged to a small tribe descended from a region on the outskirts of ancient Phoenicia. Their central doctrine seems to have held that in order to gain entry to Paradise, a member of this tribe had to murder someone from a religion outside his own. The greater the distance of this assassination, the greater the glory in this world and the next. It is in this way, Montaigne tells us, that Count Raymond of Tripoli was brutally killed with a butter knife in the center of town while waiting in line for a cannoli.

Traces of these practices can still be found today. I am told, for instance, there is a bookshop in the center of Scotland with a volume that contains nothing but blank pages; and if a reader opens this volume to one of its pages at exactly three o’clock in the afternoon, he will die.

Of course, there are more obvious examples as well. Why else would so many spiders build cobwebs so close to hornet’s nests, or on the branches of poison willows, or just outside the bedroom window of a young man who dreams each night of Super Soakers filled with insecticide for the express purposes of entomological holocausts?

It’s true, the manual has changed very little since the time of the first Assassins. Although there are exceptions. I’m told, for instance, that there are certain ant colonies that willfully court parasites letting off highly addictive aromas; and that these aromas, while rancid or imperceptible to our own olfactory senses, can sometimes drive entire hoards of ants so wild with longing that they will smother one another with their own limbs and antennae-cords, and even sacrifice their own unsuspecting children in the hopes of falling once more under the aroma’s nauseating spell. Such is the unfortunate drawback of being born into one of the most socialized tribe of insects. Such is the blessing and curse of such a highly addictive aroma.

Today, too, there are full-time readers and writers of novels who plant themselves in the center of coffeehouses or behind rickety podiums of occasional bookshops, where the smell of printer’s ink is enough to ruin the scent of garlic in a home-cooked meal, where young men can be seen pulling on their beards as they stare off into the middle distance—as if ready to bury their heads in their hands to cry—deluding themselves they’re being noticed, all the while hoping not to be.

This latest change in the Doctrine of Death, the change in the clause-from-within, may well derive from some of the assassination techniques developed in ancient Rome. Surely, Brutus deserves some credit for this, personalizing his betrayal, brutally stabbing Caesar at the Theater of Pompeii right in the small of his own backyard. But this historic event, despite the traditional line you’ll hear from so many waylaid historians, is not in fact where we borrow the term ‘assassination’ (a distinction belonging, by the way, to the Assassins of ancient Phoenicia). It is, on the other hand, the event from which we derive the word ‘brutality’, coinciding as it did with the appearance of the very first booksellers in history, who quietly opened their doors for business that fateful day on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.

And that is all that I have to say on the subject of booksellers. Mahalo.

The Disenchantress

O night of wind – full of emptiness
that feeds on our features – how should she not be there?
– the long desired, the disenchantress,
leaving once again the desolate heart with bitter ease.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Duino Elegies”

I was listening to this story about meteors the other night on the radio. Meteors, it turns out, are distinct from asteroids in that they are “seldom any larger than the size of a plump grape or a dried up raisin, and while asteroids are frequently concentrated from the remains of a planet that fell apart, a meteor can originate from the disintegration of a comet instead.” Well, I turned off the radio when I heard that, because I don’t much care about science – mostly because I don’t understand it, or else because I once got a ‘C’ on a test in elementary school for leaving out Pluto among the list of planets in our solar system. Sometime back when science announced that Pluto was no longer a planet is about the time I stopped believing in science.

So I turned off the radio, like I said, and I started to read about the French Existentialist Albert Camus instead. Camus, it turns out, believed that our behavior should be guided exclusively by “those three or four times in your life when your heart opened up” – before a Stranger, say, or else, as he so tenderly puts it, before the “benign indifference of the entire universe,” which may or may not be the same thing, he doesn’t say. Well anyway, I don’t much like for people to tell me what to do with my heart. So I closed that book up too, and I started to read a biography of French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal, instead. Stendhal, it turns out, despised wit and cleverness and the salons of 19th century Paris, although if he was not able to speak with some very clever people in the evening-times, he was “utterly asphyxiated to the point of death.” The kind of death, says Stendhal [I’m still basically quoting here] that “one might find in a pillow-fight gone radically wrong.” Well, I don’t much care about cleverness all that much, especially when it’s somebody else’s; and I don’t much care for it when writers tell me about their writing processes either—which always feels like a cheap and dirty little paradox to me like bombing for the sake of world peace or like, say, having sex in support of virginity-awareness.

So I closed that book up also, and I dashed off to visit the nearest bookshop, of all places, to have a look at the bookseller I guess, or to talk to a stranger maybe. Sometimes I get so couped up I feel as though I can hardly breathe. Well anyway, this bookseller, it turns out, didn’t much care for cleverness anymore than I did, probably because she had so much of it, and after I told her how eloquent I thought she was, how she was the kind of eloquent stranger you might meet, say, three or four times in your life if you’re lucky, she told me everything out of her mouth was in fact “complete and utter horseshit,” and I’d “do much better to stick to the books”; and those were in fact her words, which reminded me of Montaigne for some reason, and how he once said he’d sooner save his books from a burning building than he would his own children; and another time, when he said that if someone were to ever submit his private thoughts to the eyes of the law, he would surely be hanged ten times a day, maybe more.

Well anyway, I’m not one to dance on somebody else’s funeral. So I left the bookshop, and it might sound strange to you, but I saw the image of that girl from the bookshop everywhere on my way home, an image of the perfect stranger, you might say; and so as I walked along the street outside of that little bookshop I loosened my collar a little and I looked up to the stars—you remember to do that sort of thing when you can breathe again—and I remember thinking how strange and remarkable it is that something as small as a grape can sometimes light up the whole sky.

Second Short Talk on Booksellers

If you look through the window of Alias bookshop at twilight—when the shopkeepers collect their wares to make their way home, not long before the clock has begun to strike the hour of pure sorrow–you will see a woman sitting behind a very old and very sad desk that is made of wood. You will see straight away that this woman is young and comfortable, that she is like a honeybee drunk with honey that is perched on a cluster of fruit. If she happens to be a redheaded bee – and hopefully she is, my pale and intrepid reader—go right inside that shop and tell her that her skin looks like what the wind makes with illuminated leaves. Tell her that she has a voice like a bird, a heart like a house, that her eyes are what gemologists groan about in their dreams, that her hair soothes you with a cold delicacy normally reserved for simple organic compounds.

When she speaks, cast your sad nets on her oceanic eyes. Tell her to be quiet. Her voice will grow thin and cracked as the tracks of gulls on the shore.

When she speaks, if she speaks, stop her. Tell her that her breath is for Sparrows to wander in, that her back is spied by expert architects for future waterfalls. Tell her you want to clasp her in your arms the way the ivy clasps the walls outside the bookshop—the way her words climb all over you, as me, from a long way off.

Go and tell her all this, pale and intrepid reader, before making your final purchases. Go and tell her with great care and tenderness, as if these words were more hers than mine. Go and tell her from you, as me, and then go and find your own redheaded bee, drunk with honey, perched on a cluster of fruit. This one is spoken for in a headful of ways. Go on. Go and tell her all this right now. I’ll wait.

The Gates of Sleep

I saw a man get tasered last night
on Broadway Boulevard;
I was standing at the entrance to the park
underneath the Jacaranda trees,
the ones with the graffiti on their trunks—
all those unwanted tattoos
that I can never make any sense of
so they seem important somehow;
the police got this man
three times in the ribs, although
I think they missed the second time
because the man just
staggered for a moment,
out of habit almost,
like a performance of staggering—
this was around sunset
so the sky was something terrible
(I sometimes stand on street corners
longer than I probably should);
in any case, after the second tasering,
the man noticed he was unharmed
and he began charging at the police
once more like a crazed bull
and so
for whatever reason
I pulled out my video phone
which I don’t usually have with me but I did this time
(there must have been a reason for that
I later joked to the police)
and I began to film each one of these taserings
with great concentration
so that it looked more and more
through my little screen
like there were these
firecrackers going off
underneath the man’s shirt
or else it looked like
somebody was standing above him
stirring spaghetti with an invisible spoon—
you know the way a noodle of pasta is
sometimes flung at the wall
to see if it’s ready?—
(the man was in fact airborne, at least
after the first and third taserings, at least
until he cracked his head
with a loud thump
on the wall behind him
and his languid body just slid to the ground
where the police took turns
kicking it each time
it tried
to get back on its feet again,
until you could see the marinara,
I mean blood, spilling out
from its hair);
and so,
in the middle of all this
people came up to me to ask
what happened,
although not before long
most of them came to their own
conclusions about things;
it was a halfway house,
someone said,
it should’ve been closed down years ago;
another passerby who seemed even less interested
in what was happening,
I mean what was really happening,
proposed the idea
of an elaborate hoax—
or an incredibly convincing
film set, so convincing
(he said)
there had to be a hidden camera
(besides my hidden camera)
someplace in the brush there
which was making the rest of us
huddled around my video screen
appear foolish, just another pack
of mindless puppets
drinking up Hollywood’s Kool-Aid,
the studios’ collective raid on the too-articulate
(he actually said that);
why is there a halfway house across from a park,
unless the city put the park in place
later on, someone else said—
an idea which made sense to us
at the time but this might have been
only because of how distracted
and flustered we were—
and so
all of this went on
for at least thirty to forty minutes—
the tasering
the botched manhunt that ensued,
the growling dogs and
the armed standoff with the crazed man—
I don’t know how long exactly,
I’m generally not very good at keeping track of time
and anyway I kept looking over
at the African man in the park,
a refugee who says he comes from Kenya,
who talks to himself each day in broken French
through the little metal bars,
and who reminds me of that lab animal some years ago
that scientists say completed the first successful drawing
ever to be produced by an animal
and everyone was all excited about this at first,
until later on when they had to hide their excitement
because the drawing turned out merely
to depict the bars of the cage that
the animal was kept in;
that is what this man reminded me of in this moment;
and he also reminded me of the author of the
Ruins of Paris, who spent
forty-eight hours on a street corner
trying to record every detail
of what happened there on an ordinary day
(what happens when nothing happens,
that kind of thing)—
until the space around him, the author says,
became maritime,
and I always liked that sort’ve thing;
that’s a little what space and time must have
felt like for this Kenyan man
who was forever mumbling things
to himself in French, I imagine,
in any case, that’s what it felt like for me;
and I guess I envied the man a little;
nobody paid any attention to him,
he didn’t pay attention
to who was paying attention to him,
and I have to admit
that
as long as I stand around
on street corners,
lost in time or lost thought
allowing space to become maritime,
for all of that, I still feel remarkably conscious
of these moments when I’m becoming lost,
so that I am not ever really lost, at least not exactly;
it’s something difficult for me to describe;
it’s almost like giving myself over to the moment leaves me
utterly unmoored
so that I soon feel this mounting
sense of panic, or else I feel a kind of strange inner calm
that can only precede some grave and unforeseen disaster;
at one point in all of this
somebody must have tackled me
to get me out of the way
because I felt my video phone go flying
in the air and it wasn’t as if I was
watching the man in the park
just then,
because I later remembered
very clearly seeing
the gun pointed at me,
which was meant to be pointed
at the other man,
although I must have been
caught directly in the background
and then I remember the police yelling ‘crossfire!’ and also,
‘kid with the camera–get the fuck out of the way!’
(you can just picture me holding up my silly screen
like a man who has brought a knife to a gun fight);
and I honestly didn’t realize they were talking to me
until later on, but I remember
I was looking at them
looking at me through my screen
and I can’t say whether I imagined dying
in that moment but I know that I saw myself
from the perspective of the gun—
I saw myself seeing myself
in a way that I’ve often wanted to in my life
but have seldom pulled off;
and
when the police put the man on the stretcher
someone said, the man will have a fractured neck for the rest of his life;
someone else said, scrofula can be contracted from the jolt in the electronic mechanism;
someone else said, third-degree burns are a common side effect
—what’s scrofula, someone asked;
—it’s an archaic medical condition that involves glandular swelling that lasts for the rest of your life;
—it’s essentially a glorified leprosy of the skin, except that it can be lethal, someone else remarked,
—yes, truly a hideous thing;
soon the ambulance left
and I experienced a total and sudden feeling of emptiness—
I’ve often felt this way before,
as if I had broken something a long time ago
without knowing it,
without anyone ever giving me the bill;
the feeling isn’t easy for me to describe,
I wanted someone to tell the ambulance they had
left something behind
to turn back and come get me;
after everyone left
I walked back into the park
and I’m not sure why but
I approached the bench
where the Kenyan man was seated;
once again
it seemed to me
like the Kenyan man had been floating
in a condition of weightlessness,
unaffected by the prevailing panic
and general commotion that had occurred
just a few moments ago,
no more than a few feet
from the gates to the park;
I noted the low box hedges at his feet
where I imagined he slept,
I saw that his clothes were covered
in a layer of dust, and smelled of soot-
and then—
I still don’t know why I did this—
it wasn’t as if this man looked particularly
hungry or destitute;
although I noticed
he wore his pants a few sizes too long
so that the front hem probably
touched the ground when he walked,
and on another occasion,
I noticed
his jacket was also perhaps
a couple of sizes too big for his body;
but in any case,
I rummaged through the two or three items
I had in my canvas bag
until I found a chocolate bar
that I was saving for myself,
and which I handed over just then
to the Kenyan man
who regarded me warily at first—
but then he sat up straight,
all royal and proper as if
to receive a guest
so that I suddenly felt as if
I were part of some dark
web of intrigue
and at the same time I experienced
this unusual sense of wholeness;
I guess I started to feel a little like the police
officer must have felt
pointing his gun
or his tasering device
(whatever the mechanism was)
at the crazy man from earlier on;
and so
finally stashing the chocolate bar away beneath
a heap of clothes, the Kenyan man
thanked me, only
he thanked me in his broken French
and his voice had grown thin and cracked
perhaps from too much silence,
and even though
it seemed for a moment like this
thick warm charge
had passed between us,
if someone had been standing off to the side
watching all of this they might have got
the impression that this man from Kenya and I
had a lot more to say
to one another, and
even though I felt dizzy now
and wanted to sit down,
I eventually turned
to leave the park once more,
hoping at least
to get out from the cold.

________________

Notes [to lines quoted in brackets]

[title] A point of contention in classical studies, ‘The Gates of Sleep’ marks the site where Odysseus and later Aeneas are granted their respective tours of the underworld. The description of the Gates of Sleep in the last lines of Virgil’s Book VI are of particular interest, as the narrator suggests that those who pass through them in order to return to earth are perhaps not as alive as those archetypal ‘shades’, ‘ghosts’, or ‘shadow-spirits’ who remain behind.

[silly screen/like a man…] The word screen comes from the old French escren:
A screen is often something you may hide behind.
A screen can also be a wired netting to keep out bugs.
In basketball you don’t see a screen coming, if it is a good screen.
Sometimes a screen is a large sieve or riddle, especially for sorting grain, coal, and so on into sizes (as in the case of a ‘sight-screen’, or a ‘wind-screen’).
To be screened is to be tested, as for a disease (like HIV, Hepatitis or, in this case, adulthood).
Many people, the Japanese especially, prefer to get dressed behind a screen.
To screen also means to shield or protect—to afford shelter, or to hide.

[where the Kenyan man was seated] This park bench was as if abandoned by war, and way up in an infinite altitude, the sun sent light to keep it company. Whoever sat on this bench sat firm. ~Robert Musil

[perhaps from too much silence] Dante’s description of Virgil, his guide through the underworld throughout The Divine Comedy. This phrase also represents the voice of Reason that has been silent in Dante’s life for too long.

[had passed between us] Fortune is glitter, it shatters when it shines. ~Euripides

_____________________

Moneta Goldsmith is a writer, teacher, and former co-editor of The Northridge Review. His works have appeared in Sparkle & Blink, Under the Influence, and Whole Beast Rag, among other publications both online and in print. Moneta blogs here

 

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This entry was posted on October 9, 2013 by in poetry.

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