The Fire In The Distance
Just when the match between the top contenders
heats up in the third set, a cloud of smoke rises
from behind a berm in the distance, distracting
the announcers in their booth above the stadium,
for they are more curious about the fire in the distance
than the highly anticipated match between the number
one and two players in the world. The fire has flared up
out of nowhere and threatens to burn down what appears
to be a barn, although it's hard to tell from here,
while the two contenders hit the ball back and forth
with a brilliance that we, the viewers, have grown
accustomed to. We also grow more interested in the fire
as the announcers wonder during a cross over
if it's a house now instead of a barn that's ablaze.
We're suddenly reminded by other marginal events
of the thin partitions that surround our field of vision,
whether imagined or real, as well as of the fertile strangeness
that wins our attention every time within the realm
of the ordinary--a fire here, a coup d'etat there--always
something encroaching from the outside, which is also
"the main event" somewhere else, but contiguous
to the stadium, inching or zooming toward center court.
In the meantime, everyone looks like a parody of someone
else in this gestalt-boyfriend, girlfriend, former mayor...
One of the players eventually wins, although it's hard
to remember which one, while the fire grows in strength
in everyone's mind like memory itself with its odd,
acquisitive consumption of things on the edge
that occur mysteriously in the midst of main events,
trivial things in the end that nonetheless contain
a psychic fuel that feeds a hard gemlike flame.
Since the announcers know nothing substantive
about the fire in the distance, except that it exists
with the same miraculous presence as the first fire
Prometheus brought down at the risk of his life,
their producers advise them to turn their attention
back to the match. The idiosyncratic rules and regulations
of the tournament stand in contrast to the fire
in the distance that shows no regard for the artificial order
and quality of the match. The audience watches
this specific future unfold in the form of a game,
where contingencies occur also, yes, but only on the court
as a residue of the players' skill: a net cord here,
a lucky wood there, and yet, no matter how much I,
a judge in my own chair, admonish the announcers
for mentioning the fire in the distance, I appreciate
their curiosity for something out of the ordinary,
for I too would want to know more about the smoke
on the horizon, and say so on the air. "There's a fire
in the distance," I'd say, "although none of us
can see from here just what it is that's burning."
Through A Glass
It is curious how she came to stick in my mind
as she waited on me, suggesting the chicken pesto
sandwich instead of the burger I wanted at first.
I thought, why not try something different
that's also healthy. Why not take her suggestion
and surprise myself for a change? Change my life
with a single order. Now when I see her through
the picture window from a distance, I'm enchanted
by her smile. I see us as models for a painter,
she and I on the canvas like a couple of lovers:
I on one side of the counter and she on the other.
Before something like this occurs, however,
I need a line, something more than just
my gratitude for her suggestion of
a chicken pesto sandwich, some thing
that will stick in her mind. Where is the brow that with
the slightest movement could make my heart turn
one way or another? I sing to the window,
as if I were she, as if she knew this line
from Petrarch's Rhymes by heart. I see her smile
in my mind, which is enough to make me return,
but before I do, I stand on the walk across
the street and observe how separate we really are.
Her smile compels me with the same ironic
force that draws me to her, to clear the air
about the chicken pesto--the fact that I wish
I had ordered the burger instead. The fact that I liked
the chicken, but not as much as she thought I did.
It is a strange and enlightening moment in which I see
that nothing she suggests on the menu may be
to my liking. That the distance between us is infinite
outside the window that is thin and clear, like the surface
of a river, both magnifier and mirror. Like the glass
blower's fire that fuses the grains of my
desire inside the window through which I see her.
The Bride As Scout
I kept waking to the voices of reruns, cowboys mostly,
then drifting off to sleep.
I must have heard them also
in my sleep, for I dreamt of lawmen on the trail at night
lying supine around a fire discussing a plan for tracking
their man through the canyon tomorrow.
their wisdom to sleep that gave me hope in my sleep
for capturing the man, for bringing justice to the land
that was mostly wild.
The low, desultory tones
of their voices sang to me from the other side,
took the hand of my mind and led me over.
asleep but awake to myself in an empty bed that was also
the shore of a swollen river.
I spied the man on the shore
and went to him with a blanket and pillow.
beside him on the lam and whispered, "They're not far behind,
my love, but we can lose them."
He was my fugitive
in the hills, wanted, wanted.
I had the power as my reward
to read the stars as good bye letters.
"Come back. Come
back," I cried to the hole in the morning.
"In the time
it takes to make an arrest, I will have slept with him forever."
All The Unlikeness
I detected your scent in the dark
and followed it into the woods
with too much confidence, forgetful
of the beasts who had become estranged
from me and dangerous. I ran
with the stamina of a bear throughout
the night, imagining a song as I ran:
You are my sunshine. My only sunshine.
Your sweetness in the air that was also foul
emboldened me to track you down,
as you did me in paradise. I have exited
the parlor of your sheepfold now
with no way back through the open door.
I could wander like this forever until
I disappear, lie down somewhere where
no one can find me in the understory,
then dream my way across the river,
leave only you to tell the story
of my forgiveness and your contumely,
of my transgression and your dark beauty.
What livelihood awaits me now
that I'm obsessed with the memory of you
shaving my back, combing my hair,
kissing my cock? I know I was a fool
for drinking from your spring instead
of the river. I was a man who didn't know
I was a man until I slept with you,
then woke in this dream that I'm still having.
I'm this far down The Road of the Sun
without regard for what anyone thinks
about my love, picking up your scent
that is so strong it has remained in the air
like a flower that continues to bloom.
I sing the song that I made up about your body,
how all of its pieces are less than the whole
I can't describe, how each exquisite part
brings to mind another thing that is nothing
like what I say it is--your breasts twin clouds
that float forever, your lips two figs
I cannot pick, your groin a lamp that burns
in the river--but nonetheless is inside my heart.
I'm this obsessed with all the unlikeness
that you inspire as I wander the hills without
the innocence that was my loneliness.
The Return Of Jan Weiner
History, you know, is one thing and our lives are something else.
In the old days when there was still a symbiosis in that magical city of Jews, Germans, and Czechs, all living together in peace and contrast around the same statues and fountains, I remember desiring only one thing, quality of life. I was a streetwise kid, unlike my brother who went away to America for university and never returned. I was an anarchist and Jew who survived the war. I was John Wayne and Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1945 when I returned to Prague from London after flying twenty-four bombing missions in the Czech Air Force. I wore a Smith and Wesson at my side and went everywhere in my uniform because no one was making clothes yet; the factories had all shut down.
I was sitting at a café one late afternoon with three friends when I looked over at a table across from us and saw three beautiful girls. I told my friends, "The one with the smoky eyes is mine." We introduced ourselves then sat together for a while in the warm afternoon sun. My friend, Jaraslav, said, "It's such a beautiful evening. Why don't we all go for a walk?"
The girl with the smoky eyes and I walked down to the river where I took off all my clothes and went swimming. I can still feel that water and see the sun setting over the city. It was a moment I had been waiting for without knowing what it was going to be like. I had swum naked in the river before, grown up in Prague and watched plenty of sunsets, but suddenly I felt I was seeing the city for the first time. A powerful nostalgia overwhelmed me. I saw the old city superimposed on the new one, and I was a lucky witness of the irrevocable loss. How was I now to recall that great city whose buildings still cast the same shadows through which Kafka, Brod, Rilke, Mahler, Kisch, Mucha, Capek, Dvorak, Hasek, Skvorescky, Werfel, and Hrabel had walked, thought and composed, if for just for a moment, in that cultural flowering we are unlikely ever to see again? My memory proved itself better than I thought as I recalled the looks of faces and heights of the fountains. I wept as I swam. I committed myself in that moment to preserve the memory of the old city, to hold a mirror to the war and cut off its head, to teach architecture and history together as the same course, discuss what happened in these buildings, who was arrested where, in what room, who wrote what in which study. My favorite view is that of Kafka's, the relief of the lamb above the large window across the street from his study, that lamb he wrote about in its awkward lying prone position with unvanquished dignity, innocence and absurdity. I was at a great turning point in history, between one fascist regime and another, but all I could see was the city and the river and the girl with smoky eyes lying on the bank under the trees.
When I was through swimming, I sat next to the girl in the twilight and stared at the river, fixing one eye on the current and the other on the liquid reflections of trees and buildings. We didn't talk for some time, and then she turned to me and said, "Pin me like a butterfly." So I did.
Afterwards, we went to her house to meet her parents. They prepared a gorgeous meal for us. A large plant with thick leaves and full blossoms occupied the center of the table, preventing me from seeing my love on the other side. I did something foolish then. I took out my knife and cut the plant in two with one stroke. This was my mentality then that I had developed from the prison camps. We thought there were quick solutions to things. Her mother leaned back in her chair with an expression of shock and said, "How awful." Her father said nothing but put his hand gently on mine and nodded with compassion, as if to restrain me further. I stood up then and excused myself, thanking them for their hospitality. I showed myself to the door, and then, when I was outside, I ran from that house and never returned.