The Seven New York Elegies




to Michael A. Grasso
comes corporis animaeque




Language functions as an open-ended field of differences in which man's being is articulated in acts of meaning, in relations formed by discourse among discrete units in that field. Since the number of potential distinctions and propositions is limitless, the full range of semantic possibilities can never be circumscribed. Thus language bears the mark of the same constitutive gap that structures perception — that of the sublime, the infinite.

A New History of French Literature, Denis Hollier, ed.




The First New York Elegy


And why couldn't I say: 'tis a nice day to die?

Immaterial sun sown through unsubstantial skies
of watercolor blue —
                            Such a nice day to die...

I wonder how one dies. One can only observe
one's death or the dying of one; one just attends
a distant spectacle to which one cannot add
even one's appreciation — boos or bravos.
One just attends and waits, as no exchange takes place,
no communication, no meeting afterwards
in the foyer or on the outside flight of steps
of the brightly lit, theater-like hospital;
as no hand crosses the glassy, clouded light's blur
from an agony's bed to a saddened being
but leaves the light only to take care of all parts
as it condenses in vials of blood or serum
and casts colors of sorts on the noises around:
the dull clap of slippers of nurses passing by,
the drone of monitors, the hissing of one's breath,
the soft, wrinkled whisper of the dying man's hands
as they move aimlessly to and fro on the sheets,
like wavelets by the shore or swallows before rain,
dropping what they just grabbed, seizing what they ceded
for death is no object hands grasp or throw away,
and life is not a thing death may lay hands upon.
Living hands rest on laps — move — fidget... Hands explore
the left hand with the right, always surprised at first
by such an encounter, such a proximity
and such a foreignness. Who would not be surprised?
We never are what is. All that is is outside
for us. Even our selves. We perceive through distance
from an unsubstantial inside, a paradox,
a space of solitude that can never be filled
even by solitude, that can never be one
with itself or distances perceived. Life. Death. Words
marking separation. He too, who lies dying,
is surprised. Not by death, I suppose, but rather
by the repetition of such limitations;
not the simplicity: the simplification;
life's completeness denied at its elusive end
that gives way to death's own absence of completion
the way New York at night, seen from the BQE,
dissolves into New York as postcard, a city
made of a single block, urban origami,
volumeless Titanic anchored to its specter.
Life remains out of hands. Out of sight: the outside
manifested in acts of absolute presence
we do not share except as absolute exile
and oblivion, as, say, when we go to the Park
for a $20 boat ride; or for a stroll
without aim, in the glare of Jersey's Colgate sign
as it bleeds the night blue and stitches its wounds red;
or as we simply go anywhere we thought of:
under the snow; Paris; a concert; a friend's house
for Thanksgiving dinner or the friend's father's wake;
and life is only that, the way Cézanne's apples
are just that. Or just shapes. Or just strokes of a brush
which days of lavender, locusts and cicadas
seesawing time in masses of silent ashes,
escorted as it moved across the taut canvas.
Or just meditations. Or just what-nots. Or just
apples that are apples, that is: the sum of all
that it took to get them to be painted that way
on a background of blues and greens, things blue and green
near a plaster cherub which stands guard over them,
its amputated arms spread out in absentia,
one empty, the other holding a scale to weigh
the stillness of still life, the death of nature morte.
Life does not end in death and death does not end life,
or give it a meaning, a weight, a tragic worth,
unless does life to death add a grievous meaning.
They stand apart — apples on a painting; objects
ignoring what they are; anecdotes for the eye;
mirrors that don't reflect; houses no one lives in;
not so much mysterious as opaque; instances
of resistance; vases filled with transparency
they dissolve in. They go their own way forever
within their own motion, like toy fire-engines
that would forever toll along an endless hall
their frantic brassy bell as they hasten toward
a fire that never burnt — unless by fire we mean
the spring within the toys that cannot be unwound,
the “principalis vis”, inertia — whatever...
Life is a state and not a value. Life is rock.
And so is death, which is neither state nor value
but rock. Or perhaps clouds; some white-bellied insect;
a plaster-cast angel which slowly flakes away.
Or a notch of sharp sun on a desk. Or a phone
that rings in a phone-booth on a deserted beach
near dry tufts of gray grass humming a dry refrain
as the season grows cold and the mind grows weary
of pondering the mind's creations.

                                                 Fall. Blue skies,
made of cinereal blue where the sun lives as saint,
as obscure holy man, leaner than a shadow,
dwelling by cubic rocks and stylized shadeless trees:
an icon's saint. His face has faded. There remains
a hint of a halo where his head would have been,
to make believe there is holiness in this life
and this death we call ours out of sheer laziness.
Not just wisdom, but grace — moments of gold crimson
where we'd stay motionless, magnified by fervor,
assessed and assessors, poised particles of all
that surrounds us and pauses tenderly with us,
with our hands at rest while on our halo'd heads
life and death would hold crowns of matrimony...

The papers this morning were full of Bernstein's death
as if something had died that pertained to music
in its very essence, to music's abstract life
when it rises from us and yet sounds absolute,
hovering over us like a sign combining
our separation and the world as a whole
in an impermanence made of permanency,
a deathless translucence of the ear and the mind;
as if he had managed to be more than a man,
more than his deeds, a kind of promise left pending,
and he had suddenly displayed a lack of tact,
of consideration, for those of us who stay
behind to face his death or what death has to say
since it made such a noise we were forced to hear it
although we didn't die. Who died then? What was it
that escaped, subsided, without even a wash
or some “rari nantes in gurgite vasto”,
and left us resourceless to confront this surprise?
How does one die? How did he? Was it all at once,
the total of dying obtained immediately
as on a starry night, by the open window,
the total of the night is given to behold
in belladona hues of blue deeper than dark;
or more like in a church when the lights are turned off
and night stains with dark ink each of the stained glass's saint
while a slow walking man, from altar to altar,
goes blowing out candles one after the other,
(o muffled sound of feet on century-old stones
and wood of pews cracking and an old man's frail breath)
till but their wicks flicker behind a whirling smoke
and then are gone?
                               Nature, for instance, does not die,
except in metaphors. Animals do not die.
They disappear like clouds or reflections on lakes
of clouds above adrift in rippled changingness.
They are sphere-like beings set in eternity
and most intense presence which collapses inward,
vanished entirely in its intensity
like diamonds consumed in flames without ashes,
when for us to presence is absence substitut'd
from death's barycenter in concentric circles.

City gum-arabiced by autumn. Or by death.
Death as I ponder it — or as Bernstein evolves
who becomes memory, angel of the unreal,
cast in the soft plaster of larger-than-life dreams,
standing guard over that which was not part of him
since death left it for us as mourning memento,
booming mausoleum of Americana
autumn and oblivion will shroud in dead leaves' sweeps
rolling up from the Park? City where autumn's leaves
(Nous n'irons plus au bois les lauriers sont coupés
but no laurel grows here and bay-leaves are just herbs
bought in specialty stores, their bitterness gone stale)
fall as hands amputated from cold-hearted men
who have no need for hands?

                                         Fall. The sun is exhausted
and, kneeling on the dust of streets' south window sills,
it joins its hands and prays for all to be over,
its head bent, its back hunched and its mouth a mere slit
from which pours a weak draught of weaker orison
as it waits for the ax that will severe its head
and set the bloody wound at the edge of the sky
for the night to be bathed in its lustral scarlet.
The sun is exhausted. The world turns cold and pale
and cynical and rich. Death is not an answer,
nor is life a question. Or vice-versa. The sun
is not a saint and not even a saint's image,
except in the deserted convent of the heart
where the whole world itself is painted as icons
for which but oblivion remembers to fill up
with oil their lampada, while memories ramble
around the wind-flogged halls that enclose the cloister —
monks too numb to have faith, too weak to know desire.
There is no holiness. Or grace. The mind devours
everything it thought of, and felt, and accomplished.
Then it remains alone among its own ruins,
among words it distrusts but cannot live without,
not as a holy man by shadeless deathless trees,
lacquered in gold, vested in cardinal purple,
but as famished insect singing itself to rest
on life's indifferent rock and death's impassive stone.

Fall as images and falling image — image
of death within one's mind whirling up in smoke-wreaths,
rising from dead leaves' pyres in suburban gardens
where carved pumpkins stand guard over whitewashed houses,
a TV's buzzing glow, a darkened day reflected
on the car's shiny hood, a dusky yellowed lawn
where Snow White and her dwarves have replaced the angel
to whom Cézanne entrusted some of his apples.
Plaster life. Plaster days. Maybe I too should die —
not a physical death necessarily. Death
by meditation; death through meditation; death
as dandelion bloom on the slope of a hill
winter-besieged — flower of no significance,
except for the yellow it hoists up 'gainst the snow
and the ice-plastered sky, a meaningless yellow
that is just a yellow, slightly sour, not gold,
not some symbol in Dutch-like dusky abundance,
nor exotic citrus more astringent than lust.
A plant marking nothing but the site of its growth:
a vegetal Buddha on its way to nowhere.
Maybe I too should die as the days grow shorter
than hope. Death by exile — not as much from a land
as from a memory that was proved fallacious:
that of a life I had — thought I had — remember
having had for a while and of which what I live
here and now is the death cast in scaling surprise.
Images. Fallen leaves. Fallen angels. Moments
scattered across the day like apples in a line
by Robert Frost. Moments clearer than alcohol
served in triangular stem glasses with a twist
or an olive straight up which one sips languidly
noting how these chalices for secular mass
condense the dying day in pellucid serum
while life becomes a hospital room. Should I die —
or remain in my life as it lives what I am,
plaster angel flaking away its flightless wings,
standing guard over that which shall not be obtained
through sun's intercession or language's promise:
life perhaps; perhaps death; perhaps their interval,
wordless, weightless: a room set between cubic rocks
by a balsamic tree, near tufts of golden grass
under lavender skies gnawed at by cicadas;
a physical retreat in a physical world,
a hermitage of sorts beyond metaphysics
for the faithful in this world of words and of sun;
a dwelling in bareness, a place of solitude
and of contemplation, while above Manhattan,
as it reclines between the sheets of two rivers,
night's hands begin to move to and fro to and fro,
ending another day 'twould have been nice to die?


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