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Immense Buddha Under Fire
For centuries your face stares out
from the face of an immense cliff,
unblinking, nearly changeless.
Stone lends you some of that detachment
you taught in life. You gaze out
over the plain, and what thoughts
are yours are not known even to you.
And these are the things you have:
Time that is nothing to you. Substance that you are
not aware that you have. Being that is neither
a verb nor a noun. And then one day they come
with guns and artillery, to untie the knot
that binds you into presence,
to shatter your meditation, your impassive
face sliding away into rubble and a smoke
of dust: the face you wore
before you were born. And after the collapse,
your outlines are precisely as solid
as they were before. These bits of rock
that come crashing down
might resemble tears, except that we know
you do not weep. It is only we who weep
at this destruction, and not necessarily for reasons
you would approve of.
I Am the Man Vermeer Painted Over
Radiographs reveal me, standing framed in a doorway,
according to a placard at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art. My outlines unseen in the space
behind A Girl Asleep, I coalesce from elemental
twilight to keep my watch.
No one relieves my thankless routine, no
second shares my duty. Hour into century
I move through the silent house, tuneless, ephemeral,
the light on the polished floor my mansion,
the drafts in the hallways my demesnes.
I walk with you through the terrible peace
of darkened rooms, the warm quiet of a summer night,
the dusty stillness of a Sunday dusk,
among the lamps and the tables, the fearful solitude
of cups and glasses. Is your heart
breaking? Does your flesh dream the touch of
a stranger's hand? Is the clock too loud, does it frighten you
sometimes? When you wake, do you feel out of place? It is only
because you do not see me
that you are troubled at all.
I am there not there, now there now gone,
I am between the folds of the curtain's curtain;
future memory forgotten, question not asked.
I watch from behind the paint. I will know you
again in death.
Excerpt from Bestiary
For centuries, no winged creature would help
humans defy that line drawn by the gods between
earth and sky. A human could rise no higher
than a mountain would consent to let him climb;
even the rare winged horse
would buck a rider who aspired to violate
heaven's restraining order.
Till one day the airplanes arrived,
a sleek army of them shining like Prometheus,
and knelt on concrete runways, allowing
the marveling humans to mount and ride them
up; did they know they would destroy heaven
and replace it with clouds?
No one knows what penalty
the gods exacted for the violation of their law;
some fear the punishment is that there isn't any.
The America is known primarily for its thick, sticky,
brownish secretions, which distinguish it from
certain other wild landmasses and nation-states you
might encounter in the wild, (e.g. Europe, Africa,
or Canada). If you see an America coming toward
you in the forest, it is important not to provoke it.
You will be expected to lap up some of the secretions,
which are called Coca-Cola, and pretend that you
like them. After a while, you may come to believe
that you do, particularly if the America subjects you to
its television. It is now that the America is at its most
dangerous and most seductive; there is no known
antidote to the secretions, except for certain political
philosophies which can be toxic in their own right
if applied with excessive vigor; worse, to an America,
most of them smell like prey. Most importantly, do not
come between the America and its supply
of petroleum (the raw material it consumes,
digests, and secretes as Coca-Cola). It will interpret
any interference with its access to petroleum as a threat
to its offspring, and it will devour yours
as a prophylactic measure.
How children and poets alike
adore the cafeteria, for the beauty and whimsy
it embodies. Its elegant plumage and striking decorations
defy biological explanation, seem to serve no purpose other
than to introduce beauty into the world: the crumbling
slices of pie, the congealing soups, the tiny marshmallows wobbling
upon gelatin, the thick, lumpy substances in serving vats,
the coffee stirrers and the plastic trays and the
oyster crackers sealed in plastic. Whoever denies
that the Creator was an artist and a poet
has never encountered that luxurious beast, cafeteria.
The larval form of the falafel and the hummus.
For many years garbanzo beans got no respect,
because they were beige and therefore
assumed to be dull. Eventually a plurality of
the garbanzo beans hired a consultant and
rebranded themselves as chickpeas,
at which point they were
discovered and made newly chic
by lesbians and other cutting-edge foodists,
and now they are always invited
to the best parties. They can frequently
be found in close proximity to
pita bread, in which they tend to nest.
Though it is the source of all light in the room,
the lamp hides its brilliance behind a shade,
stands back in the corner so as not to draw
attention to itself as it illuminates others,
makes them glow with its own donated radiance.
If you were watching a film about the lamp,
you would be moved to shed a tear for its
humility, its selfless service to others,
the lack of thanks and credit it gets
for the glory it lends to others.
As it is you are likely, if you think about it
at all, to notice that it is a bit ugly,
could certainly be replaced.
that exotic coconut fish of the candy counter
and the bakery window; how it swims through
our dreams. How we crave the sweetness of it
on winter afternoons, dipped in chocolate at a café
or on a rainy autumn evening
in front of the television. Its proprietary genius
is to strike a paradoxical balance between the exotic and the familiar,
hinting of a tropical wildness that does not become unruly,
somehow simultaneously exciting and comforting.
You will find the macaroon strangely endearing; its sweetness
will slip beneath your defenses to become your heart's
companion, always there for you, so easy
to trust and to rely upon. To say that it is only
a cookie is to say the Sistine Chapel
is only a room in a church,
Shakespeare's sonnets a collection of mash notes,
Lassie a mere trained dog. You may fail to appreciate
the virtues of the macaroon, I suppose, but if you are
such a philistine I suggest you do not
announce it in my presence, or I may be forced
to defend the honor of the macaroon. Then again,
perhaps it is well to remember
that separation from the macaroon is its own
terrible punishment, and those who inflict
such a fate on themselves deserve mainly
Raisins? Do not speak to me
of raisins. The raisin is a bad joke,
an affront. If you want to know what
it is, I will tell you: A raisin is nothing
but a prune made out of a grape.
It exists mainly to spoil
oatmeal cookies. Enough.
We should talk about
something else, before I
get too angry.
No one can properly articulate
the sadness of the tea kettle.
The anaconda must unhinge its jaw
in order to devour a human whole;
the trousers need only a top button undone
and a zipper pulled down (unless the human
has recently gained some weight). But
a pair of trousers can never swallow more than
half a person; for the rest of the day
it walks around with its breakfast
hanging out of its mouth. Fortunately,
no one notices. The trousers' strategy
has been successfully adopted by a variety
of other creatures, including corporations
and political parties: If you must devour
your prey in public, try to make it look
as if you are performing a valuable service
The violin and its more domestic
cousin, the fiddle, are nearly
indistinguishable, except that the fiddle
is generally in a better mood. They are kept
as pets by both the cultured and the bucolic.
The singing of the
violin can lure monsters into your
parlor, and calm their madness:
but do not get so cozy with them
as to offer a cigar.
Wednesday is generally innocuous
and docile, though somewhat given
to moodiness and melancholy. However, if
you annoy Wednesday to the point where it becomes
seriously ruffled, it will surprise you with its capacity
for violence and outré behavior. In general,
Wednesday should be given a wide berth
and not provoked.
The x-ray is a speed-of-light
peeping tom. It seeks
only to learn your secrets,
and then it abandons
you, as if the blinding flash
of intimacy you shared
were nothing to it.
It penetrates your flesh easily, too
easily, and in an instant it knows
more about you than
you know about yourself:
what your skeleton looks like
under your skin, where the fracture
lies, what's developing
inside your lungs. This radioactive
intimacy can't last long,
and the x-ray is gone from your life
almost the very moment
it has you all figured out.
And the only evidence of its
voyeuristic passage through your life
is the information it leaves behind,
the fact that you're a little wiser now.
© 2002 Dave Awl
Dave Awl notes:
Immense Buddha Under Fire was written after the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in early 2001.
Bestiary, as published in What the Sea Means, is a suite of 31 short poems arranged alphabetically by title. This excerpt includes 12 of them.
I Am the Man Vermeer Painted Over was written shortly after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in summer of 1995, and seeing the painting A Girl Asleep (also variously called A Maid Asleep, A Sleeping Young Woman, and A Drunken Sleeping Maid at a Table). A placard on the wall next to the painting said that radiographs had revealed the figure of man standing "framed in the doorway," and subsequently painted over. At the time I'm writing this note, in June 2002, the museum's Web site says that there's a painted-over dog in the doorway, and the painted-over man is "in the background." Not sure if he's in the doorway, too, or not. Regardless, he's there somewhere. Someday I'll have to write a sequel from the perspective of the dog. ("Where Are the Table Scraps Vermeer Painted Over?")
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