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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.


Garbanzo Bean


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.




Macaroon, macaroon;

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

our compassion.




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.


Tea Kettle


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

to humanity.




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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