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  Robert Lietz:

Topping Off (1)

(from "Character in the Works: Twentieth-Century Lives")

  Character in the Works: Twentieth-Century Lives is a large, 250-page manuscript in which Lietz creates lives for individuals whose names are inscribed on old fountain-pens, and Topping Off is for P(hilip) Bloom, M.D., owner of the honey (brown)-and-pearl -laminated Parker Vacumatic Maxima with which he began the poem. Read more about this project at the bottom of this page!  



     Look then, the corner chestnut, a boy winking
into the mirror of it, into the trace marks
and rooms where he was sleeping, boasting
at the doors, running, losing, turning back
to see the old man.  I shouldn't have called her
anything.  And he, deeply happening,
bloodstem, shouldn't have stood there occupying
doctored light, a lost pitch, a ball
hit sharply back at all 9 spots.  So moonlight
settles it.  So I sneak back to my blue room,
and see the moonlit sax, the moon-bright quarrel cards,
desire protected against that surge, even
as first love, lightly traded on, rescued dusks for 2
that stood apart from their own families.
-- Conditioned by rioja and guitars, blue rain
and thundering, first love risked dusks
and shamed the rhythms of our households,
to stand about, remote, gold key, gold lock,
affecting the secrets she confessed, enjoying storm
and the next storms and the broad thunder.
-- Imagine that blue-black drift,
and the blue-black drift of neighbor sisters
chanting feasts, shadows in convent halls,
and lovely, lingering at retreat, first love
exorcised, existing as love for years,
held up in the brown study...


     I see that corner chestnut, and see
the strapped shin-guard,
     the hinged and dangling, defective part,
a boy taking that foul tip squarely
     on the knee-cap.  He sprawls then stands
to play, to spite the bruise
     and play not to embarrass, holding
the man off, the woman off,
     Irish enough to be made easy by her feasting,
Jew enough, he thinks, to move
     the tree to the next corner, to make
his way home hurt
     and shamed for words about his sister.
What must be understood,
     and must be matched full float, evolves
as love, love's deep diseutude,
     gold lock, gold key, the edges rounded
from all the jostling.  We let
     the rains climb down on us.  We drink
and guess what company, half
     a Saturday done well, tapping the rue
of menace, litmus politics, the wishes
     that leave men wishing afterward.  I squint
my own room out of air, and now
     these objects verified, windows opened
to night corners, and one,
     recovering, considering the worship and taboos,
whispering a woman's name
     into the lightly shaken foliage, calling
sensibly to love, repeating
     the complaint and misinspired angers
at a sister.  And there, swept up by love
     against a heritage of cautions, rearranging
innocence, a boy would steel himself
     to fever and to crotch-cold waves, seeing
the looks of men enlisted and exhausted,
     whose ghostly forms spite further range
and prospering, spooking
     pillows he hugged for days, prescribing
 love's chilled brews, love's lingering,
     loaded, and defective piece.


     Wondering afterward, dead?,
whether the rock-rubbed, upturned Plymouth
sheathed transmigrating souls,
that brief bounty flowering, done,
as one man slowed, looked
hard across dark ices, facing in cold
and booze his dangerous failures, eyes
stung by dark, by hours en route, eyes
wandering into and out of smokey parlors,
hiding for days from news, from
all the sifting flakes and garbage radio.
I slowed, drove on, unable to cry back
lives, Bloom, M.D., and, nothing yet,
except for kinds of cowardice, found
headlamps approaching west, another
to pass nearer death, to find for himself
how shame could visit on a heartbreak,
or how a lost bride burns the more
in memory, having given herself again,
her unsleeved arms again
to her northside preoccupations.  And
how one sister, lost, would stitch
the wedding vests for shadows, stitch
the dark tones after all with reislings,
cabernet.  Pages re-read as perishing,
1942, enlistments say, love-letters home,
conditions slipped among the oaths
and formulae for hiding.  Barbara sips,
and Barbara senses enough to stop
when she begins to feel the pricks, sips
her thimble-deep desserts, sewing
for the day done, and the voices of kind men,
leaving for home from the tonsorial
and the ice-cream den, from the Kruetzer
grocery, leaving their shops to shrug
from hers and other futures...


    Wasn't I young as all that once?
And, Love's unlucky card, didn't I play that
close to heart, the trouble by half
and more, didn't I walk in once, step through
to one young wife's embarrassment,
"a doctor, Maude,"  and "nothing to fear from it,"
and Maude so much pink flesh
as his exhausted eyes could figure, trading
the gaze for smalltalk
while my sister let me squirm?  I have that gaze,
those lemon ices, and have
those iced 2 lanes, stories to beat the living hell,
made up of the dust dreams vent,
of enlisted flesh and now the flush of private numbers,
women soothed by letters home,
and by the ends of letters home in new materials,
leaving this dead light, this
inaccurate dark where deer must slip back
through the pine wall, into the place
where summer's been, where summer's thickening,
disobliging time, attracting a man
from loss, from woods and instruments,
from shavings the times seem,
the strewn mahogany and spruce, littering
flats men leave, scuffing as they leave
across hardwood, jackstraw


     The day returns to her.  She squints, stands,
stretches before the bank
of needles and bright spools, deep-textured
furlings, catching the light she weighs
in keener adaptations.  Here's wine and recipe,
so many contract dates and slim lights
to be broken.

     She thinks the least of it, steps stairs to rooms
nobody's occupied for decades,
remembering the looks of the old men, half-becoming
summer ice, herself, at 12, already
breaking hearts for love, turning from hearts to wine
and prickings of career, to wine from eyes
that seemed to flash with her own daylight,
and seemed to wince as rain
turned lovers partisan.

     She might, she thinks, decline, and might as well,
as conversations go, be pierced,
drawn through, as her own dreams had been, enjoying
such good nights and suitable couture,
by the moonlight then, or by these quick bells,
slowed for company, so young and given
to feeling something like.

     She would have this understood.  And she would sip
till kinds of underglow smiled back,
until the looks of things, the noisemaking ends
to all the troubled flexing,
encouraged brides to seek in homecomings for families,
out of the rains called home, away from the newsreels
called to their own kinds
of servicing.

     She walks that way, presenting herself like charm
down paths among the park sitters, among
these brothers left to boast or sort their own recriminations,
having been touched by field kill
and by well-governed deployments, sitting
beneath elm limbs and city chestnuts,
dreaming themselves whole, and of the limbs
last light or rains appropriate.

     She would be pressed again and be respectably attended.
She would be pleased by exercise
or by the balance of a sentence, be drawn again
into the reach of a good story, who motions
cheaper forms, or now enacts by her hard will
the measures of her partners, the losses
of friends made serve, herself made serve
the purgatories of their choices, leaving
the city cleared, except for young men
like her brother, a city's clutter
and curbs to step down
and redress.


     I fled old friends accused, fled beer
and smoke, midnight partiers, driving
my own account, and putting a ghostly edge
on all the finer chiselling,
receiving the quarters and local stones,
accepting the swatches and live hens,
listening to a woman's own glad breathing
over platesful, each paying as each can,
and I, paying as I can, as if a man by time
to make good on a question.
-- And she, that stands here, ill and healing,
in fatal partnership:  what would I be
to her, her own physician relative, would
she be but Barb, swaying with wine
and scraps, stillness such as her own brother
might inspire, himself pine-still, flattening,
seeing her fingers reach if only to abandon,
her pin-boy's grips, reaching deeply down
into a history of yard-goods, unable to handle
threads, to manage the shears grown dull,
catching the mind's chaste light, the murmurs
above the stormy cushions and the couch sleeves.
-- She lifts her wine while spools of color
seem to chirr, while she enrolls herself, and,
in that loud serenity, lets every dream begin,
the machine-driven spools go on as if by their own power.
What live apologies!  What poor love's
seasonals!  What voice but this, life-sized,
and blood but this, rattling mountain ice,
and no one listening!  A woman could get
to this hard place.  And I, remembering,
could find how glass accumulates, hearing
the crouped, cramped kids, the grandpas
speaking from the hearts of epidemic, the glass
voices ushering a healer into side rooms,
through decades of side rooms seamed
with cautions and condolence...


     So glass accumulates.  And so her own
grey strokes, sheathings fashioned, fit
     to soften powers of apparel, attitudes
toward color and metallic applique.
     Life-sized and lingering, goodness knows!
She eases from barrens
     on this near sleep, steps rooms I seem
to have lived in idly, a pieced ship,
     beached, behind lowered glass retained,
considering the deckhands labored at,
     the lifeboats teetering and awaiting seas.
She sets the air almost aflame,
     with too much light, too much necessity,
involving a man and streets,
     men and streets and features something like,
explaining the wreckage, dreams,
     the engines ghosting again through double
and through triple shifts, as honest
     as customs seemed and as conditions for believing.
We'll let this somnolence attend,
     the amnesia of tribes attend the action
of a heartache, the motions settled
     on flat land, until the dreams cooperate,
crying a man toward miracle
     and finally sleeping in, turning his pillow
with clean hands, letting the flesh
     repent its knotty histories.  Some small
precisely finished thing
     explains the daylit signature, the insomnias
engaging salt wind in a dry country,
     as if ghostly hands moved in, eccentricities
men shaped and turned
     through their first loving, realigning tools
to all that clumsy mystery...
     And so the good kids size themselves.  And so,
sliding into third, the boys hookslide,
     spring up, find safety in their bourbon
and their flawed accounts, and in
     peculiar shade, the ballads and white-wash
here engaging wind, accepting as industry
     household accomplishments, the confidence
to sit behind another person's wheels.
     And these, who must consort, let impulse
entertain, shaping their news
     as catcalls over northside yards, wake one
from all the traumas of his nightmare,
     like something to be done with or be done about.
The table-staff cheer men
     who tip them memorably.  And crickets fiddle
for cats.  Cats get.  And the moonlight
     gets, builds clean.  And these, affecting culture
if not applause, put on their eyes
     or scorn should one look back obsessively,
remembering the songs adventuring
     had parodied from hymnals, scores for troops
that seemed fantasias on an epic,
     each moment in private time feeding
their responses, the flourish of conceits
     and dash toward stricken

  Go to Topping Off (2)
Go to Topping Off (3)

Character in the Works: Twentieth-Century Lives is a large, 250-page manuscript in which I create lives for individuals whose names are inscribed on old fountain pens, with clues from the chracteristics of the pens, from the history of the period, and from old pen advertising of the day. The 24 poems in the collection run from 2 to 33 pages and are accompanied by prose introductions of a sentence or two or as elaborate as several hundred words, setting the stage to enable the poems to work as poems and to capture not so much the facts as the feelings of living during the past ten decades. Since the characters, each with his or her own story-line, could well have lived near and been familiar with one another, there are implicit crosscurrents in the text, implying larger contexts and venues for the materials other than a volume of poetry alone, including stage and possible film adaptations of the work.

Topping Off is for P(hilip) Bloom, M.D., owner of the honey (brown)-and-pearl -laminated Parker Vacumatic Maxima with which I began the poem. Bloom's life appears in three periods, ranging from the 1930s through the middle 1980s, the first just before he received the pen and his degree in 1942, the second during the 1960s when his sister, a seamstress and recovering alcoholic, backslides and perishes, and the third during the early and middle 1980s, just before his death, when he, as a retired physician, volunteered his expertise and care in behalf of the young men falling ill with H.I.V. and full-blown AIDS. The second and third periods of his life issue directly from particular events of the first period, during which Bloom, old enough to have experienced the loss of older brothers in his neighborhood to the Spanish Civil War, experiences failure in his first real love, discovering the ways passion can deteriorate into self-doubt and recrimination, a college senior then, who, driving alone, after drinks and quarrels with his lover and best friends, happens on a wrecked, overturned auto on an icy midnight highway, and slows to look but cannot bring himself to stop, yielding to his despair, fatigue, and, he believes, his cowardice, and driving on, unsure if there were any fatalities or survivors. The years to come become a source of additional self- reproach, his attending medical school, for example, during the War years while other men enlisted, including his sister's fiance and other similarly absorbed students; and further source for his self-doubt and subsequent unreadiness to marry, despite the many opportunities to wed, while others like himself slogged through Europe and the East. The decades spent in healing and solace then perhaps explain this late career, his readiness to share himself with the unmarried young, the sometimes unloved bachelors suffering toward meaner ends, during the first months then years of the AIDS epidemic. /R. Lietz

© Copyright Robert Lietz.
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