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  Robert Lietz:

Topping Off (2)

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



     It was all a boy could do to keep his hands on it,
to hear the voice of Delano, with wounds,
with schooling, hearing the news from continents,
to let her see herself, and the boys
who'd share their lives as double-features, playfields
ahead, the sweet insouciance, as much
as any of them could stand, college ahead and uniforms,
casual and plainer doctoring.  Once, 13,
star-prompted and consoled, I saw her scissors glint,
and the ribbon 2 would join hands on to sever,
leaving the eyes to feast on all her tempting attributes,
on all the nightmares one would personalize
as content.  I clipped and swept, attending grounds,
kept aisles orderly, hoping to see such daylight
step to ice-cream dens, stepping her own good news
beneath the marquis overhangs.
-- A heart itself might blush remembering.  Kids, and kids
of kids:  a dollar or few paid weekly
to assume the keeping up, for all that northside audience,
listening to the comics distracting hearts, aiming
shots by heart against the German nastiness.  And she,
too hot to cover up, receives a man in his first year
of family practice, 1942, a woman given to twins to suck,
remembering something like, her old man
chasing Togo into lethal fields, and the yard grown still,
private enough for these new roles
and the pronouncements of well-being, nothing
there to mend, nothing to heal except
the absence after all, the feelings stretched
     and steered till recognized.


     Brides circulate in strength, 1942, '3, '4,
calculate nightshade, and then
this daybright laboring, measuring themselves
against pin-ups, sharing their drinks with men
and all the ancient wishes.
Brides, asking me to think, to be young enough,
quiet enough to listen.  I see her moved,
and, knowing better than, because some large
short-sighted thing had warmed to her,
responded whispering, sneaking away with him
to films, or, spared the troubles of exhaustion,
regretting everything, 1944, accepting the hours
in parked sedans, spared Italy, spared Guam,
and spared the terrible orders of assault, the motions
with young men put through hand-to-hand.
1944, a family practice prospering.  Housecalls,
hospital births.  The flail and sway
of modern medicine.  And costs to households say,
1944, of brides in factories, of grandmothers,
sitting the first-born, women talking as women will,
everything love was, and everything
love misses, tempting a wife to guess, even to these
young men, and to these the women address
behind me as I drink, finish the evening's sandwiches,
permitted by eyes to touch, by eyes
brought round to these permissions of the body,
too long apart to fear the screened confessional,
to fear young men and missing men, the anonymous
crew-cuts, attracting the light retreating
into safer neighborhoods, to fear the stub,
crossfire, and repeating instruments.

     Imagine the women keep their sweethearts whispering.
Imagine an evening's news, and dates ahead,
the miscreant holidays ahead, 1944, the reach
of nightmare into leaves, creeping curbstones
as the stories multiply, as letters home stretch out
this way through the confusions: as blanks to fill,
with mindful meals and with evening exercise,
the planet cooling toward midnight, and midnight
cooling then to milk deliveries, to perishing dark
and angular chromatics, eyes
that mind the seasonal and keener offerings,
following the shapes eyes mark, eyes
     tear and vandalize.


     Bloom!  Bloom!  Bloom! the guns
declare.  A people satisfied to rent
     enjoys the benefits.  Mornings, centered
by street care, by tents
     the veterans stake on useless grounds,
I tend the lawns
     outside my grandfather's apartments,
1932, below his 6 room flats,
     clip and sweep, squaring myself to him
and to that referential pride,
     loosened by memory in me, among
the landed drunks,
     a man at 50 looking back on decades
through loose threads,
     seeing the spills, the works of lives,
the berserk biology.  I sweep, 17,
     the trolley stop, the corner and ways in,
giving room to children
     running errands for the women, to kids
my age, spending what they will
     inside the ice-cream den, approaching
the side door up, the side door
     opening to the shoemaker's dark quarters,
Bonfi calling to me, the father
     of football sons a few years older
than the sweeper.
     50 years and more!  Bloom!   80 years
and more! This pen, a few years older
     than I am, this brown-and-pearl laminant,
invites his company, the wide
     gold band laid in around the cap-lip.
And now this healer's sedan,
     this sister tippling, counting men to do,
centering this mirage,
     a brother avoiding calls, like stove-tops
say, like flats that shock
    with their confusions of frayed wires,
asking himself what counts,
     what business or retreat, responsibilities
string pasts through the abstracts
     of a green awning.  I climb the scaffolds,
paint, or walk the rails
     painting eaves, leaning out and, balancing,
stroking the colors down,
     feeling the years extemporize,
the good hair falling
     or going white, seeing the lives of these
deciding lives for the next century,
     authoring days of rain or dry days
stretching out a summer,
     hearing this grandpa, say, brought home
with happier prognoses, these
     grandmother's whispers, say, allowing
herself the usual joys of being local,
     despite the newsreels' dark storms,
1944, and men, like case studies,
     in blues and drabs, sent that we
might save protectorates.


     The neighbors along the fence-lines
guess what kind.  And kids in ballcaps, ballgloves
slipped on handlebars, begin all kinds
of reasoning, letting their small hurts sink
and catalogue for decades.
We read our Heidegger, Rilke, Heine,
our clock-smart Kant, imagining
a nonsense trimmed, targeted by news assuming
earthtones and devices, leaving
sons with memories, with all the sharpness yet
to feel they've encountered.  We let
the miracles show through, the sticky light
of Friday's wine
show through catastrophe, leaving a family
innocent, suffering the dreadful foam,
the words received in sealed correspondence,
the famished looks of a sister afterward.
Listen to the children cry for men who fall behind them
with promotions.  Decades
look like that.  And rooms, echoing the seder's
smartly worded drift, lit by the moonlight
clouding, where we'd hoped to find ourselves,
beginning in bloom, in wooden jokes,
in sleeves of muted symphonies, stepping ahead
in bloom, too young to think through
to good humor and to kinder times, too hot
to think and not to come apart, seeing
the looks of these the courts decide upon, orphans
cramped by the pool's edge, delicate,
unable to take the glare, the edge of sunlight
straying off the water, leaving the kids
dismantling days and classical devices, while boys
with mothers nap, polio next door,
who must at least pretend they have been sleeping,
reminded themselves of afternoons,
and of the fates of presidents, frosty details
whispered into bedroom shade,
and into the summer dark a lonely
mother enters through...


     1944, so many young men gone,
so many mothers vanishing,
     forecast as stunts, as pitched cries
echoing into tavern light,
     as the simplest good news or stretching out a budget,
stretching the Sunday meals
     into midweek casseroles, windows
opened up to air
     or shut to air in places of contagion.
We might expect
     these hardest figures then, lives
widows paint, far things
     come back, shimmerings settled
on white buildings
     or travelling in parts, travelling in names
for cowardice, lives widows
     paint, withdrawing among themselves
or winking into practice.
     A man will wince before the trays
of produce and dressed hens,
     will leave the cards untouched, conditioned
by talk and weaponry, by the eyes
     of divorcees peeping from their draperies,
anxious to have him come,
     spending his afternoons as these
for all their housekeeping
     allow him.  What if the grandfathers
had not fled, because they loved
     the symphonies, because they enjoyed
the treats, politer coffees afterward,
     had not been drawn along by these,
by the happiest eyes
     been drawn away from occupations,
eyes at short-hand, say, eyes
     edged by sleep, teaching the men
first words, and words
     that might dismiss the nightmares hovering?
She could say this anywhere,

     but, rabbi, would eyes turn,
take up her innocence,
     the flames flowering  as her own fires
     So now this hovering make-believe
survival asks of men
     requires these postures like her own,
and legs like hers,
     brightening the spoiled bricks
and tasks of casualties,
     the dusks with men loitering
at burn-barrels,
     squatting in brush to dump,
filling the air with fingers
     raw as wildwood.


     I get my rations plus and drive,
doors opened when I arrive,
     because the room's too warm, because
she's stepped to the blue fields
     of a poor man's street, telling
his jokes about the midriff
     and surprising busts, about the fabrics
then, whatever the stitching meant,
     the lettings out and cuttings back,
the patterns meant to show
     or to conceal.  And she, at home,
cuts back, enjoys
     a physician's courtesies, a room
cooled down, as if for sleeping in,
     whatever she feared from it let out,
whatever she learned in love
     between the scotch and burgundy,
becoming this light between,
     the gauze screen drawn through light,
between 2 caught up
     in the weight of their own bodies,
because the evenings spooled
     so much, because the splendid tongues
and genders complicate.  I follow
     ideas out, the early drivers out,
looking ahead, into the sound
     and its importance, into the weeks
to come, and the walks to be
     alone at exercise.  Silly to explain,
silly to wake up ghosts, to see,
     in sheen again, the hovering likes
of these, come to whisper

     at the hedge-lines, their hard wills
eased in that broad anywhere
     they've come from, seeing the lives gone on,
the shades and charms, the sweeps
     of new materials, the angular
new lures and jet-inspired


     Were we more than thugs, casting out
drag-lines, thugs correcting thugs?
I walk the 5 miles out and back, reach hard
for tenderness, through this embarrassment
she feels to be so foreign and so used,
to be waiting months without a word about a husband.
And now she lets herself be touched,
taking me on as confidante, until her smile
says thanks, her eyes say jew,
bringing the spine in line or tightening line of muscles,
her nipples standing chilled, because
of the breeze let slip, the minutes slipped so far.
We put the nickles in.  We watch
the records lift, ease around and play, rhythms
as dark as breath and as the club-dark elegance,
steeped in the levels and musts of selves,
imagining  there had been no bivouac, no surgeons
cutting away at prophecy, no husbands
sprawled and finding every need for language.
-- The lightning walks in unafraid.
The lightning eases the voices in some lives, the hands
with articles, with looks that gladly stand
the talking to, seeking the selves they have become,
remembering the looks of blocks
and fences topped by barbs,
where she was young and fit enough, getting back
among the young men getting back.
I am convicted then, mind and appetite, by months
of night travel, months of schooling men
suppose a styled ignorance, vets whose shoulders
drop, whose fingers reach more deeply
into pockets, that such as she
might love me any less.


     So used to roots, to pillage, to faces
like their own, to voluble and local time,
what hope withstands, what affecting etiquette
extends the reach of a subscription?

     Maybe another car next year, a Riviera,
Merc, some powerhouse
and happy leather, conveniently equipped,
abstracting flesh, distracting a man

     from scenes focussed by crosshairs, imagining
that splash and progress into mulberries,
leaving the sisters close, the girls their griefs
and competitions for a husband.

     We change our minds on everything.
We let our animals decide, the veiled looks
of mothers bringing the kids around,
and the silence of the daughters

     set before me prospering, seen to prospering,
letting a right hand visit and affirm,
drift within the private and protected space,
among the fine-boned solitudes

     and mounding healthy breasts.  A man will need
to catch himself.  And I, I sometimes
catch myself, in the eyes of mothers asked come in,
reading the amplitude gaze means,

     or personal interest makes of all
the common human places.
Migrations behind them everywhere.   And,
everywhere, this century-wide

     pour of refugees, the changing voices, lovely
possibles, "of course you've seen one,
doctor," followed by forms of breath, fingers
holding the palms up a little off the table,

     the palm-flats working as a daughter's
asked for breath, because I've asked
a girl to breathe more deeply and continue,
letting the hand reach in

     and the scrubbed fingers work,
seeing the worlds gathering form
in everybody's guesses.


     A mother will walk away well pleased,
look up and speak less thinly afterward,
asking a man what restaurants, what laundresses
must cost him, and wouldn't you think?,
and wouldn't you?, asking a doctor home
to dine and sip along on the espresso,
a man to help himself, offering the plates
of sausages, passing the vino and spumoni,
offering the guitars and now the beauties
of 2 daughters:  Even if I admit, and even,
before the conversation's finished with,
before the old man hooks me with his worldly argument,
admit to being mildly made scared
by their proposals, either of the 2 , they're
both agreed, watching my eyes for interest
-- We let the sentence complicate.
We let the sentence stand improbably complete,
the end of some response,
feeling the quiet circulate, wrapping myself
to travel lightly, self-possessed,
ashamed by the redundance rising news
steeps in, and rumored stratagems,
the ways a turn of phrase would race
through turns of company.

    For each of the riddles and hand-bag koans,
brought up with these, the forms
of a new bookkeeping, features the lighting
doctors now, (the looks of arsenal
styled to estates and worship places, styled
to voice, I think, and alterations
in the practice, to the rinse behind cut words,
unable to say, and observing regimen,)
I see the twittering, light things
setting on a subject, doubting the wisdom
as hands drift here along a lap-desk,
or as the hands are given to drag,
rubbing wastes away.

Go to Topping Off (3)
Go to Topping Off (1)

© Copyright Robert Lietz.
About the author.

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