(After writing, for a dozen years, about his work)
“One does not work the piano,
or the violin. One does not create a body
of play.” I read this
in another poet’s poem, and think of you. Not
when I first knew you, in those classes that you thought of
as your work, your job, not later
when you supervised (such work!) my work,
my PhD—I thought of you at nine
or twelve years old, Republican Ohio, say, in 1950
or in 1953. In
costume, all the sticks and staves,
the plumed hat, fencing foil, your cape, your cousin
dressed the same, the world you opened
every summer, lovely and legitimate,
that world of play.
And if it is your work
my books are all about,
then you have worked the piano thirty years and more,
have worked the violin,
have worked with sticks and staves and fencing foil
to build a world both lovely and legitimate:
a jewelled box, or a field of wrens
where, while you don’t know it,
I and others wander and return.
I went into the cathedral that was for me alone,
where the guide who was also for me alone,
and of me alone, spoke to me alone
of the niche-bound altarpiece
that mapped my spirit out for me.
“God’s holy fire, sure, is in these
panels, damaged, gold, and glorious,
perched in the cathedral only you
have ever stepped in
(you and I are here—right!—
but you and I are one, if even that).
So look what’s there, on the altarpiece,
its images, Italo-Byzantine,
in that gold-on-gold terrarium, the angel ant-farm
of that flattened space. A clustering of haloed heads,
consecrate, and hallowed, and decayed.
Front and center, at six foot eight,
almost the full height of the panel, there:
blue-robed and bulky: your libido,
the fine-drawn bright bits
chipped away—a blue tempura
never lasts. We cannot
tell the gender, anymore, if it were ever manifest
(sources are vague, and disagree, and written
by monks—what would they know?). Faceless,
it keeps the object of desire there,
dandled on its knee—she’s smudged-up
by the candle smoke, a little limb is left, you see, a little
pink-fleshed arm, a haunch, and something of a mouth,
The tiny putti dancing at her feet are appetites,
so many I’ve often asked myself
‘was there an explosion at the cherub factory?’
And kneeling, off to either side: the patrons. If they stood
they wouldn’t reach that central figure’s knees. And then behind:
their clustered heads a mass of dazzled haloed light,
the patron saints of work, and reputation,
of jokes and reefer, drink, and hanging out, the patron saint
of art. What are they? Two foot three? A choir
to sing and cry for you. To look upward
at that high-placed panel that was never painted,
or (here sources disagree)
I went, again, into the cathedral that was for me alone,
with the guide who was also for me alone,
who was also me, alone,
and I looked away, to where curled smoke
sleep-walked and grew tall and taller
above the altar,
wove ropes around itself, and disappeared.
It’s in America (that is, the U.S.A.), that I have landed,
clutching my cars and TIAA-CREF,
my yellow-shingled house perched on its acre lot.
Which means? Which means? Which means the things I’ve seen
are wonderful, and sinister,
and many, many are the spangled flags.
I have seen them by the lakes and oceans, stiff,
with growing confidence, high in air; I have seen them
on the beaches, the landing grounds, I have seen them
in the fields and streets. They will never surrender.
I have seen them on ball-caps, plastic cups, on napkins
(on days not yet the fourth, in months not yet July),
seen them brazen on the mud-flaps of eighteen-wheelers,
on the foil packets of moist towelettes and, once, once, a pair of them,
tattooed on a stripper’s spreading, well-toned inner thighs.
(Once? No, twice. Oh furtiveness, oh sneaking back).
I have seen Canadian flags, but they were in Canada,
and on flag poles, too. They do things differently up there.
I’ve seen, too, la bandera, the flag of Mexico.
With its eagle, born before Columbus, born as the sun.
Born for Tenochtitlan.
The eagle’s claw-clutched serpent born for Aztecs,
who called it wisdom,
born with a hiss called “whispered truth.”
Later, born again for brazen Spaniards, and born royal:
águila real, the eagle clutched the writhing pagan serpent, and
perched brazen in the center, in the white field of the revolution’s tricolor.
Which means? Which means? A sneaking in
of church and crown, surviving, there (they never surrender)
surviving, brazen—a claw hangs on.
But that’s not where I saw them, not at first.
I saw them on my father’s forearm, saw them, tattooed, there.
Saw them as both wonderful, and sinister. Saw them,
and didn’t know. And didn’t know how, back from the Marines
—back from the beaches, the landing grounds,
the fields and streets, the never-surrendered—he swore off
the land of yellow-shingled houses, and all their acre lots,
took flight for Mexico, and beatniked there.
His perch, where he had landed, and for good,
or so he thought. And then? And then?
A furtiveness? A sneaking back.
A spreading land of many spangled flags.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU’s books include Home and Variations (Salt, 2004), Laureates and Heretics (Notre Dame, 2010), and several edited collections. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, Pleiades, Chicago Review, Cambridge Literary Review, Essays in Criticism, VQR, and numerous other journals. He has received grants and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Swedish Academy. Archambeau is professor of English at Lake Forest College. He blogs at samizdatblog.blogspot.com.