Counting Stars at Forty Below
Lost in a gallery where I cannot
read the signs, but the Spanish for still life,
naturaleza muerta, means dead nature:
Cézanne apple baskets; an astrolabe;
a sextant; a broken ring-necked pheasant;
Francis Bacon meat; reminders to die;
a human turned violently inside out;
skull on a brittle parchment star atlas,
the Zodiac etched in India ink,
cosmos of isolation drawn blood red;
bull, swan, bears great and small, and basilisks
among a menagerie of centaurs;
alchemist’s shadow on the crystal sphere.
See the familiar old constellations
rising at new angles of abstinence.
Locked inside freezing chambers at midnight,
I am counting stars at forty below.
Now the celestial guides of the nighttime sky
scatter across space, turn around and form
strange new relationships among themselves,
demand new creation mythologies—
the explosive fricative of making light
speaks existence with the friable Word,
easily crumbled, reduced to stardust,
yet now the language is foreign, unclear—
confused gods are born on this farther shore.
In the East rise new heroes for the quest
redolent of blood, kill, cordite, and war.
I’m counting changes at forty below.
The great wet globe hovers beyond my reach
while I mine in one-sixth Earth’s gravity.
Despite its looming familiarity,
home sits in a deadly moat of vacuum.
To escape here is to suffocate there.
I can see the crescent Earth from Io;
our galaxy from Magellanic Clouds.
If these air lock doors keep me shut and locked
away to death I will freeze, words unsaid,
when counting changes at forty below.
Across time your letters change their meaning;
vowels grow faces; consonants become glyphs:
connotations change at forty below.
I wring my fantasies out of people—
as the water ran black out of the clothes
we wore during our Indian sojourn
once we settled in Chile and washed clean—
the crescent phases of friends now wax full.
The weeks do not end: after much labor,
Friday’s Saturday is but partial birth
and Sunday is only Monday’s matins:
ill-formed Siamese twins miscarried.
I dream when I walk and I walk in dreams
of overexposed Technicolor scenes.
I am a bit player off-center in
a location shot for an episode
in which I await my release alone
alongside some vast cathedral ruins
strangely set in neither city nor town
but in a thicket with no one around.
The palette of the canopy of trees,
the gray naked limbs like a dead child’s bones
bleeding now April’s shy greens and yellow,
the seething synesthesia of summer,
orgiastic rush of scale and feather,
then the screaming pained flames of October
like a great arch of stained glass above
the bombed-out church that towers over me.
My self Is encompassed by the great thirsts
of deprivation and separation—
let me count these: the parching; the searing;
the razor slitting across the sheep’s eye;
‘midst the bleating din, the loss of hearing—
and overwhelmed by sacrificial pyres
(stolen from a temple standing in the clearing)
and they by overarching fire.
The last picture is abstract and unknown,
a white canvas with a circle of red;
the Great Red Spot, a storm on Jupiter;
Japanese flag; a period abed;
the wedding party views the nuptial sheet;
a crab ruptures, then you are dead;
the sheet that bore wounded from the barrage;
the blood of the martyr on a shroud.
Everything I do changes at forty.
The gallery closes at half past nine.
The turnstile counters are read and reset.The building collapses with all inside.