Monday, May 23, 2016

Allegory without a Key

This is poetry Monday, and today's poem is called "Allegory without a Key," from my book Counting Stars at Forty BelowA surreal poem about a steampunk kind of prison with a final classification inspired by the little retirement cabins given Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman at the end of their lives at Devil's Island in the movie Papillon.



Allegory without a Key

In a Victorian clockwork prison,
ornately carved cuckoo clock of a jail,
where tables walk modestly skirted
and Wonderland bathtubs stalk claw-footed:
my recurrent dreams hold me without keys
in harsh light of a boss’s smirking glare.
Here you do not take things by their handles
but grasp Albrecht Dürer’s praying hands.
Lost forest of worn, sculpted machinery—
we fear and tremble but work out no salvation.
We play life-sized unsolved games of Clue in hell:
missing cards, gruesome chores—“what’s that smell?”—
sweating and weeping in the ballroom.
No form but complexity follows function;
no god in details but pride in cleverness.
Among what still works might hide a button
never before pushed that opens a door
better left shut, gasket pressed, casket sealed . . .
Of course by now much has broken down,
and this is what terrifies me so:
that the secrets I’m carrying around
could so easily fall out on the ground.
I bring . . .
I dare not bring myself to say.
I know that a small contribution
to the weight I must carry room to room
is made by some hoary something prostrate,
a brittle shell, which once prowled as leopards do,
banished to labyrinthine catacombs,
and in this darkness a synesthesia:
Though like the sailors of Odysseus,
I have filled my ears with hot candle wax,
I still hear the flames of the burning girl
who every night dies the law’s sacrifice,
who waiting her turn sits and prays in the dirt.
I see in brilliant hues the blues she sings
in keys indigo and ultraviolet.
I shade my eyes for the high, clear note’s sky
and weep for the depths of her navy blue.
Services will be sung, not graveside,
not by the presiding minister
from the First Universal Life Church,
nor by some dusty body whiskeyed up
and leaning on a statue or a stone,
but from the dark vault by the dearly entombed,
lips unsewn, thickly tongued, and wired up,
voice quavering but going on to impress
as in technological demonstration,
as if to say, “If I can do this,
what the State did to me can’t be that bad.”
Though I try so hard to look straight ahead,
coffins open at the edges of vision.
At night I am given a dungeon room,
straw on the floor, and a thin shaft of light.
No singing canary but wounded bear,
shackled, chafed, snuffling the window’s rare air
for carried seasonings—freshly plowed fields,
rutting beasts, rotting cities—nosing back
to algal tides, rising seas, heavy weather,
wasted fish nibbled to spines on the sand,
flotsam and jetsam in my mother’s hands,
lonely lives tethered to barren wind-bent trees:
wooden webs jetting from earthen spinnerets.
Irreligious man living as a monk:
painful prostrations lay my days to waste.
No one can hear me for abhorring me.
In the night I slice my sleep prayer by prayer
to find my dreams beating in utero.
And our dentitions: vandalized graveyards,
the ruined reminders of rebel dead,
lost bridges, sharp edges of ceramic shards,
granite afloat in sand, eroding limestone,
such are the crumbling fringes of our skulls
scarcely hidden above the roofs of our mouths.
Two strange travelers knock at midday—
agents, angel hipsters, shields strapped on chests.
They know all but speak only courtesies
and decline the food I set before them.
They want to make me a martyred prophet.
The taller, darker one leans back in his chair,
stretches his wings, ‘til now hidden, and says,
“You amuse with risk of overseas flight.”
Now comes for me prison transportation:
a leviathan snatches me from shore,
carries me out to the archipelago.
No islander knows what he’s marching for,
but the radio pulls through the day-o.
Thus this island seems lax after prison,
but brutal invasive tides tumble the beach;
eyes squeeze back into brains, retreat
as turtle heads into darkly painted shells.
Out of the rank and file of tier and cell
into stranded gypsy caravans
parked in cul-de-sac overlooking the sea—
as if forever: no tracks in or out
but acquiescence, stasis, solitude.
Yet they grant freedom, parole, and discharge
as if some course were run, some task complete.
The ungrateful beast stands without its cage
outside slave walls of the bloodiest brick.
No one will think to ask this island’s weight,
how it tilts and lags the tides of the seas
or skews the teetering wobble of Earth.