Ten years ago, a recent college graduate with trailing clouds of liberal arts glory still fading behind him decided to make and sell a print literary magazine. Who knows what was going through his mind or why he ignored everyone who told him this was a bad, impractical way to spend his time. But now Grub Street Grackle has produced seventeen issues and is ready to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in a big way.
Over the past few months, we’ve been posting some of our favorites from the first ten years, many of which have never appeared online. (Many more never will, as we often publish work whose meaning depends on its appearing in print.)
But that’s only a prelude; a small selection from these favorites will be featured on our Tenth Anniversary Audio Collection. We want you to help us decide what to use. Whichever pieces get the strongest response will probably be used for the recording (pending approval from the authors).
You know what to do: like and share, fave and retweet, reblog, whatever buttons you customarily press when the internet gods chatter fervidly in your ears, do it for these stories, please!
Mouse over the images below for quotes, and click to read the full piece.
Sitting next to you as the sun goes down
And dies a world of fire upon the lake.
A raised glass empties all the sunset
To your cheek; the table spreads horizon-wide.
And we sit as we have come, apart
By inches. Hundreds of miles of inches.
Night comes on. A few boats. Voices drift
From the water until they become music
Later, in the city, and smoke around us.
A club. And we sit next to the jazz band,
The notes of miles between us, our silent
Inches swelling to something kind of blue.
Is it water, your eyes, this empty music,
Fallen smoke and lonely between us here?
Jason Stevens is a retired Ghostbuster who now splits his time between pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and chronicling supernatural events in academia. Ask him about Dr. Wegemer’s projectile eye.
Then the axe fell.
And the weight of the crowd immeasurably shifted.
The soul of the quiet man no longer drew
their eyes—whether miserable or indignant—
to some convergence on the little scaffold.
Some turned uncomfortably to their neighbor,
but felt, instead of the easy word or glance,
a hollowness about the throat,
and read upon each other’s face
the raw expression of a vacillating expectation
suddenly and forever obsolete.
This was not how a criminal dies,
a rebel, or a hero, or a saint,
but more how a son can be robbed
of his dear inheritance, by a litigation,
folded, creased, and stamped
on foolscap’s whisper-thin translucence.
The gathering climax indefinitely now
postponed, they drifted home.
Those who knew him though had learned to live
forbearing with his quiet way.
They took his painful invitation,
focused wills and energy upon that blank
between the lines of red and black,
that difficult and hidden thing that holds
the phrases of the daily psalter to the page;
that held the good man upright on the day
that God obscured the glory of his face.
Original bio from the Fall 2006 edition:
Adam Cooper has no problem standing in a long line only to leave when he gets to the front. He is an expert at that.
The flight from time is essential to the human condition, but is also a typically modern fancy. We have built our world upon devices and rituals whose sole purpose is to bend time to our will, to escape the perceived bondage we are in to its unrelenting tread. But what we have forgotten, and what this poem by Monika Cooper reminds us of, is that time is not a predator, but a friend; not a tyrant, but in fact a servant, charged by our Master with the task of being watchman, herald, secretary and archivist of all of life’s turnings.
Time and one’s relation to it plays a crucial role in literature. For example, one essential distinction between tragedy and comedy is that in the former, the tragic hero feels the press of time as a burden and rages against it, only to find that it runs out for him. In the latter, the comic hero allows his action to develop more organically and so finds that it is fruitful; time for him is sufficient and generous when he keeps the task at hand in focus, rather than agonizing over the time in which he has to accomplish it. But this is true also in life, and in life one’s relation to time has implications regarding one’s relation to the whole of the human experience, as our mortality, and our fear of and dependence on time are an essential and defining aspect of our humanity.
In our poem, after reflecting on the Amish response to an event that time has made irrevocable, the speaker recalls an earlier desire to be Amish, “like in books.” This suggests an idealization, a symptom of the modern wish to make time the captive of our desires, or of a romantic notion to escape the bounds of time altogether, “to make time stop.” But is this the response of the Amish? Is their silence a sort of rebellious sullenness at an event that disrupts their lives and is outside of their control, or is it merely a clichéd passive acceptance?
But one man must have turned his wide-brimmed hat
Over and over slowly in his hands.
In this simple yet deliberate gesture, the man expresses the contradictory reaction to the fire and to all events which are beyond our control, and binds them together into a harmonious way of living. The gesture bespeaks grief and nervous discomfort, yet it is performed gently, slowly, without anger, almost meditatively. One can imagine the farmer comforting his family that night, reminding them that God turns their lives as gently and as slowly, yet with a steady speed certain to bring them at last to completion, in His omnipotent hands.
Time cannot be stopped, that much is agreed upon by the opposing ways of viewing it. But the difference lies in the means of one’s conveyance through it. The English poet Robert Graves gives us a modern’s impression of one’s movement through time, in the language of antiquity:
Is it of… the Zodiac [you tell] and how slow it turns
Below the boreal Crown,
Prison of all true Kings that ever reigned?
…So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never-altered circuit of his fate.
The tone of those lines is one which might be taken by that ominous car of the future in our poem, or by its driver. It is a tone of bitter, melancholy resentment of an impersonal cosmos which has made destiny captive to its whims. The speaker is aware of a dangerous future, a future that threatens to run her down before she has learned to keep pace with it, but perhaps of more concern is that it is her own future that she fears. She fears becoming yet another reckless driver on Time’s roadways, and moreover she fears being compelled to move along them at all. The image of the untrustworthy car is an image of the arrogance of speed, the illusion of control; and in the context of the contrast to the Amish lifestyle, an image of the disconnect and alienation suffered by a modern society whose center not only does not hold, but does not exist. The Amish do not own cars, but not because they have a particular prejudice against technology. They simply are not willing to sacrifice their close-knit communities and agrarian lifestyle for perceived convenience. It is only in case of extreme necessity that they would wish to be conveyed beyond a distance attainable by horse, which by default keeps them close to their home community.
The car of the future—whether it be the speaker’s own future or the impersonal future which presses on her—offers only a limited vision of how one may relate to one’s movement through time. It could be a passive experience, in which one takes the role of passenger and allows oneself to be pushed along, or it could be an aggressive but ultimately foolish response, in which one sees oneself as the driver, bucking the idea of an “unalterable circuit,” but finding in the end that moments have been rushed past and the destination is still the same. Our speaker seems caught between these responses; she wants to stop time, to neither drive nor to ride, thus putting herself in a position to be run over by the impending future. Her tactic, fear, is a negative force and can do nothing to halt time, nor can it properly dispose her to moving into her future with grace.
The revelation first comes with the obvious realization that time cannot be stopped. But it is not just for her realization of this truth that the speaker modifies her prayer. She now prays, “Time, not too fast.” This is both a petition and a statement. At the very moment she asks for Time to slow what she perceives as a headlong rush into the future, she not only realizes that she cannot help but move along with it, but that it is in fact she who determines the pace. If she must step into time and carry herself forward, then she prays that it might be at the humane pace of breathing creatures, of a horse, or of her own two feet.
Robert Graves’s lines are a truism both from the perspective of the alienated man who rages against his “prison” being written into the swing of the zodiac, and from that of a simple, community-oriented man who has helped to build a schoolhouse only to watch it burn. It is perhaps easy to understand the first perspective; it is infantile and we can empathize with that. The second is more complex. Again, we should not be tempted into assuming passivism, but rather understand that it is an expression of the irony or even the paradox of our relationship with time. We are mortal, yet we look beyond our temporal setting for meaning and feel an affinity for eternity.
We therefore are at the mercy of the march of time, but can choose to keep step with it and even to set the pace; and moreover we are able to move beyond its rhythm in moments of Kairos, in which memory and desire serve to lift the present moment into the timeless realm of the universal. The man revolving his hat in his hands while watching the fire consume the schoolhouse (a good metaphor for his world) silently echoes the truth he observes; that time comes and takes us all with it, but we can take it in our hands and turn it as it turns, and in so doing participate in it and are freed from servitude to it by assenting to the command that first caused it to move.
One may wonder why the poet also prays for flames. Why are they needed? Fire brings completion, perhaps of something we cannot or will not complete on our own. Fire is part of the symbolism of the cycle of life; it brings death, and from it, life. The speaker prays for “flames, deliberate, complete.” Thoughtful, slow-burning, thoroughly consuming flames. Flames that bring an end to one part of the cycle and give rise to the new. She knows that fire will come, whether it be in the twisted wreckage of a burning car, or in the scented and ceremonious flames of a funeral pyre, or in the divinely appointed flames that will baptize the world into its rebirth at the end of time. In all these the fire burns with the same steady intensity; the difference and thus the meaning lies in how it is lit.
When you asked the conductor a minute ago how much farther it would be, he informed you that this train would not get you to the city no matter how long you rode, but that you might as well take it to the end of the line anyway, since you had just passed the last inbound train for an hour and a half. So there’s nothing to do but to fold your hands and accept your fate, locked to the tracks as it is, and see where it takes you.
Nevertheless, it does alarm you that you should have been snatched out of your plans like that, swiftly and without deliberation, as though a careful trap had been laid for you, exactly in the shape of your intended course: the open doors of the train waiting for you when you arrived at the station with nothing to mark what they had in store, offering only a ingenuous display of readiness: “Here we are, sir, at your service,” closing behind you diffidently, without guile.
With one small move, all the possibilities of the evening have collapsed into a single, definite fact: you are going to Fox Grove (which to you is nowhere) to wait in a train station (which is nothing to anyone but the end of the line).
And thank goodness for it. Along with all the unforeseeable courses the evening might have taken, all your anxieties and uncertainties have been dispelled. You’ll have to call Everett and tell him not to wait for you, but you won’t have to worry about how to greet him to his face, what to say to him, or how early you could reasonably excuse yourself. At least now you know what you’re in for.
But isn’t it a little inhuman to be so pleased at the collapse of the prospect of greeting and passing time with a dear friend? It’s not that you don’t like him; on the contrary, you have a great admiration and affection for him. But he does have a peculiar way of paying you such attention that you wonder whether there’s anything in your presence worth noticing, and doubt the honesty of everything you say or do; are you presenting the real you? and can Everett tell?
The train’s steady racket covers every other sound with layer upon layer of distance. The conductor’s announcement of the next stop is dark and muffled, and as the man sitting below your roost on the second level of the train car folds his newspaper, the rustle comes to you like reflected light sluggishly seeping from the bottom of lake. The train slows, and you watch the man staggering mutely out of the moving car as he puts on his coat and hat. As the car door opens, a thought slides open in your mind: you might step off here yourself, and explore while you wait for the next train, perhaps even walk home. It must be far now, but why should that stop you? The evening is lost in any case; why not pass it adventurously?
An excitement rushes from your feet, over your knees, through your thighs, up your back, out through your head, and leaves you. You stay on the train. The stops and starts are so softly punctuated with no one getting in or out of your car, that you hardly notice them. The unbroken movements of ostinato progression between stops at first set you on edge. Your troubled mind wants to continue arguing with itself, but has to work hard to keep above that pulsing, droning noise. At last, having been distracted by annoyance for several minutes, it forgets what it was arguing about and settles down somewhere beneath a thoughtless mental stratum. The rest of the ride is a long and somnolent passage in which nothing happens, like a conceptual poem composed entirely of the results of parsing a manual of agricultural statistics. (“Noun participle preposition article noun: numeral / Noun participle preposition article adjective noun: numeral,” etc.)
The train stops, this time completely. This must be Fox Grove. You look outside and see a small station, but you can’t make out the sign identifying it, so to be on the safe side, you wait for the conductor to reappear in your car and confirm that this is the end of the line before getting off.
On the far end of the station parking lot, empty but for a dead-looking Ford Taurus with no windshield, stands a payphone. As you cross, you try not to notice how dark it is, or how no one could see the pay phone from inside the station (even if there is anyone in there). But you cross the lot without incident, dial Everett’s cell number, and drop all the coins you have in your pocket into the slot.
A friendly disjointed voice asks you politely to “please…deposit…ten…cents.” You double check your pockets, your wallet, and your pockets again, but all you have are a couple of pennies and twenty-eight dollars in bills. Well, shoot. Now you won’t even be able to talk to Everett.
You stand by the phone for a minute trying to discern the tone of that last thought. Meanwhile, you’re getting cold and a little nervous about the quiet, dense shadows populating the thicket of maples contiguous with this side of the lot. You turn your eyes back to the shelter of the station. Maybe someone inside has change for a dollar.
You step into the fluorescent-lit room and immediately wish you were still outside. There are two people in here, neither of whom you want to ask for change: on a bench along the opposite wall is a long-haired, scruffy man with a thick brown mustache and an old flannel jacket, who seems to be asleep; on a chair immediately to your left, unmoved by your arrival, sits a tanned and skinny man, who is busy demonstrating that it is possible to hold a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon even if you are missing three and a half fingers on each hand. At his feet are two plastic six-pack necks, one empty, the other still holding two more beers.
It wouldn’t be prudent to affront these individuals by walking out again upon seeing them, so you rush over to the corner farthest from both of them, across from the sleeping man, and sit down.
You miss being on the train. You try to recover your monotony-induced state of nirvana by sinking under the buzz of the fluorescent lights and counting the bricks in the opposite wall. But every time you approach the proper tedium, you remember that you are surrounded by decrepit freaks, and have to start over. In the midst of your fourth attempt, a fly lands on the sleeper’s nose. He twitches and swats the air in front of his face, provoking the drinker to laugh a throat-raking laugh, which in turn more thoroughly awakens the sleeper, who raises his head and blinks twice, frowning back at the disturber of his slumber, then turns to you, who suddenly realize that you have been staring, caught in the spectacle. You turn your gaze quickly back to the wall, but it is evidently too late; once the long-haired man has raised himself up and stretched out, he ambles in your direction, takes a stand a foot in front of you and calls out, yawningly, “Airridge any?” This is an extremely witty thing for him to say, judging by his fellow’s explosive reaction, more frighteningly wheezy than his first burst of laughter.
After struggling briefly to come up with the proper form of address for an inarticulate vagrant, you settle for, “What did you say?”
“Yarefidgennious?” He repeats obligingly.
“Am I… fidgennious?”
Now you are really at a loss for manners. Having already heard his query three times without coming any closer to apprehending its content, you begin to doubt whether yet another repetition would be acceptable; rather than annoying and insulting the man by making him ask it yet again, you consider how you might best pretend to have understood. You are just getting to like the idea of “It depends on the situation,” when the finger-poor drinker, his laughter having subsided, creakily elucidates, “Dale just said, ‘Ya…ever…pitch…pennies?’”
“Pitch pennies,” You repeat blankly.
“Hitch bennies!” Dale declares enthusiastically, and somewhat more distinctly, as though having finally succeeded in teaching you to enunciate it properly.
Relieved to learn that you can now answer the question, you reply, “What does that mean?”
Too late, you realize the folly of answering with another question. Now this uncomfortable conversation is destined to continue until you come to comprehend the meaning of “pitching pennies,” whereas you might have ended it decisively with a simple, “No and I don’t care to, thanks.”
Dale gets up and crosses to the middle of the room, fumbling in his pockets. You can guess from his gait and his breath (which you smell even at this distance) what happened to the other nine beers.
“C’mere,” he directs you.
You don’t actually want to get any closer to Dale, but you don’t see what else you can do now that you have so recklessly expressed an interest in pitching pennies, so you get up and meet him in the middle of the room. Having got you there, however, he seems now to forget your presence, he is so preoccupied with searching his pockets. He has only four of them, three on his pants, and a breast pocket on his jacket, and all appear to be empty, so it shouldn’t take long, but he has already been at it for a full minute.
You’re thinking about sitting down again until he sorts it out when he calls to his comrade, “Hey, Vern, ya otny bennies?”
You remember that you have a couple yourself, but you don’t want to draw any attention to your wallet, so you let Vern consult his accounts. He puts down his penultimate beer, leans to one side, reaches into his back pocket, and miraculously produces a small handful of coins, which he then sifts through with his left half-thumb.
“No, Dale, I got nickels,” he rasps.
“Thall do,” Dale accedes. He takes two nickels from Vern and hands one of them to you. “O, kay,” he begins with a tutelary air, “Now just tothsa benny gensa wall.” He scoops his arm towards the wall to demonstrate a “tothsa.” “Ntry to lannit axlo…as close to the wall…” He breaks off here, as though unsure how to finish, and settles for showing you the “tothsa” again. Finally, he stops and looks at you expectantly.
Anxious to get this over with, you give the nickel a healthy underhand throw towards the wall. It hits low, bounces off and rolls a few feet, then tumbles to a stop.
“Good!” Dale praises you. “Sgotterit the wall, see?” He pitches his nickel in turn. It arcs high and hits a little lower than yours and rolls back softly, stopping a good foot closer than yours.
“See at?” He says earnestly, pointing to his successful pitch. “Ats howiz done!”
He stumbles over to the nickels, picks them up and brings them back for another round.
This time, you toss a little more lightly, trying to imitate the high arc of Dale. It turns out well enough. Your nickel rolls pretty far but its course doubles back and rolls a foot toward the wall before the nickel is ready to settle down. It could have been better, but you think you’re getting the hang of this. It’s a matter of throwing only slightly too far, as though aiming to place your coin firmly just on the other side of the wall.
Dale’s nickel is not so happily thrown. It bounces hard and rolls well past yours.
“Eh,” he sighs, “Ya won thissum.”
You’ve been waiting a long time for an occasion to say to someone, “So the circle is complete,” and now that it has arrived, you can’t help yourself, and deliver the line with spirited irony.
“Huh?” Dale answers.
“Star Wars,” you explain. “I’m Darth Vader, the student, you’re Obi-Wan, the master, the nickels are light sabers…” He doesn’t seem to be grasping the beauty of the analogy. “Never mind,” you say, “You want to play again?”
He does, and indicates his enthusiasm by collecting the nickels and pressing one back into your waiting palm. “Furr back this time,” he insists, and you step with him a few floor tiles further from the wall. This move puts Vern back into your line of sight. He is grinning like a circus clown, his yellow teeth wide apart.
Better focus on the game. Taking careful aim, you pitch and place the nickel within a foot of the wall. Dale stares at it with admiring concentration, takes a deep breath, he pitches sloppily; his penny hits the ground, rolls past yours, and stops without even touching the wall. Vern slaps his leg and guffaws until his throat can’t bear it and he breaks down coughing.
“All show you!” Dale cries as Vern recovers himself and starts in on his last beer, his eyes gleaming. Turning back to you, Dale says, “Awrighten, ducky lucky, less pussom money onnissum.”
So he’s been sand-bagging you! You weigh the pros and cons of gambling with a hostile drunken hustler without a benny to his name and decide to decline. “Maybe later,” you answer. “Let’s just play for fun.”
You play another round. This time, Dale’s penny hits the wall flat and lands without rolling, an inch or two from the wall, beating your pitch by at least a foot. He stands, beaming stupidly, puts his hands in his pockets, and closes his eyes.
He doesn’t seem to want to play again, but he’s not sitting down, so you don’t feel like you can, either. You try to make some conversation: “So are both of you guys in here waiting for the train, too?”
Dale’s eyes pop open and for a second his face twists like an angry wind, then relaxes into a cynical frown, and he laughs derisively. “Waifatinr train?” He says. “Thass good, Waifortina train. Iss good uh Vern?” Vern laughs, too, a little, taking it easy after his recent collapse. “Waitin’…for…the…train,” Dale says again, more carefully. His face softens. Suddenly, he looks human; the creases in his brow, the dirty stubble on his neck, the torn flannel jacket, all go to make a testament to the dignity of suffering. His eyes well up and a tear spills out of the corner of his left eye.
You want to comfort him, but you’ve never comforted anyone before. You’ve seen it done a few times. You’ve seen people give comfort by hugging, by holding hands, by wiping away tears, but these approaches are obviously prevented by the protocols governing contact with strangers. You could just say something, but you sense that your comfortable bourgeois existence leaves you ill equipped to speak to real trouble. You look to Vern, but his gaze is down on the floor, and he shakes his head slowly.
So it’s up to you. After a few moments’ deliberation, you decide that the middle way is to pat Dale on the back a couple of times and tell him, “Hey, now,” or some equally meaningless primal syllables. But before you can reach out to do so, the door opens behind you. You turn and see a boy, not older than fourteen, his face and fingers red with the cold. He is wearing a blue bicycle helmet, which he now unclasps and deposits in the yellow nylon messenger bag hanging at his side. He looks from you to Vern to Dale, nervously, then takes a couple of steps further in. Suddenly, Vern gets up and stands behind the boy, as though blocking his exit. Dale looks up at the boy, his face callous again and his gaze muddy.
You’re having trouble keeping up with the mood swings in this room. A minute ago, it was almost jolly, then suddenly it was awkwardly tender, and—now what? These two bums you’ve gotten so cozy with are going to mug this poor kid? The only thread holding this whole encounter together is that you’ve been unprepared for every step of the way.
Dale says to the boy, slowly, concentrating hard to hold himself steady, “Help me out tonight, jussa coupla bucks, uh?”
The kid looks at you, then back at Dale. His eyes are wide and skittery. He seems frightened. But he answers firmly, “No, I can’t give you money.”
Dale steps in closer, right up in the boy’s space, and looks down at him menacingly. “C’mon,” he insists. “Fie dollas.”
Oh, man, this is not good. If he lays a hand on that boy, you’ve got to do something.
“No,” the boy says, shaking a little now but just as definite.
Dale shoves him by his right shoulder. Vern pushes him forward again. Oh man. You’ve got to do something. Oh man.
“Ya do your homork, Charlie?” Dale demands.
Yeah,” says the boy, “I’ve done it.” Vern grins coolly and leans back against the door. Dale pats the boy affectionately on the shoulder.
“Thatta boy,” he says, “Thatta boy. Sreally now, you gossommin for yer ol man, right?”
This is too much.
“No, Dad,” Charlie says plainly. “I’ve got nothing. But the hotel down the street has a room for you. I already paid. A bed for you too, Vern,” he adds, turning, “If you help with Dad.” Vern nods and moves to Dale’s side. Charlie looks to you apologetically, then leads Dale and Vern outside. Before he lets Vern pull him out, however, Dale turns to you, takes your hand in his, and says, shakily, his eyes unfocused and glassy, “Thanks.”
You watch them depart in procession, Charlie holding his little Huffy bicycle, his incontinent father leaning on Vern, until they turn a corner a few blocks away. You sit down again in the same corner as before, and try to sort out what just happened, but the events of the evening are like the scattered contents of a tightly-packed toolbox, that won’t all fit back in again. Most of all, you can’t make out what it is that Dale wanted to thank you for.
You check your watch. Still forty minutes till the train leaves. After that excitement, the thought of waiting half an hour alone just to get back on the damned train disgusts you. But you have no choice. You’ll have to bear it. You look up to the ceiling, steeling yourself with a deep breath, then look down again, heaving a sigh of resignation.
Before your breath is spent, however, your gaze falls on a silver gleam near the wall. The nickels! A warm sense of possibility rushes into your heart, and you spring up to gather the fallen currency.
Everett’s voice, when he picks up and hears you, is candid but not annoyed: “Where the hell are you?”
You explain the circumstances of your truancy, to Everett’s amusement, and promise to recount the details of your experience whenever you next meet (thinking as you say it that this might not be for days, or weeks).
“How about in an hour?” Everett suggests. “I could meet you when you get back to your station and give you a ride home.”
You surprise yourself by saying, “Sure, and you could just crash on my couch for the night if you want.”
Everett agrees, says “See you then,” and the expired evening changes shape. It’s late, it’s colder than ever, and the abandoned Taurus lingers on imposing its eyeless, faceless stamp on the world, pronouncing in rust and dereliction the vanity of all things. But overhead you can see a few stars dimly, and between them no pitiless blank but a field of dark hope, beneath which numberless tokens of light must lie buried, awaiting your searching, patient hands.
I gave my dad a whiskey flask for Christmas.
He laughed. He’s never had a taste for whiskey.
But because I gave it to him, he treasured it.
He brought it to work and showed it off,
trying to hide the proud pucker of his smile.
It had my school crest on it.
When I was small, I would be jealous of
my cousin (a grown-up), smoking spicy cigars and drinking
on the porch with my dad, under thick, warm light
decanting through the tree trunk silhouettes.
They would talk, and nod genially toward the window
at the sight of me.
He favors wine, but when I come home he pours me
a tumbler of Scotch—smooth, slow, golden—
as he asks me what I am thinking. I sip, and answer
in excruciating detail. And I pretend it is
the harsh heat of the whiskey making me choke,
as I drink with my dad.
Original bio from the Spring 2015 edition:
Therese Eby is not a selkie. She might, however, be a Rhine Maiden.
“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,
let no need for a guide on your ship trouble you; only
set your mast pole and spread the white sails upon it,
and sit still, and let the blast of the North Wind carry you.”
—Odyssey 10, 504-507
The boards I cut and planed and joined together
press into my back.
The white sail hangs and shudders in the dark—
as when a gallows body,
touched by moonlight witcheries of wind
is seen to stir again,
wheezes, and faintly gleams.
My eye drifts toward the manless rudder,
leaning, righting itself … once more to lean
into the all-enravelling eddies
of Ocean’s endless stream.
Above, the stars shift left and right
to whispered musics of the untuned breeze;
they make the movements of a Maenad chorus—
fitfully dancing, half dancing fitfully still—
but the god is no longer in them.
In dreams the goddess hovers over me,
and whispers in my ear,
laughing lightly, mocking me,
“Where now, O man of devices?
Navigator, mind like Zeus?”
For I am craftless now,
a useless burden on the well made wood.
All round me, Ocean flows into itself,
and darkness melts into darkness.
The images of men I never missed
return and drift around me, catch my eye.
Should I be sorry, angry, sad for them?
I do not know what they can want from me,
or I can owe to them.
Neither do they.
Our glances disengage, and they flit by.
That laughing voice again,
“Where now, O man of devices?”
When every destination has been won,
or lost, is there still somewhere
you can only get to by not trying?
A land whose absence warps the squares of maps,
and turns the compass dizzy with distraction?
I dream that someone, something waits for me
in the immortal night. My hairs stand up.
Is it the beast that always stalks
the fringes of my vision, and my dreams,
waiting for its cue to rip me up?
Is it Achilles, smiling grimly, sadly—
I have seen him smile and pause like that—
before he moves to take another’s life?
I do not know.
I do not know what would be right,
if right and wrong come into it at all.
I dream of every end but, more and more,
one dream keeps on returning:
I seem about to enter
the welcome home of stranger-arms,
a spousal, unforeknowable embrace
of one delaying long, and long awaited.
What an appetite! Moonbelly would have eaten everything—earth, sky, ocean, stars, lakes, comets—swallowed all of it, given a lifetime long enough.
That’s how awfully violent, hopeless love afflicted him: lifelong love as makes men empty, turns terrestrial hearts to an alien element.
Food’s the stuff when you’re hungry, but lovers’ stomachs want thicker fare: stones, mortar, concrete, iron—all inedible objects are lovers’ aliment.
So they starve, so what’s new? Isn’t that the oft-repeated and age-old theme of lays, odes, sonnet cycles, ghazals, and hasn’t that song been sung enough?
Here’s the difference: Moonbelly’s hunger wasn’t metaphor—no pale mime of real gut hunger. No, he wanted the world in his stomach, bodily.
Having once heard Veronica singing, seen the way that her songs would load her rash, soft, smile with echoes, suddenly sharpening every entity,
nothing else but to harbor the whole—which saturated with those rich strains, now ran him through with aching emptiness, longing of boundless quantity—
could have satisfied Moonbelly’s craving, quelled his ravening. Next best was a piecemeal banquet, downing sequently one then another victual.
He ate the nearest things first: several thousand meals, compacted in one night’s dining, was what his immediate prospect amounted to: broiled asparagus,
steak and french fried potatoes was what he’d made for dinner, but could not sate him: he had yet to eat his plate, and the place-mat and table under it.
Still unsatisfied, Moonbelly stood with cracked alacrity, ate his chair and tore his dining room to pieces and—taking no time to ponder it—
threw it down, in a frenzy of biting chewing, swallowing. Next day, though he was still hungry, scads of sodium bicarb and foul saxifragous
oils were all he could think of consuming—things conducive to sound digestion. But no good. It turned out Moonbelly’s gastric constriction called for a
stronger treatment. He roamed in a bloated craze, partaking of each thing which he thought might have medicinal properties: boiled aconitum, milk thistle,
dandelions, banana peel extract, mercury by the fistful, bacta, birch bark, frogs, ammonia, gerin oil, terrigen crystals, darthisol,
uncut ginger root, buckets of fresh volcanic ash—
he ate all these, but ate not least the acrimonious gum of the laurus camphora.
All the same, the unbearable constipation, dyspepsia, heartburn, retching, bloat, aches, gas, and reflux kept him as sick as a whole infirmary.
Still, his hunger had nothing abated. Now—no hope in his song-wrecked heart of eased pain, nor contentment—at random Moonbelly stuffed his orifice.
Almost half of the town he had swallowed whole, or chewed, or somewhat nipped before Moonbelly’s mad campaign could be stopped, and he exiled, shorn of his
access to his Veronica. Still, if music be, as they say, love’s food, yet this love needed no more sustenance than the remotest memory—
though, of course, if its food is the fruit of geological stock, Moonbelly had his fill: for now his diet was nothing but stones. A carat or
two at first was a mouthful, but soon his intake stoutened.
Now in those days, a blood ore forest covered untold expanses of country, whence if it
can be true what was said of it, men of iron spirit in times long past had come, intent on taking hold of the world, but a fateful deficit,
not of might, but of libido, cut their conquest short—for their empire, though successful, fell in time for want of an heir to become its heritor.
There stood columns or trunks of a crimson hue, so high that a man might wonder if their roots (or their foundations) were sunk into earth or firmament.
Thither Moonbelly’s way was inclined, as though magnetically drawn; five hundred miles at least he had to travel, until the blood-red horizoning
thickness split into towering pieces, looming suddenly each by each and cast rock-hard obscurity over Moonbelly’s rabid reasoning.
Huge with weeks of unceasing intemperate gorging, swaying now towards these piles of doom-frought stone, he eyed them just as a conqueror surveys his armament.
Now I’ll tell you the ending: our hero knocked one over on his way in—his girth outstripped his inner sense of his body’s extension. Thousands of
pillars toppled like tenpins, and pitched in all directions—our man had no recourse but stretching out his jaws as he never had done and swallowing
whole each copious morsel of this his most cacophonous meal. Stones into his mouth slammed hard—he gulped, his cheeks and his belly aflare and billowing.
Still, the forest was tumbling around him—fallen columns were heaped up higher with each passing moment. Finally, one of these pillars, propped on a
pile behind it that served as a fulcrum, see-sawed up, and it caught Moonbelly by both legs and catapulted him skyward and into orbit.
He flies there even today, and at times stoops low and blood-red, and draws out from the earth faint ghosts of his Veronica’s song with his gluttonous gravity.