The Difference that Clouds Make
I haven’t showered for a week,
so in paper slippers I trek
half a mile to the bathhouse
and find an armless, legless man
shelved on a slippery tile ledge.
He appears asleep or dead,
so I step into the steamy rush
and scour myself silly and pink.
When I step out, the man’s gray lips
wrestle as he tries to explain.
Combing my hair produces
bursts of electrostatic sparks.
Toweling my awkward torso
requires so much effort I fail
to focus on the man’s whispers,
although I catch some phrases
like green is the night and men
in helmets borne on steel. Maybe
I should recognize the source
of these random quotations;
but although limbless the man
now waves ghostly arms and stands
on smoky full-length trousers.
Maybe he had simply folded
himself unnaturally compact.
Maybe he has regenerated
his limbs in the moist fungal air.
Maybe his spirit has assumed
the role his body used to play.
He mutters, the difference that clouds
make over a town. I shake
his misty ghost-hand to encourage
his attempt to materialize.
He almost musters a smile.
Then bulked in my terry bathrobe
I withdraw, scraping my slippers
along the gravel path outside,
back to my cabin where I pose
legless and armless in a mirror
that has never flattered me
and doesn’t recall my name.
A burnt-out apartment block
overlooks the bicyclist crushed
by a big truck at the corner
of Beacon. A crowd gathers,
but I dodge down the alley,
admiring the antique brickwork,
and emerge into dappled gray
with a view of glass skyscrapers
grinning with brutalist power.
I want to be urban enough
to accept the grid-plan of streets
as a natural excrescence.
I want the fatal traffic to stall
long enough for me to escape
into the lobby of the building
where your acolytes worship
with legally approved gestures
and conscience clear as isinglass.
You won’t receive me in person,
but inflamed by that accident,
which I witnessed in full color,
I’m ripe enough to render blue
and black and red and all shades
between, like a painter obsessed
with a bowl of rotting fruit.
You’ll read about the bicyclist
and respond in the cacophony
of tones I’ve willed you. But
that muck of prismatic angst
obscures the ignorance of machines,
the blunt force of skyscrapers,
the cringing of alleys hidden
behind nineteenth-century houses.
You in your secular majesty
perched in an upper-floor office
overlook nothing but a fog
of pearly yellow vapors
most people mistake for residue
of things we’re afraid to say.
You worry that your libido
will detach on hot nights and prowl
for men so addled by crack or speed
they’ll mistake your ghostly excrescence
for the muse of their drug of choice.
You fear that in their attempts
to sexually master vacancies
between themselves and the rainbow
of your presence they’ll employ
organs designed for other use
and destroy themselves in bloodbaths
the police won’t try to explain.
Lightning sizzles in the north.
The river, dammed at its mouth,
reflects skyscrapers lit until dawn.
You lie awake with a volume
of Tolstoy, hoping your libido
will return without that vicious smile
that means it has killed again
without your permission. Later
over breakfast you’ll confer
with a couple of yawning lawyers
who will deny your liability
by claiming that some insanities
shine like pyrites and confuse
even the wariest with fevers
not even Freud himself could tame.
The streets, glossy with last night’s rain,
will greet you with the routine
of traffic, snarl of diesel buses,
and taxis gleaming like lilies.
You’ll hulk in your office and deploy
functionaries to the world’s end,
snuffling through useless memos
like a hound after truffles;
and when gasping and drooling
your libido returns you’ll greet it
with a perfunctory handshake
and no invitation to sit.