Midnight Karaoke at the Donors Ball
Excuse me, Madam President, but did you say
violence or violins? I’m afraid
I’ve contracted that disease that makes you walk
around Wal-Mart hugging every stranger you meet
like someone beautiful has just died.
They tell me after our deaths turn 50
they become public domain and anyone is free
to knit a lovely joke from them, and this
submerges me in a tank of radical comfort.
This drags the teenage werewolf from my chest
and shaves it on the sidewalk. Your opponent’s
fond of saying, I’ve been protecting this village
from cannibals so long, I get my pie and coffee
for free in the mornings, but his boasts
are like price tags pasted over knife wounds.
When he declares, To publically dismiss
the banjo is to publically dismiss God,
it’s a bumper sticker philosophy at best.
Madam President, we’ve been out here beyond
the camera’s gaze, anticipating a rainstorm,
draping Hefty bags over headstones. While
the others were naming their children
after honky-tonk martyrs and searching
for the real-world equivalent of cutting down
the nets, we were authoring a practical solution
involving people disguised as monsters
disguised as people. I know it’s been said,
but I’ll say it again: We are Americans,
not American’ts, so zip up the back
of my costume and I’ll zip up yours.
Then we drove over to the weekend workshop
on the lawn behind the Bible College
where a man with a newborn phoenix tattooed on his calf
taught us to construct a little kayak from our grief.
I painted my bereft craft navy with a constellation
of canary yellow stars. I named it Marsha
after a girl whose bare-knuckle bout with bulimia
I’d fallen in love with the night before in a made-for-TV movie.
J.T. played Bobby Vinton on the drive over to the river.
The way the violin wailed into the pillow pulled over its face
made me feel like a homesick infantryman carted
through the smoke between two bunkers in a wheelbarrow.
Our guide’s lecture on the river’s tendency to speak
of itself in the third person threw a new gravity
over our kayak-launching. Each booming revelation
was punctuated by the click of a disposable camera.
We paddled with the nervous purpose of virgin
getaway drivers for the better part of the day.
The sun cursed through chipped teeth and our bare shoulders
burned like the gas-soaked rafters of a Norwegian chapel.
We were within sight of the island when J.T. went under,
his lack of thrashing fooling even the veterans. An old sweatshirt
took the place of his body at the campfire eulogy where our guide
stood with his cap in one hand and a bottle in the other.
He said that all things were sinking, but at a uniform rate
that prevented anyone from truly noticing the sinking.
Even we were sinking, riding the very earth we stood upon
ever downward, but this should not resign us to gracelessness.
Take this man, for instance, he said, hoisting the sweatshirt
like a lantern above our heads. Take this brave, brave soul.
Can you think of anything more beautiful than a man
who would rather drown than admit he can’t swim?
Fuck if I know. Maybe Jacob was right
and we’re just children, cross-legged and slack-jawed
before a television set, convinced that the villains
in those old westerns never bled after being shot
because blood hadn’t been invented yet.
Or maybe I misheard completely and we’re really
a gathering of reunited bandmates on a stage full
of plastic flowers, tethered to IV poles,
lip-syncing the hits of a sun-bleached yesteryear.
It’s so hard to tell. The televangelist faces
the camera to say that each step out the door
is a little defenestration, that the body is 60% water
and 40% elevator music. I turn the channel
and the news team has managed to snake a mic
into a collapsed mine shaft, capturing the way
the lone survivor sings to himself, his voice wavering
as if held at gunpoint beneath the earth’s surface.
Listening to it feels like being locked in a coat closet,
reading a stranger’s mail by flashlight. Progress
has been slow, like digging a grave on the moon
begins one letter. It is clear now that the lake froze
around me some time ago and the only swimming
I have done since has been in my head ends another.
I am reminded of the classic belief that words
are nothing more than plastic fowl drifting about
a murky pond, and I think of the kids who gather
on the bank to hurl stones at them, connecting
with thuds like idiot prayers. When the time comes,
I want my bed wheeled out to the hill above the pond.
I want to look out over the saints scooping rocks
from the muck and say, “Tell the actor playing me
to improvise something worth remembering here.”
Watching the DVD extras to Steve McQueen’s Shame
at Alex’s house –
the part where Fassbender refers to his character,
a New York City advertising executive
with an immaculate upscale apartment
and nagging sweet tooth for high-end call girls,
as “middle class” –
I couldn’t help feeling like a 15th century serf
dumbstruck at his plough
by the sudden appearance of a Learjet
puncturing the English sky.
This morning the landlord’s outstretched corpse
was a sled that I climbed atop, gripping the loose arms
as I descended into the valley of the yarn-spinners.
The way they improvised new words for optimism
as they dug with their hands for children in the snow banks
was just like in the documentary. Feral youths
were hoisted from the white by their scrawny limbs
and assigned roles in the play. One boy with hair
like speaker wire was the token troubadour, perched
in the top of a pine for most of the production.
Another was appointed village exorcist and ordered
to knock him from the tree with a gilded rod
in the fourth act. I was Florence Nightingale.
I dressed each new wound with a strip of my t-shirt
and strummed songs of healing on my ukulele.
I returned from the liquor store with benevolence
like a small mammal burrowed in my chest
and a paper bag tucked under each arm. They broke
into a song about the spontaneous replacement
of cemeteries with vegetable gardens across America
as I rested in the light that spilled from their faces,
writing a letter to my sister in Kentucky. I still
had no idea what war it was they were fighting,
but I knew they were winning because of me.