The Other Stars
Tripartite schemes were all very well
for the builders who held their blueprints firmly
in hand beforehand. What did it matter
if the two vertical poles didn’t touch, seemed so
far apart, in fact, that no one who visited the site
could believe the architect’s arrogant babble?
Before they knew it, he’d bridged the two poles with a plank.
I have hidden under these structures of
synthetic comfort when the sky was
overcast. I have even hired a claque of
unemployed actors to stand there with me. But speaking
for myself, I find their tentlike charm diminishing.
Over on the next hill is a line of poker-faced upright slabs,
their bases deep in the dirt, their function something else entirely.
I keep seeking this pleasure-giving eye mote;
you fill your pew and my view with
golden uncontrollable emanation
and the music surges in response,
a coded story of hope and disappointment
decipherable to the few. Is it wrong
to be overheated here, or not to have left my coat at the entrance?
The only crime would be not to swoon,
to see and ignore you, or brand you a brother
in spotless devotion. Beneath the bleeding windows
hearts must have heft, masses of skin become
human tremors, to feel the force of the organ.
On its own the rite is a starchy obligation;
add intrigue and the altar ripples and ripples.
Over the hub of the hill, a solid wall of
silver leaves. Underfoot, soil without
burrows. Blanketing soil and leaves, a scrim of
hushed and unpunctured blue. Then all of a sudden,
rumors of something about to happen; the night
restless with its own unkeepable secrets,
the very air strained and achingly electric.
Because you are not here, nighttime behaves
this way, calling for terms I’d long since put away:
susurration, intrigue, reverberant. It is only
in your magnanimous absence that stony surroundings
can sing your praises so; I curse even as I gape
to know that their raving requires your being
anywhere else. The evening hums in compensation.
His beak is open as if in mid-worm or
mid-sentence, his feet impressively sturdy as they
straddle the street. What gives him away,
though, is the magenta pool spreading rapidly
under this otherwise unruffled stomach.
Something ended this bird so suddenly that
he never had time to strike a normal death pose.
It would be overdone and untrue
to say I am the bird, to paint myself in similar terms
as stunted, irretrievably downed, forever rooted
to unkind ground. It would smack of self-pity.
We are partners instead beneath a general rubric
of doom: an arrow descended and brought
him, startled, to death, me screamingly to life.
I loved a statue and watered it daily.
Sooner or later it softened and let me
break a vital part of it off;
with my hard-won prize in my pocket
I explored the streets with a secret,
but before long the plundered piece was
dust in my hands, and painful to look at.
Now another effigy makes me
shudder at its criminal threshold.
More than ever I entertain a
shameless urge to steal or caress it,
but the facts of history tell me
otherwise: you get what you pray for
and the statue dwindles to rubble.
Although others lack the sharpened knives
to be villains, they do what they can with
blunter instruments. Sparring to kill time,
falling to fisticuffs when eloquence evades them,
they get their day’s entertainment from
instruction manuals bought at auctions; when one
utters his bored “Touché,” a gaggle of fans surround him.
How much deadlier is your collection of
swords with a history, scimitars that glint
even when strung up and inactive. Although I would gladly
lay a whetstone at your door for one blinding night of
thrust-and-parry, you have no need of
anything resembling aid: one twist of your weapon
outstabs the meanest ranks of dullard soldiers.
The avuncular figure with grizzled beard,
the bearer of balm for the stricken and
abandoned, the craggy but spirited sickle-carrier
paces the page of a long-forgotten book of days
and never once frowns. There is no need to:
our days may be numbered, but . . . (and here his eyes
mist over with comforting thoughts of gold and rainbows).
His evil twin wants none of this waiting,
this starry-eyed torpor. Hoping to scare eternity
into submission, he too brandishes a sickle, but
everything goes wrong: he pierces his own leg and must go
on crutches. Before long, he falls into childish fits
of self-pity, proffering sickle and leg to hirelings,
saying “Lop it off, boys, and be quick.”
During the first stages of frenzy, a glut of
meaning descends on nature. As if to spite cynics
who call dirt nothing but dirt, terrific breezes
mere conveyors of pollen, something in the
sufferer’s mind seeks out and finds corroboration
in vast planets and puny insects; all are as prone to
nervous tics, all whirring with badly kept secrets.
Time passes, and the system turn on you. When
all is sacred, nothing is safe: silent lampposts suddenly
pipe up in irresistible colloquy a tone too high, the sky
calls you but does not want your replies, and
water-bound birds decline pronouns in Latin. It is a hotbed
that cannot stand the addition of an offending
presence; it whispers until you are well on your way.
Before you came on the scene and blasted
the image to bits, I thought of love as a
spacious courtroom where evidence was presented
graphically and up front, where deserving plaintiffs
got what they wanted legally, and where
judges beamed beneath picturesque wigs when they saw
happy verdicts amicably arrived at.
These days, law is something to be left at the door
along with galoshes; I spend my nights in sinister
mock-trial, playing all the parts. “Guilty or not?”
booms our pot-bellied, exquisitely bored judge. I answer
for you: “Not, your holiness; this harridan framed me.”
And then I object. And then, hunched over in a corner
of the courtroom, a juror suggests we all go out to lunch.
It was a run of the mill journey until the windows
seemed to have melted; outside the train,
the foliage of early summer received an
instantaneous drenching. Startled, I thought of you
like a lovesick heroine out of an old romance:
“Holding her heart, agawp at nature’s rages,
she would watch the storm from inside, and secretly like it.”
No longer dainty hand-to-the-head, the tragic
meaningful stare out the window. No storm buffets
alone; however stunningly leaves may shudder and
press against the pane, it is a wasted downpour if
nobody comes out soggy. Reaching my stop, I
left my cap and trenchcoat inside a locker
and headed for the wet jungle, hot on your heels.
Our meeting is as stiff as a long-dead thoroughbred.
Like its former coat, we too are glossy and brief;
no frizzy wire springs up that is not
dutifully cropped; our every neigh is strictly
by the book; place us in a lineup of
similarly frozen stallions, and you will not know
one rigor mortis from another and another.
I could endure a salvo of kicking, a brutish uprearing
nag, or a vicious race to the finish, over this
wingless duo of moribund mares. I could even
stand it if you leapt up and started poking holes
in my horse metaphor. Anything other than the way
our speech resembles the two extremes of stunted growth:
gorgeous stillborns, cynical has-beens. This is no time for pleasantry!
I have been dreaming you into the picture
when you bound, unseeing, past me. I tingle
onward with knees of jelly, glad
to be confirmed in my scheming: this walk
is no hopeless ramble, but a perfect way
of seeing and being seen. Fate, sensing
my hopes, obligingly guides you outdoors.
What rankles is the time it takes me
to realize that you are truly, tangibly here.
I have been holding so many secret meetings with you
that this brief encounter, this perfect opportunity
passes, doesn’t register. I see you in retrospect:
you were here, jacket flapping in the noon breeze,
and gone by the time I had presence of mind to grasp it.
Explaining camouflage: a useful way
of suiting yourself to your habitat so that
you steal its features more than it steals yours; in war,
a surefire method of avoiding skirmishes;
in love, a vanishing act that lets you watch the object
of your affection, in whose vagrant eyes
you might as well be a pebble, a flaw on the leaf.
Or, a ruinous self-effacement, brainchild
of the timid, deserving to be trounced
by the rustle in the trees which announces
a vital presence, the force which, storming a fortress,
subjects its tenant to a scrutiny of his most
cherished beliefs, the stunning hybrid
you look at once and cannot get out of your mind.
Hearing you praised is enough to make my
overbaked brain a warpath for feuding
goddesses. Only instead of swords,
their messages clash, each one a model of
what I might do. On one side, Silence,
stately in black, shows no sign of unrest:
her only response to the beaming crowd is to nod.
On the other side in see-through red, a goddess
named Outrage deafens her rival with laudatory
overdrive; next to her encomia both clean
and unclean, the excesses of the laurel-throwers
positively began to pale. It is her manner that
somehow filters out; the walls start to rumble, the floorboards,
feeble at keeping secrets, murmur “Swear it.”
In the handed-down inventory of love’s habits
we find images of lowering: down at the mouth,
down on the knees, prostrate with the shock of the marvelous.
Contact more than shame-faced with the elevated figure
is therefore impossible; hazard more
than a bow, and a trapdoor opens beneath you;
offer a hand, and see love disappear.
There is never a mention of the sudden boost
the run-down ego receives when, flinging a jest
from toad-high levels, it witnesses more than
haughty approval. Nor is it told how the jest
(some minor impromptu line) gets told and retold
in the prolonged wake of the moment; seraphs laugh at it,
trees love it; you see your dullness shine in another’s eyes.
A dream straight out of a textbook: having been
tied up and pointed at the wall by a swarthy, hairy-
faced thug and her henchman, I hear the incredible shouts
as an old babysitter is disemboweled.
Severed organs flap to the floor like pancakes,
but I do not think, “Me next,” fearing instead
that it will fall on me to clean up the horrible mess.
What can I do, on waking, but clench my stomach
in sharp, instinctive need to keep it closed?
In wars between the hirsute and the nurturing, nobody
dares to cheer for the former, though her company, being
moody, is hellishly more alive. Will this day or
the next bring pearly surfaces to the brink of
spilling over? (Somewhere the babysitter screams your name.)
Once a day, you report to the resident loony
for clues leading to the whereabouts of
the author of a love letter you have received.
She is mad but useful, delving as she can into
alternate worlds; and as you grill her from the other
side of the bars, a strange bond begins to form
between you. She seems to have felt as you do.
Little do you know that this sibyl is also a relentless
self-promoter. She ladles out counsel (“You can tell
she wants to be tracked down”) and misinformation
(“I think I know where she lives”) like a watery broth
that keeps you coming back for the meaty pay-off
at the bottom. All this you realize and tolerate,
never suspecting that she’s the one you want.
When you are within shouting distance it is
no matter, or next to none, what you say or
whether we speak at all. It is enough
to see, and covertly to love, your bright array of
colorful traits. They are no sooner parceled out than
stored up, secret accounts to be gone over until
the whole single-spaced ledger is memorized.
But when you leave, ledgers cannot contain you;
time passes and the beloved blurs, the riotous gestures
faded in substance, though not in force. I cannot hear
your voice if I try; and what do I do when
a free-floating affection outraces its
visible target? From your splendid outpost
that dazzles merely by being yours, send photos.
Abroad, you are a mass of extra shadow
falling on all you see. On its own a square
is stiff and formidable; walk in it and
the arches tremble, the smells from the canal
soften and linger. The red of the hills
at evening is fit for a postcard home, until
you step in the picture—and hand it back to the masters.
It is straight out of a shoddy French novel
to squeeze the continents into us/them
categories and chapters—mold here, fruit there,
stubble in places and wheat in others. Think me less
a philistine when I say how little the steps
of the journey frame you. It is you, torchbearer to
shrouded lands, who flood them with living color.
When I call you to mind, you respond sluggishly
if at all. It is as if, being busy, you send
a very expensive mannequin in your stead,
a robot who dresses and walks like you but
cannot capture your puzzling essence. Memory
loves paradox: the more I require a stand-in,
the looser the seams, the phonier the puppet.
But I do not know this until the unexpected happens.
Sifting my horde of jewels and praising their cut,
I come upon a diamond that puts them to shame;
catching a glimpse of familiar patterns of color
in the street, I realize the cheapness of the household dolls
I have been thinking about, relieved that even now,
surprises like this put you fleetingly back in the picture.
It will be objected that in missing you I forfeit
a key to the room reserved for bona fide lovers.
There, an air of resolute calm prevails: it is always
“Our minds are as one, and that is enough,”
or “I saw him last night in the shape of a cloud,”
or, harder still to believe, “Look at the
useful machine I built instead of grieving.”
They may brace themselves and speak of the
salubrious sublime; they may grit their teeth and
bear it; their tourniqueted hearts are as
undone as mine. Away, you are no
homing compass or dove, but a roving, ceaselessly
altering scoundrel. To miss you is to miss
the loot you add to your repository of noises.
Horses, birds, babysitters and jails,
shadows, churches and trains; one would think
you’d sat up with me all night, filling out forms
on what images you preferred, or at least been
consulted in the matter. Failing that, one might suppose you
to have stood on the sidelines in mounting horror
as, one by one, strange pictures of you took flight.
But you stumbled into this mess of blocks
like the bumbling idiot in a screwball
comedy. Center stage contained in cardboard boxes
you tripped over before smiling and
wandering on, in your madcap way, to new scrapes.
Meanwhile, the whirligig thrives in your absence: booted cubes
swoon for their muse, a poltergeist in a bowtie.
A spider loved a bee and, knowing that to trap him
would be to kill him, devised webs just flashy enough
to keep the insect guessing. And soon,
seeing in the spider’s handiwork traces
of his own flower-hopping, the bee came
closer. Arachnid vapors wafted over them as
the bee proposed to die in the spider’s service.
“No!” screamed the latter, tightening up her floss,
and the spurned bee flew on to more accustomed
turf—roses and lilies next to whom (he saw)
the spider was nothing. But she was not so lucky.
The web she’d spun for him got tangled
in her post mortem antenna-flailing, and finally wound
around her neck and choked her. It was the end of the fable.
The more love grows, the bigger its sealed-off
palace becomes, and the more pinched and dark its
stoical keeper. Inside, sun breeds space: a ray
that snuck past the keeper enters a room and lights it—
only now there is not one room but many.
Beams bright as lasers but gentler give away
the safe behind the painting, the corridor under the rug.
If only the keeper, hardened by circumstance,
could learn from this endless illumination
and turn the room inside out. Light would then
seep through leathery skin, giving its secrets away
in a gradually spreading glow, turning skin the orange
of pure beatitude. But there are only two options for the keeper:
to be charbroiled all at once or eternally silent.
Then, any enterprise requiring new clothes
was privately hissed, if openly hailed;
too close to a floral militia thinking as one
were the standard frills, the required rustles,
and thinking myself a beacon among dark ladies,
I called the clothes by their hidden agendas:
ethical corsets, trusses of the spirit.
Now I cry out for the colorful front
of fancy dress, bow down in belated awe
before silk and organza. It is not the delusion
of being at my best, but the promise of further
secrecy that thrills me; these veils only make
unveiling all the stranger and wilder,
and under my gown claw ghosts you’ll never see.
This sideshow of outlandish images
is nothing like the main attractions of
another time. Just after one picture clicks on
and the eyes have adjusted, another, altogether
different one takes its place, and another, and another.
What in the world is going on? Did the projector
gather together the uppermost slides on the pile?
Nothing could be falser. It is only that
the replacement of the reel calls for as many
tricks and turns as possible to be an even
passable substitute. Everything is its field;
its lens is a gaping hole with a passion for
things encyclopedic. This is the only way
it can capture your many angles—small comfort, yet comfort still.
The next time our paths cross there will be
none of this shilly-shallying, this bondage,
like it or not, to fickle time, brute locale.
The crossing itself will slow down the march
of the passing moment with its own
unstoppable steam, its tenebrous and sultry
collection of vapors. It will be love in a bottle.
But there is always a screw loose somewhere,
a gap in the glass that lets in a limber
array of interlopers. From the mutual friend
who smells a levity and wants in, to the premature bonging
of the hour, to the false confines of the walls
of our houses, there is always a damnable flaw
in the system . . . and incoming elves who taunt “Excuses, excuses.”
What is it about this flame I label passion
that burns the world and its newspapers to a crisp?
How can I call myself hungry for the facts of one kind
but wince at another? The lover’s room may be an
all-white, tiny room with a view of woods, but why,
if a well-meaning friend slides a special report
under my door, do I look for tongs and a furnace?
Because the flame is not only self-infatuated,
given to burning documents for the sake
of flaunting its own reds, but also in a state
of permanent warfare; all worldly
flare-ups, all currencies not its own, remind it
that amid the worst incendiary horrors, it goes on
stoking itself for want of a proper spark.
The catechism of the far gone: isn’t it too good
to be coincidental that our eyes have looked at that
billboard with the same unqualified disgust?
Can we ignore the fact that you happened
to witness the accident only minutes after I did?
Is there more than just a flimsy link in
a story jointly loved, a pastime avoided?
No, yes, and by no means. These are the very
traits which, observed in an enemy, get
shelved or denied by their once proud possessor.
I could pillage an igloo, travel to the torrid
antipodes and produce thousands like you,
featured like you, like you in raves and complaints.
I was bedazzled by a ray of fool’s gold.
Go, tyrant. In your heart will nest
no more desperate slaves. Come again, days
of productivity, nights of rest and no nightmares.
I have spent so much time under the shade
of your massive umbrella that I will draw it shut
for a minute to see what I once saw, and what I have
missed since seeing you. Eyes, look unchained around you.
It is a landscape of moldering stones and bones.
When the eyes are free to roam, they are not
so much free as useless—I see a sky of
fledgling clouds and do nothing to help them,
peer into the living record of a severed oak and can
decipher nothing. Return, dark glasses, come again,
morbid parasol; only in shade do mountains have features.
In the final tally of divine overseers
who will be ours? Suppose we claim
the moon, whose bottomless bag of stardust
enchants a forest of two, softens and
shrinks the volume of venomous air
between us, and lovingly coats all former fears
with beams of forgetful, nourishing light?
Our watcher is the moon, but only after a brutal
shake-up is through with her. She has never learned
the knack of lighting two people at once; instead
it is always me illumined, you off in the bushes,
you posed in your halo, me waist-deep in darkness.
And she is a clumsy goddess for the reason
that she borrows (poor moon) what light she has from me.
Though you are by definition a slippery freedom,
if forced to freeze you in a single image
I would call you a beam of light with hidden powers
to strike and alter forever. Here is a room:
regard its monotone grimness. Enter your
incandescent highness: gladly around you
objects sparkle, knowing a beam when they see it.
Next to your flawless arc I am a damaged
bulb in a fleabag hotel, clattering on to reveal
paintings on velvet and objets trouvés (but where?),
rattling off to plunge the run-down room into
dark desuetude. What if we pooled our forces?
Would we stand together like heartless neon sculpture
or deck ourselves in loving chiaroscuro?
Perfect, you say? It is enough to make me perform
operations on myself in order to test your love:
taking in the wreckage, you would be forced to say
“Yes, gouging out one eye makes the other shine
all the brighter; the smell of your fungus reminds me of summer;
your leprous stump is a modish charmer
since, after all, green is my favorite color.”
And yet, for all our tirades against deception,
how easily do we succumb to the lover’s flattery,
and with what treachery. If I am perfect, it is only
by being perfect that you, myopic, dependable you
can keep me; so go on, keep on calling me faultless, come on,
hurry up with my supper, leave me, and come back at midnight,
but don’t come back if you hear a noise in the room.
Still the inveterate skulker, the ghost
of chaos past, I have come back to the place
where it all began, where leaving, you gave me
leave to see you wherever I went—
in the home, in the wild, in the sky, in the gutter—
and where columns, scribbled on and abandoned,
took one look at my raving, and rose again.
Strangest of all is that, given the chance
to see my subject in the fabulous flesh at last,
I would flatly refuse. These barren days
when I heat my room by the fading coals of my goals,
this ache for an ache is as good as it gets,
so go on running; I will go on looking for you
as the willow bends, as the stomach hunts for the ulcer.
Rachel Wetzsteon, “The Other Stars” from The Other Stars, published by Penguin Books, Inc. Copyright © 1994 by Rachel Wetzsteon. Reprinted by permission of Sonja Wetzsteon.