Oct/Nov 2010  •   Fiction

Just out of Reach: Six Prose Poems

by Richard Dragan

I. The Descent

Something timeless in the mountain air this morning. We can't get it out of our heads, the memories of Everest, the cold hard killing light of the summit. Once you are that far up, how can you dare come back? What does the usual day hold for you? Not much, not anymore. Like being shot into space, some sensation of the body no one else has lived through. It changes you. You are marked finally and can't get the feelings of breathlessness out of your head, not late at night when all the memories of touch come back to haunt in the late hours, like a forgotten lover, perhaps, the soft skin and the palimpsest of what's gone missing. Once we take to the flesh of the beloved, what can we do except change our shape, too? We become different, warped by the weave of another body, pressed up against us (even if it is the hard rock of a cold mountain), another will brushing up against our best selves. Is this anywhere to live, after all? Memory provides us a few clues as to where we've been. Once we summitted, can we find our way back, spotting a few breadcrumbs left on the skree of the glacier? It isn't much to go on. Re-entry is banal, or potentially explosive, the parachutes fail, the helicopter runs out of air this high up. We leave the rescue ship to save itself and fall on our own, end-over-end. The safety of the usual earth rushes by, the ant cities, the baseball diamonds, barely discernible this high up, the cerulean lakes, the flashing cop cars at night so incongruously visible from the jet stream). What shirpa's miracle would it take to get us safely home now? What would they say of our incongruous return after all these days? Would they believe the real story, our thwarted adventures, or would we become, like the mountaintop itself, a matter of legend, fodder for muttering fools at base camp remembering tall tales half recalled, half improvised on the spot? This much we half suspect: we are no better now than during our lost days, starving and snowbound and part of a desolate airless silence so far away. We couldn't begin to think of warm dinners at home, but they were waiting for us there all the time.


II. The Icon's Kiss

You wanted most of all to leave dozens of notebooks in some storage locker, with a record of your visions, like a character out of Tarkovsky. To sketch out landscape of the impossible, vistas of belief, a profound attachment to significant time, like falling in love with an alabaster sculpture, the hands, feet, the eyes implied with the inset marble. You didn't think a monk's devotions were possible today, viewing the icons in St. Sophia, a love of the pure significant image, the contrasts of different epochs, worldviews, visions no longer disposable. Instead you conjured up the pure hell of belief cast out of a saint's angular portrait on a cathedral wall, in a remote part of the kingdom, recorded in charcoal by a visiting architect, etched as a direct, living copy. Only later would a color photograph record what the Byzantine observer has already given up more forcefully: the peaceful angles of the drawn face, an expression of pinched contentment, world-weary bliss, contemplative peace above all, not the least bit of pain in the articulate self-denial, a cherished vision under a tree by a field of similar trees, a few sheep, a solitary man walking just past the edge of a summer, a sumptuous river view. Before he gives up everything, once and for all, all he holds most strenuously, one kiss, and one embrace before all else is extinguished, and beautifully.


III. Rimbaud Traveling

To write only for the pure music of it, for the compression of thought and ideas, like the old-handwritten sonnets on display under glass in an air-conditioned museum. When the fever strikes, what can you do really? What can you accomplish, except take it all down, the terrible angel speaks silently only to you in your head. The sense the river, the trees, the low green mountains and flawless sky have taken over. They have something to say, which must be said right now, at this very moment as you scribble away, scratching these words into your traveler's journal, a little, brown leatherback book, perfect, surreptitious, for writing down the secret inner voice that speaks so infrequently but with the insistent energy of a petit mal.

Get it all down before the next station, your next port of call, before you are interrupted on-deck by loud fellow travelers and their chatter. You are, after all, only a guest in this country (and all countries, let's be honest. Poets really don't really belong anywhere). There's always that reserve of doubt, that lingering placenessness. Still the voice of the angels comes rarely enough and it is to be guarded, these sessions with the other side when the memories of these ghosts begin to speak and once again live.

So you scribble away in your notebook, an obscure poet. (Then you were unknown). You were just a shabbily attired young man on a deck chair in the shade keeping distance away from the other guests on the ship. Already you were too old for this world with your inner voyages and that incessant cough and those endless French cigarettes. Already you had moved right past us, and we had no idea how you moved so far beyond, so far into an unknown way of life, we still cannot reach except in inexplicable dreams and of course your cryptic, blissful poems.


IV. The Trapeze Artist Departs

There was the sense of tearing and ripping of flesh without a knife, sword-swallowing, fearful contortions by expert acrobats. There were low moans and panting. An impromptu orchestra played. I heard elephants, I am certain I did, the horns of clowns, a camel braying plaintively on an open savannah, then the men with their sledgehammers again commenced their precise metallic strikes, pulling up the pegs from the big top. I heard an elephant inhaling peanuts, monkeys chattering in what sounded like French, the clear call of a rooster at dawn. The smells were rife, reeking, a waft of an open sewer on a July day, too much for the senses. That's the legacy of the circus: at first, it's all falling through the sky or twirling on ropes or laughter, cannonball explosions, giggling bearded ladies and guffawing strong men, the trapeze artist suspended from her ropes in the sky. What's left? Some matted straw, a few cenotaphs of elephant dung artfully assembled in a barren field, a kaleidoscope of candy wrappers, dour trampled earth, a maze of peanut shells, and, most of all, the despair till the next season, and our next assignation. That's where we left things between us—the trapeze artist and me. I admit I was jealous of her mobility, her talent for arching her sequined back through a wind of her own making. At first, she found my fixity and dead weight appealing. She told me so. I was earthbound, slow-moving and fully weighted. I am more than stupid. I confess this. Soon she tired of my being and my old-fashioned inertia. Besides, the circus was due in the next town over as in the ways of old traveling shows. She would pause above the next audience, stop time for a moment. I followed her caravan and bought a ticket in the next city the following fortnight. I watched secretly from below in the darkness in the audience like everyone else. Only I could imagine a single, solitary tear welling up, dropped the wrong way down from her inverted figure, suspended above us without a net, a gesture meant only for me.


V. Venice Reliquary

The vampire dreams of what he can never have: innocence, the beauties of the sea plashing on a beach in the dawn, a rainbow and sunset on a pristine coastline. Always it's the same dream, isn't it? They are really withdrawn, ashamed really, these introverts of the undead. Vampires don't like rock and roll. They like chamber music, a string quartet, a trio slightly delirious, tragic, the play of exquisite timbres, gossamer sound ravishing the eardrum. They are aesthetes really. They eat and drink what they like.

By definition, they are out to all hours. So what if you sleep in a coffin? It's cold there, but you get used to it. They exude pathos, prefer to read all day in a dim room when they can't sleep. The vampires in Venice, they have it really tough, sleeping in the warm days, sunlight bouncing off the Adriatic, shimmering humidity, in the dank cellars of the palazzi, in secret rooms reserved for the prisoners of the Doge. They come in from the cool night like the cats of Venice, fattened on a constant feast of rats, skulking around the labyrinthine walkways. Still you are safe, secured in their greenflickering eyes, catching a light off the Grand Canal. They love this place too. The city is older than most of them. They know these Renaissance haunts better than you do, and they're not above giving a fat American tourist a good scare once in a while to protect their turf. The youth of Europe, the paunchy Americans, the sunburnt families lost together under the archways, the daytrippers, the contented pensioners posing in front of a square, afterwards exhausted and listening to accordion bands out at St. Mark's near Florian's, they're all interlopers, aren't they? The vampires talk among themselves in whispers when you're asleep in the hotel. They speak to you in coded messages, mumbled through burnished gold-leafed fangs, just enough to tease you into a certain terror, though not enough for a nightmare exactly, just enough to give a vague dread, a malaise that you don't belong amidst all this beauty. Oh you stretch and smile and have another good breakfast at the hotel, but there's the lingering sense you don't belong. Look, but don't touch. Stay a few days, but move along. You're under vampire surveillance, you've been found out. Leave Venice to the professionals. It's their nightworld. It's their realm, and so beautiful by nightfall.

Once I saw a vampire carrying a cello on a vaporetto stand in Venice, his deathly white skin glowing in the mists after a performance of a Beethoven quartet at the local chiesa. I was still young then, an innocent, a student of local lore. I was in the audience that evening. He waited in the corner of the glass enclosure in his black suit and tie, avoiding the rest of us tourists. He had been found out too. He had been trapped, unexpectedly, with nowhere to hide. Our boat pulled in from the darkness. I saw the young man wrap the heavy rope around the dock in one deft swoop, but when I turned back, the vampire was gone, leaving fragments of an ancient city: a smudge on the glass of the station, a blur in the fog over the black canal, a crushed white carnation on the cement floor, the singing line of a cello in memory, anchoring a cold music.


VI. New Tantalus

There are many versions of Paradise, but the one you have fallen into resembles an Eden, a rainforest with a difference. That insurance executive poet got it slightly wrong.

He thought the fruit never ripened and fell, but that's not quite it. You probably have figured out by now, poets are better at Beauty. Truth, not as much.

Here you can take a small boat across the river. There are usually two of everything, but curiously only one Sky, one Forest, one River. Where does the River flow to? No one knows, and no one cares to find out. You have to understand curiosity is in short supply. For this, we are to be forgiven; you know the thing with Eve and the apple and all that. Being curious got us into a lot of trouble once. We've learned our lesson well.

So you can easily hire a small boat to go to the grove of trees, two plum trees, two apple trees and so on. All this is multiplied out by the many variants of apples, pears and plums lost over time because of your agribusiness. Indeed, Paradise has a lot of gourmands. Fortunately, for heaven's trees, gluttony is still one of the seven deadly sins, and we're the better for it. Our array of infinite, subtle variations of fruits and vegetables alone would set the heart of the most jaded connoisseur aflutter.

Instead, you just dock your skiff—just imagine something out of an old daguerreotype of a crew rowing at Oxford, walk up to the line of trees and wait. The waiting is key; it takes patience here in Heaven to get what you want. It's not a virtue for nothing. Around here, patience comes in handy. When the object of your fruit-filled passion falls, it's yours to enjoy. Now you may not always get what you want. But if it's crowded that day, patience and fortitude will once again triumph. You soon become quite exacting—even a little spoiled!—in heaven. You want not just any ripe apple, but a perfectly wrought Macintosh, not just a quotidian plum, but the "nun's cheek," similar to a variety first bred and named in the Italian Renaissance. Our 144 varieties of pineapples and pomegranates would certainly mean more to your forebears. But it doesn't matter: there is no plucking fruit here, anyway. You must learn patience first, each ripe fruit must first fall. Even here, in this most particular heaven, such pleasure remains just out of reach.