GEOFF GILBERT teaches comparative literature in the American University of Paris. He co-authored the chapbook Hold! West (Eyewear, 2016) with Alex Houen, and has published poems in various journals. He is also the author of Before Modernism Was (Palgrave, 2004), and writes about translation, modern literature, and cultures.
ALEX HOUEN is author of the chapbook Rouge States (Oystercatcher, 2014) and co-author (with Geoff Gilbert) of the chapbook Hold! West (Eyewear, 2016). His poetry has appeared in various magazines, including Poetry London, PN Review, Stand, The Wolf, Cordite, Fortnightly Review, Molly Bloom, and Shearsman Magazine. Eyewear Press will publish his first full collection in 2017. He’s co-editor of the online poetry magazine Blackbox Manifold and teaches modern literature in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.
Good afternoon sky, opens its bistro of floating
scars – what sense this “icy present”, Reader?
In the early days those words felt
vital, alive as live carp in our hands,
and all hands did stand ready.
So much for year-old ice fudged
with greyer city packs, so much
for the mass, a triangle of concrete,
wound by a brown turning plastic
flow that may once have been gilded.
“It’s obviously a monument”, she says,
“it’s good for nothing.” The crack
between “useful” and “necessary”
stretches twelve miles south from here.
As I open the door no door and exit the studio, the animals’ intoxication is
intense: its measure clearly not defined by technical constraint. Although
the water clocks operate on a roughly uniform process – the constant flow
of cold water down – the parts that show the time are made to change with
the seasons, to indicate variable hours. We are 48 degrees, 52 minutes, 2
seconds North, 2 degrees 22 minutes, 27 seconds East. Every time now I
feel the architecture browning to fans, zigzags, and stars of diatomaceous
scum, I remember how my nursery experience was made natural co-
efficient of the opiates. This joy within me has grown so strong. It’s like a
cloud. Cannot be scratched by the keenest knife. But my legs belong to a
man on a sheet of ice. As soon as he sets foot down in the corridor, he
begins to tremble. His icy awkward body, anxious lest it tip.
My frozen legs, my morbid lively spume,
are so much cover for a pulsing core
of exaltation, a sort of battery.
Southing is our desire. We who have taken
solid, liquid, boiled, unboiled,
and gaseous shapes of happiness heave
the frustules we have made ourselves
by our flagella. But our constructions rank north,
Existenzminimum, so we cook
in summer, freeze in winter,
serve as storage. We are drifting
slowly. Slowly with soundings
when we get the chance we are so in fee
to our ears for fathoms, minutes, seconds.
After the hunger storm the animals will eat everything. One dog has
devoured all its leash and kennel – the cardboard, leather, rope, and
rivets. Even artists crave a minimum of insulation. I don’t know where
we are now, but the transformation of form, which first was meant to
transmute matter, has become an end in itself. Sometimes the brash
between floes is so thick we don’t know if the mirages are work or light
play – first the packs are balloons then castles then mushrooms then
mosques or cathedrals. In the greyer city packs the infants of the plain
are beautiful. Vertical axis: tower. Horizontal axis: ground. The third
dimension is too dear, they surge along long walls, past a door, windows,
a door, no windows. Where are courtyards, nooks, a high porthole to
flood the world with passing clouds? To a blind one as he passes I say “I
am the army now.” The boy retorts that he is its horse. And this was a
crucial finding for our science of happiness.
“I am prepared not to die for you
in particular, but for you in general.”
The bitter taste that found my tongue
is gone now; all that remains is a rimy feel
in my throat and gums, as in a frost
I close my mouth after breathing deep
my love. Is the calving of glaciers no
notion of cruelty? She is singing in the shower
like Venus in her hulking clam,
her stunning grace uncomprehending
as the moist sound clasps its climax,
a sharp crack in the distance, a nearby window
shatters, crashes to the silent street. “Ugh”,
she says, “an awful place. Let’s take it.”
We are deep out in it now, and no matter if three thousand times removed,
a cousin’s still a cousin. The development is at once dynamic and static. It
involves ever rising levels, yet the frame is perpetually fresh and frozen. A
sky thick as sugar-cube paper, birds chanting invisible from the folds, over
the exodus of those bearing back-packs of their lives, full of food
containers, lucky charms, hopes, matches, and maledictions. Houses
without doors, windows, walls, or roofs. Women and girls in flight without
furniture, utensils, succour. Some live on water, others on leaves, and most
are taken with new deaths: one the death of hunger, another by her own
infection, another by the sweet infection exhaled by those dead around
her. Perhaps all are beside themselves with an invisible third that’s washed
up, has swollen skin, delicate, almost transparent, smells of wild geese or a
Through the window the neighbour house
wrinkles and its chimney veers off, wet and shiny,
into the sky. Working remains labour time
to us, but will be frozen out, superfluous.
48° 52’ 2” N,
2° 22’ 27” E,
our dead reckoning naturally uncertain.
At each send of swell the ship bangs her bows
on the floe before us. We have forgotten warmth
of dusty tea, can’t recall the smell
of bitter cabbage cooled, the last trace
of social life. Another gorgeous left-hand sun-
dog. I don’t always know the parhelion a reflex
of myself. One final example from Europe:
A clock driven by a weight, attached to a wheel, split into compartments,
partly filled with mercury, acting as inertial brake. The setting is a public
performance on a park lake. In its colossal silence the blows of the silver
hammer raise suffocated echoes from the waters’ depths to the trees’
branches, all the birds crowding to listen. The agitation is weird. A
compact mass surrounds the engine. Helmets are visible then vanish.
“Did you see?” “We’ll be late again.” “It’s the head, it’s horrible.” A boy
laughs, too brightly. He burns the banknotes he rips from his pocket. We
haven’t forgotten the start of the battle, the lake covered in gondolas,
surrounding the triremes, gracious and arbitrary. Here in the place called “
The Tomb of Narcissus”, the battle finished to a happy stupour; the
bells that briefly shook the birds were never meant to reckon a constant
unit of time.
All the mirrors are snow covered. The fibreglass
Vesuvius triggers its artificial fire
and incandescent rocks. When they beat
their wings something falls from the sky:
a brown powder, absurd response
provoking the absurd frame.
Another slab calves from the Barrier.
Powder veils the windows, the wrinkles
of plaster, no windows, a door. She declares
she likes this dusty public street,
and is believed. These bits of happiness I’ve placed
before you, like a beautiful infant, teasing
a dog. Like ginger, sugar, hot water.
Like Venus back in her shell.
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