A Drink at the Mirage

A Drink at the Mirage

by Michael J. Rosen


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"Between the discovery that there is a design which only his poetry enables him to find as he confronts the world and the discovery that such a design is a snare, merely a means of keeping him from further discernment, Michael Rosen is wedged, is productively pinioned, [ should say, for it is just this pressure—of meaning discerned on one hand and of meaning distrusted on the other—which makes the tension of these poems, a new version of the old wars between mind and body, memory and hope, self and surround. How tender and inclusive are Rosen's preoccupations, and how disabused his conclusions! One reads these playful, stricken poems with wonder—how will such ventures conclude, or even persist? What will happen next? Here is a poet who persuades us, as the saying goes, to stay tuned."—Richard Howard

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691611952
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets , #25
Pages: 76
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Drink at the Mirage

By Michael J. Rosen


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06627-1



When the water-holes went dry people sought to drink at the mirage. — Evelyn Waugh

    Pony Penning Day

    Older ponies recognize the men
    and wade the swamps and marshland
    to the bay where the boats are waiting.
    Above the surf the crowd
    on Chincoteague can hear the firemen
    prodding the ponies to swim,

    the rumbling of their voices cupped
    among the oncoming waves.
    The channel isn't wide; none have drowned
    in crossing, though half were lost
    once in a squall and stranded along
    Virginia, stiff as wooden toys

    standing on their sides or upside down,
    the way a boy would leave them,
    deciding on a swim. The long poles
    push the ponies bobbing up
    and down in a carrousel of waves,
    toward the shallows. On the shore

    they seem too heavy to swim,
    to hold their weight, or ours — or hollow.
    The herd parades down the road
    the tourists line, as though returning
    from some Homeric voyage,
    years at sea, islands away from home.

    All afternoon the ponies
    are led on and off the platform
    in a line it seems years won't exhaust.
    The children pick out patterns
    they like, while the fathers bid on ones
    which look easier to break.

    Sunday the firemen swim the unsold
    across the sound to Assateague
    where tiretracks and footprints mark the beach
    from Thursday. There the ponies
    lie down and kick and roll in the sand:
    not happy nor unhappy,

    not mourning like Achilleus' horses,
    nor like Achilleus himself
    drowning his tears in the dust, but soaked
    and so must dry their coats,
    mortal among mortal men, without
    gods to mete their fates, or trust.

    The Cutting of Nijinsky's Feet

    What they wanted were the feet.
    Not the cranium-size, weight of the soul,
    or some canker of madness. Not the kidneys
    that burst. Finally heavy as stones,
    the feet at rest on a metal table,
    they analyze the camber of the point,
    the high arches, the tendon's strength.
    They ink the soles and stamp a dozen prints.
    Rotating joints, they plot the turn-out
    and tensions from first through fifth position.
    The callouses so thin, the toes firm as pink buds,
    the scalpel unfurls each layer, the skin blooms red.
    Cuneiform, navicular, cuboid, calcaneus,
    the bones are delivered white and occult as eggs.
    Tarsus, metatarsals, digits, one through five,
    the bones are passed from hand to hand, examined
    like dice, for marks or some notching of fate.
    But they find nothing rare: not one bone
    riddled with air sacs, not a vestige
    of Hermes' talaria fixed at the ankle,
    not the blood dripped in petals on the table.
    Before the funeral the bones are sewn in place,
    and after, Beaumont, from the Mariinsky confessed,
    The weight of the coffin was almost intolerable.
    That reminds me of what my ballet teacher has printed,
    Gravity is the root of all lightness.
    across the studio mirrors where we position ourselves,
    our bodies like nothing we want.

    Ice Sculptures

    If the hotel were tall enough to reach
    another climate, they could be icicles,
    broken from a story where cold succeeds
    itself for days — like days.
    Too late to be out walking, you can witness
    something locked between the sous chefs' arms,
    hugged against their bodies like a child
    afraid to sleep alone, but left
    beside the backdoor, a foundling.
    Sometimes you can recognize the animal
    caught in the ice, actual-size,
    already softened from the spotlights:

    a teardrop swan, its neck looped
    backward like a shoelace, an owl
    or some pear-shape with rounded eyes,
    a deer with long forelegs like paper clips,
    a dolphin straddling the damp sidewalk,
    and once, a curled thing, a child, in fact,
    asleep, covered with curls, and horned —
    as if, at the last moment, the chef decided
    to carve a ram. Another night,
    to prove that no one needs a metaphor:
    a broken snow goose, draining red sauce
    across the concrete down to where the bus stops.

    The commas tooled in rows of curls,
    the patterned chips of fur and pin feathers,
    ribbing stripes, crosshatched scales:
    all these evaporate before the last seating
    as though the soul had lived in those details.
    Now, no longer wanted, they wait
    between the trashbins with the strays,
    whatever they were, forgotten
    like the cats' names — completely clear
    or colorless, the silver of the mirror back
    or the colors of whomever looks there
    should someone bend that close.
    Last winter, two weeks below freezing,
    they mounted in a pyramid
    (the garbage men never took them,
    whether they tried or weren't required)
    assembling a hecatomb of animals
    which did nothing to appease the cold.
    Tails sprouted claws which bore hooves
    cleaved to tongues — another torso
    grew haunches — fleshed with wings — imped
    with antlered heads and fins: every beast
    you could remember was preserved in ice
    until the weather broke and they were loosed again.

    The Woman in Ice

    for my father

    The balloon that I was holding read:
    You bought me cider and wandered through the lot.
    It started drizzling. In the circus tent
    lay an ice block the size of coffins
    with a woman inside, all naked skin
    except a two-piece swimming suit and cap,
    mouthing, Hello, hello. She had promised
    to stay encased till every car was sold
    and her knees and shoulders surfaced
    like islands after ages of melting.
    It was melting; I straddled the mud
    to tap above her blurry face, Are you cold?
    and hugged my arms pretending to be chilled.
    Her bluish smile shaped the same two circles,
    Hello, hello. I asked again, Are you cold?
    and tried to clear the frost with your keys
    when a man much older than you, a man
    I didn't know, took me in his arm
    and carried me — crying, to each umbrella
    until I found you. At home your voice
    hovered close above me and you vouchsafed
    the secret device of dummy legs and mirrors
    and how the whole time she was warm as cider.
    If it was easy then to sleep, falling
    as your voice grew distant, I never dreamed
    your face was ghosted in the block of ice
    or that a secret, when repeated, starts to age.

    Roadside Statuary

    Imagine the surprise: bushels of sun-
    burnt peaches under the day's clouded sky,
    and then, behind the fruit shed, a whole kingdom
    cast from the same grey firmament,
    all facing forward, as though leaving home.

    Squirrel, Swallowtail, Swan, a train of Ducks
    (all waiting for St. Francis?), all frail things
    with one exception: the already armored
    Armadillo, made stonier in stone.
    Names, not animals, are assembled here,
    rows identical even to a bird's eye,
    straight as soldiers, even soldier's tombs —
    nearly grave, and yet commemorating
    nothing, like zeros, but the place they hold.

    Perhaps it's beauty they exemplify —
    an idea so precious it can weather
    such stand-ins for stone as concrete or clay.
    Perhaps the beauty will spring up around them:
    a garden where toads like these would look real?

    Examples are provided: a grotto,
    two wheelbarrows burdened with impatiens,
    and everywhere, fountains with actual coins,
    adorations of petunias, peeping frogs
    (those toads, of course, kneedeep in lily pads),
    caryatids, columns in perfect ruin,
    and women, each titled rather than named,
    who bear bouquets of water, conches that brim
    with water, hands cupped — even broken hands.

    Diana, shoots a steady stream of arrows,
    Rebecca, waits beside a well, new Joan,
    whose shield is forged of water. The mermaid's
    ringing mist has sprayed a faint mandorla
    behind the Virgins, arms wide without grief.

    And here, well worth the wait, St. Francis, cast
    in ageless speech with flocks of the unmoved:
    lifesize with at least ten attentive pigeons,
    child-size with pigeons for his playmates and toys
    and then a pigeon-size St. Francis, listening
    at our feet. At last, something remotely real
    surrounds us: pigeons, all grey, clouded
    with grey, like pieces of a fallen sky.
    Not one of them is startled by our approach.

    In Central Park

    Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.
    — Wallace Stevens

    There, across the reservoir, are suggestions of
    trees, or reminders, non-specific, not
    palmate or pinnate — the kind drawn on flash-cards
    where the new word TREE is boldface on the back.
    Forest-, true-, and ever-green identify
    the three common flora of the genus Far
    which circle the water (sea-green means water):
    the trees are propped up with the stiff folding flaps
    that stand the framed snapshots of the family.

    Behind, in the taller second and third tiers,
    the skyscrapers overlap, all of them grey,
    several shades: some are obviously older,
    almost phantoms, others are so faint they seem
    forgotten in the background. Eventually
    one will evaporate into the grey clouds
    placed above them (in the sky-blue that means sky).
    On the lake, the brightly colored dots mean birds,
    fifty to one hundred fifty, one flock,

    though the same dots, fixed in different positions,
    mean raindrops, petals for late-spring tulips
    or big stenciled snowflakes for a winter scene.
    But while I am walking the circular walk
    not a single bird flies down or flies away,
    the dots don't flap their wings, dive — even drift.
    Where they float, time has been fixed: the center where
    the watch-hands attach and have nothing to tell.
    The mesh fence enclosing the lake means

    crumbs bring them no nearer — they can't be pigeons
    and stones fall short, however far they are thrown.
    There is nowhere closer wherever I stand.
    What are they? snowgeese? seagulls? ducks? or decoys?
    They are waterbirds, at any rate, bird-like,
    a kindred idea which seems in keeping.
    The scene is finished. But then, it never fails:
    someone running always stops to ask the time,
    and truth is, someone really means the time.

    Spectacles: A Late Spring

    Backwards and backlit in red,
    the word, W O N D E R, enlightens
    the city like a new theme
    to be copied from the blackboard
    and printed in our notebooks.

    The view from here (our outlook
    you might say) though rose-
    colored and near-sighted,
    is the all-night supermart;
    urchins huddled around the new

    blood-pressure machine,
    (a quarter tells them how young
    and healthy and bored they are);
    and a closed-off courtyard of trees
    holding back the green,

    holding the weather against us.
    Yet the sign repeats its lesson —
    Will we ever get it right? —
    with no more impatience than the moon,
    lending its already borrowed sunlight.

    The other word, B R E A D,
    is held (not hostage, really)
    among the rows of houses
    which the city raffles
    for a dollar: vacant, except

    for bulbs that someone planted,
    forcing their old way to light.
    Next, in the leftover glow
    from the Donut Hole, a building
    which abandons year-long dreams

    of profit or nonprofit
    bears a lone slogan, painted
    pale brick-red on bricks:
    D O I N G O N E T H I N G W E L L
    Either the stone is still absorbing

    the words or just revealing them
    to drivers caught at the traffic light
    an easy eye-chart distance away.
    Though most never see the sign
    even the one who does has little time

    to think of what it meant and to whom
    before the light changes
    and in the rear-view mirror
    the next car back, already late,
    is shouting, Green! It's green!

    At Brunch
    We Entertain the Notion
    of the Perfect Place to Live

    As though it were childhood itself, you suggest
    each place your family moved: not countries, but vast
    pronunciations — a makeshift map would help. "Look,
    we are here, the President McKinley matchbook;
    this archipelago of pumpernickel crumbs:
    the Azores; our Perrier bottle with spider mums
    (already posing as a vase) can stand for Guam;
    the pepper shaker, the sugar packets: Taiwan,
    Corsica, Corfu, the Philippines ..." I'm confused,
    lost in these latitudes, the lassitude
    drawn out between our Poles. It's already four? At last
    the waiter clears off the tabletop and Atlaslike,
    shoulders our worldly views and walks out scoffing.
    Nice, Caracas, Turin, Fez — all lost in the offing!

    Outside a Milton Avery Exhibit

    Here are the colors we would paint our lives,
    given a sable brush minute enough
    for all the unforeseen, painstaking
    details of how every day is numbered.

    These are, no less, the colors we dream in:
    aquamarine, dark wine, salmon and sand,
    values named for things more live than color
    which fade as dreams must, handed down from sleep.

    These same horizons, painted within our reach,
    complete a world seceded from our own —
    if only we'd stand still for that, or sleep.
    Instead we watch outside the curtainless, canvas-

    size window. Below, a long construction-
    paper chain of men has separated into
    details: bricklayers, masons, carpenters,
    each daubed with tangerine hard hats and stood

    among the pick-up sticks, puzzles, and blocks,
    like so many playthings someone could have spilled
    from here: eighteen floors — they might as well be years —
    above the all-too-soon-to-be-completed site.


Excerpted from A Drink at the Mirage by Michael J. Rosen. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vi
  • Pony Penning Day, pg. 3
  • The Cutting of Nijinsky’s Feet, pg. 5
  • Ice Sculptures, pg. 6
  • The Woman in Ice, pg. 8
  • Roadside Statuary, pg. 9
  • In Central Park, pg. 11
  • Spectacles: A Late Spring, pg. 13
  • At Brunch We Entertain the Notion of the Perfect Place to Live, pg. 15
  • Outside a Milton Avery Exhibit, pg. 16
  • Total Eclipse, pg. 19
  • Next, pg. 20
  • Another Figurescape, pg. 21
  • “Blind Minotaur Guided by a Little Girl in the Night”, pg. 22
  • Artist’s Proof, pg. 24
  • Primitive Examples, pg. 26
  • Hidden Pictures, pg. 31
  • What’s Wrong With This Picture?, pg. 34
  • Story Problem, pg. 36
  • July, pg. 37
  • Precipitation, pg. 38
  • November, pg. 39
  • The Same River Twice, pg. 40
  • Calling Into Question, pg. 42
  • November, Again, pg. 43
  • Freeway Flowers, pg. 44
  • December, The Botanical Gardens, pg. 46
  • Our Places at the Table, pg. 49
  • The Age When Parents Don’t Need Reasons, pg. 50
  • Vivarium, pg. 51
  • Circling Columbus, pg. 53
  • A Family Tree, pg. 54
  • Notes Through the Winter, pg. 55
  • The Fire Pond, pg. 57
  • In Exchange for Wood, pg. 59
  • Driving Past Morocco, Indiana, pg. 62
  • Strand, pg. 64

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