Read an Excerpt
A Drink at the Mirage
By Michael J. Rosen
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
A DRINK AT THE MIRAGE
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.
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:
WOMAN IN ICE AT DON'S USED CARS.
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.
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
(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!
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.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, pg. v
- 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
- PRINCETON SERIES OF CONTEMPORARY POETS, pg. 66