For What It’s Worth
Now that I have cable
My son, to me
From Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp: 1, 14, 24, 34
This piece is about 5 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Robert Allen and Jacket magazine 2007.
For What It’s Worth
It’s been a Fred Astaire kind of century
that also marked the killing of millions.
I’m whiling away the final days lakeside
that also held two world wars. A gaunt
man with a cane eyes the whitecaps like
a man haunted. He is entitled to doubt
whether Muskoka might have held a genocide
equal to any: of Hurons, or fish, by our
mercurial and equal-handed century.
While the wind sculpts our air, I surrender
to film history, watching Fred dance close
with ticking time, from New York to Berlin.
I am as free this July as I will ever be. If I can’t
ditch history for at least one sunny afternoon,
I won’t last long in the millennium. I feel
this summer like the long fish never caught, who
eluded catching half this long century; and if nothing
can be written that lasts, I can cast these
lines as summer reading, clean as the bass thrown
back without a thought, on its part, or ours. I am
at peace this summer day, for what it’s worth.
June 26, 2000
Now that I have cable
now that i have cable i feel
i am able to mainline culture
where before i barely
got a sniff. oh, i was able
to quote yeats or baudelaire or
know the details of the natural
world the way others
knew britney spears and tony
soprano, but the pictures
paled after a while, and i went
to the channels i hadn’t paid to get,
that were scrambled
but not enough so i didn’t
know what i was missing. and
that is why i now get the cubist
and why i don’t feel
as if i am on the periphery any more
but i can step right up with my
hungry eyes on britney
and quote french poetry
to her blonde good looks.
if her head is empty, why,
mine is quickly emptying
too, and i say things like
what’s up with that? and everything
seems better, more satisfying
and infinitely more true.
My son, to me
Hip-hop is a way of living,
don’t you see?
Rap is love and violence without history.
You are a post-war cripple
who went blind just as you learned
to see. The sixties crooners
cried their eyes out in irony.
What once were artists, now are signs.
My drugs aren’t yours, your lies
not mine. Your ideals
were the atoms that skim the sea.
Your songs are history.
From Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp
The declined summer seemed to call for white wine,
then the sun sank and I was lost in time. Night takes
half my hours, lately, and the reading light burns
the page until I am insensible. What seemed light
is dark, the dark a riot of burning. The ferris wheel
in town blazes its incandescence; the stage show
can be heard for two kilometers. I can’t know
much of the world beyond. Land stretches to the limits
of morning, much as, when I was a child,
the map went to the edge, then kept going, to the wild,
unlettered future, as shadowed as the past. Half
my life has been knowing the dark earth of here,
and not the promised secrets of the universe. I have it
all here in my head. I don’t know what it’s worth.
I am increasingly alright. What would you want me to say?
I have no grid on which to reckon sure things. I am talking
and signing to myself at an accelerating rate,
which argues metal problems, or the lonely recursiveness
of language, when it is directed at no other. I wish those I think are listening
were here, greedily drinking from the wellspring
of my words, like the dead beyond Lethe, who god
knows all have a full slate of problems, and would
love to listen, even talk back, given half a chance.
I have two thousand square feet in which to dance, but
no one to dance for. Though I paint the shapes of feet,
opposing mine, still, the music always ends with me falling
on a folding chair; an empty floor with a map for dancing,
and the dust of randomness settling on the wooden sill.
Summer radios can turn from Mozart to Charley
Parker just like that; one minute windless and
sunny, the next a rain squall, coming and going
out of and into the blue; and thunder and lightning
play bebop up in the orchestra pit, leaving me with
an edifying echo, like an answered prayer; with dusty
ozones in my nose, and tear-shaped water drops strung
along the roof like a closed system of quarter
notes, a line of visible time, quiet as brushed cymbals.
But clean as a trumpet phrase a rip opens up in the overcast,
widens and lengthens. Songbirds take up
the melody; then half-sun in high cloud, lighting
the dirt path through maples, from whose shivering
leaves a last six/four shower of rain shakes down.
It might have been grey all day.
But the sun broke through just now
as if despondency annoyed some
minor deity, whose truant wand waved,
while the big gods were preening
and preparing to receive
a smoky tribute from their acolytes.
Just when you are lowest, something lifts
the light, and you can walk again
and see the world. Short
of the equinox by just a week, I think
I have knocked winter
into the woodpile, broken
its back and started to breathe.
Robert Allen (1946–2006) lived in Montreal and Ayer’s Cliff in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and taught creative writing at Concordia University. He is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose including the poetry collections Magellan’s Clouds (1987), Ricky Ricardo Suites (2000), Standing Wave (2005) and The Encantadas (2007). Born in Bristol, England he was educated at the University of Toronto and Cornell University. He was the editor of the longest-running Anglo-Quebec literary journal, Matrix, which has published and supported most of the other poets in this current survey.
Acknowledgments: “For What It’s Worth”, “Now That I Have Cable”, “My Son, to me”, From Ricky Ricardo Suites (DC Books, 2000). Poems in “Thirty-eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp”
From Standing Wave (Véhicule Press, 2005)
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