Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Soul Must Stay Where It Is

    Do those towers even exist?
    We must look at it that way, along those lines
    so the thought can erect itself, like plywood battlements.

         - JOHN ASHBERY (from “A Poem of Unrest”)

   Summer, 2012, a Friday night, on my way to see Ashbery 
   at Poet’s House . . .

   As we hurried toward the subway, walking past the hospital where 
   she was born, Isabel offered to come to the reading with me, and I said, 
   “No, no, you go,” and I watched her walk down the stairs to the L to 
   Williamsburg, where she was conceived.

   At rush hour I walk toward the Towers, or where the Towers were 
   when I was pregnant seventeen years ago at this time of year in this 
   chartreuse light and heat. When I was married, when I lived in New 
   York, when—when—when—when—


   Go. Go. Go.

   Walt Whitman’s words from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” scroll 
   digitally across the front of an office building. I stop to read and look. 
   Not one of the thousands rushing to New Jersey Transit seems to 
   notice the enormous words:

      The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the
      The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated,
      everyone disintegrated yet part of the scheme

   (Would he write a different poem now—about America—)

   I stop at Pret a Manger near City Hall to get a sandwich. I’m the only 
   one in the place. I forgot to bring a book. I don’t even have a pen. 
   There’s nothing to do but look.

   I sit still long enough to notice two detectives on the corner. They’re 
   well-groomed and camouflaged in suits, still and watchful in the 
   midst of the river of commuters. Hot.

   I feel like I’m on safari. Everyone except me is racing for a train 
   or a cab or the ferry to New Jersey. Thousands of people are passing 
   and the detectives are watching all of them. No one notices the ones 
   who see, except for me.

   It’s a straight shot to City Hall from here. I can see the limousine 
   pulling out under trees as green as salad, cop cars and police all around. 
   The Mayor will not be killed tonight as he heads out to the Hamptons 
   for the weekend. A phalanx. A word you’d never use unless it’s the 
   right one.

   I watch the white plainclothes cop next to the black SUV parked 
   illegally. He looks like me: stocky, thick eyebrows, dark. Kind of 
   like the enemy.

   “Where are you from?” the old man asked me on the subway platform 
   to Jackson Heights the other day. “Do you speak Arabic?” The next 
   day a lady asked me if I speak Farsi. “No,” I said, “it’s just the Clairol 
   talking.” I'm still dark, but fading with age.

   The white detective has heavy ear lobes. Nice pants. A wedding ring. 
   A boxer’s nose.

   I’m in awe of his concentration. He sees everything but me. 
   Unwatched, I eat like a pig.

   I’ve been watching the white plainclothes cop for about fifteen minutes. 
   Ashbery starts soon and there will be a crowd. My hands smell like 
   mayonnaise. I fix my lipstick and walk out onto the sidewalk, hit by a 
   blast of heat and swampy salt air. Two thousand people have passed this 
   cop without seeing him. I make a point of smiling at him as I pass. 
   He doesn’t smile back, but I see him flinch at being seen.

   At the corner, there’s a halal food cart next to trashcans and scaffolding. 
   The proprietor is prostrated on the filthy sidewalk behind his cart, angled
   toward Mecca (toward Queens). A broker in a suit almost steps on him. 
   A nearly naked anorexic jogger kicks him by accident while waiting for 
   the light to turn. Nothing moves him. Maybe he is also a detective?

   I walk toward the water, toward a man with extension cords wrapped 
   around his waist, looking for someplace to be plugged in.