My 19th Century

Back home in the furniture-free apartment I lay down on my inflatable mattress, fired up my laptop, and wrote a poem called “The Shitfucker Vulture.”

Measured against the goals I had set for it and its own rules of engagement, the poem could only be merited a radical success.

Photograph via Flickr.

My bad mood had lost its luster, my heartbreak its halo; even my self-hatred had grown stale. I was leaving the city against my will and in timorous stages, trying the patience of friends who couldn’t keep up with the shifting goalpost of the final goodbye. Or, for that matter, with my exacerbated sense of martyrdom, as though the very word “martyr” weren’t exacerbation enough—to say nothing of “against my will.” My intended had taken a desirable job and insofar as I neither had a job nor desired one, we were going where her job was. She, indeed, was there already, sipping rosé on the sublet lawn in the fresh-start province, looking good in a loose dress, probably, one of those ones that ties around the neck and doesn’t have much back to it, so how is she even wearing a bra—or is she?

There was love and money in abundance to be grateful for.

I was having a tough time bearing these salient facts in mind.

With the furniture gone, and all utility switch-off dates duly set, my last task (self-assigned) was to finish liquidating my library. I was losing whole generations of my readerly life, my writerly self; was wracked by freedom and horror, which I was finding nestled comfortably together, twins in the cradle of my despair.

At first I’d been lugging Whole Foods bags full of hardcovers on the subway to the famous used book store, taking whatever I could get for them. And also taking the store up on its apparently generous offer to “donate” the discards, sparing me having to carry them home, which of course I would not have done. I would have abandoned the bags on the sidewalk out front, same as any other scorned seller, which in turn explained why the famous used book store accepted that which it refused: concession masked as courtesy. This, at any rate, was what I’d thought until this morning. I was walking through, ready to deposit another weary load, when I saw my signed copy of The Discomfort Zone, which they’d sworn was valueless, standing faced out on a table, practically spot-lit, tagged “vintage” and priced at 20 percent above retail. I stormed out, bags of books still clutched in aching arms. Clearly I couldn’t “donate” them now, nor leave them outside the store, where those shitfuck vultures could still get at them, but that didn’t mean I was going to lug the stuff all the way home, either. It was too early in the day, and too late in the game, to get my ass kicked back to square one.

So I hauled the books down the subway stairs, went through the turnstile with swipe card in teeth, edged my way onto a downtown train. A few stops later a transfer afforded me the opportunity to ditch the bags by a wooden bench on the platform before descending further into the hot concrete catacomb to catch my Brooklyn-bound train. The plan—I can’t quite say “the hope”—was that some lucky hobo would find my leave-behinds and take some solace in the art contained therein. But that made little sense, since I am not one who believes that art can—or should—console, heal, improve, or save you. And in all likelihood, the hypothetical hobo would be pissed at the deception—grocery bags minus groceries—or maybe the bags would get If You See Something Say Something’d, wind up fondled by the bomb scare-robot, shut the whole system down for an hours.

I forfeit my rooting interest in the frictionless function of civic life.


Back home in the furniture-free apartment I lay down on my inflatable mattress, fired up my laptop, and wrote a poem called “The Shitfucker Vulture.” This took about a half hour, i.e. the same space of time which passes in silence in Heaven after the seventh seal is opened in Revelations 8, which I only mention because this is a source-text on which the poem draws heavily, albeit obliquely, as indeed the whole work was incoherent in both its imagery and intention, though, in the interest of practicing self-care—as I have been repeatedly advised to do by both my intended and my analyst—let me add that it was on account of its refusals, provocations, and outright failures that the poem enacted its resistance to the confessional-industrial complex, the constant pressure for public disclosure of the personal demanded of us by late-capitalist neoliberal oligarchy and its running dog social media, and thus made itself—the poem did—an ideal receptacle for and exponent of the generalized rage and sorrow still boiling off me like blasts of gray steam. Measured, therefore, against the goals I had set for it and its own rules of engagement, the poem could only be merited a radical success.

I was—let me try to not choke on this—proud of myself.

Before that feeling had a chance to dissipate, I logged on to a website that hosted a free electronic submissions manager and used this tool to carpet-bomb 174 so-called journals (most were, in fact, also websites) with my shitfucking vulture, which come to think of it would have been a better title—ego and gerund—but I could always fix it in proofs (i.e. a shared Word doc, where you taste the rainbow of Track Changes), if I got that far, or else on the next round of what those of us in the Po Biz call “subs.”


After I got my subs launched I called the only friend I had left who was still taking my calls, and asked to borrow his car. Dmitri drove a ‘97 Spezia—a four-door with a hatchback, green as Keats at the end. I walked over to his place to get the keys. He lived in a garden-level apartment in a brownstone on Rapelye Street, though he, not without his own problems, insisted on pronouncing the word as “rape lye,” or perhaps “rape lie.” The rape, it seemed, was non-negotiable. What remained was a toss-up between caustics and deceit. Rapelye was a nasty little cul-de-sac overlooking the entrance to the Battery Tunnel. His neighbors were a diesel gas station and a Chinese produce depot: boxes of bok choy, sacks of onions, palettes of cans of baby corn. I found Dmitri standing in his dooryard, i.e. on the sidewalk, waiting for me. He was wearing a green plastic visor like an old-timey poker dealer and a terry-cloth bathrobe two sizes too small for him, lacy frill about the hem and cuffs. The fabric was grapefruit-colored but the frill, once-white, had gone nicotine; the belt was knotted in an elaborate double bow. This, I knew, had been Christina’s robe. She wasn’t his most recent ex, but she was the one whose robe he still wore. Smoking, sweating, sleeping; whatever else goes into a day, into a life. Dmitri held a beer stein monogrammed “Brooklyn Botanic,” which I knew was not a souvenir from the historic gardens on Eastern Parkway, but rather a redeemed reward from the artisanal marijuana delivery service of whose loyalty program he was literally the president. He held the stein from below, like a brandy snifter, and sucked at a twisty straw—clear plastic infused with glitter—while liquid the same pink as his robe loop-de-looped toward his grimacing lips. Sunlight shone through his visor, pickling his face.

“Vodka?” I asked.

“Gin, actually. You can make a greyhound with vodka or with gin.”

“Hendrick’s?”

“Gilbey’s.” He handed me his key ring.

“Should I leave you the house keys? Like in case you need to go out.”

Dmitri just stared at me. I stared at Dmitri’s stein and straw.

“Later bro,” I said.


As usual, there was nowhere to park—there never is—so I blocked in a Ford Explorer that I knew belonged to the pizza-savant at the wood-fired slice place next door. He wasn’t going anywhere, not with the lunch rush bearing down.

It took a while to load all the grocery bags full of books into the trunk and backseat and shotgun seat and also floor and hatchback of the Spezia, but I got it done, went back inside to lock up, re-emerged to a storm of car horns and hoarse screaming voices.

Smith Street is a one-way, narrow and heavily trafficked. The combination of my parking job and a city bus had pretty much choked it off. I found the bus driver standing by Dmitri’s car, stern-gazed and stone-shouldered, like Idris Elba, whom I had glimpsed once, I was pretty sure, getting out of a cab at the Icelandic bistro in the bowels of the cool part of Chinatown, one night back before the intended and I had fully made our intentions clear, i.e. when we still had to actually go to a place to see if we meant it when we said “Yeah, that place could be cool.”

Anyway, the bus driver. He was a beautiful man, almost hard to look at; a beefy angel in municipal rayon, one massive hand calmly loading billiard balls into a pair of stockings he held open with the other. Blue-striped twelve, green solid seven, snowy cue. The balls went down one leg and he used the other leg to tie it off.

He paused when he saw me approaching, cocked his head, and with as much kindness in his voice as warning said, “Your meter’s up, old son.”

“That’s not a metered spot. I’m not even in a spot.”

He raised his weapon high above his head. The very heavens, the very traffic, seemed to be holding its breath. He swung that stocking like it was Ned Stark’s sword—or that other guy’s, the guy who beheads Ned Stark. Dmitri’s driver’s side mirror dropped severed to the asphalt, where it clattered only once and somehow did not shatter. The bus driver took it for a trophy and returned to his vehicle in triumph, his passengers’ applause yet unabated when the door hissed shut. With the mirror gone he was able to edge his bus around the Spezia. The traffic breathed a sigh of incensed relief.


The bad used bookstore was a legendary eyesore, one of those neighborhood disfigurations that makes locals self-conscious and evilly proud. The proprietor was a vintage New York lunatic. Echt nutcase. He barely understood that he owned a building—an inheritance, I’d heard—let alone what said building might be worth or to whom. He lived upstairs, in what I assumed was the apartment he’d grown up in, unless he slept in the storefront itself. The place was a true hoarder’s paradise, by which I mean it was a grim gross purgatory: caved-in shelves and listing floor-stacks; creeping mold from winter damp and summer swelter; ugly carpet, choking smoke. He sat in his trade-paper firetrap, the very model of a Kurtz or a Buddha, hand-rolling from an endless metal tub of Drum, ashing anywhere and everywhere, flicking butts into the urn he’d fashioned from the previous endless tub. I guessed he ran through roughly an endless tub every week.

I came before this stoic Gollum to describe in heartbreaking, pornographic detail what I had out in the Spezia, thinking to myself that though—as stipulated—art cannot and should not console us, commerce ought do nothing but. One thing that consoled me about selling my books here was knowing that nobody would ever read them, because nobody but lost tourists, other neighborhood crazies, and yours truly ever set foot inside this mausoleum. Besides which, in these conditions the books would be fouled to ruin in a month. I was taking them out of circulation forever and relished, as only a poet can, this obscenity I was committing, this crime against the circle of literary life. I felt the way Byron must have when he fucked his sister, or perhaps the way Mary Shelley felt when Percy fucked hers. It was a sporting self-harm that I would always have the pleasure of remembering—jouissance everlasting—even as Freud, in his essay “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming,” speaks of “the fantasy, which has its origin in present experience and the recollection of the past: so that past, present and future are strung together on the thread of one desire that unites all three.”

“There’s a good bit of Freud in one of those bags,” I said. “Decent translations, too. I’ve got Emerson’s Essays, the good one with the Douglas Crase intro. Biographia Literaria. The whole Wave Books catalog from 2006 to 2013 except for Noelle Kocot’s Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems, and Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast, both of which I’m keeping. Mint-condition Moser Moby-Dick; I mean it’s the University of California reprint, but what are you gonna do? Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary. John Ashbery’s Rimbaud. That’s the barest tip of the iceberg, which reminds me—the Finca Vigia Hemingway, and first editions of everything by Tao Lin. How much, you maybe think, for the whole lot? Don’t want to show my hand here but I’m a motivated seller . . .”—I thought for a moment—“. . . old son.”

A hairy eyeball glinted through the pillar of smoke. “I’ll make you a trade.”

“Can’t take store credit, I’m afraid. I’m moving, and won’t be back here.” A sting behind my eyes when I said that, when I heard myself saying it out loud. I bit the inside of my cheek and thought the words, You love and are loved, goddammit, you ingrate, you heart-scoliated fuck.

I repeated this mantra in silence, and also kept up my biting. Welcome spurt of cheekblood on my tongue and down my throat.

“Not in trade, boy. A trade. I have something you want. Something you need.”

I swallowed cheekblood before speaking. “What is it?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Hand of fate spins the wheel of fate. Faith is the doorway. You ain’t browsing Netflix trailers here.”

I was so floored he knew what Netflix was that I accepted his offer.

His hand was flaccid and somehow buttery when we shook.


When we finished unloading the car he disappeared behind a mold-flowered curtain. I stood dumbly shifting my weight back and forth, gulping blood. He stayed gone for so long I thought he’d forgotten me or died back there, or worse yet had welched on our mystery, and the only fate-hand spinning my fate-wheel would be my own. But then he emerged with a brick-sized parcel wrapped in butcher paper, which from its weight I thought might actually be a brick.

“Shop’s closing,” he said. Pulled the grate down behind me as soon as I stepped outside. “Soon to be a CVS” said a laminated paper ringbolted to the metal. But that sign was homemade, had been hanging there for years.

In the car I tore through the waxy wrapping and saw he had given me, of all things, a book. It was hardbound in oxblood leather, title stamped on the spine in gold leaf: Port Romantic by Engu Boo. I flipped it open.

The Portable
Romantic
Poets

Edited by

W.H. AUDEN and
NORMAN HOLMES PEARSON

PENGUIN BOOKS

Scribbles and strikethroughs, white-out clouds and thick black Sharpie bars. He had edited the anthology by way of redaction—eradication—preserving only stray lines or in some instances phonemes or individual letters. From Leigh Hunt’s “The Fish, The Man, and the Spirit” he had blacked out everything but instances of “I,” “O,” and “U.”

Just then my intended texted. How’s it going? she wrote. You doing ok?

Christ I missed her! My scoliated heart was throbbing, pining, breaking.

I shut my phone off, set course for the BQE.


The highway only heightened my sense of apocalypse, though whether impending or in progress, I couldn’t say. All the skylinable stuff behind me now, I looked out over an ocean of brownstone and warehouse roofs punctuated by the intermittent mid-rise brick shithouse of a housing project, or one of those steel-and-glass doozies the developers favored for defoliating whatever character these outlying neighborhoods had left. What was it, exactly, that frightened me about leaving? Well, there was the loss of friends, contacts, context, community, certainty, decent pizza, and my very life to consider—but apart from that stuff, what was the big damn deal? Whither thou goest I will go, as Ruth said to Naomi. I had said as much and meant it. My love for my intended was so total I even saved her from this story, my irony like a shielding sword over her likeness, over her very name. But if there’s little irony in intention, there’s none in action. There is only doing what you said you would—arriving thither—or not.

I was past due for my cry amid the alien corn.


By the time I hit Brighton I was ravenous. I parked, found a restaurant with a walk-up window—Kazakh, I thought—ordered meat dumplings and a tarragon soda, took my spoils down to the same sea Whitman and Crane had probably said something or the other about, and picnic’d while I pored through the wreckage of William Blake and Walter Savage Landor; a confetti of Beddoes, Emerson, and Thomas Hood. Poor Coleridge had been stripped to his chassis, and Thomas Moore simply swapped out: quite literally papered over with pasted-in pages from a Selected Emily Dickinson, which themselves had been subjected to the full Engu Boo. Here was his treatment of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”:

A

Hea t quest




or Air, or
R
A

T
if

Chill

That was pretty good, actually. Unless what I was taking for aesthetic splendor was really so much smoke from the calorie bomb lately detonated in my blood stream, a feeling that by the way was nothing if not formal. Grease, gluten, sugar, lamb—and then the letting go.


I stayed at the beach until mid-sunset, when a trio of loose-limbed tweens on torpedo-nosed longboards rolled by at easy speed once too often. I was afraid of them without being able to tell, in the fluttering dusk, what their ethnicity was, which seemed a strange but real victory, and inspiration enough to quit (for once) while I was still ahead.

I would miss the subway like a phantom limb. In fact I missed it already, the way a diabetic “misses” the foot about to be amputated. I was nostalgic for future loss, like a Victorian apocalypse, though for all this agonized bluster hadn’t I elected to spend my day behind the wheel of a car?

I drove back to Dmitri’s place and upon arriving was elated to the verge of stupefaction to see that the Spezia’s parking spot remained—or else was once again, lo these many hours later—unoccupied, mine for the taking. This, truly, was a New York miracle! The city’s way, maybe, of saying goodnight and good luck.


I let myself into Dmitri’s place, Port Romantic in hand, intending it as a gift to him for letting me borrow the car, as well as apology for keeping it for seven hours, burning through half a tank of gas, and losing the side-view mirror.

I found him splayed out on his bed, which was in his front room; his stein upended on the floor. No sticky booze puddle though; he’d either finished the drink before dropping the glass or had licked up what he’d spilled. He still wore Christina’s bathrobe, though the terry-cloth belt was gone (whence the splay) but now here was a surprise—Christina herself, and likewise splayed as you could ask for, there in the bed beside him. They were laying naked head to toe and both passed out cold. A prescription bottle on the mantle above the bricked-up fireplace didn’t tell me what they’d gotten into—only that the guy who had sold it to them had an Ativan scrip for himself.

Something low and bowling ball-sized shifted in the shadows at the foot of the bed. Mutant rat, I figured, but in fact it was China White, Dmitri’s creme d’argent, which nobody will blame you for not knowing is a breed of rabbit. She was snuffling out from under a pile of Christina’s discarded clothes.

I had wondered more than once what a girl as hot as she was ever saw in a guy like him: feckless, luckless, abrupt. Seeing her naked did not help to answer that question, but seeing him naked, for the first time in the life of our friendship, did. Now I saw—quite literally—what she’d seen that I hadn’t. Girthy and goosebumped as summer squash, and insofar as I couldn’t un-see it then perhaps it was for the best that I was leaving town, because I’d surely never again look at Dmitri the same, i.e. in the eyes. Or Christina, given where I spotted the twisty straw.

China White hopped away from the bed, right between my legs and deeper into the apartment, through the kitchen and toward the back door, which I saw had been left open, and ran to shut before she reached it, though of course my running only spooked her, so that I, in effect, chased her into Dmitri’s yard. Ten by twelve square feet of dirt over which, by dint of a grace unfathomable, no concrete had ever been poured.

The yard had been left to grow wild. Creeper vines, borage, and dandelions rampant, and toward the back fence a clutch of sunflowers standing seven feet and higher, faces aimed up toward the arc sodium constellation burning in the Battery Tunnel night.

Since the rabbit surely outweighed any stray cats that might have been lurking, it stood to reason that Dmitri, mindful of his impending unconsciousness, had left the door open specifically for her egress. I went back inside.

I had set Port Romantic down on Dmitri’s desk but I still had his keys in my pocket. I wanted to put them where he’d be sure to see them come the morning. Beside my Boo, I now noticed, sat a Schlegel omnibus—the ’71 U Minnesota Press edition with Lucinde and The Fragments and the “Essay on Incomprehensibility” all in one. His phone was sitting on top of it. I put the keys beside them and was about to leave, indeed was halfway out the door when an Orphic glance at the insensate couple revealed, through the gloom and distance, like a vision neither quite Pauline nor Coleridgean, where the terry-cloth belt had gone.

They had tied themselves together at the wrists.

If only they could see themselves this way, I thought, serene in shared repose.

I went back to the desk, grabbed his phone.

I took pictures of Dmitri and Christina: wide angles and close-ups, portrait and landscape, wash-out and chiaroscuro, all of it still life; improvising with settings and levels as I went. On the little screen they looked like corpses—skin bright as ice or deli meat—and seemed in that moment like their truest selves: two sluts for punishment bound together by a self-made umbilicus that itself appeared charred in the sepia filter, while the glitter in the plastic of the twisty straw was all lit up from the flash like Christina had died midway through giving birth to a narrow galaxy, and Dmitri had dropped dead next to her for sorrow, like lovers were always doing in 19th-century novels and Greek myths.

I made that one his new homescreen, returned to the desk, and flipped through Port Romantic’s gilt-edged pages until I found the Wordsworth section, which Engu Boo had nearly altogether decimated, though what he’d left was telling, I thought, in that it wasn’t mere words or letters, but a single line preserved in its entirety, a fragment majestic in its fullness:

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

I put the phone down as a page-marker, closed the book.


Back on Smith Street everything was closing—pizza place, laundromat, other pizza place. Only the bodega and the Rite Aid were open all night. I was exhausted, or thought I was, until I went upstairs to the empty apartment and saw that my poem, “The Shitfucker Vulture,” had been accepted at 48 of the 174 journals where I had sent it. I accepted each acceptance individually, lavishing my many editors with capacious letters of gratitude, admittedly relying on certain stock phrases or patterns of language but never once resorting to cut and paste. Sometimes I suggested changing the title, other times left well enough alone.

Writing the letters took all night. I heard the grate being raised from the face of the laundromat we lived above, as the eye-level street light outside our bedroom window—the one that would have kept us from moving in in the first place if we’d noticed it—winked off. I stood up stiff from the scuffed floor, turned my phone on and texted my intended. I told her I had finished dealing with the books. I did not use the word “liquidate.” I told her I had had a poem accepted at a prominent journal, was ready to talk plane tickets, and that, broadly speaking, the future was looking bright.

Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience, I said, quoting, and knowing that she would know that, and also who and why.

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