The third and fatal letter had cold-cocked him as he fell.
What had I done? God save me. In the Second Book of Thel
(The posthumous edition, MDCCCXL)
There is a fearsome Prophecy. The angel Azrael
Collars the poet-murderer who exiteth pellmell
From blood-drenched Ololon. All, all alone, he tells them, they’ll
Find you, if any find you that can beard the cockerel,
And scatter the Rurales at the bridge of San Miguel,
And shrink not, when the Deathwatch Scarab sounds his little knell
And fire-breathing Urizen ignites his Muriel,
But plunge to their inflatables though all the hounds of hell
Beset them at the precipices of Mont-Saint-Michel
With flashcubes and fatuities. And if the deep-wound spell
Confound them at the Rann of Kutch, it may be just as well.
The desart sands stretch far away. The weird mirages gel
into a rust-red megalith. Is it the Lost Hotel
Of Hilton’s legendary venture into the Sahel?
Is it the slab left standing when the Legions of Fidel
Retreated from Miami Beach? The Sheraton Bucknell?
The traveler who trembles ever nearer will dispel
His doubts about the matter if he rings the little bell
That hangs beside the buttress near the skeleton. A smell
Of hundred-year-old costumes from the chorus in Giselle
Will occupy the senses for an instant. Then a yell
Of pain, then painted silence. Then, like something in Durrell,
A wizened form will totter forth, a formless whisper tell
The whole interminable cause that causes him to dwell
In penitential solitude within the gutted shell
Of what had been a really halfway decent beach motel
Before they built the Fontainebleau and then the Caravelle
And half the help went off, and how the mattress in his cell
Has never really been the same, and how his wife Raquel
Got custody, and how this thing without a parallel
In psychiatric history embarrasses him while
He’s talking to the pilgrims, how if only he could quell
This idiot compulsion to keep rhyming upon L—
And then the fit releases him, and then the racking sobs
Reduce his frame to jelly and his vocables to blobs,
And with a look to drive hobgoblins howling to their hobs
He launches on the table—a tale so glacial and severe
It literally chills the blood—a tale it is a clear
And present kitchen-table hypothermia to hear.
“There was,” he says. And then he seems to scan the breeze, perplexed.
And rummage in his clothes, like someone mad, or oversexed.
And plough the sofa-bed. Aha. He comes up with a text.
He holds it with his skinny hand. “There was a quote,” says he.
“A quote, and then a quota, since the laws of euphony
Required, in that ungodly form. not two lines rhymed, but three.
It’s work, when you’ve been rhyming stuff like cupola, or couplet.
I was prepared to have a pup, and I don’t mean a puplet.
I could have staged a pretty fair Clint Eastwood shoot-em-uplet
Just me myself and I. And when this amateur, this foof,
Comes barging in and tells me the whole linchpin of my proof
That rhymelessnesses do exist was slated to go pouf
If he survived to tell the tale, I simply hit the ceiling.
Perhaps it was anxiety-of-influence. We’re dealing
With deeply-seating patterns here. Both unexamined feeling
And unacknowledged interest. Look here, I’m not a kid.
I know the inner workings of the literary id.
For half a second there I simply wanted to be rid
Of him and all he stood for. You can bet your bones I did.
But that’s not saying I intended murder. Not exactly—”
A weightless old man’s voice it is that wobbles on, half-crackedly.
His visitor is, nonetheless, and not at all abstractly,
Riveted. He can scarcely breathe. His throat. The geezer’s grasp
Has grown as energy-efficient as an iron hasp
Upon an iron maiden. All a man can do is gasp.
“It’s—” He can speak no further. He points wildly westward. “It’s—”
“You noticed,” says his host, and lets him down until he hits
The carpet with his climbing boots. (Among the benefits
Of Abercrombie outfitting are elevator crampons.)
The old man sighs. “It’s lonely when the only thing that dampens
Your doorway is a few stray Okeechobeeans and Tampans,
And nobody when sense enough to know a Rosenquist
From a Rodin or understand the gulf between a hist-
Orian or the sense and an anecdotalist.
It is a grim, a horrid thing—a horrid and a grim—
To be the founder-curator of a fine-arts museum
And have the public treat it like a rest-stop or a gym.
It aggravates the spirit. It was that way from the first.
In fact some ways the earliest intrusions were the worse.
Sensation-seekers coming by to peep in if they durst.
As if I’d hide it from the world! It stood clear, from the day
The homicide detectives hauled the other four away.
It is, as you were trying emphysemically to say,
Unique. The true Found Object. The Blunt Instrument. In short,
The selfsame “Stunning Triumph” of the first ArtNews report,
The “stark shape” that “revised the views” of Rene D’Haroncourt.
The earth had moved. Bloom said so. “The Kosmogonon has swerved.”
Remarks like that were typical. The critics were unnerved.
Perhaps it is the fate of the pioneers to be ill-served
By media expositors. They praised it well enough.
But they kept dragging in, you know, such heavy heavy stuff.
Phidias. Eames. Bernini. Henry Ford. It was enough
To sour a man on sculpting. If it wasn’t for this curs-
Ed speech impediment, I would have gone back into verse.
Do you know Henry Geldzahler? No matter. He was worse.
He got me, just as rapidly as he could gallivant,
(He always was an operator and a sycophant)
A National Endowment Arts-in-Architecture grant,
To “finish” it no less. And so I did. It was a weakness.
I actually painted it. To heighten the uniqueness.
It was like putting mag wheels on a favorite for the Preakness.
One of my poet-critic friends—I think it was Paul Hoover—
Suggested it. Young man, beware the masterpiece-improver.
I tried it, it was shit. I took it down with the paint-remover.
The more I took it down, the higher up it seemed to soar.
But like I always used to say, Lucrezia, less is more.
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a semaphor
For?” (But he is convulsed. He rolls a moment on the floor.)
The traveler, if he has got his breath sufficiently
To follow these outr remarks, will have begun to see
A rusty piece of I-beam, with an eighty-nine degree
Bend at the bottom, teetering and looming rustily
Where French doors in an alcove give a prospect of the sea.
Upon the terrace trellises, night-blooming clinamen
Twine in a verdant feast for many a quick-win’d denizen,
And this is strange, because the traveler who looks again
Will sear his eyes in vain across a trackless Ogaden.
“It may not have the grandeur of the classics of its period:
Red Grooms’s Greater Ames, Frank Gallo’s fiberglass-wisteria’d
Collonnade of Vidals in Composition of the Myriad.
It may not dominate a space the way the Albright-Knox
Was dominated in the days of Dine’s Braille Brillo Box
Or Marisol’s Six Parachutes in Search of Edward Cox.
It may not have created the sensation in the press
That Oldenberg incited with the Getty’s Burger Dress
Nor scandalized the yokels like Noguchi’s Lesslessness.
And yet I like to think it stands unique, and confident:
Last in the line of minimalist hypermonument,
Distinct precursor of the Art of Terminal Event.
I like to think John Hollander himself, if he were here. . .”
He burbles on contentedly. To catalog the sheer
Spaciness in his vagrant gaze, would tax a gazetteer.
Oh miscreant, who raised your hand against a fellow rhymester
When your own verse was schlockier than flatware from a dimestore
And looked like something salvaged from the nextdoor Dempster Dumpster,
Oh wretch, oh wretched wretch, oh vaticide without excuse,
Behold the thing you are, the thing you will become, the goose
The ninny the incompetent the dotard the caboose
Upon the cosmic choo-choo train from Blather to Oblivion!
No scurvy dog, no shipwreck-vulture scurrying to divvy an
Inheritance of splendors on the Cornish or Maldivian
Reefs when a stately galleon has gone to Davey Jones
Is so despicable a thing. Whole centuries of groans
And kvetchings and cajolings to an audience of bones
Cannot in any particle begin to expiate
Your foulness, you great zilch, you passing flatulence of fate,
You piece of fruit-fly poopoo on the Muses’ dinnerplate,—
(That’s angel-talk. Remember please, all this that I retell
Is spoken by an angel by the name of Azrael
In William Blake’s notorious The Second Book of Thel—
The posthumous edition, MDCCCXL—
In which he nabs a vaticide and socks him with a spell
Propounded so profoundly and professionally well
It cannot be dissolved till someone beards the cockerel,
And solves the cryptarithm in the ancient Irish kell
About the addled beggar and the ragged damosel,
And undergoes the overdose of P.D.Q. Ravel:
The seven-hour, ten-orchestra, two-hundred decibel
Moog-synthesized Bolero on “The Farmer in the Dell,”
And proves Fermat’s Last Theorem, and—
Thanks, I needed that.
It renders one suggestible, to stand as if at bat,
Frozen above a prostate versifier-laureate
While thirteen dozen lines of High-Romantic billingsgate
About the price of flateware and the flatulence of fate
Rattle across your onboard data-bank retrieval screen.
It renders one susceptible, and terrified, and mean.
One has this almost tactile urge to buttonhole some clean
And wholesome Appalachian-Mountain-Club adventurer
And fix him with a glittering eye, and hold him like a cur,
And let him squirm and whimper and befoul the furniture
But not advance one inch beyond the orbit of the hall
In which you hold the shroud-lines of his sanity in thrall
While you unfold the tale I tell, till you have told it all.
It is a far, far better course than it would be to dwell
Upon the horrid postlude to the Second Book of Thel,
Wherin the Muse’s nephews and the Muse’s stepsons tell
Of unremitting wittoldry beside the Sacred Well
And unrelenting vengeance—But enough. I must be terse.
Economy in all things is the principle of verse.
And I must to my task. There are fresh sequels to rehearse.
In Part One, the Poet, having caught a competitor in a trivial falsehood, takes petty advantage. In Part Two, the injured party offers fair parley, but a chance word is taken amiss. As fate would have it, murderous weapons are at hand, in shape of letters from a monumental iron alphabet.
George Starbuck (1931–1996) was an American poet. The recipient of the 1960 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for his first collection, Bone Thoughts (Yale University Press, 1960), he authored more than a half dozen books of poetry during his lifetime.