Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives
On a page of vellum — Saint Catherine in an O — within a letter made of vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem, a woman
offers her neck. It’s a kind of ready-made scene — the saint kneeling on a cropped wedge of earth, someone with a crown in a tower, & a swordsman who is only a frocked booted boy pulling back
his robe for his work — & seems carelessly done, as if the illuminator chose death to be a kind of afterthought to vermilion. To leaf-curl, areola, awl-shaped stems, his blossoms’ dazzling tangle. As if
this were response enough. O, omphalos. Meaning center & navel, meaning the first time a blade touches flesh. And meaning here a frame of plenitude through which we witness again.
There are no limits to our verbs, our forms: think of the knife that slits an orange or bundled iris stems, the one strapped to the rooster’s varnished spur. The dagger, poniard, dirk.
Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
A cut, an incision, a gouge. In Sudan, the story goes, when the slogan of reform was The Future’s in Your Hands, men scavenged the streets
waving machetes, hacking off hands above the wrist, asking How will you hold the future now? The stiletto, the skean, the scythe.
The choosing, the mark, the tool. Beneath a concrete bridge,
shirtless & drunk, a boy works his way through the swallows’ nests, slashing until each mud cone-shape drops into the river, dissolves.
Yet to say so is hardly enough. To say pigsticker, bayonet, shiv.
Because in Waco, behind Benny’s Gas & Go, a man plays slide guitar with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs — one about light, the Lord moving on water, about what will be
by & by; how blood, he knows, will make him whole, & blades that changed into doves.
Or because this splendor of color ends on the parchment in a burnished gold resembling a cluster of burrs,
the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide as it grazed on grass tufts or slogged its way home. Staring, bewildered in the stillness, it may survive this way for a few days more
before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose, into the page of this psalm. Here, near the margin, are traces of it still: patterns of skin, a texture like velvet, follicles, the throat’s scalloped curve.
Swallowed Things (after the collection of Dr. Chevalier Jackson)
Fish bones & seeds. A toothpick, pipe stems. Two legibly inscribed jade rings.
The body must be
recumbent, facing downward, with lowered shoulders & head. A thimble, coal lump,
a pistachio shell,
peach pits, a tin whistle half. Do not, lest it be further pushed into the larynx,
try to reach for it
with your hand. A penny, a jack, kernels of some kind. A key that must have been
passed across a pair of lips. Emblems of accident — bullet casings, bottle caps,
that winking doll head —
or erratic compulsion — pottery shards, the spoon. Carefully consider the texture,
each object’s size & shape.
Consider Mary N ——, age 23, who could finally return to the stocking factory
once the lead button
was removed. Or Brooks G ——, who had lodged for seven years an Audubon badge
in his bronchus.
Monitor weight loss, the fever’s range. A hinge, a tack while laying down
oilcloth, the jeweled
locket of Dorothy K ——, somehow the clock’s cogged wheels. As if almost a way
of transforming the ordinary, making sacrament of what’s within reach.
from, say, a safety pin, to this one, here, this particular thing, you now survived & hold.
Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice
February mist, morning thaw just begun, & the heron that is the same color of slate as the pond on which she moves today is nowhere in sight.
Two days ago, my wife & I watched her hunting near the drainage pipe
& heard at first nothing at each supple step. Then, just as her foot touched, a muffled creak of something giving way, her body’s weight pressing at ice. We lost track of how long this lasted: patternless, a few steps
of audible silence, surface giving nothing back, & then — cleanly, sporadically — a tap of pressure on the ice’s crust. She was stalking God knows what, moving on a pond frozen through — slow, determined,
then lingering, affixed on something we couldn’t see. A heron hunting tucks one leg back, lifts its neck, & with a sudden stab thrrough air, allows its body to unfold. This one, though, I’ve only seen take
these tentative steps, lean in, wait implausibly, then begin moving again. What happened
took place weeks after Isadora Duncan’s children drowned & isn’t much of a storyy at all.
This was after the driver turned the stalled car’s crank & the vehiccccle lurched & tumbled down the embankment, broke the river’s surface, & was gone. Somewhere on a beach on Corfu, Duncan imagines
the Seine’s ribboned gray — its surge & gradual calm — & pictures hooks & dragging lines, an anchor snagged on a sun-glazed wheel.
Then, although she’s promised there will be nothing more,
she watches her arm move. Wave froth, sand fl eas, beach grass scruff.
Her hand lowered, raised. It seems, perhaps, like the fi rst gesture she has made as she bends her wrist gradually back & makes what the body does
willed: for a moment, almost, mending, evanescence, her body both forgotten & salve to itself, & then fastened to a way of saying that somehow seems to suffice. For years,
a man born in a stubble field is satisfied documenting his walks. It is, he claims, our fl awless art, just as it’s perfect how dust freckles each lemon tree blossom, or how his horses stir in their decrepit stalls, watching rain pool in the dark palm
of a shovel & in the earth between their hooves. These are moments the man considers, too, as he drifts through the streets & hills, taking endless pictures of himself doing ordinary things, stark naked in each one.
Catching his breath at a barbwire fence, waiting for a passing mule.
Striding past a silo, scattering ravens. Arms outstretched, leaping from a rock.
Sipping walnut brandy in the shade.
A friend once tried to explain this to me,
defining it in terms of dailiness, ritual, the precarious framework of the mundane. Think of Duchamp’s urinal, I was told.
Or Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, a piece in which absence, fixed
in a gold-leaf frame, becomes an end in itself. In which absence takes the form of a yellow sheet clumped with remnants of ink & crayon. It’s not the same, is it, as that story of Pollock, most likely far from true?
How he once bought a Picasso in order to erase it, to learn how the line might work, the way the body’s dialect finds voice.
Lead on cream paper, c. 1908. Four Studies of the Human Hand.
Then his task filled hours — each fingertip, knuckle,
wrist. In a photo taken somewhere in Russia, a crowd lunges towards ...