Monday, June 30, 2014


One harsh winter an elephant of ice
Stood in St. Petersburg. A sergeant,
By order of the Empress Anna, sat inside,
Wrapped in furs, making horn calls
Except when he was drunk (Who so cruel
As to leave a cold soldier without vodka?)
When that happened, the guards would seize
Some street performer too slow to evade them.
Then the elephant would make bird calls
Or tell jokes about Tatars and Cossacks.
For three years after, it was said,
The sergeant’s lips and ears were blue.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


            Just at the end of summer in 1901, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa, artist, rouĂ©, alcoholic and celebrated dwarf, died, a few months short of his 37th birthday. Since I was born in spring, something more than a half-century later,  I was nervous when I went to his funeral, fearful that I’d strike a jarring, anachronistic note. I needn’t have feared; no one even looked up when I entered and found a seat towards the back of the church.

          The atmosphere, except for his mother who sat weeping at the very front, was relaxed, and the general attitude seemed to be that a unique friend would be sorely missed, but that it was astonishing that, given his health and his habits, he’d lived as long as he had. Occasionally a snort would be heard from one portion of the church or another, as someone tried to suppress a laugh from a remembered story, or from hearing one in an undertone from his neighbor. The whores – all quietly dressed – were mostly seated on the left side of the church. Briand was seated among them, occasionally turning his head slowly to the left and right, that more of the audience could have the chance to enjoy his profile.

The man next to me, who was wearing immaculate evening wear and a fresh flower in his lapel, at 10 in the morning, looked familiar, but so did many in the church. The artist had populated his paintings with his friends and relatives. Although I normally speak very poor French – the sort no one in Paris would ever admit to understanding – I had been temporarily been granted the gift of tongues, and understood my neighbor when he asked if I had been a friend of the deceased.

“No, monsieur, simply an admirer. And you?”

“It’s hard to say, exactly. Consider me a sort of relative.”

We sat, then, in companionable silence, listening to a recitation of the deceased’s many virtues – his kindliness, his wit, his devotion to his friends, his refusal to give in to despair. While his artistic talent was praised, no mention was made of his sexual prowess or his penchant for  inventing strange and wonderful cocktails. Perhaps to compensate, quite a lot was said about the Counts of Toulouse and that sad affair, the Albigensian Crusade, in which they had played an equivocal part.

This went on for some while before I noticed that an elderly fat woman in front of me seemed to be melting. Gradually, she grew slimmer, and her hair became red, and I recognized – as what admirer of the artist would not? – La Golue, the Glutton, as she had looked when she had danced with Valentin the Boneless at the Moulin Rouge.

“I need some air. Will you walk with me?” My neighbor put his request so courteously that I couldn’t say no. Outside the church, the streets were filled with automobiles.

“Surely it’s too early for there to be so  many cars about?” I said.

“Your pardon. This is 1920; we have exited through La Golue’s entrance, which leads to and from the day she died, collapsing onto a bed in a Marseille brothel. Sadly, she was employed there only as a maid.”

“But is Lautrec’s funeral still going on in 1920?”

“As far as I know, it never ends. If it wasn’t sometimes so merry, if I couldn’t sometimes slip out for a drink, if there wasn’t always money in my pocket, I would suspect it was an aspect of Hell.” With these words, we entered a bar, dim and peaceful in the late afternoon, where a few peaceful, dim men were drinking and a young woman was talking in a quiet, intense voice to a parrot.

{{I may be gone a few days. As always, you are encouraged to leave comments and chat among yourselves until I get back. Or even afterwards}}

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


After days with gamblers and whores
The poet Pushkin visited
The beautiful Golitsyna, called
La princesse nocturne since
She only appeared at night.

Years after his death, she
Declared war on the potato
A dishonest vegetable and, besides,

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


In Kyoto's dry riverbed
The priestess Okuni dances
It is 1596; she is the first woman
To perform kabuki dances.
I must go see her but
I will need good company.
Toulouse Lautrec demurs
"A man a century dead
Needs his rest." "Nonsense!
We will watch Okuni dance
Then tour the pleasure precinct
Two more ghosts? Who will notice?"
"Can you promise we'll see geishas?"
"Yes, and there will be rice wine."

On the frozen Thames
Nell Gwynn dances
With Samuel Pepys.
How far this poem has come
To assure you of this!
Along the way here
Its imagery was lost
The moral, too, died
Of consumption.
Still, there is enough.

Monday, June 23, 2014


We watched the shore for a while in the half-light. Dusk’s eyes glowed like a cat’s by a fire. Moving with the current, we only had to use our poles from time to time to steer clear of rocks and shoals. I asked him when he slept, since someone must always guide his boat. He pointed towards a figure I hadn’t noticed before, lying by some barrels.
“Why, I am sleeping right now, over there, and quite comfortably, my feet in some dream’s lap. If you look sharp though, you’ll probably find me pacing the deck as well; I am often plagued by insomnia.”
Dusk was speaking to me, yet at the same time he came walking towards us from the boat’s rear. “It’s no use,” he said, “I can’t get to sleep. I’ll take the other pole, Westerly, and you had best talk with that dream of yours. You’ll both be going ashore soon.”
When I left them, Dusk looked sidelong for an instant and nodded, as if some suspicion had been confirmed. As I walked away he was talking to himself about the weather.
I suddenly remembered my dream’s name; he was called Scoggin, and lifted his head when I spoke it.
“Lord, now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a while! I wouldn’t have thought any knew it now.”
He was whittling a chain of links from a piece of ivory, cutting very precisely and cleanly, with economic long strokes of a sharp knife.
“It’s for a child,” he said. “She’ll dream tonight that it was given to her, and find it in her hand when she wakes up. The road she’ll walk will lead to places the Fates mean her never to go.”
“Great Zeus Himself cannot defy the Fates, I’ve been told.”
“Nor can he, being Great Zeus. Dreams, however, are not wholly subject to the Fates. Drives them crazy, I shouldn’t wonder, especially the one with the shears”


Saturday, June 21, 2014


Through the window a shaft of light;
The dust dances; music plays
And only I to watch the dust
And only I to hear the music.
What year was this? Long gone;
If the dust next day had chanced
Or willed to join with other things
And so be born a man that man
Would be finding now his first gray hairs
Should I recognize him as he passes
Curling himself against the cold
I would think “I have not forgotten;
You were dust then but you danced
In a slant of light.”

Friday, June 20, 2014


Because they are so very old
Adam and Eve have become birds
On the
island of Innis Boffin.
Since this is part of
There are no serpents. Adam
Has given some thought
To being human once more
But wishes he could run his plan
By Satan whose advice always
Led to interesting results. Eve,
Though, refuses to travel.

T.F. Thistleton Dyer feels that the birds which used to be Adam and Eve are eagles. This strikes me as unlikely. Wrens or herons, perhaps. Quite possibly. a pair of sooty shearwaters -- a species which has been known to go insane and allegedly inspired Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.  Just thought you'd like to know.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Where did I miss my turning?
Two thousand years from now
Who will say of me, “A grammarian,
A naturalist and a theologian,
He was also an astrologer
And magician and, on occasion,
A wonder worker?”

Thus the scholar Franz Cumont
Pricks at my conscience.
Really, could I not somehow work
An occasional wonder?
No. Worse, I have no answer
When my 3 year old self asks
“Why aren’t you a fire truck?”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


There was a time when I could go to the statistics page of this thing and find that a Venezuelan, midway in life's course and finding herself lost in a dark forest (I believe wolves might have been involved too), had read this blog. Now she's vanished. I can only assume the rabbits have hidden her too. doing a better job than they did with Spain. She, Spain and, I suppose, the rabbits, are in our prayers. Meanwhile:

WS at the Chinese Buffet

As flies to wonton soup are we to the guards
If us they see at all they spoon us roughly forth
And benapkin our salty corpses with discretion.
Yet, atimes, the corpse proves itself false; not dead
But only numbed. Crawling from its whitish sepulchre
It tumbles down and down‘til intercepted belike
By trouser cuff decreed by some kind fate unsewn.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


The Duchess of Kendall  had a large raven
Which flew into her room on the day
George I died. Convinced it was the King,
Her lover, she took care of it fondly
And, though reputed miserly, fed it
The very finest carrion and worms.
After her death, the raven was little seen
Until he turned up in a footnote to a poem
By Lord Byron. (Some think from there
He was borrowed by Edgar Allen Poe.)
I have read King Arthur is now a raven
Waiting the hour of
Britain's greatest need
King George, though, seems content
To flock with the poets though in life
He’d no use for them. His laureate,
Nicholas Rowe, haunts Westminster still
His pension three centuries in arrears.

Monday, June 16, 2014


          In many languages “angel” is translated as “messenger,” but this isn’t quite so. An angel is not a messenger; an angel is a message. At times, I think we are even less; not messages but memoranda -- reminders He writes to Himself. He forgets nothing because what He forgets has never been.

            Imagine being omnipresent. You go nowhere you haven’t been. Everywhere you go, there you are already. Now, think of being omnichronant. You’re not just everywhere; you’re every when. No instant in time but has you there and this makes every instant one. Since I am giving you gifts, let me make you omnipotent too. There is nothing you cannot do. What is it You want? To escape, I think.

            You make a universe, maybe more than one, and have it pretend it isn’t You, and that each second is unique and separate. You make places act as if they too are unique. Lights you make and, more important, shadows. You wonder who would live so constrained, leaping from one moment to the next, limited to one place at a time. Because it is You wondering, they are there already, thinking they’ve always been.

            Compared to Your awful soldidity, though, the universe floats like the ghost of a bubble. Should You forget anything about it, should you change Your mind, the universe will change. But, providently, you’ve taken steps to prevent this. Your universe comes with notes on the things You mustn’t forget. Each note is an angel.

            The Angel of Fire reminds You that things burn. The Angel of Death is a note saying “Things die.” Metraton, the terrible angel of knowledge, the angel of the Law, is a fearful whisper “Don’t erase what You have written!”

            There are lesser angels, too, and angels whose meaning none but You know. There is an angel who insists there are ravens, and another who says there was a particular raven ten thousand years ago. There is an angel for every day of the week, except Friday, which has four angels who hate each other.

            There are those in Your worlds who think angels don’t hate. They are wrong. The smallest part of infinity is infinite, and as You hate, as You love, as You are and are not, so too Your angels. The limited creatures who are only in one place and one moment at a time tell stories to beguile themselves. One is so common that those they deem learned have given the tale a name: the Deus Otiosus; the God Who Doesn’t Care. It is a story about a God who has moved on, leaving only His Shadow.

            Angels make drafts on the infinite, but such infinities as belong to them are as nothing compared to Shadow, and Shadow is next to nothing compared to You who cast him. So, in the story, Shadow rules Your universe but even he does not know where You are, or if You’ll return. All things certain have become makeshift; the eternal has become provisional.

            What You forget has never been. What Shadow forgets may remember itself. If You are Shadow, the four angels of Friday might each have had his own day, when the week’s role was counted on a man’s fingers and none left over. Friday would then belong to the realm of confusion, as each of its angels tried to deliver its message.
This, though, is just a story the men tell.

            There was a city in Your world which had grown up where two streams which thought themselves rivers met. It had streets so wide that seven sheep could walk side by side on them – eight if the sheep had fed poorly that season or were particularly fond of each other. It had buildings a full three stories high, with flat roofs where people would come at night to talk or sleep or watch the Moon, which was much esteemed there. So great was the city that it had at least two or three of every profession, so that one could choose between the scribe who had a booth in the market and his brother who lived by the gate and never woke before noon. There was a toothpuller to pull the other toothpuller’s teeth when they troubled him. A very great city indeed, and one which had, as was fitting, an angel whose task was to remind You that You had caused it to be.

There is an answer to the old question of “how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?”, and it is “all of them that are or ever were or ever will be.” In their natural state, angels have location but no mass, no volume, no substance. An angel normally hangs somewhere between a being and a concept. We could all be in one place, be our numbers without limit. (There is only one thing, though, without limit).

            But what if we wished to play music for our dance? A location cannot blow a flute nor bang a drum. To do so a body must be made, which is easy enough. I or any angel can make a body out of whatever is handy; condensed air being the material most commonly chosen. I have made myself bodies of fire and bodies of ice. When I walked out of a dying city, those few who saw me following, I had made myself from memory and hope. It is hard to make a body from shadows; I was the first to do so. Afterwards, there grew up a sort of competition over who could make a body of the most recalcitrant materials. Angels went out made of smoke, of dreams, of Time. The angel who slew my city made himself from despair, and he was glorious and terrible to see.

            In time, some few angels find they are uncomfortable without a body. We envy those to whom gravity applies; we want to make, to do, and not just to praise and carry messages.

            I’ve wondered if a supremely sensitive instrument could be built; its user would patiently wait until the instant he’d say “Now you are faithful … and now you have rebelled.”  For an angel who decides to make things has set himself up as God’s rival.

            An angel who has not rebelled is full of joy. I watched my city burning for nine days, and recorded the name of every living thing who died there. Afterwards, my joy was unbearable to me.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


He took care I should recognize him
Holding a glass of green liqueur which was
Almost his trademark. Still, the yellow eyes
And huge bald head would have been enough
“Monsieur Verlaine?” “I pray you – speak English!
Your French is quite painfully bad.”

“As you will. Satisfy my curiosity; are we
In one of my dreams or yours?” “Neither good sir;
You would not survive ten minutes in my dreams
Not even the gentle ones with the shepherds
And I would– permit me to speak frankly! –
 Perish of boredom in your worst nightmare.

“I know a whore – are there any I don’t know?—
She dreams of us both. How disappointed she is!
She was hoping for great feathered hats
And parfaits and reconciliation with her sister
Who died unhappily when she was 16.”

Friday, June 13, 2014


Although the cat would rather be
Curled up behind the green chair
She stays at the window, too polite
To ignore the world created
Entirely for her.

The dog accepts that cats
Had a paw in the world’s making
Or surely there’d be longer walks
And dogs’ bowls would be filled
More frequently.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


At bedtime I used to hear of Mongoose the Magician
Who, in my mind, looked pretty much like my father
(When I was three, he was a handsome man indeed
To me, if not the world at large).  Mongoose had a son
Called, at my suggestion, Rangoon. My small imagination
Decided Rangoon’s mother’s name was Mrs. Mongoose.
Though possessed of great and varied powers, Mongoose
Had trouble making a living. He was often out of work
And sometimes had to disclaim his magic, as when
He pretended to be a scientist to get a place
With a Polar expedition. During the Arctic winter
His magic froze; when the spring thaw finally came
Six months of spells took effect at once. (The Aleutians
May still be an island short.). Once, he conjured from a mirror
Another self who insisted he was the real Mongoose
The two Mongeese dueled but, being quite evenly matched,
Reduced themselves to two piles of neatly folded clothes.
Rangoon, I’m sorry to say, was no help at all then.
Luckily, Mrs. Mongoose unerringly went to one set,
Saying that of course she knew her own husband.
He kissed her, grateful to be back. But ever after
He was uncertain as to which of him he really was.
These days, looking into mirrors, I also pause.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014



Michelangelo, my mother would say,
Said every marble block held a figure
Waiting to be freed. I think Michelangelo
Spoke of  his David; my mother, though,
Spoke of an elephant waiting patiently
(Of course) to be discovered so that
Everything that wasn’t it could be chipped away.

A few years ago, looking at a slab
Of Travertine marble that had somehow
Wound up behind a Cobble Hill store
Which called the odds and ends it sold antiques
I saw an elephant looking back.
The owner said it could be all mine
For ten dollars if I would haul it away.

Sculpting is hard and often I’d wonder
What purpose I served as I considered,
Re-considered, chipped, re-chipped, filed, re-filed,
And devoted long nights to polishing,
Wearing a mask lest silicosis
Lay me low so that I left behind
An awkward elephant only half-free.

At very long last, though, the job was done.
I took down my scaffolding and stepped back;
No matter where I stood the elephant
Refused to meet my eye. It was late;
It needs to sleep, I thought; in the morning
It will see the world into which it’s come
And we’ll have a chance to talk things over.


When young I acquired a totem animal --
A bear. He never told me his true name
But I called him Bruno. We’ve grown distant;
I have a muse who doesn’t much like bears
So I seldom see the two of them together.
Still, every year or two one of us is sure
To visit the other in a dream.

That night, Bruno dropped by in person
He looked well but older than he did in dreams
And was wearing old-fashioned bifocals.
As always, his manners were impeccable;
I brewed a large pot of  herb tea. Caffeine
Made him wakeful. He drank many glasses
A sugar cube delicately poised between his teeth.

After talking of generalities
(His politics are to the right of mine
But not so far that we have to avoid them)
We came to the main topic. “I am,” he said
“No expert on non-carnivorous mammals;
Still, I believe the elephant you have freed
Is not the right one.  It is Indian

“As you can tell from the shape of its trunk
Its fanlike ears, its dry wit. The one you wanted
Was African and had no more sense of humor
Than brave Hannibal himself. No help for it;
When the day comes, as it will, for you to storm
The gates of Hell you will not be the first
To be brought there by the wrong elephant.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Four miscarried brothers had Verlaine
Who dwelt, each in his own jar, in a cupboard.
"Had I but had the fortune to be born,"
Sighed the eldest, "I'd have written poems
That would have made strong men run mad
And go barking through the streets of
There was a crack in the second jar; through it
The second one's soul would slip out at night
And haunt the dreams of respectable women.
Loathe would I be to lie to you, Reader;
I have no idea what the third son did though ever
Was there something unchancy about his eyes.
Nor would I willingly betray the secrets
Which the fourth son, in his despair,
Told me all the length of a winter's night.

Monday, June 9, 2014


My father had a gift for languages and could read
Books which never existed in their original language
Having always been translations. Such things happen
Perhaps more often than you think. Once in a while
I see a reflection, tense, concentrated, its eyes tight shut
Trying to call what it reflects into being. Why, I myself ---
No; let that alone. You never know who's listening
Waiting to run to the authorities, hoping they'll make him real.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


            There’s not much you can’t find in Heaven if you look long enough, through the right sort of eyes. Sometimes you’ll even find me. I keep an office there, over St. Uncumber’s stables. Like most things in  Heaven, the stables are achingly clean, startlingly beautiful. The horses, though, are bad to the bone, with bright red eyes and sharp teeth. They’re bored too, and no wonder; they were specially bred to take men to Hell, and nobody has ridden them there in years. When my rent gets too far behind, I help out in the stable or exercise some of the nags.

            For a saint, Uncumber is a nice old gal. From the looks of her you’d never guess at a scandalous, pagan past, nor that women with inconvenient husbands used to pray to her, and their prayers were sometimes answered. I imagine the price would be different now, but then it was a peck of oats, left at an altar. In return for the oats, if Uncumber was in the mood,  a horse would come trotting up to the worshipper’s door one day, and ride off with a bewildered husband – and him still carrying, maybe, his stick of no greater thickness than his thumb --on its back.

Friday, June 6, 2014


The postmistress and the service manager knew one another in a former life, and hated each other bitterly, each striving to do as much ill to the other as could possibly be done, and staying up late to see whether a bit more than the possible might be achieved. The postmistress was a very great lady indeed, as that age counted such things, and the service manager had risen far from low beginnings, and, wearing an episcopal mitre, was responsible for the care and cure of the lady’s soul. The postmistress burned, metaphorically, to see the bishop burned literally, and often spent long afternoons forging evidence to submit to the Inquisition, or suborning potential witnesses. As befit his position, the bishop pondered ways and means of ensuring the lady went to Hell.

Neither succeeded. The Inquisition had grown lax and indolent, and yawned over the decisive proofs of the bishop’s startling heresies, regularly delivered to them along with pieces of game and the occasional barrel of wine. The game was eaten, the wine drunk (with an occasional toast to its provider); the evidence was put aside and rats ate the parchment when the winters grew harsh.

The lady had seemed set for Hell, for aside from her hatred of the bishop, she was a cruel mistress to those who served her, but a wandering preacher converted her at the last and she died repentant. Hell ignored the bishop’s prayers and denied the lady admittance. The bishop, too, escaped by the breadth of a hair. An archangel with too little to do set both souls on a series of rebirths, always in proximity to each other.

Over the centuries they’ve managed, all unknowing, to move from utter loathing to mere abhorrence for each other. In Heaven you can get odds as to what century it will be in which they fall in love. In Hell, though, the smart money would be on “never,” except for the difficulties of collecting on such a bet.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


            After I died many things troubled me, for I had been unprepared, besides being, at my best, of an uncertain temper. What bothered me most often, though, was something trivial – the fact that I had no pockets.

            As a child I had delighted to stuff my pockets full of oddments, including marbles, strange rocks, small pieces of metal, and the keys to doors long since gone to dust. Older, I spent much time with my hands in my pockets – self-contained and self-sufficient, a small, sulky universe which had set up business in defiance of the larger ones around him.

            For some reason, all the newly dead are given cats. A ghost’s cat is much like any other save that it needs no litter box and can speak. Now that I think of it, it may be that I was given to the cat, and only my egotism makes me see it as having been the other way round. In any event, the cat with whom I was associated called himself Braggi;  he was unsympathetic about my need for pockets. “They only make you lazy,” he said.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


          Standing behind a bar, I can make a drink that will have you crying “Ambrosia is nothing to this!” and set you thirsting for it’s like for many nights and days to come. “The man who mixed that drink was, surely, no man at all,” you’ll mutter some time to a brindled cat as the two of you hide in the shadows, and you’ll be speaking truly.

          A corpse, still astonished to be so suddenly reft of life,falls to the ground while, a mile or more away, the gun that shot him clatters down a chimney. “The man was never born who could make such a shot!” say the police, and they have the right of it.

          I can tell you a story that will break your heart in pieces and then mend it so you’ll be a different man entirely. I can fit you with a pair of shoes that will take you off the path the fates carefully marked out for you and bring you safe through a thousand dangers. All this I can do; all this I have done.

          But I do not make toys. I have been an unlikely savior, myself having no soul, and a skilled crafter of deep damnation. There are few tasks I have not set my hand to, and none which I cannot do past perfection. Save only this one. Nothing I make opens its wooden beak and quacks when a three year old pulls it on a string. No dolls, no tops, no robotic wonders that imitate life to make a child laugh.

          Nor ever have I known an elf that does such work. Your enemy’s downfall? No better accomplice can you find, look where you will. A song to shake a king off his throne? The price will be high, but the last notes the king hears as his head falls in the basket will be of our composing. A dream to set you seeking down strange roads for treasures you’ll never see by day’s own light? Anytime, and no charge at all. Dreams such as these are our advertisements.

          But toys, as I’ve said, are not in our way. Nor saints for that matter. I know who works at the top of the world, and never a one of them was an elf. Save only me, and it was by no will of mine that I went there.