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Doubles

by Robert Polito

I fancy myself an enigma.
     On my best days
I manage to keep the world off-guard—
     What I say
Does not follow from what I said yesterday.
     Or the message in my clothes
Is somehow inconsistent with my face—
     A banker’s striped suit
Under shades and a flashy pompadour.

     Around me
People must continually readjust;
     I force them
Always to approach me on my own terms—
     Only I keep
Changing those terms, keep shifting ground.
     Around me
The angle of incidence does not equal
     The angle of reflection.

It’s not that I have any secrets,
     Or a secret life;
If anything, my life’s what’s left in the shell
     After the clam’s been eaten—
So I arrange to have many lives, many stories,
     All of them plausible
—Taken one by one—but not quite adding up.
     It’s a lot of work,
Yet the looks I get, the odd questions I’m asked,

     Would repay any trouble . . .
Sometimes when I’m very tired I think
     How nice it must be
Just to trot out this year’s model and keep him there.
     But then I remember
What I’ve gained: to be all men at once,
     Without being anyone—
And I recall the danger too: staying put is like asking
     The world to do you in.

But these aren’t real issues anymore.
     All problems stopped
Right after my order was delivered from the Institute,
     Two huge bundles
Wrapped tight in black paper and cold to touch—
     My contact had insisted
“One to a customer,” but I cheated a bit,
     Claimed I was twins,
Identical twins, so he sent a pair.

     Unpacked, released
From their tubs of dry ice, even as they stood
     Frozen and immobile
I could see they were marvels: whole, self-
     Sustaining universes
Of cells spun from two of mine, my equals down to
     The last hair and birthmark;
And thawed, breathing freely, they lacked only a history.
     —Such details

Are absorbed more easily than you’d think:
     Like me, they’re fast
Studies; hardly a week of pleasantly intense
     Afternoons goes by,
And provided with the necessary names,
     A few photographs,
Some not entirely congruent “facts,” and the basic
     Rules of presentation,
They seem more emphatically me than I’ve ever felt.

     I have great plans for us—
One I’m coaching so that soon
     He’ll be a star;
Every night in clubs he gets applause for singing my songs:
     “When the smack
Begins to flow then I really don’t care anymore.”
     Or “Every time I phone you
I just want to put you down”—exhilarating words,
     So angry and bitter

I’d be afraid to say them in real life.
     The other’s
Just received his second promotion at the bank,
     And there’s talk
He’ll be a vice president before he’s forty . . .
     But I don’t have to do anything.
I can read all night, listen to records, or drink,
     Without worrying
Whether I’ll be able to go to work in the morning.

     It doesn’t matter
If I get up, or what I eat, or how I look—
     I’m completely free.
No matter what I do, my life goes on without me!
     Sometimes in disguise
I visit them—to check up or keep in touch—
     And request a song, or a loan.
They usually indulge me. Has any father
     Ever been this proud?

And always I’m amazed at how effortlessly they handle
     All that I’ve found impossible—
Through long distracting lunches with my mother
     They smile and hold their tempers;
They remember birthdays, keep appointments, pay bills;
     I’m never feeling well,
But they’re healthy—moderate habits, exercise, periodic
     Trips to a doctor.
In their hands, my life positively hums.

     Yes, things are looking up.
I sense that everyone is talking about us.
     Word’s come back to me
That the inevitable double sighting has taken place . . .
     Imagine trying to explain that.
And in the paper I see that one of us has broken
     Off an engagement—
That’s the spirit! She’s not good enough,
     Hold out for bigger stakes!

I joke—what could make me happier?
     One of us
Must settle down soon and start a family;
     What we have
Is too rich, too perfect just to pass away.
     But I want the last
Word here too: when I die, I’ve asked them to bury me
     Quietly, anonymously,
And go on as if nothing’s happened.

Robert Polito is currently writing a literary biography of novelist Jim Thompson. He lives in Cambridge and New York City. (1989)


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