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Duel after the Masquerade

by Charles Vallely


Charles Vallely was a poet, scholar, passionate bibliophile, and incomparable conversationalist.  A renaissance man of his own making, he became the first person to receive a Master of Arts degree from Middlebury College without first attending an undergraduate school.  He died suddenly on April 13, 2008.  Although he had long been read by his admiring friends, Charles published little of what he wrote.  This is his first online publication.


What’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it when the world was young, in the Nineties.—Vladimir, from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot


Should you wear blue tonight. Should I talk
Of fish-skin quivers, the properties of dust;
Gold helmets, breastplates, greaves in
Glass cages—tiny things—your hands
Rolled up inside the sleeves of
An Armani jacket . . . La Dama Azul. Blue
Were the clothes I dressed her in, scathed
Off an unlikely season, heightened
With silver. Wandering as was our wont—
Gloriosus, the glancing Columbine (perhaps my
Chesterfield, the Homburg, have confused you;
The oiled Malacca cane), tumbled
On the lawns of some Versailles
Outside of Buffalo. There was snow
On the ground; a copse of ancient chestnut trees;
In the moonlight, blood. And a drawn shade
In Riverside Drive, twenty years after.

Perhaps I have misattributed this
Drowsy elegance disarmingly misplaced.
The insolent aroma of Gitanes, the soft-
Wood floors the colour of phlegm, the days
Of faulty plumbing, drugged, a step
Away from Broadway. But for that
Spanish guitar in the air beneath the earth,
I should not have noticed. The night Bacchus
Abandoned Antony, did it resemble this?
Do icy mosaics, dingy, shrill,
Line the stairwells of that other world
In a dull fluorescence? Must we talk again
Of drowned legions, burnt books? Waiting
As I would in a white room—white
On white with crystal shelves filled
With birds of coloured glass. Mirage
If you insist. Oliver Messel’s work.

You are deranged, she said.
Mortally ill. So I said: Best we turned
To petticoats and flounces, the history of fans,
The emblematics of ladies’ hats. Forget
My shattered Admiralties, equestrian bronzes;
Burn all the flags and ensigns, burn the towns.
Forget Schuylerville and Hannibal, forget
Palmyra. Betray again the scrubbed facades;
The finials, cartouches, balustrades, festoons.
Exult in chocolates, dismiss the drums,
With Arabian ointments in clouds of powder.
Let us venerate those glistered lips, our curls
Enwreathed on coloured wrappers. Let us talk
Of parasols, muffs, and purses, sipping
Johnny Walker Blue; as the ice melts,
Indulge neglected passages, tease
Significance from rosette
Appliqués, from bustles, from spaghetti straps—
Here where the flutes come in like knives.

The mighty Duke is gravely wounded, sure to die.
He cannot come to fetch you now. Not with
Janissaries in looted minks, in sable capes,
In black bears, raccoons, and foxes,
In miserable stoats. My men must ride.
Try as we might (Brunelleschi
Covers preserved in acetate), the past
Is still the past; though the fevers
Should abate in time. Gone the way of
Lapis lazuli, your balled-up camisoles and gloves,
My Winter Queen. My one and only one.

 

Charles Vallely has written many antiquarian book catalogues, including Far From the Rappahannock: Poets of the New York School for James S. Jaffe Rare Books of New York City and Jorge Luis Borges: A Catalogue of Unique Books and Manuscripts for Lame Duck Books of Cambridge. His long poem “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Carlo and Emilia” is forthcoming in Fulcrum 6. (5/2008)


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