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A Metal Denser Than, and Liquid

by John Peck

What sets the worst architect apart from the best bee is this: the architect builds his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.
   — Marx, Capital

   

   Had he sat there, a witness?
at Posen, the speech in which Himmler
spoke the abomination,
a darkness within darkness.

He tried to believe he had not.
There was enough in him
that he had to go on living.
And so he would not remember.

There had been talk, briefly,
of his being made successor.
Before the complexities.
He didn’t talk about that.

   Then there was the hospital,
when he had nearly died
from the task and the unspoken.
No one did that task better.

Doing it better became
his way of foxing the wolves
who pranced around him. But
how much had he taken on

else, and where had it led him?
He worked from that bed till he broke.
Then lift-off, out of his body:
light, rich appointments, warm colors,

the doctors did a ballet,
and at last, there at last
he felt for his wife how much,
he smiled the withheld, he fully

was who he knew he was
and knew he could go. But was sent back.

His prison chaplain, although
supposing the story might be
fantasy, knew it came with
the urgent stink of Lazarus.

Ach it was all in his mind
laughed Frau Speer. If only
she too could have seen it:
he’d nearly found the exit

from his squeeze, he’d skirted
the suck of the great change.

   And one of my own tribe: when
transferred for interrogation
to Versailles, what saved him
was an English parachute major
taking him for a drive
to Paris.
       We went through
St.-Germain and Bougival
where in years past I dined
with Vlaminck, Alfred Cortot—
then we walked along the quais
and looked at the stalls. I was
horribly sad, but I bought
a print like any tourist
and—so silly—it made
me feel human.

   And if I briefly abhor
this fantast while pitying him
the hole in his feeling, with
art as surrogate—if
his uncontrollable falseness
even to himself, the untracked
changeability,
alarms and disgusts me?
     Then
somewhere near right here
I have lost the treasure
of shaming accuracy
about myself.
     His decades
of fox-introspection
kindle several days
of fascination and
gnawing discomfort and
discernment in my corner,

while a voice both sharp and soothing
intervenes: discernment
is not judgement!

     May it
be so. But this rankling rawness?

Cicero did not warn us:
Aesop makes tricky reading.

Art is not surrogate,
but the gate. The gate stands
to be passed through. The passage
is to truth truly lived

whatever the means, however
mean, for what is great
and shines quiveringly is
self-presence from the soul.

Where the treasure lies
there lie the means also.
The metallurgist’s kit
went with the gold galleons
to the bottom. Divers brush
scum from lakes of it there,
push at it, play with it,
quivering mercury––

a comeliness past that
of gold, because it lives,
a mirror to the will
to undergo all change.

Unloved, the master in him
went seeking a mad attachment.

Suddenly undersea,
the day, the room, strangely
rich in appointments, when evil
seems to shake far beyond me.

Mirror, mirror, on the floor,
which beast in me shall I adore

judiciously?
    May his rootless soul
have felt, somewhere, compassion.
Let compassion rise
and quiver in me. And let me
turn again to the sun.

 

John Peck’s Collected Shorter Poems 1966–1996 was published last year by Carcanet. (2000)


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