Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
 print version

The Necessary Angel

Buddy you got no idea how fast it happens,
The tail gunner said to no one in particular,
And flicked the gunsight up with his index finger.
A moment later he turned to a wet rose
Blossoming all at once & too large
For the glassed-in hot house turret to explain—
The bombardier still telling him a joke
Over the now quiet, frozen intercom.
The next day they fired on & sank
A harmless fishing junk with bleaching sails.
The one flag still believed in after the war,
Unfurling a lasting insult to a neighbor,
Was the index finger. Who christened it? When?
Half my country still believed in witches
The day they tricked the atom with a mirror.
And the sad whorl of flesh above the knuckle
Looks back at me as if to say the body
Is another’s body, & the dark’s within the dark.

So the girl who received a whipping with a birch cane
In the schoolroom in front of all the others there,
Who witnessed in the passing weeks the bruises
Turn yellow & rose, until her flesh resembled
The random patterns blooming on late peaches—
Peaches & Cream is what the others called her,
Taunting her—is now a woman who watches, dry-eyed,
Above the cramped kitchen sink of a house trailer,
The way the wind whips the weeds in a vacant lot,
The way it blows trash against the chain-link fence
Along the interstate. She is just watching it get darker,
The dark seeming to spill out of the dark, out of what
Is already dark. She moves her hips forward until
They touch the sink, withdraws them slowly, pushes them
Close again. Some enchanted fuckin’ evening, she says,
A moment or two later. She sticks her tongue out
At the dark. She begins chopping things up for a salad.
Buddy you got no idea how dark it is, the blood swears
Against the glass. She hears the light hissing above her
In the kitchen, & thinks she may well be the witch
They said she was. A power without a switch to turn
It on. The birch cane falling through the autumn light
Of the classroom, the switch that left her in the dark.
The switch that can’t explain her life, or why she’s poor
And white in all this dark. It’s 1952.
White Trash—that’s what all her neighbors call her.
White Trash—the sprawl of a wave on a rock is all
That’s left within the words when I say them slowly now.
She isn’t in them anymore. And whenever she appears
It’s 1952 & she is making dinner.
This is before the country enters history. This is before
The president is fast forwarded out of his own blood—
Lifted & dropped like a sheet of paper in the wind—
Into the front seat of the white limousine. Wide awake.
If you still the frame the president looks wide awake.
Like the woman in the kitchen of her trailer making
Salad, her script for Benzedrine refilled, the bottle of it
On the counter there. Wide awake in 1952,
And as the dark filled the field outside she’d masturbate
With a cucumber, then slice it up & serve it to
Her husband in his salad. She’d watch him douse it
In Thousand Island dressing & wash it down with bourbon
While she smoked—she wasn’t hungry—across from him
At the table. It was the moment of the day
She waited for, the wind hissing outside the trailer,
Her husband still in uniform. Then she would switch
The cigarette to her left hand, reach between her thighs
With her right, & slowly unfurl her index finger.
It stood right up to him in the wordless dark beneath
The table. Death & Resurrection & the dark we are.

And against the dark? The lobby’s polished brass,
The bright light of a hotel barber shop, & a music
In a chair, his mind on nothing. Beyond the window,
Is Hartford in a downpour & a fallen world where,
Every Tuesday afternoon for twelve years,
My hill witch does Wallace Stevens’s nails while he reads
The New York Times. Sometimes it’s Bergson or
Santayana, the book folded into the newspaper so it looks
As if he’s reading the paper, & sometimes it’s the paper,
And at least twice each time he visits Stevens
Finds himself staring at her breasts
That rise & fall to the quickened rhythm of her breath.
He feels her warm breath on his fingernails
As she polishes them. He watches her & he thinks
Of the clouds slowly changing shape in the night sky
Of Florida, & knows if he reaches out, & touches her,
Touches the swelling cotton fabric of her sweater,
He will begin the long fall that culminates
In a commonplace of wave sprawl & a coastline
Filling with service stations, taco stands, motels,
A screen door banging endlessly in the wind.
And Oh he wants to! The desire has less to do with her
Than with a wish to fall & keep falling silently.
Out of the world. All it requires is this slight gesture,
His index finger uncurling like a thought
Made flesh to taste the withering cold to come.
She could feel him watching her.
And said to herself, as she dusted his nails & blew
Hot little breaths on each one of them,
“So you wanna floor show with your manicure.”
The next time she undid a button on her blouse,
Stopped filing for a second, & looked into his eyes . . . 
He couldn’t work for a week. He waited for a warm,
Overcast afternoon in March before he tried to touch her,
And waited for his body to open like a parachute.
She was buffing the pink fingernails
Of his right hand when he discovered that his left
Index finger would not move. He tried again, & found
He could not move any muscle. He stared
At the swimming print of the paper on his lap
And saw instead the wave sprawl on the rock
And the beach growing colder, emptier than
The sound it held. Then he was falling toward it
In the dark. “It’s all right, it’ll be all right,” he heard
A voice saying. It was like the voice of a mother
In the night, the calm in its wake a widening, spiraling
Calm, like the pattern in a carpet he remembered,
Like a voice from childhood whispering in his ear,
The calm voice of a woman in a quiet house,
A voice he knew, a voice he had always known.
It was embarrassing to wake & find it was
The voice of a woman whispering in his ear,
To find he’d fainted in the shop while she
Was giving him a manicure, & to find her touch
On his face was gentler than the remembered
Touch of his wife, or mother, or any other touch,
That it was like the night air of Florida, incorporeal,
The finally dissolving pattern of a final heaven.

After that, the men who fell & were found frozen
In ditches, their parachutes spreading around them
Like picnic blankets, were much like the men he saw
Strolling behind lawn mowers in the summer dark.
Lights came on in houses & the stars came out.
All of it seemed a part of what was uneventful,
A part of all there was that went on falling
Into a silence that seemed to enter everything
Or else had been there all along without their knowing.
They felt its presence in the gauzy, late afternoon
Light falling through the windows of the lobby. As he
Read the paper, as she went on filing his nails—
The silence of the empty barber’s chair next to them,
The silence of jars on a shelf & magazines in a rack—
Was neither the clothing of things nor the nakedness
Of things. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t that. It was
The blank, the the that set the whole aspin.
He would begin to doze off, his hand in hers,
And the sound of the nail file was the sound of his steps
Racing over the dry beach grass on a winter day
As if he were still a boy one step ahead of the quiet. . . . 
But where the quiet overtakes him everything
Is changed: her breasts awaken to his touch
Only to disappear into this cold air in his palms.
And if streams unthaw, if the lazy gauze
Of vegetation comes back along the street, it finds
She isn’t there, that she is air & fire & absence.
The file sounds like the gate scraping shut behind him.
And the world tinged in frost. It glitters in the sun.
He is surprised to find he’s already walking past
What has become the illegible. In its raw light,
Where the eyes of the poor are like flaking paint,
Where an expressionless boy with a headband leans
On the crumpled fender of a car, & spits once
As he passes, there is no other sign—only the marquee,
Flashing, half-lit, on the motel beneath the overpass.
In the room the headboard of the bed shakes
From the ceaseless traffic passing overhead,
His things in a little jar in the bathroom tremble
And tinkle constantly. He does not understand why,
When he reaches out to test how firm the peaches are,
The store clerk in a white apron threatens him
With a baseball bat. And all of it happens in silence.
The color of the apron seems to change each time
The clerk raises the bat in both hands, changes
Like a remembered beach that was now in sunlight,
Now in the shadow of clouds—all there is left
Of the picked over, looted, empty attic of heaven.
What was the worm doing there, at heaven’s gate?
But now it had eaten heaven, now the light along
The coast was real, & was light. Now there was nothing,
Nothing but the empty, stretching arm of the beach
Beneath the empty clouds. It was up to him to put it
Back together, & he thought he might begin now
With the wave sprawl on the rock & the tern’s cry.
Outside, the scent of exhaust, the smell of baking
Bread, seemed more familiar now than the smell
Of sex, that sudden garlic overwhelming the dry
Lilac that had become the body of his wife.
The hymen of his soul parted as he walked
For traffic, for the rain changing back again to snow.
And the home he enters is not his home although
A doily on a sofa seems the perfect expression
Of a perfect quiet except . . .it isn’t there. He’d taken
Those exuberant, tasteless fantails of a distant aunt
And thrown them in the trash bin years ago . . . 
He looks again & hears her saying “It’ll be all right,”
He sees that the doily isn’t there, sees that the only
Embroidery is invisible, is what the quiet
Is making within the stillness of the study.
He hears his wife’s step, then the creak of her chair
Above him. She is reading there in her room or sewing
Something. She is there. And she is not there.
He closes his eyes a moment & sees a rock,
And then the sprawl of a wave against the rock,
And then the gleaming rock again, & he feels afraid.
Had the woman creaking in the chair above him
Become a rock & the sprawl of a wave against
The rock? Had she become the terns’ cries
As they gathered once, just once, into a tight,
Converging knot above the surf that just
As suddenly undid itself, & was not, was gone
Like the drying froth the wave left as it receded,
Like the windblown sparks of a fire on a beach
That left him walking there alone in winter?
He hears the creaking of her chair on the floor above—
What will he say of them? Her step, the creaking
Of her chair is asking, asking, asking: it is defiant.
He bends his head a little as if he is listening
To the wood grain in his desk turn into music.
But the grain in the wood is silent & the boy is dead.
And the sad whorls of flesh, or wood swirl of the knuckle
Above the forefinger, thumb, & middle finger that hold on
Tight to the pen, Swan or Waterman, for the carnival ride,
Hesitate a second at the top of the rickety scaffold—
At the top of the Wild Worm he can smell the sea—
Before the steep drop, the rush through the summer air,
On which is written “It is an illusion that we ever lived.”
It is what the wave sprawl on the rock said & the boy
Who was dead. What is not written anywhere is what
Was said in the moment after—said finally & once
To the bare breasts of the woman kneeling there,
To the manicurist herself chewing gum on the bus
As she goes home to her small apartment, living alone,
The lights of the city glittering in the snowy air;
Said so that it can never be unsaid, by the creaking
Of his wife’s chair, by the ironic scraping of limbs
Against a wall, until the two sounds are all there is—
Filling the house with their brief & thoughtless triumph.  

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