Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Death of the Encyclopedia Salesman

Among the incidental motives
for a virtuous life is the dream
of the North Atlantic fisheries, dark pines
outlined with a setting sun
and you scouring your breasts
in a shallow tub.
The cat screaming outside by the barn.

And I’m entering the macaroni fog
of the kitchen pulling my red wagon
filled with the first half
of the alphabet, canvas
over the books and the hairless dog sitting on it all.

The smart women
who want the Knowledge
are the ones who are most poor.

Once it was so compelling that I gave away
the whole back half
of the alphabet to a nearly naked widow
crying in her doorway, she wanted
to learn the contribution
on Jean-Paul Sartre—
I told the accountant
existential toughs overwhelmed me
by the railway station in a noon rain:

the salmon are lancing like tattered
women’s parasols,
volleying their thoughts of rocks
with the faint images of turtles.

I was an engineer fitting bronze
cuffs and knuckles to clay type, miles
of it across tundra. Well, or so
I believed. Then on Tuesday the Union boss

gave me a yellow slip
of dismissal, by nightfall
the dog and I were down by the Jewish cemetery
with my boy’s red wagon
and of course the Knowledge  . . .
half of Western civilization under a blue canvas—
someday it will come
to this for all of us,
save the boatmen of the North Atlantic fisheries
who grieve and are illiterate . . .

the sky now is a scalded milk
with a stupid egg in it. And my glove sticks
in the cold to the handle
of the heavy red wagon. This is dispiriting
even for a man
who lives without the confusions of virtue
or a personal relationship
with the incipient samples of Jean-Paul Sartre.

for Tomaž Šalamun

Drinking sugared black tea, with a flat knife
watching butter melt on chocolate cake
fresh from the stove. Cake
for breakfast, shared with a hairless dog who shakes.
The weak coughing motors of the fishermen
entering a fog bank between
two gold islands of dead fir trees . . .
the sea hawk tips a wing
in sweet collapsing arctic
mews of air, blinks
at cows at the frozen salt lick beneath him . . .

this is the dungeon of semester weather
for any salesman.
The cows reciting Ovid on exile
to the three active white goats.
It will snow all night . . .

fish blood and tissue from an ovum dark
occurring not on the linen moon
of an ice pond.
The knowledge is not systematic
but passes in drought, famine, and pestilence.
You repeat
while pouring tea,
it will snow for most of the evening.

It is the linen moon of bluish tissue
and secretions. I am reading
about Abraham Lincoln
among the toss of Jewish gravestones . . .
it is the hour of my noon meal.
The radishes are poignant. The cake
is now stale. The goats
are grazing across the lawns. These creatures
avoid the headstones of inclining sticks with demons.

The deceased sister of an old plumber friend
has knee-high grass over herself
and the entire family.
It was no surprise to me. You will
be scolding this husband all evening.

Lincoln’s wife ruined him for cake
and all tea. She did
love him to distraction—yes, the past
century’s euphemism
for madness
and general despondency and gout.

I sold a used set of the Knowledge
to our mayor’s first cousin. She,
you will be furious with me,
also bought the hairless dog.
I have replaced him with
a small granite block. If we
had given him a name
I might have been reluctant
to seal the transaction.
But we didn’t.

The man in the next bed
says we are in a fortress asylum.
We have been
for several years. He thinks
the veil of the hairless dog led directly to the committal.

I told him with blithe aggression
that you love me
to distraction, beyond betrayal
and he said,
perhaps, Rabbi, but you are now as good as dead
and she loved that dog, Alphons,
more than her own children. I nodded a heavy head.  

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