Monday, May 30, 2005

SALT's final issue / Part 4 [Reginald Shepherd, Gabrielle Fletcher]

[edited by John Kinsella]

Reginald Shepherd

Five poems


Can't move can't speak can't think to wonder
why that's so. Song says I still
, can't think of what, who
that might be. Their faces gather

blackness, can't be seen. Song says I
and I and I. It sounds like cry,
like someone crying in the woods
by Stewart Park (the dirty woods, let me

be filthy, stain me, let the bones
come together, bone
to its bone and tainted too):
like someone crying but he has

no eyes no ears no mouth no
voice to speak of. Speak to me.
Can't hear you anymore, can't ask
for more. Song keeps repeating

shit where you eat, don't shit
where you eat
. The day
begins with burning, then remembers
to wake up: sweetbitter resins,

pollens, dripping cum smells
flower, white. Highway's haunted
by remembered men and boys, no light
but passing pickup trucks, Nero burning

in the Tiber's unmade bed:
ecology of lack and want
and never lack of want, no never
want. Want to go home. Not yet

a you, or he, an it (no want
of want), a something to be seen
and see what comes
of it (can't see anything now, walking

past black woods). Here he comes.
Song litters upstate New York maps
with classical towns, Attica, Utica, Syracuse,
Troy, lining the throughways with Latin

and Greek: Ithaca and the other islands
fingering slim lakes. Seneca
slits his wrists in the bath,
too late for life in ancient Rome.

For Amy England

And “I” is a conjecture,
simile that's become science:
calyx torn down both sides, the only
decipherable word among five

Bird nest supplied by paraphrase,
some spurious other, much restored:
talents are money, two mutilated words
hence the extension beyond lexicography

Death as a gift, a ruin of paper
for the opulence of Gyges:
“calamitous” perhaps sounds like
opening the right-hand half

You have taken a cricket
by the wing, mixed thighs and
courtly love: papyrus burned at the top
a black-butted fellow, badly damaged

The meaning is obscene, Eros' red balls
earlier than arrows: they vomited
their mass of pride from a pottery shard
The same papyrus gives “ear dripping blood”

Note: This poem is comprised entirely of phrases from Guy Davenport's notes for his volume of translations 7 Greeks (New Directions). They have been rather drastically selected, condensed, and rearranged, but only one word has been altered.


They took the young men to grind
like ostriches in the wilderness, a river
more ruddy than rubies. His footstool
overcame them between the straits.

Princes among the provinces made the rampart
and the wall lament, even the sea monsters
fell under the wood. My virgins in the midst of me
embrace dunghills in scarlet for meat.

My breach is like the sea, the foxes walk upon it
as if it were a garden. Who is he that saith
My liver is poured upon the earth
because of the arrows of his quiver?

My mighty men remembered not her gates
sunk into the ground, mouth in the dust
we have swallowed up a cloud. Our water
for money, I am their music among the heathen,

polishing sapphire: the yoke
of our transgressions, a net for my feet.

Note: This poem is comprised entirely of phrases from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the King James Version. Though they have been condensed and rearranged, only two pronouns have been changed.

For Gene Tanta

He's sleeplessness pulled through
a sieve, snake branch beliefs
dangle from, overgrown
with flourishing abjections. Glance

wears down grass to gravel, lamb
to less than sacrifice, night contours
weather with its full vocabulary
of line. Night and hunting made a pledge

to stay the shape of sundriness,
waxing lunatic with blood and pride,
part of light's rhetoric decayed
to prey. (Predictably stained

verdigris, the wall of what he was
where grass blades cut me green
as clinging vines, climbed me verdant
with impossibility.) Wind fingered

sky to azurite (blue-basic carbonate
of copper, a semi-precious stone
derived therefrom), weather
wondered how much longer

he would wait beneath the abalone
shell iridescent against question's
kiss, awake to any irony. The ghost
is ready but the meat is raw, so

many salted handfuls tossed like rain
across the shoulder. Downpours of place
align the seen, the happiness worn away
to damp sidewalks, spring-colored

cures for love. He sleeps away each day
all night, failed carnivore, blank axiom.


Broke the glass and cut my hand
again, the water looks like shards
churned up, not enough world
to come clean, wash my hands

of me. Here comes the blood, lukewarm,
dilute, and insufficient: contaminated
anyway. So let the water overtake
myself, so let me disappear in drown;

I heard the sibyl said I want to die.
After a lost squall, sea sung slowly
wrong, the poisoned moon
goes gray, standing at the threshold

of whiteness, witness: even
the purest winter sullies me, clouded
over with denial. And the others
more sure of salvation, salve on

the ragged wound? They watch
while I am leaked ashore
with faces of wonder why
and what I must have done. Blood

seeps into the dirty sand of personhood
and paints it black, my song
gone wrong again, capsized, toxic
by-product of me. They say I made myself

my fate, and make it sad; concern
evaporates like morning mist.
Whatever is a hand
must want to harvest me, thresh me

grain-like, husk crumbled small enough
to fertilize its fields of virtue, sheer
virginity, if there should come to be
some water. I might have been a

somewhere, I might be something
you need to destroy.


Gabrielle Fletcher


She has a face like an old fruit scone. Observing from the small corner at the left of the coffee machine, it would be easier to say she is Beautiful. No need to force imagery out of the kitchen. She could just sit and let her allure hang. Instead she has strung cloves of old invective around her neck to clear some space. She doesn't know how hard she is making subtlety work to absorb her. It. Whatever this seems to be.

I'm sitting with a napkin and a pencil, trying to draw a fan-forced oven. I realise later I'm wondering if I'd eat this woman. It's better to state this now rather than let it rupture the dynamic, further to the nearness of the end. I could have had myself trying to sketch moistened dough instead. Flour, water and eggs are easy to represent on any small white surface. But the combination of such basic ingredients is beyond prediction. Finally. So I pledge more general symbolism and slide into the table facing her.

Leaning over I ask 'Is this seat free?' I'm so close I could glide my tongue across her nose. But she would notice, and either scream, or lick back. I don't want extreme response of any kind. Not yet. My mouth is focused only on thinking taste.

She doesn't look up. Just says 'Nothing is free. Piss off,' trying to add me to her lumpy necklace. My ends are wet by the sharpness of her rejection. So direct and knowing in her own lack of appeal. It's a self-cradling reaction. Wanting to make me feel like grit because I'm curious. She thinks she's seen me a thousand times before. Is sure I won't get in. But she is wrong.

The morning sun is shafting the muffin display with that fierce light that shows the age of things. Still she won't look at me. I study her hands and note she is younger than I thought. Fingers like shortbread. Stacked upon a book about fish, pretending to read. Occasionally buttering her hair behind her ear. I eye the waiter and signal for some service.

'I'm not very hungry,' I lie. 'I'll just have a short black with cream on the side.' I am staring, daring darkly into the top of her head.

'And what would you like, honey?' I ask. There is a hefty pause between us. Biscuit hand poised with indecision above the wordy entrée. I know I have the advantage. The café is full and she is wedged into the side of it. Her body is a mass of roughly packaged doughnuts. I say 'You know a good breakfast will fill the holes. There is no shame in meeting your needs. Don't be shy.'

She doesn't flinch. Her eyes still pretending. The tiny dimples in her crusty hands seem steady. But I know her. She is trying to hide the signs of discomfort. I have taken the slightness of the pause as initial dilation. She shouldn't be hard to lever open.

I am aware that the waiter is there. Waiting. I dismiss him with an order of four croissants and a large hot chocolate, with marshmallows. I would rather not cultivate an active audience. The fleshy ornaments hunched at the other tables intent on empty talk are an exposure that insulates us. This woman and what I am doing to her. They won't look.

'What do you fucking want?' she says. Sounds like custard diving onto a platter of teacake. There is a delicate fury in the abnormal blinking rate. That's all she is giving me to read. Sense takes what is convenient.

'You,' I state simply. I feel like I'm seven and in the slaughter shed at my uncle's pig farm. He is cutting open a carcass in his technical way and splices through a clot the colour of deepest liver. Not everyone has seen a bruise from the inside. It is winter and the wind ripples through the paddock grass and smacks the cheeks. The bracing sensation is keen again on my lips. Full and parted ready to taste the gorge, not afraid like I was then.

She shifts her weight. Not happy with my answer. 'Why?' her voice splashes to the back. This is the moment my patience has been aching for. She is engaged. Now I can pinch for ripeness. Hold and start to palpate. Make her want to look at me.

I close my eyes and inhale one long stroke of spine. The nutty pressure jostles with my lungs. Then wraps around itself. Fused and rocking. A mammoth, probing surge that could blow through the lid of my skull. If I let it. I would never be that artless.

'Because you're here,' I say, watching her hair. Like random toffee strings slipping off a spoon.

'What's that supposed to mean?' She's still not happy.

'What would you like it to mean?' I give her a slender slice. If only she would pick it up off the plate. I refuse to feel guilty for the fairy bread she is trying to feed me. I expect a woman like this to roll her fingertips along her mouth, and glue the crumbs in the creases to know the feast is over. There is no more. She is the last.

I suppose she enjoys denying such an intangible, calculated serving. I am twenty-two drinking all night at a pub near a railway station. It's 6.00am and there are two men, old jockey types, sucking on stout to start their day. I talk about punting. Ignore the cataracts pulled over their hearts. One tells me I am ugly. Then I look down and see he has no fingers. Maybe a horse confused them for sugar cubes, and he cauterised the edges with a farrier's iron. Rounded the nubs with sunrise glass. This is how it happened. It wasn't the other way round, be clear about it. I could have understood that. No sense of contrast. This is what she is like. I can't feel sorry for her. I won't.

The croissants and chocolate appear. Her greed crawls along the interruption and she grabs. Retreats to her ample bunker. I've seen her breasts. Lumbering apple flapjacks. With a cinnamon rash flaking into lacy apron pans. My coffee arrives. She is disinterested. There is no useful bulk in liquid, although the cream could have semi-solid appeal, if there was nothing else. This is the problem with choice. Comparison points at what is easy. Details make it longer than it needs to be. She had no problem taking what she could bite, a minute ago. I am offering her a substantive meal, from a thoughtful bowl. She thinks the concrete is less confronting. She can break her jaw.

It is not necessary to point out that I am angry with her. This whole thing is pitched with fever. I need to centre it. I swivel the coffee cup in my hand and look at the arcing croissants. Made for a well-shod beast, to cushion the sole. The frame is full of starry nights. Vanilla bleeds into blueberry cheesecake. Swirls lubricate arid palettes. Mouth is a river of jam.

She fondles the cup. Traces the rim. She is sickened by the debit that sits across from her. She knows I will collect. Withholds a direct gaze, won't shift it. She thinks it hurts me. Because I want to confirm what she is. She considers what is least expensive on my menu. She hasn't felt the bill inserted yet.

'I'm here because I have a right to walk the world,' she says. I have counted every gram of fat she has ever chewed. Refrained from pushing words into saliva. I don't move as she turns breakfast into bubbles that float her high above the jeering pricks of life. I am waiting with a nickel-plated needle. And she believes that she has rights.
'I have walked your mouth,' I say. She has sought shelter on the waffle banks above the seedy stream. Or lashed her gums on peanut brittle, depending on the fare.

'Just fuck off,' she says. 'I'll give you the money for the food.' The doughnuts nudge the table. She is reaching for her purse.

'When was the last time anybody wanted you?' I ask. I am twenty-nine. My father is loading wet socks down my throat because I am noisy and won't stop crying. He is burning my mother's pregnant stomach with cigarettes, drawing a picture of a chef with my older brother's foetus still inside. I can't breathe and my shirtsleeves are full of bread knives. There are dark-haired uniformed people in the background, sipping on Drano martinis. Laughing.

'You aren't the only one with pain,' I say. 'Heat rises.'

The steam unfolds my flesh. Every pore is open, suckling on her massive form. Fluids filling every vessel, soaking every crack. Eyes a blade to cut her face, if only she would look. Just a glimpse would do it. Enough to start the split. My fingerprints are screaming.

She is clutching at her bag. Scrambling like an egg to get away. I move to block her. She tries to shovel past. My hands move up, around her spongy stalk. I'm kneading hard. The batter slaps against the moderate oven door. It's a pleasing sound. She can't complain. Who else would squeeze her flavours with such passion?


The recurring dream that Jacob is having about teeth crumbling and falling away is at the heart of his resistance. He checks the weekly magazines that say it is a sign of vulnerability, and agrees that this is probably true. But the words don't explain the aching gums or the bleeding tongue in the morning.

He runs to the medical centre after he spits the images into the steel sink and wipes the iron from his lips in exasperation.

The doctor is weary and desperate to write his memoirs in a sunny room. Impatient for his evening pipe and bridge game, the doctor is dismissive but adequately human.
'You're fine, Jacob. Just too much grinding and a touch of neuralgia. Common enough stress symptoms. Nothing to worry about. You could change your life and try to avoid oral sex. In the meantime, go home and relax.'

Jacob goes. The doctor knows nothing about life or change. Jacob is quietly furious with no time to waste. And the doctor has no fucking right to pretend everything is okay. Jacob knows he is a wreck. He thinks of drinking vinegar for relief, and by now his ears are pulsing.

Jacob moves down the steps of the ailment factory and feels he needs friendship to swab his mouth. He crosses the street, the railroad tracks, the timber yard and stops at the milk depot. The thought of refrigerated yoghurt is soothing to Jacob's tastebuds, and a culture he admires. He pulls the suctioned door at the side of the main building, and for a moment feels like God creating protein.

Boris and Ana Sinikoski are tinkering with the generator in the third cool room. They have been working since 3.00am. Milk is their life. They wouldn't have it any other way. They have always liked to contribute to bones and see it as a preserving act. They were Polish before milk, but too much brittleness and shrinkage of social order makes people think of other pastures. So they escaped on a cow's back, and they are happy. They have sidelined into vegetables and juices lately to compete with big business, but they remain sincere people who Jacob truly loves. And they love him.

Jacob follows the thrumming of the generators. Hears the echo of tinker and smiles, anticipating the pearling gestures of his friends. Boris and Ana hug him warmly, comment on his blanched complexion with utmost compassion, and usher him into the office.

These three understand each other. It is obvious in the affectionate tones and honest engagement. A friendship like cream that never goes rancid, Jacob pours himself into their ears. And they homogenize with care.

They know he wants to write, until he dies he will have stories. They know he worries everything is about himself, and words are maps to his missing pieces.

They also know that once he went three and a half weeks without speaking to anybody, not by choice. He hadn't avoided anything, he'd gone about his business as usual. He realised afterwards it just was. A little later the dream had started, with the teeth. And because of their belief in the goodness of milk, Boris and Ana are particularly concerned.

'How can I speak with my tongue so swollen? What value is there in thick sentences?' Jacob asks.

Boris looks at Jacob and says 'You eat pins, you will bleed,' and feels guilty for being direct. Ana is always more subtle, and not because she is female. 'Dreams are not kind to questions,' she says, and feels guilty for being oblique. Jacob is not sure they are right. He forgives their perspectives and they turn to dairy talk.

Boris wants Jacob to give up ideas and join Ana and himself at the depot. Ana sees Jacob reeling. She wants to say slow down, because his mind is fevered by the lure, and empty lines can strain the flesh and flood the heart.
Instead, Boris says that milk is upright.

Jacob would normally stay longer, but decides to leave so he can think. The three part with warm sadness, assuring each other they are there for themselves. As Jacob turns to go, Ana places a business card in his hand. 'Thresholds - Sandplay Studio for a Powerful Path to the Inner Self. Estelle D. Shepherd, PhD.' In the corner there is a logo of a butterfly emerging from a child's plastic bucket.

Jacob puts the card inside his pocket. Boris and Ana are decent people, but mis-en-scene is not the play. They can only relieve his bloodied mouth. So now Jacob feels guilty for making excuses and placing too much expectation upon friendship as a cure.

Jacob fingers the card that Ana slipped into his hand. He extracts it from his pocket and lingers on the imagery. He was not a child to pull the wings off insects. And he has never liked the beach. But the butterfly inside his bucket body is close to sinking to the bottom of his feet and rolling over, dead. So Jacob moves in marathon. He directs his cells to take the path across the synapse dunes to E. D. Shepherd. Jacob thinks that maybe she can put his teeth back where they belong. It would be nice to chew on life again. And for it not to chew on him.

Jacob knows his talent lives beyond his nerves, as he turns left, then right, then through the school, the park, the further on. Towards the leafy greens of lofts and private practice. The pain to make a sentence work insinuates exquisite scales, and Jacob weighs each letter gingerly, mindful of the balance. He sees himself in alchemy, with the potential of the perfect formula justifying anguish. But since the dream about the teeth, the triumph sinks from Jacob's lips. Assuming it was there at all.

It's been an hour now. Jacob notes the changes in the architecture. How knowledges and money expand the spaces people fill. Broader. Taller. Styled. Like permission to forget the stencilled cave. Jacob stands outside the number on the card. His tongue is aching, his head is numb, his body small and coarse. The butterfly is falling to his ankles.

Estelle D. Shepherd, PhD, is in the studio. Cleaning symbols. It's an important ritual after every client, wiping the energy off. The unconscious sticks like fingerprints, and clarity is hard enough to touch. She keeps it simple. Tepid water traced with salt, and a soft disposable cloth. She rakes the sand tray level and turns off the light, wiping the doorframe as she goes. Twenty years of sandplay leaves its mark, and Estelle D. Shepherd knows the walls between worlds are thin. Unblocking the depths of non-verbal potential is understandably draining, and sometimes she is frightened she will end up in the thinness, unable to talk herself. It's not as if she has never been hurt. Her therapist friends laugh and say she is balanced, and it would have happened by now anyway. But just in case, she takes a session with her consultant once a week to keep her plumbing clear.

Jacob is on the other side of Estelle's walls, trying to fend off the ether threatening his feet. Transfixed for the longest seconds, it is the Sinikoski faith in milk that finally propels him forward. Along with their upright compassion and his own desperation.

The concrete path falls away as Jacob purls towards the door like the graceless grub he feels. The doorbell rings and wall meets wall. Jacob and Estelle find themselves within the thinness. She sees, he needs. Pain has a way of direct introduction.

Jacob is escorted directly to the studio. He sits on a comfortable black sofa, with white scatter pillows tossed artfully about. Estelle suggests coffee before they talk, and when she leaves to make it, Jacob is free to look at what he's done. His eyes walk along the floor to the bookcase. Volumes on insecure attachments and Madonna symbolism. And an amazing array of miniature artefacts line customised cabinets. Whales. Moons. Eyes in hands. Then Estelle is back. He tells her about his dream, with the teeth. And about the words and ideas that torment his bloodied, swollen tongue.

'Jacob,' she says. 'Sandplay is about the between of the sleep and the wake.'

E. D. Shepherd moves towards one of the customised cupboards and returns with an object. Jacob sees a single tooth.

'Here is your dream. Your eyes are open. I have brought it to the surface and we can talk about what it means.'

Jacob peers into the clear grey eyes of the mind-comber.

'It is fraught with interpretation,' he says.

The Estelle in her wants to cradle Jacob's exhaustion; the PhD insists upon agreed symbolic meaning. So she invites Jacob to make two selections from any of the objects in the customised cupboards, to demonstrate that what is there is clear to both of them. And she hopes that he won't notice how much they speak of her.

Jacob is quick with his selection. Images grab at blood, and he is sitting in the blackness of the sofa promptly. He places them on a white scatter pillow for Estelle to view.

'The Cosmic Egg,' she says. 'Symbol of sun and re-birth. An eclipse of identity. A nourishing image.'

Jacob agrees. Then asks after the second.

'A gold nugget. Symbol of value and rarity. An image of self-belief.'

Jacob looks at the nugget. He had believed it to be a cornflake. He tells Estelle it is easy to argue that he simply hasn't eaten.

'Interpretation is fraught,' he says.

She massages the pen that wrote her dissertation, feeling somewhat fraught herself. They decide that his thinness is caught between walls that are thick, like his tongue. And that money and time will leave tracks on the beach. Eventually. Or sooner. They arrange for a session the next day, acknowledging the struggle for self. They shake hands, as much an exchange of energy as a binding symbol of the partnership. Firm. Connected. Sensing. Then Estelle D. Shepherd, PhD, wipes her hand along her leg, because twenty years of sandplay leaves its mark. Jacob sees the gesture. And knows the smear. He feels as if Estelle has knocked his teeth out. His open eyes are shut in reflex. Jacob is sick of empty mouths. He will never trust knowledge again. He thinks of putting the sandplay business card in his shoe, pissing in it, then putting it in Estelle's pocket. And watching. In stillness is dance, they say. And in darkness is light.

By now the uncomfortable architecture is a reflux of space. Jacob is crossing the park to the school. Maybe the butterfly inside his toe-ends is right: maybe he isn't worth the rescue. Just ahead he sees a vagrant, sitting on a grassy nub alone. Life has a way of sucking at rainbows leaving fleabites, and Jacob puts his head down to avoid the view he feels. The vagrant offers up a jagged homily, reminding Jacob of his dream:
'Don't put all of your eggs in one bucket, friend. Maybe they'll crack.' Jacob is startled by the flash of PhD. His head still lowered, he can only see the vagrant's feet. The shoes are blisters. From too much stillness, probably. Jacob wants to take a salty, tepid bath to cleanse the beading fingerprints. He needs some walls to light his way, but doesn't have the heels to hike back home.

The cabbie is a large man. The capillaries on his cheeks are from too many working class burgers washed down with Beam. He has the kids every second week, and won't admit he visits Lottah's Relaxation Centre for excitement. But he does. When the tension mounts he finds a vacant saddle helps. So between the bourbon, beef and banging, the cabbie squeezes work. And although the vinyl of the taxi seat makes him sweat and stick in summer, the cabbie knows it could be worse. His job is to drive along the intervals, and deliver lives safely to their chosen doors. He listens like a backstage pass and forces talk when necessary. He sees a fare hailing from the kerb, and idles in.

Jacob is sitting awkwardly in the back seat. He gives directions and the cabbie eases into drive.

'So you like the beach?' the cabbie asks the quiet rear-view mirror. Jacob thinks the cabbie may be over-reaching, and turns his head to look outside. The prospect of this conversation stings.

'Now me, I love the beach. That salty crunch. I'm building my own boat, you know. And when I retire, I'll get out of this bloody insect jar. And fly.' The cabbie elaborates heavily on the design and construction of his escape.

'I'm even doing my own wiring,' the cabbie continues.

'Stop,' says Jacob. 'This is far enough.'

The cabbie brakes and swings into the gutter. He asks no questions. Just accepts the fare produced, and the something for the inconvenience. Jacob opens up the door and puts one foot down on the pavement. The cabbie wants to thank him for the bonus.

'Hey,' the cabbie says. 'If you ever need to light your life, just say. I've got enough wire to string up a cow.'

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