Tony Brinkley

All my discarded dresses

1. An animal artist

In an empty room, between cat and moon,
from my mother’s and father’s closets, the women
I mime, the men I do not deny—and still the matter
of whom to dress as—to enter your room from mine,
from the room I sleep in to wake from— with all my
discarded dresses in tow – like a boat on the ocean—
for so many mansions . . .

2. Like offerings

The shadow we painted to take
as a snake, poor mistaken culprit, insistent
to be as I am . . . and here are the guardians:
here is the pianist, here is the actress, here
in the desolate salt, my loves, like offerings
to season your wishes:

wonder forms the wanderers in my room,
we two, among the vines that pull
down walls, the trees that grow
in their place—like my daughter, painting
with her fingers—here are the forests of
one finger, and here are the mountains of
two fingers . . .

3. To sing my own song in my father’s closet

Hemmed in the shading, hungrily
offered, beginning freedom
refreshed from washing, no one
to arm me, the difficulties gulping . . .

4. From red into lilacs

Turned with nothing
left over, recurred
with nothing to speak of,

my dress torn, silk but flowered
with stains I cannot remove,

aging from red into lilacs—
unbuttoning the dress and letting it slip,
stepping out from
as into like bathing—

a slight wash of calm
that colors while seeing
waves from a distance
no matter the interval—

come again please—
please come again—

I will be furtive but

5. From bathing

Dear friend, the bathing, while always
colder than I thought—the cold without,
warmth within—I floated—where the sun
was, I was, cold beneath, under
your sun-drenched surface—and failing
to know how to swim again, I began my drowning
part—though still in my room, my only-imaginary
death—like a child, holding his breath—why would
I think that my warmth could warm this— with
or without you—knowing already how cold it would be—
infinitely colder until I recalled you again—your
welcome hiding among many mansions—
we too among the pleasures that pull down the blinds—
the borders no longer required, my ceiling a naked heaven,
arranging the dresses I dress in to please you, to find
where we wish—first finding to steal from—
and burning without being burned—

6. An animal artist

And still so many occasions, but no one’s mother’s house,
the diminished second, the gentlessness, little to ask for
but less to expect—shadows vertebrate bed things, tear
the reflex in the sheets, you are the woman I dressed as,
slipping but not toward sleep . . .

7. In heaven

I’ll start this way—just a wish—
with a cat, a moon, and a blue jay:
the cat finds the moon
in the pattern of a dress and later

the cat jumps the pattern—a cat and
the moon in the pattern of a dress

at some point attract a lover—
your designs—mine—as armed—
at times fulfill some desire . . . anger
is not a given today, but
feelings closer to morning—
the sun arrives and scallops
a hem—I step out,

then sleep
in an empty room
the way one day we
played mountains . . . the cat
loves the moon in my empty bed

like an old man enthralled by a blue jay

8. Like a cat enthralled by a bluejay

And still where I am
to wait for you there,
complicities of friendship
at my ease, the part to take
next better than perfume,
the easier dilemma among
others—not the easiest since
disappearance is prerequisite—
to leave your room unnoticed,
your sleep not disarranged,
and loiter—
the way the foolish do, knowing
no better, no standard measure,
not a flag to lower to replace
my discarded losses—

9. Pianissimo

The pianist plays beyond much longer—
even once I died out so to speak—
played incessantly, trill into trill,

even impossibly, but never by slight
of hand or technique to disguise
the brutality of gentleness,

the exhaustion a paradise
exacts from a child
it feeds off—

and I as protected as if I had entered
a color, as if in so many shades
of red there was black, nothing
I could live with—my fabrics
swimming without me . . .

what will you say for yourself?
what have you left to say? . . .

in a room shored with colors
I no longer learn to pronounce . . .

the interlude plays out beside you

10. And C-minor chords

Once the ocean sighted in one letter—
once like a bottle at sea in your emptiness—
once I said—I thought you had seen—your
back, dear friend, arched backward as in love,
a day every day in the corner—each moon, the
new sun—each sun, a room—I think
I will sleep while the others are working, I think
I will wake them when others are sleeping—each
sun, a new moon, each moon the sun—each time
again that puts us together—I in my dresses—
I too am painting the walls with my fingers,
an actress addressed by the empress . . .

11. But wounds without knowing

East in a room resettled by twilight, apricot
distance graying above me and then a red
scarf wounding black silk, wound on my fingers,
like spider threads spooling without you to wear
them—we leave by an ocean and come through
your bedroom, queens of the mountains drawn
by two fingers, I find in the mountains the milk
I was asking to bring you tomorrow to find me
without you, gashed by a red scarf, always
part river—you, love, are sleeping and I,
like my mother . . . afraid for the others who
wound without blinding . . . knowing that this
time this is the last time, knowing that yesterday
this will be next . . .

12. But not in heaven

Here are the guardians,
the actress, the pianist,

sometimes at once, at times
my companions, often my
mirrors escaping reflections

to offer impressions—
the first things tomorrow—

enticing the courage
out of my prisms . . .

13. A wandering image

Reflection starts it
self-absorbed before yourself
the enamoring until his voice
says no because he holds the mirror
now and drags the image down to hell

you hold on, dark choking light—
self-absorption sings eventually,
the echoes arrive angrily
and pull you limb from limb

until, love,
the reflection murmurs,
my tongue streams—
I wash up
through an empty room

my wandering image from a watery place . . .

14. The snake snakes a shadow

A snake snakes a shadow (I was mistaken
given my eyes) to life, to insistence despite me—
the shadow comes first regardless of source,
despite the piano, the actress, the fingers
at work on the keyboard—a shadow is slipping
a way through my bedroom to find
in the bedclothes the passage, the dresses,
the tally wrestled from fingering
hems I only slip by raveling . . .

15. The fish design their own lures

I go looking for
my tongue cut
muttering downstream
but before the scar
murmuring please . . .

16. Milkboy

There is naked
not to cry for
milkboy . . .

17. And not in heaven

In the bed clothes,
hermetically penciled,
sketched fingering

and then quiet, my silence so long
as the interval lasts—this sound this
once between seeing—like pomegranates
split on the bedspread—seeds indiscriminately
sharpened with crying, bleeding now into this—
until quiet is not any longer . . .

18. And the lifeless speaking

Bluejay among
apple blossoms
pleases my mouth
to say

the bittern-gulp
between black-bird
and swallows—
the lies kept singing

undressing, disclosed
from, unbidden

19. Intermezzo: no good deed left to punish

But after
this world that
you can only scream about

she is not making up:
the father wears boots,
the mother, the father’s

they leave me the silk
they terrorize fashions

aren’t you ashamed
aren’t you delicious
still passing dishes
offered between them

20. Let this remain yours, trust I can hear,
        can feel, will not abandon you

Beyond the dressing frenzy,
the lust prince, my mouth
takes in, not as simple as
fruit, a tactile mirror nippling
the tongue—a murmur that
mirrors without me . . .

21. Without clothes, all naked

And the taste of my mirror
splintered across your lips—
the quiet is not but
still could be painful,

from ironing,
merely to slip into

quiet but like
silk rustling

the bedthings you cannot stop hearing . . .

22. Undressing the ceiling

To slip through my mother’s
closet—I watch what I cannot see, my hidden
expression—the cat in the rafters—to tease
the roof-beam, I undress the ceiling . . .

23. I undress the ceiling

The smell of who you were in
dresses I no longer wear,
the strain no longer of each
other, mother and father,
far more offered out until
I twisted open, many-
headed images danced
off with legs and arms askew—
to think you were as I am,
upside down, tracking
ceilings across my floor,
more than ever favored,
the way you edged the hems,
dressed straight to
leave the mouth
to open wide . . .

24. With my mother’s hands

And you, the dear father,
the disarmed child

I dressed with my
mother’s hands
and scarred
straightening your collar:

the grasp as you reach
without hands
to bloom in my throat . . .

25. The spider’s way across

One by one to wear
what others wear out
then discard
what others have—
wear to discard
to prayer
flags, worn rags
in the sun room—
a wind impels them—
not to mean now
any meaning by them,
not even kindly
any longer
unless I like to
and shave the weathering
from my mother’s hair,
only a scarf
like the taste of dress
to hide from
scurrying the ebb,
crossing the spider-
sequence . . .

26. An animal artist

Cochineal fantasies . . . one dress
was jewelled with insects—when
they shed their wings, the wings
ground into dust beams raptured
as the room began to sun itself,
the dessications stained behind turned
carmine on the silk—a carnival
scattering blood drops . . .
I am an animal artist . . . I
have a change of heart . . .

27. A handful of world

Then the bed-things disarranged, in among
rooms we dress in together, each
the other—you find the buttons I never
unbutton—painting the mountains—
the foreground
maples, wounded
first colors, spilling
over our guests . . .

28. The mountains of two fingers

And then I want nothing
at all in my pockets until
I want nothing else

29. In my empty room

And still my near homonyms—until as a sound
almost alike—but first in this place, once one again—
I unbutton my dress and discard my genders—
I only wish to be free without bandages . . .
30. I will fear no evil

The defined limit
as you ground my half-
words in the clothing—
rooting in the dresses—
the dried handful
after bathing, almost
evening, as you balance
on the ceiling—

who I am
I am, I am
naked now

what you please
if I please you
please if you please—

31. But now you must let me go

Undressed, without clothes, all naked,

and now with nothing attached to
the slip of the dress
to tear at between us—all
the strangers you can think of—

others from an empty room dismissed
except for discards
littering the passage—the mountains
out of loneliness—the undefended—our ins
and outs with no one but ourselves
to tally—the cat no longer my stand in—

to address please,
and through us impulsively

(wrestling, but now
you must let me go)

tosses a way out
like satisfied pleasure . . .

32. But listen to the end, listen with me

My friend, here from an edge between
fire and ice in my room, staging
extremities and miming calamities,
bordering as I can, happy
to end the world at this moment,
so long as it is only mine, not yours—
the actress I imagine beside me, no less
than the guardians I no longer imagine,
is no less myself for all my detachments
than the dresses from which she will choose
a version of words again to play in—
to save from me—and then to save me from—
my pretense of solitude, crowded
among the impatient and forgiving,
the loves out of which the dresses
are fashioned . . .

but listen to the end, listen with me . . .

33. In all my discarded dresses

And then I have my change
of heart—not
like changing dresses—
this is more like growing

a skeleton in your womb—
or growing a shell and
throwing away the bone,

adding legs or losing wings,
finding the arms you never
sketched out . . . whirring
the legs and arms,

or—I am your “animal work of art,”
another of your phrases—

you enter the room,
there is nothing to see, only the signs
of living on the walls, the ceiling,
floor, the remnants

I sought to shade
but to you
look like stains or
shadows with nothing to cast

them, the most wonderful shading of all—

sleep with me in the castings,
drift your coverings over me . . .

Tony Brinkley teaches in the English Department at the University of Maine (http://www.umaine.edu/english/faculty/tony-brinkley). His poetry has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Review of Literature, Cerise Press, and Drunken Boat. His translations of Russian and French poetry have appeared in Shofar, Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Review of Literature, Cerise Press, May Day, Otoliths and World Literature Today. He is the author of Stalin’s Eyes (Puckerbrush Press) and the co-editor with Keith Hanley of Romantic Revisions (Cambridge University Press).
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