William Doreski

How Much We Owe to Brain Death

We fell asleep in New Hampshire and woke in Paris. This happens frequently, whenever we lust for croissants, but it can be disconcerting. What if our credit cards refuse to credit us? What if the Eiffel Tower stoops? What if the Pantheon refuses admittance, the Luxembourg Gardens shed us like ticks? We find a café near the Sorbonne and overhear students critiquing our current President—his childish pink demeanor, his carrot-topped rage. We like the coffee here. Looking into the deep brown Rorschach in our cups we imagine a fresh new romance blazing in our mutual gaze. If only life were as true as fiction. If only the Seine were as bottomless as the Hudson. The ruins of Notre Dame crawl with workmen in those blue jackets I admire. The fire reconsidered everything, yet the stained glass survived. We should reconsider ourselves and each other in such absolute terms. The lead dust exhaled by the fire poisons every surface. These croissants are pure lead mined in Alsace. The coffee is melted lead kept hot just for tourists. When we return to New Hampshire we’ll understand how much we owe to brain death, our favorite symptoms singing.

Frozen Charlottes

While my partner tends to her ripening clichés, I wander about the shop. A silver-plate tray of Frozen Charlottes. Soaps from Sweden and France. Pillows embroidered with flowers of indeterminate species. Paintings by a local artist I despise for his supercilious little beard. I slump into a cane chair and pretend to doze off. The shopkeeper, alarmed, waves a fifth of expensive small-batch bourbon under my nose. Too early for me, but my partner’s so rapt in conversation she won’t notice that I’m spoiling my liver. I accept a modest dose and sample it. The varnished flavor ramps over my tongue and retreats to the darkest recess. How elegant, I think, but try to maintain a poker face. The shopkeeper pours herself a healthy shot and we wave our glasses at each other. Another sip, and the Frozen Charlottes stir from their death-pose. If I remain here long enough to earn another dash of spirits, the Charlotte figurines will begin to dance that dance I most fear and admire, the dance that Liszt imagined but never saw performed. The bourbon settles deep in me, where it will do the most good. My partner has harvested most of her clichés and is ready to go. Christmas is upon us, the streets raving with ice and dusted with shoppers toting curious packages. The dead Charlottes sigh so imperceptibly the mist of their lack of breath rises and ghosts out the door, merging with the clammy weather.

Kafka in Place

Kafka seated at his desk in the insurance company. He’s shuffling important papers, valuable papers, contracts and the dreary reports of actuaries. His salary could support a family, but although he has been engaged to several women, he’s too tubercular to marry. He lives in his fiction, his secret undertone. He writes many letters to family and friends, who feel his sour breath lofting over Prague. The days pass like kidney stones. Kafka’s stories pile up in little heaps of angst and existential dismay, although the word “existential” would puzzle him. He coughs a lot, but so do most people in this damp gray city. Still, that’s good enough reason to call him “Kafka,” rather than the more familiar “Franz.” He doesn’t know that Edmund Wilson will dismiss his work, preferring the graces of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He doesn’t know that his friend Max Brod will preserve his corpse in amber. Those of us who have been to the penal colony and survived that hideous machine, that cosmic bloodletting, appreciate Kafka’s attempts to clarify. Those of us who have suffered the knock on the door, the desultory interrogation, who have confessed to whatever doesn’t need confessing, accept his blocky little worldview. In memory of his fragile sincerity, we cough up blood and spit it on the sidewalk. Let the post-ward paradigm and all its casual erasures be thus infected, dying at home in bed.

Slime and Spoor

Yes, you’re tired of mopping up my slime trail. And I’m sick of scraping up your spoor. I’m sorry about the mess, but your residue is crude as mine, and its source equally fetid. The problem is that our shells have cracked. We aren’t the integrated creatures we once were. Note how our old friends keep their distance. Not because they fear the spread of some obstinate virus. Not because we smell like the Great Plains. No, it’s because the incessant drip from our fissures reminds them that everyone suffers indignities of age. Let’s compare those to the indignities of youth. We can look at our high school yearbook, assembled when everyone’s shell was intact. Look at Joey with his carapace of stainless steel. Look at Susie snug in her generous spiral. Poor Alfie looks constrained by his clamshell, but he never had much social surface. Roger, our valedictorian, sports a chambered nautilus complex, which the rest of us tried but failed to emulate. And here we are with our sluggish but empowering snail-shapes. We thought they would retain their form, even without scheduled maintenance. We were wrong. Better put away the yearbook and get out the mop and bucket. If we lose ourselves in ourselves, we can still make this place shine.

Tea Set Eliot

A slow afternoon in Boston. You balance a cup of Earl Grey on your knee and look askew. Yes, askew, not askance. I know my teatime talk. The British taught me to keep a stiff cup in hand, to pour without spilling, to don the cozy and dance about like a party animal. That’s how they survived the blitz. Tea Set Eliot led the charge: a courageous if slightly antisemitic fellow who served as a fire warden. He extinguished many a fire by applying a dose of tea. Between bombings, he edited books written by grim conservatives with flocculent hair and thick flannels that stank in the underground in winter. But because of our advanced views, which exclude bigots of such pale demeanor, you and I can’t discuss him. Instead of idly gossiping, I have advanced my views to the brim of the Atlantic. Peering over that brim, I detect a peerage wearing a feather in its cap. That must be the shore of England. I hadn’t realized it was so near. When you finish your tea, we can wade across the pond to Cornwall and climb the cliffs and sprawl exhausted on the sod of the old homeland. More your old homeland than mine. Tea Set Eliot is long gone, but something he scrawled on a schoolyard wall still lingers. Don’t you dare read it, at least not with both eyes.

William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He has taught at several colleges and universities. His forthcoming book of poetry is Mist in Their Eyes (2021). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in various journals.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home