Read an Excerpt
By Paul Monette
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Paul Monette
All rights reserved.
Into the Dark
To J. D. McC.
I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob—would have embraced him, but that I did not know how he would receive me. So I did what moral cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing—walked deliberately up to him, took off my hat, and said, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" "Yes," he said, with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly.
—Henry Morton Stanley, How I Found Livingstone
A spider bite the size of a dinner plate
means, when the thing erupts, that I am strapped
to a tree to scream until I black out. Thus,
God is not my favorite reason why
my shadow knocks and curdles in this damned
chaos. The third day I leave for fever
after two on the trail. The quinine's out—
I think the bearers salt the jungle, since
they prefer to ferment for pain what lies
at hand, the gray grass, bananas, a bark
that tastes like bread. In none of these diseases
do I detect a falling off of the main
madness, covering miles. I double up
with cramps, infected, atilt with vertigo,
and still I manage the next stretch and the next,
annexing nowhere bit by bit to the known
contours. My body's ruined balance buoys me.
I am that sick of the well-controlled.
assert their ups and downs, the violet earth
its pulses and its price. In Zanzibar
the Sultan said: "The gonads grow as fat
as cantaloupes under the sun. A man
has limits. Do consider, along the moon
you mean to map, what can be taken to bed."
As well ask why where the river leads is
worth the losses. I rise above my needs.
The Nile curls a question into Africa
that loosed in the Delta the pharaoh's grip on the sun
and stars, their single aberration. "I
am the world," he dreamed in his gold cloaks, "I
must be the Nile in flood, but what"—as the dream
turns—"what is the gate in the dark which spills
the first water that is my blood?"
has limits too in an hour that sees the Nile
narrowed to a source. Actually, I am
saving myself for a finer bed. A crowd
of girls in New York Harbor sighs at the sight
of my ship. In my head they do. They line the piers
and laugh. I hear them above the mosquitoes
who needle the nets, who eat all night. Who else
but the wanderer can own them, marrying
his inland mysteries at last with hers,
at sea? Is pleasure best following pain
because it comes untroubled by the fright
that leads us here? I am of those who hurry,
who would be first or nothing.
We're two days
east of Ujiji. Sidh, my scout, ruptured
a column of ants on Monday (careless man)
and must be carried, regularly bathed
in soda, and induced to vomit. War,
I think, forces the jaws on the same schedule,
next to the jungle the test with a victim's
rictus, mere survival. Here, Livingstone
disagrees. He says there is violence
and violence, some of it suffered and some,
the rarer kind, consumed like a weird meat,
a snake's, a crested crane's, once in the desert
a centipede's, oily and sour.
for sponging off the spider's kiss freezes
my swollen ribs—they go for the heart—and I
order the march resumed. Livingstone shakes
his head. "Sleep the venom out. I will speak
between your dreams, and you will separate
the one from the other on the coast." I nod,
and the night opens.
And yet how queer. At first,
a quiet as fierce as the lost light. Through narrows
awash in ink and pitch, and then a cave
where I neglect to drop a string behind
because I am only going one way. The dark
in certain lights has faces I can see.
Surfacing, I know it has been getting loud
all along. Queerer still, it is purer
than words, taken in change, raw as the dawn
to which it rises up to sing, in which
it dies of exposure. And amnesia is
the shelter at the cave's deserted mouth,
from which I see mirages fume in the dead
distance and, for all of their combustion,
feel the cool of mountain shade. Overnight
the promise of staying lost is broken, much
as you would say the weather broke.
argues that memory serves to announce
what we can do without. His kit contains
a bar of British soap, a tin of crystal
ginger, shillings, port, tobacco, the end
number of Great Expectations, and tea—
kept against surrender, should the desire
arise to fly. "These?" He fingers them. "These
are the other side. There is"—his eyes burn
briefly—"another side. The chain of events,
the river's ruthless indirection, don't
demand tribute except from men"—the fire
gutters—"whom order, the house in the lane, cannot
seduce. Come, disabuse yourself of life
as chosen, as a way of getting better,
it is too fast for such distinctions. See
this ivory ring? A moment ago it was
Livingstone puts the Nile
further west, sprung from a mountain spine. The streams
tributary to the Congo finger some
of the same terrain from the east. He dreams a final
fountain playing its two rivers—a lake,
perhaps a falls, unless, for such issue,
a geyser gives the water up. He is
half dead of bites and welts and venom, skin
pied and chipped in places, as if they have
roasted it. With a habit, when he sits
at a map, of shutting his eyes before he looks.
"And so see it afresh. The map projects
the mind's tunnel and gulf. Well, you go down
deep enough, you draw enough approaches
to the map's blank center, do it long enough,
and, Stanley, you can will the last of the Nile.
The way to go is by amazement. Cling
to the line of least reason. Let the river
flow uphill, if that will bring you nearer.
The map has the canyons and cracks in the forest.
When they disappear, go home."
I will be back,
but Livingstone needs supplies. I will repair
to Dar es Salaam, and he continue south
to Bangweolo, there to rest in a jeweled
city lost on its shores. I will surely
try to come back myself. As a journalist,
of course, I have a certain duty to
a story. Livingstone Alive. In the end,
words are to me what rivers are to him.
Curious, after broken bones, hunger, the stings
and savages, to sweat with horror now,
but in my sleep the Nile has drained. We are,
in Livingstone's view, about to finish up
the planet. Then there is just the living
within its fists to do. Where do I start?
I want to get well, I want a woman
and a house in Manhattan, and horses and Irish hounds
on a farm on the Hudson. Livingstone won't attend
to his own future. As a child, I was warned
to turn to stone when a wasp or rattlesnake
was baiting me—then they would go away.
Then they did, now they don't.
Of course I can't
come back, but I will make us kings and get
places for us. "I have swum with crocodiles,"
he says, "in parts of the Nile where nothing kills.
Think of it, Stanley. They come to bathe."
He goes too far. The world is where we live,
never what we think. They swim, yes, and then
they eat. What does Livingstone mean to imply?
I don't follow it. He can have the Nile
because I will have him. Our names will link,
like lovers. Or brothers. Brothers, if you like.
The first was in a window and was silk,
a chemical green. A deep, thin salesman loved
the hang of it, I think, because it lay
by a shoe and an ounce of scent, open
at the throat, and lent a certain air to this
and that. It was, he wanted you to know,
a look that looked ahead, a dream, but not
for everyone. Eighty dollars a week,
his own cut of the pie, wouldn't touch it.
I wore it for an hour and a half. A ride
on a trolley, swinging by a strap. A shot
of Campari in cream, this in a low-life bar,
like cactus liquor on the tongue, the taste
of dread. I kept the glass against my chest,
a rose on a clover ground. And by and by
(but well within the hour), dispensing with
hellos, I fell in bed, the shirt all shucked
like any other skin.
The second was,
well, innocent. Tan and wash-and-wear
and went with what you will, none of your swank
and Spanish dancer overtones. Collar
buttons. It was left, as of little worth,
when my friend went to China, where he died.
When he died, Death altered it, but at first
it fit the house I had as well as his,
and so I brought it home. In time it came
to lie in a ball, the day's last apparel, retrieved
at dusk (the stroke of nerves) and shaken out
and slipped on, oh, until I slept.
habit, since it insisted, like the woodsman's
violin in the old story, on taking
the place of things. At the edge of the wood, the bag
of seed, the hatchet and saw fall. The burden
of the tale is local color and German elves.
Sublime, but nothing to do with life. He plays
a piece evocative of autumn light
shaven to edges across the meadow grass,
a light that swipes at the outer leaves but goes
deeper, rifling limb and trunk and root. What
becomes of his cord of oak? Put in its place.
His cut and dried arrangement lives apart.
His violin, see, has bought the night for a song.
One never bewares enough. In the mirror,
with so much to attend to, one doesn't
take the care one ought about the old fool
in old clothes one is turning into, the cheap
effects of the too long loved. What is really
second nature is not the rumpled shirt
thrown about the shoulders of an evening.
No. One seeks the most comfortable way
to carry Death around, to break him in
and thus to wear him out.
The third would be,
I swore, my safest yet because I knew
what to watch for—and, too, the risk I ran
that what I would have at the end of the week
was a week's wash. Mostly, a dandy learns
the cost of keeping clean the wrong way round.
His drawers are all in disarray. A shirt
is right for breakfast; then, as lunch comes on,
it seems a shame. Only the droll endure.
Cured of making much of whole cloth, I worked
at random on a patchwork. If I saw
the red was dominant, deliberately
I went to green or brown. No inch of it
led anywhere, lacking the thread. A shirt
without tears, whose surface phenomena
are lovely, like the drift of certain snows,
going on and on until they lead you
to believe they never stop sleeping it off.
And so you hurry home to the fire, the snow
goes to water, and you wake to wonder what
you saw. A shirt, in other words, that seems
guileless. Is so, if you stick to surfaces.
Underneath, do not forget, the body
is always sorry for one breach or another,
bareback, prey to gooseflesh.
The scraps gave out
in the right sleeve. Remnants I had put by
for years—torn pockets, cuffs the dog brought in
in his teeth, my patches, hems—didn't suffice
or go so far. Far being where the years
had taken me, it was a natural
mistake. If time were scraps, I could have plaited
Is this the stuff you want, my love?
My shirts? In a better world, the lovers give
résumés (they have them all typed), a list
of needs, the year that each emerged, and then
the corresponding loss of nerve. In black
and white, all the poop on masks. For instance,
my first arrest involved the theft of a pair
of mesh pajamas. Now I sleep stripped. How
does one explain such reversals? Say this:
that we are sealed to a mirror more and more.
More, we care so for the holding still, we don't
get the joke: its silver and ourselves are
Oh, I know I promised
to fit you with beginning, middle, end.
You would be rags if you went out like this,
I know. But wear it now. Tonight is what
we have come for. Tomorrow, when we must
be spiffy once again, something suitable
will turn up, starched and ironed, the one shirt
to which we roll our eyes when we cry "Keep
your shirt on" or, in pain, "I lost my shirt."
Well, we will see about that tomorrow.
To David Schorr
There are so many lies in nature,
a painter talking to painters starts
to lie about the plum and yellow tree
he forks for effect on a storm in purple
paint. The fact is, nothing sticks to
particular colors. A pear in old
grass, shy of the sun's bluff, is
ripe and rotting at once. You mix
a mud green and, green being one
of the lies, a pink and summer gray
appear on the pear, its jaded flesh
as futile to do as smoke.
If the boy
with the wagon is empty to Marseilles,
take the ride. They sometimes favor
fancy detours in view of the secret
sea. The horses at a halt dozed
in a vineyard, I remember, and the boy
fell to his mug of chicory coffee
and milk. Baskets piled in the arbors.
And the perfect blue to break the world on
heaves in sudden sight. You couldn't
actually paint it. Lying, massive,
banked by an African sky and an angry
grapeskin red, a sea like that
will queer your heart. The workers wringing
their kerchiefs love to be sketched, but
they are not mad like the sea to be taken
I could fuck like a sailor in Cannes.
Madame pumps her baton in a seaside
studio. "Move, little girls," she says,
"like cats. Dance like animals drunk
on their dinners. Simone, what are you?"
"A panther, Madame." "No, today you are
heavy as cows, all of you. Tomorrow
I send you home to your pigs and husbands.
Go to your rooms and practice cats."
Simone, when she models at night, will say:
"You, with your mug of brushes, are
as sour as Madame. You think I am such
a dancer, look at the men who clap at
my recital." I could take her, she's
a beggar for a painter, but I don't. I am
terrible in August.
See the sweat on
the jockey's thighs, streaked to his fitted
trousers? Manic from practice. He buffs
his boots, and his manager (here, in the cream
cravat) berates him. See? The chestnut
horse in the middle ground has tornv a muscle. You are not meant to figure
from the picture who has cheated whom.
All the same, it avoids a poster's
thoroughbreds and dark grooms. In my
races, the people bet like the rich,
because money alarms them. About horses
I have no opinion.
I did a mayor's
wife who posed at a fire from four
to six in a rose salon. Prompt and
uncommonly pale, she took her place
as though for proof if the night came.
Her dilettante hands, a ghost's, I had
to change. Why are we all accused
of motifs? "Another ballerina," my students
write in their Paris journals. "The buyers
buy picnics at the sea. You can always
count on flowers. Degas is stubborn."
When in fact, Degas is probably crazy.
He hates praise. The mayor's lady
is thrilled with the eyes: "I am as pretty
as this," she asks. When she leaves I blot
the hands and do them dead.
an artist's father-in-law. They drink
a bit the day the daughter is promised,
at pains to indicate nothing amiss.
They make each other sick. Take it
out on their wives. I don't care what
the Greeks mastered. I am quite sure
of just this, that pent up in jockeys
and dancers the moon tortures the sea.
They pass the delirious night, an addict
couple bloated on green liquor,
relieved of the grief of detail. Apparently
for now, I am the first to know.
Excerpted from No Witnesses by Paul Monette. Copyright © 1981 Paul Monette. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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