No Witnesses: Poems

No Witnesses: Poems

by Paul Monette

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An enthralling collection of poetry from National Book Award winner Paul Monette

“Come, / what can the body do but go on, when / the best of us are eaten from within?” writes Paul Monette in the titular poem. This mixture of doom and determinedness is played out with humor and warmth in Monette’s poetry. In this quicksilver collection,See more details below


An enthralling collection of poetry from National Book Award winner Paul Monette

“Come, / what can the body do but go on, when / the best of us are eaten from within?” writes Paul Monette in the titular poem. This mixture of doom and determinedness is played out with humor and warmth in Monette’s poetry. In this quicksilver collection, his words are in perpetual motion, traveling from the Parthenon to Ohio and everywhere in between. Meditating frequently on sex, nostalgia, and love, these poems are serious without ever becoming humorless. They include charming and funny monologues from Isadora Duncan and Noël Coward. Accompanied by original artwork by David Schorr, No Witnesses is an absorbing book of poetry from an acclaimed author.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Paul Monette including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the Paul Monette papers of the UCLA Library Special Collections.

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No Witnesses


By Paul Monette


Copyright © 1981 Paul Monette
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-7376-8


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.

    The hills
    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?"

    A woman
    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.

    The spice
    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
    an elephant."

    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.

    My Shirts

    To Roger

    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.

    A bad
    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
    a tent.

    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
    only polish.

    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.

    Art is
    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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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