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By Peter Balakian
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
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Chapter OneGOING TO ZERO
A canvas with less turpentine, more hard edges, less bleeding,
that was good for beauty, Frankenthaler in Art News
in the dining car crammed with parkas and laptops
micro-waved cellophane, plastic plates and canvas bags,
and the valley under fog as the cows disappeared
and when the green came back into view I could see
the SUVs floating on the Thruway, the cows oblivious
to the revved engines of trucks. The river glistened
all the way to Albany, and I could see flags on Baptist churches
and resurrection trailers, "God Bless America" on pick-ups—
"United We Stand" laminated to billboards
as the fog settled then lifted, and when I woke
a flag the size of a football field hung from the gray tower of the GW,
where the tractor-trailers jammed beneath its hem
as something sifted down on the silver-plated Hudson.
And then the lights went out.
The faces on 7th Avenue blurred in the chaos of vendors and liberty
scarves, freedom ties, glowing plastic torches, dollars and polyester—
and inside Macy's I was hit by cool air as "Stars and Stripes Forever"
floated down from women's fashions into the quiet aisles of Aramis and silk
I wanted to buy the Frankenthaler, a modest, early print,
minimal, monochromatic; surface and perspective in dialogue;
on 24th off 10th—the gallery still smelled like wood and plaster—
but I didn't stop, and when the train reached the Stock Exchange
the Yom Kippur streets were quiet, and the bronze statue of Washington
was camouflaged by national guard. I was walking my old mail route now
like a drunk knocking into people, almost hit by a cab
until the roped-off streets cut me at the arm. At Broadway and Liberty
the fences wound around the bursts of dust rising
over the cranes and bulldozers, over the punched-out windows—
I stared through a piece of rusted grid that stood like a gate to the crystal
I was sweating in my sweatshirt now, the hood filling with soot,
as I watched with others drinking Cokes and eating their pizza of disbelief.
Zero began with the Sumerians who made circles with hollow reeds
in wet clay and baked them for posterity.
At Broadway and Liberty. At 20 floors charred and standing.
At miasma people weeping. Anna's Nail Salon, Daikichi Sushi,
the vacant shops, stripped clean in the graffiti of dust-coated windows.
Something blasted from a boom box in a music store,
something, in the ineffable clips of light,
disappeared over the river.
WARHOL / MADISON AVE. / 9-11
When I left Eli Zabar the cut-out star on the window
was whirling in the animation of the rich and hungry
hunched over tables for a $30 sandwich and a Diet Coke.
It was raining and the blurred glass of the galleries
was the gold leaf of the Carrig Rhone frames—
Childe Hassam's dabs of Connecticut trees
the diaphanous blue on the fleshy rocks,
the melting opal of the shoals.
Inside the Whitney the rain trailed down my face;
and I found myself in a quiet corner staring
at the pink face of Marilyn Monroe.
I could still smell the smoldering high-tech plastic
as it burned the air. In the whiteness of her teeth,
in the almost aahh of her mouth and the half-drugged eyes
under the lids of teal shadow, the air kept singeing my nose.
Against the pale walls Marilyn's face dissolved
like the stretched mesh and litho ink
where plain form is a place of no desire
like the empty mirror of the Hudson at dawn.
In the fissures of her make-up, the planes of color
led back and back behind her teeth longing—
to the deception by the Falls on her honeymoon
(with Joseph Cotton in Niagara)—where we found her clothed
and alarmed, and later desperate for the affirmation,
of a President's limp dick and the crisp sheets
the same color of these walls—as my t shirt dries to my skin
and the faintest scent of ground zero
sifts down on the walls
whiter than the wingtip vortices
of melting in the morning light.
WORLD TRADE CENTER / MAIL RUNNER / '71
Every city's a response to the indifference of geology.
From the pier on West Street the towers were sun on steel.
I felt the tone-hole sockets vibrate in my hand,
I felt what does it take to win your love for me
woozy like bourbon, insistent as the crowds pushing around me
to the lunch carts and heavenly benches.
By the time I pressed the buttons Junior Walker's sax
was swallowing the elevator.
I rose up a vertigo of keys into the plane lingo
of anodized aluminum and blue-skied-out window panes;
if the merging of writing and bureaucracy started urban life,
if a city could levitate on arbitrage and junk bonds—
if the sea above were like the Hudson down here, if
I tried, I tried, I tried in every way I could.
The vents were cooling me down
I had a check for a half million in my pocket (a lot for those days).
At the sky lobby on the 47th I looked out
at the barges and tugs on the filthy gold water—
the Colgate clock on the Jersey side ticking
in the late capitalist haze; looked out into the mica flakes of air—
the gulls flat as floating money,
the sun spilling on a geology of invisible numbers.
WARHOL / BLUE JACKIE
Her face catches you as you come around the corner
and see her on the far wall,
in the white silence after the docents and guards
have left you there alone
(behind the veil the interior is chaos, the Lincoln slows down,
the roses slide onto the pink dress),
she comes to you—a kitsch Mona Lisa
bella donna of the roses, face of revision.
After the black-light has gone over the mesh,
and the negative has burned itself out—
the broad planes of her cheeks, the almond eyes
glazed with valium, the numbed-out mouth
(is this just complicity with the media
or the transaesthetic fetish of a nation?)
the impossible presence, the veil almost wrapping
her face spreading the pixilation.
WORLD TRADE CENTER / MAIL RUNNER / '73
There was no languor, no drowsy trade winds,
or stoned-out stupor of lapping waves,
only news, the big board of crime,
corporate raiding, selling short and long.
It didn't matter, I was no Ishmael.
I just hovered there in the thick of the material—
at the edge of a skyline of money,
rising in a glass box.
It was comic to think Bachelard believed elevators
had destroyed the heroism of stair-climbing.
In the rush of soaring metallic, past the whiff of 4-martini lunches,
up gearless traction in transparency,
waves of cool air coming from the vents.
At the 85th in a sky lobby we stalled out and the sun
flooded the glass / the river / the cliffs.
Jersey was just gouache and platinum coming apart—
a glistening smudge
and some nagging line from Roethke I'd been reading—
circulating the air:
"It will come again. Be Still. Wait."
WARHOL / ELECTRIC CHAIR / '63
The red spreads like Christmas wrapping—
the green, a field in a Caucasian rug.
It's almost beautiful without the metal plates for the head
(though the plug on the floor is visible).
Before decorator colors & Hockney,
Calvin Klein in the summery Hamptons,
before there were—switches to break the flow
my mother used to say never touch a radio when you're in the bathtub,
never fly a kite near transmission lines.
But still, it's furniture
still, it's a typical American way to go—
it's Sing Sing, the silhouette of Ethel Rosenberg.
In the rheostatic air, the absent man heard "She Loves You,"
the British invasion and the flat line arrived at once.
Outside Negroes were eaten by dogs.
Johnson was sworn in. Cuba turned red in the green sea.
WORLD TRADE CENTER / BLACK HOLES / '74
I may have flunked physics
but I was full of black holes
and wind that was slamming the tower
as I rose in the glass box
up to the 80th with a check
from Chilean Line. Black holes
opened relativity, created frozen stars.
In the sky lobby on the 99th I loafed
over headlines of John Dean's testimony
and the suicide of a CEO—
I heard the relativity of the wind.
Everything was like. I was trapped in similes
I hated. I couldn't leave my head
and so the sound was insidious, then beautiful,
Then ... it was there
(if I say I once heard bird-bone pipes
in an old church in the Caucasus
like this wind blowing in the tracery
of the top floors, in the pipelines
and farther up). Through the glass
I could see the other tower wavering—
the silver like broken mica—
I was falling matter dislodged by the idea
of a place from which nothing can return:
Jackie Wilson's tremolo, Paganini's
broken wires, the frantic shaking
of the small bells at the altar
going up into some place
beyond the smudged-out sky
above the radar needle,
above the planes coming out
of the fog on their way to Newark.
It was possible to hoist an object
out of a black hole with a rope—
this bit of knowledge I was hanging on to.
WARHOL / RACE RIOT / '63
We were watching the Yankees in black & white on a Magnavox,
while across county, or state, there was a billy-club,
a German Shepherd and the white line unraveled on the road.
I remember Hector Lopez's stance, because it gave me a spasmodic feel,
like what I would later learn in salsa and mamba,
and even on the screen we could see a white line.
On the other side of the county or the state,
black faces were arrested in Liquitex, dissolved by chemicals
so the trace of sweet flowers or burning rubber almost disappeared.
I was watching a relief pitcher named Arroyo, how carefully he went
to the rosin bag, how the white powder dusted his hand, and then
I poured a Coke where now there's just pixilation and red wash.
The couch was new leather; the lawns on the block
undulated like outfields into the evening
where the sun flattened in the emulsified sky.
ELEVATOR, MIDTOWN, '74
We were falling, just after sunrise and metallic
coffee into Nietzsche's cracked-open head.
The black shaft swallowing the red ass of the sun.
We lived between our zipless love
and the global village, law and order rained
down on us like Lichtenstein's yellow dots,
the gearless traction was Monk Off Minor.
I saw the rising sun on the glass,
the fat Oldsmobiles going up in flames,
my face disappearing in your rear-view mirror
after we spent all night solving what we couldn't—
Monk's keys were leaving the wires,
traction, whine, thin-out, disappear—
before the door opened and the day began.
Chapter TwoA-TRAIN / ZIGGURAT / ELEGY
The tender head of the he-goat (on the cover)
stares through the branches of a golden tree,
and I'm just moving on a system of fuses,
while the fruit stands of Spanish Harlem fly above,
and even now remembering when we were here
after Nixon waved goodbye and rose in the chopper.
Even now seeing it through the double glass
as Ur of the Chaldees (revised and updated)
Sir Leonard Woolley's Excavations at Ur
flares on the yellow cover in the momentary dark
that wrapped our bodies, all night like violent paint
on the sheets; like the broken fire escape of our building.
At 125th, the guy next to me reading Another Country;
the white guy passed out in a suit and a brown bag.
The steel screeches the tracks, and the vaults light up.
To Woolley, the Crash and Wall Street
were a Fata Morgana of palms shattered in ice.
He paid baksheesh to the locals and they kept digging—
baked clay and gypsum;
Woolley loved cow dung, mud plaster huts: the world from bottom up.
"We found a clay figurine of a pig,
spindle-whorls of baked clay prove that thread was spun here."
* * *
In the last days of Babylon
a mathematician gave zero a name,
not far from where Woolley dug.
No great thing comes without a curse, said Sophocles—
So Zero = hollow circle = cylinder seal—
"Skulls and seeds and all good things are round" (Nabokov).
You made his lines, which were opaque as ashes,
seem clear as our confusion.
("the diagonal black's a broken body")
it was after the show, we walked from Tung-Lai Shun
to the Bowery to the Bridge and back.
"I like bridges," Franz Kline said, "if people want to see bridges
in my lines that's good."
And when we fell into the shadow of the morning,
why did we stop talking, after all, after all of it, after everything.
You disappeared on the train reading Merleau-Ponty
I got lost in Queens on the E.
I ran mail a whole summer down Greenwich and West.
Before it even started, before we roamed Radio Row
for 78s of Ellington and the Blanton Trio,
before the yin-yang of real estate
under the Kensett skies over the river,
the wrecking balls took Radio Row down:
florists, groceries, record shops, restaurants
the whole mid-century slid into a pit
and the sun made gothic trees of the falling windows.
Out of res ipsa loquitur
Out of Port Authority and Chase,
Rockefeller and Tobin,
the Twin Towers rose from the garbage.
But to Woolley it wasn't Iraq, it wasn't post-empire or Faisal's kingdom,
it was precise and chaotic digging into the beginning,
as if the piece of the snake's tail that was swallowed by the mouth
made the full-circle of history.
"All the bodies lay on their backs, rigidly extended: hands crossed below the
the graves, dug into the silt were"
—after the flood: decayed brick, ashes,
potsherds, flints, clay figurines—
I used to think of post-diluvian as theoretical.
But if you ask: what became of the Sumerians?
"It grieves me to watch the end of any good work
to which men have given so much thought and skill."
Woolley might have agreed with Duchamp,
who thought America's greatest art was its plumbing
and NYC the summation of sewage pipes and sinks,
which join here in the 59th Street Station
where we're stuck, and before the lights go out I can see
the pale blue and white tiles glistening like Lucca della Robbias.
I watched it half-drugged by the sun off the West Street pier:
"First, there was the construction of the core or rectangular elevator-service
area where all the interior columns were clustered together. From the core,
the floor system reached in a clear and unobstructed clean sweep to the
exterior wall.... Although few tenants subsequently took full advantage of
the dramatic interior layout potential, the fact remains that the architecture
offered great possibilities. It was at the core that the giant kangaroo cranes
lifted the steel from the outside."
We met on a cold morning
when the women were gathering dew.
start again: We met at a party in a loft on Greene St.
in the no-gravity of Barsamian's big canvasses;
post-Magritte you called it; a vagina and no head, breasts but no limbs.
The red wine was Chilean, this was after Allende and Neruda.
I watched your mouth in the dark reflection of the window
beyond which the light of the towers glared the black red.
But still the need to ask—who wrapped the day in nectar?
Who cracked the sun over the hedges?
Who saw the light flare off the towers at dusk?
What's loss if not an open grave
where the heart is eaten by worms.
Woolley thought the original Ur was built on a low mound
rising only just above the surrounding swampland—
"Here all traces of human activity ceased and we were at the bottom of
* * *
Among the many things the Sumerians handed down
is the story of a flood, cf. Gilgamesh,
and after that, kingship was sent down from on high
so civilization could start again.
A tweed jacket and vest in the Iraqi sun, mid-winter evenings,
two martinis up, a supply from Harrods.
Excerpted from Ziggurat by Peter Balakian Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Going to Zero
Warhol / Madison Ave. / 9-11
World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’71
Warhol / Blue Jackie
World Trade Center / Mail Runner / ’73
Warhol / Electric Chair / ’63
World Trade Center / Black Holes / ’74
Warhol / Race Riot / ’63
Elevator, Midtown, ’74
A-Train / Ziggurat / Elegy
Reading Dickinson / Summer ’68
Self-Portrait with Bird
9 /11, Emily Dickinson