Illustration by Edward GoreyPREFATORY NOTE
Conjunctions celebrates the eightieth birthday of one of America’s most distinctive writers with the first complete version of a long poem Alexander Theroux has been developing for decades. Originally intended for his unpublished Godfather Drosselmeier’s Tears and Other Poems, for which his friend Edward Gorey created the striking cover above, this Browningesque meditation is an apologia pro vita sua/ars poetica by way of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nutcracker fable, with Theroux in the role of the mysterious Drosselmeier. A considerably shorter version appeared in his Collected Poems in 2015, but since then Theroux has expanded it twofold as he continued to brood on his writing career, his aspirations, and his place in the literary landscape.
“But, dear God, please give me some place, no matter how small, but let me know it and keep it.”
—Flannery O’Connor, in prayer
I who knew it badly wrong to quit a venture
when it became routine knew I would do what Noël Coward would,
like any neutral, yawning Laodicean,
and so big God, tall and eye-patched to avoid
having to watch my incorrigible fears and boiseried corruptions,
disordered, corrupt, larboard-leaning,
opened no goatbag of shiny gifts to me,
lest by pride and vanity I falsify the Scriptural pages I thumbed,
no wiser than a blunt-muzzled capybara,
figuring if Absalom was the handsomest
man in the Bible I would settle to be a knave of hearts, anything
remotely blessed, a squire with fox-red hair,
say, some pomeroy in a stiff collar and tie
allowed to arrive at some small certainty, raise an eyebrow or two,
not necessarily invent the wheel,
prove, for all my workaday baseness,
that I merely be not fooled in this life, penalized by commonness,
be no feeble houseguest on this earth,
even if no apostle, a fool but a fool
to make a difference, somehow, to rise above the life I was handed,
some bravo to frivol with a little fire.
Tinfoil-hat alert: I asked God for more,
sharpening my quills and gathering reams of paper to write books
as an antidote to all I was not!
I grew up in the gabby anarchy
of a big family with lots of brothers and sisters. We fishfiddled
into our teens like common beagles,
barking for food, playing out fate,
although for all stages of amazement I fixed predominantly on
my bewildering childhood,
until I could take it no more, seeing
finally by way of my heartless siblings evil was not a problem
to be solved but a fate to be endured.
I hadn’t the privilege of certainty,
that effortless sense of privilege born out of wealth
and what is referred to as high breeding,
but convictions I had, a luminescence close
to genius, my mind no fish-paste factory with a slubbering
floor of dead smelts, cod, red porgies.
I sat in vile beuglants over notebooks,
smoked green pot for the scenic comfort of vegetable television,
and filled pages with nutty screed.
A work of art offers itself to everyone
but belongs finally to no one, according to Baudelaire. It gives
itself away indiscriminately in the way
any two-act ballet belongs to any boob
perched in any seat in any row in any theater he claims, and I
secretly hoped that art and love, partaking
of the same self-surpassing generosity
through which God gives himself to the world, might find me
worthy who would also co-create.
Wasn’t I competent enough to count,
show God I was not just another queer quidnunc in this world
a stupid chew toy, a right prat?
I who in my searches was able to discern
terpsichorean warp in a thunderstorm, scarlet-eyed cvoirths
among angels, maleks, and messengers,
sought God by joining the holy Trappists
where I made jelly, sewed chasubles, fed fat chewing sheep,
chanted under naves many a “Te Deum.”
Had I adequate faith? For St. Augustine
the recovered self is in all matters, a renewed transcended self
which explains how he could recall
his sinning self without sinning again
by his working memory. I worked to recognize the past
for continuity to some future, shining.
A river cut through every duplicity in life
that promised Jesus’s endless substitutionary love for me,
faith I have never lost or relinquished.
Inevitably, I was a recusant, defiant,
objecting to any other authority and its mutt-like face,
a credulous Papist unbudgeable.
No need in me was close to as deep
as my nightmares, making me the bed-wetter I became
who avoided waking up to reality,
diving into the depth of sleep, fleeing
what awaited me awake, accusations of me being me.
So many of the things that I ran to
were explained by the things I ran from,
my fears becoming a kleptopredator who stole my mind
and then proceeded to devour me, too
I regarded any praise as unsaid, inconfident
of my true place in life, my mind a big neep of hesitations
my wishes tall but rare as fields of blewits.
Didn’t Leonardo tell us a man could
fit inside a square and a circle both? I searched to find
where I might connect, attach, unite.
Was it so haughty of me to need
to interpret my own life as other than a formulated creature,
the product of a worthy syndrome,
lest in my own charmless eyes
I become objectionable to the very me parading the black halls
my pedestrian self walked?
I sought to write pages to be loved,
preaching through personae, rare odd multi-voiced puppetry
masks that grinned and groaned
through whatever infamy narratives
that might outlast me lest love be locked out. So was I too odd
to succeed on this scary planet?
Couldn’t others see I had a stage mind,
nearly photographic recall, selves to share? In dreams I anticipated
coming perspectives of development.
I was hurt by life into poetry and crossed
the Clopton Bridge from Medford into my own mysterious London,
the role of looker-on foreordained by fate,
although my scribblings, while never born
of a disinterested rubric, were nothing at all compared to
the acrimonious ravings of my mind, but
God-fearing, the rind of one apple tasted.
“Hang there like fruit, until the tree die!” I cried to myself,
calling from the tincture of my lurid face.
I chased my rude and raw red visions
like the Hebrew prophets did their own (or so I thought)
when the spirit of God took me by the hair
and I felt exiled, baggage on my shoulder,
my face masked, as I dug through a hole like Ezekiel
to watch through my writing no world
but creeping things, abominable beasts,
and idols, fetishes, drawn upon the walls of rooms, more
than seventy selves worshipping my art.
It was as if I had a reflection of myself,
pursuing fame, stumbling over the need but greedily to find
the face I hoped to be heroic but was vile.
Was Marx correct when he said of legal institutions
they cannot stand higher than the society that brought them forth?
I’ve always been a famous version of myself
with a word to the fates not to be a symptom
of the times I wished to transform. I saw I was a law unto myself,
not above nor below, only beyond my peers.
Who cared what kind of shirt or shouting slogan
the murdering party wears, whether it is attacking working slobs
or inbred toffee-nosed silver spoon wankstains.
Life, I saw, left me an anthropophobe,
still I insisted I be saved even if through those sins and sorrows
I abjured in and by desperate repentance
to be worthy of the God that made me
and my face and my vagrant need to expend my talent and tact.
I badly had to matter in my mind.
“Non fui, fui, non sum non curio”
read a cool Epicurean gravestone of the Roman empire,
but that was not my epitaph.
Wash myself with water as I might,
God’s plan allowed for the irrational, the discordant, and
the inexplicable. What is obedience
worth without knowledge? Adam ate
the forbidden fruit and spat out me, my face, my name, my voice
unimprovably all that I had to give.
I needed to signify, not mimic fresh snow
absorbing sound, lowering ambient noise over a landscape.
Non-persons unperson persons!
Anonymity is a kind of failure
is not a saint’s remark, and yet, although I felt ashamed
in my aspirations, ambition bit me,
for as Pelagius said, “If I ought, I can.”
Ought implies can. The free will he preached that we had
filled me with the terrible resolve
to walk through the Forest of Arden,
although I felt more a stranger there than I did at home.
But then travelers must be content,
and if I felt homesick for my real self
when among the phony mask-wearers and meat puppets
who succeeded in this farcical world,
life among the greedy ruin-bibbers
who are never, never friends of Jesus or the Holy Cross
being as sadly secular as it always is,
I prayed to re-create what God created
and tried to be as free as the Purple Martin and its song of
boisterous, throaty chirps and creaky rattles.
I determined that belief was the engine
that made perception operate, that by actively disguising
my own unhappiness I could remedy it
That there is no description of Christ
in the whole of the New Testament bade me feel I myself
may shape-shift a fit semblance,
transcending the impossible illusion
that I had to be what, when looking down at me as bloatware,
people surmised I would be nothing else.
Don what persona you will, be no fanfaroon
to falsify the basic you. Spring travels about the same rate
as a parent pushing a stroller, and I begged
my fate not unnaturally bum-rush the weather
that composed the scenery of my life. I wanted to be loyal
to God’s nature and, so, to my own.
Let no tide, neap or spring, drown me.
John Wesley’s rule was always to look a mad mob in the face,
and as I fumbled though my metaphysics
I sought identity as being, not becoming,
not jiggling pocket change in a doorway like some scarlet pimp,
nor wasting my life like a silly fandangero.
I was a born antinomian, secretly despised
restraints and rules but feared much and, like the Arabian horse,
hated a slap or a blow, regarding most insults
and other’s opinions as left unsaid, mentally
tricing them up in the rigging and taking Fate’s deserved
bitter lashes as I always walked away.
I was a criminal bed-wetter. Imagination
was my only reality, and I drove into sleep for refuge,
refusing to awake for any reason at all,
avoiding the scary parade of hideous facts
that waited to confront me whenever I awoke. Plunging
to the depths of whales into the dark benthic
became my salvation until I woke sopping wet
high tide and low, always to learn again the secret
to art is like an intrepid sailor going too far.
I have milled about with the precariat,
watching fools ambush-market their mediocrity to the world
bowing low and scraping. And me?
Art was my salvation to remake what I
in the world inherited, whether hare-drummer, Fritz, gnome,
mouse-king, or Nutcracker soldier.
I prayed I that I could signify just enough
to make heaven weep for me and my blunders. I would count
myself justified even by God’s pity.
I pled only not to be a donkeystone.
St. Augustine declared, “Love means: I want you to be!” I was—
or, I swear, at least pretended to be—
and so that gets me nothing? I who swore
I need not have been a soldier in full-parade uniform, Nutcracker cute,
expected no Clara or Marie to buss my bum.
Moses boldly killed a man, and so did David,
and the good Godfather, reaching into his grab bag of dolls and dollars,
allowed them solid profiles the world adored,
so why let the poor Gringoire I am, I asked,
be a dry ball of failure? I will play any role you offer, Councilor Grand,
let me only be a nut that cracks!