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Godfather Drosselmeier’s Tears
Alexander Theroux
Illustrations by Edward Gorey
Introduction by Steven Moore
Illustration by Edward Gorey

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 Originally intended for his unpublished Godfather Drosselmeier’s Tears and Other Poems, for which his friend Edward Gorey created the striking cover above, this Browningesque meditation is an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.
—Steven Moore


“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!

Alexander Theroux is the author of four acclaimed novels, two poetry collections, and several works of nonfiction, most recently Einstein’s Beets. His Collected Stories will be published next year (both Fantagraphics). He lives on Cape Cod with his wife and their twin daughters.
Illustrator Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is the author of more than one hundred books, including The Doubtful Guest, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and The Headless Bust. He illustrated works as diverse as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. His numerous anthologies have been translated into fifteen languages, and he won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula.
Steven Moore is the author of a two-volume survey of world literature entitled The Novel: An Alternative History (Bloomsbury). He has also written extensively on modern literature, and for years was managing editor of Dalkey Archive Press/Review of Contemporary Fiction. His latest book is My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays (Zerogram Press).