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Five Poems
Zero, The Corrosive Number 

Impossible. Without the idea of counting. To imagine numbers. Repeating an identical act, a particular mark. Over and over. 

Like languages that express a plural by repeating the singular. Or a man with a woman, and another, and a third, a fourth.

“Etc.” prolongs its shadow, its mathematical imperative. The idea that ceaselessly. A string of beads. Of follies. Of particles. Elementary? as long as the momentum. Zero as trace of one-who-counts. Is-under-the-spell. Of women? Naked. Infinite progressions. Delirious possibility. Offspring.

I dig a hole, he said, and then dig another and fill it with the soil I took out of the first hole. 

A system of numbers instead ties a knot around nothing. Of abbreviations, conventions of syntax and grammar. Conventions instead of. Notch, tally-mark, or pebble. Instead of. Thou shalt not make unto thee any image, no likeness of a thing. No catalogue of ships. No list of wars. 

Imagine counting emptiness. Fearless the mountain people cross the abyss on a flimsy bridge. Finger the empty space on the abacus. Has no value but colors what’s around it. Like a premonition. Nudges other numbers into place. Origin and starting point. Position without precedent, as if being in the world without being born. 

Once we have eaten of the fruit we cannot be. Like one who has not. Cannot vomit up the fruit and kill the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the serpent that crossed the coordinates. 


Vanishing Point

You frame the roof as if through a window. Your eye is always the same lovely blue. In the same spot. If you connect the roof to the eye a cone of lines blossoms and intersects the flat screen you’ve put up. A minimum of ingenuity is required to make your marks. To represent, point for point, the surfaces of the visible world.

Among cries of swallows your dead wife’s face. Recedes. And the lovely blue. Tints in front of your eyes the mist. 

Many painters place the vanishing point inside a frame. Door, window, mirror, even another painting. This doubles the pull. To emphasize. High overhead. How other the dead. 

Leads a double life. The vanishing point. Like zero. You agree the point represents, within the physical scene, a definite location. Location, however, vanishing toward the infinite. Your reaction to this distance is wind blowing across frozen plains.

What I am trying is feel how this point in flight acts on the other points. Feel the creak I can’t hear of the weather cook high on the steeple. Feel the space between your body and mine squeezed out till my nipple is hard against your chest. 

A flat mirror is held to the Baptistery in Florence. And the divers lines grope for agreement, illusion of truth. And stepping out of the door, a figure detached and organized into a coherent image. Can I slip into the mirror? The painter’s point of view? This is how I see. Incarnate. 

And cannot lay my hand on your belly. For the eye is drawn out of the body. Through the centric ray. All the way to the horizon’s implicit promise. And blazes blue like a demonstrative pronoun. 


Inventions of Infinity

If zero marks the place of one-who-counts, then perspective, of the one-who-sees. Who casts his shadow. Whose soul takes flight with the point. Of view, of anchor, of vanishing. More as in death than like a bird. And from the distance watches appearance shed its weight the way a flame leaps up to meet another flame. And an alarm goes off and his soul returns to his body with increase of temperature and a pinch of salt. 

And memory uncoils into fresco and secco. Like a bud into a leaf. Lest it, God forbid, be consumed in the fire. Yet even its charred residue can, by the method called spolvero, comfort the space your wife’s face had been. For being so deep and empty now.

In Gothic painting, however, different places, different historical moments impinge without traffic jam. On one another because enfolded. In the eye of God. And out of these so very simple images, so very holy, shines a spaceless, noiseless sun. And you dare not stare too long because your vision thereafter might not refer. To objects in the world. 

The way Nicolas of Cusa thought a portrait could float a monk toward things divine if the eye in the portrait hold him. And, though he walk from East to West, not leave him. Then will he marvel how, motionless, the eye moves. And in like manner moves for one who walks a contrary direction. Then he won’t be able to contain. Such hallucinatory intensity. Any more than light in a bowl.

“The icon of God” such a portrait was called. Because like unto “the gaze that never quitteth.” Just as the gold in the halo. Precious and immutable as He is. Could shelter His presence without annulling His transcendence. And if you understood you’d be delivered. From death congenital.

But Alberti urged, in his treatise on painting, to reject gold. In favor of white. To show the structure of holiness. Being both color and absence of color, white. Performs for God’s presence. What the vanishing point does for His image, the artist. And your memory, for His image, your wife.

But more than you want to see your dead wife’s face you yearn to touch. Her body. And try to find her touch in the hand that hands you a loaf of bread. But haunting is stopped by cold skin. 


Bank Money

Is there measure on earth? Gold was thought to be. The standard against which to gauge. Not a color that vanishes in the dark. Unchanged as it replaces the ox, the loaf of bread, the bean. 

No pricing system stays the light on a face, even remembered. Though the gold of the sun accelerates sap circulating in the leaf. And makes a wooden table smell of forest and recall broken weeping. And butter melts in the mouth. 

Gold was precious before any prince stamped his effigy upon it. And returns to what it was. So what does the act of signifying add? A level of abstraction? “Higher?” As the human soul is said to emerge into the world with, at bottom, the spirit of an animal. But reaches up through the majesty of the revealed world toward. High up. The sphere of Nothingness. From which all worlds emanate? It’s still our bottom we sit on.

Time moves through matter. And matter decomposes. The edge of the leaf curls and yellows. The skin sags. A gap arises between “good” money, the unsullied issue of the state, and the worn (or fraudulently diminished) coins in circulation. Between face value and the frayed contours of a face in memory. A little more dead.

Because of this gap, a new form of money emerged in Renaissance states with international trade. Like Venice and Amsterdam. Not currency in the old sense. but a promise stretching time. “Imaginary” coin, a difference between is and means worthy of wars of religion. Its value globally a fixed weight of gold or silver and locally a variable amount of gold money exchangeable for it. “Imaginary money,” exact to the standard of the mint, the mind. 

And with it a new type of transaction. Money bought and sold. Entering into relation with itself as if it too could insert the mirror. But without reflection. Or light gathered against it. Without the glow of an apple against the darker leaves. Without hold on feelings. 


Cyclops Eye

And what is the zero that marks the place of one-who-writes? A page like snow? And without seven dwarves? The invention of a bee see? Elbowing elemen(t)s toward o.p. cues? With increasing speed and frequency? The moment the Greeks added vowels to the alphabet so that we don’t have to draw on anything outside the word to construe it?

Shapes not found in nature. To take us out of body. 

But I long for it. The body. Even if blue veins run from the knees to the ankles and the feet are swollen and bulge out of the shoes. And how can I long for something that is right here? A bit scattered my brain, maybe. Not yet the bones I’ve carried around all my life. And by my own strength. 

So I embark. On writing. With a shout at the sea around me, the surface of language. The vessel’s not important, but the shout is. It brings the body. And with it the patterns I love, rhythmic, paratactic, the old oral forms, repetition, alliteration. And if I don’t use formulae and proverbs I at least play among their echoes in the inner ear. 

Words that sleep in the body all night and in the daytime come out and touch you like a warm hand.

Yet all the while I sharpen my pencil to a fine point. My alphaknife to dissect the world. And remember the phoneme, an abstract value like that of zero, which makes possible the existence of language. 

Intricate lines, complex, across gaps and fissures. Toward the distance needed for full understanding. Where the void opens its one eye that never closes. In the middle of the mind. Not in the proportions of body. And I’m unsure, does it makes me blind or see.

Swallows, missiles, helicopters, wounded bodies, budding leaves, the sun rising out of the electric sea, streets glistening with rain, tin cans, plastic bags, armchairs, playing cards, a prisoner on a leash, chimneys, cigarette butts, colors shifting in the sky, rooftops, maples, humvees, tanks, fields of wildflowers and landmines in one big, blooming confusion. 

Or the other side of language. Where I am mute and the unsaid weighs heavy. On the tip of the tongue. A foretaste of death. 

Rosmarie Waldrop's new book of poems, The Nick of Time, is forthcoming from New Directions in fall 2021. Recent books are Gap Gardening: Selected Poems (LA Times Book Prize in Poetry 2017), Driven to Abstraction, and Curves to the Apple (all New Directions).