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Five Poems from Chariot

                There never was an Art-loving nation.  —James McNeill Whistler

Midnight at the pit of my irrelevance:
     a hair’s breadth away, I step closer to the mouth of it, no more afraid to
shake hands with my lacuna than a bird is of the air
     whistling in its bones. To stay possible as long as possible

had felt like enough now—a persistence of streaks
     in soft butter yellow shed from the clock tower onto the indigo-
freaked slate-to-black vagueness
     that indicates the river. The light lives

on like this, drowning by day
     in its own muchness, sensed most acutely at night
where there’s less of it, when its difference from what dominates
     sharpens its edges, or the perception of its edges, so that its presence

is felt
     contradistinctively—not a thing of the world, but against it
and inside you, less parasite than language
    awakening the vacancy, fluorescing what it means, its marks on the page

of the water a welcome, a widening
     outside yourself and into a manifold that can’t be marketed
or observed, so if anyone’s near you when it happens, they won’t know
     what’s happening—they won’t know you’re more than what you answer to.


Where Space Begins

It depends on who you are, and what you’re after. If you’re NASA
     handing out silver astronaut pins, space starts exactly
50 miles above the planet. But if you’re less scientific than that,
     and want only to find your way through the dark, hands groping

for the word for the banister, space might begin
     at the surface of your skin, or even underneath it. Let’s stay
here a moment, pasting it together, listening to weather
     come into its own as it hits an obstruction—rain on the window,

wind on the tarp—words as they loosen
     hold of the world, peeling away from what they can’t quite become
in order to be more completely what they are—taking off
     after midnight, like geese do, so the realists can’t track them

en route to another level, they set root in what they posit
     apart from what they point to, making a space of themselves
anyone can wander in—a garden without entry fee. I write to you now
     from its hot-pink periphery, about to set foot in the pleasure of it

outright—a maze of azaleas at full tilt, an open-air temple
     built not for worshipping gods in their heights, but right here
among us in clouds of abundance as they recombine
     words whatever way they can, exposing the backend of the possible.


Angel of the Hearth

When it came it was like a cherry popsicle
     melting down the arm of a stranger’s child, colorful
and sloppy, but having nothing to do with you, you could walk past it
     on the crosswalk and not think twice. Or when it came

it was like a festival
     of some religious intent, the wax effigy of a saint
confused in flowers out of season shedding blessings down your street
     with amateur music on a litter built by hand by the avid.

Or when it came it was like the avid
     hands of strangers pulling knobs and switches, leaving
traces in the air’s clear wax like litter you have shed like music
     without intent in the course of your developed day. Or like the spirit

inhabiting a neighbor, one who grabs you by the arm
     for balance on the crosswalk and quick
as math you feel the power isn’t where you expect it, it can hide
     anywhere it decides, and nothing will go right for you for weeks after,

months—keys will go missing, money
     won’t reach you, new milk sours in the fridge overnight—
and as you sit at your hearth for comfort, it will be there in that fire
     caressing you, erasing you, filling you with images of things you’d kill for.



But in a sense I am always looking over a cliff
     overlooking the sea, the thoughts batted out of me in pages
by appointment by the wind, a student of the hazardous
     rhapsody water makes as it slaps against the rocks and into air.

I don’t care here that I should be raking in the big bucks,
     working the circuit, peddling the self. I’m too busy breathing
in the ancient fragrance of the sea like the sick cologne a friend gave me
     that smells like church walked into church.

Nor am I impressed anymore by those spiritualistic tricks
     the hustlers pursue to imbue what they do with a shimmer
of significance when what’s underneath it all is nothing,
     which is not to be confused with nothingness, which is sacred.
Yves Klein said he signed his name to the sky to make
     his greatest work of art, but look again—that’s not his name,
but the French for “Help, I’m bored.” And of course he was. Anyone
     with an appetite for the absolute is either overexcitable or

perilously bored, which brings us back to the cliff, the waves
     a true ultramarine, literally “beyond the sea,” like Klein’s own
patented shade of blue, to which I remain ever-faithful, its value
     equal to a loud prayer that answers itself softly, but also vice versa.


Confusion of the verb to chair, meaning to accommodate
     both bodily and otherwise, as in “The buttercup’s bright chalice
chairs the morning dew,” or “How much more of this do you
     suppose the heart can chair,” which is a question apt to throw

a person off at first, who envisions a throne, likely of gold-
     leafed wood, thrown into the heart’s red blaze—iconographic,
cartoonish, and soon to combust—as is the heart, the other
     counters, at last understood. Alone, I cupped my palms to chair

tadpoles as a boy, a jar did after that, and then the pond
     chaired them back again and into frog adulthood
over time, which chairs the total of what is, pulling us along
     in its procession like a chariot, irreversibly deeper into itself

and likewise across space, as if a jumble of chalk horses
     on ascent into cerulean, azure, aquamarine—all the blues
Redon used late in life after decades of lithographs and charcoals.
     How did we get here? Unclear, if it matters; what matters

is we stay—aloft in possible color, all the oil paints and pastels
     that came to represent for the painter “a reconciliation
with the external world,” as I just now read in a book, which is
     a vessel to chair the world, itself a vessel to chair all possible books

Timothy Donnelly is the author of three books of poetry, including The Problem of the Many and The Cloud Corporation (both Wave), which received the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Award. He is on the faculty of the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His forthcoming book, Chariot, which will be published by Wave Books in 2023.