On playing an old Jackson guitar leftover from somebody’s pain in the storage room of a nuthatch and playing the opening notes to a song I didn’t yet know and…
by Harley Lethalm
…which was written in ward D4-B at Butler Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island, Feb.–April ’12. My arms had been fettered to cloth, disclosing the ruined pink arm, the flesh, the lyrics I had angled in brutality and soft grief. They ran like calloused deer tracks across my arms, lengthwise and horizontal to God. The bandage only gave me a looser image, so that all there would confront me, and my arm would be turned over for inspection. Soon I removed the white press and when I laid out my arm on that table, exposed, nude—as upset looking as the first pet you cherished, suffering that last peculiar vise of agony, it was something of a shocking sentiment. I had laid out the first Joker’s card in our game of confessional, imagistic Poker. I felt chaste.
But all things elsewhere were scrutinized, disrupted. A bell, non-sonorous, grievous, clicked to a tempo of 6s each morning; the orderlies waddled in to bite our sleep; it was indecorous and murderous and scarcely a time of liturgy, and though I played with the poem a bit, the other residents refused holistically to shut off the television, which rang on and on and onward toward no conclusion—it was just as everything else and what appealed to them was the sureness of the weather, the sureness of impolite politics, the sureness of a child having been found mangled and molested in Pawtucket, deader than he meant to be, probably; but so long as it all kept coming in through the wires—that sureness that the world was their fault, not ours. We had had no say, we who were given medicine to keep from seeing mechanized lobsters, ghosts, the casual epiphany.
My rooming-mate, Gregory D., who had already been there months prior to my commitment, left bed only to speckle the lid of the toilet with urine; I do not mean to say that he merely peed in some sure poetic way—no, I mean that it was as though his instrument were programmed to address everywhere but the auspices of that chosen fluoride toilet-water, so it got a little fussy when I went in one morning, or every morning, to be more precise, to find him locked in a sort of very compelling confusion; he was lain horizontally out, jangling his penis—which was inexplicably swollen—and refining the walls with tipsy dives and come-hither motions, wagging it lengthways and sideways, elsewhere and everywhere: as a line of piss splintered a track up the wall, it was nearly holy.
He was illustrious and chancy and…graphically exciting where all else was a small immaterial dollop of gray. Speaking with him, you knew that the man could not help but detest Christmas, for it was ten or eleven years since his sister had suicided under the supposed invigilation of Mynheer S. Claus; ’tis the season, sure as shit, la la la.
Her name was Cassandra, and she had hanged herself with a thatch of strung-together Christmas cord at the age of fourteen years old.
Three days later, as Greg lay beside me talking to a sparrow that was perched just outside the windowpane, or that he only hallucinated, it came to me that I had known Cassandra well throughout my formative years; that she had lived on a farm of many hundreds of acres, and that she would spent days fishing for Technicolor trout at Wyoming pond—a pond I went to, too, as a youth. It all came on to me, and I could not understand then why my arm was not a squirrel’s tail.
More orderlies to check for campaigns of suicide at nine p.m. And every fifteen minutes after. Fewer Cassandras.
Gregory expectorated onto the floor, which was not oak-paneled, and I related to him, my eyes torn into slights of sobs, that I had known his sister. We had been friends, even, and though I can’t be sure that we had kissed (just once) while the trout failed us and the world had begun to fail us, too, on a simple day in July sometime ten years before, I’d like to think that we did.
He only expectorated, and I could not determine the arrangement of the room from Adam, and Cassandra had been gone for a while now, nailed down to the humming of limpid Christmastime shoppers in the Providence Place Mall every December.
Gregory and I kept in touch through telephone for almost a year after his release from the psychiatric hospital. He had been living in a tree fort the last time I talked to him, which was sighted near the lonesome aborning stretches of his family’s acreage. He suicided eleven months ago as of this writing, but the tree fort is still there. Before he hanged himself, he left a message on my telephone, saying simply, “You know my sister better than anyone else alive. I’m out of beer. You should come find me sometime. Bring beer.”
Why did you have to go and make that first sentence True, Gregory?
When I went to the farm, his mother told me that Gregory had left and that maybe it was best I not bring the beer up into that tree fort.
Later that night I drank the beer and thought of my friend Gregory, who was a nice fellow, and Cassandra, who was rather pretty as much as she could have been at fourteen, and together they will stay with me, at least while I’m here. Or wherever I am.
So I suppose this album is (now) dedicated to Gregory and Cassandra D., who leapt like trout toward Death, sagacity, the vowel E constrained by the consonant L. Wherever the both of you are, know I carry your deaths in my chest not as a jester, whose trade is gracious because at the close of day he sloughs the facade; he sloughs the laughter of the crowd; he sloughs the bulbous nose and the make-up enjoined on him by the great clerical enterprise of Silliness.
I am not given to that sort of graciousness. I am condemned to live out the deaths of others, because I have failed to be courteous to the lilac tree. And often I go still to a particular pond in Wyoming, where a little girl once cast out her fishing-rod like a verse of aluminum poetry, where it went cartwheeling, draftily, into the water, where the trout would nibble inscriptions at the surface, or lick little ripples only to please her. And she, the little girl—let’s call her Cassandra—would laugh because she was living and above the sadness of everything and all that mattered was the trout and the worm; she was the Master flowering the lady waters with her phrases of Margarita, and the trout bargained with her; and the heaving lilacs cranked up-up-up, bright into the Sun which did not occur too hotly for Cassandra, then, as it touched along the boroughs of the pink sky like a sloppy poppy halo.
And maybe she aproned up a bouquet of chestnuts and laughing, laughing, laughing, looked where she was going, easy-easy, not wanting to snarl her bare feet. Not wanting the barbs of thorned foliages to eat at her spotless skin.
And that little girl lay out her chestnuts like dotted envoys, confiding them importantly to her older brother, Gregory, who listened, maybe, as she prised excitedly the flakes of chestnut like they were something so special as Halloween candies. And he thanked her, maybe, and she wisped away into her bedroom, where she wrote the day’s epistolary number, and maybe the diary is still there, in that house that sits in that acreage in Richmond, Rhode Island. And maybe the entries grew shorter as the author grew less certain, as the world felt larger and the handfuls of chestnuts did not any longer seem to fit in her hands in her child’s ideology; like they were worth not as much or anything at all.
And maybe if you were to look into that diary today, Oct. 23, 2014, you would recognize a certain faultiness in the writing. Certain misspelled words. Certain days passed by with no writing. The language of the diarist, you find, has grown sadder. And it seems that she does not write much at all now. And the last entry is dated maybe just a little before Christmas, 2004.
Here she writes plaintively, hurried—small pores of blood, the paper shaking through the burn of December—all of it so god dammed obvious. But not having it, you press for explanations. But you turn the page and there is nothing. A white more urgent and vaster than Death. A poetry of collapse. Sixty-three pages of it, maybe.
And goodbye, Gregory, whose agony was so profound that he had thought to invent a tree-house in the wood, but discovered at the end that sorrow trespasses any fortress, no matter the layout of your defenses; Carthage is gone, as sorrow drags its hands along the parapets of the heart, striking not always, but just when it seems you’ve been going steadily on with it all.
And the cigarette bites your lip, the way an old flame once did at fifteen years old. And you go a little while more. “Invenias etiam disiecti membra poetae.”
Such things come to me as I tread through the Summers now, looking at the worrisome chestnuts that no beautiful girl-child of my Past will ever again gather up together in a flimsy brooch, which she has doctored out of the ends of her tiny lilac-patterned shirt. Or her brother, hanging in the drying sheets of Time; beer-stained slacks; beer-stained luck—and I walk on, a low fir branch swats me uselessly. I suckle on a beer and throw it to the lousy fen.
Let it have it. Remember it for poetry. Sometime later, I go home. A squat little farmstead winces in the quiet eve, more than anything great or beautiful, Lydian horses batting the dirt without thought; shelves of corn like prayers on the flop; the grazing ground of saintly udders. And then the clobbered little fort in the scarps of trees. I pass through and don’t notice any of this.
Harley M. Lethalm lives in Connecticut “between Job’s great linear suffrage, between Eskimaux, friends, friends of Denver nighttime Real Stars and watered-down umbrellas, years of torn yellow wallpaper.” His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bacon Review, Fatso Spider Epistle, Clockwise Cat, Brickplight, The Radvocate, The Circle Review, Artifact Nouveau. His first book, The Kidders of Escalope, is due in March 2017.