On the platform, blood and wing bones
like leftovers from some Obeah jinx.
A kid’s tutu on the tracks.
On the air, urine and cold cream,
overheard talk the train drowns
as it lumbers in, whines, and bangs open.
In, to where Virginia Woolf confined
her progeny, the novelists in the future,
omnibuses and underground railways.
Via Crucisor way of virtue, she won’t say
nor venture what flash fictions or elliptic
avants will birth, hallows on instead
these the depths they will explore,
those the phantoms they’ll pursue.
Superimposed, shallow with detail
punctuated by the intermittent fade out
as the tunnel lights strobe in, bleached
by station lights, poor contorted devils sit,
the penitent stand and hold on,
souls ferried, back and forth,
to the mild prosaic hells of shifts.
The Russian hairdresser preps through
a box-full of flash-cards for the GED,
the Chicana au pair beside her nods,
nods, nods, then straightens up to cross
herself. The kid bound for Temple
or CCP, draped in insurrection-chic keffiyeh
is doing the Analects. It’s early morning
when secretaries page through catalogs
and touch up their make-up or dog-ear magazines.
I stick to the syllabus, Montaigne today
(the worst of these wars is that the cards are so mixed-up)
and haul a bagful of anthologies from place to place
like lackey to a sales-rep from Norton or Wiley,
but worst, in the paycheck-to-paycheck
gestarbeiter to higher-ed, contracted in four
stops of the line. What pays the bills?
…This world of ours is the looking glass…
…We’re fashioned of oddments put together…
I drift to tinny hip-hop. It sizzles
from the speaker of a clamshell phone
a woman by the door wedged
to the hem of her purdah. She’s beneath
the sign: no food, no smoking, no radios,
broadcasting in the musical counterpart
to the sputtery fizz of police radio
only a back up track to her larger message.
…Time and custom condition us to anything strange…
Later, I’ll be northbound with Robert Browning
or Robert Frost, the crowd thinned out
to the unemployable and unemployed.
They file through paperwork, applications,
printouts with rooms for rent.
They riffle through insurance forms,
analysis results, documents for their PO.
Later still, I’m southbound when Catholic school
kids hop in and peel off ties and v-necks.
No black bough for petals to bloom
like sumi-e in the squalor of the Metro.
Scrap also the photo-realist, fun-house
mirrors in Este’s urban jig-saws,
the convex of hand-rail, slight distortions
on a dented door, the sanitized glare
of the hyper-real, that O.R.-look.
The window-shaped guise of myself
is sebumgray and curd, a spat-on tag
slashes where I superimpose on Diablo
on the phone, beneath ads
for deodorants and loan sharks.
He’s tattooed his nom-de-plume
across his neck and notched his street-cred
with tears shaped like dollar signs,
and from behind his ear, across his nape
and to the other ear, he’s inked Requiescats
to all his fallen—as of last night. He’s going
to the morgue, has the Daily News open
to the crime report. I’m not making him up
just tallying the odds that last night’s pop-off
on Marion street might be the tattoo parlor’s
next job, just charting how wide or narrow
a semantic radius tells near from close.
(We know the uncle—a kid in his twenties really—
who moved in to help, one of those houses where
the nucleus in the nuclear of the “family”
has this blobby, inchoate, pliancy, all absorption,
all resilience, all about making the bills,
however crowded, however Children of Sanchez
slummy the whole arrangement ends up.
He worked at the depot for a while.
I’d see him mornings, waiting for the bus
in his groomed unbuttoned back-brace cool.
Then he vanished, served time, came back–
his belongings in a garbage bag, bloated
from drink and with a new set of contacts
in his phone, to set up shop, run a live corner
where Marion dead-ends on Queen Lane.
Or so it seemed, his loitering hours on end,
that aimless orbiting, that antsy twinge
of the lookout, then a crew regathering,
the boss with his black dog, two other guys
checking in before they walked down
on Marion, to the stash house which
after one a.m. was awash in beacon light,
one Rashid Olmstead shot three times.
Not that Diablo need be know associate, but…)
They’re neighbors, after all, the folk I ride with,
though I covet nothing from them.
Not distracted from distraction by distraction
swamped, ill-used, with strollers and walkers to fight.
They’re hoping for salvation and the big bucks.
They read the Watchtower or scrape the latex of scratch-
and-wins, Royal Riches, Instant Millions.
One folds the winning tickets and tosses the rest.
They’re mainly uniformed, with franchise polos,
the name-tag wore in-style, upside down
and pinned to the cap worn backward
for Willie, at least. Others wear piped trousers
and un-tuck white-shirts with epaulettes
and stitched with an outfit’s logo, Securitas,
Sovereign, Scotland Yard. So many, you figure
every lobby under siege. Some have commando
sweaters, batches, duty belts, as ornamental
as their jobs. Novelists in the future, pay heed,
their shift could be the mouth-to-mouth
that brings the Nouveau Roman back to life,
milk the existential in a chapter that transcribes
the gabble of the walkie-talkie on its charger.
Then a chapter to each screen as it multiplies
the doldrums of office jobs, the stasis of hall,
the inertia in storage rooms, the poetry in back-lots.
Montaigne says the most equitable polities
allow least inequality between servants and
masters, but Amy will check for split ends
on a hime cut that has its own budget
on shampoo and conditioner alone.
Montaigne says the cannibal on tour
took note that amongst us, men fully bloated
with all kinds of comfort have their halves
begging at their doors. Ryan licks his thumb
and rubs the skid mark off his trainers.
Montaigne asks how many trades
and vocations gain acceptance
whose very essence is vicious? Anyone?
I’m pacing book in hand
shut out by blank stares.
Montaigne says. I go through zingers
underlines, back-track to anecdote
Equitable polities? They want to know
what’s in the test, to go on to their lives,
pay tuition, wait tables, work for tips.
On the platform, as usual, the wet floor
sandwich boards every few feet,
their functionalist, pared down pictogram
stuck in the eternity of mid-skid.
Their everyman, our psycho pomp to mishap
steers us from the spill and signals
where straw rusticles coil from rebar
like pins to map infrastructure
breaking down, the cracks in our foundation.
I’m homebound with my own Q&A,
my own multiple-choice quiz
nor just the usual what’a fuck? after a bad class.
Did they read? Do they care? What do I care?
Nor the who’s first in an inbox that gathers
neglect like a bad conscience, but the more
inarticulate thread that catches in small ache,
a shoulder say, but seems to unravel
like cause and effect gone berserk
through every incidental that brought
ache in the first place, bad sleep, no insurance,
overdue bills, the twenty pounds worth
of Western cannon from Homer to Heaney
I cram in my shoulder bag each day.
Jeune Homme Triste Dans Un Train?
Not so jeune, nor so triste, more the burnout
Archbishop blesses as resilience and Deans look
down upon; they ought to know.
The CNA in front of me wears my own aura
and might say I’ll cure you, measure out your dose
but want you gone, my overtime, my cross to bear.
From overseen Tweets and Facebook
postings you’ll gather the seeds to the next
epistolary saga of a girl lost in the big city.
If video game characters were real people,
I would want to fuck so many of them.
God if the douche bag grabs my ass
in front of a customer one more goddamned time ….
La Cucaracha on xylophone. Chewbacca roars.
Celine, Whitney or Mariah belt melismas.
In the afterlings of confession that follow ringtone
you’ll sound a whole Bildungsroman.
No, no little boy I’m not playing with you Fabree,
leave that faggot alone, unfriend him, he is a pervert.
Or reconstitute a picaresque from the husks
of minister bargaining with some politico
on the other side. Darnell is a good kid.
He is calling in a favor; he’s kept score, the canvassing
he’s done, how he brought the congregation down to vote,
shifts to the kid. The kid’s a good kid, a real good kid,
maybe you find him a spot. In another place,
this is father phoning in admissions, shopping
for a better school but here we dead end so fast
at hearings, arraignment, court. It’s your next
Lazarillo, a fresh Don Pablo with up-to-date thief’s cant.
Conversely, one might opt against
the odd details in pure surface,
keep the anti-novel at bay,
ditch picaresque, epistolary, coming of age
and go for the real unexaggerated lion,
the rounded backs, the stupid weather-beaten faces,
the work-worn hands, Eliot’s vulgar citizen,
her common laborer with his vulgar eating.
The bill of fare these starving souls unwrap
would be more than enough.
It wafts from foil and Styrofoam,
the type two diabetes, the quintuple by-pass
they pick up on-the-go on Broad and Erie
where we transfer to any of the seven routes
that converge here and a moraine of makeshift
stands has washed across the sidewalk.
Rocks, twine, tarp, crates, stretched metal
to display the wares, the do-or-die
carnivalesque of sub- or unemployment:
burned DVD’s, new releases sure, but also
Barely Legal, Almost Jailbait, Sodomize This.
Contraband, knock-offs, umbrellas, hats.
Why not hope realism solace?
Why not wish, despite the squalor
and cruelty there, Brueghel’s folksy touch
diffuse its insights on the scene,
what he knew about suffering, sure,
but also how lands of plenty cloy,
how his bookkeeper dozes,
law and order go down for the count,
the salve of proverb, the dignity of fools.
Despite the squeal and blare and tweedle,
despite their demented spot-the-difference
roughneck broil, their tear-rouges, outcriers,
the ad libitum charivari of kettle, pan and tray.
Instead, sedans throb by like heart attacks,
gangs of kids on ATV’s rip by this Vegas bone yard-
worth of broken bulb-signs hanging by their last,
the ruined mortal and pestle Rx
of an unincorporated pharmacy shut down.
Here apothecary, packing, ministers his cure
in vial and dime bag, slings beside the church
where the bilingual banner stretched across
the façade promises to fend envy, evil eye.
Fruits of the Spirit sells produce in a bag.
Instead, jaundice colors-in the emaciated
we know from Evans and Lang
and much of where I came from bleeds
to where I am, no fire eaters, street clowns
kids sniffing glue. Not yet. Still, it’s Ubar,
Vilcambaba, Palenque in the make with the looks
of squatter city, that sort of stop-gap
rigging, ragged scaffolding, crumpled tin
that the dereliction of the haves seems to squeeze
out everywhere, Rio, Mumbai, Cape Town.
Here, the coma of a curved arrow sign
points, not nowhere, but to the ill-
starred, late-capitalist nowhere of the cement
roughcast that condemns the window of a former bank.
And samaras whirl-gig their way to gutter.
One thrived. Its sapling corkscrews
and leans out and touches the powerlines.
Palenque in the make, ready for its Maudslay
come lift prints. The bookstore Ships to Prison.
The writing’s on the wall, lit morning and night.
The characters that loiter or bivouac?
An Amazon, house arrest anklet, cargo
shorts, varsity jacket, skull cap pulled down.
The tiler, slater, mason, whatever he does
in a wife-beater and dog tags, so groomed
the kneepads down-gyved to his ankles blouse
his tear-away pants and sculpt a costume.
Ghetto gaucho, Cossack, Barbary corsair.
Also, the fellow selling incense, soap and oils.
In Burberry plaid Dhotis, tube socks, Timberlands.
Some days, beneath a kameez, it’s camo salwars
tucked to combat boots. Other days, argyle socks,
gingham kurta, Ray Bans. Could be Samarkand
not North Philly, the way he struts like stalwart
to a faith. God knows what time he’s served,
for what, but he’ll lord over the younger ex-con
converts. And who’s to know if he really carried
out his Hajj or if hennaed beard is just cool.
I’ve seen him drop his kid at the local charter
madrasah, same kid he schools all afternoon:
to ignore the customer who barters,
to palm the cash before he hands the soaps.
The boy is seven, with his crocheted kufi
and holds his wares like day-glo brass knucks.
The minor roles? A whole assortment of weird
the things themselves, unacommodated men,
one, poor, forked Babalawo reciting mysteries,
acerbic, with his beads, his bag, his shawl,
silhouette in fairy-tale, post-apocalyptic flick.
Another one I can see still
as I board on my way home,
and have seen him many times,
another prophet. An ailment
has him drooling, tongue
swollen, a tremor on his jaw,
the sort of existential puppet
or unnamed hero that just keeps
going on in Beckett’s prose:
I who am on my way, words
bellying out of my sails,
am also that unthinkable ancestor…
He gets on after the underpass,
dressed up to the nines,
Panama hat, button-down
shirt, soaked, sure, but still
he’ll mind his crease when
he leans back, crossing his leg,
and zeros-in on whomever stares
and begins to rant, point,
or pontificate, as if holding court.
His, that same haut you know
from Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld,
that same devil-may-care how
repugnant they come through.
Let Mad Meg tincture village
scenes with all the bizarrerie
which with no God or theology
boils to the outré in botched
procedure, the outlandish
in unpunished sin.
Like reflection of reflection,
the phantoms we pursue,
or those pixels that burned to
screens, he is faint in the dark,
as he stalks to accost a passerby
on a mission, with a job tonight,
in drag, turquoise velour gown,
foam crown. He’s Lady Liberty,
handing out leaflets for the tax
outfit promising quick returns.
He sells loosies on the side and brindles
like the nonsense Goya etched
in aquatint to let pauper mirror
Ancien Régime, robed enigmas,
dark, devils that mock and haunt.
The man exists, a graft of self
and symbol, like those hybrids
in myth which quarry the bad
in us, our gorging and excesses.
He stammers, hesitates, shuffles
around what country stands for.
Sebastian Agudelo is the author of two books of poetry, Each Chartered Street (forthcoming 2013) and To The Bone, which was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the 2008 Saturnalia Book Prize. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Bellingham Review and The Manchester Review (UK).