Mudlark Flash No. 46 (2008)

Mike Chasar  |  Seeing Things  &  Retho

Mike Chasar is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa, where he is writing about the intersections of poetry and popular culture. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cortland Review, 2River, etc., and his dissertation, “Everyday Reading: U.S. Poetry and Popular Culture 1880-1945,” recently received first place in the national “Distinguished Dissertation” award competition sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and University Microfilms International. “Seeing Things” and “Retho” are two of the “wonky ballads” in an unpublished book manuscript titled Crocodile Wrestling.

Seeing Things

Up late and I’m holding
my neighbor’s prosthetic eye.
Our spouses have gone upstairs — goodbye,
the laundry needs folding —

while out in the street a cruiser,
passing a couple of kids, blinks on its lights.
My fingers touch her whites
and I wonder if I could refuse her

even with a decade of hindsight at my disposal.
It’s only an eye,
smooth and dry,
though it feels for all the world like a proposal.

Adults, we’ve done everything we could.
The laundry needs folded,
and I won’t use a word like “cuckolded”
though maybe I have, and maybe I should.


I confessed this to my wife
of course — guilty,
guilty me,
ashamed of what I haven’t done in this and in some other life —

just as I confessed the box of letters
I still keep,
even though she isn’t losing any sleep,
and even though it seems she has forgotten all of hers,

or sweats it out at the gym
while I sit home in our warehouse loft,
my very own John Ashcroft
inventing some transgression with a “her” or “him”

and calling it a Patriot Act
as if I needed yet another reason I should stay on top of me.
My nation needs some serious psychotherapy.
And that’s a fact.


Everything works out for the best.
So she says, with a look,
telling me about the boating trip and fishing hook.
Its cornea bulges in front like a breast

and I nod, hold it, and think
how it would be
to try it on, slip that polished chip of her inside of me,
and — wink wink —

see what she sees when her camera pans to Mike.
Let’s get down to business:
I won’t breathe a word to her of this,
nor will I say what I said I think it looks like.

It’s late, and the skin around her eye’s a little pink.
She’s no Claudette Colbert; I’m no Clark Gable.
There’s only coffee in between us on the table,
but I won’t be the first to blink.


I gaze into her eye.
It is so perfectly painted
that if we were a movie, someone likely would have fainted.
Iris blue as sky,

whites impeccably grayed,
red arterial threads distributed and frayed:
every part of me believes the beauty of it all will never fade.
She says it needs to be remade,

Tacoma to Tampa, the painted pupil can’t change size
in the brighter light, like other eyes,
and is no longer equal to her natural one.

The sittings, the fittings, the specialty paint:
insurance refuses to cover another prosthetic
saying the difference is cosmetic
when it is and it ain’t.


And so the one I hold
will go there, too, to be jarred
like an olive — shard
after shard of the mismatched, outgrown and old

and no solution of brine
with which to keep them lifelike and floating.
Is this the end you think is worth promoting?
It isn’t mine.

She’s hardly fazed
by her doctor’s creepy collection
sealed like ballots cast in some grotesque election.
Where’s the Katherine Harris to call off this race?

If this is the future I see, the future’s not bright.
But they knock on the glass walls and glisten
as if to say listen
there’s no end in sight.


In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136 A.D.), Retho is a Welsh giant who terrorizes England by slaying kings, ripping off their beards, and sewing their beards onto a cloak that serves as both a trophy and record of his exploits. When Retho is finally defeated by Arthur, Arthur takes the cloak of beards as his own. Scholars have since wondered whether Geoffrey is depicting Arthur as a national hero at this moment or as the next in a succession of terrorist baddies or perhaps as both.

Don’t think I haven’t myself
wondered why men
why of all things hair
why their beards have always been

what I turn to, tossing
at night as the wind
makes something of the sound
of a man whose chin is being skinned.

Those wry moments I reach
about down there
grope in the loamy darkness
and stroke the hair,

a sweet sweat
to start at the bottom
and tick off in order their names
and how I got them.

It’s not so complicated,
at times, as easy
as peeling fruit if you’ve
got something else to keep you busy,

to turn your mind upon,
something that the brain
in its case can touch:
something to keep one sane,

or asleep, or the conscience
cool to the touch. Polyphemus
had an island of wool
to tend and shush,

I had the stars
and the night skies.
It was as if that vastness
had no space for lies

as every meteor
at worst
was forgiven its broad falling
if not ignored completely from the first.

But I am a beast.
I have written to Arthur.
I have told him
that he will surrender

not his women nor
his people or lands.
I have told him instead to send me his beard.
I want to feel it in my hands.

I have told him he is a great king.
It is there on the parchment.
I have told him
in the letter I’ve sent

that I will do him great honor
by sewing his beard
high on my shoulder.
I can be very clear.

He is an old king, but I am older.
His beard is long, but mine is longer.
I have told him
if he thinks that he is stronger

I will come to him
and I will take it with a single stroke.
I will hold his chin
and he will watch me sew it on my cloak.

The desire
is like a machine.
And so I have written to Arthur,
and so what if the writing was not routine.


It is there on the skin.
How I labored
before the ink and reed
could put my itching into words,

knife on the hide
set in the sun and days dead.
Do you know I keep this scroll
under the cloak I have beside my bed?

Unlucky kid,
I held its stringy beard
and I felt nothing.
We stood together while it peered

back into my eyes
so like a man but finally a goat.
What choice did I have,
my hand wrapped otherwise around its throat?

Seaweed, moss,
mussel lining — tails and ears,
rabbits’ feet:
one always hears

of something new,
exotic, substitute for hide
or hair, scale or skin,
something one’s desire’s left untried.

Even now,
I think of the goat as I tanned it.
And if I was attracted somewhat to the paper
one could understand it.

I used the knife
I have used
to take men’s chins.
Over the fire, its carcass stews

while beside it the wrap,
scraped smooth, still
fascinates; it took
an element of skill

to strip it clean of hair
but even now
upon one’s close examination
it will show

follicles, a sky full of pores.
I imagine a chin.
I imagine my words
like a hairline, my curlicues crossing his skin.

I inhale its fragrance.
Sweet and peaty,
held up against my cheek the parchment
makes me feel pretty.

I imagine I’m writing
and every stroke of my pen
over every cleft
in an endless assortment of men

is renewing a beard,
restoring that coarse thicket
so that I know the deepness of its musk
will never quit.

It is again a rough forest,
an unbroken span
of the world, made new.
I entangle my hands in the beard of every man

and tell them I love them.
I think that there is nothing that I will not do
as I pull out my knife
and do what I always do.


I look at my own beard in the lake and do not feel the same,
have no desire,
will not, unlike Narcissus,
go down playing with that type of fire.

And yet I cannot say I loathe what I see.
Unbecoming one
such as myself,
the worry lines run

deep but drained of that
which they were meant to carry.
People run from me.
Their legends say I'm something scary.

when I look in the lake,
I do not see my face and beard
but the faces of men whose beards I want to take,

and then I startle
at how the water has made me
irretrievably public —
how my reflection of myself’s betrayed me.

But the world already knows what I am,
and I already know what I do.
Creature of habit,
I could walk from here to Timbuktu

giving in to every chin,
delicious and quick, and yet
this reflection
keeps forcing me to face regret

and I
stare at my big feet eager, knowing
it’s a matter of time
before the attrition wears off and I burn to get going.

No, I do not loathe what I see;
the water’s reflection,
the self I’m aware of in moments
of intense introspection,

is a creature of conscience
able to bear
his fundamental inconsistency.
And this is why the humans really scare,

why they must conceive of round tables,
why they go running,
why they will never come to understand
the reasons why I'm both sinning and grinning.

I know I will startle and yet I startle.
I know I can mean
to amend the particularities of my desire
and mean it as sure as Guinevere is Arthur’s queen,

and yet, full of regret,
go through this process of bending;
without proving false
I then can amend the amending.

This is a gauntlet of sorts.
I am no superman.
I make no claims to be able to control my desire
more than anyone can

and, in fact,
such scrutiny in part produces it.
One cannot deal with this species of desire
as if one chooses it.

There is no teasing out some hidden rationale.
We are darkly engineered.
When I hear Arthur putting on his mail
I crave his beard.


Giant among men,
Arthur is
convinced to the very core
that reason and right and the might to insist upon morals are his,

that he not only can but should
monitor, manage, and measure
the conduct of men.
What does he think will happen to pleasure,

drive, and desire as he
pursues the legislation of his own ideals
both by example
and in proxy by the presence of his royal seals?

Forthcoming and brave:
I must admit that my enthusiasm pales
when I consider being weighed
by Arthur's scales,

the writs
and documents, decrees
I could imagine in my weaker, inattentive moments
might bring a lesser giant to his knees.

However, it’s so
in some respects
that I can't help at times but sit back and enjoy.

His control,
a sort of delicate dancing,
and if I weren't mistaken I might say
I read in it a certain species of romancing,

a flirty
subtle stroke of a fine and notable beard.
The attention he commands from all his men seems just a trifle dirty
and I wouldn’t think it weird

if one should be aroused
as letter by letter
like knight by knight
his sentences line up to make the island better.

Arthur is playing with fire,
his reputation and agenda both writ large.
Nothing can stoke the flames of desire
like a man in charge,

nothing burn
at the center of who we are for what has been hidden
nor kindle the ache
in the chest for what is forbidden.

The king of the Britains stands, chin out.
His honor shines.
Am I the only one
who reads between the lines?

And so I write,
venture my hand at this procedure referred to as “wooing,”
postponement and prelude
to what in the end we both know I want to be doing.

I look at the sky
and fiddle with needle and thread.
I won't pretend I do not think
how it will feel to walk my fingers at last across the old king’s head

and how I’ll press my thumbs into the cradle of his jaw.
I’ll believe
that this is the one
in whom I’ll find reprieve

and I can go back home
and I won’t have to do this any more.
This will be over in moments.
This is the moment I die for.

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