I walked into a twig. Now, ten degrees to the right of where my sight is focused, The scar on my right pupil’s a gnat that both eyes chase. It makes me see my seeing. It flicks expertly to spots of meaning or surprise in paintings, road signs, faces; Dances a fierce jig if I sail up strange channels; limns the shapes of fear. As Luther saw the perils constantly teasing his soul by sidelong vision of devils That leaped aside when he turned to stare, I know the flow of humdrum habitual vision As a volley of passionate darts, sudden and manic as Cupid’s. My speck is an Alice’s keyhole to animal spaces: a bee floats to the neon tavern of lilies white to me, a hawk triangulates the scurry of prey, my lover smiles, a signal flashing through flesh and memory. Intricate as a city, vision and need run paired through such complexities they weave a guarantee: So much is what it seems, We laugh and cry with reason. But what absorbs me most, with an erotic sadness, is my incessant looking. I fret at the hectic angel, the small but enduring damage. This mote is a grain of death, looming in my sight like a cooling lover’s flaw.
Caught you, young actor! —miming my stumble among pipes, Weights, stymied bicycles. You’re working up a role I know, “a burly old barber,” which I don’t want to watch, Knowing the model you caught sweating off a feast. Here’s how it is with old legs: youth has thrusting hams But elders roll like sailors. Later, those legs are stilts Absurdly hinged in the middle, and feet do not lift but slide Across invisible ice. Practice it when you’re weary. Well— Break a leg! But first, let’s trade: For my gait (free To you, it cost me plenty) a touch of actor’s method. I have scenes ahead that I would carry off As if I truly played them, wearing whatever motley Fits the arriving plot, greeting a self invented In pleasurable collusion with friends and the passing world. Isn’t it odd? We play more fiercely than we live: It’s that I want the trick of. I’ve watched you with your fellows: even waiting in wings Becomes a role. You flash a glance for practice or stand Arrested, scrolling a line you must make new each night, Your whole animal alert to the flow you’ll enter. A colt will dance and break before a race but you, who feel That surge, delight to ride it, march to your mark, and top The line that greets your entrance. It’s not the hunt-and-seek of youth I’d take, but the quick Flame of engagement, as actors breathe life into a script. I want it for moments sure to have no script, when simply To play the human calls for brave improvisation. Perhaps it was always so and I walked through my parts As if not fully awake; it never seemed an art Till now, to play myself. I am not my own hero. Perhaps at a certain age One ought to be, but no: I do not walk the knife-edge Of essential contradictions that give a soul great scenes. Meet a character actor! I stand for the angle on truth That time imbeds in a type: like troupers rich in lives Tried on, I know how many ache to be unmasked. And truly known at last. I would not serve a muse But Proteus, god of shallows, who turns from an old man To a fish or water-spout or what he will, too fluid To answer a dry question but witness to the secrets Revealed at moments of crossing. Oh, we are torn. We want repartee with the world And it rushes past. My friends grow choleric, impatient With old error re-labeled Genius, and new ones birthed In the House of Neglect. The “can’ts” of memory, sex, or hurry Gorge our contempt at cant in state or church; and we loathe The unfailing cant of the young as they take over. Chameleon and quicksilver, you know the shapes you take In others’ eyes: by that do you inhabit yourself With deeper grace? A poet once called his art the axe That learns to carve its own handle. An actor told me, “My mask On stage is my unmasking.” So with my age: I must Step into a character I find by stepping in. In childhood, imitation was the first instinct, a fountain —To drink from it again! But you with your quick ear will hear Polonius In all this: moralizing to cover. Of course I hate you. To think, how little you sense the heart that shuffles off, But steal my limp! One day you’ll be a star, perhaps: But for me now a planet: a troubling portent, shining Above us groundlings who stand in the splatter of time and gape As you speed across the staid ensemble of fixed stars.
I told the med tech I enjoyed the fitting up because it was cross-dressing as the Bride of Frankenstein. Multi-colored tendrils with little flowers of goo drape from each hemisphere of my brain; beside each eye a sensor records my blinks and closed eye movements: they’ll make my eyelids flutter alluringly for Frankie. The straps that cross my breast are like the ones that held me as I convulsed to life. A microphone at my neck echoes my night sounds: sighs and snoring, whimpers and groans. My legs bear sensors: I know I chase my dreams like a dog. A thimble on my finger tells what oxygen runs in my stolen blood. Bride that I am, I chose this fitting, or else would feel strangely violated: enveloped, as some would say they are by circumstances less visible than these tresses of bright wires. This cascade from crown to ankle strips me naked, enters me in ways I have not imagined, telling whether I dream and do not know it, kick, pant, or even cease to breathe. The tech said, What am I then? You’ll have to be a peasant, slave to the grinding wheel of daylight, who dares to creep up close to the flicker of torchlight from the high slitted windows, the muffled ecstatic noises, the restless life of a monster.
Glimpsed in the mirror, he snatches me Into the oldest comedy: We limp to a stage in a crowded square Where he leans for gossip and cups his ear At the quick city jokes and sexy shifts Of young love conspiring. He lifts A passing skirt and is slapped hoo-hooing, Cackles with joy at the scandal brewing. He is the perfect comic chorus, dense As the slowest of the audience, Astonished at the final turn of the plot— “He’s a girl! But he said he was not!” He is creaky and dry and abrupt as a cricket, Admits that his grasshopper is not as quick at Its business as once, but leers and nudges Close up to the mischief, and never budges. A hick in the city, his mind is a wain Piled high with matters he needs to explain To the citified: rural life and animal wonders And a hinterland of years whose weathers, Famines and pageants stray through his talk Without invitation, a wandering flock. A hurrying stranger asks for directions: He starts from a pent-up wealth of connections: “Which way to the palace?” “As a youth, I kept bees...” “Right or left?” “That’s right. My hives were near trees...” On stage, with his staff and dangling phallus, Or in the mirror, he offers solace: There’s always a farce with a place for us in it. We pant our way through a self-pitying minute As the lovers outrun us, raising laughter: But the chuckles are knowing, and softer.
Paul Hamill has published in Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Cortland Review, Diagram, and others. The most recently published of his collections is a chapbook, Meeting the Minotaur, from Split Oak Press, 2011. He retired from Ithaca College in 2011, where he had been a senior administrator, sometimes lecturer, and also, for a couple of years, county Poet Laureate. He spent last year as a Senior Fulbright Fellow at Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu, Romania, named for a great poet whom the authorities forced to refuse the Nobel Prize in the early 1950's. A sequence of Hamill’s poems and an interview with him can be found in the current issue of the Journal of American, British, and Canadian Studies (Romania).