Mudlark Poster No. 72 (2007)

Four Poems by Frederick Pollack

Notes for the Baron of Teive | To Live in Peace | Serotonin | Bonbon

Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. Other of his poems and essays have appeared in Hudson Review, Southern Review, Fulcrum, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), Representations and elsewhere. Poems have most recently appeared in the print journals Iota (UK), Orbis (UK), Magma (UK), and The Hat. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Snorkel, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Denver Syntax, Barnwood, elimae, and elsewhere. Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University, Washington, DC.

Author’s Note. “My work does not belong to either of the current schools, the navelgazing mainstream or the academic pseudo-avant-garde. Renaissance thinkers believed that ‘as above, so below’: that the individual was a microcosm of nature. For me, history, which I conceive in an unrepentantly Marxist way, and which includes the future, is the macrocosm. Poetry must escape both the ideology of the private life and hermetic formal cleverness. Poetry is about something; and should strive, without sentimentality or tendentiousness, for a public voice.”

Notes for the Baron of Teive

(Pessoa, The Education of the Stoic)


As he had watched the preceding steps,
he now, having finished with her,
watched as she brushed and buttoned her clothes,
gathered whatever eggs remained unbroken,
replaced them in her basket and,
not looking at or speaking to him, left.
If she had lain, stunned or languorous,
if she had wept,
or smiled shyly or brazenly, if she had tried
to exact some price or favor after the fact;
if in her walk
he had noted some particular loss
of mind or pride, a show
of unconcern or genuine unconcern,
he would have been displeased,
the day and his estate mysteriously troubled.
But the day was hot and still.
He had read that heat is the sign
of turbulence in the small components of matter.
That can’t be true, he thought;
it is cold from which all things and creatures shy:
they mill about distracted to escape it.
Outside, on the path to the huts,
the girl rearranged her basket.
He remembered “L’infinito” by Leopardi,
in which a peasant girl
passes the poet without interaction and vanishes
at the vanishing point.
Perhaps this one would have the same effect
at a distance of fifty yards.


The sun sank but the heat increased.
Impeccable towards evening he walked in the village.
The sun is a wrestler
by whom one is inevitably defeated,
by whom it is no shame to be defeated;
whose invitation to a match
cannot be refused although one will be defeated.
By day it is the color of walls;
at dusk, of roof-tiles.
He walked between the rows of old women in black
seated on benches, wondering if silence
or muttered blessings show more respect.
He knew that the sun gives life
to the fields around and beneath
the hill on which the village stood, but is that
(he considered) in fact true?
Perhaps the springs of life
lie elsewhere, with its fate.
Perhaps it is these widows
who keep the sun aloft
and float it gracefully down
with their labored breath,
not the church on which it balances a moment.
Who will do so, sitting here
long after stones from that church
have gone to serve some other faith,
as once they were a part of a pagan temple.


Philosophy, he wrote, is the unwanted,
uncertain extension of a poem.
After a while he crossed out
“philosophy” and put “reason.”
On another page he wrote “stasis”
and, after a hyphen, “peace.”
Then he returned to his first thought,
replacing, without confidence or interest,
“reason” with “hope.”
The pen dropped from his hand,
or else he let it fall.
Some celebration of poverty
had ended in the village.
Silence lay in all directions.
He reminded himself that he knew
the Letter of Lord Chandos,
the agonies of Mallarmé and Coleridge
at the inaccessibility
of the original and perfect word,
they now residing somewhere with it. Suddenly
(insofar as these things are sudden)
he understood the condition
whereby he would fill his notebook:
that except, at last, for himself, he would finish nothing.

To Live in Peace

I’m not sure of the setting
or finances. Conceivably
a loft, wherever the galleries and
boutiques are now, their frenzied
stylishness waning towards evening,
with the sirens. Or a redoubtable former
farmhouse in the former countryside.
Or just an apartment. What matters
is the location, at the foot of money:
the day job with its sixty hours;
the various night jobs; retirement
constantly leaking, survival
almost a full-time job —
the fog of need one navigates
until the eyes adapt and only
the mind believes it wants the sun.

Towards evening the air is thick,
the pavement sticky with knowledge:
a widow’s, that the chance of joy
is gone, her voice gone shrill, her dress
and jewels drawing no useful look;
only her anger darkly beautiful.
An older man’s, that failure is
the paper day is written on,
the theme of everything written there,
so that to live he must deny the truth.
The knowledge of a brilliant youth
who wants, not at the core of his being
(there is none) yet somewhere,
to throw things, hurt, be hurt, shout bigotries
he doesn’t especially mean but might as well.
As they gather, the wind raises
country or city dust their breathing
filters as the mind must filter hell.

If their host were at all charismatic,
they could tell themselves, or deny,
they’re a cult (that jewel in the crown of betrayals).
But the leader doesn’t lead and isn’t
aggressively wise. Sets peanuts out,
and drinks; cheerfully loses
the thread of the evening; cleans
as if imitating a kind, abstracted
mother. So they tell themselves
they’re his thoughts, and he their tough, phlegmatic
soul. Or that they are characters
in a novel, whose final chapter will claim
him too. And discuss postmodernism,
which, desperate to find
some means of connection, chooses
the self-devouring serpent of the mind.

They, and occasional shadowy other
guests who come and go (and feel
the shade is too intense, perhaps,
the air too clear), refuse the usual
debased communality
of gossip, therapeutics, funny
despair. They try to reason. Try
also to avoid pedantry,
as well as the more common tone of it.
The self appears in the third person, briefly;
anguish only if exemplary,
like politicians, creeds, and other
shadows. On successful evenings,
their body-language stilled, expressions
fleeting and young again, they enter
an unusual shadow,
like that of an immense but distant thing —
a world where one could effortlessly talk
so calmly, selves commensurate with that world,
and bodies, likewise suitable,
that would not only talk but laugh and sing.

They also try to decide
(since I can’t) where they are:
some tumbledown Victorian
in the penumbra of a college, say,
the lawn long trampled. Or the cited loft,
they serving some young futures-trader’s whim,
as perverse in its way
as those on other floors. Certainly one
of these; but it is not the essential
place. The aging failure wonders
whether they might already live
in that intelligible world, with colonnades,
cleanliness, cupolas. The widow
imagines endless sheltering woods
and a cave, somehow well-lit; the youth,
a series of connecting bunkers.
Yet all agree what phrase appears
beyond the checkpoint: Peace to him who enters.



It was the year of the Contract with America.
We were renting. I went outside for a smoke
and twilight and insect bites in the small garden.
Next door, behind a trellis,
a man was installing a rain gutter
or awning, or caulking a window — something
demanding competence, overalls,
and a boombox playing Rush Limbaugh.
The day was fading quickly, but he saw
no need for a lamp (perhaps he had none),
or to go inside and light the room (probably
our neighbor, the producer, had locked it).
He bummed a smoke. Mountain accent,
long gray hair. As he worked, he spoke
of the New World Order. It apparently talked
to him personally, telling him to do things —
work with or for fags,
give money to immigrants, blacks,
the UN, pseudo-educated assholes —
and punishing him in unspecified ways
when he wouldn’t. He referred to himself
in the third person
and seemed unaware of questions as such;
they only jogged him to another grievance.
Monosyllables, silence
when asked what he earned, if he was married,
had children, read anything,
or when I gave him another cigarette
and said goodnight —
thinking I was part of the last generation
for which the term “worker” held pathos; and now
had met one, like a unicorn in the dusk.


At school, Denny was remarkably
without the affectations you’d expect
from his type — the stiff, aggrieved disdain,
the voice descending from an astral plane
when the Flag was questioned; warmer version of same
when the Cross was at issue;
fond in-jokes about one’s class,
vulgarity for those below it;
the errors of passion about success
and noisy pride in one’s unscrupulousness.
But Denny merely automatically
excused whatever massacre,
village deprived of water
or jungle of trees the firms he interned for
required somewhere. Grew angry
only when time was taken from his work,
and was thus universally admired
for maturity. His libido
was largely reserved for debutantes in summer,
and later one or another
advantageous co-worker. He married late and well.
But by then even a starter
McMansion, the country club etc.
required two incomes, and years passed
before Denny Junior appeared.
Who at three wasn’t talking;
at five only laconically,
when spoken to. Who stared
and could not be hugged; whose arms
flapped strangely, who screamed and punched
when something, a smell, set him off.
And Denny’s career and expenditures
changed. He joined all the support groups,
attended every therapy session,
studied the websites, kept a log,
looked after his wife when she broke.
His features, which at Yale had been
so clear, became lined with grief
and with that hopeless patience which cuts deeper.
Without embarrassment, in later years,
he said things about love
and friendship that reduced old friends to tears.
But really, it may not have happened that way.
He may have taken one look at the problem
and put the boy in an institution —
expensive, but less than home care.
He may never have had a kid.
He might have been gay, never married, or sterile.
It isn’t as if we ever spoke.


Now and then I’ve imagined compassion
as an alternative. But because
the conditional tense is awkward,
you’ll have to accept a counterfactual
narrative. My world is without mirrors,
except for the tiresome tiny reflection
I avoid in other people’s eyes
because it would waste time.
I listen. There's a subtext
that wants to become the main text
and does, given time. It seems to be spoken
by a handful of suffering people
into whom the ostensible billions
collapse. I say what I can,
often nothing. I touch
or don’t. A con-man
sitting beside me on a long flight
confessed all his crimes when his spiel failed,
and became very tedious
to himself. The religious
patient in the next bed at the hospital
that time, proclaimed me the Antichrist
when after three days I said
it’s better to read many books than only one.
He needed to hate me; recovered. I work
in soup-kitchens, and for an embattled NGO.
At home the phone rings, and often it’s someone
I don’t know. I should arrange my laundry,
closets, and papers better. At the museum
I like a few pieces,
especially a corroded smiling form
under glass, the “Buddha of the Future.”
It isn’t I who wrote this —
I find the tone unattractive —
but my reflection, which is vicious,
intolerant, morbid, creative.


I know that we shall live again
as algorithms of some alien
intelligence that will do
what earthly power never could imagine:
subsume itself in its own creation.
Boredom will end, but not imagination,
in a dimensionless and wanton leisure,
where after many ages you
may rouse yourself from pleasure
to walk the thousand gleaming levels
of a city, meeting friends and equals
in every form.
Some of whom may be art —
as all immortals choose to be
a moment — concentrating in themselves
the multiple and comic future,
and universal elegy.
Or you may enter nature,
its only pain the memory of pain,
your senses those of butterflies and trees
while theirs are yours, the sun
a mind no more than amiably warm;
the lucid rivers thoughtful as they climb
around the rusting cogs and wheels of time.
— And sing, until the moon
helps you revise an ancient noble tune:
Who has no house by now may build one yet
and brush away the dead leaves of regret.


          ... the only species f------ liberals don’t care about ...
                                                                        (right-wing blog)

Awesome in any era,
unthinkable in ours, a migration
darkens the sky. Soon it will see
the northern world-forest, herds
as vast as itself on the tundra, glaciers
like jewels in the earth’s brow.
The friends around a table
on a stone terrace merging
into a boundless garden lend
their consciousness a moment to the birds,
then to the wolves and bears who elsewhere
glance up at them, before returning
to their reading. Each reads;
and then they talk or let emotions swell
the invisible lake containing them
and history and geese this afternoon.
They are not human in our sense.
Their thoughts would seem too slow or fast,
painful or just. They are, moreover,
so few, not only as compared
to other species but the dead,
who wrote the work they read today.
They like its turbulence at a distance;
prefer it to specious visions of peace,
which were anyway rare. Something
yowls in the woods. A keen breeze
ruffles the ancient pages like a blessing.

Copyright © Mudlark 2007
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