David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
LAUREATE

     {from Autumn in the Hothouse}

                                            for Ellis

 

 

                      

                                                                     Rembrandt

 

 

For R. V. Ellis

 

 

 

                                               1

 

Oh God, am I really awake?

     That slant of light, creepy

On my spread—daybreak

          And I'm not even sleepy.

 

Those other anguished sods

     Are fast into it, obscene

Dreams, nectar of the cods,

          Wenches, sexual, lean,

 

If I could see them now,

     All three stiff as tines,

Malcom, Langsteen, Barrow,

          And I'm to do with rhymes.

 

These stanzas in my head

     Are clear as Lucite, glitter.

I find none, few, fitter,

          And these remain unsaid.

 

The grip and feeling's gone.

     I drool and smell my stink

With ample time to think.

          Sadly, retention's gone

 

And rhymes often identical,

     Describing force of habit,

Lust of the average rabbit,

          My substance parenthetical.

 

                                              2

 

But let's get closer to it.

     Imagine a geezer with a load

In his diaper, laureate poet

          Humped like a mangled toad,

 

Faecal, fetal, lump of filth,

     Sucking his daily bread,

Rhyming away in stealth,

          Closer to death than dead,

 

Rooting a balding cranium,

     Digging his crack,

Poised for a palsied attack,

          Lily, orchid, spotted geranium.

 

The mouth is fit for flies

     That home in on his fumes,

Hairy bitches riding brooms.

          He yearns for nascent thighs.

 

The owners are prone, grim

     For his fever, heated, eager.

Sadly the stamen is meager,

          Flaccid in a sac of phlegm.

 

A Venus claptrap here,

     Our hot house breeds few better,

Toothless, wily predator

          Gumming his 81st year.

 

                                            3

 

          But who's that coming

               Through the door,

           That slut, that cheerful blur?

                    Esmeralda Simpson, RN,

 

          Aiming to crank our beds

               For slop and toast,

          Checking the nightmare roost

                    For the latest deads.

 

          Up, up, vertical we go

               To meet our trays.

          As such we pass our days—

                    The situation's slow.

 

          "Why Dr. Longfellow,

               Eric Potter, DDS,

          Your hands are such a mess.

                    And here's your yellow

 

          Pill.  It's on the bill

               Of fare.  You look so sad.

          Din-din, my sorry lad,

                    There's time to kill."

         

          You get the picture?

               It isn't pretty.

           I know the latest stricture—

                    Suffer us not to pity.

 

                                            4

 

Oh pain that here is the matter

     For my verse, my fingers

Unheeding.  Such vision lingers

          On my tongue.  The latter

 

Is mute, manages only "Moeehrrr"

     And minor variations, tones.

Scratch my back, bring me water,

          Where's my cup—these moans

 

Require articulation.  I groan

     Even the highest metaphysics,

Suffer, endure my plight alone,

          Down to my doctor's physics.

 

We are apart, this wasted foursome,

     Such awesome devastation

In all its myriad deviation,

          Senility to livid whoreson

 

Physical debility.  I who think

     Must merely think.  Voice

And hands are gone.  No choice.

          It's "Moeehrrr," leer, blink.

 

Above his slop this poet like

     A senile mantis, an addled

Panda.  And yet I've straddled

          Himmler, Jesus, Wilhelm Reich.

 

                                             5

 

Malcom, Malcom, into the orgone

     Box with you.  The surgeon's

Through, tongue that's prone

          To thicken with your urgings,

 

Stiff as a hard salami,

     X on the coal-black cheeks.

No epic really speaks

          To that malicious army

 

Of mutant cells that devours

     You, that blossom in your throat,

Inching you under through the hours,

          You black daisy, you goat,

 

You cheese, rancid as parmesan,

     Thin black feet under the gown,

Sucking your Sustecal down,

          You prince, you guru courtesan.

 

Take you in my rank arms

     And heal you, old guy,

Christian blessings on the sly,

          Feast on your withered charms.

 

They have never told you.

     Strep throat, diabetes?

If only I could hold you,

          Needle arms, stiffened faeces.

 

                                               6

 

          But who's that lurking

               In the shadow?

          Big Hans Barrow, sallow,

                    Eager and working

 

          At his morning stink,

               Strawberry chin

          Beneath the awful grin,

                   The missing link.

 

          Heap of arthritic flesh,

               Wallowing goat,

          Massive hump of trash

                    In a Johnnie coat.

 

          Hand like a velvet claw

               Covers a mug of tea,

          Pauses to leak his pee,

                     Stuff at his craw.

 

          "Morning, Herr Potter,

               I see you're awake.

          I guess you caught her

                    Pulling your snake."

 

          You get the narrative?

               It's far from cute,

          Yet simply declarative.

                    The man's a brute.

 

                                               7

 

And yet there's something tender.

     Not Esmeralda Simpson, RN,

Although I'd like to bend her,

          Something heart and sudden,

 

A feel for Johnathan Jesus,

     Nee Christianson, evening aide,

Brings me soup and lemonade,

          Arrests my angry thesis

 

That all is simple mute despair,

     Kafkaesque and bleak.

He comes five times each week

          And tweaks my nose and hair,

 

Culls me gentle to his arms

     When no one's looking.  Blond

And tall, tender, sound,

          Androgyne with virile charms

 

That sweep my pain away

     For the briefest precious minute.

I'm right back in it,

          But the torment's not so fey.

 

And when he sticks his tongue

     At me or asks me what I can

Relate in shrugs, I understand

          The rapture of the young.

 

                                           8

 

For that's where the matter's 

     Fact and not impression,

The workings of my fierce depression,

          That child, say 41, the latter's

 

Child for me.  His cheer at Barrow,

     Bad John Langsteen, Malcom,

Gumming away at Sustecal and talcum—

          Such sympathy is wonder, sorrow,

 

A boyish figure in his whites,

     Chasing linen for his cart,

Tremulous hands and heart,

          Who tames our death some nights

 

And wrings it clean.  I hear

     His treble voice, soft as Christ.

These things are never over-priced.

          It's not as if he's queer or

 

Merely gentle.  God's sake, I'd rake

     Bad John and split his skull

For less than fifty cents.  I'd pull

          His ears and ream his crack,

 

I hate him so.  But watch that boy

     Caress that poor man's brain

To work a smile and strain

          For understanding is pure joy.

 

                                             9

 

          But who's that filling

               Bad John's basin,

          Her disposition killing?

                    Esmeralda Simpson,

 

          Tackling, wash and rag,

               His wrinkled hide,

          That conscientious hag—

                    They'd let it slide,

 

          The others, Markham, Peak

               Of richer hue.

          Poor John is up a creek

                    Before she's through.

 

          Soap in the eyes,

               Nap of the washcloth

          Brillo on his thighs,

                    Antiseptic broth

 

          To wring him fitter.

               To hear him curse

          You'd think far worse

                    Had made him bitter.

 

          You catch the scene?

               I know it's tough,

          But if she's rough

                    At least he's clean.

 

                                               10

 

They've parked me in the corridor,

     Dreaming of my Pulitzer,

Rutting, you doubting Thomas,

          The woman rutted Dylan Thomas.

 

And could have slept with Thomas E.,

     I hate to say, his poetry,

But salvaged rhyme from Gunga Din,

          Spilled my seed with Anais Nin.

 

And filled the teeth of Morris West

     (I'll get that off my chest),

Read my verse to Hemingway

          In Budapest one Saturday.

 

And met the Pope one afternoon,

     Ate caviar from a golden spoon,

Serviced Wallace Steven's maid,

          All journals free and staid.

 

But creak from lunch to supper.

     Lower's gone.  So's the upper.

Snot and drool, foul my pants,

          Frighten harlots, maiden aunts.

 

If death is warm and hell is hot,

     The worst is simply what I've got,

An agony of sloth and wayward cell.

          You find a poet by his smell.

 

                                              11

 

The oldest wench is drooling

     On her neck, saliva pooling

In her collar bones,

          Curious, liquid moans,

 

Head thick and shapely as a wen,

     Cackling sudden like a hen,

Snotting her double chin,

          Blear-eyed devil's grin,

 

And then she shrieks, "Paid

     My dollar, Jesus Christ!"

The air is sullen, sliced,

          And I'm caught, afraid.

 

Others loll in geri chairs,

     Raking at inner space

As if they dare to trace

          A cosmos with their stares,

 

Frightened, wooden, stone,

     Seeming to at last atone

For primal fears,

          Breaking into nasty jeers,

 

Chattering grimace, quails

     Or geese, spastic ugly quacks

Along the vinyl tiles.

          The situation truly lacks.                 

 

                                             12

 

          Rhyme it as you choose,

               You have to lose

          In any county institution.

                    There is no solution.

 

          Such sights are bleak

                As Joyce in pus.

          These ghouls are us,

                    Gentle, fierce or meek.

 

          SS major, cleric, sergeant,

               It matters none.

          A neuron hash is urgent,

                    Slattern, guru, nun.

 

          And what's the answer?

               Alzheimer's to cancer,

          These lives are blighted.

                   Pity the clear-sighted.

 

          Such as we are homely,

               Drool to dribbled chin.

          The devil's sin's a grin

                   Far more comely.

 

          We have begun to die

               Unsightly.  20 years

          Won't finish all these seniors.

                    Prepare to cry.

 

                                             13

 

They wheel me toward my lunch,

     The dayroom set, a bunch

That's semi-with-it, Chambers, Buteckus,

          Itching their decubitus,

 

Lolling above the wire mesh

     Tables, mouthing contradictions,

Airing their afflictions,

          A faecal scent about their flesh.

 

The food arrives in stainless trucks,

     A tray for all these sorry mucks.

The sound of lips and eager jaws

          Contends with bleat or rooting paws.

 

A spray of phlegm and pureed beef,

     The soupy litany of greed,

As if this slop might quell their need

          And lift for moments naked grief.

 

The few that choose to stoke

     With spoons are apt to choke

At any rate.  They scrape their bowls

          And gobble like a host of trolls.

 

I concentrate on what I'm served,

     A stink of lamb on rice.

Such Eucharist is hardly apt, deserved.

          Our table manners are on ice.

 

                                               14

 

At least one's never bored.

     And yet I'd wire this ward

If put in charge,

          And wire the universe at large,

 

The relatives that seldom come,

     The priests that wield dumb

Messages and wafers,

          All saints, assorted saviors.

 

I'd send them up in smoke

     And watch the zealous choke

On heady fumes,

          YOUR bitches riding brooms,

 

Yes all uncaring wenches.

     The pain that always wrenches

Would relent.

          I'd gladly do the better stint

 

In any hell or Catholic purgatory,

     A fitting end to this sad story,

And come again replete

          With perforated hands and feet.

 

The guy that passed on Calvary

     Might find my view unsavory.

Perhaps he'd do me in.

          I'd take my portion with a grin.

 

                                               15

 

          You catch my bent?

               You've had your fill

          Of Easter, Lent?

                     I make you ill?

 

          This time I raked

               An old man's arm.

          I meant some harm.

                    My innards ached.

 

          I mentioned him.

               You found it grim.

          Not Malcom, John,

                    That awful clown,

 

          That aching hell.

               You should have heard

          The buzzard yell

                     Across the ward.

 

          I paid the price.

               It wasn't nice.

          He turned to hiss

                    And dumped his piss

 

          Pot on my head.

               The metrics thicken.

          Perhaps I've said

                    Enough to sicken.

 

                                              16

 

But who's that apparition

     Tinted in the dayroom door,

As if my appetite were poor,

          Her load of cookies and contrition?

 

She's known enough to bring

     Her lover too, that sorry screw,

That scholar.  They'll make me sing

          In shrugs before they're through

 

And "Moeehrrr" by "Moeehrrr."

     My disposition's on the floor.

He has his manuscript in hand,

          More poison in one binder than

 

They've laid to Byron, Keats.

     She's got the nerve, that leper.

Smothers me in sagging teats,

          Sets the cookies down and Dr. Pepper,

 

Such pain and grimace of affection

     As might have greeted Adolf

From his Eva.  This lost connection

          Seethes.  Go play some tennis, golf,

 

A hint of bridge.  Such ladies

     Powdered from their sleek Mercedes,

Make me retch.  And yet I gum

          These cookies every time they come.

 

                                            17

 

Let's see—"His cadence easily

     Derivative from Eliot via Blake's,

What masterful control he takes

          To whittle down his simile

 

And polish metaphor toward ease

     And dignity of carriage.

Such is a subtle, happy marriage

          Of rhyme and wit, if you please,

 

And yet solemnity is often

     In the wings.  Such poesy sings

With brightest fire to beggars, kings,

          And seldom do the lyrics soften."

 

I answer—"Moeehrrr, Moeehrrr,"

     And shrug and blink.  The filthy cur

Makes his adjustments, reads again.

          A dozen cookies down, I grin

 

Despite myself and thumb my nose.

     This scholar's on his toes.

He footnotes every bland assumption,

          Examines text with verve and gumption.

 

"Eric dear, your stock is sadly down.

     Stop acting like a clown.

Steven's book will bring the world around.

          Just tell us if the thesis's sound."

 

                                             18

 

          I'm left to shudder

               In my stink.

          I think

                    The world's an udder

 

          Dry as dust.

               Such as we must

          Suckle where we can.

                    God's plan

 

          Is such.

               And such as touch

          The honey pot

                    Have really got

 

          Their fingernails

               In snot.

          They're caught.

                    If substance fails

 

          There still is style,

               A smile,

          A fond caress.

                    I have this mess

 

          Of detail

               On my chest.

          Perhaps my quest

                    Will fail.

 

                                               19

 

Thank Jesus, Johnathan is here.

     There's less to fear.

He tidies up my lap,

          Wheels me in to take a nap

 

Before supper.  I'm pampered,

     Washed, and fit for rest,

The table at my chest.

          Good Johnny's seldom hampered

 

By his duty.  And here is pasta

     Spooned with care, a sauce

That's bland for certain in my claws

          Yet hardly reeling from disaster.

 

He wheels the others in at 7,

     Spruces up their scented hides,

Up into it, fresh as brides

          For master slumber, heaven.

 

We dream at last of nooky.

     I gum my final cookie.

The light outside recedes.

          He's answered to my needs.

 

And yet I find pure fright

     In the closing of the light,

Fetal on capricious linen,

          Musing now on Malcom Brinnen.

 

                                               20

 

Certain poets watch the times,

     Dispense with rhymes

When verse is nudging free,

          Stiffen formal suddenly,

 

Anticipate all coming shifts.

     As such their meter drifts

To match the current scene.

          Greater genius cannot scheme

 

So readily.  It does what it must

     And seldom heeds the common thrust,

Is self-involved, possessed,

          Fails the current test

 

And swims oblivious at large

     Until the miracle takes charge

And wrests a lasting place

          For merit no slight gift can trace

 

Or even grace.  Time buries

     The facile, raises natural gift

To heights no currency can lift

          Despite the effort, worries,

 

Bother.  And such is Potter, DDS,

     Merely talent doomed to slip.

I've lost the honeyed grip.

          At least it's off my chest.

 

                                             21

 

          But what's this

               In my crack?

          It takes me back.

                    But what is this?

 

          I'll smear it

               On the rail.

          I know he'll rail.

                    I fear it.

 

          But sleep in it?

               He'll have a fit.

          I hate to dig,

                    But here's the pig.

 

          There, it's done.

               They think

          I think it's fun

                    To smear my stink.

 

          Reduced to this,

               My fingers.

          If only it could kiss.

                    This lingers.

 

          What luck

               To wallow like a duck

          In your own stool.

                    It's cruel.

 

                                             22

 

Light's on.  Johnny's near

     At hand.  He has to scent my roses.

It can't escape their noses.

          I'm sweating in my fear.

 

He's quiet now, busy with his cart.

     My brain is dizzy waiting.

He could play silent, baiting

          My misgivings.  Now they start.

 

Broomer, Schmidt, have crossed

     The hall.  It's going to cost.

I hear them sniff and shriek.

          The sequence turns to bleak.

 

"Come on, you're much too gentle.

     This guy's perverted, mental.

We know Doc well enough.

          You've got to treat him rough.

 

We'll handle it.  Sarah, kill

     The light.  The bastard likes to play.

He'll learn the proper way

          To take his nasty thrill

 

When this girl's finished.  Pinch

     His paws and pull his nose.

Douse his jewels with this hose

          And let him lick his stench."

 

                                               23

 

I try to rake their fur,

     To scratch their nasty claws.

In darkness all God's saws

          Redound to "Moeehrrr."

 

My friend is mute, afraid.

     They call the shots this time.

They know the stock in trade.

          Such evil's hard to rhyme.

 

At last I'm trussed and clean

     But aching.  The light is dim

As death.  I hear them

          Breaking, coarse, obscene

 

Down the corridor.  Some

     Torment is devised for 511.

Perhaps a draft of urine

          Is in store for Mrs. Blum.

 

Darkness.  My friend is gone.

     His duty takes him on.

I wait for his return.

          These moments tend to burn.

 

Laureate poet, Potter, DDS,

     Is trussed from cheek to shin.

This diaper wraps me in

          To save the linen from my mess.

 

                                               24

 

          But who is this?

               I try to hiss.

          He plants a kiss.

                    But who is this?

 

          Tears are such ways

               These days

          That weeping's thin,

                    Done in.

 

          And yet his tears

               Can ease my pain.

          Perhaps I strain

                    My ears

 

          To hear his cry—

               "I don't know why,

          I don't know why"—

                    His sigh.

 

          Such is the picture,

               Such the stricture—

          Thou shalt not

                    Pity.  Caught,

    

          Fixed, bent.

               Dear God, relent.

          I shall not cease

 

 

                    Till my release.

 

                                            1981