John Surowiecki



La joie venait tou jours après la piene.

And Helen answered:
'' ' '' ' '' ' ''Love!'' ' '' ' '' ' ''
—John Barth


It's July, 1965. I'm with  J.Z., my neighbor and friend. We leave a crowded beach in New London, Connecticut, for a universe of faded indoor-outdoor carpeting and archetypes on a mostly nautical theme. Of course, J.Z. is the biggest archetype of all, the betrayed and abandoned lover. He doesn't stop bemoaning the loss of stringy-haired Helen, short-order cook, cashier and the face that launched a thousand chips. A few days later he'll learn she’s in San Diego, betrayed and abandoned in turn and, worse, broke. Incidentally, this is a rundown and shabby miniature golf course, which is exactly why J.Z., his brother, S.Z. (just arrived in Vietnam), and I like it so much. Still, J.Z. and I don't linger. It's hot and there’s no shade as we progress hole to hole in a journey that drops us off exactly where we began it.

1  Labyrinth                   

So much for love, so much for heartless Helen,

gone for good, leaving behind a cloudy mirror,

a roach clip, a dop kit filled with salves.

He met her when she worked the counter

at the Polish smokehouse; looped sausages

hung over her head like trophies.

Later, she found a job at Fish 'n Chips,

closing early to have sex with him

on the table where she had that morning

breaded the scrod and scallops.

By spring, there was no escaping her;

she charted imaginary honeymoons

from a mountain of atlases. By June,

he had lost the place where love began and reached

its end without seeing how he got there.

She wanted rings and dinners, tattoos on her pale arms:

a throbbing heart, a thorny rose, a golden apple.

She wanted young men to fight over her

along the line where the sea touches

the shadow of the walls of Troy.

2 Wall (i)


Let her go away in the ships

Iliad, III, 159

The old men of Troy praise

her beauty and grace, the attention
she pays to those who speak to her,

the genuineness of her courtesy.

But the thing is: doom walks with her.

Let her go. Don't ask her to return.

She'll only give you grief.

3  Wall (ii)

O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink.

 —A Midsummer Night's Dream

You can't go over this wall or around it:

you have to go through it: a chink

only slightly wider than it needs to be.

We try again and again, failing miserably.

Finally, J.Z. uses his club as a broom,

drags the ball to the hole

and rudely stuffs it through.

4  Loop the Loop

He has to stop using love as an excuse for not living,

for walking around with that stupid moony look.

He has to hit the ball with enough force to generate

the necessary centrifugal-centripetal energy; but each time

he barely taps it and each time it strikes the rusted

curlycue with a soft thunk and rolls back defeated.

5  Mermaid

She unmendeleevs you. In her room

she keeps vials, flasks, inks, potions,

something like an atom-smasher holding rollers.

Her bed is an eddy of sheets, hissing from salt.

The blue of sea kings shines through her skin.

She is the adventuress in a sinking house,

entertained by cheap rings and bags of pot.

She asks for warmth against warmth

generating new warmth and has nothing

more to say except how warm the warmth is

or how quiet the quiet is or how mighty

the night wind is as it shreds the café flags.

Sea urchins are the coins of her mistrust;

gulls chart for her a geography of exits.

6  Turtle

It's self-contained and uses no poison;

it's without guile or cunning

and has only passive, defensive strength;

it has to be convinced that it will prevail

and when it does it continues

on its way as if it didn't.

7  Scow Schooner

Its sails are in tatters and dyed black

from mildew; the bowsprit hangs limply

to one side, broken years ago

by a sub riveter drunk on Cutty Sark;

its kind once dredged for oysters

and carried salt hay down the Thames.

The ball travels up one gangplank,

rattles around the wormy hull,

then rolls down another; the ocean

is a circle of cement painted blue

with carets of turquoise: chips peel off

and are carried away by sudden gusts.

If the sea is a woman to a sailor no wonder

women seem lovelier to them than they are.

8  Dinosaur

Its only flaw, really, is clumsiness: it's

as if it had been designed for a less exacting world.

How can it grasp with those little hands?

how can it see with eyes tucked away into

that yarrow head? how can it think

with the sun boiling its brains

and love boiling its blood?

9  Pirate

It must be enough to be thought of as a thief of hearts

or to have as your home every drop of liquid earth

and reduce existence to a few shades of blue;

and yet we can't see him as the son of Blood,

a scoundrel surrounding a set of dazzling teeth:

what she thinks he is can't be anything like what

he really is: a minimum-wage jamoke

with a collection of comics and a tattoo or two.

The salt air has bitten his face with unseen teeth,

his black wig has grayed, his ruffles are pitted,

his saber has long ago been shown to be the stick it is.

10  Whale

The ball enters the cathedral of its mouth,

rolls through its intestinal plumbing

and passes forty and odd vertebrae before

dropping undigested from one of three assholes.

J.Z. looks toward the graying Sound,

suddenly interested in the high-school girls

as they lick their ice-cream cones and yank

at their cracks, shivering in the same vitric sun

that real whales glance at when they die.

11  Elephant

Resplendent in pearls and rubies,

the rajah waves while the elephant offers

a sidelong glance as if to tell us that it could,

if it wanted to, toss this bearded chump

out of his box, better yet, open the earth

with its tusks and plunge him and all

the world’s betrayers into its personal inferno;

but we hear no avenging trumpet and no

basso thud from those odd flat feet,

only the hum of a biplane overhead

pushing beer.

12  Windmill

It's a giant all right with teeth as brown

as anthropology and eyes as blue as a scallop's.

Its waffled arms never stop spinning, slapping

away J.Z.'s shots as if handing out punishment:

hadn't he mistaken vertigo for love, hadn't he

found beauty where there wasn't much to look at?

He hits the ball into the alley outside the reach

of the giant's arms and gets out while he can.

13  Schoolhouse

She'd been a chambermaid and a laundry girl,

a sous-chef in a paper hat slicing vidalias.

She poured the honey over Miss Bee's apple pies

and was trusted with money that wasn't hers.

She cleaned out toilets at the train station.

And she had honored J.Z. with her paper world:

the pink tongue of Togo, the snake of Vietnam,

the nugget of Surinam, the Congo blanched of blood

with a river so wide they couldn't, if they

were standing on one shore, see its other.

14  Lighthouse

He wonders if this bulbless lighthouse,

this squat tower of wormy slats,

could send a beam to his brother in Vietnam,

one beach and hot green sea to another,

a simple message—We're alive, are you?

in the flicker of a new morning star just above

the line where the world begins or ends,

depending on your point of view.

15  Fountain [Broken]

Another day and we might have seen

lively rainbows, liquid parasols opening

and closing, vertical rivers returning

upon themselves, see-through snakes

or ostrich necks helixing. Instead,

we see green pennies, powdery

and, with regard to wishes, already spent.

Our coins thud and bounce and roll

in clipped circles and when their dance

is done, they bake in the heat,

unreflected, unrefracted, undervalued.

16  Rocket

There must be a planet where no one

is exceptional or unlucky or unloved,

where no one fears loneliness more than harm,

where no one knows what it is to gawk at

other worlds and wish there was a way

to get there in a bucket of blue aluminum.

17  Garden

It's a brick circle containing blue flag irises

dug up years ago from a nearby swamp;

they've long since taken over and are so tightly

packed no weed can find a place to set down roots.

The flowers are deep purple with a touch

of yellow: so elegant, some might think

too elegant, for a wild flower. We realize

it's not a circle at all but the shape of a heart.

18  Clown

After they roll into the cackling abyss,

the balls begin their zigzagging odyssey

past larva enclaves and worm resorts,

ending up in the peeling white shack

among putters and stacks of scorecards

and boxes of stubby eraserless pencils.

More irises announce our exit,

white birches offer us some shade.

We head for the boardwalk wall:

the tide is in; the Sound has grown fat

like a wrestler beyond his prime, lifting

waves and dropping them with a grunt.

The world smells like a cheeseburger.



the adventuress in a sinking house
From Proverbs 2

Scow Schooner
a sub riveter drunk on Cutty Sark
The course is not far from the U.S. submarine base.

son of Blood
Captain Blood as played by Errol Flynn


 forty and odd vertebrae
 From Moby Dick, CIII (''Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton'')

that real whales glance at when they die

From Moby Dick, CVXI (''The Dying Whale''): ''For that strange spectacle observable in all sperm whales dying—the turning sunwards of the head, and so expiring . . . .''



John Surowiecki is the author of two books The Hat City after Men Stopped Wearing Hats (The Word Works, 2006 Washington Prize)  and Watching Cartoons before Attending a Funeral (White Pine Press, 2003). A third collection, Barney and Gienka (CW Books) will be published in the spring. In addition, he has written five chapbooks, while his Tapeworm Comics, a narrative poem in comic book form, will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse very soon, any day now, in fact. In recent years, John has won the Poetry Foundation Pegasus Award in verse drama for his play My Nose and Me: A TragedyLite or TragiDelight in 33 Scenes and the Nimrod Pablo Neruda Prize. He also took the silver in the Sunken Garden National Competition. Recent publications include: Alaska Quarterly Review, The Alembic, Cider Press Review, Margie, Nimrod, New Zoo Poetry Review, Oyez Review, Poetry, Redivider and West Branch. John was a featured reader at Cafe Muse in 2007 and at the Kensington Book Store in 2008.



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