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Henry’s ad libs.


—for John Berryman

1. Henry, riding westward.

“A hemorrhage of his left ear of Good Friday—
so help me Jesus—then made funny too
the other, further one.”

John Berryman, “Dream Song 128”

THE ODDLY SHAPED face disconcerts him, flattened
as if recovering after childbirth. Scrutinizing his mirrored
twin, he affirms, “These misshapen ovals,”

devotion waning, “hardly spheres, provide few
analogies. What moves one inescapably moves the other.”
He rotates his head from side to side,

points out complimentary forms, paired items.
The ears that pained him last night seem misaligned,
asymmetrical, obeying no natural law.

His elongated jaw, beard-covered, breaths unsteadily
under those dark eyes framed by even darker rimmed glasses:
“They magnify little,”

he muses, “and clarify less, only thin lines or figures
stationary on a hill.” The vicissitudes of the flesh carry him
forward. These amass like flaking fissures

above his brow. “The visage,” he says, “or the mug?
Which of these pulls me toward the secular west, the moon-like
landscape of an O’Keeffe painting?”

The gray and shadowy washouts under maroon slopes,
three or so stark cactus, parch his mouth. Then he recalls his
left ear bled last night,

“some hint,” he thinks. “I’m almost glad, for my physicians
back east are better suited for this red seepage.” He grows healthier
through the expectation.

But the thought of turning back angers him, that rusty coast
polluted beyond salvation. He balks at the mere memory, affirms
this more worthy route.

So Henry takes the gamble, again looking at his two selves,
one replicated for the other, “my deformity,” he had said. “Might
dry west really give me moist east?”

2. Henry, smitten.

Say her small figure is heavenly & full,
so as stunned Henry yatters like a fool
& maketh little sense.”

John Berryman, “Dream Song 171”

HAGGARD, LEFT FOR dead, Henry stretches across two stuffed
chairs at the corner coffee shop, abandoned. He prays
the caffeine will reanimate his dazzled brain,

restore his brutish nature. What ails him clutches fast
to his flesh, but he seeks other causes, assembles
rational symptoms. “My red blood cells lag,”

he says, “or perhaps my brow runs hot from lime.”
The metallic twitter of car engines outside
and glare of iced over pot holes annoy

his wits, so tattered. The small biscuit on his plate falls
far short of the grand meal his shrinking bulk craves.
So he watches with interest an unsociable squirrel

rummage through the trash can at the front door, pick
from a soiled paper bag a crust half eaten. “Working
the same leads, I see,” Henry says

almost out loud. “What a fine harvest.” The autumn cold
surrounds his sight. “No sweet pine nuts here,
no grain from an ancient mill,” he reflects,

“still in use and touched by its well-loved stream, no lush fields.”
The russet liquid steams his glasses as he raises his cup
to sip once, twice. The sharper lines return now,

“I met a lady, light footed and wild, courted her in the old ways
of love.” The proper frame for his chronicle heartens him.
“I bought her fine garlands,” perfect rings he conjures,

“lets them abound, and the best French fragrances,” sense
and scents conjoined. “Her voice, pitched from the waist
and neck, rid me of all interior noises.”

He relives the romance, clarifies each scene as he speaks,
jolted anew. “The magic of her vocabulary grew
as she spoke, a multiplying manna.”

He marveled at her fragile house, its aligned wood clapboards
and slanting roof. “No one,” she had told him, “loves
empty spaces.” She had filled her living

room with green and yellow hues, a ribbed sofa and floral
wingchair positioned together. Silk-screened panels
filtered the remaining

shafts of sun. That night unaccompanied in her bed Henry
dreamed as if it were his last, endured uncanny charms
colliding like boxcars, his bare feet still chilled

beneath her ample covers. “Have others been thus mesmerized,”
he thinks, “found themselves skinnier, wasted by her
affection?” Henry’s daydream of the dream

enthralls him anew sitting solitary at the table until the squirrel’s
tail accidently taps on the window, drawing his eye.
Stirred, Henry yatters and loiters.

3. Henry, fixing supper.

“Ten feeding big birds treating with contempt
Sir squirrel, with lazy flaps of 18 inches;
Henry they do not like,
& leave.”

John Berryman, “Dream Song 246”

HE AIMS TO consume his bitterness, rather than the converse.
The new house, old but recently purchased, he finds
a fair marvel. The cedar shingles, weathered

exact, shelter each side with unvarying simplicity: “They
like me have earned their solace.” The dining room
walls painted a modest apricot,

for he reasons, “such color enhances appetites, flavors each
evening meal.” And through the divided window he
sees the copper beech, the one he admired

before buying, with the gray tint of its writhed bark deepened
by centuries of carved initials, “that alphabet of adoration
still alive and stretched in bas-relief.” Even the noises

ignore age, the creak of heart-of-pine floors, align in his ear.
So Henry now plans to invite his friends to supper,
“a feast,” he imagines, as sharpened as his

comfortable habitat. “No,” he says, “the company will improve
these honeyed digs.” He has learned over the years that
the menu for such a meal will more than suffice

as invitation. “I merely need to list what they will be served,”
his eyes cutting titbits with a blink. There is no better way
to compliment his pack than to let

them hear about the lettuces and leeks, followed by trigger
fish fillets. The courses mount, stacked like sweet
grapes. Henry laughs, for he knows

he will even marshal the nerve to offer lamb “snatched from
the jaws of a rapacious wolf.” They may think his
recitation a “Henry lie,” for larks picked

from the clouds and fat legged hens stretch belief, but they will
come, he knows: “They will want to test my meticulousness.”
These lovers of paired wines, thin pastries,

and digestive cheeses will find the invitation too seductive,
palates and spirits piqued. So the evening must then
conclude with an even rarer cuisine,

“a prime cutlet divinely marbled,” he thinks, as he listens
to the soft grumble in his stomach, “my inner voice.”
Henry lifts his finger, tastes the moist air of his

house, and proclaims the last dish: “No guilty friends tonight.
Old betrayals will peel away like the skin of a ripe pear.
Nothing we say will need to be unsaid tomorrow.”

4. Henry, drying out.

“They say Henry’s love is well beyond Henry
& advise the poor man back into the tree
giving up spirits & steaks.”

John Berryman, “Dream Song 269”

THE PERSISTENT STAMMER worsens, “today, robbing me
of my once unwavering voice, bigger before than now,
and better formerly.” What else?

“My pasty tongue paining too.” Henry sits beside his
half empty glass. “Too much?” Measuring top half, bottom
half. “Too empty, from sad abuse.”

His sodden body begs attention again, not immune,
inky. The parched season approaches, like others, with its
unique solstice. His axis tilts too acutely once more,

leaning into a chilled fall and sober winter. “How
this time?” The swabbed head entreats “tried and true
remedies,” lists of soothing consommés

and milks, sponsors who groom his disheveled hair,
easing him back into his house, hinges firmly affixed.
“What discipline, what repair,”

he lauds. “They whip the very tenor of my words into
shape, pin each syllable as to a rack, so as to stretch my
body, as if it were my life, my myopic medics.”

He has patched together benign tonics before, addressed
his limited four dimensions: hands, head, feet, and tongue.
But Henry being Henry picks up on the rhetoric,

finds more appealing the language of farewell, “ado.”
He relishes the exaggerated comparisons, extended and
twisted analogies, more than drink.

“The many nuptials of my youth provided fewer pleasures,
the kiss light on the lips with all its soft sighs and moist breath.”
Henry first thinks of couples, that trope.

“How shy and resistant, yet flattering with speech, gesture,
and rounded look, they partake of each other, filled to the brim.”
His now empty glass, “forlorn,” he thinks.

Another correspondence occurs to him, the planetary,
for the morning sun brings a crystal polish to the table and tray.
“I might serve the syrup of the gods here.”

He had seen in his mind’s eye a bright comet last night
foretelling of spirit-drenched events, a potent image he thought
picked from his liquid-inspired brain.

“What mystic sludge marked me then with a perfect madness,
excited my frost-bound blood? The swans at Coole must have
drunk of this tarn before they honked.”

But Henry’s ruffled embellishments begin to fray, the air
distills to a thin vapor around him. “My frame, hands on knees,
sags as the bewitching beauties depart each dawn.”

He knows he must denounce the very taste, the froth turned
glow. “Let others sip freely, for the lamp with shade on my desk
now smells of dust and ordinary candlewax.”

Lawrence Wayne Markert is University Professor and Professor of English Emeritus at Hollins University and a former Fulbright Scholar. His poetry has appeared in various literary journals and collections, and, most recently, in a chapbook titled The Widow Poems. He is also the author of The Bloomsbury Group: A Reference Guide and Arthur Symons: Critic of the Seven Arts . His work previously appeared in The Fortnightly, here.

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