By HOYT ROGERS.
AFTER THE FILM about some people I might’ve met, the evening has finally cleared. Breakable as glass, I walk around the neighborhood, careful to avoid being seen: one stray look might shatter me. I’ve never felt lonely, in my hours without order, without regrets. But after the poems and novels and plays, I realize again: I have a life, I also have a life. It can never be deserved or explained away. It is here, more intractably than any thread of meaning, any spark of clarity.
Each of my friendships, each of my loves is a stone in that riverbed of solitude. Not a question of need, but of the absolutely singular: the way I hold you by your shoulders, rock you back and forth until you smile. That happens only once; once, in this moment we can never call our own. True or false? Joking, you batter words till they’re black and blue. I dip my hand into the water, and the water overflows. You have a life, you also have a life.
To me, yours seems more readable: it lies before me like a tabletop, a simple map spread out by you. Here I can relive you as an axis far from suffering, a long vacation within the world. No quotient for that art has yet been found, though the parallels are endless. The whiteness of the shore: an unencumbered page. Palms that rave in a gust, wild with the glitter of their fronds. But then they stop, as if to listen, scarcely tethered by their roots.
Or again, an eclipse: a pyramid of twilight, weightlessly descending from a distance we misconceive. As day subsides, kingbirds twitter drowsily, bewildered by their laws. Minutes later, the sun will surprise them. The fact isn’t theirs, nor is it ours. As we hear them, we are equally unaware… Forget about returning where you were. In these lines as they unroll is the passing of our lives, which can’t be said in so many words—or in so few.
I remember, as if it were now. After we’d made love you asked, “What is ‘paraiso’?” “Paradise,” I answered. The shifting stairs lose track of all our differences. We shed them like breaths; and now, like a single breath. The flesh we molded together steps from the mirror—a presence again, a survival. Cliffs reflect from the lake, more solid in water than in air, brighter at sunset than at noon. Above them, the cumulus clouds issue a summons here below.
They shine with a polish more durable than rock—without a destiny. An iguana sidles by on a tongue of silver sand, glimpsed then gone forever; another one—identical—follows seconds after. All we see is the view from where we stand. Our changes occur all at once. The opening closes in on us, the closing opens out of us. “I” and “love” and “you” make sense for a moment: a stitch in time, a bird in hand—proverbs that keep us alive.
Again, the weather lifts. Most of this remains unsaid, eroding in a wake of afterthoughts, our daily bread that crumbles hour by hour. Nameless tendrils have rehearsed our cues before: melding streams, we wind through meadows of pliant grass. Night awakens our flow through tousled banks, stills the blood to even measures in our veins. Soundlessly, our syllables persist, a glimmer at the confines of our sleep. We live where only dreams start and stir…
All the ancient children are knowable in you, all their sly, cruel, harmless little games. Their bruises reappear on your face like the markings on a moth; your eyebrows and your hairline, the soft golden down around your mouth, brush by me in the dark. Time slows to a halt… I have to wonder why we’ve come this close. For you, every question is an answer. Here is the night, not of our making. Here is the moon. Here are our bodies, the shadows of light.
Far afield, only wind—the rise and sag of entryways. As if the key to love were this: I mean nothing to you, and you mean nothing to me.
The river crawls to a standstill, choked by its own reflections. The current is held back like a breath—an interval our absence slowly fills.
Dreams give way to other plots, other tapestries. The backtalk of palmchats knits a temporary thatch, a shelter for desire.
We surface like eyeless bronzes—warm to the touch… We taunt each other like granite cliffs, both of us unreachable.
A stone as it happens to rest on another, cupped by the hand of day.
Houses crystallize, square as salt. Our gardens presuppose a mineral fact.
Weeds huddle drying in the sun, their arms lopped off by a gale. Stuck like needles in the sand, they prick the terrace with their shadows.
At noon, equal to themselves, they flatten into a parchment without a text.
This morning we swam with angelfish and tangs. They darted along the reef, time groping after them—but catching us.
As if I could heal you, you call out my name till I say yours. Our names will vary with the seasons, the weather…
Faint gleams along the floor… we tread on starlight, on colliding suns. Later they’ll mow us down with their outer edge, slicing us in two.
I no longer notice herons flying to roost, or clouds erasing the moon: wherever I am, is your face.
We write to each other for the last time—not knowing who we were, not caring. L-o-v-e: cross the letters out, and they’re less than a word.
Near or distant, we compose a single joy.
Freed by the breeze, love skips down the road, a torn-up page.
Valley of dust, hammered on an anvil of dryness; river stricken dumb.
Remote, the clouds uphold a phrase: the mind has also suffered…
The whirlwind whips our faces, driving us to thirst—to departure on a storm-bent sea.
Darkness cartwheels out of nowhere.
Rain slaps the sidewalk, unhinges the trees. Words skitter like lizards, swarm like flies. Thunderheads bury afternoon.
Leaves eddy toward the port, frantic refugees… disintegrate before they sail.
History: the landslide of our illusions.
A sunburst, top to bottom, splits the sky.
See-through mountains—green, then blue—shatter on the waves.
This is the dream I will remember all my life; the dream that never returned, but to which I always return.
It begins as a nightmare, a desperate chase through alleyways in a derelict city, past block after block of dingy concrete and brick. He pursues me with the coolness and skill of a sure-footed predator, closing in on his prey. Why he wants to murder me, I can’t conceive: I only know his powerful tread brings him nearer with every bound, and that time is running out. Though I try to cry for help, my shouts are stifled before they can form. No one could help me now, in any case; no one would dare oppose that savage force, the athletic spring forward of the tiger to the kill.
At last, we emerge on a wide, asphalted square—a parking lot, deserted long ago. Sheer walls hedge it in on every side; but a hundred feet away I glimpse an entryway, my only hope of escape. My lungs are bursting from the race; my whole body throbs with pain. In a final rush of energy, I bolt for the door and fling it back in his face. Exhausted, I lunge up the stairs, even though I know there’s no point: I’m no longer running toward freedom, but toward death. We climb for what seems like an hour. The rhythm of our shoes, clanging on metal steps, resounds in the stairwell of scarred cement.
We reach the top. Now he’s so close I feel his breath on the nape of my neck; his respiration is even, self-assured. I scramble to the edge of the roof: but here there’s no way out, unless by falling to the pavement far below. Leaning against a low brick wall, I turn to face him, paralyzed by fear. I’ll reason with him now, I’ll convince him there’s no purpose in destroying me. Wildly I cling to these final absurdities—though looking into his eyes, I readily grasp the uselessness of words. His eyes are the palest of blues, unblinking and expressionless, opaque and inhuman as a shark’s. His black, matted hair is in a style oddly antique, from decades ago; it’s impossible to guess his age, whether sixteen or forty-six. Besides the blankness of his stare, what strikes me most is his ease in chasing me down. His ashen skin betrays no sign of exertion: no flush on his cheeks, no trace of the sweat in which I’m drenched. He stands before me as if he’s merely been waiting—tranquilly, patiently waiting for me to come. Now he holds a revolver which at some point, in the way of dreams, has materialized from nowhere. It’s the only bridge between us. He holds it perfectly still in his forceful, steady hand, resting the tip of the barrel against my chest.
This is the part of the dream to which I constantly return. I look at you forever, gazing straight into your eyes. You’re near, very near, but endlessly remote, embedded in a madness as immovable as rock. It could never be your fault, as it could never be the fault of the streets or the walls, the sunlight or the air, that I must die at such and such an hour, in such and such a place. Though you can’t see me as I am, I see you plainly: merciless, immobile and serene, a marauder in the sea poised to strike, an angel with your sword unsheathed, pausing before you cleave the spectacle of time. The same serenity begins to settle over me, enfold me in its silence more and more. I’m floating gently upward through the clearing well of sleep. The end of what I thought of as myself is unavoidable—is close with the closeness of a love. Nor could I ask for any change, in this or any passage of my dream. I will not wake as from a nightmare, just at the moment of dying; I will live my death, live it to the fullest, emerging into the dawn of an annihilated day.
You pull the trigger now. The bullet is slow to enter my chest, slow to part the waters of my blood. They stand on either side, a canyon of red, a fathomless trench in an ocean teeming with life, the frenzy of reproduction, hidden couplings, the primal beginnings of the earth. Slowly the bullet explodes and splinters my bones one by one, my chest pitches and heaves like a sinking ship, my ribs cave slowly inward, rolling down and back in a long, prickly surge, my blood gushes out in a salty exhalation, warm and red, flowering deeply rooted from my belly to my mouth, spilling from my lips and running in waves toward the calm unflinching eyes of the horizon, pale and blue, retreating to the end of all that is: the vibrating curve of the possible, impossible. Blood of my body, which is given up for you. And I know in this moment, which will last as long as I live, that there is only again and again the ritual of death, the flood of desire in willing sacrifice, the lover’s cruelty, the sightless power that rules the stars, slowly, slowly wrenching us out of ourselves to the word forever unspoken, beyond our being, the blissful radiance of nothingness, the final threshold of unanswered prayer.
The clash of words, the rain and thunder of the storm, the jagged strokes of rage were all interior: a cry of the heart, but only that.
The movement succeeding them now will seem like immobility—just as the clouds appear suspended in the air, when the air is as still as the light.
We are breathing it, then; the air has lightened us, too. The day becomes so calm that we forget about our aims; the fatigue of the journey flows away in the thin transparence of the world.
Do not break it, we say. The claims of love lose their force as soon as we stop thinking of events and even of intentions as directed toward ourselves.
We protest, we refuse, until we learn that leaving the circle is the same as giving in to it. Above our hatred and revolt, the clouds advance across the sky in their predetermined order, their absorption in the parable—which if we follow it, will save us.
Predestination is the fire’s name for grace: the disguises from the attic we wore once like two thieves will never deceive us again.
Noon shoots from the hip, savage and blind. The slanting sun is also merciless, though truer to the shape of things as they are.
The afternoon has ebbed to the second line of trees. Because we watch within the shadows, we can see.
The heat of love is like a body we have added to our own: moist against the mirror, it hovers on the air. World and not of this world, neither place nor event. This clearing has no center, it ripples through the woods tree by tree. The timberline unravels, the forest merges upward with the cliffs; above them an island of snow juts through an ocean of mist.
Still, it is only a mask over mild, imperturbable eyes: you enfold our farthest horizon. Kindly, you cock your head to one side, refulgent as the harvest moon. Your touch is in the residue of things, “our lives and our loves”; the chance design, flitting for a second on the screen; the accidents, the plan; the worn-out clothes; the knuckles, the elbows, the spine.
Torpor seeps from their wait at the edge of day, the feathers of owls, the trillion wings of the insects, freighted with dew. Water meanders humbly in the wounds we’ve gashed on earth, as if we could claim them for our own. How to say—not of fire nor of cloud, a pillar of solace branches and mounts, roofing the nearness of night with its murmurous leaves.
If love is all you want, lean down, come here. Our unions enact the blood, like banners that stream, billow, and fall in a pulsing wind. Though all this time, our reflections hang suspended on the wall, to capture every movement and redeem; and will become us in the end, gravely and wryly amused.
A Sudden Squall
A sudden squall sweeps our bodies overboard. They flash in the lightning like a testament—shards of a creed we no longer believe.
Our seeing changes us, but cannot change the world: that is the paradox of grace.
Together or alone, we witness our shipwreck—our unburdening. The mast wrenches forward; its riggings twist like tendons on the reef.
Beyond the ruin of the will, the irreducible is faceless—bound and unbound. Beginning to end, it is not ours. It governs with the blindered stars, ablaze at the helm of night, the hooded moon that weaves the tides.
Removed from us… removed with us.
The memory grows more distant… But I know I’m on a beach far to the north, a fin of the fish-shaped island. I remember stripping off my clothes and plunging into the surf—the brutal heartbeat of the sea.
I swim as fast as I can without missing a stroke. The crest of each wave tilts me high into the air: I’m hurtled to one side, vaulted into weightlessness.
The ocean tumbles in on every swell, the life of all creatures rolling with me in the surge, the blankness of the foam leaping up, final every time, final.
HOYT ROGERS is a writer and translator; born in North America, he has spent most of his life in Latin America and Europe. He was educated at Columbia, the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Oxford, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. He is also the author of a chapbook of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish; he has published dozens of translations, including the Selected Poems of Borges and various books by Bonnefoy and du Bouchet. In the spring of 2020, he contributed four sections to Carcanet’s reader of Bonnefoy’s Prose; also in 2020, Bitter Oleander published Outside, his second anthology of André du Bouchet’s writings. His translation of Bonnefoy’s Rome, 1630: The Horizon of the Early Baroque (Seagull Books), was awarded the French-American Foundation Translation Prize in 2021. Among his forthcoming works are the novel Sailing to Noon (Spuyten Duyvil), a translation of Bonnefoy’s The Wandering Life (Seagull Books), and the poetry collection Thresholds (Madhat Press), which will contain the seven poems printed above. His webpage is here.