Two Poems

August Kleinzahler

Epistle VIII

It’s simply untrue, Maecenas, that I do not care for nature.
A vile canard: I do, but not unadorned. I need architecture, streets,
and, not least, the human form, to frame, contrast and ornament.
A birch among a sea of birches does not enchant.
Rather, give me a birch, say, over there in the moonlight,
to the left of the belvedere, by itself or part of a small stand,
with ample space around to show off its charms to advantage.
Hey, now, spare me the decadent and jaded bit, old dear.
You like your little Claudia’s tits and ass all the better
when they’re showcased and partially hid by those ribbons of silk.

You see that storm headed our way from the south-west,
those dark clouds blowing in at an angle like an advance guard,
racing across the sky above the Medical Centre?
One needs those featureless blocks up there, I tell you,
to provide us with the theatre, the spectacle of it.
A front coming in over any old hill is no big deal,
only another patch of rotten weather.
But check out the values there, in the charcoal-bellied, mottled clouds
and how they blend or stand against the pale stone of the towers,
or how that stone fares in the storm’s particular light.
There’s more art in that than your insipid vineyards,
being driven half-mad by black flies, dodging rattlers.

Just watch how the eucalyptus twist and writhe in the wind,
tossing their crowns and branches like the dancers we saw – when was it? –
the other night. Nature takes its metaphors from city life,
and the other way round, each diminished when left to its own devices.
But of the two, it’s town, I say, proves better for poetic figures,
not least because nature is to be found in any city you look,
if only a pitiful avocado plant on a shelf somewhere,
dragging its rhizomes in a highball glass. Nature is always there,
indoors and out: a cat, a pigeon, a phthistic sweet gum,
not to mention the sky. A city has its very own weather,
altogether different from the nearby countryside.
And a moon is never so pretty as in a poisoned sky.
Besides, every city has a park, its own public greensward
with flowers and trees. How much of that does one really need?

There’s good reason why the folks you find up country tend to be dull.
It’s because they spend their days talking to animals, you know.
Listen, don’t get me wrong, I think all those songbirds are great:
the waxwing’s trill and rattle, the warbler’s hoarse little chuif.
Perfectly delicate, marvellous stuff, an overture before cocktails.
But the birdsong for me, right up there with Bartok and Monk,
is never straight up but part of a mix – footsteps, traffic,
fountains, shouts – that beggars Cage or Stockhausen.
Accident, contingency: it’s city nature, Maecenas, that’s for me,
not those endless manured fields, lowing cattle and whatever sheep do.
I’d like to once walk through those hills you go on about
without getting shit all over my shoes. You leave that part out.

Frankly, I’m nauseated by these bucolic rhapsodies
you and your kind indulge yourselves with and the public eats up.
Exactly who do you think you’re fooling? You’re city boys,
one and all, and with your apartments still in town, as well,
so you can slip back in for a secret shag and proper meal after.
You’re in town, Maecenas, more than you will comfortably admit.
C’mon, babe, it’s me, Augie-boy, friends since we were kids.
But hey, I’m not unamused at the rustic posture you affect,
the mud-splattered wellingtons, the coarse fabric of your pants.
Your conversation, the pleasures of your table, remain a delight,
at least so long as I can make it back to town that same night.
But please, I’m begging, Maecenas, show an old friend some respect:
spare me the update on feed prices, these lectures on the good life.

The Single Gentleman’s Chow Mein

The ants are very bad tonight
and the poison is old.
It’s the rains that bring them out,
you know. The first big storm
and there they are,
all over the counter and with their scouts
in advance, under the sink mat
and mason jars, probing
the way they do.

They have a smell, of that I’m certain,
a formic aroma,
that gathers round them in the heat
of their frenzy; I don’t know
but that they take it on outside
and bring it along in with them
on their journey through these walls.

But they do enjoy it, the bait.
It must still have some strength.
See how they cluster.
You need only stir the paste
with the end of a match
and the arsenic’s perfume blooms again.
They really do love it.
Watch how they feed.
Soon they will take the poison back
from where they have come,
back to their nest,
and destroy their queen.

I only ordered half a pound this time.
Most evenings – yes, most –
I would probably get a whole and leave some
for lunch next day,
perhaps a casserole.
But just tonight it was looking,
well, a trifle sad,
sitting there in its steam tray
for half an eternity.

You know how it tends to get slow
after the lunch trade.
The one batch in its grease for hours,
taking on that viscous, cloudy look,
almost jaundice under the fluorescent lights.
From time to time the homeless wander in
and bargain for some rice,
perhaps a spear of wilted broccoli.
And if it’s quiet, the Lotus will oblige.

But I do like it.
I add things on, you see:
vegetables, all manner of condiments
and treats, a shrimp
or scallop, or two, or three.
It’s very nice the way I do it,
and never the same way twice.

They know me down there,
at the Lotus, I mean,
and have done for years.
The girls behind the counter change.
Ah, ha, chow mein,
they say, smiling, when they know me.
It’s quite nice, really.
One of them, oh, three years back
was a stunner, terribly pretty;
taking a night course, as I recall.
You look like professor, no?
she said to me one day, a trifle severe
in delivery but very sweet.
I’ve never been with a Chinese.