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Not Whose Pharynx Was Bad

February 12, 2014

The Well Dressed Man With A Beard by Wallace Stevens

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.


I was thinking ahead a little — as you do, even though you know it will not work, the present when it comes will assert itself beyond anticipation — and had a thought of trying the old Thirteen Ways stunt for Day 13: ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Restivo.’ Tired, I know, and maybe redundant, as by that time thirteen ways will have already been given, but I thought enough of the idea to consult the source text. So I pulled down my Library of America Collected Stevens, looking like a bible with its too-thin pages and a ribbon for holding your place when you get up to sermonize good people into better ones with a few select verses, and like a bible dusty with disuse. After scanning ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ I kept on browsing through the pages. What a revelation of memory I had! It was like rediscovering a whole unused wing of the mansion of my mind, The Stevens Wing, which I had not stepped foot in for years, or at least I had not gone very far into it or spent more than a moment there. I had almost forgotten it existed. And I was surprised by how extensive it was and how fully furnished by memory, because it is not as as if I had ever gotten to know Stevens all that well. Though I could remember lying drunk at the foot of a staircase after a dinner party, yelling out some lines from ‘Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction’ that I had committed to memory: “Phoebus is dead, ephebe…” And once I placed, on the hood of the car belonging to a girl who was willing to speak to me and not unlovely, so that she would find it there after a long day’s work in her studio, an old bottle of colored glass that I had found alongside some back road in the Blue Ridge, into which I stuck a fallen leaf of sycamore and a bit of paper inscribed with a stanza of Stevens, apropos of nothing. It was the Nineties, before Youtube, before iPods, when a cellphone was an extravagance and maybe an affectation. So we were all soaked in poetry then. Everywhere you went people were reciting poems, improvising blank verse, leaving rhymed couplets on answering machines. Even the President was seducing interns with quotes from Whitman.

But those memories were not so important. What was and is important is that the space is there, the space that Stevens creates in mind, a space of some beauty and possibility and power, a needed elsewhere, an enlargement. We may all, at times, be like the heirs of a great household now down on our luck. In our poverty we close off whole wings of our homestead, leave the garden to weeds and snakes, drain the pool, and stay camped out in the foyer, burning gilt furniture for heat. In hardship we forget the mansion we live in, we forget the largeness of our minds. Then we may need a reminder of our true estate. It is in this reminding that poets and artists earn their daily apples.

Anthony Restivo never meant to get anyone to read “The Well-Dressed Man With A Beard” or “Mountains Covered With Cats” or “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” or “Nuns Painting Water-Lilies” (which comes right after “The Desire to Make Love in a Pagoda” — the man was good with titles). He never meant to lead anyone back to to the cadence and gaze of Stevens, that particular mental weather.  But he had that effect, by the dislocation he caused, the perturbations he set in motion, the ricochet of art.  And so I credit him with this, the gift of Stevens. Which I now pass on to you, with a poem that you probably would not have read today if it were not here, where it would not be if Anthony Restivo were not at The Bridge.

My logic may not be impeccable, but the spirit is sound.

As for Day 8, I thought it might be a good day to lurk outside the gallery, for the chance to spy on visitors as they go through the ritual. But a night of  far too heavy drinking made bed rest seem a better option. I did pass by, twice, and Anthony was there, silently perturbing. 

–“Restivo Watch Day 8: Perturbations” (2/12/11, Darwin’s birthday)

I have been going through these emails one by one, reading them for what is, for the most part, the first time since they were sent, not turning to the next until the post for the last is done. When I glanced at Day 8 last night I winced hard, but reading it through I was relieved to find it much better than I expected, and have rewarded it with reproduction in full, out of gratitude for the reprieve from self-hatred and out of respect for its integrity. I should point out that the mention of apples is a reference to the only food Restivo brought with him into the Bridge, one apple for each day of confinement. The seeds of those apples are now stored in a glass vitrine in the inner vault of a masonic temple in Waynesboro, waiting for the right arrangement of stars and governments before they can be sent out as goodwill gifts to various deistically sacred spots around the world, to grow into Trees of Peace, reversing Adam’s curse. Or at least that is where they should be.

It is snowing here in Belmont. When I see the snow falling like this, I think of how the snow must be falling all over Virginia. Falling on every part of the dark central plain, the tree-thick hills, falling softly upon The Great Dismal Swamp and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark pits of mutinous coal miners. Yeah, probably falling on some lonely spot where a guy is buried, like maybe someone who wandered into a storefront art gallery at the wrong moment and met the business end of an ax, who then had to be wrapped in a carpet and spirited away (which words make it seem much easier going than it was, believe me) under cover of darkness to an unmarked grave, now thickly drifted with snow. I feel a little funny in the tummy as I hear the snow dropping quietly through the cosmos and quietly dropping, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

But I forget myself. That business with the intruder, the ax, and the ruined carpet didn’t happen until Day 14. We will get to that then.

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