The petty affairs of everyday life
Now so confound me from morning to night
I’ve lost touch with the impossible ones,
Proust, Milton, Cervantes, Dante et al.
I picture their names inscribed on a door
In gilt on sober seeming frosted glass
In a random bland office corridor,
Some place of Business which is nothing more.
Walking whether in my sleep or just out,
I knock unsuspecting at mid-morning.
“An odd coincidence,” I am thinking,
“Peculiar names with awkward redolence
For a list of lawyers or accountants
Or surveyors, designers, purveyors,
Or any other such bustlers about.”
A woman of indeterminate years,
Not quite cold but just a bit aloof,
Favors me with a smile from where she sits
Well-dressed behind her old fashioned desk.
“Why have you come? What can we do for you?”
We are thirty stories above the street
But with a view out a single window
Of the traffic down below, what flows there.
I look and I see characters in ink.
Letters and words and brightly colored birds.
Question marks with canes, dapper periods
Climbing into shining stretch limousines.
A moment’s vertigo. I look away.
Can things be so utterly different
From what I thought? What am I doing here?
Was I not just now down there on that street?
Are my hopes, too, no better than letters?
How shall I ever answer this lady’s
Unpresuming smile, unassuming style?
Why have I come? What can they do for me?
“I look lost only because I am lost.”
“Ah, yes,” she says, “Perhaps Mr. Dante…”
“Or Mr. Milton as far as that goes.
As I’m sure you know, he has been much vexed
With his eyes. Or even old Cervantes…”
I can’t be sure. I thought her face brightened
With something like relief, as if she were
On terms just a sly bit more intimate
With the one whose wind blew Quixote’s tilt.
One can never say. Wherever you go,
You receive anomalous impressions.
It is a simple fact of social life.
She went on looking at me. I looked back.
I couldn’t make up my mind. She sat still.
She seemed quite uninterested, as if
She had all the time in this world, then
Seven magical minutes in reserve.
I felt trapped. “Is Mr. H. Melville in?”
I asked. She sighed. “What have you done with him?”
I insisted. Her look now showed pity.
“Temperament,” she said. “Temperament.”
“He’s recently retired. He couldn’t choose
Between enticements of ice and fire.
The strain told over the years. He refused
All devices of the known harmony.”
“Hmm,” I thought, quite unbidden and afraid
To speak, “what he sought was darker, deeper
More free, more fierce, more bound, more determined.”
I corrected: “What his vanity sought…”
I objected: “Was there ever yet once
Discovery without our vanity?”
“Excuse me, sir,” she asked, as delicately
As one can put these days such a question,
“But are you unemployed and seeking here
A Situation?” “No, no, no,” I rushed
To reply, “In actual Fact, I am much,
Much too busy, too employed. I am a…”
But, strange to tell, right here my tongue failed me.
I can’t blame her for what followed. I would
Have thought there in her spot just what she did,
That I lied from shame mixed with bafflement.
“In that case,” she said, “I am empowered
To offer you both a seat and a sheet,
More exactly a scroll in which all connects
As all unrolls, white as snow, forever.”
She paused and cleared her throat, as if it
Cost her an effort to get out what came next.
“Compensation is irregular, but yet
Extravagant, if imaginary.”
She then went on: “Two other points only:
An extra benefit and economy
Is that the sheet becomes in time your shroud
Remaining unmarred despite your writing.
Also, since you are the only one here
All conditions of work are established
By you and you alone. I know our front
Is misleading, but ethics, alas, are not…”
You know the rest. She vanished into thin air.
Whether she was ever anything else
Despite her smile and Cervantes and all
My suspicions and desire, I can not tell.
What most I regret was she left no way
For me to protest I was late for work,
Had wandered in from curiosity
Alone and never ever meant to stay.
Enough such foolishness. (I’ve verified
Myself that poets are liars.) Shower.
Shave. Put on a suit. Time to hustle. You’ve
Sweetly forgotten Romance, your lost Chance.
One last question, or one past the last:
Is it possible to commute and, if
You can, where do you catch the train of thought?
Or is it that, wondering, you are caught?