Blesok no. 31, March-April, 2003

Self Portrait at Sunrise

Jim McGarrah


”She paints angels fairly well,” my friend said, ignoring
the small lens through each black eye painted clear enough
for the light outside to enter and show me

what I almost missed here in Ljubljana with its statues
of dead Romans that stands guard at GAP boutiques,
with its blue-haired students staring westward and waiting

for a hero who moves time from past to future with no damage
to the present, with its old stones and new poets that drink
Union beer and write the city's flight from centuries of blood

on the backs of bar napkins, with its Russian scars that never slowed
the swirl of this artist's brush from traveling where it wanted
when it needed to go there. “Her name is Metka”, said my friend.

”She paints angels while her husband writes his demons into books.”
I've never seen her but I spent the day inside her, injecting
my memories like oil-based colors onto her canvas faces -

the blond angel who wrapped her legs around my waist
while her sister shot me full of coke and cried
because I came before she had the strength to climb on,

the blind angel who dropped a hit of mescaline in a park, dancing
while Duane Allman played the blues, while she saw
a rainbow in the sky behind her frozen eyes, and that one freckled

angel with her red hair whose skin was so soft that I forget the pieces
of my best friend lying in the yellow mud of Khe Sahn and the stare
of a child who sat beside a dead dog, waiting for a war to end.

I've lived a death suspended with angels just like yours Metka,
framed by the sterile light in some small gallery on some narrow
street, the air aching between their eyes and mine.

Self Portrait at Sunrise

The woman at the café table across from mine scrubs
purple jelly from her boy’s face. A blush rises
in its place and stains his skin. Monet saw daybreak
as the time without time when he painted
Impression: Sunrise, skimming and dipping
the brush through morning fog, fixing the movement
of light between the sun and a small skiff, touching
the silence of substance in the heart of form. Me?
I can’t paint, not this morning or any other. Still,
when the boy’s tears begin, days arc from my mind, flow
over the fan-shaped, cobbled square, and fade
into the brown labyrinth of Sienna, Italy, each day circled
by orange minutes that fracture into blue hours.
I’ve spent my life borrowing time from corpses.
“A picaresque hero,” my friend Leslie says, “Who
lives as if his own breath is an unsolved mystery.”
She’s right. In this place, my self becomes undone
and leaves a myth like a hundred lire tip
for some waiter to sneer at. The boy sobs
as he lays his head on his mother’s shoulder,
and so does she, reminding me that things I’ve always
been certain of – a fish cooked in milk is poison,
Deena didn’t mean to swallow
my gum the first time we kissed,
love chatters like false teeth in cold water,
that shrapnel killed God, not Nietzsche,
thoughts as familiar and foreign
as the bullet fragments in my left leg –
don’t stop the myth from crying. It comforts me,
is taller, more handsome, and the language
it speaks is less scarred. Years ago it saved
Bobby Wolfe from stepping on a land mine, pulled
the rifle barrel away from Rick’s chin before he jerked
his own trigger, and never slit a Vietnamese throat
for refusing chu hoi in the jungle. The myth
has an appetite that knows no limits, never feels
alone in rooms full of people, writes poems that never
ask why a man dies and the one beside him lives
through the same explosion of the mortar shell
every day for ten thousand nine hundred and fifty days,
is legendary in its liaisons with single women
and forgetful of failed marriages. It prophecies,
walking into the wilderness barefoot and bone-tired
in search of mystic stones. It is an angel
who brings the message to deaf generations,
a dragon that breathes the fire of empty wine kegs
into my mouth, a lover who dances naked
into the wild Tuscan night and ends up quietly watching
a boy and his mother share grape jelly with their tears.

Where Were You When I Needed You, Jack Kerouac

Above me the stars tremble
like quartz flakes in a candle-lit cave
and die. My mind is silent
when it dreams, unless
it swallows four tabs of No-Doz
with mescaline, then it screams
in colors while the Oldsmobile
sheds highway
like a blue snake escapes
old skin and begins again.
Turning right, turning left, turning
right into a labyrinth of tequila
and adobe homes, I’m switchbacked
by Pemex stations, cantinas, and mountains
that rise beside me in the salmon colored
smog of dawn. The more I learn
of language, the less I know of life
and loss. The asphalt melts
into a pearl beach, a ribbon of jet set
stores, juke joints, a KFC, and forlorn
taco stands. Acapulco, Mexico sings
a brown Coltrane song of concrete and sand,
discordance with purpose, clarity
in confusion. Cruise ship klaxons and car
horns blow the deguelo of an all-night
mariachi band and produce markets of tanned
flesh call me toward Roceria.
Her tongue pours over my mind
like warm Kama Sutra oil and the quickening
of sunlight traps me in my shadow.

That old black magic has me in its spell
That old black magic that you weave so well

J’ai L’ai rackets and bullfight posters,
Federales so young they still laugh,
grapefruits, bananas, mangoes, and grapes,
the smell of chili powder tied
in humid chords of air with café con leche
and cow dung, everything is real
including the nothing that hangs
on the tourist board outside Sandborn’s diner
where I park the car.
I’ve driven all these miles and years for a note
from her and found this posted on the sterile cork:
“Michael call home.”
“SWF needs ride to Baja – will party.”
“Lost wallet found – empty.”
“For sale, moped – slightly bent frame.”

I can’t dance don’t ask me.

What makes a single kiss
final one day and the next day leaves you feeling
as if the stove’s left on and the whole meal’s burning?
Roceria once told me that only Jack
Kerouac knew the secret of life and I said,
“What? Gallo Port wine in a glass of despair?”
She said, “All humans are really sharks,” and climbed
aboard a crowded bus with her back to me,
her hair braided and swaying, a black metronome
of promise that has clicked through these past
years of memory and brought me back
to the Mexican beach where we met.
She must be fat by now with four kids
and an occasional black eye from her husband
as a badge of love. I must be crazy, still searching
for a goddess who was never more than human
and alone on a school holiday. I must be
that shark of Jack’s, eating everything around me
and swimming constantly, just to stay alive.


For a long time
I’ve wanted to write
a poem describing
those last few days
my mother spent alive
in some small place
that I could only get to
behind the black holes
in her eyes,
beyond the usual
metaphors for dying.
Instead, I’m sitting
in the Hilltop Tavern,
eating lunch, notebook open
and stained with gravy,
staring down a pile
of scooped and mashed potatoes
with a single word
on my mind – Amber.
No matter how many ways
I pull, stretch, bend, and twist
this word, I can’t make it fit
into a sentence with death.
Amber is the color
of the cold beer the waitress
places on my table, the kind
mom said I drank
too often before cocktail hour.
Butterscotch candy tasted amber
when I was four years old
and choking on it. She
snatched me from the kitchen
floor, held me by my legs,
and slapped my back hard,
returning the life she had
already given. The tiger lilies
in the last of her small garden,
most beautiful right before they die,
smell amber after the sun
has opened and fed them
the amber source of that death,
like the tiny mosquito trapped,
a small black spot with legs
and blood and wings, frozen for eons
in prehistoric tree sap called amber.

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