Maxwell Bodenheim

1892 - 1954 / Mississippi / United States


Pretend that night is grandiose,
That stars win graves in every ditch;
Pretend that moon-light is verbose
And affable, like some grand-mère,
And men will say that your despair
Seduces luminous conceits,
Or call you an anaemic fool
Who stuffs himself with curdled sweets.
Thus sentenced to obscurity,
You can find more turbulent lips
And spaciously retreat from men
Immersed in pedestals and whips.
Amusedly, you can say that stars
Are wizened jests on every ditch;
That moon-light is a trick that jars
Your mind intent on other minds.
Having agreed upon your station,
Men will no longer heed your words,
And with a galloping elation
You can contradict yourself in peace.
The wary perturbations of convinced
And secretly disdainful men are mild
And deftly tepid to the ears of one
Who entertains a careless, ungloved child.
Above the sprightly idleness of plates
Men sit and feign industrious respect,
With eye-brows often slightly ill at ease-
Cats in an argument are more erect.
At last the tactful lustres of farewells
Are traded: each man strolls off and forgets
The other - not a frill is disarranged.
The tension dexterously avoids regrets.
Two men have unveiled carved finalities
And made apologies for the event,
With voices well-acquainted with a task
Devoid of nakedness and ornament.
And each man might have murmured, 'Yes, I know
What you will say and what I shall repay,'
And each man might have watched the other man
Smile helplessly into his mutton-pie.
This farcical clock is copying
A wood-chopper with nimble poise,
While Time, with still and fluid strides,
Perplexedly listens to the noise.
The room that holds this joke is filled
With the relaxed complacencies
Of poets hiding from themselves
With measured trivialities.
But one among them walks about
And watches with embarrassed eyes.
The others do not speak to him:
His nudeness is a tight disguise.
This fool is anxious to display
Interrogations of his mind
To poets who at work and play
Are isolated from their kind.
Reluctantly he finds his room,
Sits on the floor, with legs tucked in,
And grins up at another clock
Aloofly measuring its din.
When you are tired of ogling moltenly,
Your undertones explosively confess.
A shop-girl coughing over her cigarette
Expresses the burlesque of your distress.
Take your cocaine. It leaves a blistering stain,
But phantom diamonds are immune from greed.
You pluck them from the buttons of your vest,
Wildly apologising for your need.
Take more. Redress the thinness of your neck
With diamonds; entertain them with your breast;
Cajole them on the floor with fingertips
That cannot pause, dipped in a demon's zest.
If you had not relented to a man
Who meddled with your face and stole your clothes,
Your shrill creative pleasures might be still
Incarcerated in the usual pose.
Hysteria shot its fist against your face
One day, and left the blood-spot of your mouth,
But when the morning strikes you there will be
More than hysteria in your answering shout.
Laughter is a skeleton's applause:
Grief sells increase to sterility:
Happiness protects its subtle flaws.
These three significances make
The part of you that men can see,
As you recline upon this bed,
Your hand defending one bare knee,
Your shoulders trapped upon the quilt.
But under the warm sophistry
That turns your flesh, another form
Abstractly bellicose and free
Attacks the answer of your blood.
Freedom is the lowest note
Of slavery, and slavery
The lowest freedom- you can feel
The charm of your servility.
True, you were once a chamber-maid
Who won a thief and spoke of grief,
And now your limbs have numbly strayed.
Are these not harmless travesties?
Snobs have pockets into which
They crowd too many trinkets.
You feel this, talking to the rich
And lightly bulging mountebank.
Untie the knots that close your bag
And tempt him with a creed or need.
Be as loquacious as a hag
Who loves the details of her wares.
There is a relish when you speak
To one who cannot understand:
You celebrate upon a peak
And prod his helpless effigy.
This is an unimportant game
To men evading holidays,
But introspection becomes tame
Unless it compliments itself.
The lightly bulging mountebank
Is but an interval in which
You take your garments off and thank
The privacy that he bestows.
Like other men you fly from adjectives.
The plain terseness that lives in verbs and nouns
Creates a panorama where you know
That men are not a cloud of romping clowns.
You greet the wideness of eternal curves
Where beauty, death and silence give their height
To those rare men who do not play with thought.
But this fruit-peddler decorates his fright
And polishes his peaches and his grapes
Insanely. If his mercenary hopes
Were bolder he would be a nimble poet.
Slight in her bridal gown, his mind elopes
With adjectives that find her incomplete:
Your mind is hard and massively parades
Across the earth with Homer and Villon.
Since each of you with common sense evades
Monotony, I join you and refuse
To call you dwarf or giant. Let the fools
Who criticise you bind you with these names
And separate your dead bones with their rules!
Dead men sit down beside the telephones
Within your brain and carefully relate
Decisions and discretions of the past,
Convinced that they will not deteriorate.
But you have not their certainty: you try
A question now and then that cautiously
Assaults their whispered indolence until
Their sharp words once more force you to agree.
Then you insist that certain living men
Whose tones are half-discreet may be allowed
To greet their masters through the telephones,
Provided that their words are not too loud.
The new men imperceptibly entice
Their elders, and a compromise is made,
Both sides discovering that two or three
Excluded men must be correctly flayed.
And so the matter ends; conservative
And radical revise their family-tree,
While you report this happening with relief
To liberals and victorious cups of tea.
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