Maxwell Bodenheim

1892 - 1954 / Mississippi / United States

Simple Account Of A Poet's Life

In 1892
When literature and art in America
Presented a mildewed but decorous mien,
He was born.
During the first months of his life
His senses had not yet learned to endure
The majestic babble of old sterilities.
The vacuum of his brain
Felt a noisy thinness outside,
Which it could not hear or see,
And gave it the heavier substance
Of yells that were really creation
Fighting its way to form.
(When babies shriek they seek
Power in thought and action.
Life objects to their intent
And forces their voices to repent.)
At the age of four he lived inwardly,
With enormous shapeless emotions
Taking his limbs, like waves.
His mind was vapour censured
By an occasional protest
That mumbled and could not be heard.
People to him were headless figures-
Bodies surmounted by voices
That tickled like feathers, or struck like rocks.
Missiles thrown from moving mountain-tops
And leaving only resentment at their touch.
At ten the voices receded
To invisible meanings
That toyed with flesh-protected secrets of faces.
The voices made promises
Which the faces continually evaded,
And often the voices in vengeance
Changed a lip or an eye-brow
To repeat their neglected demands.
When swung to him the voices
Were insolent enigmas,
Tripping him as he stood
Midway between fright and indifference.
He sometimes tittered tranquilly
At the obvious absurdity of this.
His rages were false and sprang
From aloof thoughts chanting over their chains.
The immediate cause of each rage
Merely opened a door
Upon this changeless inner condition.
That species of intoxicated thought
Which men describe as emotion
Used its merriment to blind his eye-sight.
But anger, whose real roots are in the mind,
Tendered him times of hot perception.
He noticed that children held flexible flesh
That wisely sought a variety of patterns-
Flesh intent upon correcting
Its closeted effect-
While older people enticed their flesh
Into erect and formal lies
Repeated until their patience died
And they tried an unpracticed rebellion.
This was a formless revelation,
Unattended by words
But throwing its indistinct contrast
Over his broad one-colored thought.
At sixteen he employed words
To flay the contrast into shapes.
At seventeen he decided
To emulate the gay wisdom of children's flesh.
He deliberately borrowed whiskey
To wipe away the lessons of older people
Lest they intrude their sterility
Upon his plotting exuberance.
He placed his hands on women,
Gently, boldly, as one
Experimenting with a piano.
He stole money, begged on street-corners,
And answered people with an actual knife
Merely to give his thoughts and emotions
A changing reason for existence.
Moderation seemed to him
A figure half asleep and half awake
And mutilating the truth of each condition.
At twenty-four his flesh became tired,
And to amuse the weariness
His hands wrote poetry.
He had done this before,
But only as a gleeful reprimand
To the speed of his limbs.
Now he wrote with the motives of one
Whose flesh is passing into less visible manners.
At times he returned to more concrete motions,
To befriend the handmaiden of his flesh,
But gradually he longed
For the complete secrecy of written creation,
Enjoying the novelty of a hiding-place.
In 1962
He died with a grin at the fact
That literature and art in America
Were still presenting a mildewed, decorous mien.
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