Ars conjectandi, Certain restrictions apply, Feature film & Without a lyre
[ poetry - august 12 ]
Festschrift for my father on his seventieth birthday
Invito patre sidera verso. (Jakob Bernoulli)
Halfway up the stairway's supple curve,
Jakob turned and saw his father's stare,
baffled and angry, pursuing his every step.
Those pebble eyes had bought and sold so much;
the family business deftly hovered in
that searching face. It wanted now to sell him
into the ministry, the goal of all
his parents' yearnings, which had risen before
the cold, indifferent sun on the vacant morning
of this petulant child's guileless birth.
"Kepler," Jakob said, "made mathematics
into honest money by measuring
the volumes of many different casks of wine
to make the vintners fair. All raffish tipplers
and fine-tongued connoisseurs owe him their thanks."
He did not mention Johannes' true vocation:
the mastery of planetary motion
through equal areas in equal times.
Just so would Jakob study the visible stars,
not the vagaries of haunted heavens.
His hand was damp against the banister.
He heard his father's every breath and felt
his own fall into step with it. That gaze
fixed him as if he were a star, despite
the unbent certainty of his defiance.
His feet grew heavy; his mind began to follow
invisible ellipses beneath the pressure
of that steady eye. And there they stood
until his father turned away without a word
and left his son to dry his sweating palms.
His thoughts described a logarithmic spiral,
the selfsame curve of infinite renewal
he was later to define, and desire
for his gravestone, the pattern followed by
the growth of many snail and mollusk shells.
Inside his opaque vertigo, his eyes
pursued the bending horns of the gazelle,
the phyllotaxis of the cones of spruce
and pine, the distribution of the seeds
in flowers. The order of the leaves was his.
He turned to climb the stairs, but stopped. His fingers
fumbled damply at the back of his neck
to undo his fine-linked golden necklace.
One end in each emboldened hand, it formed
another curve he one day would explore,
the catenary of suspended chains.
He swung it gently back and forth and took
one step, then more, on that familiar stair,
the metal pressing deep into the skin
of his still-moist thumbs and index fingers.
The biblical Joseph ascended the seventy stairs
of Pharaoh's throne and spoke a different tongue
at every step, all languages unknown
to that supplicant before. And half
way up, he stopped and laughed, his outrageous joy
contagious to the Pharaoh. Just so did Jakob
ascend, hands outstretched, the necklace swinging,
each step more strange and certain, each to him
like Joseph's wondrous words and laughter, each
anticipating theorems yet unproven.
Halfway up the stairs, I turned to say
that I would not pursue Bernoulli with you;
that prosody, not probability,
would be my study. Did you turn away?
You laughed, but not, at first, contagiously.
I was the one who turned without a word.
But now I've found my seventy tongues in lines
mastering imaginary motion
and equal areas in equal verses
that spiral ever on, like Jakob's joy.
certain restrictions apply
A ninety-nine dollar night
flight flew right through to Newark
from Oakland over mountains, man,
just o-o-over amber, over the bland land
of the frequent flyers, three by three
in double rows (a row's a row's a row),
sleeping, unsleeping, creeping
down the aisle in the air to there,
where they could go, go, go, and seeing
some B-movie somebody else chose.
Blood rushed to shoeless feet, hush hush,
there in the wary, weary air; there's a there
there, but not in Newark airport, sport,
never heaven, least of all with a seven
hour layover between days and beds,
no good for a bloodless head, but but but I read,
ho ho, ho ho, The Jo-, The Jo-, The Joke
straight through, woo woo, a man of taste
wearing shoes again with nothing to do
but go back and forth between café and head.
Oh I spoke, I spoke with the sighing nighttime
sense of being saved, another few cents
for another cup, I spoke to stave off dreams
between the laughing chapters, chatted with other chaps
coughing, coffeeing, peeing, through the waves
of each cup's stuttering rush, politely shuffling
the cards of Russian politics, then still so-so-
Soviet, no sign of ruin, why, Reagan sighed,
that old shoo-in, playing Gorbi's bluff
with cool ideas he cribbed from Luke,
space opera, Star Wars, ray guns
for that B-movie buff, he didn't know.
Or was it, as each wave subsided, the other way
around, another cuppa java, Jack, there
on the ground, waiting to go back in the air,
a bunch of pagans with all kinds of hunches
sitting there, unaware, spitting out hot air:
was it Reagan's bluff, and on and on we shuffled
to the sound of plain and raisin and pumpernickel
bagel crumbs brushed with a hush to the floor
in nineteen-hundred-and-eighty-five (hardly a
land is now alive, ain't no jive, Jack Robinson,
before you say it, smo-o-oke it).
Laughing at jokes between bites and swigs, man,
was all that kept eyes pried o-o-open far
enough to read on and discuss such stuff
between coughs and coffees and pees and close
the book when the dawn's early sun
looked over the horizon for fun
and saw all the way across the lost-
looking tarmac, Jack, a bunch of dazed,
unslept guys with caffeine eyes each rise
to beseech their respective connections.
Away they flew, right through from there
to there, two weary, wary days before Xmas,
going or coming home, they didn't know,
borne into the friendly, French-fried, spacey skies
after that long laughing pause to fly to all
the compass points that join Newark to
Santa Claus to anywhere but O-, but Oakland,
coming with toys for the good little boys
who'd stayed awake all night to make
the flight to where their stockings hung.
Ho, ho, ho, man, and I, oh I, oh I,
oh why, I flew to Buffalo, rough stuff,
solitaire, a whole 'nother there without a there,
to catch a bus to go to Toronto,
I didn't know, but that's another story, man,
another jo-, another jo-, another joke,
another ninety-nine-dollar night
in Newark airport, sport, on the way to O-,
on the way to Oakland, pal, and Palo
Alto-o-o-o, there, there, there there.
Last night, I dreamed another feature film.
Its celluloid has faded and decayed
so only disconnected scenes remain,
hand-held pans of landscapes and grainy stills
of minor characters with trademark smiles
displaced by grimaces. The title song,
a bleat of pop my ear snatched up along
the river, or something sung by my son Miles,
never ceases to repeat its theme
without a variation. Every take
lost at the final cut is a phantom ache
that harries me beyond the final scene.
Like dialogue that never will be heard,
such memories turn out to be more mine,
an often varied tale, than your last words
at leaving, spoken like well-practiced lines.
Without a lyre
for Brigitte Oleschinski
Every book contains broken traces
of each of its readers, remembering remnants beached,
still breathing, between Scylla and Charybdis.
But now I'm on the Argo as Orphea
challenges the sirens without a lyre,
her spoken words her only instrument.