Dwarf by Steven Henry Madoff

BOMB 41 Fall 1992
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992

As if the Dog Star and gaseous bodies, ice bodies,
Astral debris, orbs clocked by lunar rounds
Collapsed and were pulled through,
Bent on the dense impulse of time—like the weight
    of melancholy,
Like the impossibility to move one foot over one paving stone at
    four o’clock
As the light falls and the lights light at December’s end

I knew a woman once
Whom I had made love to
Who would cry afterward
Slowly and silently
As if relieved by guilt

She wouldn’t know, crying,
Why she did, but I think
It was something to do
With need being smaller
Or different than mine

She shook violently
What is it, I would ask
And she couldn’t answer
Four years without saying
Then she left, not saying

“It was the worst day of my life,” he said, before going to
    the commercial break.
“I double-bogeyed on the fourteenth and it crippled my
    round. I never made it back.”

And those were only part, as if …
But there’s no question here
Where a question is fact—Mister, got a quarter,
Tryin’ to get somethin’, Mister, got a quarter
The way the kneeling figures, hesitant, coughing after
    the sermon,
Find an answer in the prayer repeated.
They have taken the city, and no arbitrageur,
No director of directors can deliver this rhythm
From this utterance

No light shines from the eye of this man,
Leaning back against this wall, able to take
One step over one paving stone only,
Asking the fact with palm out, face bloated,
Really a ridiculous creature, ridiculous and yet
The enormous tragedy in the peasant’s bent shoulders,
Which hasn’t changed, neither this wall nor that age,
Delivering the same utterance in the syncopated rhythm

*   *   *

It is early morning. The man crosses the street.
He is barefoot, which is a fine detail,
Because it is summer but also a city street.
In his hand is a white mug, which exhales

A fine white breath to the linden leaves and bell
Of St. Marks Church and spire. Now he extends
The cup to this man, who is, at best, equivocal.
He knows Christ blesses charity. He has no friends.

And he accepts the small contract. Drinks.
His voice is soft and slow as air.
He wears a worn down coat, a hat, and thinks
That winter’s come. On top he wears

A plastic bag to break the wind. “Stu,”
The bearer says, “Stuart, how you doin’?”
But you know how that man’s doing, don’t you?
You who have turned or fallen, flown

On that wind, tumbled on this bench and cobblestones
As the squad car floods the churchyard’s iron gates
With light, now at three-thirty, then at five.

*   *   *

They are being sucked inward, as if, doomed at birth,
Their fates were written, scored in their foreheads,
As if the flesh, the bone instrument
Were signaled by a code to stop, Be Fruitful and Multiply,
But Truncate, the flesh telescoped to mock what growth is

So the figure stands to the far right,
The light from the window, the line and pigment
Of window and light, falling downward on the figure,
    complete and frontal,
Who is the whole weight of the picture—neither the Infanta
At the center nor the painter adjudicating sight and class—
But the attendant of the Court anchoring the triangulation
Of devotion, wealth and art. Look at her: genetic farce,
Costumed miniature royal, a pug’s face,
Grotesque made seemly, the miracle of God’s various eye—
And here, isn’t she magnificent, so concentrated
That a child’s fineness could be given the gravity of age
So that wisdom could be playful still and risk a thought of

Look how she, like the child queen,
Has two guardians by her, how one of hers
Lies, a shepherd at her feet, as if her heart
Were tithed lower on the Great Chain,
A mongrel blessed by freakish stature
As a sign, and her form attains
A strange, inverted royalty, a lodestone the court
Abides, shielding the child from the illnesses of stars …

*   *   *

Over the slate-blue sea from the Coast, not by plane with a
    long shadow on the
The way you saw it in old movies, but by satellites,
Great looping strings of them, glistening, armed with
So they conquered us with televisions, camcorders and fax
    machines. A chameleon’s
We leveled their cities, we gave them black rain.
It is not unjust. They give us our desires: greater throughout
So that each transmission is a higher order of control.

And you may still say it in English without any
(even if you have an impediment). The sentence, for
“Soon we’ll be the Old World,” instantly translated into
    sixteen languages,
    just by pushing the proper key!
There is no need for deeper learning nor for the
    achievement of culture.
Only for the purchase of the device and a little patience
    with the instruction manual.

“I was watching from the window. We had just taken off
Some ten minutes ago. The sea was slate blue, the waves
Collapsing, like the sound, I imagined, of a great crystal
The atrium of a mall falling inward with an aching, sudden

“It was all very flat, though, and silent.
I had such peace in the monotony. Over and over.
The waves and the flat light. Soon the movie would start.
Afterward, pictures of hotels in Tokyo, where you sleep
    in capsules.”

At the end it says:
“Warning: while its internal components are exposed,
Keep all foreign objects outside. Always have your system
Securely placed. Avoid foreign objects. Avoid extremes
Of heat and cold. With a little patience your program
Will be running without bad sectors or fear of viruses.”

*   *   *

And so the woman who was always known
Falls inward slightly too,
Gotten on with, the enormous tragedy
Yet here the waste that grew
Was time’s at last, and all that love had grown

Was taken back, grace and fidelity
Taken with swifter force,
So that here one step over one paving stone
Becomes the mile-long course
Unwanted and unforeseen, and no plea

To travel backward sounds when faithless time
Calls, crying to the flesh,
I’m your last lover. Let me ease you. Come.
And she comes, the flesh
Yielding with no force at all, all to time.

Thus, mottled lichens, bog and half-bog,
Logs dissolving under rain and ocher slicks of fungi,
An endless kind of want, one thing subtracted by another.
Ringworm, milkwort, smuts, yeast, the softened limestone.

*   *   *

Could it be, when the book has been read,
Turned face-over on the night stand,
Or the television has flashed off by remote,
For you have fallen asleep late,
Much later than you thought possible tonight,

Could it be that little has really changed,
Or is it that the change is so very great
That you hardly noticed, the compression
Of fact and understanding and difference
Between their culture and ours so collapsed,

Though terribly convenient, that looking
Into their eyes on the screen or across
The table at the conference you see only
A trace-memory of what separated us,
That it was not simply of incompatible

Currencies, alien, without interest
In amicable conjunction, but of differences
Between Buddha, between silence and devotion,
And the uproarious storm, whose center
Is the cannibal self, heartless, the wolf

That you have become

“So I looked out into the backyard. It couldn’t’ve been past mid-March, maybe a week later, an’ there on the lawn the first crocuses was showin’ No leaves, it don’t even look like there was buds yet. But it made me feel really good. An’ I’m turnin’ back to the coffee when I see the light in the front, like a really sharp angle of it?, an’ outside in the front there’s the longest stretch you ever seen, parked, with the motor runnin’, an’ a guy in the back with the window down watchin’ TV. So I think it’s drugs definitely, but then the bell rings, an’ me still in my robe, but I’m so curious by now yuh know, so I ask through the door, ‘Who is it?’, an’ a guy in a driver’s cap says, ‘Are you Miss Leslie Biddle?’, an’ I says, ‘You got it right there,’ meanin’ on the buzzer, an’ he says, ‘Well, then, Leslie, I have a check for you for one million dollars. The donor of the check wishes to be unknown, but there are no restrictions on it—only that you never seek to find out who has given it to you.’ Jeez, I think, like who’s playin’ the prank. Then he slips this envelope under the door, gets back in the stretch, an’ off he goes, with the guy still in the back in frunna the tube. So I pick it up an’ inside the check’s from Chase Manhattan with my name typed on it. I’m dead in my tracks, it’s like 7:30. So I go to the bank an’ they check it out. So guess what? It’s real!”

*   *   *

As if the wind were on it, trembling, a dun color afterward,
Lack of chlorophyll, like the weight of air,
Like the impossibility to breathe one final breath
As the light falls and the lights light,
So it too falls, and all of them flown on that wind,
With the sound of tin, scraping the pavement

You would have seen it if you’d stood still even for a moment,
If you hadn’t walked with your head down, collar up,
As if your lateness mattered at the end of another year,
You would have stopped and seen the hardness of the leaf blown with soot
A continent, peered at dimly from the plane window,
A leather map, its coasts made sharply with the knife’s blade,
The veined rivers and estuaries, the hamlets and fields of vines,
Or this very block of buildings, you, shrunken to the size of your palm
Smaller!, but surely you can see your fortune in it
The fortune of nations, as if nature had drawn the season of things
In a leaf’s pantomime, now that nature has nearly ended

Words are left, the syllables hybrid-rich and delicate,
Metaphors of globes and compasses,
Things regulated by the copula and full stop,
Regular sentence, not bad, traffic ticket

And the lacustrine look of clouds
As they cover the moon, high up, the deer
Tender in the wet night grasses,
All of them described. Like this mirror.

“Which is it?” He couldn’t remember. “Convex,” she said. “Concave.”
And she went on and he did, after love-making, lying there,
Wondering what peace felt like, trying to form
The string of meanings from the movement of bodies

Bending in against the other, half-lit by cloud-cover
And moonlight, trying to form sentences
From the sweat which is cooling in the small of her back
As he turns sideways, away from her

Until it too is sucked inward, the impossibility to form,
That must be what peace is, with a small breath,
Contracting, the impulse of time, as if
Unable at last suddenly here like a sound

*   *   *

An angel, from the scene, rising

Steven Henry Madoff is a poet and Executive Editor at ARTnews.

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Originally published in

BOMB 41, Fall 1992

Featuring interviews with Richard Tuttle, Television, Anna Deveare Smith, Jessica Stockholder, YoYo, Donna Tartt, Gregg Araki, Ron Vawter, Lillian Lee, Fabian Marcaccio, and Robbie McCauley.

Read the issue
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992