The Day Antonioni Came to the Asylum (Rhapsody)


From the Archive


Anne Carson’s poem “The Day Antonioni Came to the Asylum (Rhapsody)” appeared in our Fall 2004 issue. Carson was born sixty-six years ago this week, on June 21. 

It was a restless moment. He came closer.  
                                                            —Lucia Bosé

It was the sound of her writing that woke me. Since you ask, this is what I remember. Her desk is just outside my room. Some days I hear sounds too loud. Some days I hear a crowd and there is no crowd.

At her desk she keeps notes. She lists our medications. She does the crossword puzzle or puts checkmarks in the margins of Classified. A little dry grinding sound. Others are unaware. These differences are hard to bear.

Then there it was, mutiny. They told us we had to come downstairs to the salon early and “participate” so we all took our clothes off. Eighteen naked people in the hall. She said not a word. That’s what scared us. We got dressed again. Overalls, no more women and men.

What the eye saw was a pile of documents on her desk with tiny paragraphs and signatures and staples. These documents were not seen again in the salon or elsewhere. I keep my eye on documents. Documents are how most of use ended up here. That’s him, said someone as we descended the stairs. Antonioni wore a small brown sweater and looked like a cat. I wanted to give him a lick or a pat.

Swoony was the mood I would say in the room. A suddenly arriving beautiful man will not so much fool people as keep them awake—drunk with our own awakeness we rushed around doing his bidding. To be awake was a thing many had dreamed of, while continuing to sleep for years, like the famous princess in her coffin of glass. Once I opened a Chinese fortune cookie that said, Some will attain their heart’s desire, alas.

He got behind his 16mm Bell & Howell. Two of his men gave instructions. Patty and Bates and I were dragging our chairs out of the way. The big black cords had to be run out to plugs. We were making no mistakes. We were being extremely careful. No jokes. No sleep. No staring. And she in her place by the wall, refolding her crossword and trying to look calm. Because it contains the word hyssop the 51st is my favourite Psalm.

Hyssop is (as you may know) a purificatory herb that smells like mint from outer space. Create in me a clean heart O God. I got a whiff of hyssop just when those big black cords lit (light starts to smell when there’s too much of it) and some sudden radiance aligned me with the rugs on the floor. So there we all were on the floor and Patty yelled Keep turning so we did (to ward off death) and every time Bates turned past me we kissed which is one of our interior arrangements in group activities (of which there are a lot here), life being short and burning yearning being burning yearning.

Patty’s view is that if I weren’t in this place I wouldn’t have time for someone like Bates. I told her I’m a practical fellow and Bates is my practice right now. “Have time for” is exactly the point—days here are two hundred years long. Outsiders (Antonioni) come in at the wrong velocity. I bet he knew that. His face had the look of someone who enters a room and there’s no floor. Meanwhile we rolled all the way to the wall and at a signal from Patty reversed and rolled back—beautifully, I thought, it was somehow like bowling. Antonioni seemed pained by everyone yowling.

To yell is the rule here—rule of the mad—it distinguishes the kissing and makes us less sad.

Antonioni opened his eyes. She left her place by the wall and came over to him. The patients are afraid of the light, she explained, they think it is a monster. This kind of spontaneous misinformation is typical of the medical profession. Well I suppose she could hardly say, The patients worship life-giving Aphrodite every chance they get, thank you for furnishing this opportunity. Anyway I’m not sure how smart she is. One day I told her about evolution—how in the beginning people didn’t have shelves, there were arms heads torsos what have you roaming about by the breakers of the shore of life, ankles unattached, eyes needing brows, until at last what made the parts come together as whole creatures was Love—and she said, Do you know a seven-letter word for loose or wanton women derived from the sound of a horse’s hooves going down the road at night? To which I replied, Yes I do and I can shower with Bates tonight, right?

Always planning ahead that’s me, practical as purgatory my mom used to say. That the bones which thou has broken may rejoice. But now there we were eighteen terrible people in a room trying not to look at one another as we got up off the floor. Antonioni gave himself a tidy cat shake and returned to form. The director of the asylum was beside him murmuring low in a Let’s-See-What-We’ve-Learned-Today tone. Sober nods all round. I would have liked to hear from Antonioni. Cats don’t spend themselves but they notice everything. I saw he noticed Bates. How close for an instant we grazed our fates.

New white snow had fallen over dark slush outside. Patty expressed disappointment in the morning’s pitch and tenor overall. Fuckin sketchy gig, man—was I believe her phrasing. Still we take our blessings where they fall. Nothing improves community life like an hour of aerobics first thing. The yelling is mild all the rest of the day. Purge me and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. And it was Friday, angel cake for supper, hot showers later and who knows what interior arrangement there. Since the day I have her “?” she treats me with extra care. Don’t be a mourner, she says and juts way back on two legs of her chair.