Issue 67, Fall 1976
(monologue for radio)
(The old man, at times short of
breath, speaks very slowly,
though more quickly when
amused. The clock, at varying
levels, is heard throughout. At
the beginning, it ticks by itself
for several seconds.)
I give thanks. I wonder if their sensors pick that up. I wonder if the monitor registers an unfortunate rise in temperature. I extend these fingers. In this white room it is difficult not to think of bodies. The slight weight of the blankets on the clean sheets, the warmth of the pillow like a face against my own.
Secretly, I would have liked to stop it sooner. To paralyze the violence as Cezanne might have done. To speak one word ... . But the tongue in the dry mouth is no longer willing. I have forgotten my lines. A shadowy Caesar follows the chalk line to the end. On the spot the words won’t matter. History will happen to me too.
I do not hear the helpless shuffling of slippers in the hall, muffled flushings, the deep difficult coughs of old men retching. Here, washed clean like a corpse, I wander freely through the human mind. I remember loveliness too, yes. First seen in a listening girl, and held “for a fleeting second’’ in my arms. Shall I slip away like this, my breath catching, their dials spinning? The dying excited by the dead. I am not here, these wires leading from my heart! I’m with you. With you. Then I wake in death’s dream room, frightened.
Climbing the long steps of the Museum of Natural History, I retrace the bare line of the present. Looking back . . . Grant’s Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, the room, the youth, the urban trail I followed for fifty years, the last foolish love. . . Yet, even here, at the summit of these stairs, with half the city, this life, just visible through the rain, only words come . . . only words remain.
Entering the grand hall, mentally I time it: late fall, late afternoon, late, very late, in life. Another still figure, mine, stands amid bronze Indians on the marble floor, gazing al- most serenely up at the great murals of the open country. Here the helpless sounds of life cannot penetrate. There is no one whimpering outside my door or choking in my ear. Here I am alone. Unnoticed, I disappear between the dustless silent cases. Practically transformed, I step among the wondrously poised inhabitants of the American forests. It pleases me that these natural moments have been caught, perhaps held forever. It pleases me that something has been preserved.
Rain on the black-painted skylight. A natural drum roll, rising like the numbers of the dead, and still rising. The toll rising in my ears, I wander still, retracing an original I have almost forgotten. My body like someone else’s. Remembered. My fingers along the glass like a little boy’s. The dead man flushes grouse and quail from realistic branches. And a trail of water descends the row of exhibited life, now glittering between the startled greater mammals, now reflecting the dumb stare of the lined-up skeletons of evolution. At the base of an empty marble staircase my pool widens, cold and white like moonlight. My own recurring echoes place me near the beginnings, the long dark Hall of Man.
Little drops of water fall silently from the edges of this coat. Rain still beating on a small black-painted window high in the opposing wall. Rain lashing the big city buildings, the empty parks. And I almost safe behind the glass and stone, safe with memories that may never coalesce.
I stand alone in a pool of water by a dark tangle of branches I had not seen before. My overcoat drips softly. I am motionless beside the frozen struggle, the man-viewed elements of the natural process, a curator’s attempt at awful reality. Silently, eternally, dream-like . . . the stuffed predator theatrically disembowels a smaller creature. Enclosed official violence. Factual, historical, concrete. A painted bird. First she (the victim) is skinned, the little skull carved out, the muscles pulled from her wings, her legs. Then she is sewn together again over balsa and wire, her skin dusted with powdered borax, her faded feathers touched up with oils and painted blood.
The action of the mind, you say. Of whose mind? What art is this existence? And what can one say about art—except that the human image is there. Perhaps there only.
I withdraw my fingers from the glass. I do not like that smoothness. I regret having left my prints where they do not belong. I do not contrive the events of destruction, or even raise my voice in opposition. I watch a painted bird whose bright glass eyes do not hold the memory of her death, who has no need of words. Turn now. Leave her alone. She is dead and does not need to be reminded.
On then, enter that darkness, this stillness. I slow before the life-size illuminated figures, now pleasantly locked in dumb eternity, as if, for all the world they had once lived and loved and died suddenly on one bright day that has not ended yet. Now, their cases stacked in natural progression from the dim red dawn to the final blinding sunset, they wait. But why do these strong hands tremble on the glass like a child’s, like a child’s?
I follow the storied life back towards the beginnings. Little drops of water down a dark hall. I wander still, having not once heard purpose in these, my steps. I pass the stilted huts of the Lake-Dwellers, silent, secure before the coming dark. I pause, envious, by the Boar-Killer with Dogs and Spear, and continue past the Sun-Worshipper and the Long Stones. Finally, alone, the beginning and the end, I stop, my fore- head against the cold glass before the final grouping: wondering, grateful human family, man in the dry cave, man and fire, man out of the dark night, man and woman. And outside, looking in, old man with memories and dreams, and beyond that, silent pouring rain.