Issue 44, Fall 1968
The moon is out and full. The sky is that near blue of bright clear nights, so bright that one can see only a few of the brightest stars. On the horizon the sharp, barren mountains, then the desert, like a sea. Here the barren ground, the vulnerable figure protected by its sleep, and that peculiarly self-contained lion. One assumes he—or is it she—is asleep, though from the look of the face he might be dead, the skin blackened by the desert sun. This perhaps would explain the quiescence of the lion. Natural repugnance for dead meat strike carrion. Leather bones rotten meat. Dead one would say, from the odd angle of the feet protruding from the robe strike striped robe that could be by Noland or Morris Louis, from the exposed teeth, the eyes open perhaps very slightly. Or is he about to awake, the eyes opening strike the eyes on the point of opening, to confront the lion with his stick and his mandolin, or is it lute, by his side. Next to the lute, we’ll call it a lute, a brown jug, of water let’s hope, then a thick band of white, then brown, white, brownish-white, muddied water, snow, rotting ice, a boat making its way through ice floes, a person in the bow pushes aside a floating cake of ice with a stick and his foot, others pole the boat, in the stern one man handles the rudder, in the center a man standing one foot on the gunwale, hand on knee, cocked hat, sword, big nose, behind him a flag, American, partly furled. One would say it’s cold out there. This scene repeated again again again, a fleet of facsimiles, it heads for a slightly projecting, off-white vertical, a recess, an Other narrower vertical of the same color, snow on the ground, part of a stone wall—large rocks trimmed with snow—a tree trunk rising from the ground straight, a brown tangle of bushes, a snowy field, at the left a road recedes, curves, and disappears further to the left, cutting through bare trees, brown bushes, green pines, misty distance, background of grey sky through bare boughs strike background of grey sky through lattice of bare boughs. High, a jet growls once, twice, fades. Drip of melting snow from eaves. A shot echoes through the distance. I look to the left through a window at right angles to the first: black boughs, a road, snowy field, low wall of piled rocks, woods, horizon of soft contoured hills, grey light of wintry afternoon. The bright morning light floods the fields, lights up the woods, shapes the hills. The field beyond the road is brown and green with patches of snow. The air is blue, the breeze a blue breath, the trees sway at the bottom of a sea of blue. Heavy grey clouds lower over the brown, barren flatland. Pit in concentric pit lay stinken in the center of a huge concavity, mud yellow, rimmed by a rutted road. Greasy black smoke against dirty grey sky. Gulls like swarms of flies hover, drift, swoop in a huge, slow vortex, screaming like harpies. A shaft of late afternoon sun strike a shaft of yellowish late afternoon skin glints off broken bits of tin, shattered glass, then disappears. The fires redden the deepening shadows. One cannot see much in the cobbled court, the limestone blocks of the building, windows like a Renaissance palazzo. The smoky, lucent, humid winter air, pearl grey, seeps down to the bottom of the court. From where I sit at my escritoire, and from there only, I can see out the courtyard through an arch, through an arch through an arch, beyond a slim, distant, tapered column, a dark massive monumental arch suspended in the haze. There is so much movement down in the street it is as if one were watching strike as if one were looking into a motley collection of fish in an overcrowded tank, frightened by an occult cause, rather than at men women children dogs cats baby carriages carts cars trucks buses. The noise is so constant it is part of the landscape, like the tenements across the Avenue. Here there is no weather. Large flakes of soot fall visibly from the sky. The atmosphere consists of carbon, sulphur, oxides that displace the air and seep through the windows. From the courtyard unbelievably loud a broken hearted lover wails a high fidelity lament in an incomprehensible dialect of Spanish. The hills are absent beyond the visible circumference of misty woods within which the fields, green-brown, patches strike occasional return of last night’s flurries, the road to where it curves. The mist glows with its own inner light, very in time, tracing the nearer trees in heavy chiaroscuro, the more distant trees rise like ghosts from a graveyard. The woods lack depth. Light filters between the trunks from somewhere offstage. A clump of pines looms heavy, without color. Mist muffles bare boughs, hangs from the tips of branches in shimmering drops. The stillness is part of the landscape, like the stone wall at the far end of the field that is there, but invisible. Now and then the house creaks the obscure complaints of its two hundred years. George Washington crosses the Delaware on the walls. Under the moon the lion watches, the figure sleeps, or wakes up, or rots. I sit at my desk and gaze into the mysterious woods. The desk, square, classical proportions. One thinks of the richer Colonial houses, or better, English of the Augustan period. Its lamp, wood, glass, suggesting wick and whale oil, its shaded bulb an incongruity. We’re getting to know one another, this desk and I, we’re learning to get along. Already we’re getting to be friends. There’s a flat, clear, open quality about it, a lucidity, a balance, an obvious and unquestionable respectability. No there’s nothing suspect about this desk, nothing secret or ambiguous, nothing baroque, nothing intense, nothing intricate. Nothing like desks where I’ve holed up and held out. Safe at last. The fields are bright, the desk is lit by a shaft of light coming through the woods, George Washington crosses the Delaware on the walls. Wild grey clouds scud low beneath the black sky, gulls flock and hover about this point or that, so many they seem more like swarms of flies. Fires flare along the sides of the pit, sending up thick black smoke that disappears into the black of the sky. The desk is a large black rectangle with drawers running down one side. The glossy desktop reflects the light of the gooseneck lamp in one corner. In the center of the large black rectangle, the smaller white strike the white rectangle of an open notebook. The open page said ever clearly known it and tested it. It was as though unperceiving I had awakened from the American dream of tomorrow to the flat truth of today. Black ink, my handwriting.
Why don’t you get rid of that desk asked Joan. Relevant to nothing, as usual. Her large, dark eyes, with their distended irises, shone with the black luster of my desktop as she stared at me with her characteristic vacant expression.
Why? I asked.
I don’t know.
Look I have to work now. I had stolen the desk and I was fond of it.
I suppose you want me to leave she said.
What would you like to do.