Knowing that Penn had dabbled, periodically,
in paints, noting the modest watercolor
of his young, late wife, above the files,
someone has leaned a catalogue by his phone:
Gli Aquarelles di Hitler,
Palazzo Vecchio, Firenze, with a note,
Gordon—you know he flunked out of art school?
Penn glances through the booklet. München,
Standesamt, Alt-Wien Ralzenstaat, Auersberg Palais.
The captions sound portentious as their subjects:
basilicas, blocks, towers, a plaza of walls—
less loving details than things accounted for.
The few inhabitants in that draftsman’s province
(unrulier by far than mullions and bricks),
are dwarfed by statues. Stiffly swinging arms,
balanced on stiffened legs, their faces are blank
as the gradually vanishing windowpanes
(not one of those has a face peering out).
People supply, Penn figures, a sense of scale.
It’s only when he inspects the artist’s name,
A. Hitler, executed in the calligraphy
of invitations, does something sink in.
Essentially untrained, Penn’s eye begins
to scan . . . for some preoccupation with red,
an early attraction for the Aryan, an obsession
with . .. with what? What can the paintings disclose
besides Penn’s need to find the formative signs:
repressed, malignant — if only the next word
might, somehow, have been preventable.
Surely the foreword explains; Penn runs down
the names below his intercom, Italian-
sounding ones, someone who might attempt
a rough translation. He finds, instead, no one
even born before the 1940s.
Could the caption below that wrecked cathedral
read: Here is foreshadowed the ruins
he was to create over all of Europe?
Back-to-back appointments, Penn resists
sharing the watercolors with his clients.
But why these, no better than the work
of some of his classmates at continuing ed.,
why these have been claimed as art —why this fails him.
Another View of Penn
During his stay, he catches glimpses of the TV’s
glare, a black-and-white dim series
centered on his bed. OFF, the single station,
airs the story of a man, “Penn, Gordon Allen,”
recovering from surgery — minor. It’s rather boring:
This guy drowses. The watched room, blurry
and often on the blink, is a spare studio
with props positioned for this week’s scenario:
a sphygmomanometer, a transient’s
empty dresser, a table with its small events
that slides above the bed and back
with the nurses and visitors—a designated track.
At the edge of the screen a doctor appears;
he is lifesize by the time he is near
enough to touch. Between the doctor and Penn,
a body (numb, bandaged, drugged) is questioned
while—what’s this? —a tray arrives: a plate
of sustenance, a foreign, lunar landscape.
A single taste is enough, a theatrical gesture.
He sleeps. Wakes. Flowers arrive: miniature
orange, anthuria, glads — all odorless
(thus painless) and then again, colorless
when televised. They block a window too high
to see out, besides. The only beam of sky
to cheer an impatient patient is faint
as moonlight, a painted ray from a portrait
of some Annunciation—this time, of pain.
Penn looks to the reflection to explain:
Does he feel any better? Can he be left alone?
Did he sleep well at all? Can he answer the phone?
The phone? Of course. Hello, he thinks.“310‚”
a voice responds, as though Mr. Penn
had just stepped out a moment. (On the daily soaps,
it’s the director on the line, calling with hopes
of prompting the episode-in-progress-
so says a nurse, pretty as an actress.)
On the remote control, Penn presses
the symbol of a nurse wearing . . . a nimbus?
(It is a Catholic—or is it Lutheran?—
hospital. Health Center, he means.) Summoned,
faith will be delivered by one or another face.
In that walk-on role one can replace
another, take vital signs, dole out pills
to make Penn healthy—at least, less
Friends, some family—but all immediate—
visit each other from eight until eight.
Each one asks about the operation,
“You need anything? Want the news switched on?”
“No,” Penn shakes his head, pointing to the screen
where, he can see, he doesn’t look convincing.
I look, he thinks. “Look,” he says . . . “I’m dizzy.”
Following his blank eyes to the blank TV,
the company insists he’s looking better. But is he?
The series continues, though penn will be released.
Expressions in Cement
The morning new cement is laid—at last! —
along the perimeter of Penn’s remodeled highrise
(although the old had spalled, cracked and heaved
from frost and tree roots older than the building
the urgency arose only after
the super’s mother’s recent and fortunate fall),
the grounds are cordoned off with colored flags,
blocked with two-by-fours, sawhorses
and stapled signs that read
B & R
EXPRESSIONS IN CEMENT.
The mixing trucks and workers arrived at dawn,
slopped and smoothed the aggregate in forms
while all the occupants slept or overslept.
From Penn’s hardly stellar, fourth-floor view
the vacant surface appeared like blank news-
print, delivered and spread as if to keep
the day’s events from ever touching ground.
At breakfast, Penn recalls another site:
the only house he’d ever (had) built,
a morning he and his wife took the children
to press their hands into the inconspicuous,
just poured, corner of the back porch:
their very own constellation of three,
five-pointed stars—falling stars.
But this building’s hardly Penn’s to print
(would any of the retired or nearly retired
residents want to be remembered
here—by whom?), nor is it Sean Latham’s,
although his signature has been incised—
in broad daylight — on the still wet walk
when Penn returns from his more or less un-
inscribed, anonymous day. Penn kneels to touch
the sidewalk, damp and cold around the name,
and with the toe of his shoe, scrubs the letters
as if he could take time into his own
hands—feet rather, hastening
the trafficking days’ erasing tread . . . but, no,
the scraping merely burnishes the name;
it’s only Penn’s rubber sole that yields.
Damn this Latham kid, leaving his lost
name as though he claimed—what exactly?—
besides his dashed-off delinquency:
the concrete? the highrise? the passer-by
who’ll see this cast slab with its single name
and think, Sean Latham, whoever you are
or hope to be, have your head examined!
that is, for the next however-many-years
(all of Penn’s for sure) until the ground
heaves and freezes however-many-times
and someone more important falls again
and the whole legacy begins anew
with a blank. There’s immortality, Penn reckons,
taking the long way around the building,
and then there’s immortality; we’re passers-
by however it’s expressed.