—Joachim du Bellay
Happy as Ulysses is he who ventures forth,
who leaves behind his idols and his homeland
and mourns the loss of his mariners
who were shamed like hogs under a witch’s spell
or swallowed whole by a one-eyed colossus, and still
he opposes the wind with his beard of sea salt
after one more failure, clinging to a spar.
And the poor cottage of an October oracle,
with leaves burning in the distance of a miracle,
absent the flames and amber lights eternal,
is as dear to him as the hospital bed he left
on the appointed day, walking the whole way,
quickening his stride as if he were sprinting
like a sandaled youth past the lotus-tempted sailors.
What did he believe in? God—or nothing,
which didn’t amount to the same thing.
There was love, and there was lovemaking,
the stuff of collegiate heartbreak morphed
into a porn classic by a French sadist
writing under the pen name Tiresias
still thirsty for sacrificial blood in Hades
quizzed by nobody special going to Ithaca.
What he wants is to return to the fork
in the road forty years ago. What he gets
are directions: “You can’t miss it.”
In a soundproof room, walled with cork,
he hears the song, has no regrets.
If he sees her face he will kiss it.
What did he believe in? He thought about it,
puffed on his pipe, emptied the ashes,
refilled the bowl, lit it, puffed again,
said “yeah” and blew out the match.
But then he puffed some more and refused
to choose between death as oblivion
on the one hand and immortality
on the other, and furthermore he believed
the immortal as opposed to the merely permanent
exists as a poem: a lovely, glorious nothing
that a young man crafted at three
in the morning to woo a young woman
whose name he cannot recall, now that
sixty winters are on his head and hers.
What did he believe in? Marriage, she said,
changing the subject. He carried the ladder,
painted the hall, changed the oil in his truck,
fixed the leak, wiped his brow, sipped
tea with rum and lemon juice and napped
with the light on, a book open on his lap,
as the day waned and his wife prepared
a special dish for him, though he is nothing
more than a functionary, a low-level diplomat
negotiating the next war. One is always
on the way. The man walks home
from work, a familiar mile of drug stores
and butchers, and then, quickening,
he sees the lights on in the top-story flat.
Happy the man who voyages in the vanguard
with crazed mariners, reluctant prophets,
compulsive liars and tale-tellers, as the flask
of brandy is passed from hand to hand
and the tobacco smoke fills the air like an arena
in a black-and-white movie about brawlers
from the Bronx and guys who fixed the fights.
Happy the worker on Friday nights
and the woman singing of her sorrow
and her lust for Ulysses tied to the mast
who hears the longing that matches his own.
What does he believe in? Not yesterday,
but a yesterday that has not yet come to pass
or to grief, like his naive belief in the gods at play.
What does he believe in? God.
The torturer smiled. God? Which god?
The god who argued with Abraham,
who tempted Abraham and spared Isaac,
who wrestled with Jacob and gave Joseph
the power to interpret dreams? Or the god
who blessed the meek forsaken by his father?
He smiled sadistically. Enjoy your cigarette
and your shot of scotch, he said. You believe
in lucid days and ludic nights,
in words, wine talons, water lights,
the fog in the fir trees.
You will know death to the bone—
the climate of the grave.
What does he believe in? He believes
envy is to the present as hypocrisy was to
fashionable Parisians in 1855. He believes
we are better off in calculable ways yet
guilt remains the constant in the equation
and nothing reeks of meaning like Crusoe’s
unused knife on the dresser. His collections
amuse him though days go by without them.
But shelves he cannot pass without staring
at the spines of the books he read in college
and can still recite their openings (The Trial,
The Good Soldier, The Birth of Tragedy) and
endings: the happy major’s “Hot dog!,”
the kids shouting “Hurrah for Karamazov!”
Happy the hero who, like Ulysses,
heeds the voice of the reckless sea
and survives the loss of his crew because
the gray-eyed goddess of wisdom
sees herself in his eyes. Happy the man
who heard what no other mortal heard
and saw what others have only
dreamed they have seen. Happy
the athlete in the sunlight though he
will die young and the chapter will end
with the man who gets on the bus and
believes that at the end of the journey
he will reach home in time for the toasts
to his absence and his rivals’ empty boasts.
What did he believe in? Biology,
anatomy, and the destiny of all creation
which admits of no exception
to the slow decay of time
or the rapid route to the underground,
in the dead vast and middle of the night
with no pain or with a surfeit of fright.
Happy the hero who fears the gods,
ignoring events and their pernicious effects.
Happy as Ulysses is he upon stepping
on his native soil, a lifetime
of fake cheer and laughter
in an upper-story office on Liberty Street,
an easy walk from the A train.
Each sunset stayed for its allotted time.
The darkness came on as if someone threw a switch.
What did he believe in? The darkness.
But was there anything behind or beyond it?
The question bothered him, but the hours he spent
in the fifth-floor conference room had taught him
to suspend the discussion while sitting on committees
charged with judging the work of other committees
or in mindless crowds cheering for the underdog
in a game whose rules he barely understands
or chatting up the woman in the gray pencil skirt
at the gallery opening of the sunset show
with a Y-shaped glass full of her orange scent
and the afterglow of gin chilled to bone zero.
What did he believe in? the death of god
announced by a syphilitic madman
on the radio for servicemen abroad
at halftime after the benedictions and anthems.
It was futile but could no more be resisted
than an old man’s wish to be young. Then she
interrupted his reverie. What about me?
All right, he said, accepting the tea, the jam,
the toast, the lemon, and the bowl of sugar.
I’ll bite. What do you believe in? She ate
a biscuit before answering. In you, of course.
You’re the only thing I believe in. You’re
a beautiful liar, he smiled. But I love thee,
and when I love thee not, chaos is come again.
Happy the man who cultivates the illusion
that he believes in nothing
but the curative powers of the summer sun
and the pleasures of the mind
as he contemplates performing one last work
of noble action before the ban on books begins.
Happy the fellow who walks the city streets,
infiltrates the crowd, leaves messages
for strangers to read later, runs on anxiety,
a cloud of unknowing protecting him.
He knows what to do if someone shouts fire.
The go-go ego prohibits lamentation
for object loss in childhood, fear of castration
in the phallic period, dread of the superego’s ire.
What does he believe in?
He believes in lateness.
He arrived late last night.
He came to his senses too late
to recover anything or rescue anyone
from the burning house.
He watched it burn from the road.
He believes that a genius lived here
in a room exactly like his
with a window overlooking
an array of pines some deer and a lake
with some lights twinkling on the rocks,
and he is writing these words
in this room in the burning house.