Regarding Velvet Ropes
Rothko wants you close,
regardless of smoker’s breath, crows’
feet and corrosive finger oil, not even
roping off stretch marks or spider-veins.
He loves your quiet curiosity. He wishes
to embrace you in his madness,
for his brushwork to permanently
fingerprint your optic nerve. You
let him. He is best at eighteen inches,
so neighborly you want to lick his
four darks in red, so inviting you would
betray Renoir for him, you would divorce
poor old Beckmann. But your friends
could never accept him, they stand behind
velvet ropes, swearing such subtlety
is antisocial, his fields are humbug,
even those colors are two-tongued. Guarding
the museum of you, they set you up
with other artists, neo-expressionists,
fixers of the flux and practitioners
of the superflat, as if some living subject
were called for. As if mounting a new
painting were somehow akin to crying wolf
in your bedroom, rubbing your lamp
after dark, summoning a spirit of unrest.
Once upon a time a gardener walked
out of the east. He carried your water,
plucked wanton weeds, quizzed your soil
with cool fingertips. Hidden in hedges
he diagnosed deficiencies from the look
of your leaves. His basket escorted
the fallen and bruised to your table.
Today that lamb wears hazmat
mask and orange earplugs. Bearing
edgers and blowers, he scours out beds,
raising hells of fungus and fine particulates.
Like some sublime commando he hunts smut
with his Cain machine.
O lord, I don’t like to complain, but
how can your angel reborn of smoke
and two-stroke motors
sow anything but discord?
Now the roar crescendoes and dies.
Clenched earth takes the one-two
shock of slamming doors. Gears growl.
God’s messenger is going.
All the shivered bits of silence
come sifting down out of the air,
ash after a volcano has spoken.
The vital things of the earth breathe
The old levee continued for miles,
but permission to pass ended
in chain-links, concrete jumble.
There I stopped.
The tide had trawled away
exposing the soft argyle of mudflats.
Avocets swept, sandpipers pecked
stepping so light on the muck.
Further off, way off,
hills burnt yellow
by drought. Between mud
and mustard hills lay
an arm of baywater,
so still and shimmery
it seemed a mirage.
What is the word for that
illusion, the inverse of
mirage: something real,
but so distant it appears
Like the fixed stars,
some summer to come,
money enough, or you
I sat in the sun on a block of concrete
and looked across to the other side.
Nothing lay between
I know crows: they eat trash in the street.
Hard-up in heaven,
down they waft on wide ultraviolet
wings, feathers all awry—
subfusc angels, falling, and calling…
down they drop
upon squirrel entrail
and cake crumbs alike.
I could never do that.
It would repulse me
and I would feel ashamed
picking rotted lettuce as if it were
some delicacy to crow over.
So I starve
while they feast by the hundreds.
Lurking in the sycamores, hiding
in the elms. Rapt they ride out night
winds on the tottering decks
until the sun and they come
atop telephone wires
to evaluate the morning’s oblation
laid out on the pavement.
They fly where they please. Don’t they?
With those wings and those scruples I would.
The crows are calling. The night has fallen and they are calling. To one another.
What are they calling? What can they be calling? They have sailed into
the dark trees
and disappeared, pieces of night neatly fitted into shadow slots.
Gone but for their voices.
Safe as locks I—
behind these good doors—
still I hear them.
First, one alone
Calling . . . .
I envy the free crows
and they, poor loose souls,
dreaming in through those windows,
they envy me.
Three Ways of Looking at an SR-71
of midnight, war
Towed off tarmac,
tanks drained, controls
abed her concrete and black
sky forgotten space
suited spy forgotten,
to bite the sky,
make it bellow back.
1962 plan view
caught her mid grande jeté,
front elevation thin as a shiv
cunning as a paper cut.
Once swifter than night
terminator of light
but blackbird bawls
Anne Cheilek is a writer, editor, and musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing is influenced by philology and music—in particular, by her training as a classical violinist. Poetry, she feels, shares powerful qualities with music. Both use rhythm and consonance as bearers of meaning. And each can induce a wordless reverberation that persists long after one has finished the work and wandered away.