DON’T FORGET WHO WE MIGHT BE
By Robert Cowan
The top log burns so brightly, with such contrast;
the lower logs, to whom it owes its flames,
The young shine on the shoulders of the old,
for thousands of years falling asleep comforted
by the ancient light and the heat of Promethean fire,
rocking a wooden chair. The brick and slate of the
fireplace are foundational, the slab of rock is first
or the browed sheer cliff faces, structures built upward
from horizontal stone or pulled sideways out of verticality,
cities carved in relief or constructed rock by rock,
on a time-plane of subtly shifting red gray and ochre concepts.
The World Trade Center was screwed right into the bedrock,
silver helix columns twisting like steel DNA through formed strata,
he unsure whether they had come up out of the earth
or been placed down into it, imagining their vast majorities
below the surface with but short final lengths visible.
The holes they dug for those shafts were the play
of titan children digging to China—so deep, so wide across,
the holes became their own entities—giant phenomenal nothings.
The pentagon below 14th Street became the nut speared
by twin screws, like the raspberries his nephew
wore on his thumbs, but these were black holes,
vacancies so massive, absences so glaring
that it seemed the city would be sucked down into them,
vacuum holes vying for supremacy—Madison Square Garden
sucked down one, the Morgan Library down the other,
leviathan mouths, arguing maws of a Bronx Roc
and a Staten Island Gamera wearing white tank-tops:
“Oh, yeah?! Fuck me?!! Fuck meee?!!! Fuuuck meeeee??!!!”
—neck-vein-popping— “Fuuuuuuck. Yooooooou!!!!”
He saw the army of ants dig on rainy days,
drains for the glaciers of the Hudson Valley
melting and washing down all they had carved out,
rushing down gigantic iron grates into the mammoth
sewer system of the world. The worker-ants left
to contend with the glacial erratics, immovable crumbs,
the soil terribly labor-intensive to cultivate; cotton
ants that long ago formed the rock walls that cover
the region, like the strings of vertebrae he’d walked
sectioning the Aran Islands, the isles themselves
slabs of rock risen out of the ocean.
There is a rock formation there, on Inishmaan,
called “Synge’s Chair”—a spot looking East out
onto the Atlantic—from which the playwright composed,
writing from a seat that fills in potholes and shores
up foundations built on specious puns.
It’s poor feng-shui to build a city at the bottom of a valley,
where the wind rushes down unobstructed and whips
through the canyons of buildings, sculpting the denizens
into sand people. But walking avenue North,
a giant U of wind nearly knocking him off his feet,
he appreciated the culmination of the country in the city.
As a boy, he’d seen the New York Cosmos destroy
Team America and had gloated over it;
studying in Europe during the first Bush league,
he had introduced himself as a New Yorker first,
American only reluctantly afterward, keeping in mind
a quote he’d incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain:
“New York is an island between Europe and America.”
While he’d eventually mellowed on that distinction,
the difference between television and live action on
9/11 re-established the gulf between New York City
and America for a while. The smoke and steam escapes
the end of the log and its hurling nature is intermittently
interrupted by the flames on its back.
He’d grown up in the absurd idyll of Sunnyside
Avenue in Pleasantville between the Goodmans
and the Roses. Among other immediate neighbors,
Mr. Glynn: A Boo Radley-type widower,
at least to the children; Gunther Silverman:
whose heart only functioned at 15%, but at a much
higher percentage metaphorically; The Trumans,
who moved to Nairobi; The Aldens: he grim ex-Navy,
she always smiley. There were the Korins from Argentina;
the Roman family with the giant German Shepherd;
Esther from Morocco; and the four Nguyen kids
(Tuan, Hoai, Hahn, Thuan), the fifth in his mother’s
belly, to be born here (David). Gunther and Dave
both gone in their 30s, as are most of those families on the street.
Some kids had overdetermined names, a set-up.
There was a Medea born to a couple in his college dorm.
And a kid in his present neighborhood called Faust.
There were the Anglo names that got ruined by natural
occurrences that got anthropomorphized: Sandy, Irene, Charlie…
And human occurrences that got animalized: Adolf, Idi, Osama…
They’d fallen as adults. Had they fallen as children,
letting out a huge scream and then being quiet
while taking a massive inhale, the anticipation of the second
even louder shriller scream that would be so much worse—
that scintilla of anticipation just excruciating—
the scream that now makes him feel such profound
sympathy for both child and parent? Relieved his child
is way past that, on to lipstick and nail polish.
As a boy, he’d hated all the girls’ chipped and ragged nail polish.
He wanted them to remove all of it.
His mother seemed to be doing her nails all the time—
all twenty of them in bright red. To the point that
her nails were yellow without polish on them.
But he didn't want the girls to wear polish at all
if it was just going to get destroyed immediately.
Wait till you’re older—already avuncular—
don’t grow up too fast. But now, grown up
too fast, asking how he will damage his own child:
Is there, as Will Self asserted, a quantity theory—
or rather practice—of insanity? If they were four or six,
would there be the same amount of dysfunction
more evenly distributed, than between three?
Finally, the bark separates and it all erupts into dancing flame;
then the log finally gives, falls, and the whole enterprise shifts.
That one year, they had shared the number 121—
his classroom number, his stepbrother’s school bus number,
his stepmother’s classroom number. Are such affinities chance?
How does one remember who one is? Perhaps it is to be found
in the translations between brain, hands, and heart—1-2-1.
Work area code: 212. Home zip code: 11231. Not binary, though.
Wasn’t a zero required to make sure the programs didn’t crash?
How do we know the code is correct? Have people done
what they say they did? Is the language with which they
describe their life-acts accurate? Are they put, by themselves
or their biographers, in terms that romanticize them?
When we mix mythology and biography, we get either
biology or mythography, but probably not both.
The only famous person from his hometown was Allen See
—otherwise known as Gavin McLeod, or Captain Stubing—
until Tommy Hilfiger and Ace Frehley moved in,
the latter crashing his car into the 7-Eleven upon arrival.
In the mall, in the antique store, they would turn to each
other and say, “Don’t forget who we are.” Don’t forget
that we are warriors—our alignment chaotic neutral,
armor class high, with many hit points. Don’t forget
our high marks for strength, intelligence, wisdom,
dexterity, constitution, and charisma. Don’t forget that
we can create ourselves in whatever mold we choose.
His character class: barbarian magic-user.
Out the window, the woods are dark but the sky still blackening,
the branch extremities overhead creating curved biometries.
This is the spot, up here in the mountains—no landline,
cell service, internet, cable—just fireplace, whiskey, and
snow falling on hermetically sealed deer. Whenever they said,
“Let’s get outta here” in a movie, he imagined coming here.
And yet he worried that he’d hear someone’s tires
compress-crunching the snow outside, ruining everything,
for he knew that we will need this wooden rocking chair
on the eve of post-life, just as we needed rocking in the womb.
Robert Cowan is a professor and dean at the City University of New York, and a volunteer instructor at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. He is the author of two hybrid-genre collections—Elsewhen (Paloma Press, forthcoming 2019) and Close Apart (Paloma Press, 2018), and two monographs—Teaching Double Negatives (Peter Lang, 2018) and The Indo-German Identification (Camden House, 2010). His poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and scholarship has appeared in various journals and anthologies.
*This poem was reprinted with permission from Robert Cowan’s collection Close Apart, published by Paloma Press.