From the Archives

Shéhérazade

Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum, still from April Serenade (2020).

1. Asie

      One word, "nacreous,"
coils in me like a conch, a minaret,
or a question always in the process of being posed.
      My favorite part's comme un
immense oiseau de nuit
, my bedtimes
moor in that glissando, even
      if I've planned a future 
that gives no love affairs
      no berth, a future stuck in its circuit like a sun. Perse

       ou Chine are nice spots
on the map but don't try visiting them,
they will crumble in your fingers like a butterfly's wing.
       Even the felt fez
I bought at MGM's closeout sale
has an aura chalked on its brim:
      1940. I guess
some escapist flick
      wrung forehead-sweat from an extra, discoloring the rim.

      If I kiss the fez
I can almost taste his tribulation.
On my toilet lid sits a fragrant spirit, weak blue, called
       Eau de senteur à l'iris
When I open it, out comes a djinn
named Shirley: she used to live in
      empty medicine vials
with contrapposto
       curve when turned upside down. Can you smell by hearing? Asie

      smells like the floral
print my aunt wore to the fireworks the year
she died. But I imagine that she took a bargain junket
      and "went native," like Gauguin,
staying in the tropics with a woman
she loved. What I hear enters me,
      Ravel scored it so
the tremor in voir
      
makes me clench my rectum. In Chine it dizzied me to sit

      by the chaperone's
plum pudding embonpoint: she should have been
minding her own daughter, a girl discovering the world
      in the hand of her flutist-
boyfriend unbuttoning her blouse—fjord
in a training bra. I know this
      from legend. That evening
in Shanghai, pleading
      nausea, she kept the audience waiting for a half-hour

       and then never played—
her hands paralyzed as a consequence
of romance. Or had she swallowed poison? Strangely, the girl
      who hadn't played was received
favorably by the Shanghai press, who saw
her lack of "tone color" as one
      flaw in an otherwise
magical evening—
      drifting now away from me. When I cry Asie, Asie, 

      my own breasts are just
visible below my arm's equator
for I am Ingres' Odalisque, a jewel, like a spit globe,
      dropping from my ear but seized
by happiness at the latitude
where pain is supposed to begin,
      and staying there forever,
slave to a moment's
      dream that land is liquid, that there's no prime meridian. 

Wayne Koestenbaum, still from April Serenade (2020).

2. La Flûte enchantée

      A common complaint is that words are not kinetic.
An Egyptian fag
      dangles from the rouged lips
of Reynaldo Hahn—in Proust's bed—
humming "Si mes vers avaient des ailes."
      Nothing I can write will have
such wings. Is there a word in French like "fag"
for cigarettes, or only in the English of Dick Whittington?

      Reynaldo's hair is not more whitened now, there is no
deeper wistfulness
      it can achieve. The art
of sitting still I never learned,
I longed to be the Winged Victory
      seeming to fly but staying
fixed, as slender boys with artistic tastes
molt into husbands, shedding lisps. The dead grandfather

      I never met has a nicotined look in pictures,
as if he were steeped
      in smoke, a black cherry
compote in cordial handed down
for generations. No one eats it,
      but the seersaying sissy
curious about metamorphosis
questions this crystal ball in which a sodden cherry floats,

       he dredges the glass for secrets. To be torn apart
is my ambition,
      not, like Actaeon, limb
by limb, but in a prolonged waltz
of changes, every measure a new
      hiding-place opening up
within me, skin turning to bark, and back
to skin, as when the undressing dark camp counselor in

      our cabin's ochre light turned to me as a painting
is caught by the glance
      of moonlight because the guard,
careless, has left the sash undrawn.
The flaw in primal scenes is that they
      happen, by definition,
only once. When mine happened, I was rapt
with the quest for ladybugs, my eyes on the ground to find

      coordinates of a world threatening to take wing.
My first song, "Frère
      Jacques," made me think our block
was bisected by a slender
ocean–not the song's words, but the song
      itself, the coin it carried
in its purse, convinced me there was a port
two houses down. But I found no harbor, no pirate ship—

      nothing but a front lawn lost in thought. Wouldn't you
run away to catch
      an ocean if it called
and asked for you by your first name—
as if the sea has plans for you, churning
      in memory of what you
do not know lies ahead, a future strange
as the fate of my friend Sue: riding to school, her new flute

      in the bike's basket, she made too sharp a turn and saw
her flute seem to fly
      willfully from its case
and land beneath a Mack truck's wheel!
Who could play a flute flattened by chance,
      its keys and air holes blended
so that she can't distinguish what is space
from what is silver, what is blank from what the wheel has filled? 

Wayne Koestenbaum, still from April Serenade (2020).

3. L'Indifférent 

Poor Daphne, changed into a laurel. Her lip—
      the lower one—is racked
by cold sores, always will be.
      Without such scars, how could I recognize
her essence? In a Venn diagram
she intersects the Daphne
      Industrial Park near the concert hall.
Why she is linked to an unleased lot, I cannot say, 

nor why creepers grow in Eden to this day.
       an alphabet on rocks,
nor why, on a map, I share
      a bruise-colored crosshatched square with Ravel,
or my bandleader Mr. Tristan
overlaps with Yseult's Tristan.
      Praising me, he'd shout, "Good show!" I showed
and showed without pause to his—dare I say, girlish?—face,

as if his bandroom were Tangier. He led us
      in a tango so tranced
it tore my life into parts
      like the eye those sisters bicker over—
never long in one socket before
they wrench it out. Poor eye, subject
      to the sisters' quarrels. That is why
antinomies sicken me, and why I prefer slow

students to quick ones: I loved the girl whose dream
       was winning a game show
from her living room's eyrie,
  her insights so piercing she needn't
appear in flesh as a contestant.
Angels carried her right answers
      to the TV studio, and coins,
as from a one-armed bandit, flooded her house. I, too,

am guilty of magic carpet rides. "Girlish"
  never refers to girls—
only to boys. It's a vast
      waste of breath to call a girl girlish, a boy
boyish. Why does the word "girlish" age
so inconspicuously, show
      so little tarnish, indifferent
to trends in usage, firm to its troubled course? The page

bleakly shimmers as the girlish boy decides,
      at last, to write his tale
of travel, having never
      crossed the border to his own creation,
the fence around his first disaster. 
Twenty years ago, in the deep
      of my life, wondering if I could rise
to a bewilderment greater than age eight, I rode

my bike straight into a man who shouted, "Damn girl,
      watch out where you're going!"
He was drunk—so I reasoned—
      to mistake my sex. I enter the boy
I used to be, who lies in my bed,
naked, as if I've purchased him
      from an Arabian sorceress
who sews the body to its sorrow, invisibly.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet, critic, fiction-writer, artist, filmmaker, and performer. He is the author of twenty-two books, the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Originally published:
December 1, 1987

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