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.
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?
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 the author of twenty-three books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including Stubble Archipelago. Also a painter and musician, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Whiting Award. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center.
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