Richard Jackson

Why I Digress So

It’s only when we don’t know where we’re going,
said Oscar Wilde, that we can ever find our way.
Which is why everything I’ve neglected to do
stalks me tonight, —desires left hanging on the doorknob
or across a chair to be picked up casually while
my thoughts stroll out into a vacant lot, stand around
a barrel burning scrap wood, and wait for an answer,
while around them the buildings hold up the low sky,
and the moon, slung over an abandoned trestle,
waits for a script that has no actors, like Mars,
for example, where they’ve just found evidence
of water and therefore life, and I begin to believe
there is no place in the universe where we can’t live,
just think of those strange worms living around
the superheated vents at the bottom of the Coral Sea,
or the single cell animals down 14,000 feet just off
the Portuguese coast, or the bacteria swimming
for unseen ages underneath the Antarctic ice shelf.

What was I saying? How did I get to that business
about the ice shelf? What are superheated vents?
You see there are just too many directions to deal with.
Sometimes it seems like everything’s coming my way
which means, ironically, I have to get on top of things,
rise above my emotions, as Sister Louisita barked
in the second grade, and she was right on target,
meaning us, or rather meaning everyone except
that beautiful girl who was no one’s sister,
sitting in the first row, first seat, her hair curling
towards forbidden dreams down across what
would be, in a few years, also fast approaching,
the soft lilting breasts that drove me crazy.

Well, you can see the problem—a sentence or two,
a glance to the side, covers a lot of ground
yet runs in circles, or rather, gets off the track,
plowing through the underbrush of male angst
like a runaway locomotive in which the engineer is
beside himself, or at least, as he topples through
the air, near where he used to be, because for him,
trying to face ahead to a future that actually
will follow, everything is suddenly up in the air.

Which means out of sight, though not out of mind,
or seen but not heard, the way they used to talk about
children, though not the 7 starving kids in that New Jersey
foster home, or the infant trying to get milk from its dead
mother in Sierra Leone while the rebels laugh at her feeble
attempts, and where the war, by the way, is officially over.
Now you see why memories and worries get so tangled,
why love and fear, hate and hope begin to define each other,
the way a hornet builds his nest gradually from spit and dirt,
why everything we see is an unfinished painting, or rests
like the bridge in Estergom that stops half way over the Danube,
why Abandonment always seems to fill the doorway.

Okay, the emotional register is floating up and down here
but we have to remember every word is just a smudged
fingerprint for what we mean, as my father used to say,
while we licked our greasy fingers from Lawton’s Fish and Chips
which hung over the North Canal every Friday while
we waited in long lines and he asked the really impossible
questions like “Why don’t you ever see a fish on a wall
with its mouth closed?” or “Do you need a silencer
when you snipe at mimes?” or “what is dead livestock,
or living fossil’” or “Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets?”

“They have you coming or going,” he’d say and maybe,
he was right, because it’s language that betrays us in the end,
like the sign in the Japanese Hotel: “You are invited
to take advantage of the chambermaid.” Or this, from
a Finnish restroom: “To Stop The Drip, Please Turn Cock
To The Right.” It’s all part of what they call current history.
And what are we to believe when one recent headline
OF SHARK, and how we can be totally partial about
our lives and still feel wicked good. “When you leave
walk out backwards so I’ll think you’re walking in,”
quips one recent song because we want all and everything,
every fear, every sin, every love, we want that beautiful
girl in the first row first seat to turn around, to come back.

Maybe our lives are just clichés of desire and loss.
I don’t want to turn out to be a body double for the story
of my own life. And why do we want to turn out
in the end, rather than in, towards whatever Self is
puttering around the tool shop of the heart? Which brings me
to you and why I’ve been ignoring what you said earlier
about the hawk that perches in the tree out back watching
for prey we’ll never observe, and a flock of birds circling him
as if there was something they needed to figure out. There isn’t.
Sometimes I think I am a circus mirror reflecting you in these
unpredictable ways. Like meteors that fall in any direction
they choose. Like the dew that falls indiscriminately on
everything. Like an old photo from a place and time we can’t
remember. Just look. I have a pen full of birds and stars.
I have a reservoir of old dreams, veils of rain and hope.
I have this love, you, I keep picking up whenever I’ve let it
drop, collecting these rags of words, these tattered phrases,
that fill those times I remember how little life there is without you.