the tax collector’s tour
All the houses of this city
open into each other, room
after room strung together.
Following the tax collector
I pass through hundreds of homes
without ceremony, people
eating or bathing, drinking beer,
gambling, rapt in adultery.
The rooms stink of dead pizza,
tobacco, popcorn, and farts.
Stalled traffic murmurs somewhere
on the edge of mere being.
The tax collector appointed me
assistant tax collector but
so far we’ve collected nothing
and I’ve lent him no assistance—
the houses cringing as we pass,
the doors unlocked, cries of lovers
and squall of jug-eared children
competing with the roar of TVs
tuned to deadly violent game shows.
I can’t even name this city
although the black velvet paintings
of the pope, Elvis, and John F.
Kennedy suggest a familiar
liberal political outlook
tempered by the usual racist
and anti-Semitic murmurings.
After walking five or six miles
we pass from a bedroom directly
into the tax collector’s office.
File cabinets grin like St. Nick.
Clerks grumble at computers
with silver-blue screens. We slump
at steel-gray desks and he asks
if I understand the job. I do.
He nods. Somewhere out there, snow
addles the streets and commuters sob
as criminal intentions fulfill
themselves one victim at a time,
their stolen dollars grimacing
as they crumple in the dark.
the didactic view of art
Leaning against the chalkboard
you sigh through Tolstoy’s argument
about the didactic view of art
then tell the crowd that children
are the only form of expression
you admire. Your colleagues offer
safely academic applause.
As most head for the refreshments
I remain planted in my chair,
hoping you’ll remember me
from wine-sipping Paris evenings
with lamplight crawling over us
and the smell of the river ripe
with a history of suicide.
But you ignore me so formally
the planet creaks with the effort
and I exude a single tear
that scars like a Heidelberg duel.
Congratulations clot in my throat.
A handsome bearded fellow nods
as you smile your famous pink smile.
Unfair to expect scholarship
to tell the truth about anything—
but you dislike the fuss and mess
and sentiment of children
and prefer Tolstoy’s fiction
to his foolish pronouncements
about sainthood and creation.
The academic crowd admires
the angle at which your head
sits on your neck, your sturdy
tripod stance, your readiness
to answer questions with insults.
While you earn tenure at Harvard,
Berkeley, Michigan, and Cornell
I leave and stagger to my office
and clench myself with critical force
that should kill me. When you knock
at my door the fossil part
of me refuses to answer,
accepting the distance between us
as a warp in geologic time.
visiting the postmodern sublime
The house your husband cobbled
from a dozen competing plans
hogs four acres, enclosing
two for a barren courtyard.
The drawing room looks like a gym.
We rattle like dice, our drinks
foaming in our fists. The furniture
refuses to comfort our rumps
so we stand around fuming,
wondering why we’ve accepted
your invitation to admire
the nether regions of a house
built by a famous tax fraud.
At last the tour begins. We mope
along plain brick corridors,
passing tiny unfurnished rooms
smelling of plaster and paint.
Through a metal fire door into
absolute dark. Where did you go?
Someone screams so painfully
I gnash like a garlic press.
The walls squeeze in. Someone
pops like a boil. The horror
wrings the blood from my body
and I smear and stain the carpet,
my spirit a whisper of lint.
A light flickers. We’re alive:
the walls haven’t crushed us,
and you’re so apologetic
I almost believe that isn’t blood
you lick from the rim of your mouth.
The tour continues. The rooms
feature appliances no one
can identify, exercise
or torture devices, office
or educational machines,
computer displays of numbers
of unknown significance.
At last we emerge in a kitchen
of granite and stainless steel
and many blocks of carving knives.
No wonder the government refused
to confiscate the property.
We lean against the ceramic tile
and agree that your house repels
the human so successfully
you have reason to be proud,
although your imprisoned husband
has warned you for legal reasons
never to state that pride aloud.