Who needs your stunted style, your tiny jewels
of thwarted art, to snatch a kite flown loose
or bad-thrown ball? Or your unsayable rules
of infinite pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,
to feel soft feathers, their talons’ sponsal band?
To splinter a street, plumb galaxy’s soil, or hold
a heaving noose? To grasp your child’s hand?
To be unbound by any soul, un-bowled
by death, to never know what the Eleventh Azure is!
The stuttering night unveils its fairy dark.
The moon, that pruning groom, the manicurist,
bends down to rub its cheek against the bark
and hears the raspy chainsaw play its song,
while wispy light appears in wonders dawned.
“Bonsai” was originally published in the October, 2013, issue of Harper’s Magazine.
“Bonsai” is a poem that speaks to me. I mean literally, it’s speaking directly to me. The haunting “Eleventh Azure” in line 9 can also be written as “Azure XI,” which of course is an anagram of my name. And I’m not going to discuss the “Jew” in “jewels,” or the “thwarted art,” or the veiled threat to my child and so forth. So let’s move on.
Cecily Barnes has composed countless poems, too many poems. Among other accolades, she was awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize for Poetry (declined it), the Bollingham Prize (ditto), a Dickinson Endowment ($100,000 received by bank transfer I’m told) and turned down an honorary degree from Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.
I first discovered her woeful early poems at a writer’s festival in Trinidad in 2002. Derek Walcott, Rabindranath Maharaj, Olive Senior from Canada, and my overly joyful, soon to be ex-girlfriend (along with her young poet friend and soon to be bedmate, Miguel Murat) — I recall hanging out with all of them at Queen’s Park, eating aloo pies beside a passionate flame tree, with pumped-up storm clouds over the Gulf of Paria.
Cecily wasn’t at the festival. Has never been the traveling type, and, her one endearing quality, despises all forms of literary pretense. But it was there, in Port of Spain, while enduring an excursus on the awkwardly absent V.S. Naipaul (and keeping one eye on musky Miguel) that I discovered Cecily’s poetry in a clandestine browser window of my Net-suckling laptop. I read, I understood, I knew immediately what was going on; that I must find this sinister poetess, that I must get to know everything about her, tame her, restrain her, shame her, destroy her reputation, silence her, silence her.
At that time Cecily Barnes — lover of anagrams, whose name, by the way, rearranges into “Lyric Absence” — wrote under a different pen name. Back then she was the more exotic and erotic-sounding Galaxia Gaudh. She was based in a brainy railroad town in Texas called College Station, and was — to use Jane Austen’s phrasing — still very much Galaxia then, untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless. I, meanwhile, a more youthful Zireaux, was desperately lonely, hurting and hateful; far too certain of what I’d become, far less certain of what I was.
I flew to LA and straight to Houston, took a rental car and some drugs. Mad, magnificent, unmarried days. On the outskirts of Houston I bought a 9mm Glock and box of bullets at a converted three-bedroom house with a signboard: “Arrowhead Guns and Ammo.” (So oxymoronic, the melting pot of American history). I bought the gun — not to use it, but, as that deranged narrator says in Mary Gaitskill’s brilliant “The Other Place”: to know I could.
Back on the highway, those hanging green recipe cards and their carefully measured exits — 3/4, 1/2 — grew shorter, less frequent, cooked up fewer burger joints out of the hot pancake terrain. Ten minutes past Hempstead I swerved to avoid what I thought was an armadillo (nothing but a sun-drenched tumble-bag), lost control of the car, and the local African-American sheriff, a friendly former boxer, ended up introducing me to his tow-truck driving granddaughter, a friendly former pageant queen — but where was I? Right. College Station. George Bush Drive. The one-bedroom apartment of Cecily Barnes, a.k.a. Galaxia Gaudh.
Now before I knock on that door, I must explain…or never mind, let’s just knock on that door:
“So much distance you’ve came here, Mr. Zero. Come in, come in. Such a flatterer you are for Galaxia. Some Irish Cream?”
That’s Branko, bald, burly, Latvian, punching his way through an English sentence while trying to activate an atrophied grin. Stolid, very big feet, I doubt the boxing Sheriff could have taken him down, not even in his, the Sheriff’s, prime.
“Where is she?” I asked from the living room’s squeaky white leather sofa. Beside me was a glass-topped table with a lone, twisted, long-embittered bonsai.
But to cut this story short — both time and audience are limited here — this bumbling Branko was so convivial, so charming, that I quite forgot my obsession with the vulgar poetess, his “Gal” as he called her, and before I could say “what cologne is that,” the two of us were driving to the local Dairy Queen for root beer floats, then drinks at Gatsby’s Bar, shooting the Glock near the water tower, then mini-golf, more drinks, a visit to a cute two bedroom cottage with a “for sale” sign on Appaloosa Avenue which, from the following month, we’d end up sharing for nearly three years like a good gay couple.
The point is this: We rarely let Galaxia come between us, or not until the end anyway, when, in the winter of 2005, I issued an ultimatum to my bruised Branko: It was either Galaxia or me. We had often talked about her, and I had made my position clear: “Snowball poems, diamantes, clarihews. Big whoop. She’s deaf to dialect. Always will be. Let’s see her produce a multi-layered sonnet.”
To which he’d reply: “Say what you want, mon amour. Her youth is a threatening for you, I know it. She’s read more books than yourself can ever. Writes faster. More prolificness. Did I tell you that Re:Visions Magazine is publishing her sestina series? Next stop, the New Yorker.”
Arguments in the shower. He called me a “friendless iconoclaster,” said I had an inflated sense of self, that I was condemned to obscurity, that the poet is not an individual, not even human, not worth our attention, but merely a vessel; and that poetry, like math and physics, has existed since the beginning of time, even before we acquired the voices to express it. “It’s there to be discovered, not created.”
I accused him of being afraid of other people’s feelings, of an inability to appreciate poetic passion, of suffering from a crippled cognition (okay, that was cruel), of being a Pygmalion in his laboratory (he was now a computer science doctorate, spending long nights away from home in the university’s computer lab). Galaxia, I declared, could never exist without people like me being sucked dry of our literary genius, and oh, while we’re being honest, I’ve always detected a faint but clearly discernible whiff of anti-semitism oozing from your pores.
We separated. I moved in with a beautiful art history student from New Zealand, soon married her, and we now live happily in Australia with Acacia, our daughter. Branko. of course, returned to his ungrateful Galaxia Gaudh. Did we love one another, Branko and I? I suppose we did, and I suppose it was because of my affection for Branko, this intimate bond of ours, that Galaxia — now Cecily Barnes — never trusted me, was determined in fact to destroy me, to elevate herself in Branko’s eyes as a poet of grandiosity and “prolificness.”
Over the next decade or so, I’d discover her poems in all sorts of respected journals, Granta, the New Yorker, bylined with numerous identities (“Umayu Funshock” my all time favorite). Her style was easily recognizable. The sentence patterns, her fondness for anagrams, the lifting of phrases from other poets and authors on Gutenberg.org (the line about “infinite pleasures,” for example, is from Balzac’s Gambara); not to mention her propensity for the word “stuttering,” a favorite anagram of hers. Her poetry is also marked by the vainglorious, a sense of immortality, and she often disparages the efforts of individual poets, especially poets like myself, seemingly sunk in insignificance, imprisoned in our heads, or living on “little isles,” bowl-bound by marriage, children, death.
I admit my career has never blossomed like it might have.
If I see any hope here, it’s in the strangling vines of competition, the rival forces of philistinism making fools of one another. How distressed Cecily and Branko must be by the corruption of her work. See how the creeper of surveillance spreads through the entirety of “Bonsai:” The NSA in “uNSAyable,” “spoNSAl,” “chaiNSAw,” in “BoNSAi” itself; and all those “spy”s in “wiSPY,” “raSPY,” “graSP Your;” not to mention the final couplet’s much-too-obvious — but perhaps heroic — anagram of “wonders dawned.”
Bonsai is a trivial work, indeed, a very bad poem, by a poet undeserving of our attention. It’s stunted, manicured, pruned by a collective aesthetic, shaped by the buffeting forces of self-infatuation. But even amidst such a vast dehumanization, there will always exist the “tiny jewels,” the “pleasures unknown, delights abstruse,” in the soil of its genesis; the leafy lanes of College Station, the monarchs and scarlet maple, the concentrated slice of Branko’s tennis backhand, the horrible oatmeal cookies he used to bake (his nose tipped with flour), the adorable collie pups we used to visit at Wiggles and Wags. The smell of Hugo Boss.