Brooks Haxton

Published in Panhandler Issue 1

Brooks Haxton has published five collections of poems with Alfred A. Knopf: Dominion, Traveling Company, The Sun at Night, Nakedness, Death, and the Number Zero, and Uproar. His two book-length narrative poems are The Lay of Eleanor and Irene and Dead Reckoning. As a translator, he has published two collections from the ancient Greek, Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus and Dances for Flute and Thunder, and a bicentennial selection of poems by Victor Hugo, all three from Viking Penguin. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington D.C. Council for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.  He teaches in the writing programs at Syracuse University and Warren Wilson College and lives in Syracuse with his wife and three children.

Rodan & Rambo vs. Rimbaud & Rodin

-to Kenneth Koch (1925-2002)

After Rimbaud wrings the neck of eloquence,
his namesake Rambo cannot speak—confused,
misunderstood, he means no harm, but has to kill
a small-town deputy, maim fifty men,
and set the town on fire to clarify.

Most audiences find Stallone as Rambo
more appealing than Rimbaud himself,
particularly when we see the poet wreck
his bon ami Verlaine’s whole life—
Verlaine, indifferent to his children
and his wife, deranged, degraded, brings
a pistol to his mother’s house
and in the bedroom wounds his incubus,
Rimbaud, who calls the cops
and has him thrown for two years
into jail in Belgium.

Rambo does time too, for murder. Even Rimbaud
does a day, I think, for his incompetence
at stiffing a conductor for the fare.

At twenty-one, his fling with poetry and poets
flung, Rimbaud leaves home for tropical adventure
as a grunt—like Rambo, dabbling later

in the gore and filth of mercenary chic.
First names add to the confusion. Jean,
the prodigy of petulance, is Rimbaud;

John, the posterboy of peeve, is Rambo.
Rodan (the supersonic, pyropneustic,
mutated pteranodon in monster movies
from Japan) is not much like Rodin
(whose “Thinker” looks to me more pumped
than pensive), but raw power seems
to govern most activities of both.

Rimbaud meets Rambo in Rodin,
prodigious thirst for novelty in bed
exacerbated by a not-so-bright boy’s
passion for the ripped physique.

Rodan, more Rambolike than Rodinesque,
sets fires and runs amok. Not one man
of the three, much less the reptile,
earns renown for tenderness.

Three swift conclusions here
might be: (1) populism—cheering
for the paramilitary dash of both
Rodan and Rambo, with contempt
for the pretensions of Rimbaud and Rodin;
(2) elitism—deeming Rodin and Rimbaud
superior, or Rambo and Rodan superior,
because of psycho-social
and politico-esthetic rationales;
or (3) crypto-nihilism—disingenuous
nostalgia for the act of finding
value ever anywhere at all.

My values are rimbaldiennes, at least
in that his poems seem to me in my “maturity,”
as once to him in his, beside the point,
also in my finding Rambo fun to watch.

Rodin I loved when I was seventeen
and wanted muscles more like those
he sculpted, to attract girls more
like those he sculpted and seduced,
which still seems theoretically
worthwhile, although the aftertaste
of Rodin’s oeuvre on my palate now
is schmaltzier than it is fiery.

For true fieriness of palate, Rodan rules.
He’s bigger, meaner, faster, and more
charismatic than the other three,
and better looking than Godzilla, too,
the roundedness about whose muzzle
always struck me as a little mawkish.

We bohemians, however, most of us,
prefer the goddess Mothra, the benevolent
Rodan-sized moth with fairies
in kimonos singing on board in their cage.
She guards an island paradise
of high symbolic consummation,
wherefor every mortal yearns,
though my preadolescent wonder
at the strangeness up there on the screen
has dwindled. What I need
to see me through late middle age
may be that female touch
of tremulous, huge, feathery antennae.

Meanwhile, on Baudelaire and Bogart,
on beaux idéals in general,
I will be forever unironic
in my praise, but not today.

Breathless: Patooie and the Housing of the Soul

-to Dr. Robert Harris McCarter, Psychologist

With psyche baffled by the common cold,
and sinuses pulsating, I read books
about the problems in my head, and drink.

Vesalius, who sawed the tops off skulls
to map the secret chambers in the brain,
was sentenced by the Church to burn alive,
for noting that the brain and not the heart
housed consciousness. They would have let him make
a pilgrimage instead, except he died
en route of fever.

True anatomy,
they said, came from the Greek of Galen.
In his book, the hypothalamus,
left feverish by phlegma (flame), made phlegm,
which drained and cooled the psyche (meaning breath).
Green nose goop (that’s pituita in Latin,
here patooie) was gray matter. Brains,
in other words, leaked out your nose from what
my source describes as a “small somewhat
cherry-shaped double structure attached
by a stalk to the base of the midbrain,”
your so-called pituitary.

About the common cold,
Descartes, who died of one, and all the doctors
since antiquity were wrong. But when they thought
pituitaries must affect the humors
we call hormones they were right! Descartes,
of course, believed the soul exhorts the flesh
at just one spot, in the pineal gland:
behind the nose, the known world is a bubble
trembling in a cup of bone.

The nose itself,
if everything were turned to smoke, would be
the seat of judgment, Heraclitus said.
He thought, in the abysmal dark, the soul
is known by scent.

If I could breathe,
it might inspire my soul, but Aeolus,
the god who stirs the breath of wind, the soul
of soul, has left me breathless.

Whiskey helps,
they say, though Coleridge, drunk at thirty, dulled
with pain, his marriage failing, opium
unmanning him, heard Aeolus, the world
soul, sob, and moan, and when the storm hit, scream,
in his aeolian lute, and nothing helped.

Under the midbrain, over the pharynx,
in a tiny hollow in the lower skull,
a cherry dangles from the infundibulum
and synthesizes humors that induce
the glands to tell the cells to grow,
and yearn, and rage — and reproduce.

This fire attended by the soul, this phlegma
in the center of the head, is also called
in Greek hypophysis, or under-growth. The soul
is crouching in the undergrowth. Tears form,
I snuffle, things look blurred, but I can feel,
as Heraclitus felt, in pyr aéizöon my soul,
a breath inside an everliving flame.