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Adult Strength (A Psychological Gallery)

adult strength

          I
Neuroses are not popular these days
Although my married friends all have them.
So they take meds and play
With possibilities. Otherwise, they don’t survive long
In the darkness. The vended pills, precise dosages at proper times,
The white scalloped paper cups half-filled
With tepid, highly chlorinated water.

My friends all pray their hearts out that their treasures
            Are not to be found in the dispensaries of this world

For the orderlies in the vineyard are few
            But the orderlies in the vineyard are strong.

          II
A woman I knew, not a friend, had married young
And spent her tenderness like a season’s first crop of honey
Unaware that a late-July blight is eating away at the honeycomb,
Aborting the queen. She always carries
The odor of late August hayfields, the tanned and broken stalks
Mown down and laid out beneath the sun in dusty rows.
She spreads her hands over my coverlet like a nurse in the war.

Her mind a cold bunker of last resort, she grew into her adult strength
With the soft shape of a slender teardrop hanging forever
In open space. I could not see her beyond that space and now
She carries on as if the world behind her eyes
Is counting down in dust motes to an explosion of lint beneath her bed.
I once watched her fall asleep in a sunny parlor chair,
The barbiturates pouted her lips to the edge of endurance.

As she slept, she spread her hands over the coverlet like a lover in the war.

          III
This poem is not a chair; it is a table of contents.
This poem is not a pen; it is ink spilled in a cold war with death.
This poem seeks to spread its hands out like wind that dents a clover field.
This poem is not words; it is the mind that sees,
Not a terminal palm tree (with apologies to Hartford Indemnity)
But a fist clenching at a handful of pills spilling out in all shapes and sizes.
It’s what’s seizing us:

We, out of our minds at the end of all possible poems.

          IV
Exempla abound: Take my friend the thinker. He once was
A political philosopher but now
He lives in the mountains, his back against the sea, reliving lore
From a long-dead civil war, his narrator’s voice grown silent as a gulag.
He teaches catechism to those who don’t care,
And even though it doesn’t pay well,
He believes the job is worth more than the money.

Or at least the money and maybe more.
But he was younger back when I knew him first; we both were.
He had a million wisdoms locked behind his eyes.
They were eyes, I recall, as blue as Kentucky clover.
His wife keeps the bottles hidden from visiting parishioners.
He keeps his wife hidden from
The blue shadow of winter, and even today

He will not come out from under that mountain’s blue shadow.

          V
Another case is another philosopher friend;
He had vowed himself for a while to a more pure kind of wisdom.
But relenting, he bound himself like Prometheus
To a lot of “ologies.” He’d drive himself crazy
When I wasn’t driving him to his head doctor. I forget
What happened to him the first time; but before long
He was concrete as an angel’s name again—

Yet still inconsolably abstracted
To the point of distraction all the same.
Now he does his own taxes, pays his bills on time
And keeps a sad eye on his wife—and she lives by the skin of his teeth,
That wife of his. Meanwhile, his life is a series
Of manila folders staggered neatly
On his desk between the blotter

And a pair of tapered brass pens
Set in their holders, sprouting from his desktop
Like a cuckold’s ears.
He could not know how his wife needed to open a vein.
She merely looked on in a mirror
At seven times seven years of some kind of luck
And discovered

Seven times seven years of beautiful loss staring back.

          VI
As for my own tendencies, they live on like business cards
Set on the careless edge of a bookcase.
Or, to my mind, I drift toward the ragged transient heaps camped out
Above heating grates near a subway station.
Could be trash. Could be human.
Either way, they continue on, unedited, in northern cities,
And either don’t know or don’t care.

Perhaps they are waiting for warmer weather that never comes.

          VII
Let us pray:

Dear Great Silences: —Miserere.

Dear Infinite Spaces: —Miserere.

Dear Orderly Universe: —Miserere.

Dear Successive Darknesses: —Miserere.

Pray for us, that ours may be the treasures of the dispensary.
Pray for us, that, unseen by the orderlies,
            We may stroll the vineyards in peace.

          VIII
Dressed in white trousers and jackets again tonight,
The needles are out like chromium fangs:
They glisten beneath the skittish glow of mercury vapor—
Lights Out.—Lights Out.—Lights Out.—now swallowed in darkness
Down this long gallery of tempered glass,
Through these long corridors of scuffed floors.
Then a fugitive sound.

Then a silence captured in the utopia of opposing mirrors.
Experience has taught that
Such a battle line never budges. Fixed as a star.
Lights out, but the lungs fill with insomnia like mustard gas.
And now I watch the imperious moon that hangs outside my window,
Its hooded eye appearing, peering
Into the long torpid hours that follow….

Like armies in the night, we all live in pillboxes these days.
We don’t pray for orderliness in the dispensary.
But we do pray that reinforcements come soon. Tonight. Now.
Lights out. Lights out.
Lights out.
We all live here as if our lives depended on it.
Tonight.

Now.