Like Some Pocket History of the World, So General
—title after John Ashbery
How the nightmare procession unfolds.
We’re stuck in Jacob’s dream about a ladder—
the ladder where angels go up and down, glaring.
Serpentine, they almost hiss, a stretching silence.
Serpentine footfalls stretch silence up and down.
Dimes clink beneath a black steel banister.
People’s spirits fall and clink beneath black steel.
Grocery sacks are lead as people trudge.
They trudge upstairs, lugging lead, their lungs aflame.
Angels pass them wearing surgical masks.
Angels in surgical masks wield scalpel eyes.
Antiseptic aloofness is a scalpel.
Scalpels aloof, angels avoid contagion.
A fall. A clatter. No hand to catch.
The Old Man Looks Strangely at the Sea
—title after John Ashbery
He stands atop a breakwater among friends—
friends time has worn to strangers, hidden stones.
Time, a stranger, falls and hides between stones.
Flotsam litters sand inside an hourglass.
Flotsam clogs the neck of an hourglass.
The sea rises amidst it to drench or cleanse.
To drench or cleanse? The sea rises.
The mute moon sits above his left shoulder.
Above his left shoulder, the mute moon sits,
gazing with empty eyes at water now sand.
Water now sand falls back, crests and swallows.
Sand foams the spot where he disappears.
He watches the tide at the spot where he’d disappear.
He stands atop a breakwater among friends.
The title of “Like Some Pocket History of the World, So General” is from “Grand Gallop” in John Ashbery’s poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The passage from which this line is taken, while it refers to the New York skyline, couldn’t help but relate in my mind to the added sense of transience and uncertainty brought by the Covid pandemic:
As long as one has some sense that each thing knows its place
All is well, but with the arrival and departure
Of each one overlapping so intensely in the semi-darkness
It’s a little mad. Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each for just a fleeting second
Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole,
Like the pocket history of the world, so general
As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated
To any attempt at definition.
This passage, along with a photograph by Kenneth Borg of people going up and down an apartment stairway, brought to mind Jacob’s dream of a ladder from earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12).
A much earlier version of this poem appeared in Silver Birch Press’s “Wearing a Mask” series [30 May 2020].
The title of “The Old Man Looks Strangely at the Sea” is from “And Forgetting” in Ashbery’s poetry collection Hotel Lautréamont. The complete line reads, “I loomed in the background. The old man looked strangely at the sea.”
In pre-duplex drafts, I focused on the duality of myself and the old man—more specifically a man standing on a breakwater, watching early-morning waves at a beach campground just north of Ventura, California. Concentrating on the old man sharpened the poem’s focus—and brought home some unresolved issues. I currently have a close family member who suffers from dementia.
The duplex form was created by Jericho Brown in 2018, and five duplexes appear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, The Tradition. He writes,
I was asking myself: What does a sonnet have to do with anyone’s content? And if the presumed content of a sonnet is that it’s a love poem, how do I—a believer in love—subvert that.... [H]ow do I get a form that is many forms?*
Brown starts with the 14 lines of the sonnet (and perhaps also its three-part argument, which Peggy Seyburn warned me about while I was an MFA student at Cal State Long Beach and which scared me from attempting sonnets on my own). Within those 14 lines, he crosses the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated lines linked in couplets, endemic to the ghazal, while keeping to the blues poem’s line length of between nine and 11 syllables. The opening line of the poem reappears as its final line.
I love the duplex’s flexibility, extreme musicality, and potential for unpredictability within what might seem a rigid form. This said, I have not followed all the rules. Instead of repeating the second line of the poem verbatim as the third, the fourth line as the fifth, and so on, I’ve used the same words in varying order, much as a composer might invert a musical theme. Let’s hope I don’t get spanked too severely for my errant ways.
Brown, Jericho. “From the Archive: Pulitzer Prize Winner Jericho Brown’s ‘Invention’” (May 15, 2020). Poetry Foundation: Harriot Books: Featured Blogger (accessed July 24, 2021):
is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer with an MFA from California State
University, Long Beach. His work has appeared in San Pedro Poetry Review,
Synkroniciti, West Texas Literary Review, Gleam: Journal of the Cadralor,
MacQueen’s Quinterly, and other publications. His second poetry chapbook,
Beneath a Glazed Shimmer, won the 2019 Clockwise Chapbook Prize and was
published in February 2021 by Tebor Bach.
Four Cherita, micro-poems plus poet’s commentary by
Jonathan Yungkans in Issue 9 of MacQ (August 2021)
Lawful and Proper, poem by Yungkans in Rise Up Review
Cadralor in the Key of F-Sharp as It Cuts into My Spine in
the inaugural issue of Gleam (Fall 2020)
I’d Love to Cook Like Hannibal Lecter [video], read
by the poet at an event sponsored by Moon Tide Press (10 October 2019) celebrating
the anthology Dark Ink: A Poetry Anthology Inspired by Horror
⚡ Saving the Patient, poem in The Voices Project
(18 January 2018)