"Sometimes I make believe"
the city is still strange and new to me. Sometimes I don't have to make believe
and sometimes I believe it. Over coffee an agent tells me
air is doing much better
than books we should
just sell air
don't sell yourself
short I said
I guess my question is a question of ethics and prostitution and art. All three a question or one question that involves all three. Over coffee, which I take black, she puts on a smile and pours cream in her cup and we sit on the edge of 25th and Seventh with a view of construction and dogs shitting and a MOVING? sign with graffiti all around a man who is smiling, or at least he was. At one time. I guess my question is silence and I picture my silence and how a little later I'd take the subway in silence and arrive at my entrance in silence up the stairs slowly and in silence turn the key into the doorknob and turn the lights off in silence and turn them on again and turn them off again so I can see myself in the dark reflecting in the mirror I don't have in my studio and in the dark and silence I'd take off my shirt and my shoes in silence with my feet under the bed and in silence I'd feel the length of myself and how I kind of coil like a snake when I think in silence and I take out my smile in silence and put my hand around myself and watch myself grow in my hand in the dark and the silence and I walk to the faucet and put my head under and swallow water in silence still thirsty with my stomach swollen and never sated and I turn my blinds open so I can see the blades streaking through myself in silence bisected and prismed into so many other selves I raise my hands in prayer and silence and lie myself down to be by myself in silence that sounds complete the way you do when you want to ask yourself something I guess my question is
Why stop at air? My agent laughs and pours more cream in her cup which shakes every time a moving truck rattles by. A dog sits at the corner. A dog shits at the corner, I mean. Sometimes I do that, I say. Do what? my agent asks, circling her spoon around the cup's edge, making it sing. Mistake one thing for another. I'm not sure I follow, she says and I tell her about the memoir I'd like her to sell. Ethics, prostitution, art. Everything's a question for something else. Don't sell yourself, I tell myself in silence. Don't sell yourself short, my agent tells me, except she is speaking out loud. Tell me more, she says. Please. One thing I've hardly told anyone was how it was when I had thirteen stitches etched across my face. I was twelve. I always thought I was ugly but when I saw my face in the mirror in my parents' home—they have three, three mirrors I mean—I really knew it. How it happened was I was sitting on a couch in the basement playing a video game and looking from the game to my dog and my dog to the game and after a particularly good score I bent down to kiss her. She was sleeping and having a bad dream and the kiss scared her so she kissed me back except with teeth and my face was a bloody mess and I was even uglier than I ever imagined even in my own bad dreams I was so ugly I wanted to deface myself and I guess my question is Why did I wait so long?
I guess now you know something you never knew before the things that Google doesn't show you the things that Wikipedia hasn't already cited among its most recent listing and at the very least when you walk into my apartment and see I don't own a mirror or rather you don't see a mirror you know why. Ethics, prostitution, art. Are the three of them mutually exclusive? I guess not. I guess my question is
What else do you have to do today? Should we get the check or should we stay a little longer? I remember the city when I was just a boy in the backseat of a car passing, a journey which began in New Jersey and ended in Brooklyn. I had so many stories in my head and I sat there in silence to stay a little longer imagining all the homes we passed and the basketball courts and the dirt-stained tenement buildings and the sky rises that pointed like an erection up to the sky and made the rain come down in silence looking while listening. On Diamond Street, for a dollar you could get two slices of pizza and my babci's favorite soft drink, a red powder you mixed into water and stirred until it spread evenly through the glass. And it was sweet and made my eyes water. The whole apartment smelled like cabbage and kielbasa. I loved the city even more than I do now, even though it's always a question of MOVING? and shaking and reinventing itself the same way I do at least twice a week maybe more maybe less my girlfriend tells me I lack focus. I tell her it's because I never really look at myself. I don't own a mirror.
"When in Rome, or Brooklyn"
Which might as well be the same place in late October of 2015 I tie my Nike Frees & free myself in stride amid the intermezzo'd flux of people who just rose or still rising along Atlantic Avenue the sound of gates clanging & the same man I see once or twice a day asking me to spare some change. Brooklyn in late October of 2015 is more & more like Rome or Rome is more & more like Brooklyn because I see the She-wolf with twins the pulsing Four Rivers fountain Via del Corso & its absolute straightness the dome that signals God on my screen as I walk over Atlantic I walk along the Tiber living two lives or really one life in two places separated by nothing not even the Atlantic's turbid body confluence my screen which cuts all distances between the people I know & love the people I hardly know at all.
I'd been watching Rome, looking at Google Earth where I can get a 360-degree image of my surroundings & all of the surrounding elements: commuters on mopeds or riding bicycles, red & green Fiats honking at the light, the stroller pushed to the piazza's edge & probably left there, thirty-six months later, which is the average approximated delay of the street view Google Earth's satellite affords. I was particularly interested in watching Rome because Nuovi Argomenti, an arts & culture quarterly founded in Rome in 1953, when Pasolini was its editor, was publishing several of my short stories that had not yet been published in America, translated into Italian by a man I'd met on Facebook(1).
I wanted to get the lay of the land, even if I was getting the land-as-it-looked-three years ago, or longer. I wanted to feel like a local before I arrived, in the event that I'd be reading, or presenting, or talking about, for instance, why I chose to write a suicide letter in the form of a review for Madonna's "Like A Prayer." Probably I'd been watching because I like to prepare a face for the people & places that I'll meet & one thing that's been said about me that I actually believe to be true is that I'd rather imagine things than live them. The Roman Forum, the Circo Massimo, the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, with its doric columns arching above the altar like a big dick I used to wave good-bye to other runners as I ran past them, at track meets & sometimes even on the street. We hardly ever consider our own actions until much later. Expectations make up so much more.
I was in Rome for a day, back in 2008. All I remember was the gelato I ate standing outside the Colosseum, where San Gregorio & Claudia meet. On Google Earth, I'm probably still standing there.
In Paris, two or three years later, the same thing happened except I wasn't standing. Broke & traveling alone I only had enough Euros to eat ice cream, what the café on the Quai de la Tournelle called une glace, which also means mirror. I sat there with a view of Notre Dame & the Seine & everything else I didn't have a name for, only thinking it was significant & I was significant for being a part of it, crossing & uncrossing my legs & running a hand through my hair as I spooned my cream with the other not knowing at the time or knowing too well that what I actually held in my hand was a mirror. I wanted to see myself sitting there & make it last, this moment & the one that came before & all the others I'd never have at this café as all of Paris walked by after I walked by too. I held the spoon in my mouth so I could suck the rest.
(1) I never doubted the Internet's potential to connect strangers & form enduring relationships.
"down in it"
I went down in it and wrote a poem called down in it that takes place down in it, on the F train, because that's where I was when I was heading uptown to meet another poet setting in motion a companion or sequel or remix of Nine Inch Nail's 1989 single "Down In It" which features the uplifting chorus "I was up above it" before getting really dark but instead started writing about all the things that were flashing, in my mind and outside of it, most of which didn't make it into the poem:
Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, flash flood alerts, bizarre love triangle, child monsters, child stars, Macaulay Culkin and his less celebrated brothers, Kieran and Rory, brothers, the film called Brothers starring Macaulay and Elijah Wood, good/evil binaries, celebrity worship, celebrity shaming, Sartre, my misspelling of Sartre, Dionysian rites by campfire, horse heads, the soft whistle of the wind, my friend in Rome who is not a poet but who loves to write about TV and movies and mostly watch them, the film I thought was called Brothers but which is actually called The Good Son, air-conditioned breeze on my back, lips, ass, FaceTime, which I'd only used for the first time yesterday evening, my face, my girlfriend, whom I had left earlier in the morning, on the F train no less, her face, sated and glowing, my porn star predilections or more than likely, inflated ego, my face again, terrible silences, beautiful silences, Boxed Water, Mexican Coke, New Order, the rain coming hard on East Fourth (at the gym working my way through the imaginary oval on an elliptical), come-soaked sidewalks, my growing penis the tuft between my something sweet I can't see with my own eyes poem I'm writing called down in it length of how much I love to give to my loved ones death of art my balls again imaginary ovals imaginary eggs cosmic shape of origin and being why can't we be ourselves like we were yesterday my mother and father at home in New Jersey moving through a house with their eyes shut sprinkler sets kicking in the distance a state of grace indescribable yet felt at some point by everyone everywhere in the time it takes to change the channel
I'm reading Nausea and feeling
nauseous and also
nauseated is that
is it literary realism
is that called empathy
such talent for placing
myself inside another
on the uptown F
surrounded by so
many strangers who might
also be thinking
the same thing
or is that Satyr's way
of saying the top ten
child stars who look
then they did
I got a glimpse
though I can't
load a thing between
stops so I
busy and dream
on the way home, I passed a man selling bananas, three for a dollar. I was hard up for cash, and I told him so. It was the first time I had ever used that phrase, hard up for cash. The man didn't speak any English. I didn't know how else to articulate how desperate I was, or how desperate I was trying to be. I formed a frown and let him have it and he suddenly looked sad. Is that sympathetic imitation? Is it literary realism? Is it empathy? The man shook his head and crossed his arms and I trudged away, two more blocks till I reached my home on the edge of Atlantic and Smith, breathing heavy because I was still frowning and that takes real pull. I thought of texting my mom and dad in New Jersey, I thought of calling my girlfriend, Lauren, I thought of sending a stream of shirtless photos to one of my students, I thought of bounding up the stairs and kicking off my clothes and jerking off until I came, all over myself and everywhere, I thought of Sartre and how sad it was I'd never read anything by him and still, Fjords Review's review of Going Down cites Sartre, and several other writers I had never read, and I frowned again, this one longer and deeper, and even more complex. (I am out of breath) How sad it was, I thought, except I said, How sad it is. How sad it is that I haven't read Sartre or Ashbery or Heller or Nietzsche or Proust, all of them men and here I am, already almost dead. If I wanted to do anything worthwhile with the day, I'd have to go back to Manhattan and meet up with Adam, who lives in Alphabet City and runs a poetry school that has residencies all over and in order to do that, I'd have to go down in it, right to the heart of it, something like Joseph Conrad described back when I was still reading him. It didn't take long. Somewhere between Bergen and Jay, I thought of a poem called down in it, because Sartre was sitting on my lap and everyone was in their own world and the train was stalled and the windows were black but not so black that I couldn't see the half-formed outline of the train crossing tracks in another direction catching a glimpse of everyone else in that train who'd stalled at some point too somewhere in the middle looking helpless and helplessly looking down at Sartre and looking back toward my iPhone and looking down at Sartre whom I still haven't read.
Chris Campanioni teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. His "Billboards" poem responding to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and Tupelo Quarterly and lives in Brooklyn, where he wrote his Death of Art, available now from C&R Press.