We will have to reckon, I guess, with our taste
for the way the city has gathered itself
in layers, like a canyon. We want that there
can be a map of desire, that some places
are liberated and others forbidden.
The last man pours a kettle onto the floor,
proceeds to mop.
It was like a painting in the sense that at
first it was hard to tell what was going on.
What had sounded like yelling was rough music
changing pitch as blood rose and fell in our ears.
By the time we arrived much had already
spoiled. We knew then that something always would have
Unhappy in the ways it is right to be,
people here pray eagerly to gods of time,
of the hours and the minutes. “Don’t you like it
at all?” These buildings are famous for losing
people. “I must. Or I’ve gotten used to it.”
A flock of angels: their mouths open in song
and in hunger.
Thick twists of smoke rise from conversations in
gardens where flowers are dry but not yet dead.
Madge, Howe, Anita, Bobbi, and Dee gather
the herbs necessary for my father’s musk.
Good of them, especially so because they
had not known him very well, very long, or
even by blood.
In the cold months: the burrowing sound of mouse,
squirrel, and pigeon in the walls. The building
hisses at us, its current fare. “I’ve lost all
my earrings.” “How?” “People bite them off my ears.”
Our lights do not allow for vision here, but
only mark distances. We navigate these
dim rooms by touch.
Suddenly my mother’s voice telling me to
“lance the boil.” I am half asleep. Those who would
populate my dreams have filed in, are waiting
cool and expressionless to be given parts.
the phone rings and is at my ear. I am to
meet them under the triumphal arch at dawn—
failing dawn, 6.
The Sturdy Beggars
Outside a little pornographic theater
called Plato’s Cave, one man clears the stairs with a
shovel made for digging. Another scrapes the
sidewalk with the short end of a 2’x4’.
The men have the sharp and defiant aspect
of their tools. Later they must soften with this
salt in their skin.
Face as puffy as a jacket from crying,
the docent walks expertly backward. She says
“The Sun City,” but it is night. I am in
a movie palace suddenly bright with a
daytime scene: back in my body, clutching its
balled coat, remembering what is growing cold
in the pocket.
Her lips move but do not seem to form the words
she speaks. It is as if her part has been found
unsatisfactory and dubbed over by
another person. We sit over hot plates,
near to the unlit cloakroom, under antique
photos of when they rebuilt the cities as
they used to be.
She wanted to love him and found her reasons,
which explains also why she no longer does.
He would watch all day the blinking lights of a
currency exchange in line with the others,
leave the line at 5 and go sit at a drink,
his face like a university building
that had been shelled.
I see at once something I can understand
in her bottom row of teeth: crooked, the dry
parts of her smile crackling in her mouth. Pigeons
on leave from their usual loiter perch on
the sign above its strange lettering. One bush
from the row has kept its leaves through the winter
His was a good face on which to watch the crest
fall. The room was hot with shit and matchsmoke, lit
by a south-facing window, its sill bothered
by bugs of 2 and 3 parts. The pane itself
is smeared hopelessly by paint. The color does
not match any of the gray-blue walls. I point
out the cracked tile.
Something exactly right at the opera
with their concern for singing above all else.
The soprano’s face was made with a hammer
out of lead. Their cloth castle shudders, and 2
in the ensemble mime enthusiastic
talk of other things. Their expressions belong
to our own time.
“You’re not making this easy.” She cannot trust
her whisper—have the others heard? “Well I’m not
trying to make it easy.” From an unseen
drawer, he produces his collection of
rattles. They make no sound at all in his hands.
“If I could,” he hums, “I’d give my love to what
never had it.”
“He’s too shy to ask for a ransom,” she kids,
meaning me, embarrassing everyone but
herself. The others leave into a downpour,
washing the crust of that day’s taste from their mouths’
corners. “So what should we do about him?” she
asks, referring to a problem that I had
Fumbling about, leaving manners to the light,
we find and thrill to each other. There is the
mournful sensation of something permanent
having been done in a dream. To see in each
building if its tenants sleep or wake at this
hour (and if so what kind of light) is to see
much else besides.
She runs her lithe fingers through the sugar bowl,
explaining the latest wrinkle while we eat.
There will no longer be a clock in the room
where 1 of us is to watch the other read
from the book of names. “History is a place
where we will meet again, but first we go our
These periods of complete fantasy are
followed by others of intense forgetting.
Women with faces that are all lips and brows
jockey for position in the crosswalk. Their
men keep several steps behind, picking up
litter; taking small, ragged breaths. Time stood still,
but not for long.
Maxwell Paparella lives in New York City. His writing has appeared in Art Papers, BOMB Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, Screen Slate, and elsewhere. More of his work can be found at www.maxwellpaparella.com.
Brittany Laurent (b. 1992) is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of the MFA program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the co-founder and librarian of Flatbush Commons. Her work can be found at www.brittanylaurent.me