Tuesday
Jan102012

Boys' Own Stories

Victor Infante




1.

There are two things you need to know about pulling swords from stones: First, respect that the stone is a story, and outweighs you. Second, respect that the sword is a poem, and its only purpose is to cut.

2.

The last time I hit Cleveland was after a flood—waterlogged Motel 6 carpets reeked of mold, kept me awake, staring at flickering light bulbs on the other side of near-translucent curtains. The flood was already coursing my veins, sweeping me away from California, job dissolved like sugar in hot tea. I watched the night, as my wife lay asleep beside me, sleeping uneasily, as the ferrets scratched at the gate of their travel-cage, as mildew wafted to the nicotine-encrusted ceiling of an affordable motel alongside an uncertain highway leading East.

3.

Cleveland as estuary, where drops drizzled in Westward Exodus from pogrom winds – and all the dogs of Europe bark — pool into trickle, brook: Mikhel Segalovich, haberdasher, exile – dead of a heart attack while being robbed at gunpoint, his death a planet exploding in a young boy's sky, emeralds clenched tight, radioactive in his fists.

4.

The stone itself is unremarkable. Break it and there is only more stone. Drop it into the sea and it remains much the same, only smoothed by water. Eroding over time, perhaps, becoming a platform for coral. 

Stones are sturdy things. Skip them across a lake on a summer's evening and they will glint in the sun and disappear. Put them in a dead man's jacket and he will sink to the bottom of the river.

Given craft and time the stones can become a fireplace, a house, a ward against winter – or be carved into war heroes, greeting visitors to parks or city halls.

Place a sword inside a stone and it is something else entirely.

5.

I detested the job but losing it transformed me into petrified wood.

The lacerations of a thousand paper cuts, tiny incisions of electric bills, credit cards, and where I bled the earth seeped in, crystallized in my veins.

And as my circulation slowed, I sunk into the ground, pressurized beneath rent's exponential weight, its acceleration of age and gravity.

Soon, there was no man in the mirror — skinless, bone dissolved to dust — what reflected back were mineral deposits where once I recognized a face.

And all the while, the echo of the body is screaming from across the room — Fight, damn you. Fight. There's still sword in you. Fight.

6.

1934: Two Jewish boys from Cleveland carve a superhero from folklore and wish-fulfillment: a golem from beyond the stars, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,  battling criminals and slumlords alike.

Soon after, Errol Flynn appeared in American theaters. "Captain Blood," Flynn and Basil Rathbone locked in a dervish of flashing steel and grins, deadly ballet of edges and perilous gangplank and in the end injustice righted, all slaves freed.

1935: America buckling beneath the weight of empty stocks and Europe barking into a night that sung to be filled with stars.

7.

California was to be the end of exodus, last land discovered, final destination of gold rush and wagon trains, Manifest Destiny, no further frontier save the unforgiving ocean itself.

They came to ignite new constellations, and in their wake the Earth itself transformed to stone, rivers diverted to bring fresh water, homes growing, multiplying tight as to engulf the hills.

Here, where dashed dreams become pollutants and the seaboard itself has grown a carapace; here, where comic books become the currency of culture and spotlights flicker and fade with no warning; here, where I found an end to wandering, respite against the violence of my youth, here where the ocean eased nightmares, lulled me into believing that I could be the son of Mikhel Segalovich — casting this turmoil into something otherwordly. What then, this recognition of leaving, back turned against the ocean, reverse exodus, march back to Egypt from a place where fields lay fallow, seeded, as they were, by stones?

8.

Fatherless, I taught myself to shave, dipping cool metal into hot water, running it along the contours of my face.

Sharp edges nicked skin, drew small and bloody omens of what it meant to carve myself into a man.

Not everything that cuts is sword: The scalpel, in a surgeon's hands, knits wounds, lacerates dead cells, can sing a body back toward life; And for the young musician, sharp blades may fall on flesh that simply yearns to feel when the guitar is insufficient.

For the predator, the switchblade is a tool of the trade and for the prey it is a funeral dirge — silence, a body sunk by stories to the bottom of a bay.

It is difficult to articulate the difference between a sword and other blades, save this: a sword is foremost a weapon of war.

9.

Do not tell me a poem is not a weapon of war. I was among the Normans when the "Song of Roland" called me to battle against the Saracens, and I listened in the New York streets as Whitman drummed the beats of war and I read Yeats in the Dublin newspapers before an Easter turned red.

These poems are metal in my blood, slice against the inside of my chest. There is a sword in me, an edge that cuts me when all feeling ebbs, when I become too much the stone of violence and poverty, a story made commonplace in repetition across headlines of the daily news.

10.

We speak often of the sword and stone, but the lake? The lake is where we pause.

In one version of the story, a peasant wrests a sword from the dreary fact of stone, revealing his life has been a charade — that he is heir to a kingdom.

In another version a king quests for the grail of truth, and is met instead by a woman who rises from a lake and presents him with a sword.

Call her Vivienne, Nimue — name her Virginia Woolf, woman with too much sword in her; call her Orlando — the sword is not a gift. It is birthright and curse.

11.

As a child in Western Pennsylvania, I lingered on the edge of lakes, reaching small hands into streams to catch frogs, learning ineptly how to fish.

The first time I cast a line into the lake I pulled a bass, and my joy turned to fear as it shook itself into spasm, until finally I cast it back and it disappeared into water.

The day after the job evaporated I took a razor to my chin and drew no blood.

12.

And I stared aghast as Owen held my face to the trenches, unveiling the old lie, and I stood beside Ferlinghetti at Nagasaki, radioactive city hot beneath his open palms.

And still, I find myself casting lines into mystery, finding only convulsion, a flopping death resting at my feet. And still I find my pockets filled with stones, and still I am sinking.

13.

East, now, with the Atlantic crashing in the distance — returned to tumultuous sea. When money trickled to drops we accepted an offer from my wife's family, shelter while we rebuilt. I had an ocean in my mouth then, head full of saltwater, hands reaching for the hilt of phantom swords, an itch tormenting my palms, fingers cutting flesh in keystrokes — because I know no other way to transmute boiling blood.

14.

The violence and the poverty are facts, and outweigh you. Reach your hand into them, knowing you'll draw blood in the process. The cinema depicts Arthur grasping the sword's hilt. This is a lie.

When you reach into the stone, you will grab the sword's blade, and the pain will be vivid, gunshots in Midwest cities, atom bombs. It's a weapon of war. Expectation of pain is reasonable.

The sword will not make you a king. It's only purpose is to cut. It is a terrible beauty you hold in your hand. Like Siegel did, like Yeats, like all these voices echoing across the lake's placid façade.

Cast it back into water and watch it sink. It will return again when needed. That part of the story was the truth.