All language is a game, Wittgenstein says, but he never says how to win.
I’m doing my best, though, got my poker face on, a Venetian mask of pearls
(that were his eyes), dressed in the body of the Queen of Spades.
And no one ever tells me what we win. Maybe a new spade. A new mask
when the old one wears out, new pearls from new eyes, the better to see you with,
my dear, the better to see the card you hold, the thing you hide in your pocket.
And it’s true, with these new eyes, drops of cream on satin, I see things I’d missed before.
A tulip the size of an ambulance, yellow, with its tongue out. And a man in a black
coat, facing the sea where the pearls were made. Holding a spade.
The tulip stepped in from someone else’s game, but the spade at least is mine.
It’s got a nick in it, like a chipped tooth. A toothsome spade, I think as I dig with care
Around the tulip, to send it back to where it came. Some other game, some other story.
In Pushkin’s story, the Queen of Spades, the Count of St Germaine knows the secret for
winning the game, but it’s no good, it never is. Better to keep on digging.
The spade, someone told me, can also be a sword. If you press it flat enough.
If you press me flat enough I might fit on a card, in the pocket of the man in the black
coat who might be Wittgenstein, Or he might be the Count of St. Germaine, or the Stranger.
He’s playing to win, all right, plucking the tulips from all the other stories, and the pearls
from the oysters’ shells, and in his pocket all our teeth rattle like swords.
Whatever it is we’re making, it takes a lot of breaking, first.
It’s not only happiness that hangs by a silver thread.
Even bland contentment, the everyday, is eggshell thin,
and eggshell thin the bars that hold the old
hungry god, crouched like a monkey in his iron cage.
Still falls the rain, we read, in class this evening, and stepping
out into the night we found a late snow swirling, rushing up
sideways to lodge within our bones. In the poem the rain was bombs,
but also peace, and also the blood of Jesus, and also
the hopeless neverending rain on a London street, where once
fifty years ago I rushed into a church, caught cold, and died.
And when you’re dead you find you can go everywhere, touch with a
passing finger the painted egg on the Easter bough, so it swings
and they wonder, was it Jesus passing by? Being also
Elijah and Moses and the beggar man and the child
with the shattered eggshell skull in a distant city where someone
touched a spring and now the god ranges wide, his empty cage swaying
like an ornament, but you can’t stuff him back in his cage,
you can’t repair the broken things. You can only wander, and see.
And in the black field below the pines the snow can’t quite manage
to be more than snow, and they give their god the name of justice,
and necessity, and they say the shattered skulls are lovely
as Easter eggs, painted red, but where we live, we can only be
one snapping thread, one drop of blood, one thing at a time.
I could say: the mask you wear becomes your face,
grows into you like some bedazzling cancer, so you can’t say
where plaster ends and skin begins, but it’s not just that.
It’s also that the tracking device, under the skin, stretches like putty,
becomes the flesh, ticks with the blood, sending messages
to some remote receiver that probably stopped receiving long ago.
And the name you took when you set forth to be a spy,
the name you gave yourself in that book you never wrote
becomes your name, the joke of it deadly serious now,
so you can’t remember what the twist was meant to be -
and the name you carved into the tree bark or wrote in the snow
is covered over, become only wood, or only snow itself,
so if you knock on wood it’s in there somewhere, echoing,
a drum in the night, and if you stick out your tongue to catch the snow
it melts too fast for you to say the name it carries,
and the clothes you wear to hide your truth become your truth,
so you have to hide them with another layer, and another,
and you’d be ready to dance the dance of the seven veils,
shuck them all off, shake it so they’re dizzy with you,
shake it so the empire rocks on its uneasy legs, and statues crumble,
and all that’s left is Ozymandias, King of Kings, deluded in the desert,
except you’re afraid you’d not know when you’d gotten to the seventh veil
and would just keep on tearing, twirling, undulating, throwing off your veils
til there’s nothing left of you, not even the sand.
A huge ongoing feast
Some machine somewhere has been collecting my words and phrases, mindlessly,
the way some people collect porcelain frogs, or dolls with glass eyes.
What would I say?
Our landlord’s hayfield, in the cathedral of summer – the machine says, and I nod.
It’s what I would say. I remember the cathedral of summer, how I spread my feathered arms
and flew singing, left only a feather drifting down among the goldenrod and ironweed.
Remember me, the feather whispered.
A machine knows it better than I,
Like in Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum,
they made the computer generate conspiracy theories,
and all the weirdos of the world were convinced they were on to something,
tracked them down, committed green satanic sacrifice in the museum of arts and sciences,
where machines watched placidly, watched as they murdered a man
and swung him from the pendulum.
My machine is watching, with its glass eyes, catching only what I would say, not what I want to say:
I want to say: I’m tired.
I want to say: All this toil, and still I know nothing, which makes me worth nothing.
I want to say: please assure me that I exist. Take this feather. Paint a rune upon your flesh.
But the machine says I would say: silken jade, adorned with eight v-shaped lines like old times,
That’s the tomato hornworm, trying to get a bite to eat,
eating everything in its path, shitting green, but it’s also a metaphor,
and I won’t tell you what it means.
I would say: a huge ongoing feast, which might have to do with life,
or a very hungry caterpillar, or books,
or the kind of love that needs to be able to spread feathered arms,
or the pleasures of nostalgia, a feast like a fox in a trap gnawing off its leg
but the bone is made of iron, and the fox keeps on gnawing, in the tower,
in the cathedral of summer, a huge ongoing feast.
R. Bratten Weiss is a writer, lecturer, and organic grower. She has published poems in a variety of venues, including Two Hawks Quarterly, Figroot Press, Jesus the Imagination, The Cerurove, Lycan Valley Press Publications, and Convivium. She edits the arts journal Convivium, and is a member of the literary collective the George Sandinistas.