Ravi Shankar

A Square of Blue Infinity1

Snookered by traffic lights that turn
The swim up 9 into a knot,
Middletown’s fringe tediously damp
With the same almost-wet that streaks
The windshields in such a way
That wipers twitch ineffectively
Against the hard light, clear edges,
What Pound claimed no democratized
Campaign could maintain stages
Its revival upon the smudged glass. .
Morning. Red stutter of brakelights.
Wide world winnowed to a stretch
Of road from the coast to Hartford,
My passage sealed from traffic
And saturated with felicitous diction,
The glories of books on tape,
Dear sir, your stories spoken by
A second-rate thespian for whom
Even commercials have dried up.
Nearly a century since you hopped
A freighter into the banana boom,
Wanted by the feds for bank fraud,
Just another gringo in Honduras
With a scar the source of which
He’d rather not reveal over mojitos.
Did prison teach you the difference
Between prosaic and prosodic
Prose or was it being feted
In the streets of the city you died in as
“Caliph of Bhagdad-by-the-Subway,”
Most colorful newspaperman in the five
Boroughs? You’d work all winter
On fifths of scotch while editors
Screamed for copy, putting down
The occasional yarn on a typewriter
Missing a few keys. You outwitted it
By using a period for an apostrophe.
Somewhere pent in your small flat,
Hunched over an overflowing ashtray,
Memories of endless, rolling Prairie
Must have uncharted the city’s grid,
Leaving you a brief glimpse
Into something so large that no one
Could ever belong to or even trace
Its terrible shape, though you tried
With sinuously wound sentences
Laden with polysyllables, brogue,
And what became a characteristic
Plot twist. I’ve heard your critics
Complain that you’re too mannered,
Your phraseology ostentatious,
Your enduring reputation as a hack,
But what art rebuffs contrivance?
Even the trees flaming into autumn
North of Middletown look different
To each of the passing drivers
And are something altogether other,
Like your stately delineations
That run from the “hectic, haggard
Perfunctory welcome like the specious
Smile of a demirep” to “a polychromatic
Rug like some brilliant-flowered,
Rectangular, tropical islet surrounded
By a billowy sea of soiled matting2,”
All in the course of the same story,
One that is not believable, true,
But not meant to be, any more
Than Sophocles intended Oedipus
Rex to be a literal transcription
Of a typical Athenian nobleman’s
Quirky yet predestined misfortune.
No, you are like the conductor
Of a Viennese waltz, peering
Past your gloves as the orchestra
Swells, as a gentleman in tails
Bows low above his lady’s hand,
Lips poised above but never making
Contact with her niveous flesh,
Proving that between a thought
And its realization, space is infinite.
In your world, the wrong man
Gets the right job, bums who want
To be arrested can’t, while rich
Misers receive sudden comeuppance.
You and I both know it’s akin
To dance, not cartography,
Analogy, not mimetic affirmation,
That the trajectory of no life
Could so gracefully arc towards
A spindle of fate, abruptly changing
Direction. Unless of course we take
Yours: frail North Carolina
Ex-con who rose to international
Literary renown in less than nine years,
Then died in a New York hospital,
Penniless, drunk, and alone, uttering
Last words that one of his own
Characters might have spoken:
“Turn up the lights, I don’t want
To go home in the dark.”
From where I’m sitting,
There is no dark, the whole sky
Is lit up like a stadium, a thick braid
Of traffic forms then unravels,
The Cisco Kid has just traversed
An arroyo to find his cheating lover,
And next to me a gaunt woman mouths
Lyrics, slowly, to a song I cannot hear.

1Title is taken from a phrase in O’Henry’s “The Skylight Room,” (Henry, O. Tales of O. Henry. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969.) that describes the aforementioned room: “In it was an iron cot, a washstand and a chair. A shelf was the dresser. Its four bare walls seemed to close in upon you like the sides of a coffin. Your hand crept to your throat, you gasped, you looked up as from a well– and breathed once more. Through the glass of the little skylight you saw a square of blue infinity.”
2From “The Furnished Room.” Henry, O.
The Complete Works of O. Henry. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936.
Ravi Shankar
Poem, copyright © 2005 by Ravi Shankar
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse