Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Still Lives


What poetry looks at fruit upon a table
And does not see -- unwilling or unable:
Paintings of rot, varnished, upon the walls
Of a museum; Nero dribbling as he calls

Out in the colosseum, wipes a juice-stained lip;
A cricket ball polished on a grass-stained hip;
A golden apple, chaos, thrown into our lives;
An orange sucked, seeds spit like acid jibes

Between Arcadian shepherds; or, if such
Fancy is for fools, at least a taste, a touch,
A scent, a sound, in imagery of grapes,
Some hint of nectar, and of gods and apes

Gathered around the banquet table for a feast?
Such poetry lacks the hunger of a holy beast.


Here, in this modern fitted kitchen, where
My hands construct banality from five
Bananas bunched and brown, a pair of pears,
An apple just as green, just as alive,

Here on the white formica's urban chill,
Where four bowls sit -- ceramic, wicker, glass
And porcelein -- the fruit in them alive but still
(And did I mention the tomatoes? I must ask)

Here, all arranged in balanced composition,
Here the grapes, here Delia's cookery book,
I now articulate in forms humanity's condition.
Here, I say, come take a closer look.

Here is the fruit knife, short and sharp of blade.
Here is your bloody eye cut out and laid.


"Blind" Phineas stands there in the gallery,
Champagne in hand, fag in his mouth,
Listens to words -- jejune, passe, a travesty --
Whispered and hissed within this harpy's house.

A flick, light as a feather, of contempt and ash,
Flies from a menthol tab, at tap of finger's tip.
He notes their nods -- a glib commercial trash,
Red nails that gleam slick as a lush's lips.

"Blind" Phineas desires what they defile
With words like concept or original or style,
Their magpie intellects unsensual as they peck
For meanings, thieving, picking, leaving not a speck

No matter what they take from him, how much he gives,
It's dust in their dead mouths; in Phineas, it lives.


I, Apettence, father of Foresight, thief of fire
Who lit Highpeering 's chariot as a pyre,
Look out upon the Ocean, hear the Caw, the Cry,
The Crow over the cornfield, in the swirling sky.

Skulls of my fellow titans, greying bone
As fossil fruits now turned to stone,
I lay upon a black and ochre plate,
The hard fruits of my generation's hate.

I lay my feast to paint for Juice, our lord
Who broke the Crow's stone sickle with a sword
Steel as the palette knife I use to mix
The thick red-umber twilight on the Styx.

We were the powers who, in primal time,
Supped on the god of grape, his blood our wine.


Grave me an ode upon a funeral urn,
Sonnets of black and ochre, fine-lined grace
Of classic forms museumed in space
And time. Now put a bullet in it. Turn

And scan history as a war-torn foreign place:
See Babylon fall on your TV sets, see Baghdad burn,
Humvees patrol the road of no return,
The trials of grunts. Soldier... about-face.

Will you paint pictures of sweet fruit to mask sour taste
Of spoiled milk spilled from broken churn?
Or will you, poet, as a panther in the sheepfold, pace,
Savage and true to forms of new rhythms -- fuck the rhyme?

Turn as a corpse behind a car, hung from a streetlight, a dead soldier.
Turn, twist and turn, poet; use the sharp edge of the serrated volte.


Omens in Rome speak of Byzantium's threat.
Omens at home speak of the East and foreign dead.
I see a golden bird, guts spilled to smell the tainted heart.
I see red blood, white fat, and a blue sky of falling stars.

But more: from Empire's cradles and Republic's graves
Dead babes crawl, grow, and learn to walk as slaves,
Naked but for a shroud of privilege, a veil of rights
Gifted by grace of their elected sovereign, Might.

Free speech whipped up to moans upon a frightened whim,
The social contract stripped, draped now in battle hymn,
Serfs to the senators, the ministers, they groan and come.
Listen. The voice of the obeying mob is heard as one.

Legions of Caesar, be not afraid that your new century will fall.
Your dead march on and, from the cots, new corpses crawl.


Paint me a picture of a presidential dish
Laden with heads of baptists, eyes of fish
A harvest of swords and words of war,
The lie of an apple mouthed by a fat boar.

And us? New fruits and rotting old,
Plucked hearts heaped up to gather mould
In a display of piles, shingles and hives --
These are the sitting death of our still lives.

Mute the TV to silence that might better show
The fruit sprung from this poison tree we grow,
Terror's temptation, sold and bought:
Revenge is a dish we serve gunbarrel-hot.

We are the fruit and worm in it, the lips and seeds they spit,
The spreading branches of a tree rooted in shit.


Where is salvation, where the paradise on earth
When we return to Eden with a bomb, a gun
Or our own sword of fire? Gods of the hearth
Weep at the heathen infidels we have become:

No shepherd Tammuz, just ten Haji martyrs to the cause
With car-bombs aimed to kill their brothers and our boys,
Or a brave Tommy, filming war crimes to applause --
Heroes to make us proud or make indignant noise.

Into the stone age we will bomb you, hear the leader say.
Age of the goddess of the grain store, beer and bread,
I ask, what difference lies between the stone age and today,
Age of the god of broken words, damnation and the dead?

Where is salvation, where the paradise, where will Jerusalem be built
In this scorched earth, salt-sown and torn, this barren land we've tilled.


Bring me my cluster-bombs, bring me my M-16,
Bring me my pen, bring me a fucking poem,
Bring me my chariot of words obscene,
And we'll destroy Jerusalem, Byzantium and Rome.

How long is it since Dulce et Decorum Est?
What land is holy mired in blood and spoil?
Do we now shrug that Owen spoke in jest,
To be forgotten in his foreign soil?

Here is another fruit, a life, let waste
But this one lives still, as we frown and nod
At how it's crafted, worded, paced,
As fit and fine as is to die for God.

We must rebuild our holy cities in our flesh, our deeds,
Or be the flesh on which the Holy Emperor feeds.


Can we restore the idyll of the bread and wine,
The humble painting of an apple in a rhyme?
Can fury turn to joy in the mundane,
And muted sorrow at a meal's mortal remains?

I say it can't if we see this and only this,
Or rot the apple to recall a traitor's kiss.
I say it can't if we see bread without the bill,
A feast of shallow melancholy. But, I say, but still...

O, but I say it can, it will, it does,
In relish of a butt with peachy fuzz,
In life seasoned with salt of spunk and sweat,
In the flesh of our lives on our own table set.

Choose to devour ourselves, relish our lives as strange,
And in that choice, that moment, everything will change.


In Bremen: a flop-fringed German horror boy, sapling tall
In hip jeans, bullet belt slung low, black tee waist high
In revelation of cotton (O, a waistband); O, a distance to fall
In failures of language, failure to read a glance, failure to try.

Out in a pavement cafe sun, I read a verse or two
Out of Uche Abaji's book exchanged, drawn
Out of his black leather satchel after chat grew, flew,
Out of his lecture and my circling thoughts on Others. Hail, response!

In Germany for other reasons as the World Cup plays
In every bar, cafe and restaurant but this, I dine
In Kapelle, eat rindergeschetzeltes, watch arms raise
In roaring celebration in the streets, balls booted high. O, the divine

Moments we spend unmoored from our locality, our tongue:
These are the precious, ticking, talking, aging seconds that keep us young.


To be strange, to be a stranger, is to live.
I offer up the strange fruits of this as a gift,
Worth little, free and simple as a plum,
A bletted medlar from a drunken, ranting bum.

A doggerel of sonnets, ripe to pluck
Laced with the usual vodka taste of fuck,
Fruitbasket from a fruitcake and a fruit,
I chuck the rotten things with no excuse.

Medlars are best, I understand, this way,
Taste richened by the rot, the flesh's decay.
As fallen fruits ferment in their own juice,
Life has a strange taste that I think of as the truth.

If there is one thing being strangers to each other gives,
It is to know that Dionysus, as the stranger in our midst, in us, still lives.


Blogger Brian Malone said...

Oh how I hate and love you. Umm, is there some method to the shifting rhyme scheme by sonnet: AABB, ABAB, ABAB, AABB, ABBA, abcd eefg hhij kk (this sonnet coming right after you tell the poet to "Turn, twist and turn ... [be] savage and true to forms of new rhythms ...," AABB, ABAB, ABAB, abcd eeff gghh ii (here is where you ask if we can put things to right), ABAB, AABB.

Maybe I read too much in this but it seems to me that the rhyme scheme goes fucked at two points, when you take Art to task for "painting pictures of sweet fruit to mask sour taste", and when you ask if Art came be made pure again and you answer yes if the artist has the courage to be strange and speak the truth.

12:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

AA: Heh. Cheers! Funny enough, I did that once, actually, but it was in me early 20s when everything I'd written was genuine bona fide adolescent wank. I like to think the gods of writing appreciated it as a burnt offering... but then I'm probably a bit schizotypal, by all accounts.

Brian: Those two sonnets I think of as still in the AABB scheme, just... stretching it with the assonant rather than full rhymes (sorta "AaBb" rather than "abcd"). So I hadn't thought of them in terms of the larger structure but you're right; they map to breakpoints in the overall sequence, thematic shifts. I was trying to flick between the two simplest schemes, AABB and ABAB mostly, but without settling on the too-orderly pattern of alternation. What I ended up with, as I see it, is:


Or, to number the rhyme schemes as 1, 2 and 3:


It's weird. I wanted the thematic division into beginning (Art & History), middle (Art & Politics) and end (Art & Life) to be irregular, so I was deliberately avoiding the simple 1212-1212-1212 structure or anything similarly regular, but it's only on looking at it after the fact that I realise how whacked it is.

The first four sonnets set up a pattern (1221) which the fifth one royally shafts with its anomalous rhyme scheme of ABBA (that much was deliberate, though I wasn't even thinking that this rhyme scheme also reflects that 1221 pattern, which in retrospect is kinda cool). Basically, where Sonnet 5 abandons rhyme completely in the 3rd stanza is meant as the big monster truck coming crashing through the whole sequence -- a super-volte, we could call it, maybe? Anyhoo, the sequence finds a new pattern in the regularity of two "couplets" of sonnets (1122), the opening sonnet marking the shift with assonant rhymes (I did reckon those rhymes gave a sense of instability and tension, pushing against the constraints, which... fitted here; it kinda makes sense now why I felt that way). The last three sonnets -- again with the assonant rhyme sonnet marking the transition -- do finally settle into an alternating rhyme scheme... except that they form a triplet, so the asymmetry should balance the regularity.

I wish I could say it was all deliberate, but I think it was more intuition and accident than anything else, deliberately trying to break one pattern so that something more interesting emerges.

5:33 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As a by the way, if anyone doesn't know what a bletted medlar is, go here:

In fact, if you haven't read Anna Tambour's blog, go there anyway. Pick through the fruits, taste them, and savour them. If anyone is living up to my mad poetic manifesto, it's Anna with her posts on quince's bottoms and witchetty grubs, bletted medlars and flatheads. Go read.

3:23 pm  

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