How Long - Poem by Rod Padgett
in memory of Lorenzo Thomas
How long do you want to go on being the person you think you are?
How Long, a city in China
The nouns come toward you
'Knee how,' they say
To the cluster of synonyms also approaching
. . . has that evening train been gone?
How long, how long, baby, how long?
Let me know
if you ever change your mind
about leaving, leaving me behind
or at least tell yourself
before you find yourself on that train
winding its way through the mountains of How Much Province
The ten thousand yellow leaves of the ginkgo tree
kerplumfed onto the sidewalk on East 12th Street,
a deep-pile carpet of them on the roof of the parked car
proving that Nature does have a sense of humor,
though if a sense of humor falls in the woods
and there is no one there to hear it. . . .
for everyone has clustered alongside the railroad track
for the arrival of night and its shooting stars with trails like pigtails
I am among them and I know this track is mine
though it does not belong to me
Nothing belongs to me
for at this moment the boxes are being stacked
to make way for you to move through them,
reading their labels: family photos, Pick-Up Stix, miscellaneous
and the song of the porcelain, the celadon, and Delft itself
vibrating How long, how long
will this baby take to depart?
But I don't want to think about the past
I want to be the past,
with everything I've ever known and done
spread out on a two-dimensional plane
erected vertically and moving through the space I occupy on Earth
There is a lot more room left in me
though everyone I've ever known who's died is there
My mother my father say hello
to Ted and Joe and laugh with them
though Joe knows they are crying too
and that Ted is crying
and it sounds like laughter
They do this to console me
and I let them do it, to console them
What? I didn't hear you
or rather I heard you
but I couldn't make out what you said
The phone lay in its cradle
pretending to be asleep
and the blinking light made you think
that it was dreaming and that
there was someone you were supposed to call—
or were they supposed to call you?
Supposed. What does that mean.
It means no more than the contours of the landscape
that is as beautiful as the contours in John Ashbery's poetry
but it doesn't mean anything
unless you turn your mind on its side
and let it lie there
inert, and from this inertia
will arise a wing, the white wing
of a bird that has no anything else,
only this one wing
that folds and unfolds itself
like the magnetic field it rises above
in wave after wave after wave.
Then it's back to basics:
If you bone or debone a chicken
it comes out the same,
if you dust a cake with sugar
you add something
but if you dust your house you take away.
Oh to be a rock or a stone or even a pebble!
for there is much that is unattractive about being a rock.
For one thing, I wouldn't be able
to finish this poem, I would sit here petrified
until they carted me away
to a park to serve as ornamental sculpture,
if I were lucky.
Now that you are convinced of something
that you already believed, the wallpaper becomes a fact
in the home of Anne and Fairfield Porter,
in the upstairs hallway and the bedroom
where Jimmy stayed, the wallpaper that here and there
was curling off the wall so Joe could tear it off
and glue it to a big white sheet of paper.
There is no other wallpaper
I would ever want.
Now the wallpaper goes away,
back on the wall in 1969
where I stood and gazed at it for a long time
and then went downstairs
to add coal to Fairfield's stove,
the big Aga he had shipped all the way from Sweden
because he was very determined to have it.
All day its warmth rose up to the second floor
and caressed the wallpaper.
Do you mind my going on like this?
You want something else, right?
Perhaps you want what you think poetry should give you,
but poetry doesn't give anyone anything,
it simply puts the syllables on the table
and lets you rearrange them in your head,
which you can do unless your head is a square
the size of the tabletop.
So why don't you lift your head off the table
and go lie down somewhere
and not worry about anything,
including the list of things to worry about
that you keep revising in your head,
for there is a slot through which that list
can slip and float down like a baby in a rocking crib,
down to a comfy dreamland
and be transformed into a list of gods whose jokes are wonderful.
But when the alarm goes off
the jokes don't seem funny
now that something is missing from them—
but what? (You weren't even asleep.)
It's not something you feel you're going to remember,
it's not as if you can go down the alphabet
until you get to a letter that has a special hum
because it's the first letter of the name
you can't quite recall,
it's not as if you can look just to the side of where
you think a dim star is and thereby have it magically appear.
The glow is gone,
and knowing it comes back sometimes
is little consolation.
But I'll take it
and go not to a deserted island
but to the factory where they make the bottles
that are washed ashore with a message inside,
and though the message has been blurred by water stains
it's a message, like the poetry in Valéry's saying
that poetry is something written by someone other than the poet
to someone other than the reader.
To you, Paul Valéry, chapeau,
though in some of your works no chapeau,
for in them it is not a bottle but a test tube
one finds one's finger stuck in.
What do you want to do with your life?
is a question asked of a young person
but slightly modified for an older one:
What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
Having control is an illusion we like to be fooled by:
the pinball machine of experience has bounced us
off one thing and onto another bing bing bing!
Life might be like a pinball machine
but it isn't one, and the trouble is
that you might be like a person
and you are one, as if in reverie,
but then it all seems crambe.
And so Sir Thomas Browne walks in
with an insane look on his face, he is searching
for examples of the number 5, do you
have any new ones for him? If not
please step aside, and out he goes
into the garden, eyes locked
onto the vegetation, the afternoon light
on the back of his coat.
You're relieved he didn't stay long.
For God's sake
here he comes again.
Lock the door!
But he performs osmosis
and becomes the door and then
the room and then you!
And you go about the house
looking for examples of the number 5
and you don't know why or where
it will all lead to.
But I do.
Who said that?
Why did you say that?
You didn't what? I heard you!
You mean you hurt me.
No, I . . . I see
there's no point in talking to you.
And there wasn't
for there was no one there,
only the residue of an idea
that lasted a few moments,
like the history of Bulgaria
or the rattling of bamboo trees in the wind
or the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis.
The water lilies float on the surface of the water
unaware that they are being depicted
'I love to be beside your side
beside the sea, beside the seaside
by the beautiful sea!'
underwater glub glub
as the propeller turned to face us
and we fled
because Hitler was the propeller
and he was unsanitary
So Père Noël took a bath
whose bubbles rose up around his beard
and tickled his fancy
enough to keep him ho-ho-hoing throughout the holiday season,
for he was in denial
about his powerlessness
in the face of Hitler
Hitler kept a special area on his face
for the powerlessness of Santa Claus,
he wore it like a merit badge
among the many others that covered his face
so that no one could see what he really looked like,
the way Santa Claus used his beard to hide
the deep sadness he felt for all humanity,
for if he arrived on their rooftops weeping and wailing
it would not do,
it would not do to bring the children
model replicas of Auschwitz
or dolls in the form of the Butcher of Buchenwald
or even of himself with downcast eye and ashen brow.
The doctor comes in and says, 'What seems to be the trouble?'
for the twenty-fifth time today
but you are only once today
so you say, 'There's a pain in my chest it's been there for three days it
started on Sunday night right after dinner,'
but the doctor is thinking about the dinner he is having tonight with
an incredibly attractive woman
He is more worried about her than he is about your symptom
In fact he isn't worried about you at all
though he might be worried about being sued by you
if he tells you to go home and take an aspirin and when you do you die
But maybe you were going to die anyway
no matter what he said or did
and the lawyer who eagerly took the case on behalf of your family
was hit by a car as he crossed the street toward the courthouse steps
and your entire family was killed in a plane crash
on their way to a Grief Management Center in Arizona
But none of this happens because the pain
was due to a strained muscle in your chest
and now you do remember that right after dinner
you tried to stop in midsneeze
Two hundred dollars for half a sneeze
is the going rate these days
The cost of living sticks a hose into your wallet
and vacuums out the money in a trice
and you are so grateful you aren't having heart surgery
that you don't even notice
until cold air drifts across the floor
like fog in a horror film,
the one you decided not to be in,
and now it pursues you
in the form of frozen air,
the evil brother of cool air
that filtered down out of the early summer evening
and told you that the world is kind,
that atoms rearrange themselves to make you feel better,
that the sun is departing only because it felt
you wanted to be alone for a while
It didn't say, 'I will never rise again,
I will go far away and be a pinprick in the sky
among the billions of others, and you
will never know which I am
and I will never tell you.'
And you will never answer back, 'Sun,
I do not think you have that power:
only I do, and I will go away and be the sky.'
Is that what is meant by 'aesthetic distance'?
It's as if the Panama Canal had been given aesthetic distance
by becoming a passageway in your brain
and you floated down it and came out
on the end that you started at!
I keep a ball of laughter inside that Hunh
Comments about How Long by Rod Padgett
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