“But can you imagine a worse fate for your declining years than being read aloud to by Simone de Beauvoir?” ~Elizabeth Bishop
Other people were Sartre’s idea of Hell,
but Elizabeth Bishop’s idea of Hell was Simone de Beauvoir.
And somehow these three, brimming with radical freedom
and unconventional relationships, illuminated my way
to my own path of mediocrity and obscurity punctuated
by poor, if unconventional, choices in lifestyle and relationships.
From their inspiration, I was driven to write sporadically,
love without enthusiasm, and live quietly on the fringes
of a friendly but disinterested community surrounded
by an interested but hostile society of blame and recrimination.
In some unjustified fantasy, I sometimes imagine that Sartre would
approve of me or that Beauvoir might wish me greater freedom.
Elizabeth Bishop might mourn my dim light but not think it a disaster.
But still, I imagine myself in their shoes, standing on a balcony
overlooking the Montparnasse Cemetery before writing in a cafe
on the ground floor. And here I am, just like them!, sitting with my lover,
writing in a notebook, drinking Beaujolais, and munching quietly on a fresh galette.
The words neither flow nor drip but must be pried out, singly, and with great effort.
But still, you can feel the energy, can’t you?, where fertile minds spawned the
great works, and I have spawned faint evidence of mental effort, in their shadow.
She didn’t witness black and white wings dropping in the tree.
No, she didn’t see the magpie, but gave a prophylactic salute.
Her superstition never fell into complacency.
She didn’t witness black and white wings dropping in the tree,
but she was alert to danger in every contingency,
and her intuition was always alert and astute.
No, she didn’t see black and white wings dropping in the tree,
but even without seeing a magpie, she’d give a prophylactic salute.
When you do a good job,
people say the floor’s so clean
you could eat off of it,
but no one really eats
off the floor, so what’s the point?
Everything we shed goes to the floor:
viruses, old skin, loose hair,
mucous, spit, parasites,
and random would-be nourishing
particles dropped through
slovenly food preparation.
So the floor fills fast with refuse,
and something has to be done about it
from time to time with care and precision.
It’s important work this scrubbing, this tedium,
but I never feel threatened by the floor
unless it is rising to meet my falling corpse
at a rate sufficient to be alarming.
Though I use the standard mop and bucket,
this task brings me to my knees every time.
Is everyone’s floor covered with such
persistent sediment demanding severe scrubbing?
Or am I the only one grinding old bones
into hard tile while bleaching my skin and
cursing the damned and damnable
to leave me in peace once and for all?
In the end, this sparkling masterpiece is something
to behold, and I stare at it in minor amazement,
imagining briefly the pleasure I could have
eating off the floor for once, until the first steps
into the sterile field remove all illusions of safety.
Some of us get lost in details.
Minutiae absorb our minds.
I could never,
perhaps because I never wanted to,
find myself so lost in statistics,
dates, patterns, smells, and materials.
I never really cared who signed what and when
or what colours were used in any particular year.
I didn’t have the focus.
Anyone who ever tried to teach me
complained that my mind wandered off,
and I could not be present.
So, I envy the others who are so lost
in learning and remembering exactly
what shades of blue were in use in 1872.
They seem so untroubled as they delight
over the 1919 edition they found on Ebay for
only $35, less than dinner at a mediocre restaurant.
They get such pleasure from harmless hobbies,
while I stay shackled in the torture room,
collecting nothing but my own thoughts
of eternal suffering presaged by infinite dread.