Reading Aloud (#17): from Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Venus Velvet No. 2” (2010)

from Venus Velvet No. 2

And in a place arrived at on our knees,
He tugged my face to his, as if he took
His own life in his hands; all gentle ways;
A lifelong quest for you; and won’t let go
Unless you leave your fingerprints on me;
A gaze returned, the softest counterblow;

And gathering my hair in gentle fists,
Persuasion’s force with no one to persuade,
Only persuading hairpins from my hair,
Their falling on the floor, a plunder-gift;

And nothing lost, but found and found again;
And not conquest, but everything in play
Given, not taken; taken anyway,
And not to keep in any case; but kept;
Possessed, but not in order to possess;
Self-same, self-owned, self-given, self-possessed,
And all in play. But conquered nonetheless.

The yellow maze of frigid corridors
Shone black; it didn’t matter where; I left,
But sightless, pulling on my winter coat,
My boots pulled over sweatpants, hat and gloves
Pulled on, indoors; as if to take him home;

A maze of concrete blocks, and doors in rows
In halls and hallways swallowing the rooms
And blind corners that swallowed up the halls
And elevator doors slid open, closed
On hollow towers built in the negative
Where bells, plunged from their ropes, were falling past.
A crust of unshed tears above my throat.
Give him back. Tell me what I can give.
Without an altar, death. Without a place
To pray. To beg for life. But let him live.

I found a phone booth, place to bawl unheard,
And sank beneath its automatic light.
The phone book hanging from a broken chain—
I drew it to my lap, a sprawling weight
Of paper pulp from long-forgotten trees
Snuffed-out and boiled down and pressed in sheets
Of ashen paper, faintly blue and gray,
A book unreadable and authorless,
A mystical directory of the living,
Each page a random sample of Creation
And changing version of the Book of Life;
I ran my glove over the listings: throngs;
And found his name, still listed with the living,
Whose stories vanish, leaving only names
Recycled and reused. This faring on
And on, O mendicants. And overhead

A page that can’t be turned. He can’t survive.
But let him live. My gloves pressing my eyes,
A thousand stars rotating inwardly
A millimeter past the streamered dark,
And nameless comet-phosphenes streaking by.
Without an altar, death. Without a place.

Hanging in a mirror-black, lit from above,
My frightened face, kneaded in violet wax.
My face, hanging above my lap, streamed out.
I tried to press it back with clumsy gloves.

– Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Heavenly Questions (2010), pp. 33-35

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