Voice and Nothing More

The act of love belongs to two people, in the way that secrets are shared. Hugs and kisses are permissible, but as soon as you start with what’s called the mandalot—I invented the word, from the Greek; it comes from mándalos (which is the bolt you put in the socket) and means the tongue-kiss or by dictionary definition “a lecherous and erotic kiss”—these familiarities you should reserve for those whom you really love.
                    —Graves1

                    i.

She told me she had been a famous
singer and actress who had sinned and was doing
penance in the desert, worthy of
immortal glory if only she would perform
one more time for all who passed by the

chorus of her story, to find in her awful
undoing a moral, a home for
her sorrow after all of its truth’s wealth, once known,
could hold up to her bruised heart a new
portrait, an artful & scarlet study in fatigued

infamy lessening her corset’s
notoriety by learning to do justice
to her virtues, standing split-lipped and
spot-lit in tortured soliloquy, gown torn where
frowns of wrinkles have worn down thin the

                    glamour another hour without a compliment

might somehow tatter more, shatter to
twinkling shards the pitcher of power she now no
longer has, too fragile to shower
her suitors in what once was her famous fatal
elixir, seduction not absent

but senescent in the dame’s fleeting attempt to
convince me of its former shape, bent
genial as a secret which has been sleeping
too long in an antique vase, desire
shaded now in veils of autumnal moods & colours,

her shadow prostrate under the weight
of vanishing stardom’s oscillating fate, she
shakes off with coolness of vigour self-
doubt’s subtle tremor as her tongue presses her lips
to remember, to make sense of this

                    shallow pool in which she drowns, its walls of sound the

wails of spectres at whom we nod as
they pass us, whirling around but never going
up or down the holy mountain at
whose foot we stand, the past enclosing like nightfall
a damsel in its circle, going

about her with the ease of a proud camel’s hoof
falling out of the way of a pot-
hole, I move toward her like a castle across
a chessboard, players uncertain of
each others’ motives, with feather-light touches she

caresses her cigarette (the last
left from what remnant of fatal vanity she
stashed for her journey) the way her eyes
confide what is no mystery, that she wants me
to bless her thighs with a baptism of

                    kisses given in contemplation of merit,

badges of passion to distinguish
contrivance from contrition, aberration’s play-
thing anguishing against temptation
like a wedge of lemon fizzing in a tonic
of gin the liver knows cures no one,

unspoken portents torrenting into a mouth-
swell of foam form (not by accident)
what cliché manifests from suggestion into
unmentionable indiscretion,
beneath the threshold of subtlety her demons

test even me, those seven devils
besieged by a litany of unfulfilled dreams
fading like many little echoes
whose peccadilloes promise us no regret or
obligation, and having no need

                    to be spoken, though each subsisting on it once

acknowledged by vocalization,
they retreat when we ignore them, together we
return to oblivion those oft-
buried notions and comprehend that a prison
of short sentences is what condemns

but cannot contain we who, like poets, find (and
fight) freedom in our pain, my hand in
her own, she motions to be understood when those
demons emote for her sin’s affect
on this opportunity, this breaking open

of the monotony to let walk
onto the scene an emissary of faintest
liberty (or is it only a
libertine?), a glimpse though fleeting of just what she
has been needing, a heretic stoned

                    ii.

by her own heart’s heaviest loneliness is an
image that acts on me with nagging
divinity, ashen and scarred, scattered east of
Eden’s garden, far from love toward
forgetting, with only a rough memory of

dignity, in her soft palm I am
putty, my heart muddied by my stubborn duty
to undo my head’s abuses of
scrutiny, to let her play upon my heart what
makes me feel as she does, like clay cast

into a darkness day peels off into like flakes
of leprosy, or tears of a bell
ringing around the rosy rim of a scab whose
dybbuk box lock a gargoyle’s gimmick
of a grimace has picked open, swelling a tub

                    emptiness clouds in to fill, a void

whose expansion is infinite, overflowing
with thrown debris, faucets clogged with flaws,
pieces of the horizon’s belt undoing in
one fluid breath all fluency of
universal language, slates and pipes wiped clean by

the deft pedantry of sexual
politics chastising the penury of that
pornographic conflict between the
etic & the emic, that struggle against instinct
paupers battle with all the fading

fury of funerary roses falling from
a cradle of sympathy into
a young widow’s bathwater, tongues of velvet torn
from beauty to utility, a
sky pierced through with pores the futility of her

                    prayers tool, probing for a soul she swears

is still there, in her somewhere, scruples yet intact
even after being beaten like
searing brass into a mask, bronze tarnished with stains
of bygone youth left to age, yet still
she prays, heaven is a room filled with mirrors god

hides behind, blinding those who come to
see but only can hear him, her mouth’s hole a door
thunder bolts whenever, on a night
desolate as the storm she weathers in front of
me, for a brief moment alone no

longer, a traveler’s face she encounters as
he wanders closer, spilling the light
of a torch into her socket, this pit where voice
and nothing more pours from crushed-cherry
lips I cannot ignore, in moments such as this

                    theoretical wings emerge from

bodies of work where sacred texts diverge from their
canonical source by a single
word, an acorn in a river uncertain of
its own force when the current flows from
century to century, culture to culture,

mándalos instead of ángelos,2
ink ruining minds its course crosses and curses
when, like her, meanings blur into a
blind moment no one comes here looking for, yet finds
themselves in—nothing that is human

alien to him who many times before has
encountered penitent women on
his way home from war, when lips are more than ardent
messengers, but broken sheaths for flames
cast in the shape of a sword, forgive me, Lord, for

                    swallowing what aching song I so

long ignored, this weapon of art useless when its
Muse refuses to shield my tongue from
the bandit sun whose thieving heat burns from my pen
all inspiration, a mordant sphinx
venturing one question over & over until

her siren voice has been restored, and
through the sand of this desert her blood again runs
warm—but how do I answer flesh some
fallen spirit has taken on as its form? ‘Step
out of the skin of one kind of love

and stand naked next to another,’ she says, ‘Bless
the flaming wreckage of the fleet you
left behind you with all your baggage when you came
ashore, waiting on the sea to sink
until you return.’ My mouth, her voice & nothing more.

__________
1Robert Graves, interviewed at his home in Deyá on the Spanish island of Majorca by Peter Buckman and William Fifield in “Robert Graves, The Art of Poetry No. 11” of The Paris Review: Issue 47, Summer 1969, published at Paris by The Paris Review, Inc. in 1969; page 123.
2In Greek, μάνταλος and άγγελος, pronounced mándalos (meaning “latch” or “bolt”), and ángelos (meaning “angel”, “messenger”, or “selfless person”), respectively.