Little Blue Nude
Outside, the crackhead who panhandles an eight-
hour-day at 106th and Broadway croons
for Earl, his man, to let him in and make him well.
Soon the super's son will take his triumvirate
of dogs across the street to crap in Central Park.
Through my wall I'll hear the scrabble of their claws
and the low whir of near-barks in their throats
as they tug their leashes down the hall and out
the door. The night a burglar forced the gate
across my kitchen window and slithered in to clean
me out, those dogs slept next door like drunken clouds.
I was in Tennessee. When I got off the plane there,
my host glanced at my tiny bag and asked, "Those
all your worldly goods?" I know you didn't ask me
what they took, but you can guess you're going to hear
the list. People tell these stories until they've worn
them out. A TV and a tape deck, two phones,
an answering machine, an alarm clock that didn't
workthese you'd expect, for they can be most
easily swept, like flecks of silt, into the swift
currents of the River Fence. The anomalies
make such lists interesting. These were mine:
two sets of sheets and pillowcases, and a bottle
of Cote Roti, 1982. Now these were clues. Also
he left my typewriter. And I knew right away
who'd robbed me. The mere pressure of my key
in the lock, before I'd even turned it, swung my door
open and my body knew he'd come in through
the kitchen but left like a guest by the front door.
Tony, my dumpster-diving friend, would bring by
things to sell: a ream of letterhead stationery
from The Children's Aid Society and two half
gallons of orange juice. Three dollars. "Whoo," he'd say.
"Ain't it a wonder what people will throw out."
So you see I was a sort of fence myself. "Being
a writer, you could probably use some paper"
was the way he'd introduce himself. The night
before I left for Tennessee he'd pasted his girlfriend
Shirley in the eye and she came by my apartment
to complain. I gave her some ice cubes nested
in a kitchen towel to hold against her bruise,
and a glass of wine. So that explains the Cote Roti.
As for the sheets, when I confronted Tony,
he yelled at me, "A dick don't have no conscience."
Speak for yourself, I thought redundantly, for I'm
the one with the typewriter and gall to speak
for others. Tony's his only clientele. "I didn't rob
your place," he yelled, "and stay away from Shirley."
The wonder is how much we manage to hang on to.
Even if a robbery's been designed to hurt,
no thief would know to take the postcard
of Renoir's Little Blue Nude I'd taped above my desk.
She sits, all wist and inner weather on her creamy
skin, her face bemused beneath the ginger helmet
of her hair, wholly alert to what the poets once
called reverie, perhaps, though from the relaxed
attention of her body I'd say she was listening
to beloved music. If I could choose for her,
I'd make it Ellington's 1940 recording
of "Cottontail," with Ben Webster on tenor.
If you'd been robbed, let's say, and rage ran through
you like a wind, and you balled your fists and sat
and stared at them, as though you'd forget their name,
you who are so good with words, rehearsing irate
speeches for Tony, wrapped in fury like a flower
in a bud; and also feeling impotent, a chump
with a mouthful of rant, a chump who knows
even now he'll eat the rage, the loss, the sour
tang of moral superiority to Tony,
the times he'll tell the story and list what Tony
stole . . . If you could see all those words coming
and know even now you'd eat them, every one,
you could turn to music you love, not as a mood-
altering drug nor as a consolation, but because
your emotions had overwhelmed and tired you
and made you mute and stupid, and you rued
them every one. But when Webster kicks into
his first chorus, they're back, all your emotions,
every one, and in another language, perhaps
closer to their own. "There you are," you say
to them silently, and you're vivid again, the way
we're most ourselves when we know surely
what we love, and whom. The little blue nude
has a look on her face like that. Once
when I was fussing with my tapes, Tony came by
to sell me mineral water and envelopes.
"You writing a book on jazz or what?" "No,"
I said, "I just love these." I didn't say why,
because I didn't talk that way to Tony,
and because, come to think of it, I didn't know
that day, I didn't ask myself until later,
afterthought being the writer's specialty
and curse. But that conversation explains why
he took the tapes and left the typewriter.
Writing's my scam, he thought, and music my love.
The dogs come snuffling and scrabbling back.
This time of night the building quiets down,
the hour of soliloquists. Even with walls this thin
the neighbors don't complains when I type late.
"Still working on that book?" they ask.
"What's it about?" one asked. I didn't know
that day, I didn't ask myself until later.
It's a reverie on what I love, and whom,
and how I manage to hold on to them.
William Matthews, Selected Poems and Translations: 1969-1991,
Mariner Books, 1992.