from In an Underwater Age

In a city I used to live in, everyone wears masks. One will wear a starry night in Egypt; another, a scratchy Glenn Miller recording. Each mask is different and a perfect fit, though some are very simple: a dripping rat, for instance. As the subway train grinds to a halt between stations, all the masks look up at each other and at the ceiling lights: An open highway in Nebraska exchanges glances with a bit of rope; a summer garden with a carburetor; the Middle Ages with a Timex digital watch. How wonderful to see through the eye-holes of a sidewalk-mask, to be concealed and yet dramatic—and aware. To be a suitcase—and love it, love being carried. Oh I want to go back! “Darling,” I say to no one in particular, “put on your shoes.”


Dear _____: What time is it there? Have the leaves begun to fall? They’ve got me set up in this furnished room, with no windows, of course (it’s very hard to breathe). In the room next to mine, a symphony orchestra is constantly tuning. I hear little strains of Beethoven’s Ninth here and there, in the woodwinds. Oh, and above me, there’s an earthquake! Debris is always falling onto my bed, even as I sleep. I have a recent picture of myself I’d like to send you, but I don’t know—


Some of the things I see on this circular path! There’s a lighthouse in someone’s living room, a television on which you may watch the sordid dreams of the husband who sleeps upstairs (his wife just left him). To my right, the Atlantic Ocean tips back and forth in its plastic tank (no fish). Any animals there are, along this gloomy winding hallway, have been dead for almost a century, and have been placed in life-like positions by absent curators (there are no guards or staff). Running past the plaster Eskimos, I am frightened by their stillness. There is something that illuminates their igloo.


There is one ancient bestiary, dating back from the time of Caligula, whose pages are filled with inanimate objects and scenes from the distant future: stereo components, cocktail lounges, empty streets in downtown Dallas. On one page, a billboard stands in bas relief from the side of a major turnpike. Cars, traveling at varying speeds, pass in either direction, all day long, whether the book is open or closed. I’m in there somewhere, though you can’t see me.


…endless, random charts spread out on the black and white tile floor all over the palace—some of them Renaissance maps containing major areas of exploration, some of them anatomical diagrams, some of them graphs upon which parabolic curves plot the ripening ennui that hangs from the decorative, artificial vines every fin de siècle. The starry heavens in their unimaginable chambers, the black umbrella before the wondrous moment of its invention, the streets of Paris, laid out so neatly, without any prostitutes, or rainstorms, or exits…

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Jonah Winter

Jonah Winter writes books. His first book of poems, Maine, won the Slope Editions Book Prize. His second book of poems, Amnesia, won the Field Prize and was published by Oberlin College Press in Spring 2004. His hobbies include: 1) staring blankly.