Happiness is Poetry: Chris Cunningham
To Clark Kent
When did you know you hated him?
Was it the cape? the tight red undies?
the way that Lois said your name
or the smell of urine and cigarettes
in phone booths? Was it he who insisted
on glasses and hair oil? he who suggested
the awkward bumble of your gait,
the pratfalls, the befuddled, stumbling
stutter? Of course, the newspaper bit
was his idea: he wanted you
to hear about him, read about
him, see his picture. Although
he must have known you’d never write
a big story. How could you? He—
the man that you could never meet—
would always be the only story.
When did you suspect that he
preferred it that way? Still, he worries,
nervous that someone will notice
your mutual exclusivity,
your perfect anti-coincidence,
coaches you on explanations
inane and implausible,
and yet you know these lame evasions
why no one ever puts the zero
and one together, because you know
no one ever notices
that you’re not there. At night, while he’s
out flying through Metropolis,
you lie in bed and try to convince
yourself of the invisible
heroism of your silence,
retelling to the darkness all
the secret things you can’t have done.
And when did you begin to tell
this new kind of secret? After he
has gone to sleep, you whisper it
into your pillow, quietly,
so soft your lips don’t move, your thought
dissolving just before it takes
the shape of words. But there, shut tight
in the lead-lined safety of your soul,
the one he doesn’t know you have,
you tell the dark, ironic tale
of how the man of stainless steel,
the speeding-bullet, leaping-buildings
man will finally fulfill
the fate his parents saved him from,
fulfill the end you dream for him.
A pear, yellow-skinned,
bruised, sits in a shallow pool
of its own syrup,
its blunt-ends flattening,
slowly splattering in bone
china (a pattern
of pallid purple
lilacs blooms unendingly
around an edge kissed
with gold), resting, if
not yet at rest, at the end
of a long, winding
fall from a tree whose
white blossoms once shuddered and
danced in the cold rain.
Their knees are touching, but he’s across
the room with his friend the barkeep.
He’s flirting with the waitress.
He’s at home asleep, on the street,
under a woman, he’s in a different bar,
or the same one the next night,
or the night before. We don’t know
where he is. Their knees are touching.
He’s her brother and their mother has died.
He’s her lover, and he’s leaving her.
He’s her husband, their baby has died.
He’s the man sitting next to her,
whose knee her knee is touching,
and she doesn’t know he’s there.
Her hands trail off into wispy gestures
of brushstroke, as if she doesn’t exist
at the ends of herself, less real
than the froth of bows on her shoes
or the yellow absinthe in the goblet
before her, its lips rimmed with light.
Dark bangs hang down
to thick eyelids, hanging heavy
over heavy eyes gazing at a spot
on the floor. She’s thinking about
her mother or her brother or the bread
she will buy and eat with cheese
and red wine for dinner. She’s thinking
about the pattern of the tiles on the floor
and the slow blur of her days.
She’s thinking about the darkness
of the city at night and the coarse ricochet
of voices in the street outside
her window when she can’t sleep.
But she’s not thinking about her hands,
which sometimes don’t exist.
Lips, painted and straight, chin
withdrawing into neckflesh. Slouched
with shoulders slack and round,
arms hanging to lose themselves
under the table, the right knee
swung wide, foot tipped on its side.
When they see her in London
and hang her on the walls of the gallery,
she ignores them, looks right past them
at the same spot on the floor,
and they call it absinthe, The Absinthe,
a moral as pretty as the bow
on her hat, filling her empty eyes
with the potable emptiness of wormwood.
Later, when the artist leaves
with his paper and ink, she looks
down into the cloudy drink sitting
untouched on the table before her,
and she smells anise. And then
she drinks it, sweet and yellow
and sharp, the glass cold
and reassuringly solid in the hand
she discovers at the end of her sleeve.