Poems: James Reidel

Lake Superior, 1913, for James Reidel's poems.

Lake Coon Group

The name that really sticks over the years, which meets the eye more than the new sign, is posted on the door. Although UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT has no ring to it, it is part comfort, part a plea for understanding, patience, and to our better nature—and after a few, you feel better and the familiar falls into place. The Fitger’s clock still lights the darkness of the ceiling with the lighthouse atop the Pictured Rocks. The metal balls of Casino, with the strutting showgirl, are put into play with the same recoil of the spring, the play of bumpers, bells, and clicks, and that smooth dead roll across varnished plywood, as the flippers fire away at nothing. That’s how you want to die. There is something human about the effort, the struggle, of going down swinging. The pizza pie toppings still follow the same pattern you can see tacked on the kitchen wall, ensuring that every slice is a Bingo card of pepperoni. The curiosities are the same: the stuffed lake coon group seemingly washing their paws on top of the cigarette machine and the corner table of birdwatchers, who drink and tell fish stories like the rest of us here, where the BABY LAKE MONSTER is still canned in a Ball jar alongside the Canadian whiskeys, waiting for some real man (or woman) to order a shot of liquor flavored with nothing but a long dead eel. And given the yellow label and its antique apothecary penmanship, the contents surely go back to the days of timber and copper perhaps, long before, when we were the Dunes Club, which inspired the old saw that the Club was a club for nothing more than the way the land peters out, la Côte des Sandtrappés. And that jar seems righter shelved with the clear spirits, the gins and vodkas. Righter alongside the pickled eggs for a study in contrast, as white is easier on the eyes in this light, easier to count than the twists and turns, the bulges and folds like wet tar—a blackness that pulls more than your leg now, that follows you as you walk along the shore, looking for stones.
Lake Superior Bar, Grand Marais, U.P.

The Unphotographed

They are a people of color, too, a vast family of extinguished carbon. We have, however, these images, the first and last, often the only one ever taken, which tolerably suggest and allow for this ethnicity of sepia tones, of daguerreo- and tintypes, that race of the sun-picture. They wore such albumen complexions, breathed to life with these hygienic, almost tribal tattoos of rose ink to blush the cheeks. (And is it so unhealthy to dwell on them? To walk through Babyland and wonder which picture goes with who?) Prized for their immaculate stillness, they could be posed in how we should spend all our days in nothing but dreams or contemplation—especially those girls with immaculate and consumptive brows freshly sponged with vinegar, holding a rose, a catechism, or a book of verses—or those youths as though they fell asleep at a drinking party—the only thing missing being their lodge pin. Infants in their mothers’ arms, as though drugged from the last time they nursed, their christening dresses fitted over limbs still supple or easily snapped into place, posed with siblings still showing the hurt look of being chided not to smile, not to fidget—this when photography was another kind of art, one summoned at all hours like medicine, when its invention could set above even that of chloroform, when it captured only a little of this noble trait, like a Hapsburg lip, that of our ancient anonymity, which was once as common as air, somewhere, wrapped around Neptune, perhaps. We would explode if we ever breathed it.

The Companion

Nicolo heute!

It is quiet and pleasant on this morning. But the sun on the snow is too bright for your companion’s eyes, which are as red as raw meat. So you leave the shutters drawn for him. He needs all day to wake up, to be himself. He put on a real show last night—going from one household to the next, leaping through the endless parties, leading the parades, performing his little jig in grand ballrooms that go on and on with their mirrors for a thousand years, which come to an end again the next day, where our two shaving glasses face the other in our remote little cottage.

He appears still winded by the way he sits, with his trotters fully extended, as though he had stopped to rest with his back against a tree. His face is still a fright mask, frozen from running through the cold, through the streets of every town and village, all lit as though by fire-eaters, every hamlet that dots the countryside. You serve the tea and sit across from him, the “pensioner” as you like to call him. You watch him lap his porridge. How does he hold up his head with those long ram’s horns? What else can he do with that lolling necktie tongue of his? Throw it over his shoulder like a scarf? How does he stand his sulfur breath, the body odor of a goat yard?

After all this time you still breathe through your mouth around him. You wince when he slurps. And you nod as he looks up with his blood on bloodshot eyes that say apologetically, hurt, like a fallen faun, that I can’t help it. You wipe the spittle off his pointed chin and stay his hand when he reaches for the knife to cut some more bacon for his bread. “I will do that for you,” you tell him, seeing how left-handed he is with those dull, clattering untrimmed nails, which are quite real, which are not made from a supper of spareribs as so many think.

All year you care for him, talk to him like some broken fighting bear. You build his confidence for next year, work that begins every morning, when you lift him upright on his cot, set his flint hooves in those specially made felt slippers so that he doesn’t strike a fire. You coax him to stand. You fetch his cane or the crutch, for there are bad days when his rampant gait pitches him forward and he falls on his face, with that long nose that has been broken and reset a hundred times. All year you make him eat at this deal table spattered with his slobber and stains. Otherwise how could he find the strength to carry his stave bucket of children like slop? Or beat them with his bundle of birch rods? Which you have to tie for him like a little boy’s shoes. Sometimes, you think, it would be easier if you both were an organ grinder and his monkey.

Then there are the rumors. Every year the gendarme comes to inspect his iron shackles and ox chains, for the license law if you expect to go anywhere in public. The man looks around, too, for something wrong as officials are wont to do. But he just smiles in that knowing way that asks which one’s the wife, which one’s the husband.

All the chain is good for now is lifting him out of his chair today, out of the snow drifts last night when he drank too much cider. And you have your own encumbrances—the thick cotton beard, the padded vestments, the miter too high for any door save a palace or a church, the brass crook for leading a herd of imitators in their straw and pigskin costumes.

The cowbells on their hunchbacks, like so many blisters, were deafening once more. You can barely hold a conversation, even one so one sided as this for all the ringing in your ears. And there is that sack of bruised fruit, the stale candies, which you have to carry, not him. Your shoulder is still sore, and your arm from pelting the crowd ever harder with your treats. Why should he have all the fun inflicting pretend pain, faked fear? And those crudely carved toys that must go unpainted because of your friend here. He is work enough for two.
James Reidel has published poems in many journals as well as Jim’s Book (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (Black Lawrence, 2006) and has forthcoming work in Poetry and Hawai’i Review. He is also the biographer of the poet Weldon Kees and a translator who has published works by Thomas Bernhard, Georg Trakl, Franz Werfel, and Robert Walser. He is currently working on a collection of prose poems. In 2013, he was a James Merrill House fellow.

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