(for Joseph Shea)
after Velemir Khlebnikov
We settled in our ochre houndstooth seats
And stirred our drinks. We talked about the Good,
Damned cowardice, praised courage, and said we would
Have done much better to have lived when war
Was decent, when there was something to die for—
The future perfect, if not a lasting peace—
Or not to have been born. The high-speed train
Ran smooth as our reckonings. We sat upon
The observation deck beneath a green
Plexiglas bubble that dulled the glare and sheen
Of dusk into a botch of blacks and whites
As the train slid west and the last trace of light
Twisted, crumpled, powdered like a scrap
Of burning paper. The conversation lapsed.
The train was good. Neither too old nor new.
Red carpeted, car followed upon car
Like scenes in a play or shops in a bazaar,
And hardly swaying, it moved as quickly as
A matchflame sizzles through dry summer grass.
Evenings, we lingered in the dining car,
Dropped ashes on the tablecloth and stole
Spotty carnations, yellow silverware,
And tipped a lot. The canned gentility
Charmed us, claimed us…. Feeling kind and free,
I looked around. The other passengers
Had fallen asleep. They smiled maliciously,
Like dolls, or lay there stony-faced,
While someone muttered something in a dream.
I looked outside—night’s eddying blue-blacks,
Streaking lights, still patches of light fog—
And thought I glimpsed the shiny pulse of gills
Or giant outline of a black-gloved fist
Studded with stars, the knuckles bunched like hills—
Imagine! A winged dragon! It tore along
Beside us with the vague, furtive smirk
Of someone who enjoys a private joke
Stretched across its heart-shaped snout. A book
Lay open on its head in place of hair,
And its scales were clear as the gray windowpanes
Of city halls, so I could see the veins’
Inky designs, like baroque emblems where
The virtues and the vices strut their stuff,
As its scorpion-tail hovered like a dove.
“It must be going a good seventy,”
I thought, as it floundered heavily
Past us on its little baby’s legs.
Then baring the whites of its sharp teeth,
It spread its wings until they filled the sky
Like a wedding canopy trimmed with razor wire,
And rose. The train jerked back under its bulk,
Then jolted forward, sped on by the wings,
As I slammed against the seat in front of me
And hit the floor, meeting my friend’s shocked
Eyes of blame and threat. The beast’s jaws sheared
The plastic top. Everyone took his seat
And talked a bit and with a snore or sneeze
Announced his experience and expertise,
And I thought, St. George, of you, of how you stood
Undaunted by the dragon’s brawn and airs
Until you saw the earth drink the black blood
Of its deathwound. The thought did me no good.
The beast bore down—my heart banged in my side—
And I craned my neck to see it chomp a bright
Young lawyer screaming in its teeth “no right,”
And lunge at me. I nearly died.
But taking advantage of a twist in the tale,
My friend and I jumped into the night.
Under the branches of a cottonwood,
Beside a muddy creek, we pitched camp.
Antelope, jackrabbit, gopher, grass
For food. We kept alive as a spoken word
Or campfire’s ash and smouldering peat
Keep, for a little while, a little heat.
But every one of that commonsensical lot
Was eaten by the dragon on the spot.