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David Kirby

Ignoble Phiz


      In the museum of the Prado in Madrid, Spain,

            or that of the Louvre in Paris, France or even

the Metropolitan in our own New York, New York,

            I notice that as I am peering at one representation

      or another of one grotesque or another—a bufón


      from the court of Philip IV as captured

            by Velázquez, for example, or a Goya painting

of a drunken peasant or a depiction by almost anyone

            of some idiot torturing our savior Jesus Christ to death,

      of which there are any number of illustrations—


      invariably I will hear, over my shoulder,

            a voice speaking either in English or in one

of the several other languages I understand,

            if less perfectly than my own, and saying

      "¡Qué feo!" or "Quelle horreur!" or "Gladys,


      wouldya look at the puss on that one!"

            though when I look to see who is speaking,

fully half the time it is someone

            as outlandish as the mutation on the wall,

      some chinless wonder or splay-toothed gargoyle,


      some scrofulous bug-eyed newt of a human,

            and I wonder if it is not as though they are looking

into a mirror, these people, and thinking,

            without precisely using Emerson’s own words,

      what Emerson said when he wrote that


      "In every work of genius, we recognize

            our own rejected thoughts" and "they come back to us

with a certain alienated majesty," as in the photo

            of the fisherman holding a trophy as pop-eyed,

      potbellied, and slack-jawed as himself! Ha, ha!


      When Julian Hawthorne talked about his dad

            with Melville, Melville said he thought Hawthorne

"had all his life concealed some great secret,

            which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries

      of his career." I’ll bet! I am one to judge a book


      by its cover, as was Henry James, Sr., who said Hawthorne

            had the appearance of "a rogue looking as though

he were about to be seized by detectives."

            Yet do not I myself feel this way

      as I contemplate my own ignoble phiz


      when I peer into the mirror while shaving?

            But then I feel like a king when I am looking at,

say, a portrait by the previously-mentioned Velázquez

            of, say, Philip IV of Spain depicted as a great hunter,

      hunting being thought important to the education


      of the nobility because it teaches patience, astuteness,

            and prudence. Well, and it also teaches bloodletting,

wastefulness, and cruelty to animals!

            Not to mention force majeure, lèse-majesté,

      and droit de seigneur, horrid concepts made to sound


      even more horrid because they’re in French!

            But let that be as it may for a moment:

the point is that I probably not only never will be

            but could never have been a king anymore than you, reader,

      for I agree with the great Jim Harrison,


      who says that the people who’ve had past lives

            always say they were Pocahontas or Mary Queen of Scots,

when really we all might have been microbes

            in a dog turd in the Middle Ages!

      Oh, ha! I wouldn’t know a microbe


      if one kicked in my den door and slapped the remote

            out of my hand and turned me into a puddle

of stretchy pink goo! That’s what I’m saying, though,

            that appearances can fool you.

      In the land of microbes, everyone is king.



. . . Alas, Not by Johannes Brahms


         I am passing out programs at the annual awards ceremony

            of the National Book Critics Circle, and, I tell you, reader,

some of these supercilious New York professors are not even trying


      to make eye contact with their humble servitor,

            much less say thank you!

For example, Professor Morris Dickstein, whom I have just seen


      on the TV discussing the life and works of Mark Twain,

            floats by in a sort of Jovian oblivion, taking the proferred program

between thumb and forefinger as though it were a dainty


      or sweetmeat held out by a slave, and this strikes me

            as a convincing argument for being nice to nearly all the people

(because perfection is too much to ask) nearly all the time


      (see previous parenthetical statement), since at least some of them

            may have seen you on and remember you from the TV!

Though I, a country mouse, learn quickly it is not just


      these professors who are capable of ruffling his whiskers:

            at the performance that night of Arthur Miller’s

The Crucible, starring Laura Linney and Liam Neeson,


      I find myself surrounded by Pennsylvania teenagers

            especially bussed in for the occasion and who,

because they are teenagers and not because they were Pennsylvanians,


      even though, for the purpose of poetic justice,

            that state must bear quondam blame for rearing its youth so poorly,

are unable to deny themselves the gratification


      of even the most trivial of impulses and therefore

            spent the evening consuming full meals they have smuggled in

in clear contravention of the "No Food or Drink


      in the Auditorium" policy, then going to and from the bathroom,

            giving each other back rubs, fixing each other’s hair,

and, in one instance, cracking their knuckles during one protracted stretch,


      each burst of nitrogen from its cartlilagenous confines

            sounding for all the world like the crack of a starter’s pistol

as the racers stumble out of the blocks, not pumping knees


      and elbows like well-oiled pistons but guffawing and squirting each other

            with warm fizzy beverages and slapping each other

with empty pizza boxes and loose seat cushions


      as they lurch and stumble toward, not a tape

            across the oval of the track, but the 10:30 p. m. curtain,

at the lowering of which they leap to their feet


      and rain down on the heads of Liam Neeson

            and Laura Linney and their cohorts such an ovation

as they are unlikely to enjoy ever again.


      Meanwhile, back at the Washington Square hotel, I begin

            to accumulate evidence that bad manners are not the sole province

of New Yorkers, for the temporary residents of that establishment,


      whose accents suggest they hail from every state in the union,

            not to mention a smattering of the foreign countries,

are, when calling an elevator car, like those who call


      elevator cars everywhere in that their minds never entertain

            the thought, much less the notion or whimsy, that that car

might already be occupied by others, and so you’re riding along,


      up or down, as the case may be, and the door opens,

            and there’s this countryman or -woman of yours

or else a representative of some sovereign alien power,


      and they’re just standing there with their stomach sticking out,

            hoping you’ll evaporate, or, my favorite, lurching forward

a half-step as if to see whether or not the change in air pressure


      will dispel the airy phantasm that is you.

            Truth to tell, though, the gentry of my home state of Florida

are no better, as evidenced by the consistent misbehavior


      of the hotel and motel dwellers who get up at five a. m.

            and slam! the door on the way out, and so it is

to these fisherfolk and the faithful attendees of early mass


      that I say, "Fear not, The One Who Got Away will elude you yet again,

            and the soul’s journey toward heaven will be

neither aided nor impeded by your presence or absence at holy services,


      though your Shakespeare rod and reel

            or your rosary beads are likely to fall from your hands

as you say ‘That is not what I meant, not at all’


      when a naked 57-year-old white man leaps screaming

            out of room 615 and lands on your back, his spindly shanks

encircling your waist, his yellowing canines sinking into your neck,


      your ear lobe, the pad of fat that’s beginning to accumulate

            at the base of your neck."

And even I, who utter a chirpy "Thank you!"


      to the policeman as he hands me my ticket, who sits quiet

            as a corpse in the theaters and concert halls I frequent,

who bows others out of the elevator car before


      thrusting myself forward, who eases every door shut,

            still, early in the day as well as late, even I find myself often

with the strange distraught air, as Maeterlinck says,


      of someone standing in sunlight, in a beautiful garden,

            at the same time that he is expecting a great misfortune,

even though he can’t specify the precise nature


      of that impending calamity. I don’t say so, however,

            as I do not wish to be like the noblewoman

in The Charterhouse of Parma who, by imagining herself


      the most unhappy woman in the world, made certain

            she was the most boring, this being,

other than the approach and inexorable arrival of death,


      perhaps the greatest certainty of her otherwise insipid existence,

            for any life is so much like a game of cards,

viz., the one in Pushkin’s eponymously-titled Queen of Spades,


      wherein sometimes you get the one and the seven and the ace,

            but most of the time you get the one and the ace

and then some other card or else you get the other card first


      and then the ace and the seven and so on, down to the end

            of the series of finite combinations.

I. e., most of the time you are going to get a hand you don’t want!


      And how else will you buy your way out of this dilemma

            but with the exquisite coin of manners, as it has been

throughout history, for churlish deportment is not the sole province


      of the chowderheads, ninnyhammers, and clodpolls of our own age,

            or Della Casa wouldn’t have written in his Galateo (1558):

"Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out


      your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies

            might have fallen out of your head." Nor are ill manners

an attribute solely of the uneducated or unrefined or ill-paid,


      as in the case of the previously-mentioned Professor Morris Dickstein,

            who looked to me as though he was doing okay,

or that of the World Health Organization delegate


      who was part of our party when we were dining in New Orleans

            just last week and who, when I asked if she was enjoying

her tasty trout amandine, hissed, "Am I ‘enjoying’ it?


      No, as a matter of fact, I’m not ‘enjoying’ it! Why does everyone

            in the South have to ‘enjoy’ everything?"

Sometimes I wonder if it’s morality that keeps us from misbehaving


      so much as the desire not to do something ugly or stupid—

            that bad taste leads to crimes, as Stendhal says,

just as surely as the greatest pleasure that can be given,


      and this is true for both the giver and the givee,

            be he or she (and he or she) high- or low-born

or well- or poorly-heeled or professor or student


      or teenager from Pennsylvania or Connecticut or Westchester County

            or graybeard from those precincts

or any others adjacent to the metropolitan New York area


      or Washingtonian or Estonian or Catholic of the charismatic

            or cultural or Tridentine strain or fisher of walleye, pike,

redfish, bluefish, triggerfish, any kind of fish—


      the greatest pleasure is that embodied in a gesture

            at once courteous, learned, witty, and self-abasing,

as when the wife of Johann Strauss, Jr.


      asked Johannes Brahms for an autograph,

            and Brahms responded by writing down the opening notes

of Strauss’s Blue Danube and signing them . . .


David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University. His poetry was chosen for both Best American Poetry 2000 and Best American Poetry 2001 as well as Pushcart Prize 2001. His poetry collection The House of Blue Light was published in LSU Press's Southern Messenger Series, and in October 2003, the same series will publish his new collection, The Ha-Ha.

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