Operation Smart Blonde
When we first started seeing one another,
you told me about all the other women you'd ever loved,
admired, slept with. None were as smart or blonde
as I, you said, before asking, How about you?
No one, I answered. I've never loved another soul.
Nor will I. When you didn't believe me, I explained
that before you I believed in abstinence. In saving
myself for the perfect one. It was a religion.
A way of life. After all, I had studied theology
and philosophy and was still considering advanced degrees.
I wasn't just a dumb blonde. You laughed in my face,
and told me about a trapeze artist you made love to
mid-swing. A magician who sliced your body in half
in a fit of passion. You've never been the same since.
Still I refused to speak. Until one day you accused me of lying.
You said I was covering up my past. Finally I gave in.
I violated my code of secrecy.
I told about Operation Smart Blonde.
How for years I worked for the Secret Service.
I was part of an elite force consisting solely of blonde women,
a select squadron of friendly fliers.
More than once I had to sleep with a masked man,
and in the name of world peace. I was bound and gagged,
or maybe he was. It all blurs in my mind. Perhaps I was drugged.
Once we leapt from a speeding jet, our parachutes slowly opening,
our legs entwined as the earth exploded beneath us in a million flames.
Maybe it was Desert Storm when I went completely blind
from the smoke from all the oil refineries. For weeks
I could see only with my fingers and tongue. There was one
officer whom I knew only by the taste of his skin, his scent
of cigarettes and limes. He kept me alive on honey and figs.
On my last term of duty, I was airlifted to safety-whisked
out of bed, wrapped in white flags like a mummy.
When I landed on home turf, I was told I had destroyed
the heart of the enemy. If it hadn't been for me,
it could have been World War III.
Ever since I've suffered from withdrawal-trying to content
myself with humdrum sex, everyday events, men ordinary
as sausage and eggs. As grits or hashed browns.
It isn't easy. Always I dream a pair of callused hands
on my hips, the whine of planes overhead,
the touch of a stranger whose face I never see,
whose name I never speak, whose last wish I never can forget.
Lately I've been trying to be a good Buddhist. I like the concepts:
becoming free of suffering, happy, peaceful, blissed-out. But I have this
a not very Buddhist theory-that most people are actually mannequins.
They have official positions in the world, with nametags to show for it,
so that they know who they are and what to do. But their minds
are recordings. Like those announcements in the airport:
Welcome to Pittsburgh International Airport, a smoke-free terminal.
Maybe I think this because I am stuck in the Pittsburgh airport and
have been for days.
I have begun to notice the tell-tale signs: When you ask a mannequin
a question, the response is always a variation of: I am sorry. I cannot
Their eyes are fixed on the person behind you, whom they will soon
of the same news. It isn't personal. It's just the way they are.
But occasionally there are real people. On rare mornings you glimpse
but most go home for lunch and never return.
Maybe I have it backwards, that it's true, what the Buddhists say,
everything is a projection, that it's I who am so indifferent to the world,
that I see, not humans, but machines. This is not a good thing.
According to Buddhism, there are three responses to the world:
attraction, aversion and indifference. The third is the most common.
In the third response we treat others as if they don't exist at all,
or only exist to serve us, as if they were mere mannequins.
Thus a janitor might be seen as a living vacuum cleaner. A waitress
as a pop machine. And a stranger walking down the corridor
(or one who serves no function for you)
might be no more interesting than a large yellow ball rolling past.
Indifference, according to Buddhist philosophy, is subtle and cruel.
It is the cause of much human suffering.
I, however, am not certain this is the case. Indifference, I believe, has
I am not sure I really want to know why someone can't help me,
or what is meant by "mechanical difficulties,"
whether or not the planes have holes in the fuel tanks or windshields
or have been recently hijacked to Bogotï¿½. I have friends, however,
who are soothed by any show of personal attention, which is,
perhaps, a natural response to a world saturated with mannequins.
These friends are mostly poet-types who even get excited
by hand-written rejection letters. Me, I like the type-written forms
written by an anonymous "we." I picture a small army of mannequins
in magazine offices around the world, typing day and night,
heaps of the requisite forms-
Although we have read your manuscript with care,
we regret to inform you it does not meet our needs.
The needs of mannequins are a mysterious proposition.
If asked on the wrong day what they are, one might even respond,
Welcome to Pittsburgh International Airport, a smoke-free terminal.
I was telling this to my friend Syd, who used to edit The New England
when he read me sections of his recent and very personal rejection
from Joseph Parisi, a letter which began nicely enough
with a few niceties such as "Thanks for your missive"
and "so sorry to be late" and concluded: "But I wonder if you've ever
really read the magazine" in which "the poets presented are driven
by genuine necessity to write and have something to say, and don't
And: "Please keep in mind that we receive over 80,000 poems p.a., and,
amid many other financial and administrative responsibilities, perhaps
I am beginning to lose patience with people who repeatedly and often
unfairly consume increasingly pressured editorial time."
Maybe he wrote the letter in the Pittsburgh airport.
Maybe Mr. Parisi's a Buddhist at heart and knows he should never show
he doesn't realize anger is not appropriate for Buddhists, either.
Just last night in the airport bookstore I read a sutra on anger,
acclaimed by the Dalai Lama himself. I learned why there is never
a good reason to be angry. Because, in truth, all we see and experience
is nothing more than a passing moment, a cloud dissolving in thin air.
Why hold onto a cloud? Especially when you could do something else,
like board the first plane out of Pittsburgh? Who cares
if it takes you to Bogatï¿½?
Even then, I imagine a real Buddha would probably do nothing
but smile and nod. Which makes me wonder if the Buddha, himself,
is nothing more than a glorified mannequin. Picture him as a living
or better yet, a toilet bowl, one of those super-flush airport models.
No matter what drops in, or who, you can swish him away
in a matter of minutes. Now this might be a cause for happiness.
The Talking Pussy
Wherever I go, I carry a pussy with me. How do I carry it,
you might ask, but I assure you I and my pussy are not the same thing
so carry it I must. Asleep or awake, depending on who else is in the
the pussy talks to me. Quietly of course, so as not to attract attention
or disturb the peace. And honestly, much too honestly, really.
I am so glad when those who hear it pretend not to. Or perhaps they
they are only hearing things. On rare occasions the pussy gets carried
Then it sings off key or starts composing poetry. Of course, most don't
(or so I hope) that it's the pussy and not I who sings, or how difficult it
to carry a pussy everywhere I go, much less listen to the running
when all I wish for is silence. A little relief. I've even sought medical
but the doctors insist the pussy is all in my mind. I need only stop
about it, and the pussy will vanish forever. But I keep wondering:
if the pussy is in my mind, then what if my thoughts leave first?
And if I have to pick between a pussy and a brain, which will it be?
After all, how can one choose between a player and her flute?
The sea below and the sky above? And who am I
to command the waves: "thus far and no further shall you come.
Some Notes on God: In Praise of Henri Michaux
ONCE IN A great while you meet a writer who is a god. Or perhaps a ghost of a god, if the writer is dead.
That is, if gods have ghosts.
It happened to me once. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was a senior in college, taking a class with David Lehman. We had a conference to discuss my work. I don't recall clearly, but it seemed that there wasn't a lot of it to discuss.
To fill the time, David began reading poems to me. Gertrude Stein. I don't think I was paying much attention. I wasn't crazy about Tender Buttons at the time. I kept looking at his jacket, hanging in the corner, dripping snow. I thought how it looked like a dead sheep. And his matching cap. David, I asked. Where did you get that jacket? That's how much Stein I heard. Then he read me a Henri Michaux piece. I started listening when he read the line:
For instance I always go out with my bed now, and when a woman pleases me, I take her and go to bed with her immediately.
Afterwards he asked what I thought.
Only a god would write that, I responded enthusiastically. A regular Zeus of a man. I should be on my knees.
God? David asked.
Maybe he thought of a god as Yahweh, the SOB in the Old Testament. Well, I love Yahweh. I have a thing for creepy men. Most gods, under close examination, are pure SOBs. Good role models. My favorite Yahweh appears in the book of Job, with lines such as: Who dug the gullies for the torrents of rain, or made a path for the thunderbolts?
And: Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the womb? Who clothed them with clouds and thick darkness, and barred them by limiting their shores, and said, "Thus far and no further shall you come, and here shall your parted waves stop!"
A woman can get drunk on lines of men like these. Lines of men of power. Michaux and Yahweh both, who dare to tell it like it is.
But what of women of power, and how would a woman, or goddess, say the same sort of thing? That was my question years later when I wrote "The Talking Pussy." Under the influence of Henri Michaux, I began: Whenever I go out, I carry a pussy with me.
To some readers, a pussy might not seem very heavy, not like a bed. But they are mistaken. Because a pussy can be quite a load. Yet unlike a bed, a pussy has a mind of its own. And a voice, though few actually listen.
And, like a god, the pussy can't be stopped. Who would dare command it: Thus far and no further shall you come?
There are, of course, all kinds of gods-SOBs, pussies, angels, heat-seeking missiles-for all kinds of people. Sometimes we don't even know who or whose gods they are, or why. Nevertheless we kneel down and obey. We let them tell us what to do.
Then, creatures of habit, we live with them, day in and day out. They become our invisible bosses, our logic, our structure.
Sometimes we even forget they are there. Who invited them in anyhow? Who cares if we even know their names, who cares if they keep us imprisoned?
And many prefer life behind bars. Didn't Kafka say we're like birds in search of a cage?
But it's nice, once in a while, to have a god who opens the gates, forces us out, so we might feel the wind beneath our wings, even if, like chickens, we don't know how to use them.
Such a god is naturally abusive. (Otherwise we'd stay inside, ignore the exit door. Few ever go willingly.) This god breaks all our rules, all expectations. Terrible things happen in the places where such gods rule: wars, famine, betrayal, plagues. A man endures suffering of named and nameless dimensions. To get a man to move, to change is no small task.
It's as easy as teaching a statue to walk, as Henri Michaux suggested with his poem, "The Statue and I."
And his poem, "The Manlauncher," begins: I've got my slingshot-for-people, too. You can launch them far, very far away. You have to know how to load them. However, it's hard to hurl them far enough.
Many of Michaux's characters are as worthy as the best of us of being hurled off. These are not the noble souls of confessional poetry. They are rather the ignoble souls of "unconfessional" poetry, souls as enthusiastically defective as our own. Souls of those who would happily sleep with every pretty woman in sight, for example . . .
Henri Michaux's poetry includes aspects of the self one wishes not to tell, confess, admit, know .
What a relief to see the truth exposed! When confessional poetry is the norm, unconfessional poetry is the antidote.
Once upon a time I feared that only the rare eccentric, as perverse as I, would appreciate Henri Michaux. But I have discovered, happily, this is not the case. I am in good company.
Many writers, both well known and lesser, are Michaux enthusiasts. For example, Paul Auster, Richard Howard, Sydney Lea and David Lehman all count among his fans. John Ashbery interviewed Michaux, as did Allen Ginsberg. (Of Allen Ginsberg, Michaux commented that his energy was trapped in his sexual chakra, but that he sang in a charming way in a taxi once.)
Then somehow, word escaped that I intended to do this project, a book of Michaux translations, and I was deluged with unsolicited translations, many of which were wonderful. Each translator had his own twist, his own particular way of interpreting Henri Michaux. If I'd had my way, I'd have included them all.
After all, how does one translate god? Better to have a few options, just in case the first one doesn't suit your personal needs or tastes. (Sort of like dress shopping, or getting married, you don't just take the first one off the rack. You try each one on for size.)
And who wants just one?
There is no such thing as enough when it comes to Henri Michaux. The book due out later this year from Cleveland State, a sample of which follows-translations by Ann McGarrell, Steven Reese and myself-is only the first book I plan to complete, honoring this great Belgian poet. --Poland, Ohio, December 23, 2001
WHAT HAS BEEN missing in my life until now is simplicity. I am beginning to change, little by little.
For example, now I always go out with my bed, and when a woman pleases me, I take her to bed immediately.
If her ears are ugly or large, or her nose, I take them off with her clothes and put them under the bed. I keep only what I like.
If her under-clothes could use a change, I change them right away. That is my gift. If, on the other hand, I see a more beautiful woman passing by, I excuse myself to the first and make her disappear at once.
Some who know me suggest that I am incapable of doing just what I said, that I haven't the temperament. I once believed so myself, but that was because I wasn't doing everything exactly as I pleased.
Now all my afternoons are good. (Mornings, I work.)
(Translated from the French by Nin Andrews)