THERMOS 9: Jeff Downey

Jeff Downey is our anchor leg. We run one of these poem/essays at the end of each or our issues nowadays, and are remarkably grateful to be able to do so. We hope you will enjoy this as immensely as we do, we hope it alters your day. — AS

Usufruct, or To Glean

         “In attempting to control a breachy bull…” the old barbed wire ads used to begin, back when products were new if you advertised with an essay. I still prefer the almanac over satellite weather, for its frost charts and soil pairings. When you settled in cattle country you were either a granger or a nester. The distinction determined by your neighbors from the hills, as one could tell easily from above whether you intended to fence (an abomination to the cattle trade) or not. The worth of a fence was the worth of stock eating the worth of crop. As the worth of security was the worth of a life hedging greener. Wire contracted in winter and expanded in summer, which prevented a patent until someone determined that all fences should include a turnkey.

In another story problem, one morning I’m eating at a diner. The waitress is out of placemats, so she gives me one of the children’s coloring sheets. The mazes and outlines are easy enough, but the quiz is surprisingly difficult. There is a geometry question, something like this:

x ———— x
|                 |
|                 |
x ———— x

The ex’s are trees. The square is a pond. How can you double this pond’s area without removing the trees? I make all kinds of canals. I interlace the square with a rhombus. It’s all I can do to manage the year away from Sondra and New England–the first in my noticing years. In Colorado, fall is the one in six artillery shells that swallows its fuse and then nothing, a dud, though that dud is the best of the bunch because there is suspense in approaching, hose in hand, sunglasses back on in the dark. These new, non-blight elms let down their yellow dress. The driveway is maculate, but smells like paint thinner. Bright like thinner and almost warm too, like coconut. There are too many teens this year, a Halloween enthymeme: Anyone taller

than the person

handing out candy

is required to trick,

preferably a song

and dance number.

My prompt: What,

didn’t you listen to anything

on your iPod today?

Sometimes the way out,

as the tide heading back

to sea, is delayed

by spiral, the water

rounding rock,

but that is only

autonomy speaking.

                                  As every household is fed an electric current that requires stabilization, and it is unfortunately in the act of stabilization that countercurrents create the very attraction back to the source which shocks us: every month, on the month, the full moon of our wedding. Then moon and calendar unravel. It wasn’t our intention to elope, though the ferry to Acadia worked just fine. Arctic terns scattering and landing like a Duke Ellington quote, “No, this is not piano. This is dreaming.” An alba understanding

Skin is geodesic

Each way the leafstalk

Can be pushed

All summer

The nightblooming

Cereus fluffs its lines

We start from the ledger

Of a mind at rest

As iron

Suspended in a stream

To take an awl

To the vellum and watch

Cuneiform vein

The dawn bites down

Throws its light


Eat something

An hour

Every stage along the way

Lemon to curb

An apple browning

That there is flaw at noon

A flaw built to

Dwarf cedar

Pythagorean silence

And the blue


Not to be fallen asleep in

It is not perseverance

I have to learn so much

As quickness of perception

Once hold

Of a mode

By its fingertips

I don’t listen

I don’t think

Which is enabling

Of the whole hand

List your benchmarks they say upon hiring. Well, I’ve watched Man with a Movie Camera all the way. Most stunned when life and sport begin to merge. The man throwing a javelin (CUT) to a man goalkeeping (CUT) to a woman about to sunbathe (CUT) covering herself in mud (CUT) to a man wading with tripod (CUT) back to the woman now on stage (CUT) to a voyeur with tripod actually not shooting anything because (CUT) the back of his camera is wide open and flapping in the wind (CUT) to a man washing mud off in tide like a summer snow angel (CUT) to cameraman again trying to glimpse between slats of fence (CUT) robins on ground (CUT) paint cans on scaffolding (CUT) chores undone, a man at the races betting on (CUT) carousel.

                    Because surely it’s to be exposed to all the things that bait us that we live. The first time you’re asked to jump a friend’s car, not knowing whether you’ve hooked the cables correctly. Or to share a cigarette. Putting on the agony, putting on the style. Skiffle proceeds from mere onomatopoeia. We endure. It is innate to duress. A white eggshell which has never had to hide in plain sight, evolving to robin’s sky blue, to who-would-have-thought discretion. This butte made do as a perch. This tree all that chalked up to be. One washboard, cigar box, comb and paper at a time, kazoos have a way of taking shape in rubble. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Bernadette Mayer describes in Midwinter Day the fantasies of early explorers to the South Pole, how they would describe the meal they most desired and then everyone in the party would vote on whose was best, all the while starving. The trick is to jog memory and attend the past without synchronizing alive and bereft. Because artistry shows as the pencil dulls. A friend’s child invents superheroes according to boredom. Window Man. Alone Man. What powers are there for overcoming (or achieving) melancholy? I would call on the student who resorts to our lost reliance on smell, deliberately peeling an orange during class’s awkward silence.

                               Hence, our acclaim for what deafness or blindness may heighten. Rain all week this week. Rain like a sprinkler head chipped by a lawnmower. A neighbor illegally collects rainwater in barrels for his cistern, asking rhetorically, “Do we need to treat water just to flush our toilets?” That most major religions arose in aridity–even Buddhism, being so mountainous–implies dogma comes from minimal expectations. And we feel the minima all the more young and alone. I am a composition teacher, an adjunct who lives in a carriage house in an alley. I don’t know how to keep water in, or out for that matter. I’ve rarely if ever used lotion, but love how soft my hands are washing the skillet I use to fry bacon. Think how erotic weddings were before our lives hinged on entertainment.

                    Essentially, when you boil luck down over the last ten thousand years–evolution and history’s “winners”–the best thing we can do for our descendants is to live near and with as many animals as possible. Given an antique and then given a trivet for that antique, you want to put the kettle into action. As far as compatible

with the substance

of the thing

not being destroyed

or injured, give me to know

the thrumming lockbox

generator by the pond,

by pumping water, keeps unfrozen

and keeps normally migratory

birds around all winter,

–ankle collars

and paintball scars–

the right of enjoying

all advantages derivable

from the use of something

that belongs to another–

even if it’s just germs

you’re harboring

                 My Norwegian student tells me of a study group where groups of mice were exposed to Mozart, heavy metal, and no music at all. The groups then ran in a maze. The Mozarts won over the long run, but the metal mice won the study in the short term, tripling their time within a week before killing each other. Another study asks the question of whether you ever had the illusion as a child of being able to talk your way out of a dangerous situation…a kidnapping or stickup. Back when reason was disarming! I’ve always loved the scene in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart flashbulbs the murderer to buy some time. In landscape photography it’s easy to tell the difference between amateur and professional because a professional things dangling foliage in the corners of the frame or foreground is not desirable. But how patronizing to think everyone wants a pristine middle distance. Sondra’s audition rotation for a residency away in Maine uses a selling point that sometimes at the hospital you can catch glimpses of Aurora Borealis. The patron, or pater, from “to pattern.” I’m seeing also: Horace, Ode 4.11

(a footloose translation)

Now, almost nine years cellared,

our best vintage is at its peak.

Dear wife, spare nothing from the garden.

Tie your hair with yellow-flowered ivy.

The young are everywhere. They gleam the house,

garland the lamb, even the bloodstained altar

appears fresh. What kind of candles are they?

Did we once burn as clean?

I’ve neglected to announce the day.

Today is not mine, but my patron’s,

whose birthday divides April, a month cruelly

dangled from one year to the next

as the moon the tide, the tide the shore.

Dear wife, you may look at him,

but you are not strong enough

to drive that chariot. His young love

is smooth and eager. All I have are words,

though I think them equal to your lyre.

Return, last of my loves.

Without you there is no envoy.


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