Paper Cities



by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

The radio glimmers,
Cities alight in my room
Among cities of books
Stacked in towers.
Each book is a room. In one,
Flaubert affixes the date on the page, July,
And addresses the neglected Louise,
Advising his beauty by mail:
“Read, do not dream.” Three months go by.
In my dictionary of saints,
One carries her torn breasts on a plate,
Another washes his severed head
In a fountain, others carry their cities
Before them on trays,
Like fragmented sets of chess.
Below, Gretel peers from a cage.
Above, Lear leans over his map
And chooses the liar;
I press my eyes,
I don’t want to read.
But when I tire
Of making shadow-swans who make haste
In the radio light,
And arranging my hairpins in pentacles
And giant alphabets, I need other
Ways of wasting the night.
Through the doorway
The kitchen floor-squares make a chessboard
Whose figures have crumbled
To small heaps of dust.
It is morning for you where you sit
In the City of God,
Where every predicament, every desire
Possesses a saint intervening above it.
Saint Barbara, whose father instantly
Turned to a cinder that tangled
Into her broom,
Holds a stony tower
In the crook of one arm.
She presides over gunpowder
And those who die without rites.
You write in a room,
You write rather than dream,
The cities spring up from your pencil point,
Towers, chess, the captured queen
Over whose empty square you preside.
You press on your eyes
As if your head hurt, and the stars
With five points break apart
Into triangles whose corners are swept,
Bent, smoothed into circles
Rolling like wobbling zeroes away.
When you finally look up,
The day will be dark.
I draw crosses, chess,
Then affix names of streets to the lines,
A map, city squares.
When you touched my breasts, I saw
Hand shadows, like bird inventions
By Arcimboldo the Marvelous,
Spring to the wall.
A room appeared when I kissed your face
Where with Yaasriel’s seventy holy pencils
It is my duty everlastingly
To write your name, without looking up.
But the pencils roll and fall
From my desk in this rented place.
Louise touches the dreaming head
Of her daughter, but reads
The story aloud to the end
Where the bear comes back
And a lost girl has slept in his bed.
Upstairs my neighbors trace
Crossed lines above my head
In vanishing miles,
And I can’t fix my eyes on the page
Where Flaubert writes that prose
Is a permanent rage,
Writes to Louise that he’ll form
His book as a globe which will hang
“Suspended without visible support”
By the laws of style.
Rain hangs before my eyes
On the weather report.
Like continents beyond the windowsill
Clouds softly tear apart
As if a map were ripped to show
The world is hung on nothing,
He is right. Clouds sail past
The bent head of Louise as she writes back,
A message lost long since.
Countries break apart above the streets.
The window glitters black.
I touch my forehead to the glass.
Read, do not dream.
But my books are towers,
Rooms, dreams where the scenes tangle,
Visible through the stones.
A feather floats up from the page
Where the kitchen maid cries
As she plucks the weeping goose,
Or beats with a broom
White sheets into swans.
On the children-of-royalty’s lawns
The beaten hoops stagger
Away from the merciless sticks.
And Lear sits in jail, cut to the brains.
He spreads his drenched map
And waits till it dries,
Then folds it into a pointed hat,
And the faded countries wave in his hair
Like tattered butterflies.
I cannot read,
But sit at the base of the wall,
Wearing my hands for a hat.
Saint Clare possessed
Bilocal vision, which meant she could see
Events in places where she was not,
The way readers do.
It is morning for you.
You crouch behind your pencil.
If a rhythm branches through the forehead
Like the tree of which the empty page is made,
Gepetto appears with an ax.
He makes a child in which
The tree is hidden.
But Pinocchio’s nose reverts
To a tree with leaves where the bird’s egg
Rolls like a hoop from the nest and cracks
Into jagged triangles,
And little jaws open soundlessly.
I touch my head as if it were gashed,
Stories reel over the wires,
Narratives when I desire
All things to stare blankly back.
In the hollow squares I write,
“I envy the unfaithful.”
They know what to do with the night.
Then I draw the pentacle,
The star they call the endless knot
Because in drawing it the pencil point
Is never lifted once.
The star with five points,
The five paper hats,
A starry crown of triangles
For the betrayed.
And I stare at what I have done,
Beholding in fright
What I have made,
A pyramid wreath, a city of tombs,
And Flaubert writes, “Books grow huge
Like pyramids, and in the end
They almost frighten you.”
Louise crumples this into a ball,
And I put my pencil down.
The dust on the kitchen floor:
Crumbled towers, the dust of a vanished crown
In the empty square of the queen.
Upstairs my neighbors pace
And the rain flies down.
Saints look down from the towers
That rise from the paper you spread
Like a map where you write
And do not look up.
I lay the broom in my lap
Like the grizzled head of a saint
With a string for a crown.
Louise pins flowers on her hat
And bursts in on Flaubert.
From the dusty straws,
Like a feather a dead moth floats up
Which I pluck from the air
To set down on the page
Where the words came on
And the lines crossed, streets, city squares
Near the crumpled paper and tower of dreams.
The moth’s tiny wrecked skull, its rumpled face
Preside weightless, hushed
Over paper cities:
Little one, in whose papery jaws,
As it is written on paper,
The world is crushed.
[Pictured are Saint Agatha directly above and Saint Denis at the top]










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