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Elegy for My Brother

Joel O’Brien — 1943–2004

First Part


Through thick glass —
        protective window —
                I see you struggle in a canyon
where I cannot touch you
        — naked —
                in headwind —
the figure of a man
        seen from far off —
                who uses force to beat back
against force — in the last room —
        where you may no longer
                go anywhere anymore —
and can still clarify
        “This is a nightmare” —
                the spine laid bare
and eyes hollowed out
        you are knocked back and scoured
                not as by a lover
but by the blind hunger
        of matter to devour its own
                accidental child —
        that was locked in rock —
                butterfly intelligence



Brother — are these the woods
        and rocks we lived among —
                revealed now — that were disguised
as chairs or sofas — where on the journey to the far side
        of the room you went astray
                passing the mirror — expecting
a pool — you seemed to think
        you were heading somewhere —
                “Shouldn’t we be... going?” — almost
with a wink — conspiratorial
        smile as if to say
                “Let’s blow this joint” —
and later in child’s voice
        “Shouldn’t we be going
                home now?” —
toward the end
        of what long afternoon
                in what back yard



Chill of language failing — my story
        about our childhood house confused
                suddenly with the movie on TV
and with our being in the room together —
        a collapse of borders    
                between worlds —
what were separate realms
        having become a single time zone
                with no further leeway
to go back or forward
        even as far
                as the top of the stairs —
I had not thought
        to watch time
                buckle and collapse
in the heart of your syntax —
        your sentence
                that kept order always
by continuous plaiting
        of strands — of names —
                you who wove the world —
“but how
        did they film this
                so that we were in it?” —
with enough time
        you might have invented
                an alternate language
to describe the dilemma –
        “you realize this will never
                come back as memory” —
no repeats —
        it happens once
                and disappears into itself —


A note
        sounded and gone —
                you were trying
to make language
        do what it cannot —
                what is forbidden to it —
bridge the abyss
        between us — but we speak
                untranslatable dialects
on opposite sides of the border —
        occupy different planes
                even as they seem to overlap —
so that becoming transparent
        you walked through me —
                and I through you —
collapse of geography
        that comes before
                the departure from space —
the facets are partial —
        they shear off
                in mid air



I begin to inhabit
        an absence
                in whose midst
you are folding
        a white towel — with absolute care
                straightening its corners
to make a perfect rectangle —
        almost the last contained form
                you can establish —
white rectangle laid flat
        across your legs —
                you having become ancient
in bright unvarying sunlight —
        merciless pale orange sun
                a rock wall
that no longer illuminates —
        you are the explorer of where cloth begins —
                where cloth reaches to —
of the seams where might be hidden
        what? — you tug on a strand of cloth
                as if all space
were attached to it —
        and pull it toward you —
                no up or down
in your new world —
        you pull on the thread
                like a rope you climb
a mountain with —
        or as if the thread
                itself were mountain —
the rip in the fabric
        is part of the fabric —
                the rip is a fold
over what you were uncovering —
        hidden center
                wrapped like a stone
in cloth —
        slipping out
                through an unseen trap —
a magician’s trick —
        open the cloth
                and there is nothing there



The world is continuous
        in which these holes
                continually open —
the waterfall
        a tissue of gaps —
                that arches and parts —
cave mouth
        huge in the room —
                where a devouring goes on —
ineluctable folding motion —
        that we sit under
                as under a wave —
submit to a rotation —
                that turns beyond names



Just in time — judicious
        in placing accents —
                an alarm clock
        in the empty sky —
                on the other side —
there being nothing
        but what is divided —
                severed by a beat —
a drop of time —
        in the midst —
                as churn or plowblade —
all else
        to fall contrary ways
                either side of it —
a broken music
        nourished by interruptions —
                an alarm clock ringing
in the empty house —
        where the air is rarefied
                beyond tune —
stick music
        scraping at the unseen —
                notch music —
chisel music —
                is in the bones
and hangs from nothing —
        as you drum
                with one hand
on bony thigh
        in time to the conga drum
                of “Allen’s Alley”




Even in dream
        you continue to play music
                as if there were no silence
so deep
        you could not break it
                by seizing on gong
or wooden flute —
        not to announce festival
                but to have already begun it —
mañan’ habrá gran fiesta” —
        the word is fiesta
                not funesta — I see you
not mourning or in sorrow — you walk
        from under trees into light
                as if you made part
of the light —
        it lacks only instruments —
                ears — air
to make concert
        out of nothing
                but the fact of slipping
through the dark grove
        in late afternoon —
                if I wrote this before
(almost the same words
        about the same grove
                where a premonition of twilight
is always just starting
        to infiltrate the splendor)
                it was only to prepare
for writing it again — the way the musicians
        tune up with fragments
                of what they will be playing
when the time comes
        to take time in hand
                and moisten it with breath
and stride all the way into it —
        playing while they walk
                past the boarded-up shopfronts
of a decayed industrial district —
        if they pause
                to permit silence
it is only so they can begin
        again and again
                always for the first time —


The tree is made of smoke —
        the dog is made of smoke —
                the shadow of the leaf
that whips like a rocket
        across the grass
                is essence of smoke —
smoke flower —
        Buddha be praised —
                the ancient ones be praised —
because they are smoke
        already — part
                of the smoke we are becoming —
got there ahead of us —
        Lester Young be praised —
                Arsenio Rodriguez be praised —
and carvers of marks
        in stone walls — polishers
                of black neolithic bowls —
of round smooth depths —
        who made arches to walk under —
                who tuned — who invented fingerings —
made vents for deep song
        to leak into the burning world
                where we are poured out —
        (as if by ourselves) by what
                we carry in us —
as living smoke
        we let pour out
                into the space under the tree

3   Niña en Luz de la Luna

only what is hidden
        can be revealed —
what is obscured
        can the light
                shine on — remote
reflected light
        to etch the ink-black
                portrait of one
who came down
        near the water —
                she who in the middle
of everyone else’s
                slipped past
        waded out
                in the reeds in the dark
to hear the river move —
                inside the noise
a tune clean enough
        to carry as far
                as the far shore —
shapes half-hidden
        are best shapes —
most bright
        and homelike
                of what is visible —
the ear


on rock
        thought spreads
                like moss —
on rock
        not penetrable
                by the reverie it’s host to
        what rock thinks —
                memorial tablet
peopled by remnants
        of accidental glimpses —
                gods seen in dreams
who can be
        only if we aren’t,
                in the world
where we never were —
        the people who know the sun
                live as if eclipsed
by brightness,
        knowing nothing
                of what is under them —
locked out
        from the half part
                of the world — the rumble
from the other side of the wall
        might be a half-drunk
                country singer mumbling
to himself — or monks
        summoning spirit armies —
                we have never
known where we are —
        or saw past the ledge
                at whose narrow rim
we place at fixed hours
        a totem positioned
                to reflect remote daylight —
        in the blind world
                our membranes out of ourselves —
shimmering scales,
        textured layers of names
                to keep the dark out —
until having become
        our own houses
                we find stashed in them
as by a mute caretaker
                for navigation
among the glassy surfaces
        and sounding boards —
                so that groping among angles
and openings around midnight
        we locate
                the ramp to the sky deck —
the paradise lounge
        whose tentlike structures
                almost translucent
sway at the slightest
        night breeze — in the history
                of dance measures
a string twang
        registers for as long as it lasts
                what lasts —
in our home on the rock
        amid the gradually
                disappearing echo
of the sundown drums
        we stretch out
                on the unbreachable foundation —
where once at least
        must have been a conduit
                between domains —
where once at least
        rock opened
                and water poured from it —
from another world —
        ice crystal
                that drifted across space


a chapter
        from the book of spangles —
                tone harvest
baled up in sky lofts —
        strange old flip book coiling
                in jungle patterns,
a collectable rarity
        found on the subway —
                hymnal of alternating click anthems —
downtown garden
        downtown garden
                downtown garden –
look how they come
        out of the sky
                and back into the sky —
belltowers —
        fruit-trees —
                galactic underpasses —
systems of aquifers —
        maps of stems —
                green birds
in pink cages
        hung by well-brink —
                the puppet’s prophecy —
or what the owl
        hinted from behind mask —
                voices from under bushes —
when still cold —
        crunchy underfoot —
                and rags of blue smoke —
strips of paper
        from a toy theater
                plastered to rocks —
clown — crone — king — lutenist —
        and the wizard
                in the conical hat —
window pops open
        in middle of air —
where it never stops
        changing as one beat
                answers another —
animals call out
        from the woods in back
                of the coastal settlements —
errant milkman
        who from his bicycle
                spies on lawns
in brilliant chill —
        a suspended trumpet —
                city is built
in walls of night
        interrupted by kitchen scenes —
                where from the fire escape
the apartment dweller
        up all night
                is seen carrying drinks in
for the dancers in the next room —
        the star that breaks
                in the forehead
dissolves geometry of street-grid
        into thick rainfall —
                of all things most yielding —
wears away stone —
        city is broken apart —
                of the signs that remain
on the stripped highway
        you will not read
                even what isn’t written


we dreamed that everything
        was alive — even rocks —
                even the gullies
between star-formations —
        the brisk waves
                and discarded shells
on a stretch of coast
        where we walked
                as if it were part of us —
everything the eye
        could see
                was violent with life —
glistening slime
        on beached boulders —
                flat cloud-banks
pinching the light out
        between sky and shore —
                mirror facets
of sand grains seen
        up close — the mix of speckles —
                fragment of twine
coiled where it rotted
        into a broken pockmarked spiral
                where even what was missing
in the gaps in its arc
        heaved with breath —
                ocean inhaling deeply
while sky watched
        the shapes we described
                by moving underneath it —
we dreamed we were
        walking on the beach
                in late winter —
where the walk stops
        at the edge
                of black seawater
what would it take
        to set the dark
                to permanent music —
to a noise
        like pots and pans
                banging in swing time

on tom tom
        in soft night
                on flute
in soft night
        on vibes
                in soft night
the air
                of overtones —
a ringing
        as of a thousand
                tiny waterfalls
        at once
                and pitched each
to its own degree
                in a lagoon of songs
where answer
                answer —
frog night
        on back porch —
                electric rumble
over the hill —
        a voice
                kicks open
summer heat
        like the noise
                of rusty hinges —
ancient people
        first taught
                to put sounds together
and never died —
        it lives in them
                as much as ever
in quaver of water —
        bent note
        to scoop up
                woodpaths —
“where the breaks
        between trees
                bring us moonbeams” —
song coming apart
        in spray
                along the ridge

— Geoffrey L. O'Brien

Courtesy of SaltPublishing.com



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Joel's Autobiography
Video Tribute - by Richard Corey
Elegy - by Geoffrey O'Brien
Remembrances and Reflections