The boy has the ball in the air, right where he wants it, just high enough so he can drop his left foot and lift his right to keep it in the air (though he keeps it it in the air sometimes with both feet off the ground), back and forth, foot to foot, all the way down the field, controlling it brilliantly, sometimes kicking it waist-high, shoulder-high, sometimes higher, bouncing it a few times off his head, and then letting it drop behind his back where he bounces it a few times off his heels, and then flicking it over his shoulder to his front left foot again, to his right, back and forth, as he moves down the field to the goal, which is the mouth of heaven, a portal, a passageway, through which, finally, he sends the ball whistling, just beyond the fingertips of the goalie suspended in mid-air, fully extended, a slash mark of despair. The crowd goes wild. The nation goes wild. The boy turns and runs back to midfield, joined by his teammates in joy. The crowd noise is a tsunami of sound, a mountain of sound rising, two hundred thousand lungs bellowing the boy’s name. Where did the ball go? Did the goalie ever descend from his flight? In a moment the boy rises from his knees. His teammates are gone. The noise of the crowd passes over like a jet plane. The boy finds the ball and again he lifts it in the air, passing it one foot to another, all the way down the field. Behind him the blurry mansions seem happy on their hillside.
“His clothes hung crucified upon him,” is a line from an early poem (mid-‘60s) by Bill Knott. He wrote his first book, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans (Big Table, 1968), under the pseudonym of St. Geraud (1940-1966). His explanation for using birth and death dates as part his name — while still very much alive — has always moved me. He said that all of us, all Americans, were casualties of the Vietnam War, whether we served there or not. Therefore, we are all dead and should declare ourselves so. Knott kept birth and death dates (although he dropped the name of St. Geraud) on a few more of his books but has published under just plain Bill Knott for the past 25 years or so. He was and is, one of the very finest poets in America. This man in the picture: his clothes hang crucified upon him. His belt is knotted, crucified upon his waist. His Band-Aid’s askew, crucified, on his left eyebrow. His arms crossed over his chest, crucified. A man so pulled down over his heart like this — as if he’s trying to keep it from leaping out of his chest — stands in the back of a church, which happens to be in Tijuana, Mexico. I’ve seen him before: in Rome, was it or New York City, or once when I walked into a cathedral in Paris? Is he a holy relic traveling a kind of circuit: ship him from country to country in his big glass box, stand it up and slide him forward (his feet nailed to little wheels) for the faithful to attend? Does he pray or sleep? His spine erect but his head bowed. He is alone, or with his God, whom I hope is good. The church is filled — midday — and the people kneel and rise and sing and kneel again. The priest looks like a great white-and-black bird as he raises his arms in his cassock. He raises the chalice high. God lives here now, in His House, He lives in the hearts of his worshippers. Look at the man’s fingernails: they glow with an e-ray light, look like a little wingtip trying to escape the blackness of his coat, the heaviness of his arm/ Is he ready to speak now? Will he step forward or step back? Above him, the arches of the church are reflected: the solid column upon which two beams ascend – one, the stronger, to the right, the other, weaker, to the left. How does this symmetry hold up the great vault of the roof, the ceiling? I have always marveled at the rafters in churches and the sensuous curves of the ceilings. It makes sense, of course: looking heavenward one should look into something beautiful with swoops but what we look up into, literally, in a church (or mosque, or temple, or etc.) must be made to look as if it is flying. Our friend still hasn’t moved. He might be cold. There’s a large crucifix to his right, making more angles, sharper now with the door of his box, and another smaller crucifix to its right. The congregates now rise and kneel again and make their way up to the front and back again. Incense. Woodsmell. What better place for wood grain to shine and live than in the pews of churches? What honor to make the seats and kneeling racks and altars, the railings oiled and smoothed by a million penitents’ palms, those comforted by prayer, the certain, the squirming children, the grief, fear, doubt, hope all worn into the grain. Sunlight pours in the rear door of the church, which opens on to a noisy street where people rush to this, or that, sell what they can sell – the simple formula for riches, or lunch. I sit in a pew and pray. At first I try to fool God and pray that people who suffer poverty should not have to, or not so much. Then I pray for my daughter, 11 years old and about as far away as one can be and still be on the same continent; I pray for her health and happiness. I consider praying for Princess Diana, but she’s been dead nearly a year and is probably covered anyway in that area. Then I think I’ll pray for my enemies. I think of some people against whom I have petty grievances, against whom I feel minor resentments but I (1) don’t feel I could call these people “enemies” (saying one has “enemies” when one is not, say, at war with Nazi Germany, always strikes me as rather pretentious) and (2) these grievances, when I think about them, make me so embarrassed to have them that I don’t want to gripe about them to God – even though He knows anyway, since He knows everything. God knows I go through this every time I speak to Him so He’s patient with me, never asks me to get to the point. I pretend to ask Him about our friend: Why is it some men have to hold up their pants with an old necktie and other people are rich enough to hire, if they desire, two or even three people – if they don’t like belts or suspenders, or, if the fashion gods will forgive them, elastic – to go everywhere with them and hold up their pants? I think if I put it this way I might catch God off guard. After all, He gets this kind of question all the time. God doesn’t speak. He certainly doesn’t laugh – did the fashion-gods within the joke displease Him or go over, or under, His head? A man I know who works for Him says He is mysterious like that. God’s put out some literature. Some people say He wrote, or dictated, a lot of it but His name isn’t on the cover. It’s suggested that you go to meetings at His house, frequently. People who work for Him (who does his hiring is unclear) will interpret this literature for you and explain what the completely incomprehensible parts mean. This though reminds me too much of certain literary criticism so I quarrel with this notion for a while (actually, I am stalling) before I ask God what He knows I wanted to ask him all along: Please, God, the next time I’m pressed under the chest X-ray’s lead kimono, the next time this or that gets biopsied, a blood test, or bone scan, or I get on an airplane, please, God, keep the tests clean and the airplane up, I like it here on your beautiful planet! I did not come here to pray, I did not come here to pray for myself (yes I did) but I speak into a tunnel to God, I speak into a cave. I speak through some blackness, and I speak through some light. Look again at our friend – he hasn’t moved, not one twitch, even his breathing does not move his chest. All the pain in the world he holds there with his arms. Cesar Vallejo, the Peruvian poet, who died in Paris in the ‘30s of illness brought on by malnourishment, says in his poem “A Man Passes By with a Loaf of Bread on His Shoulder”: “A cripple sleeps with one foot on his shoulder./ Shall I later on talk about Picasso, of all people?” I leave the church before the service finishes and pass in front of the man. I think to stop before him to give him money or tell him good luck. I’d like to say his big blank black eyes are filled with love. But they are not. They stare down at his sleeve, rheumy and brown.
I like this dog. He looks a little tired, distracted. He’s been posing all day for this day’s master, a renowned sculptor. The tuft of hair the dog wears (about all he wears save some sorry whiskers) is a little fly-blown. His makeup assistant must be on break. He seems unmoved that he is on his way to immortality, or nearly so: he’ll be cast in bronze. His image will outlive his bones. Speaking of bones, he thinks, a Milk-Bone would be good right now, a little break, a lap or two of water. He’s trying to remember what his agent told him re this sitting. All day on a chair, he remembers that. Lunch (breakfast he had before the job), regular breaks (every two hours, three?). Life is short in this business, his agent said, you’re only at your peak for a few years, there’s always the younger sleeker pups nipping at your heels. He seemed pleased by this joke. Sit still, look where the artist tells you to look, and nor barking. Remember: the man you’re working for is an artist, they can be a little temperamental. The dog tries to think of something else — no Milk-Bones seem forthcoming. The sculptor’s lost in looking at him — he took some photos first, he did some sketches. Now, he’s got a tub of plaster and some chicken wire. The dog thinks: I’ll never understand modern art. He never minded being bald. All his brothers and sisters were, his mom. It makes him sad to think of his father, whom he never knew. That is a hoe he can never fill, he thinks. Oh, for a few laps of water. The sculptor’s bending chicken wire, making a frame, a shape on which he’ll smear the plaster. The sculptor’s hands are what the sculptor is: they make a thing, an object, in the way he wants to see it, have it seen. Will this sculpture look exactly like me? Thinks the dog. He’s trying now a technique he learned in modeling school: to hold your pose, try to imagine you’re a part of something beautiful that might tell some truths and last forever. Think of the Mona Lisa, the teacher said, think of The Thinker. Who were these people? Nobody really knows or cares — oh, we know the model’s names but the artist made the painting, the sculpture, and therefore made the model live forever. Many models can do what you do, the teacher said, but nobody can do it exactly as you do. The dog didn’t follow much of this. He was still looking at the art book the teacher used to make his point. He wondered: Did the same guy who modeled for The Thinker get to be the male model in The Kiss? He could think about things like that, or Milk-Bones, but he didn’t follow the abstractions very well. The sculptor says, Turn your head this way, dog, or, Lift up your chin a little. He is neither brusque nor gentle. His eye rarely looks at what his hands are doing. The dog was told that sometimes artists fall in love with their models, take them as their muse, marry them. And then his teacher said: That probably won’t be a problem, however, with you. The dog didn’t appreciate the teacher’s wit just as he didn’t appreciate the wit of his agent but then he thought: They’re just trying to toughen me, it’s a hard market, a dog eat dog…He didn’t finish his thought. The sculptor, up to his elbows in plaster, his chest and face streaked with it, has thrown back his head and howled. It’s not a howl the dog has heard before. The sculptor says: How about some water, dog, how about some lunch? Good dog, good dog, he says, you’re a good dog to sit still so long. This makes the dog proud. My first job, he thinks, I’m doing OK, I’m a pro, toss me that Milk-Bone! After lunch, a few minutes in the sun, some stretching exercises, and a little more “imaging,” he’s ready to get back up onto the chair, feeling almost like a collaborator.
But the artist seems different now, cast down, staring at the piles of wire and plaster in front of him, then at the dog, then at the plaster again, over and over, each time his eyes looking a little more panicky, pained. What’s up with this? Thinks the dog. Finally, the artist lifts the whole mass – the dog estimates 20 kilos easy – above his head and slams it to the floor. It’s no good, the sculptor screams, it stinks, my gift has left me, I think I’ll kill the dog! This takes a few seconds to register with the dog. He remembers nothing about this in the model’s handbook. Still, he holds his pose. The sculptor says, I’m going to kill this dog, chop him up, cook him, and eat him with some rice and cheap red wine. This dog is thinking: What would Cindy Crawford do in a situation like this, or Vendela? Still, he holds his pose even as his left front leg begins to tremble a bit and he lets out a little bark, which sounds more like a chirp, and he feels something let go and open up in his face, and he isn’t on his first job anymore – he’s just scared and frozen now, not posing self-consciously and the sculptor says: That’s it, that’s it, hold that pose! And the dog does, for the rest of the afternoon, and he doesn’t think about water, or Milk-Bones, or modeling class, or anything at all except being hacked up, cooked and eaten with rice and cheap red wine, he just holds that thought and his leg trembles, and he holds the look which he can’t see but which he feels. He later learns the same technique, when actors apply it to their craft, is called the “method.” He doesn’t know what it’s called when a sculptor applies it to his model, a dog. The sculptor works happily now, even singing a little, his eyes rarely on the dog, but watching his hands making the dog he’s making into art. I don’t understand a lot of modern art, thinks the dog, but I know what I like.
A man’s daughter looks into his eyes. She sits facing him, on the table’s edge, he, in a chair, facing her. She holds his face with both hands, but just with her fingertips, as if gently trying to lift his head so that his gaze meets hers exactly eye to eye. Their faces are three or four inches apart. The child is three to four years old. On her lap, between her chest and his: a soccer ball. Perhaps they just played a little, or will, in the yard. The child’s mother sits behind her and tilts her head to look past her daughter, to the man. Her mouth a straight line across her face, her eyes dark, and sad, and proud. Is she thinking, looking at the back of her daughter’s neck: That would be a nice place to plant a kiss? What in this picture tells you this mother and child visit a husband/father in prison? Not the doily, or lace hanky, on the table beside them. Not the sweep upwards of the child’s hair on the rhinestone clasp that holds it in a topknot ponytail spilling more hair, like a geyser over its edge. The men on the benches behind them? Men sit on benches in buildings that are not jails. The father’s tattoo? Many men, and women, have tattoos – you see them on the street every day. Have most of them been in jail? You can’t tell this is a prison by the way his daughter looks into his eyes, no, you certainly can’t tell from her look. Maybe, in the mother’s face, some pain held back, some tears unshed, the way she seems to lean a little heavily on her left arm, but you see this look, this posture in people’s faces every day too. Is it because the table is so black that the child seems to be sitting on, and the parents leaning on, and the hanky floating on, a pool of darkness so pure and deep that to call it the ultimate abstraction – the abyss – would be a grievous underestimation? I don’t know. I knew before I was told. My daughter knew when I showed her the picture. I’ve never been in jail myself (not counting a night in a holding cell as the result of a Vietnam War protest), at least not in a literal jail. The metaphorical ones we build for ourselves without taxpayers money; I’ve been in a few of them, did some hard time. I’ve taught in prisons. I once gave an inmate a writing assignment and asked him to do it for class next week if he had the time, something I don’t add when I give assignments to my regular undergrad and graduate students. He said to me: “Time, I’ve got plenty of time – four to eight years, man, four to eight.” The little girl in the picture isn’t looking at her father thinking, Hey, Dad, how come you’re in the joint? Her hand on his cheek is not a frozen slap. And e3ven though her look is slightly conspiratorial she’s not discussing plans to bust him out – no, she’s trying to make sure they look exactly in each other’s eyeballs. She’s saying, Hi Dad. That’s about it. You could say that she’s looking at him, certainly, with love, but what do little children know of love but taste and touch and smell? They look the way they do to move our hearts. They talk funny when learning language (one of the great underrated pleasures of child rearing) so we love them and love telling others what they’ve said. But what do they know of love? This child’s look fills this father’s bones. He dreams that night of her in his cell and something burning in his blood cools, just a little, while he sleeps. And what does his daughter dream that night? I can't say, never having been a daughter, only a father. And the child’s mother, she does not dream at all that night. Look at the picture again: it’s a father/daughter/mother sandwich but Mom is back a bit. Did she slide her daughter across the table to be closer to her father? Did he pull his daughter toward him? Look again at the upward sweep of the child’s hair, the roundness of her cheek. Is she slightly pursing her lips: time to give Dad a smacker? My own daughter will do that – it’s a thing she knows will make me laugh, when she makes the kiss-me face. How noisy is it in this room? Prisons are always noisy yet this photo evokes an almost absolute silence. No one speaks. Is this the last few moments before the visit is over, will a guard soon tap him on the shoulder: Visit over? If so, who sees whom last? Does the father see his child carried away by the mother, his final sight of her looking over her mother’s shoulder at him? Or does his daughter watch him until he turns a corner out of the visiting room guard at his elbow? When I asked my daughter about this she said she wouldn’t want to leave until her father had to go, until they took him away. She then asked me if I’d done anything I felt I should tell her about, am I on the run from the cops or anything? I said no. She has a basic understanding of criminal justice but she didn’t like the prison, the guard. In her version, the father, as he is led away, jabs his head back for a split second just as he turns the corner — for one last glimpse of her. I liked that image. She doesn’t seem too concerned about my going to jil but she does show some concern about my dying – I’m a little older than some of her pals’ fathers, I told her I can’t die, ever, because I’ve written some books. She repeated a line I taught her when she was very young. I was hoping I could get it to be her first sentence. I couldn’t — “I want a banana” made it first. The line is: “Fat chance capitalist rat,” a line we used whenever somebody told us to do something we didn’t want to do or to indicate what was just said to one is dismissible. It is also a line by the aforementioned poet Bill Knott, a goofy line carried by a nice run of onomatopoeic noises. As for the father and daughter in this picture – I don’t know what happened. Maybe he was doing short time only and he’s already home. Maybe the mother divorced him and married a kind of man who loves her and loves another man’s daughter and always tells her that her father, even though he’s in prison, loves her. If her father’s in jail for a long time that would be best for her, that would be about as good as it could get.
Midget wrestler exits ring and attacks heckling fans. Or, boy in wrestling mask gets carried away ringside and pummels one of his pals. He’s a fierce boy – growling at the gods with his head bent back and teeth bared. Is he bout to put a bite on his friend’s face? In the hazy background one man stands in the ring, one man seems to be rising from the floor. Another boy, barely visible, is buried in the scrum. Mask Boy will better him soon, the little pencil-necked geek. The fourth boy looks right into the camera’s eye. He’s the one who will become the singer, the TV star, the one whose mask is his face. Meanwhile, the demon fires of Mask Boy’s mask blaze upwards as he tosses his head to howl. The mask of power, he tells me. It’s the only one, but others can be made, each one made to free the power of each man. His, he says, wouldn’t work for me. One: it wouldn’t fit. His head is smaller than mine. Two: the man who makes the masks, the only man who can make the mask, has to meet you first: to read your heart, to measure your head. My Spanish is a little rusty but I think that’s what he said. Where does this man live, I ask, where can I find his shop? No shop, Mask Boy says. You must go to his house. And bring a chicken. Buy a chicken and the chicken will take you to his house. A chicken? I ask. Yes, a chicken, he needs the chicken to make the mask. But I don’t want a chicken mask, I want a demon mask, my own but like yours, a mask to make me powerful, like you. He turns to me, his friend now in a one-armed headlock, and says, punctuating each word with a rap with his free hand to his opponent’s skull: He’s not going to make you a chicken mask. He needs the chicken for the juju to make the mask. Later, he eats the chicken for supper. Make me a map to his house, I say to Mask Boy. He knees his friend in the belly and says” Get the chicken, I told you the chicken will lead you to his house. Any chicken? I ask, Any chicken knows the way to his house? Yes, said Mask Boy, the chicken will show you. I buy a chicken, a rather fat one but a tad blowsy looking. I stand outside the poultry store with the chicken in my arms. Take me to the Mask Maker’s house, I say to the chicken. Put me down and follow, says the chicken. It’s not that far but there are lots of turns, cul-de-sacs, alleys, etc. It strikes me that I have never heard any form of poultry say the word “etcetera,” nor the word “cul-de-sac.” The chicken says all of this in English and with barely a trace of an accent. I put the chicken down and follow (did I mention it was a hen?) her. First down some narrow streets. Often I duck under lines of drying wash strung across the alley. A street is five shirts – arms outstretched – wide. For a few blocks we’re in a district of umbrellas and parasols, each shop sells one or the other. One small shop, the exception, sells only long white ladies evening gloves. The chicken stops before this shop window for a moment. It seems as if she sighs. Many people know the chicken, greet her, most men tip their caps. Some nod to me also, a few smile. I’m not the first gringo, nor will I be the last, to seek out the Mask Maker, they seem to be saying. I ask the chicken how much further just as we enter a small plaza with a fountain splashing in the middle. One old man sits on a bench reading a racing form. Not far, says the chicken, see that church? He lives on the street behind the church, he likes being close to it but never goes inside. Why not? I say. I say this, simple as it is, in Spanish, proud of myself for not needing to think first in English and then translate it into Spanish in my head. Don’t think you’re ready to start translating Octavio Paz, says the chicken. I’m stunned. I didn’t speak out loud, only to myself. I think: This chicken must be psychic. Yes I am, says the chicken. I don’t particularly understand why this impresses me so much. After all, the chicken can speak, fluently, at least two languages. We walk past the church and turn right onto a narrow street right behind it. A young priest’s sitting with his feet up on the table on the patio of the rectory next to the church. He holds a flyswatter in his hand like a scepter. He tilts back in his chair, his long robe buttoned to just below his Adam’s apple and covering him all the way down to his ankles. He’s barefoot. I realize I never asked the chicken’s name. I do. She says, Chicken. We turn left off the street onto a smaller cross street and stop before a small house, a shack really. Not surprising, I think: there can’t be a huge market for wrestling masks and he only charges a chicken. The chicken looks at me and I understand the look, in Spanish or English: Knock on the door, idiot, I don’t have any arms to do so and if I peck at the door he won’t hear me because he’s nearly deaf. I knock on the door, no answer. I knock louder, hear a chair scrape back, and finally, he opens the door. He’s tall, too tall for his house, and he motions for us to enter, his eye on the chicken. The on me. He invites me to sit down at the small table, upon which there’s only one spoon. The chicken stays on the floor. I don’t like chickens on my furniture, says the Mask Maker. He speaks a Spanish with an accent I don’t understand well, maybe picking up every fifth word. Yeah, but I bet you want me to translate for you? The chicken says, withholding all but the tiniest edge of sarcasm from her voice. Good enough to do that, but not good enough to sit on the table, or even a chair. There are only two chairs anyway, I note to myself. The old man sighs and picks the chicken up and places her between us on the table. As he does this, he says something in Spanish that I don’t understand a word of. I look at the chicken. The chicken says he said goddamn chicken. It sounded like a lot more words than that, I think. That was the gist of it, says the chicken. And you might as well think out loud, i.e. talk, it’ll be less confusing for you and I won’t have to be psychic and translate at the same time. I say: I’m beginning to wonder who’s working for whom here. The chicken ignores this. The old man and I look at each other across the table. The chicken looks back and forth, waiting for one of us to speak. I can tell she likes her role and the power she has: she can make each of us hear what she wants us to hear. The boy, I say, Mask Boy, sent me here… Oh yes, says the man, my grandson, Jose, a very powerful boy, a good boy. He didn’t say you were his grandfather, I say. He never does, he says. The translating is going smoothly now, the chicken looking at each of us when we speak and turning to translate to the other. Why not? I ask. The man hesitates, then answers and the chicken, translating (he said he didn’t know why not), doesn’t look at me in the eye. I want a mask, I say, one to make me powerful and free. Yes, I know, says the Mask Maker, that’s what he told me when he called to say you were coming. Here, he says, removing from around his neck a tailor’s tape measure I hadn’t noticed before, let me measure your head.