by: Cole Heinowitz ((Header art sourced from the incredibly talented Nandipha Mntambo’s exhibition entitled, “Kufa nekuvuka kwelutsandvo.”))
Cole Heinowitz’s poetry performs a necessary alchemy. Forget iron to gold, her work is concerned with the transformation of ourselves into language and back again. Menelaus sought truth by holding fast to Proteus; Heinowitz seeks the same clarity by “trying to organize bodies according to the pattern that ends human suffering.”
In the basement of my parents’ house there are sharp, carpeted inclined planes from ceiling to floor. I’m down there with my stepfather and another young man; we have gone down to see if the disturbance heard from upstairs might be attributed to an animal or would-be burglar in the backyard. The light switch panel to the left of the basement’s back door has three levers which activate bulbs over different sections of the lawn and flowerbeds. My stepfather has tried the two switches closer to the door, both in sequence and in concert, but has discovered nothing. By deduction, the intruder—assuming it was something visible—could be neither on the lawn in front of the balcony nor under the awning to the left in the shady herb patch which winds round to the side gate. Discouraged, despite the fact that his investigations haven’t been exhaustive yet, my stepfather retires to rest along the inclined, claret-colored wall, lost in darkness, and I rise to run the remaining trial of lights. It doesn’t seem curious to me that such a meticulous man should have given up before the completion of his tests. As I near the panel with the switches, both my stepfather and the male guest draw in like frightened children, my stepfather just behind my left shoulder, the other man fixed against the doorway that leads to the bathroom at my right.
I flip on the switch. Light floods the fern grove and brick stairway beneath the far right balcony of the house. There, crouched in the dirt, against the tiny door to the crawlspace, a man, furtively hugging his knees, was seen bolting to an upright position and darting toward the door behind whose windows our three faces hovered. There wasn’t an instant to consider why this man seemed so familiar or why his name—John Boons—sprang to my mind in bold black characters. In fact, a recent clipping from the front page of the newspaper pinned to the basement wall beside the meat refrigerator bore his name, the reward for his detention, and the following terse description: “Fastest murderer ever plagued America. No one has ever seen his face in action. Not even his victims see it coming. Springs, shoots dead, and disappears in less than a second.”
The back door screamed open. My stepfather and the male guest dead on the floor, dark blood already clotting around the punctures. The infamous killer had shot like the tongue of a snake in a deadly flicker and recoiled, more a streak of motion than a progress of static moments.
I stood near the Vietnamese coast. Rust colored milk mixed with hornet swarms of shrapnel broke all across the land in a blunt metallic rain. Muscular waves swelled from the gauze ocean like pus. The waves loomed over the people; everything was dark except where the poison rain glowed. The people were partly naked, partly sheltered under fragments of their leveled homes, clutching children and each other, heads craned backward, mouths stretched open as if parched and straining to catch the electric sky in their throats. Scalps were rinsed off by the rain; flesh melted in slow, gelatinous combustion.
I set out by car to Indiana, a red state on the map. I left the car and all of my possessions. I was on the street that bore the small, single-story home of John Boons. All of the homes on this street were small and one-storied with a front yard of dried grass or brick-colored cement or white landscaping stones in crenelated cement cribs. I knew just which door to enter, having no need of numbers or signs. Gritty shell-colored pebbles sat in their bay, shaded over in salmon tones by the weather-beaten awning above the kitchen window. The awning was stretched on mottled chrome spears, with an oily patina of black and white mildew. The front door had the same tinny finish as the spears; the loose-hanging door was coppery and chipping. I only touched the door when I was already inside and, by some equation of mourning or injustice, became the civil wife and cohort of John Boons.
It was a cozy, simple home to tend, with a spacious backyard and sufficient, if outdated, kitchen amenities and recliner chairs. There was a thin beige carpet, a television, and an extra bedroom where John’s dying mother spent her last days in solemn half-consciousness. John and I enjoyed sitting at twilight in the low beach chairs with plastic straps on the back patio, looking at the citrus tree, the barbecue, the bare wood fence that stood the lines of the property, and listening to the cicadas.
One day John and I entered a chapel. There was a domed black vinyl awning over the threshold and stone steps. In the front hall was an 18th-century writing desk. In a barren room just beyond were a bird-headed archivist in a raincoat and his assistant. John shot them dead in a streak of his brown overcoat, emptied their pockets, and fled the building with casual farewells to the groundskeeper. All this took less than a second and we disappeared.
John had gone out with his friends, leaving me at home to complete a kitchen inventory and prepare his dead mother’s body for burial. He had gone by foot to the crest of a tall heathered peak and gazed over onto the sprawling city of Gary to the east. There was a clean, hot nap to the air and he was in his shirtsleeves. This was the day of John’s death. No one had wanted him gone. We were neither hunted nor feared in our community. If anything, perhaps, John was respected above ordinary citizens, and myself, deferentially treated like an old-fashioned belle dame because I darned his socks. None of his victims’ families had persecuted, let alone even suspected John. We lived in safety and razor-simple killing, yet now John was dead and gone.
I live in his house alone, visited periodically by my sisters who entreat me to come home. Their monotone concern for my safety makes them ugly and pimpled; brown dog eyes glisten from their raw cheeks. John’s disappearance remains unknown to his local admirers but has stirred up a violent controversy among federal police officials. I wait for barking dogs or siren bleats to wheel into my home. Instead, only the usual worshipping slatterns come by day, as always, to the bedroom window which overhangs the alley. They strip methodically for the murderer, calling for him to just appear at the window, or even to scold or graze them with an admonishing bullet. I sit on the back patio alone by night on the low beach chair whose plastic straps wear runnels in my thighs.
A man, believed to be in poor health, is fated to have an attack of some sort which will cause the entire world to derail.
Shiba and I are standing in the downstairs lobby of the literature building at the university. She is showing me the book she is currently reading: sheets of paper, 11 by 14 inches, spiral-bound at the narrow end like a musical score. The book doesn’t open like a score, though, but vertically like a huge notepad. It is some relatively trashy story about a man being kept in a sanitarium, believed to be insane. His nurse is a caring, fragile woman, silently in love with him, who realizes that he is not deranged, but a genius or something to that effect. Shiba tells me she is afraid to proceed, that she has come to a block in her reading because she anticipates that the man will have an attack which will destroy both him and the world of the story as she knows it.
I offer to skim ahead for her so she won’t be afraid. I take the book from her hands and begin leafing through the pages, but notice that after the point where she stopped, none of the pages have any words, only dark black horizontal lines. I flip further ahead, “reading” the absence of words on each line. Then I too come to a block in my reading and am petrified, certain that a colossal transformation will occur if I turn the next page—certain that the word of God will be revealed on that page.
Summoning all my courage, I turn the page and find another one with nothing but black lines. The only difference is that the lines run vertically so that when the book is turned on its side it reads like music.
Perhaps this is the story in those pages; perhaps it is another story:
I am a nursemaid in the home of an aging, infirm white man and his younger, subjugated black wife. I work with an assistant, a boy slightly younger than myself. Due to the man’s failing liver, we live beneath a large dome, its surface made of triangulated fiberglass panels like the Tijuana Cultural Center. Within this sanctuary, large enough to encompass a modest sea or continent, a flapper’s fringe of coastal promontories, the man has created an island run by a small nuclear generator located at its core. The man and his brother row or are beamed out to the island each day at dawn. Through a video porthole, we are able to track his motions in infrared, survey his location, and communicate with him in rudimentary sentences when absolutely necessary.
The boy and I are in the large dining hall which houses the concealed porthole and an elegant cherry attaché case in which piles of silver rest on monogrammed napkins, arranged by type, waiting to be laid in the proper position at each place on the table. Large dinner events where inheritance hopefuls bid for floor space with light speed walkie-talkies are held almost every night. When the cook informs us that dinner is ready, I send word to the man on the island and summon him home.
Later that evening or a few days later, the man is seized by an attack. As if they were the same organism, the island begins to writhe and break apart, starting with the nuclear plant. Fissures appear in the twin white cylinders with radar red tips, the radio towers, protruding from the roof of the plant, and dark gray smoke seeps from them in billows, forced by the pressure mounting inside. The concave cement floor of the plant cracks wretchedly as though tectonic plates were colliding just beneath its surface, breaking into crags that seethe and grumble as they splinter apart. The man and his brother are on the island as this happens, unable to escape, held to the soil by the vacuum pull of its life drawing everything close in a fierce contraction of survival, a gasp that conducts all atmosphere to its ailing core.
The man calls to me over the exploding monitor. I can barely make out his words, his image, the image of the island, the monitor itself. He has never called out before, has always held his gestural ground against the dinner bell like an intransigent child. Everything is flanked by erratic chasms of static and broken blurbs of information. Then reception dies.
Someone must be sent out to survey the ruins, to recover the old man if he still lives. Partly because I am expendable and partly because the man considers me intelligent, I am chosen to perform the task. His wife is forbidden to go to the island as the man believes she will corrupt it with her “Amazonian” nature and that it will ruin her hearty spine with its transcendental pangs. Heedless, I bring her with me. Sensing her presence, the island slowly, almost imperceptibly, ceases to quake. With the slowest possible movements, the terrain she passes over calms and begins to mend itself. Blonde, milky cicatrices span like baobab roots from her progressing heels. I remember nothing after this point.
Who would have thought that the sky’s insular political strategies against mood could feed hopefulness through one woman’s cold, dirgelike feet on wet carpet simply by darting the sun, like steam off golden pudding, up over the bandstand of a cloud once in a while? The woman is spread eagle, battening down over her shabby flat; raindrops plink ovoid eyeballs of clear gelatin on her waxy brown back. The church bells yawning like rubber bands across the canyon can’t do anything very interesting with her body. The little cord she had dangling like an amulet from a chain around her neck pulls the sun up on command, but it is only a personal sun, recognizable as such by being larger than the real one, in an attempt to cover it up. If the woman pulls the little stump of a string, a Dixieland brass section materializes on the decorated bandstand with corrugated paper sides. The trumpet players have all disappeared though into their gummy, black mutes during the improvisation section of “Roll Out the Barrel,” so after a moment’s hesitation the trombonist restrains the welling crowds brandishing popsicles and ancient pianola rolls mounted on signposts. Whatever the trombonist says cuts to the core of the woman and the hungry mass of supporters spreads over the tarmac. They are all yanking on little strings so that tiny incisions, like bird prints of blood, have puckered their straining necks. The demons of wet carpet are spouting from the trombonist’s face in newsreels of well-placed adulation that seem to cup, with ancestral glass implements, the bacterial war atrocities and decayed superpower umpires that have engorged our argillaceous flesh. “Could this be Him?” everyone thought they wondered—and so contagiously wondered—in dangerous unison, hands poised on strings. He lifts his gleaming instrument to his embouchure and hammers out a riff that taxes their slipshod sense of a global economy with the cool but husky phrase, “Once there was a man to whom nothing bad, nothing inconvenient, no importunity of the elements, ever happened.” Was the trombonist using a mute? The newspaper grain of his timbre stole through the crowd’s blood ways like thaw and the words were intimate, venomous figures before they were unpeeled. The woman holding one end of a campaign banner grabbed a megaphone and yelled, “He was a man. He died,” before she even knew what hit her. Then the sun crawled back into its sarcophagus and the woman, having torn her amulet from its chain in a frenzy of consciousness, noticed, over the plush marsh of the ground, on the eaves of snug houses, a strange and unfamiliar glow, like pale green steel, taking the denuded sky into its mouth.
Cole Heinowitz is the author of two books of poetry, Daily Chimera (Incommunicado, 1995) and The Rubicon (The Rest, 2008), the chapbook, Stunning in Muscle Hospital (Detour, 2002), and the critical study, Spanish America and British Romanticism, 1777-1826: Rewriting Conquest (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). She is the co-translator of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic (Wave Books, 2013) and The Selected Late Letters of Antonin Artaud, 1945-1947 (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2014). Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in journals including Fence, The Poker, The Brooklyn Rail, HOW2, 6X6, Clock, Mirage 4 Period(ical), Aufgabe, The Poetry Project Newsletter, European Romantic Review, Dolce Stil Criollo, Two Lines, and Riot of Perfume. Her work has also been published online in Jacket, The Poems and Poetics Blog, and The Poetry Society of America’s series “In the Own Words.” Cole teaches literature at Bard College and lives in the Catskills.