Selections from  

The Golden Gate

It’s Friday night. The unfettered city
Resounds with hedonistic glee.
John feels a cold cast of self-pity
Envelop him. No family
Cushions his solitude, or rather,
His mother’s dead, his English father,
Retired in his native Kent,
Rarely responds to letters sent
(If rarely) by his transatlantic
Offspring. In letters to The Times
He rails against the nameless crimes
Of the post office. Waxing frantic
About delays from coast to coast,
He hones his wit and damns the post.
John looks downwards, as if admonished,
Then slowly lifts his head, and sighs.
Half fearfully and half astonished,
They look into each other’s eyes.
The waiter, bearded, burly, macho,
Says, “Madam, though it’s cold, gazpacho
Is what I’d recommend. Noisettes
Of lamp, perhaps, or mignoninettes
Of veal to follow….” Unavailing
Are his suggestions. Nothing sinks
Into their ears. “Ah, well,” he thinks,
“They’re moonstruck. It’ll be plain sailing.
Lovers, despite delays and slips
And rotten service, leave large tips.”
Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter,
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Deamean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme,
To reassert themselves, but sadly,
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That’s why.
How beautiful it is, when waking,
To find one’s lover at one’s side,
The delicate slow light is breaking
Irresolutely through the wide
Bay windows of their bedroom, falling
On Liz’s hair, and John’s recalling
How last night she untied it, how
It flowed between his hands, but now
She lies asleep, unswiftly breathing;
Her thoughts are not with him, her dreams
Traverse the solitary streams
Of inward lands, yet her hair, wreathing
The pillow in a mesh of light,
Returns to him the fugitive night.
John reads the San Francisco Chronicle
Sipping his dark Colombian brew
He chuckles over an ironical
Column by Hoppe, turns to view
The visceral grouches of the crabby
Herman curmudgeon, scans Dear Abby
Miss Manners’ prim, refreshing views,
On etiquette, and then the news–
Which tells no more than the survival
Of greed and fear and pain and hate.
John sighs, and thinks of Liz, and Fate,
Warmed by the solace of arrival:
A loner who at last has come,
In a new house, to a new home.
Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.
Next morning comes John’s ultimatum,
Not frenzied so much as resigned.
“Some people like cats, and some hate ’em.
I must be of the second kind.
Excuse me if I’m sounding bitter.
I did my best to like this critter,
But, Liz, it takes two–and your cat
Just loathes my innards–and that’s that.
He isn’t wolly-brained or witless.
Today my briefcase is his prize.
Tomorrow he’ll gouge out my eyes.
Believe me, Liz, it scares me shitless.
Either you get that cat declawed
Or I’ll–so help me–have ’em sawed  [….]
[“]It’s not that we don’t love each other.
We’re a good match: Liz dresses well;
She’s dynamite in bed–but brother!
Her cerebellum’s shot to hell.
I never thought I’d have a roomie
Who whimpered like a goddamned doomie!”
“A doomie?” “You know–someone who
Thinks all Jane Fonda says is true.
She has these exhibitionistic
Extravagant compulsions–that
Spiel of the anti-nuclear cat
Is just one instance: journalistic
Inanity, but all the same
She loved that fizzy gulp of fame.”
Liz adds, You’re right, Phil. John’s not vicious–
Or unaffectionate or unkind.
He’s generous, not malicious.
It’s that at times he’s almost blind.
I’ve got my share of immaturity
And silliness and insecurity–
But John finds every quirk a goad
To make him bubble or explode.
Though he himself’s a self-divided
As me–or anyone–he fails
To comprehend this when he flails
His cutlass round; if less one-sided,
I’d take his jokes in better part….”
She reins her thoughts back with a start….
John sat at home. The invitation
Liz sent him burnt his heart to frost.
As if he feared contamination
By something touched by her, he tossed
Her letter in the trash can, tearing
into fine strips the gilt card bearing
The wedding date and winery crest
(R.S.V.P.); and half-possessed
By disbelief; half by revulsion,
Shuddering to think two weeks had changed
Her smooth-faced love to mold, deranged
By cynical rage, scorn, and repulsion
In turn, with galvanizing hate
He wrote Liz a short note to state
(1) That he had received her letter;
(2) It had been destroyed unread;
(3) –And the earlier the better–
Liz should remove each clue and shred
Of paper, furniture, and clothing
That served to activate his loathing.
When she came round–she had the keys
To do the needful–it would please
John to be absent; through her mother
She could inform him of the date
She found convenient. He would wait
Her word on this; and (4) if other
Business remained, his lawyers would
Meet her, and clear things up for good.
John’s nights are free, Jan’s days. Their meetings,
On weekend afternoons, are rare.
And yet, the pattern of their greetings,
The counted hours that they share,
Drive him from the embittered brooding
Against the cosmos–all, excluding
His erstwhile friends. There, in his eyes,
There is no balm of compromise,
No herb of reconciliation.
To talk of them, to speaks their names,
Is to immerse him in the flames
Of hatred, the intoxication
Of a now long-fermented brew
That burns his spirit through and through.
The night John heard that Jan was dying,
Trembling, and dazed with grief, he drove
To the hospital where she was lying,
Sunk in a coma. When he strove
To induce the starched and startled nurses
With incoherent tears and curses
(–Since he was not her next of kin
And looked half crazed, to let him in
Seemed rash to them–) merely to let him
Say just one word to her, just one…
They told him it could not be done
Until their supervisor met him.
“She’ll be down soon,” they sighed, and fled.
She came. But Jan by then was dead.
Some days, it seemed, the analgetic
monotony of work relieved
His heart. His boss was sympathetic;
But though he saw John was bereaved
And felt for him, his air of curtness
And John’s own deepening inertness,
Distance, and apathy deterred
Much speech. And now, the work that blurred
The edges of his pain, constraining
His thoughts for eight hours of the day
To griefless objects, in a way
Appeared to him a kind of feigning,
A fraud which, if it brought relief,
Itself, at one remove, dealt grief.
You gave her nothing…. John sits, staring
At the old desk with thoughts like these,
Too self-reproachful, with no bearing
On his slight note to Anne T. Friese–
More, it would seem, on the grief gnawing
His mind, as, day by day, withdrawing
From every thought but those that bring
Her life to life, he tries to wring
Meaning from things that have no meaning,
And scrapes at rusted words that yield
Few glints of insight. The dark field
Has little gold for all his gleaming.
He haunts the past, but with no gain
Of certainty to ease his pain.
He hesitates a minute, eyeing
The script; then reads on. When he’s done,
His chest is tight, and he is crying.
It says, Dear John, We have a son.
We hope that you’ll be the godfather.
We’ve called him John. We would far rather
Have you than any other friend.
Please speak to us, John. In the end,
We’ll all be old or dead or dying.
My mother died two weeks ago.
We thought perhaps you might know.
Phil and I send our love. Liz.
A harsh, prolonged, exhausted breath,
John feels his heart revisit death.
Depleted by his pain, he slowly
Walks to Jan’s desk. What did not last
In life has now possessed him wholly.
Nothing can mitigate the past.
He gently touches Jan’s sand dollar.
It soothes him in the ache, the squalor
That is his life, and she seems near
Him once again, and he can hear
Her voice, can almost hear her saying,
“I’m with you, John. You’re not alone.
Trust me, my friend; there is the phone.
It isn’t me you are obeying.
Pay what are your own heart’s arrears.
Now clear your throat, and dry those tears.”
–Vikram Seth

The Golden Gate is a novel in verse written in imitation of the tetrameter sonnets of Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin.