Sitting by the stereo in headphones,
Browsing through the pile of old LPs
I rescued from a never-opened closet,
I gave myself the doubtful education
That opera offers, and that moralists
Had warned against for generations, till
The louder styles of musical rebellion
Made arias sound as innocent as culture.
Because I didn’t know this, I knew better;
From prostitutes and libertines, I heard
The secret of the sweetness of transgression.
Love, which I had thought was purely good—
Benevolent and matrimonial—
Now showed its other faces: Violetta’s
Orgasmic hymns to folly and desire,
“Delight and cross” of the reluctant heart;
Donna Elvira’s joy in her abjection,
In being dumped and used and dumped again.
Was this what Mrs. Brown had meant to teach
That afternoon when, bored or unprepared,
She played the class a tape of Amadeus,
A missionary for the higher things?
The lesson took, but not as she intended:
The high is nothing but the lowest, turned
Into a kind of decorous abstraction,
A voice distended with perversity,
The melting tone of something giving way.
Because all power is the power to waste,
The thought that every cigarette I smoked
Subtracted minutes—eight or ten, I’d heard—
From the tall, toppling stack of time I owned
Could not discourage me; it just aroused
The gleeful magnanimity a chief
Must feel to see the potlatch treasures go—
To lose all this, and still have more to lose!
Who wouldn’t trade the ash-end of existence
For the controlled burn of a summer night,
In a little garden, where the mound of butts
By Labor Day became a monument
To the self-overcoming of the will?
Addiction’s an achievement; like belief,
It seems absurd to those who never learned
The habit of impossible assertion,
The excavation of an inner space
For soul to waft and waver in, like smoke.
Still, there’s a debt that spirit owes to fact,
Fact that may bide its time, but in the end
Reminds us we don’t live in metaphor,
At least, not in our own; reality
Is plotting constantly, in every cell,
Its squamous, imperturbable revenge.
Like every coward, finally, I quit.