What can I do tonight about the wild camels in Australia
whose herds the government will thin by aerial gunning?
The truth is all I do these days is watch the neighbor’s hedge
of brooding oleanders sway, heavy with dark red blossom.
They are twelve feet high on his side of the arroyo
and hide his house. I don’t know who lives there
but I know he has a truck and listens to the country station.
I can’t help what I know and what I don’t know
What a wonderful poem! The text is not online, but I did find a video of Goldberg reading at Arizona State, where Goldberg teaches; she reads this poem at about the 6:30 mark. Her only prefatory remark is to underline that the poem reflects an actual time when she thought of her un-met neighbor.
It reminds me of John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” in that it starts out with one humdrum thing, then meanders off into lively fantasy. An analysis of that poem at Poetry Archive cites traits of “indeterminacy, a refusal of finality and closure and a rejection of traditional forms of linear narrative” and “circular movement”; I see that here as well. Whereas Ashbery starts and ends with his need to write an instruction manual, here it is wild camels in Australia shot from helicopters in an effort to reduce the population. That sounds like a rather niche concern (do the camels care about their method of execution? Or is it our sensibilities that are disturbed? How is it possible to kill 8,000 camels in a desert? What is the damage they do, unchecked, to other wildlife?) but it could be anything. Imagine yourself, on your back porch at night, having decided you can’t straighten out the chaos in the Middle East or reverse the effects of poverty and bigotry, or start small: you can’t convince your boss a project should be done a certain way, or get a poem to flow from your pen; so you take a drag off your cigarette and look at the flowers and wonder about the unknown person who lives on the other side of that hedge…
I stand out on the patio and smoke when I have
work to do.
The blooms light their deep pink auras. All spring
my neighbor rattles things behind his house, throws
things on top of other things. It echoes. I haven’t done
a good day’s work since that day in class when I required
every poem henceforth to have in it a jacamar & hereby
have followed policy. It’s the least I can do.
Is this the frustration of the blocked poet? To what does “the least I can do” attach, to adhering to her own dictates (which she discovers are impossible) or is she still thinking about camels; honoring them here is the least she can do? In any event, this is a speaker who’s deeply connected to natural things, to camels, to oleander blooms, to jacamars (a type of bird). But there’s the neighbor, as well, unknown. Whoever he is, be he 76 and cranky or 22 and stupid, she creates him as a sort of imaginary friend, and builds up a knowledge of him.
But we’re not done with the camels yet, either; she rides the thought of them back to her past trip to Egypt:
…The hotel that summer was filled
with engineers working on the underground, work that stalled
each time they hit a buried wall or well of ancient kingdom,
and late afternoons they’d drink with Madam Ariana, the manager,
a Coptic Christian and a true believer
that ketchup was the cause of cancer and that opera
refined the soul. Tonight the moon holds its high white note over
the desert slopes. Here we are. What can we do
about camels in Australia stunned in the warm sheen of
their own blood?
I dictated this poem rather than typed it, and Dragon changed “warm sheen” to “war machine.” Is that merely a fluke? A coincidence? Or did Goldberg, the aerial rifles fixed in her mind, know exactly what sound she wanted to surreptitiously convey there? I’m also quite fond of the idea of running into walls of an ancient kingdom while digging a subway tunnel; here in New England, it’s Indian burial grounds, though I believe those go back centuries rather than millenia. I also love how “a true believer”sets up something profound, only to twist into ketchup, the scourge of those who eat food better not tasted. And the moon rising above: “Here we are.” Take your best shot, Selene; as the teacher feels bound to live by her own instructions, perhaps we should also be bound to live by the principles we set out for those below us on the food chain. Or, for that matter, the principles we set out for our enemies, whom we also shoot from the skies en masse.
But what about that neighbor, the imaginary friend? Again we return to him:
My neighbor is home, and if he knew he was
on my mind tonight he’d call the police. For all I know he’s a
and would kick me to crap. For all I know he is
the police. For all I know he is lonely and would weep.
Beware of the neighbor. Beware the one who imagines you
in some form other than your own, filled with other desire, empty
of other emptiness. Beware of the one who does not.
You are the gentle camel. You are the rufous-tailed jacamar.
Your blossoms hanging open in the dark, riding the black
wave of oleander. And I am kissing my neighbor’s full mouth,
the moon above his left nipple. I am lying against his body,
reaching down and cupping them, gently, in my hand, for didn’t we
come helpless into the world, my love, but we came anyway.
I love the consideration of how the neighbor would feel if he knew he was an imaginary friend (perhaps of only this one moment’s duration, or perhaps a routine now), one with whom she’s moved into a masturbatory fantasy now; that last line, is there an element of rape there? Would he object? Would he be turned on? Reverse the genders; how many women would feel comfortable knowing their male neighbor, without any visual contact at all, had created this scene? Is it acceptable – possible, even – because she hasn’t seen the neighbor? Once she sees him, will she never think of him again, reality crowding out fantasy? Is she curious to meet him? Will she ever be able to comfortably attend a summer or Christmas house party with him and his family – his wife, children, mother – or would she rather have him as an imaginary friend for this short time?
It will soon be time to get back to work, be it the instruction manual, the poem, or the camels. In the meantime, this little break, on the back porch, surrounded by the scent of oleander.