(A Book of The Dead)
by William Gibson
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.
A black book:
ALBUMS CA. AGRIPPA
Order Extra Leaves By Letter and Name
A Kodak album of time-burned
black construction paper
The string he tied
Has been unravelled by years
and the dry weather of trunks
Like a lady’s shoestring from the First World War
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen
Until they resemble cigarette-ash
Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite
Then his name
W.F. Gibson Jr.
and something, comma,
Then he glued his Kodak prints down
And wrote under them
In chalk-like white pencil:
“Papa’s saw mill, Aug. 1919.”
A flat-roofed shack
Against a mountain ridge
In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts
He must have smelled the pitch,
The sweet hot reek
Of the electric saw
Biting into decades
Next the spaniel Moko
Poses on small bench or table
Before a backyard tree
His coat is lustrous
The grass needs cutting
Beyond the tree,
In eerie Kodak clarity,
Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling,
Someone’s left a wooden stepladder out
“Aunt Fran and [obscured]”
Although he isn’t, this gent
He has a “G” belt-buckle
A lapel-device of Masonic origin
A patent propelling-pencil
And the flowers they pose behind so solidly
Are rooted in an upright length of whitewashed
Daddy had a horse named Dixie
“Ford on Dixie 1917”
A saddle-blanket marked with a single star
A western saddle
And a cloth cap
Proud and happy
As any boy could be
“Arthur and Ford fishing 1919”
Shot by an adult
(Witness the steady hand
that captures the wildflowers
the shadows on their broad straw hats
reflections of a split-rail fence)
standing opposite them,
on the far side of the pond,
amid the snake-doctors and the mud,
Kodak in hand,
And “Moma July, 1919”
strolls beside the pond,
in white big city shoes,
Purse tucked behind her,
While either Ford or Arthur, still straw-hatted,
approaches a canvas-topped touring car.
“Moma and Mrs. Graham at fish hatchery 1919”
Moma and Mrs. G. sit atop a graceful concrete arch.
“Arthur on Dixie”, likewise 1919,
rather ill at ease. On the roof behind the barn, behind him,
can be made out this cryptic mark:
“Papa’s mill 1919”, my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of
might as easily be the record
of some later demolition, and
His cotton sleeves are rolled
to but not past the elbow,
striped, with a white neckband
for the attachment of a collar.
Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height.
(How that feels to tumble down,
or smells when it is wet)
The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.
Now in high-ceiling bedrooms,
in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus
in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative
montages of the country’s World War dead,
just as I myself discovered
one other summer in an attic trunk,
and beneath that every boy’s best treasure
of tarnished actual ammunition
real little bits of war
The blued finish of firearms
is a process, controlled, derived from common
rust, but there under so rare and uncommon a patina
that many years untouched
until I took it up
and turning, entranced, down the unpainted
stair, to the hallway where I swear
I never heard the first shot.
The copper-jacketed slug recovered
from the bathroom’s cardboard cylinder of
Morton’s Salt was undeformed
save for the faint bright marks of lands
and grooves so hot, stilled energy,
it blistered my hand.
The gun lay on the dusty carpet.
Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up
That the second shot, equally unintended,
notched the hardwood bannister
and brought a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life
in a beam ofdusty sunlight.
in awareness of the mechanism.
Like the first time you put your mouth
on a woman.
“Ice Gorge at Wheeling
Iron bridge in the distance,
Beyond it a city.
Hotels where pimps went about their business
on the sidewalks of a lost world.
But the foreground is in focus,
this corner of carpenter’s Gothic,
these backyards running down to the freeze.
“Steamboat on Ohio River”,
its smoke foul and dark,
its year unknown,
beyond it the far bank
overgrown with factories.
House Sept. 1921”
They have moved down from Wheeling and my father wears his
city clothes. Main Street is unpaved and an electric streetlamp is
slung high in the frame, centered above the tracked dust on a
slack wire, suggesting the way it might pitch in a strong wind,
the shadows that might throw.
The house is heavy, unattractive, sheathed in stucco, not native
to the region. My grandfather, who sold supplies to contractors,
was prone to modern materials, which he used with
wholesaler’s enthusiasm. In 1921 he replaced the section of brick
sidewalk in front of his house with the broad smooth slab of poured
concrete, signing this improvement with a flourish, “W.F.
Gibson 1921”. He believed in concrete and plywood
particularly. Seventy years later his signature remains, the slab
floating perfectly level and charmless between mossy stretches of
sweet uneven brick that knew the iron shoes of Yankee horses.
“Mama Jan. 1922” has come out to sweep the concrete with a
broom. Her boots are fastened with buttons requiring a special instrument.
Ice gorge again, the Ohio, 1917. The mechanism closes. A
torn clipping offers a 1957 DeSOTO FIREDOME, 4-door Sedan,
torqueflite radio, heather and power steering and brakes, new
w.s.w. premium tires. One owner. $1,595.
He made it to the age of torqueflite radio
but not much past that, and never in that town.
That was mine to know, Main Street lined with
the dimestore floored with wooden planks
pies under plastic in the Soda Shop,
and the mystery untold, the other thing,
sensed in the creaking of a sign after midnight
when nobody else was there.
In the talc-fine dust beneath the platform of the
Norfolk & Western lay indian-head pennies undisturbed since
the dawn of man.
In the banks and courthouse, a fossil time
prevailed, limestone centuries.
When I went up to Toronto
in the draft, my Local Board was there on Main Street,
above a store that bought and sold pistols.
I’d once traded that man a derringer for a
Walther P-38. The pistols were in the window
behind an amber roller-blind
like sunglasses. I was seventeen or so but basically I guess
you just had to be a white boy.
I’d hike out to a shale pit and run
ten dollars worth of 9mm
through it, so worn you hardly
had to pull the trigger.
Bored, tried shooting
down into a distant stream but
one of them came back at me
off a round of river rock
clipping walnut twigs from a branch
two feet above my head.
So that I remembered the mechanism.
In the all night bus station
they sold scrambled eggs to state troopers
the long skinny clasp-knives called fruit knives
which were pearl handled watermelon-slicers
and hillbilly novelties in brown varnished wood
which were made in Japan.
First I’d be sent there at night only
if Mom’s carton of Camels ran out,
but gradually I came to value
the submarine light, the alien reek
of the long human haul, the strangers
straight down from Port Authority
headed for Nashville, Memphis, Miami.
Sometimes the Sheriff watched them get off
making sure they got back on.
When the colored restroom
was no longer required
they knocked open the cinderblock
and extended the magazine rack
to new dimensions,
a cool fluorescent cave of dreams
smelling faintly and forever of disinfectant,
perhaps as well of the travelled fears
of those dark uncounted others who,
moving as though contours of hot iron,
were made thus to dance
or not to dance
as the law saw fit.
There it was that I was marked out as a writer,
having discovered in that alcove
copies of certain magazines
esoteric and precious, and, yes,
I knew then, knew utterly,
the deal done in my heart forever,
though how I knew not,
nor ever have.
through all the streets unmoving
so quiet I could hear the timers of the traffic lights a block away:
the mechanism. Nobody else, just the silence
spreading out to where the long trucks groaned
on the highway their vast brute souls in want.
There must have been a true last time
I saw the station but I don’t remember
I remember the stiff black horsehide coat
gift in Tucson of a kid named Natkin
I remember the cold
I remember the Army duffle
that was lost and the black man in Buffalo
trying to sell me a fine diamond ring,
and in the coffee shop in Washington
I’d eavesdropped on a man wearing a black tie
embroidered with red roses
that I have looked for ever since.
They must have asked me something
at the border
I was admitted
and behind me swung the stamped tin shutter
across the very sky
and I went free
to find myself
mazed in Victorian brick
amid sweet tea with milk
and smoke from a cigarette called a Black Cat
and every unknown brand of chocolate
and girls with blunt-cut bangs
not even Americans
looking down from high narrow windows
on the melting snow
of the city undreamed
and on the revealed grace
of the mechanism,
no round trip.
They tore down the bus station
there’s chainlink there
no buses stop at all
and I’m walking through Chiyoda-ku
in a typhoon
the fine rain horizontal
umbrella everted in the storm’s Pacific breath
tonight red lanterns are battered.
in the mechanism.