White Faustus by Michael Paul Hogan

I

Modigliani? Darling, I’m afraid
I can’t compete – those oval perfect breasts,
the purity of line from cheek to thigh…
to hang it in my bedroom would create
a mystic third – remember Eliot?
Of course you do, I wonder why I asked.
You’re so well read , Mike, can’t you read my mind?
Or are you blind with me, like reading braille?

I’m almost fifty, darling – forty-nine’s
an age you can’t begin to comprehend
at barely thirty. Every time you leave
I cup each breast imagining your hands
and worry at their weight. I smooth the sheets
pretending that I’m you caressing me…

II

This tanned young man in beat-up khaki pants,
a part and apart, the stranger in the steam
of a shaving mirror, curled like a pachyderm
over the burnt-black skull of a Smith-Corona…
This is a portrait of the poet as Frankenstein
stitching together the flesh of other writers,
or, as Robert Browning once said,
“I am a painter who cannot paint…”

This tanned young man beside a swimming pool,
a lume spento , the poet reflecting the painter,
the palazzi repeating themselves in the water,
repeating themselves as a painting by Monet,
reflecting a portrait of the poet’s wife,
half-naked, sun-tanned, gleaming like a knife…

III

He writes through a tropic doldrum afternoon,
a folding table set to face the sun
with X-shaped legs that never quite connect
with simultaneous sheets of level ground…
He writes to the rhythm of a swimming pool
where this rich bitch with whom he shares a bed
and damn-all else, whose Daddy pays the rent,
shows off her figure in a bathing suit…

He writes until she strolls across the lawn
through palm tree shadows, like a bloody ad
for something mixed with fruit juice over ice,
to lean beside him naked through her dress,
smelling of Fendi and the stuff they use
to fumigate the peasants in their pools…

IV

Why don’t you write about our honeymoon?
Remember, darling? Cape Cod in July?
Two years and several thousand drinks ago
before… But, darling, what’s a girl or two,
though girl … she’s old enough to be… All right,
I’ll shut up now, we don’t want you upset.
I’m not some bitch to fuck up War and Peace.
I’m Mrs Tolstoy – isn’t that exciting?

But listen, I’ve just had a bright idea…
I wonder why it’s taken me so long.
Please listen, darling – why, it’s simply grand:
I’ll write a book myself! Oh, not like yours,
not Literature with all those great big words…
To Have and Hold Not by the bastard’s wife.

V

The tango’s just a metaphor for sex,
and frankly, darling, every man I’ve met
has danced a damn sight better than he’s fucked.
You’ve met Ramon? Ramon – Mike; Mike – Ramon.
He’s learning English – slowly, I’ll admit.
I try to teach him ten new words a day,
Well – maybe five: martini, olive, gin…
Perhaps you’d help him out with “lemon zest?”

I’m only joking, darling. Where’ve you been?
And don’t say writing – that’s a poor excuse
for missing Yvette’s marriage to Helene.
You know, I always thought… But what’s the use.
I’m over thinking when it comes to you.
We could’ve… Well, I guess not. It takes two.

VI

I’m not being funny, Mike, I’ve watched you write
about six lines in just as many days.
You’re so damned cute , you’ve got the whole routine
fixed up to make you look like Hemingway…
I wake to watch you seated at your desk,
posed like some advert in a magazine,
the baggy khaki shirt, the cigarette,
the dry martini… god, at six a.m…

Remember, darling, please, that I’m your wife,
and not some deckhand on your bloody cruise
through days when frankly you’re afloat on gin…
The man I fell in love with used to write .
I watch you now, The Writer, jesus christ…
You couldn’t write to save my fucking life.

VII

Another cocktail, and then another,
and each martini cleaner than the last.
Deep water’s just an absence of vermouth,
clear gin, smoking on rocks of ice,
and faintly phosphorescent with lemon zest.
Please, Mike, just a little party … I should never have trusted
a woman whose toenails matched her bathing suit,
and not on a boat the width of Hefner’s duvet.

Let’s do some fishing … Translated into French
that’s about as ambiguous as morse.
Her breasts were slippery smooth with Factor 5.
I love to do it just in sight of land,
I always imagine a sharp-eyed lighthouse keeper…
The sea was blue as Bombay Sapphire glass.

VIII

You never understood me, did you, Mike?
I should have known you’d never bloody try.
So cool, so “Darling, give me one more chance,
I’ll break with her, I promise, tell her straight,
and then we’ll take a trip…” Well, screw your trip.
Just one more chance is what you haven’t got.
I’m leaving , Michael, leaving, do you hear?
I’m fucking sick of you not fucking me.

“Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”
Remember, darling? Christ, I was naive.
“A private joke.” How private does it get?
I’ve spread my legs for you a thousand times
and won’t be gotten tired of, not by you,
you selfish rotten bastard… Go to hell.

 

 

 

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

 

 

 

IX

I have set up my typewriter again,
under the window of a room with an iron bed
and a yellow-stained washstand and a ceiling fan
and a carpet worn bald as an old tire,
and have sent the desk clerk out for a quart of whiskey…
This tanned young man in beat-up khaki pants…
Surely there must be something left to write
when the hand becomes steady enough to hold a pencil…

Alone in a sweat-stained shirt in a cheap hotel
I watch the paper peeling off the walls… Each morning
my hands tremble to light a cigarette… I’m
ten years older a year apart from you:
I’m only thirty-three ! I lie on the bed,
too sick to read and listening for mosquitoes.

X

Mike, look, please look, I’ve practised this for you:
a backward triple something… Ready now?
I close my eyes to see the swimming pool
and see myself beside it, glass in hand,
and smiling, ten years younger, saying, Sure ,
I’m watching, darling, go ahead and dive,
and feel the splashback wet against my face,
and laugh to see the laughter in her eyes.

I lie awake beneath the ceiling fan,
too weak to slap the insect on my thigh,
and watch her climb the steps and shake her hair
and walk towards me, angled for a kiss,
and feel her swimsuit wet against my shirt,
and taste the lipstick that she used to wear…

XI

They talk about me when I leave the bar:
I see it in the way they watch me go
sun-blind and whiskey-dazzled through the door,
the inconvenient stranger in their town,
el gringo escritor who never writes,
who keeps the first drink steady in both hands
and sits there sober for about an hour
until the fever starts to soak his shirt…

Senor, I fuck you, and I fuck your wife,
but most of all I fuck your fucking life
(to which I add your daughter, twice last night).
Now drink this, darling, gin and quinine fizz,
and afterwards… But drink your medicine first:
remember I’m your lover, not your nurse.

XII

I often wonder whether zombies dream,
if locked behind those staring wide-shut eyes
the brain runs movies of a former life…
I watch them walk in pairs through Port au Prince,
in silent passage up the moonlit street
below my balcony, and hear the drum
that calls them to the houmfort … Every night
I watch them till I wake up soaked in sweat…

I had a girl once, up against that wall,
for seven dollars and a Lucky Strike
and gave her ten because I ripped her blouse…
And afterwards drank whiskey in some dive
where someone suddenly produced a knife
and while I watched he smiled and slit my throat.

XIII

I don’t suppose you’ll ever read this note.
The man who saw you in some frightful bar
south of the border said he knew your face
and said that maybe… Well, it might be true.
Apparently he met us while we lived
together… said he knew your voice, recalled
a conversation he once had with you
beside our swimming pool… He seemed impressed

For god’s sake, darling, every single day
I wonder… wish… damn, are you still alive?
This man, I can’t remember, something Smith,
it seems that once he helped you cross the street
and left you just outside some cheap hotel…
I so much want… I dread… I pray it’s you…

XIV

I watch them in the corner of my room,
the bloodstained doctor and the voodoo priest,
and see four coffin bearers dressed in rags
with sightless milky eyes… I hear them talk
beneath the whirring of the ceiling fan:
they move like shadows, blanking out the light…
The whiskey bottle’s rolled beneath the bed,
but if I stretch my arm a fraction more…

Dear god, please, darling, please don’t see me now:
just kiss me once, just once, and turn away.
I looked back once and lost Eurydice…
Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
My love, why linger for a last farewell?
Why watch the bastards haul me down to hell..?

 

 

Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the USA, UK, India and China. As well as publishing numerous feature articles in newspapers and magazines, he is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Chinese Bolero, is a collaboration with the great contemporary Chinese painter Li Bin.