Amsterdam

Your shadow is born new
every time you step into the day
or turn a light on or fall under
the sway of the moon.

Your shadow is born true
every time you fall into the day
or persuade a light on or dream
under the sway of the moon.

Your shadow is raised from the dead
every time you erase the sun
or can’t escape the insomnia
of the moon.

When I pressed the orange button below the speaker
in the museum, a woman who called herself
The Composer read through this progression
and kept going, the sentences morphing
and compressing until she ended with this:

You are a generous kleptomaniac.
You are a friendless lecher.
You are a timid grave digger.
You are a flightless bird.
You are ash.

While she spoke, on a screen above the orange button,
a rat snake was run over by a car on a loop,
or what seemed a loop, until I realized
that ever so slowly, the snake avoided the car
and moved on, was followed through grass
all the way to a tree, which the snake climbed
and then the screen went blank. Then the composer
came back and said, I’m taking off my shoe.
Then there were about twenty seconds of bashing keys.
This is the sound of a simple black pump, she said.
A man then said, I always liked you in these,
and she said, Stilettos, drawing out the o.
There was a bit of rustling, after which the piano
made a softer, more pointed noise. She went
through boots, sandals, oxfords, announcing each.
The star by far was ballet shoes: they
were more mysterious, more like a ghost-cat
crossing a piano. But even they had no flair
for composition. Next, there was a not-quite-silence,
an almost hush with an undertone of what seemed
like breathing. Slowly it became clear
it was the panting of a dog coming closer
to the microphone, until it was licking it.
This was followed by real silence, a silence
that seemed eight miles deep due to the noise
that birthed it. A silence that ended
when someone — I think the man who said
I always liked you in these — started crying, slowly
and softly at first, then faster and harder,
repeating the word “light” the whole time
through sobs and whimpers. After this,
silence again, which was interrupted by The Composer
saying, The last silence had the shape of not crying,
while the previous silence I call Absence of Dog.
Yet a third silence arrived, after which a child said,
You have pressed the orange button and asked it
to be an oracle. The orange button
has done its best. Now run away
and be larger than you were before.

The next day, I talked my former wife
into coming with me to the museum. I said
she needed to experience the orange button,
though really I wanted to have a life with her
any way I could. But when she pressed
the orange button, it was completely different:
while a video played of thousands of starlings
changing direction, rolling and twisting
their way across what felt like a breathing sky,
the child who’d told me to run away
the day before, repeated the phrase,
Art is the belief you don’t need a tree
to climb a tree. When she pressed
the orange button again, this came up
on the screen: Only one astonishment per customer.

After that, we had coffee on the roof.
I told her what happened when I pressed
the orange button. The piece was called Prophecy
and we both were in love with it, which I believed
meant we were in love with each other,
so I was shocked when she stood in the midst
of me thinking I couldn’t live without her,
and kissed my face goodbye, softly, as if
taking a glove off and setting it on a river.

 

Bob Hicok’s ninth book, Hold, will be out from Copper Canyon in the fall of 2018. He is a Guggenheim and two-time NEA Fellow.

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