The following is a poem from Invisible Bride by Tony Tost, published by Louisiana State University Press in April 2004.
Twelve Self Portaits
The snow is dark and nothing is sad and I was, once upon a time, a child. I knew what the weather meant, was hardened the way only a child, after all, is.
The first ten years are full of rain. I watched the shadows flee away.
The snow is something else, tonight, as I stand, grown, naked (I'm in the living room, the lights are off): invisible and filling up.
That's me, tongue placed firmly in the subconscious. A slow undercurrent, a breath (twisting). Silent I suppose, and sad.
It is my time (in this, my second self portrait, I am unapologetically ill and in my early eighties) and I call to my side my large circle of friendly landscapes and intimate portraits and willingly take my leave of them. Also, the fringe elements of me: the street performer and the recluse, the terminally hip and the lost child (yes I am still looking into the dreams of that child, manipulating them, trying to recover some lost humanity in the process).
Like that of a swimmer amongst the drowning, this face expresses longing and mischief. I am trying to hint at solitude. We would together, her and I, grab hold a piece of his garment, if only to meditate upon each change of expression as he began to drown. We would praise his performance. In his face were railroads and banks, mills and pity for the riches found there. What is it this face says now? That we are all blue flame and frost, all milk and mystery? That we each should breathe also the upper air? (I gaze upon actual faces in meditative hours and am reminded that we are not transparent despite the brute light that shines through.)
Pain is a higher awareness of self.
Here is my fourth portrait, touched by the hand of mayhem.
She's in it. She stands before me and strips away time and lamentation. Her right hand points at the journey of the stars, at each unwilling horse.
In this one I sketch for her my hounded heart. Exhausted and dizzy, we are lifted until our voices are no more rank to us than death is.
Staying awake is a punishment (every day I was awake this year). Once upon a time, she told me a ghost story: how she hit darkness on the highway one night, how I was the thumbprint of that tiny crash.
This is my portrait and I am one of its citizens. I wake, take brief repose, confess a little tooth and claw, compose and perform a priestly shriek. And she trusts me. My news is tolerable.
All I swallow becomes mine, becomes good. Whatever interests my voice interests me: a belly, a room of strangers, a puff of smoke. They are asking me questions.
I hear them.
I’m coming back to this room (to get things straight). A room is instructed by its kings so I’ve begun drawing crowns and getting angry easily, which comes from caring too much. Often, the size of the heart determines the size of the emotion. The small pleasures of birds, for instance.
There is a prayer folded in my mouth; like the night, it wanders as it searches for its bride. There are no shortcuts around this mountain (a prayer is a mountain, looking for its bride). But there is a mountain.
A bridge will be written —Hart Crane
A face will be written. Another year will be written, with each of its hostile devils. A redemption will be performed as it is composed. The heights will be written, if only for the slave of tears to gaze at them in dissatisfaction.
The slave of tears has already been written.
He speaks for the room, the river, the air. He speaks to the heights because he wants to. A fine trembling will be written. The heights will be written. An answer will be written, and an embrace.
Perhaps every little thing must be recovered if anything is to be saved. Here are my eyes. They do not wish to be frozen by the wintry light of understanding. Happily, I (like a flame) understand nothing. At a conspiring hour, I am standing under the birches, in winter, learning to hunt.
A portrait is also a path made visible. The world is an ally of the visible.
I am sitting in the meadow grass scratching doubt and belief. I think a lot of people have grown up with a peek at the future, with songs never recorded. My goal is simple: to play jacks in front of the levee. (I desire to be not only graceful, but visible. Useful. I do not desire the wisdom of the worm, nor of the hook.) To become timeless.
So how do we die, really? And what is the exact location of the crossroads? I’m not predisposed towards elevating things beyond what we see and touch, but by the time I noticed I was crossing this field, I knew the living must communicate with life.
The journey into our bodies is another journey, like the night: as long as a riddle. Gristle, and grace. When she was a child, no one would cut her hair for her. It went down to the waist.
My childhood was a river as well, one to drag my faith across; my hair floated in the water behind me. My eyes were painted shut and the clouds were boats.
And is she still barefoot, without a thing in her hands? Is she wading in clouds? (“Like God, we dream only of rivers.”)
I am trying to draw the lumps in our throats. The ones we had when we were born, when we finally die. The ones that mean: I will not remember this.
The snow is thick and I have just found a wolf; it’s an actual wolf. I name it Broken Mirror. I can see its ribs. I take it inside and teach it how to count. The wolf’s heart is a thing of rhythms, a thing of sand. I carry it from room to room; the wolf seems to be swallowing its tongue. “My voice carries,” I say. “It will carry you.”
—Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from Invisible Bride: Poems by Tony Tost. © Copyright 2004 by Tony Tost.