Jordan Davis on "Shell Game"


The material, a cut on my knuckle.
We go out to the shell game
but it's a liability
dressed up as a pork chop.
I am bleeding from my birthstone.
McGriddle, what's that on the radar
to starboard? Can we just open
and close this vacuum door in peace?
The peanuts go flying.
Money is covered with sad faces.

The presidents walk across the flag.
That's part of my strategy
but the best dream I ever had
waits in a canister, safe from mites.
Capacity to free associate
divorced entirely from will to understand.
Excitement misfired.
Love, covetous love
pouring from my heart
like goo on walls in a movie.
I don't watch that kind of movie.

Yes, that's fine. Just stay awake
and keep talking
until the colors line up on the cube...
The death instinct, "Nobody's going
to tell me what to do" in hot pants.
No. Yes. No. Yes. The opposite
of broken is sex. Maybe.

Everyday life in a poem, a headline—
it proves kidnappers haven't killed it.
My heart just wanted to feel safe
so I created some great drama
based on a movie from before I was born.
I wanted to feel love. Then I did.
I do. I said that in front of a judge.

The bad guy is back in town!
Too late, though—everybody died
of boredom. But you know, a true villain
needs only his own estimation
to thrive. In cartoons
enemies are merely competitive
spoilsports. Here,
in this Père Lachaise de l'Ennui
we toast the Widow Time
and her entirely actualized indifference.

Bless her.

You're wearing your brains
at a jaunty angle, eh, old bean?
Or as a finer maker put it,
your smarts are on your garment.
If I wanted to know how magnets work
I'd reread Lord Jim. Meanwhile
the more gorgeous of the two
tries on a rhetoric
that, like any good television comedian,
consists mainly of shouting.

The corollary to never turn
your back on the ocean is
always size up the opposition
while walking away smiling.
Rod Smith calls it
"the wanting-it tax." Owen Barfield
says it's what's wrong with religion.
Pamela Anderson and I
were voted "Class class"
at my high school. At that time,
the actress who shares her name
had not yet been discovered.

Feeling comes through in writing;
this is what Wilde meant
about bad writing and sincerity—
sincerity and irony are taming influences
both. Feeling is on the move,
arrow on string. When I see
that a reflex remark is about
to strike you, I turn abstract.
You in turn feel my absence
for the submerged aggression it is.
I think Wilde would have gotten a kick
out of Freud, don't you?

Spontaneity and carelessness—
not the same. The teacher
said something about meteorite craters
forming volcanoes. If we have to have
a standard greeting as a culture,
can it be "What up," and not
"All praise to the truth?" Thanks.
Thanks too for bringing
this ultimate crumb cake.
True, I am developing a belly,
but also I feel compassion,
the heft of dough, the shirr
of flour, butter and sugar.

Keep your eye on the bent card.
All the cards are bent, actually.
All right then, keep your eye.
The ball is there then it's not.
My son shows me the plastic cups,
the miniature poms, then starts
stacking. YouTube it: Cup stacking.
It's a sport, like moonwalking
or electioneering.

I don't care about
the general assembly. It has gold leaf
like a church, and two abstract
bacteria flank its unsanitary earphones.
But the things they talk about there!
Those are not things they're people.
Small arms in small hands.
It takes 3,000 hours to tend a paddy.
Whatever you're looking for,
buy it the day after Christmas.
And as for flood insurance, forget it.
The people they talk about, though,
are halfway to thank you. Always with us.

I'm opening a bar called "Liquidity Trap."
A bookstore named "Carpe Diem."
"Vanity, All Is Vanity"—health club.
Actually that'll do for pretty much anything,
pig. No, not you. I meant that language
policeman behind you. Scratch an American,
sniff a cop. Smoke a bowl. Feel a mop.
Scratch an American, win a lifetime
all expenses charged back to you
trip to the front. Scratch an American,
find your way through the smoke.

Oh is it.
Is that so.
Well I never.
You don't say.
On the contrary.
Always a pleasure.
How may I help you.
That's what she said.
It's lovely to see you.
That's not what I heard.

Germany's outline on a map—
a bird or a skull. I'd never
noticed it before, never
imagined it onto stones
or shells on walks as I do
with Nevada, Delaware, Africa.
New York Snoopy. California
telephone. Washington
sideburns. DC diamond.
I just blocked it out.
Now I see it. A bird or a skull.

Baffle baffle baffle, disclose
baffle. Baffle baffle baffle
disclose, baffle baffle. Baffle
disclose, baffle disclose,
baffle baffle baffle disclose
baffle. Baffle. Baffle.


A guy I knew in college began a story with the line, "It begins 'in medias res,' which is Latin for 'not very good.'" I later got into two fistfights with that guy. I would say I wonder what happened to him, but I don't.

So, this begins as a realistic, super-mundane science fiction movie. Not only can I barely conceptualize astronomical distance, also, I'm always surprised how time also takes the form of these immense distances between moments of importance, with daily rituals and earning our keep, so to speak, filling up the bulk.

Double-entry accounting is credited by the Annales school of history with the growth of finance capital that bankrolled the Renaissance.

I have to laugh at new poems that make a point of showing off obscurities and erudition. You know anybody can google what any of those things you're saying mean now, right?

"I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop," Jim Jackson (1927).

June: garnet.

I love it when marketing creates entire fictional Scottish clans.

I used to work in book distribution. Have they made a non-staticky packing peanut yet?

You have to admit they don't look happy about being trapped in the circulatory system of the monster that will destroy the world. Except for Hamilton. He's psyched.

"The X-Presidents," Robert Smigel (1997).

"We recall—do we not?—that when we succeeded in reducing a joke, that is, in replacing its [form of] expression by another one while carefully preserving its sense, this eliminated not only its character as a joke, but also the effect of our laughter, that is, our enjoyment of the joke." —The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud (1905).

What kind of movie? So many kinds. You tell me.

I used to find books in the poetry section at Gryphon with the word "America" written in pencil in the margin every few pages, and it was my ambition that someday a book of mine might end up in a similar used book shop in a similar state. Maybe there are still used book shops somewhere.

Changing the subject isn't not the subject of the poem.

James is a speed Rubik's Cube solver now.

Freud again.

"…—Just as, since my college studies,
When the thought was made available to me,
I have never been able to make any sort of really reasonable                 connection
Between Love and Death"
—"When I Think More of My Own Future Than of Myself,"
Ron Padgett (1969).

I'm not crazy about art that wears its topicality like a gang jacket, and the idea that poems are encoded adversarial puzzles has done a lot of harm—just look at the endless parade of serial killer movies. But I do love puzzles.

I was proud of figuring this part about "dailiness" out.

Love Story, Arthur Hiller (1970). Looks like it actually came out just after I was born?

The city clerk at the Marriage Bureau is named Michael McSweeney.

Not sure what associative link made me mistranslate "Clicquot" as "Time," but I'm sticking with it.

So is time the enemy? The hero? The neutral canvas that turns out to be the great comfort? Not saying. (Not saying is generally a good idea.)

"Threat," Jay-Z (2003).

"Miracles," Insane Clown Posse (2009). I think it was 1992 or so, nine or ten of us got up from the White Horse and walked out to the west side piers, and our somewhat drunken late afternoon stroll was interrupted by what turned out to be the shoot for a very early ICP video. At the time we all just thought, wow, New York, anything can happen etc.

Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad (1900). The classic character arc— hubris, humiliation, and eventual redemption—who doesn't love a good fairy tale. Who doesn't doubt that it works like that.

I met Gilbert Gottfried at a party once. I was a little surprised that the hostess only had to say once, "Gilbert, this is a nice party."

Rod Smith is an all-time art hero of mine and it was humbling to be printed by him. Also, he's right about wanting things to happen keeping them from happening.

I don't remember which Barfield quote this refers to, and I'm not going to reread Barfield. What a great name, though—it has barf and Garfield in it. That reminds me, somebody asked me why there's no flarf in the book, didn't I invent flarf. And of course I did, but I've invented so many things.

I do wonder what my classmate Pam Anderson thinks about the actress Pamela Anderson. Or for that matter about Suzanne Langer's essay on the function of proper names in literature.

Ah—here we get to the central point of the poem, or anyway, the eighth of fifteen sections.

I used to have this conversation with Anselm Berrigan, about sincerity and irony. Sometimes I think the tension between sincerity and irony is actually between self-consciousness and indifference in its "what do you care what other people think" form.

Submerged aggression is a recurring subject in the book.

How do you read something when you don't know how to take it.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950). ("Aslan is on the move." "Arrow on string.")

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900, fl. 1881-1900). Sigmund Freud (1856-1939, fl. 1891-1939; English translations begin to circulate widely in 1909). So close!

"The world could not love a man / with so much self in his writing."

This was one of James's better teachers, too.

I believe that, about carbs and compassion. Another recurring subject in the book—replacing withdrawn affection and touch with kneading dough and eating bread.

Apparently what I try to imitate in Shakespeare is not the gorgeous moving dragon of his argument and prosody, but the dad jokes.

Just rewatched a cup stacking video. This really is a gym class subject now, imagine!

Another recurring subject of the book is giving children space to be themselves and guidance and support to right themselves. And then with some luck to be mesmerized by their choices, and their dexterity.

We had our department christmas lunch at the UN smorgasbord one year and the tour made an impression on me. (My parents' church flies the UN flag out front, incidentally; it was originally Cornelia Vanderbilt's private chapel, I think, made of leftover stone from her Sleepy Hollow house. It's so cold in the winter. During the Christmas pageant all the angels stand over the heating grates in their yellowed-muslin robes and balloon up like they might float away.)

Matthew 26:11 (or Mark 14:7—one of the better New Testament paradoxes imo).

Babe, Chris Noonan (1995).

I've never actually done any of the things described in this section.

I wanted to work "Well I'll be" into this section but "Well I never" broke up the rhythm better.

You know, I still don't think I could identify a decontextualized outline of Germany. But I do constantly find stones shaped like Nevada, Delaware and Africa. I just got back from Florida, which I suppose everybody has already observed looks like a gun holding a gun.

By the way, the cover typeface isn't comic sans, it's a lot closer to the one used on the cover of the biography of Charles Schulz. How tender and humane Schulz generally was. And he loved Bowie!

One kind of poetry replaces baffle with suffer and disclose with explode.

People! Gotta love 'em, or else. Didn't Auden say that?

And then suddenly it ends.




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