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New York Wanderings

Richard Kostelanetz

From Rewritings (in progress)

I wander all night through my city with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping, wandering and confused, lost to myself, bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers, ill-assorted and contradictory, as I am pausing, gazing, stooping, and stopping. How solemn these sleepers look, stretched and still! How quiet they breathe, some beside their little children in their cradles!

The wretched features of bored men, the white features of corpses, the livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of onanists, the gashed bodies returned from battlefields, the insane behind their strong-doored rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging from hospitals, those dying behind gates, all in an urban night that pervades them and enfolds them.

The married couple sleep calmly in their bed—he with his palm on the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of the husband. The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed, the men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs, the city sleeps with her little child carefully wrapped. The blind sleep, the deaf and dumb sleep, the prisoner sleeps well in the prison, the runaway son sleeps. How sleeps the murderer that is to be hung the next day? And the murdered person—how does he sleep?

The woman whose love’s unrequited sleeps, and the man whose love’s unrequited sleeps, the businessman who’s schemed all day sleeps, and those with enraged and treacherous dispositions—all, all sleep.

I stand in the dark my eyes falling upon the worst suffering and those most restless. I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them. The restless sink in their beds as they too fitfully sleep. Now, as I pierce the darkness, new beings appear. As the earth recedes from me into the night, I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is beautiful. Going from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers, each in turn. I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, as I become the other dreamers.

I am a dance. Play up, there! The fit is whirling me fast! I am forever laughing, as it is new moon in twilight. I see the hiding of douceurs. I see nimble ghosts whichever way I look, cache and cache again, deep in the ground and sea, where there is neither ground nor sea.

So well do they do their jobs, those journeymen so divine. Only from me can they hide nothing and would not if they could. I reckon I am their boss, and they make me a pet besides, surround me and lead me. They run ahead when I walk, to lift their cunning covers, to signify me with stretched arms, and resume the way. Onward we move! A gay gang of blackguards! With mirth-shouting music, and wild-flapping pennants of joy!

I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician; the emigrant and the exile, the criminal who stood in the box, he who has been famous, and he who shall be famous after today, the stammerer. The well formed person and the wasted or feeble person are me. I am she who adorned herself and folded her hair expectantly, my truant lover has come, and it is dark. Double yourself and receive me, darkness! Receive me and my lover too; he will not let me go without him. I roll myself upon you, as upon a bed. I resign myself to the dusk. She whom I call answers me, and takes the place of my lover, when she rises with me silently from the bed.

Darkness! You are gentler than my lover whose flesh was sweaty and panting. I feel the hot moisture yet that she has left me. My hands are spread forth; I pass them in all directions. I would sound up the shadowy shore to which you are journeying. Be careful, darkness! Already, what was it that touched me? I thought my lover had gone, unless darkness and she are one. When I hear a heartbeat, I follow, I fade away.

O hot-cheeked and blushing! O foolish hectic! O for pity’s sake, no one must see me now! My clothes were stolen while I was asleep. Now that I am thrust forth, where shall I run? Pier that I saw dimly last night, when I looked from the windows! Peer out to the street, let me catch myself with you and stay. I will not chafe you, I feel ashamed to go naked about the world. I am curious to know where my feet stand. What is this flooding me, childhood or manhood—and the hunger that crosses the bridge between. Cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking, laps life-swelling yolks—laps an ear of rose-corn, milky and just ripened; the white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness, and liquor is spilled on lips and bosoms by touching glasses. Home in my city I descend upon my western course, my sinews are flaccid, perfume and youth course through me, and I walk in their wake.

It is my face yellow and wrinkled, instead of an old woman’s. I sit low in a straw-bottom chair, and carefully darn my grandson’s stockings. I too am the sleepless widow, looking out on the winter midnight, I see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth. A shroud I see is me as I wrap a body and lie in the coffin. It is dark here under ground. No evil or pain here, it is blank here, for reasons.

It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy. Whoever’s not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough. I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer, swimming naked through the eddies of the sea, his brown hair lies close and even on his head. He strikes out with courageous arms; he urges himself with his legs. I see his white body; I see his undaunted eyes. I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-first on the rocks.

What are you doing? You ruffianly red-trickled waves? Will you kill the courageous giant? Will you kill him in the prime of his middle age? Steady and long he struggles, as he is baffled, banged, and bruised. He holds out while his strength holds out, as the slapping eddies are spotted with his blood. They bear him away, they roll him, swing him, and turn him, as his beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies and continually bruised on rocks. Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse. I turn, but do not extricate myself, confused, a past-reading, another, but with darkness yet.

Rockaway Beach is cut by the razory ice-wind. The wreck-guns sound, the tempest lulls as the moon comes floundering through the drifts. As I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as she strikes. I hear the howls of dismay as they grow fainter and fainter. I cannot aid with my wringing fingers. I can but rush to the surf, and let it drench me and freeze upon me. I search with the crowd, but not one of the company is washed to us alive. In the morning I help pick up the unclaimed city dead and lay them in rows in a morgue.
Recalling the defeat in Brooklyn, I see Washington standing inside the lines. He stands on the entrenched hills amid a crowd of officers. His face is cold and damp, as he cannot repress the weeping drops. He lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes as the color is blanched from his cheeks. He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him by their parents.

The same, at last and at last, when peace is declared, he stands in the room of the old tavern. The well-beloved soldiers all pass through, the officers speechless as they slowly draw near in their turns. The chief encircles their necks with his arm, and kisses them on the cheek, he kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another. Shaking hands, he bids goodbye to his army.

Now I tell what my city told me today as we sat at dinner together, about when she was a nearly grown girl, living at home with her parents on the old homestead. A red squaw came one breakfast time to the old homestead, on her back she carried a bundle of rushes for rush-bottoming chairs, her hair, straight, shiny, coarse, black, profuse, half-enveloped her face, her step was free and elastic, and her voice sounded exquisitely as she spoke.

My city looked in delight and amazement at the squaw. She looked at the freshness of her tall-borne face, her full and pliant limbs. The more she looked upon her, the more she loved her. Never before had she seen such wonderful beauty and purity. She made her sit on a bench by the jamb of the fireplace. My city cooked food for her; but, as she had no work to give her, there was remembrance and fondness.

The red squaw stayed all the forenoon, and toward the middle of the afternoon she went away. O my city was loath to let her go away! All the week she thought of her, she watched after her for many a month, she remembered her for many a winter and many a summer, but the red squaw never came, nor was heard of there again.

Now Lucifer was not dead. Or if he was, I am his sorrowful terrible heir; I have been wronged, I am oppressed, I hate whomever oppresses me, I will either destroy him or he shall release me. Damn him! How he does defile me! How he informs against my brother and sister, how he takes pay for their blood! How he laughs when I look down the bend, after the steamboat that carries away my woman!

Now the vast dusk bulk that is a whale seems mine. Warily, sportsman! Though I lie so sleepy and sluggish, the tap of my flukes is death. A show of the summer softness! A contact of something unseen! An amour of the light and air! I am jealous, overwhelmed with friendliness, And I will go gallivant with the light and air myself, and have an unseen something also to be in contact with them.

O love and summer! You are in my dreams and in me! Autumn and winter are in the dreams. The farmer goes with his thrift, the droves and crops increase, and the barns are well filled.

Elements merge in the night in my city, ships make tacks in the dreams, the sailor sails, the exile returns home, the fugitive returns unharmed, the immigrant is back beyond months and years. The poor Irishman lives in the simple house of his childhood, among familiar neighbors and faces, they warmly welcome him. Barefoot again, he forgets he is well off. The Dutchman voyages home, and the Scotchman and Welshman voyage home, and the native of the Mediterranean voyages home. Into every port of England, France, and Spain enter well packed ships, as the Swiss foots it toward his hills, the Prussian goes his way, the Hungarian his way, and the Pole his way, the Swede returns, and the Dane and Norwegian return.

Those homeward bound, and the outward bound in my city, the beautiful lost swimmer, the bored men, the onanist, the female that loves unrequited, the money-maker, the actor and actress, those through with their parts, and those waiting to commence, the affectionate boy, the husband and wife, the voter, the nominee that is chosen, and the nominee that has failed, the great already known, and those great any time after today, the stammerer, the sick, the perfectly formed, the homely, the criminal that stood in the box, the judge that sat and sentenced him, the fluent lawyers, the jury, the audience, the laugher and weeper, the dancer, the midnight widow, the red squaw, the consumptive, the erysipelite, the idiot—he who is wronged, the antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark. I swear they are averaged now, as one is no better than the other, the night and sleep have liked them and restored them.

I swear they are all beautiful; everyone who sleeps is beautiful. Everything in the dim light is beautiful. The wildest and bloodiest is over, as all is peace. Peace is always beautiful, the myth of heaven indicates peace and night. The myth of heaven indicates the Soul. The Soul is always beautiful—it appears more or it appears less, as it comes or it lags behind. It comes from its embowered garden, and looks pleasantly on itself, and encloses the world, perfect and clean the genitals previously jetting, and perfect and clean the womb cohering, the head well groomed, proportioned and plumb, and the bowels and joints proportioned and plumb.

The Soul is always beautiful, the universe is duly in order. Everything is in its place. What has arrived is in its place, and what waits is in its place. The twisted skull waits, the watery or rotten blood waits, the child of the glutton or venereal waits long, and the child of the drunkard waits long, and the drunkard himself waits long, the sleepers that lived and died wait. Those far advanced are to go on in their turns, and those far behind are to come on in their turns, the diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite. Indeed, they unite now.

The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed. They flow hand in hand over the whole earth, from east to west, as they lie unclothed, the Asiatic and African are hand in hand. The European and American are hand in hand, learned and unlearned are hand in hand, and male and female are hand in hand, the bare arm of the girl crosses the bare breast of her lover. They press close without lust, his lips press her neck, the father holds his grown or ungrown son in his arms with measureless love, and the son holds the father in his arms with measureless love, the white hair of the city shines on the white wrist of the daughter, the breath of the boy goes with the breath of the man, friend is disarmed by friend, the scholar kisses the teacher, and the teacher kisses the scholar. The wronged is made right, the call of the slave is one with the master’s call, and the master salutes the slave. The felon steps forth from the prison, the insane becomes sane, the suffering of sick persons is relieved, the sweating and fevers stop. The throat that was unsound is now sound; the lungs of the consumptive are resumed. The poor distressed head is free. The joints of the rheumatic move as smoothly as ever, and smoother than ever, stifling and passages open. The paralyzed become supple, the swelled and convulsed and congested awake to themselves in a new condition, as they pass the invigoration of the night and the chemistry of the night, and awake. I too pass from the night, I stay a while away. O night, but I return to my city again, and love you.

Why should I be afraid to trust myself to my city? I am not afraid. I have been well brought forward by you. I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in whom I lay so long, I know not how I came of you, and I know not where I go with you; but I know I came well and shall go well. I will stop only a time with the night and rise betimes. I will duly pass the day, O my city, and duly return to you.

 
 
 


Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster’s Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.