Nina Alvarez DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

“We need the witch then after all.”
– Mephisto, from Goethe’s Faust

I have studied long what it means to be good
The books of the trade flooding my floors
Incompetent apostles, red-cloaked and dusty
Abrasive seamstresses, damp, heavy cloth
Bound brittle fly paper pressed with ink

The stains of the words they’ve put to the Gods
Heavy sods, the swarming of ghosts
Against background diagrams, math
in a soul, taken with measurements,
Quiet control, compasses and cranial prods

It is good to be good, say Tolstoyvian men
Say the dying, the delicate, the drawn in

The Amish pray and are simple
The Catholics bellow in the urn
The Protestants worship the sun

What is good? To be good cannot always be
Simple or simply devised, the eyes
Of fellow students follow me round
The quad, cement tapping perfect numbers
hood and jacket covering my books
And body, who is that coming? The dean

Under his garments, his garters shine
A quartered world between his thighs
He’s held in with purple panties and it
Smarts him so delicately; lilacs in a vase

His sandy eyes reflect the sun and in turn
Reflect it into mine. We meet like this across

Cement. We meet like this, solar rays
Echoing. Wave. Particle. Transfer

See, he slows and puts his hand in his pocket
His smallest finger dangling, worming,
Harnessed by a gold pinky ring
Glinting his grin, his still-slowing grin
At the blonde strands of my hair that
Sift in the wind, on the quad, under God.

The worm stiffens in the breeze, I seize
The moment to count the tiles, around
The perimeter of the passageways, stone snakes
And mistakeless maps making pentagrams,
Pythagorean poems, of repeating patterns
A compass for those wandering home

I am safe, I would say to myself, under summer
I am something else, other than her
I would damn the wayward leaves
And tumbling songs of trees
Not hearing what they said
I would turn away

And repeating, ravishing words
In the blue lit books, speckled, dappled
Doubling, samples of bluing gray, I ended
My days in the quiet contemplation
Of perfections, perfect planes of existence

But when the dean stopped watching me,
I stopped watching them. The words spread out
Until they stacked the ceiling, until my room
Had but a narrow walkway. Mathematics, physics,
Logic, ethics, the religions, philosophies,
The common, the odd. But I did not find God.
So, then I studied the evil I could:
the Marquis de Sade

To better know how to avoid such misery
Of empty orifices screaming to be stuffed
To avoid, the choke of blood, the happy glove
Of strangulation, a woman’s digit’s arched
Perfect in their transcendence of number
Squeezing past subtle orders in the warm
Ocean complexities of death and dying

Yes, I avoided these complexities, enjoying
Them from afar, in the mingling of window
Rains, in the cavernous tavern music from
The pub, layered with echoing human hearts
Twisting up the hills to the campus, licking the
Windows; form, form, form. There is something
Alive in this noise, I thought to myself, as an
Organism with subtle symmetry, in the
Repeating strains of music, as well as the
Random interjections of townsfolk, something
Patterned just below the surface

I kept my room dim, preferring the glow
Illuminating from the pink campus lights
And the cavern within, stalactites of books, from Chaucer
To Corinthians, aesthetics to algebra, rose ever higher

Black piles of earth, suffocating the
Mind, I found my way through the maze, took that one book
And with it, razed each pile until the hard, dusty tomes;
Seamstresses, apostles, arrogant, ancient; covered the floor
And my bed, getting damp, underneath the open window

It is good to be good, say Hugo’s men
Say the dying, the diligent, the drowning

The Jews keep him it boxes
Muslim’s write him letters
The pagans are certain of rain

You’re odd, came a voice from the door, and I turned to see
It had been opened, though none had the key.
I’m the dean. Said the man. And that book
In your hand has been banned from the campus
And you’ll cooperate it we politely demand
That you leave here at once

I searched for his pinky, his gold-glinting pinky
To brighten my vision, but the dark, unforgiving,
Left only silhouettes, and the purple grins of open
Books, I approached the dean, I saw his eyes

Were sockets in a light-bulb face

Don’t scream, he said, and shut the door, I’m only here to
Ask your name, to play a game,
To spawn a new race of us:/
The Faustians who don’t read Faust

I saw Munch’s Death and the Maiden
But Death replaced by the same artist’s Scream
No blood clouds streaking the sky, but a hollowness
Unable to bear its own existence, unable to dissemble it

You are fortunate, I mumbled,
Backing away onto books, to be so reminiscent
Of something ungodly. I have searched
Long for the spirit. Either way, you’ll
Do. Will you stay by that door while I…

Hand me the book
My chattering betrayed my lack of calm, I trembled
As I took one step closer to toss him the tome.
I am not your prediction, nor are you my own
And as he spoke he drew strength from the
Source in his hands, This man, oh this man
Was a human indeed, so fleshy, so foolish, so

Free. Do you see the symmetry in death? In
That red heart petrified to erection, choked to

Orgasm? Are you aware, dear, of the blooming
Lilacs of sadism?

I am not aware of such things, I answered
But what I would say is they are the opposite of purity
And I intend to find purity, if it exists,
And God willing, my mind is expansive…

Your mind, said the dark thing, will tell
You nothing. These books,
said the dark thing,
Are the scrawlings of children.
Your heart,
said the dark thing, that longs
To be frozen, perfected, is lying:
It longs to die

Who are you? I asked.
Certainly not a man

No, indeed, not your dean.
Although a being, coming clean
Would permit me to mention
If you received detention,

Some corporal punishment
From the man with the ring
Might advance your understanding
Of goodness, mein liebchen.

It might break you open a bit
So some light could get in.
It might bell you, might curve you
Might sweeten your sin.
For you won’t know what heights are

Without falling in

But I’ve studied hard what it is to be good,
The suffering, the saddened are waiting on me
I am going to encompass the pure and the free
It is good to be good.
It is good to be good.
Say the delicate…

The delicious. The dancers in drag/,
The dancers in dust, the shamans of radical
Thinking, form, theory. But, I am not hear to

debate theory with you.
We have only one night
And much to do

His echoing eyes, unbearable caves
Turned to my window, then came a shock

Of loud voices, the drinkers, the townsfolk
All leaving the pub

It’s chaos, he smiled. One man will be

assaulted by another tonight.
Such random pain makes me strong,
Like the edge of a knife on my tongue,
You must learn, this is how life should
Taste

The prayers, those praying men on their
Knees, seize every second, prop it up on a

Pillow of breath, pushing , elevating, pining
Demanding a transcendence, a confidence,
They can almost just see if they squeeze their
Eyes tight, can feel in their chests if the

afternoon light slants a certain way. So they pray

And which wench, bent over her boiling pot, soot
And baby snot running down run her dress,

will confess her dismay

At the husband behind her, lifting her skirts, finding her
Valuables, perfecting his passion in her rear, I can
Hear just now, all over the world, the soft satisfaction of

Illicit screwing, even if it must be imagined
To be so. Humans will do it, if it fits
And is crude

But because you demand theory with a morbid attraction
Let us say – as we proceed into abstractions; like lust
And greed, words such as these

Are less about flesh than a spirit
And spirits in motion tend to stay
In motion, and spirits at rest…
Well, you know the rest. This is the way of sin

But I ask you again, is it so impure
To be desirous of humiliation?
To be bent over your pot and
Used by your man, knowing he
Is not there for you, for your
Singular soul, but the round ass
That he watches, each day,
From the table?

As he spoke, I found myself following him
Past the university gates, down the gray road
Descending to the town. And peering in windows,
Looking around, at the late night bustles, the winding
down of families, couples, and I spun around
To retort to his speech

Well, you’ll find, if you
Reach past your sordid claims, that the/
sinners and their sins are not the same. Are you
Deprived if you abstain? Are you poor if you are
Pure? The body may be weak, but the
Will be strong and sure

And the purpose of this fight,

Is to see clearly wrong or right, for sincere
And human heights, for transcendence of our
Animal nature, for remembrance of something
Greater: a God that speaks in symbolic form

It is good to be good, say the wan.
The dying, the delicate, the drawn in

Shamans shriek into blown glass
Hindu’s settle on mountains
Buddhists quake under the earth

Well, then, he said, try this. You eat, you sleep, you must conform
To certain things. The trap is remembering (speaking of
Remembrance) that you are human, with body,
And as eating and sleeping and shitting are not condemned
Why fucking, my friend?

Do you see that your Dean
Who so subliminally commands you, is more complexly
A part of your struggle for understanding in the spiritual realm
Than you give credit to? And it is his cock and quiet desire
That does this to you?

The warm glows of kitchens we passed less and less.
Nearing the town’s edge, the open roads gaping, I saw
For he showed me, an older man raping a younger man.
My companion laughed

This is such fun, if that boy
Would not struggle, there would be no fight, which
Fuels that man’s passion. He’s knows it’s not right.
That’s why he does it

So, it is with you. Your
Desires are darker than you ever knew

I confess I was puzzled. His last words had struck me,
As the matrices of desire has always been a burden
That unifying force hovering over the pages of
Books filled with codes, with symbols and tears,
With patterns and pictures and cycloptic structures.
What makes it all work? The question remained.
What makes neurons fire, what fires the brain?

It’s God, simply stated, but the scholar is sure
That’s a temporary answer, but points to a purity,
A spirit, a movement, a fundamental force,
The essence of life and its course.

And in turn, was a boundless,
Breathtaking thing, made only of silence,
The space in between. And any thought
Of sex, had, by logic then, failed, to provide
Insight to greater details

It’s not I’m a child or afraid of the body. It’s
Simply irrelevant to what I study and to be
Quite honest, your purpose here has failed,

You will not lead me to discard my work

But you, yourself, he spoke, have already
Strayed, you found the Marquis, you used
Him to raze that collection of bible poems
You call your work. It was you who
Summoned me here to answer these things.

Well, then, answer them! I said. What does

It all mean? If you can exist, then one must
Reason that there is transcendence, essence,
Above as below. So how do I find it? Why
Must the elaborate and detailed designs:
The perfection of math, The Wife of Bath,/
The unlimited access to dreams and illusions
Of the mind be always empty, always spinning
Pining for something more? What is this emptiness
And what is it for?

I will answer one last time, he smiled down at me
And I saw yellow teeth curved like half moons
And gasped as he sunk them into my
Heart. And the pain was as real as the glory of God.

Nina Alvarez’s short stories have been published in 21 Stars Review, Twisted Tongue, Dark Reveries, and Swill. Her poetry has been published in Electric Velocipede, Grasslimb Literary Journal and Contemporary Rhyme. In May 2011, Nina was a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.

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One comment

  1. The following feedback is written, I assure you, in a spirit of humility and trepidation.
    Rarely have I encountered such an honest and artful exposition of, what seems to me to be, the profound and, often, painful sojourn of the soul awakened to the essential enigma of Cartesian dualism (sarx vs. soma, if you will). Rather than the warning label of “dark” you apply to your effort, I would choose to ward off the faint of heart and the unawakened with the admonition that only the brave and honest need read further. There is such a confluence of knowledge woven into the fabric of this piece that it made me smile even as my visceral response, of identification with and empathy for the heart at its source, was occurring.
    The college/university experience of a sincere and genuine seeker is often a journey carrying one from the mountain tops of great incite and awakening to the shorelines of disillusionment and despair. Only those who are truly brave, however, will tell you so. There is, if you will permit, a price to be paid by those who seek the face of God/truth.
    The life long learner quickly realizes, when birthed to life beyond the womb of formal academia, that this struggle (what I call the WHY/WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT syndrome) has just begun. The dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is continuous and ever present. It IS the human condition w/o exception. Making one’s peace with it is only thing that may reflect diversity and individuality.
    I am a bit overwhelmed with a feeling of pride in you and in your talent. It is not a feeling that is delusional or self serving. It is more a feeling that simply celebrates a resounding YES! to your gift and your ongoing journey in this life.The poem is the classic medium is message. It moves from beauty and brutality of imagery and from romantic battles to transcend to decadent stories of the fall.
    I believe that your piece artfully depicts what is, in particular, the travail of the Westernized soul. With its great religions, steeped in patriarchal ethics, the West emphasizes and ingrains a VERSUS mentality in its progeny. This leaves the children of the West unable to embrace the notion that all roads (may) lead to Rome. They are left with a fundamental either/or rather than with a both/end philosophic perception of the human experience/condition. Sin, and particularly sexual sin, cannot, therefore, be seen as a conceivable pathway to God or transcendence. Many religions/philosophies in the East impose no such limitations or ethical limitations on the Almighty.
    I don’t know if any of this is of value to you, Nina. I only know that I have had a wonderful morning reflecting on my former student’s talent. Thank you for what I shall accept as an early gift from Santa.

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