“Pale Fire” (2009) based on Lyonel Feininger’s original
"Vogel wolke" (Wolke nach dem Sturm) 1926
“a discreet ephebe in tights…”
—John Francis Shade
I was shadowing this cute waxwing boy—
In love with the false azure of his eyes.
He was always fainting in my arms—
During my Wordsmith College office hours.
The innocence of a hot young freshman—
How I selfishly robbed that cradle blind.
The manuscripts for my next novel scattered—
All over the desk and over the floor.
Poor tragic Professor Humbert Humbert—
But meanwhile I had my own problems. 10
Vladimir my cute Zemblan Boyfriend—
My exquisite young Vlad Shadow.
Vlad wasn’t the bashful type, my dear—
When he lost it on my desk just for me.
Awkward yet streamlined at the same time—
His legs tight around my cormorant neck.
No matter how many times I said no—
Mother Nature’s endowment always won.
So full of surging young male hormones—
His physique growing in all directions. 20
From his long distended nozzola—
To his abnormally large Adam’s apple.
But mostly I remember his pale thighs—
Paler than snow in the New Wye moonlight.
Standing by the window each winter night—
Letting his adolescent beauty destroy me.
How shame turned his head in the pillow—
So I couldn’t see the look on his face.
How he blushed deeper than a red ruby—
When I squeezeed his trigger. 30
Shooting me between the eyes—
With his smooth pearl-handled pistol.
A long slow boat to China all semester—
Intensely doing my Sherlock Holmes thing.
Trying to find out who murdered me—
The boy, the butler, my ogling eyeball?
Was it my Shadow who did me in—
The cruel stilettos of his svelte thighs?
Not enough gay nomenclature exists—
To possibly describe all the nuances. 40
All the different ways I suffered cruelly—
My eyelids bruised fruit in a still-life.
These footnotes my sad commentary—
The way I kept track of an amazed heart.
Marveling at my cunning seduction—
Capturing a handsome Zemblan Prince.
The fragile trophy of an indoor scene—
Pigeons cooing in the eves overhead.
My favorite young student at Lake Road—
The folds and furrows of his pale forehead. 50
Bronzed by the hot golden soccer sun—
Except where dark garland shadows fell.
His throbbing dark-blue Tintarron vein—
Writhing like a purple helpless snake.
Like a dark waxwing with a broken wing—
Fluttering in my clammy little palms.
A boy spraining his neck just for me—
In the backseat of my dumpy Mercedes.
The house felt it, the solarium groaned—
He got surly and insolent sometimes. 60
Listening to the buzz downstairs—
My wife Sybil fixing tea and crumpets for us.
While behind my door of Please Don’t Disturb—
A fine ancient honey flowing through his veins.
His louche Family Tree gnarled with thick roots—
Half-fish, half-boy, the waxwing golden paste.
Such a moody handsome Zemblan Prince—
What can I do to console your exile?
Opal cloudlets drift by high overhead—
Your mauve lips pampered with a pout. 70
Dismembering you like a gone Osiris—
Then putting you back together for tea.
Twin-lipped Isis making Zembla complete—
Beside the Nile beneath blood-red columns.
Languishing in the languorous reeds—
Lazy crocodile-boys moiling in the delta mud.
All my priests of Luxor down on their knees—
Beneath the swaying twisted palm trees.
The royal barge is docking at the temple—
The young prince back from his long sojourn. 80
A thousand years in a teaspoon of love—
Equal to Fort Knox and all its fine gold.
A shuddering afterwards all around us—
Flaming meteors falling behind the pyramids.
Things so much more vulgar and creamy—
Than the eternal Milky Way high above.
Already very athletic and well-built—
Hidden foretastes of a Joe DiMaggio.
Swinging bats, stealing bases, homeruns—
Everything young Americans are good at. 90
Plus something Old World and plutonic—
All of that I could sense as clear as day.
Nonchalant sexy couch-potato kid—
Bypassing Venice and Taormina.
After teaching my class on King Thurgus—
Racing home to my teenage concubine.
A thread of sweet pain and gay remorse—
Tugging at my weltschmerz heart again.
Then suddenly that old ache of déjà vu—
Sinking again into ancient swan-song. 100
Corrupted and terrified by his love—
Feeling ancient icy shivers up my spine.
Knowing the secret of Vlad’s success—
All his tomorrows inside his funny bone.
Once upon a time (that first morning when
I made love to the waxwing boy in bed).
Thinking there was a vast conspiracy—
Of books and people and hidden knowledge.
Earnestly bent on one terrible thing—
Making me impossibly happy back then. 110
That surely there would be a Fall from Grace—
Worse than Hitler in his Berlin bunker.
Worse than Nixon and awful Watergate—
Worse than Popeye losing his Olive Oil.
Knowing such happiness was forbidden—
Surely such happiness couldn’t last.
The sacred, the profane, the Abyss—
Keeping me up sleepless each dark night.
How I manicured and clipped his toenails—
Giving each toe a delicate pedicure. 120
Worse than even suave James Mason—
With his lovely Lolita nymphette.
The unflinching likeness of his Big Toe—
To something bigger and more primitive.
His little pinky with its gold pinky ring—
Moiling about erect in my moustache.
Each finger, each toe, each bent ankle—
Groping him, feeling him up, soft foreskin.
The helpless paralysis of not knowing—
Not knowing him enough & wanting more. 130
Needing to know him even better—
All the way to Zembla and back again.
A terrifying journey for my tenured lips—
I wouldn’t wish it off on any Full Professor.
It always gave me a bad case of nerves—
So difficult to give lectures with tonsillitis.
It required steel-nerves to confront each day—
An impossible fine-tuning of teen flesh.
Pink and delicate as flamingo sunsets—
Bedroom-eyes the color of bent sinister. 140
Impossible utterly impossible—
The undisguised joy I felt around him.
A nice pair of ephebic loin-chops—
The kind to grab and squeeze forever.
My insidious serpent’s tongue striving—
To outdo even the Linguistics Department.
New ways to do umlauts and diphthongs—
Worming my way up his rosebud rectum.
Making his long eye-lashes even longer—
His sullen peach-fuzz moustache erect. 150
Gnawing his thin cruel Hyacinthine lips—
In ways that would make Helen of Troy blush.
Worshipping him in my Lilac Lane mansion—
My communion with a thimbleful of love.
Sometimes a Saturday Night Special—
A whole tablespoon of Vitamin Love.
Am I not John Shade the Great Poet?
Am I not the Dark Double of Miss Poe?
Am I not in love with Vladimir Shadow?
Am I not a Professor of Zemblan Lit? 160
Am I not broke and getting destitute—
Paying a fortune to keep this Kept Boy?
Unzipping it whenever I get the chance—
Giving it tennis lessons and badminton too.
Taking it out on the town like Gogol’s Nose—
Treating him like the Prince he actually is?
My handsome Rumplestiltskin lover—
Weaving gold in the dungeon of my heart.
Each golden thread glowing in the dark—
Each thread a delicate touché of love. 170
And then a kind of tragic Travelogue—
That’s when the footnotes got down & dirty.
An embarrassing Blue Angel cabaret—
With Marlene singing in the background.
A Zemblan narrator took me through the paces—
If you’ve been there you know what I mean.
“Was that the phone?” I began asking—
Thumbing through my catalog of worst fears.
The same parted lips, same swimming eyes—
How could this male beauty ever leave me? 180
His rosy cheeks, his secret groin all mine—
How could Arcadia come and go so quickly?
Something slithered in the living room—
It was my heart playing roulette with itself.
Kneeling before an altar in the bedroom—
The wind roaring through a marble temple.
The oozy footsteps at the top of the stairs—
A blind date and preview of things to come.
Cool as the kiss of some frigid Ice Queen—
Torqued beauty, an adolescent’s twisted lips. 190
My ogling eyeball the ultimate voyeur—
Murder in the moonlight one last time.
Definitely a film noir Grade B loser—
Whatever I saw I began tasting as well.
The various ointments, the various creams—
The riding lessons he took on my face.
Eyes always averted, never meeting mine—
No time left for games or messing around.
How could a boy so cute and gorgeous—
Possess something so incredibly ugly? 200
And yet it was exquisitely pretty too—
Prettiest thing in the whole wide evil world?
How could a shy Freshman from New Wye—
Be the master of such sublime pantomime?
With me in the act playing old Mother Time—
Bent cleaning woman with slop, pail & broom?
Always ending up playing the Fool—
Disconsolate, sobbing in the men’s room?
“Don’t be a queen!” the wood duck quacked—
“Rejoice in carnal knowledge!” said the crow. 210
“Bail out now!” the bob-o-link’s sage advice—
“You’re a fool to fall for a Zemblan boy.”
Innocence went out of style rather quickly—
With our round-the-clock love-making.
How could I demand everything new—
Resplendently shrink-wrapped just for me?
Surely I should have known the awful truth—
How long would it be before the phone rang?
Young freshmen just aren’t dependable—
Unfortunately they’ve got glands for brains. 220
Soon there was screeching of tires in the gravel—
The lacquered night opened up like a wound.
He was off to some crummy after-game dance—
Or was that just another Lolita-esque lie?
I swore I’d keep him Prisoner of Zenda forever—
In some secret old Appalachian château.
Stuck out somewhere deep in the sticks—
Not even the gauche hillbillies would know.
How my love was returned so shabbily—
New tears, new defects, new miseries. 230
Sometimes when College Town was packed—
Streets full for some foul football game.
I’d wait for him on the library steps—
Reading Miss Proust or pretending to.
Desultorily thinking alone about him—
Desperate to know what he was doing.
Was he tricking with his shy frail roommate—
That ugly expressionless Korean kid?
The one with psoriatic fingernails—
Back there in that diseased dormitory? 240
Murmuring sweet nothings in his ear—
Not knowing English quite well enough yet?
But knowing enough to seduce my lover—
To catch him at a vulnerable moment?
Spreading his skinny legs, looking back—
Inviting my Prince to fuck him silly?
I hardly smiled thinking things like that—
Feeling myself falling into a Bay of Despair.
I had strange fears of losing him that way—
In some morose oriental romance. 250
Playing Mah-jongg waiting for him—
Sometimes puttering with a Latin text.
It didn’t really matter what I read—
It always ended up the same way.
How could a high-brow intellectual—
Find the gutter much more compelling?
How could I read “engazhay” poetry—
When New Wye was a chthonic pig-sty?
Was I casting my pearls before swine—
Or was it the other way around? 260
The bus-stop to Lochanhead at night—
Full of nice young cruisable jailbait.
There was plenty of fish in the ocean—
And the ocean was dark and deep.
But now all I heard was a quartet for queers—
A pirouetting force was driving me mad.
My usually keen instincts had failed me—
I was vulnerable to chicken death-rays.
I’d go upstairs and read a stale galley proof—
I’d sit quietly in the dark den for hours. 270
It was a vulgar time of foolish pretension—
Waiting for his call, woozy on the phone.
Out on the town with his drinking buddies—
After a great victory game with Yeslove.
There had always been a fierce rivalry—
Between New Wye and Yeslove.
Two stupid little college towns—
Stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
Was Vlad Shadow really my Prince—
Was this really New Zembla Romance? 280
I’d always end up in a quiet rage—
Preposterous for a grown man like me.
“I’ll catch the next plane out of here”—
But then I’d always change my mind.
“Was that the phone I heard?” I’d ask—
Running downstairs to catch his call.
The insufferable humming sound—
Like some snickering sea-shell from hell.
No green, indigo, tawny surfing sounds—
No flock of seagulls on the other end. 290
No sudden love beneath the boardwalk—
No moonlit tide to draw us home.
Not even a “Sorry Wrong Number”—
Only a man sitting alone in the dark.
Naturally I felt like a total imbecile—
A pinhead geek in a carnival sideshow.
Worse than Olga Baclanova in Freaks—
Groveling in the sawdust for rubes.
The grandfather clock kept ticking—
Demolishing young roots and old time. 300
“Midnight,” I’d say to myself pensively—
“What’s midnight to youth on the prowl?”
And then there he was at the front door—
Suddenly I knew, I knew, I knew!!!!!
I knew again what love was all about—
The night thawed and I was happy again.
He was drunk, shivering, wet and cold—
He had a runny nose and a black eye.
I got him into bed as quick as I could—
Beneath the blankets he was all mine. 310
We warmed each other up again—
Finally, finally, finally he was home?
But that night I knew it was the end—
The end of Wordsmith, Vlad and me.
Sometimes I lectured in Newshade—
About life and death and the Worm.
Mostly I stayed in my ramshackle castle—
With the iron gate, the swimming pool.
Like most children of the bourgeoisie—
He wasn’t interested in Metaphysics 101. 320
I told him I died every day, every hour—
Oblivion would rule my life without him.
But he didn’t care about such things—
His pale thighs were smooth and white.
Deep inside him flowed an ancient river—
It was blood-red like the Volga and Styx.
He was growing more cells than dying—
His best tomorrows were yet to come.
The girls all noticed how fat his fly was—
His young meat was never melancholy. 330
The way he smoked a cigarette afterwards—
Always thinking about something else.
Nonchalantly contemplating the ceiling—
His left arm cocked behind his neck.
A snail-track down his hard stomach—
Sometimes all the way up to his neck.
Snapping the latex band of his shorts—
Getting ready for class in the morning.
Convincing him to skip class that day—
“But it’s your class, Dr. Shade” he smiled. 340
“Yes, Shadow—yes, Shadow, I know.”
Lavorium, violets and gravestones—
For my crypt in Academe’s Ivory Tower.
Did I expect too much from Paradise—
After all I was just a mere scholar of love.
It appeared out of the New Wye void—
Something suspended in time & space?
Hadn’t I always been falling down into it—
The terra firma of my shame and sin?
Wasn’t I still falling constantly downward— 350
Into the weird Colors from Outer Space?
Wasn’t I experiencing it all over again—
An old reincarnation & a runaway heart?
I consulted esteemed fake mediums—
Floating mandolins greeted me in parlors.
I had séances with old ouija boards—
Peered at tea-leaves in dim teacups.
Beneath a shagbark tree one fatal night—
I had a talk with the Prince Youssoupoff.
“What’s that funny gurgling—hear that?” 360
“It’s Rasputin below the ice, my dear.”
“That’s revolting—how long did it take?”
“The wine, the pastry—then bullets.”
“After the revolution where will you go?”
“To Paris naturally with the other exiles.”
“Do you think he did in the Romanovs?”
“No more than they did in themselves.”
Later came moments, hours, days of grief—
It was a gift to me: a writer’s shadow.
Without it these words wouldn’t be here now— 370
Crawling like caterpillars over the page.
We went to Aruba for the spring break—
We sprawled on the white beach & baked.
We flew back to New Wye after awhile—
The critics were raving about my new book.
A bunch of dreary second-hand essays—
Remanded of course almost immediately.
Wordsmith College slowly filled up again—
Like a sad old Colin Clive horror movie.
Libido started flowing again on campus— 380
But I felt somehow strangely removed.
“It’s alive??? Really alive, my dear???”
I kept murmuring to Igor the Hunchback.
Nelly Miss Thesinger in the background—
Cruising her next Bride of Frankenstein.
“Not the lever! Please not the lever!”—
Boris the Undead Boy her greatest fear.
I wasn’t quite myself for some reason—
Half a shade rather than a whole one.
I tried the usual Vitamin Love routine— 390
Imbibing his blue eyes and freckled arms.
Daily injections of fine Zemblan wine—
It just didn’t do the trick anymore.
I glanced around at the blue-rinse hags—
There at the astute Ladies Faculty Club.
I used to give such spirited readings—
Titillating renditions of Miss Proust.
To say nothing of exciting Miss Gide—
And the incorrigible Miss Verlaine.
But now I felt self-conscious about it— 400
I felt foolish standing in front of them.
Giving readings about it was one thing—
But actually doing something else.
I didn’t feel like talking about Vlad—
But I could feel his Shadow in the room.
I realized then the awful glaring truth—
The peevishness of the queer quotidian.
Like that news story I saw on TV—
A chuck of blue ice fell from a jetliner.
It fell from a thousand feet above— 410
Down onto a Balkan king out for a drive.
His limo stopped for a red light—
Just in time for the ton of blue ice.
Crashing through the Rolls-Royce roof—
The poor King instantly crushed to death.
I decided then & there against text itself—
Everything was surely subtextual.
Between-the-lines lurked the awful truth—
Narrative was just a big fat Lie.
I nervously fidgeted about it every day— 420
The insanely cruel Garden of Forked Paths.
Slowly realizing how gauche it all was—
Miss Aristotle’s sad old lame poetics,
No more beginning, middle and end—
No more nice character development.
None of that was engagé anymore—
Rotting rhizomes now plagued my brain.
Everything became suddenly ornamental—
A sullen art-form of accidents and chance.
A strange labyrinth born out of the blue— 430
A subtle game of words and coincidence.
Terrified by my sudden new insights—
I strode onto the Wordsmith College campus.
Desperate to share with Professor Kinbote—
The horror of my unsettling discoveries.
(Encouraged by his vast literary skills—
A virtual Biographia Literaria!!!)
Surely we could come up with a plan—
To combat this insidious pretension.
This evil orchid blooming in my head— 440
This bankrupt bricolage of awful chance.
Beyond subtle Negative Capability—
Even Miss Keats would be shocked!!!
Anticipating a lively discourse—
I girded my brave intellectual loins.
I barged into Parthenoassius Hall.
Opening the door to my colleague’s office—
Almost having a shocking heart-attack.
A lively discourse was indeed taking place—
But it wasn’t the kind I anticipated. 450
Vladimir Shadow was on Kinbote’s desk—
Spread-eagled and enjoying himself.
My decent trusting Professor Kinbote—
Engaged in obscene oral intercourse!!!
I paused a moment taking it all in—
It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
Hoping for some kind of decent solace—
To salve my savage heart’s discontent.
I’d come for my colleague’s assistance—
To ferret out the true meaning of it all. 460
Only to be faced with an even worse truth—
The awful truth of Vlad’s betrayal.
And even worse the deceit of one—
Whom I held in highest tenured regard.
My esteemed academic colleague—
Herr Doktor Professor Charles Kinbote!!!
I closed the door quietly behind me—
I slunk away discrete and unseen.
I scuttled down the hallway like a crab—
It was the last Ding Dong day of my life. 470
Then I spied on male beauty as never
Before—and I cried crocodile tears as
Never before—then I tried to do what
I’d never done before—then I did what
Surely had to be done—some mute command
Testing the performance of my Wordage—
Dropping my pen in angst and agony—
Caught up in a jumble of enjambments—
Would-be inspirations and tacky bursts
Of Intertextual jests—sudden frightening 480
Ejaculations of whorish heteroglossia—
Strange satirical incantations having
Nothing to do with linear thought—
My mind flooded with awful flashbacks—
Assisted by that indiscrete ephebe—
The sudden image of his betrayal!!!
But beyond the momentary agonies of
Cuckold chance and coincidence—
Beyond Vlad’s louche flexed artistry—
Beyond nude unicorns and ebon fauns— 490
Beyond the pulsing pale pulchritude of his
Pugnacious prick and cute pug-nose—
Beyond my mincing milquetoast ways
And stupid melodramatic mendacities—
I slowly began taking a more calm
And realistic look at—
My queer life.
And then a strange thing happened to me—
My delicate heroic couplets flew the coop.
Never to return to save the day—
But without rhyme or any kind of reason. 500
Like the day Little Sheba ran away from home—
Like the Day Bus Reilly Came Back to Town.
I felt like the man in the Gogol story—
The haughty bureaucrat who lost his Nose.
The barber finds the Nose in a loaf of bread—
From then on it’s got a life of its own.
It talks back to its owner in church—
It parades around in a fancy uniform.
The truant Nose causes disappointments—
Especially for the victim’s women.
Once found it won’t stay affixed to his face—
Obviously upsetting the vain owner. 510
That’s how I felt about Vlad Shadow—
It was like suddenly losing my Nose.
He’d become a part of my everyday life—
Breathing fresh air into me each fine day.
I can still feel his quivering nostrils—
Those New Wye nights in the winter woods.
It was a new way of composing love—
Holding the Zemblan youth in my arms.
It was a test for me as a writer—
Overcoming a blank sheet of paper. 520
It was a test for me as a writer—
Getting inside the youth’s blank head.
Teenage boys can be so tabla rasa—
Especially those cute virgin Freshmen.
We didn’t waste our precious time—
As we fell down into the inky labyrinth.
It was a young male performance art—
Much better than a poetry reading.
Maple leaves cupping the topaz dawn—
Standing on a wet lawn with one shoe on. 530
Robins stopping and cocking their heads—
Listening to big fat worms under his feet.
A midsummer sun coming through the trees—
Leaving its stamp on the damp gemmed turf.
His bedroom eyes stained deepest blue—
Bluer than ancient Tintarron in the sunset.
He was a discrete ephebe but abstruse—
All my commentaries are just footnotes.
Dialogs with the young prince my double—
Notes for a vast obscure masterpiece. 540
I was his shade and he was my shadow—
In between us fell the ancient sunshine.
I trundled behind him like poor Verlaine—
He was the Kid from the Drunken Boat.
Then I tried what I never tried before—
Undoing the past through coincidence.
Something I did completely without words—
Letting him dance between me and Kinbote.
Possessing him too tightly wasn’t right—
I didn’t own him anymore than Kinbote did. 550
Surely there was enough of New Zembla—
To inspire us both to new heights.
And so humbly I bowed before cute Vlad—
Yielding to the Will of Gogol’s love....
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