The Stench of Algebra
Geniuses plummet. They pile under the eaves. German geniuses in crude turtlenecks, the French in hoop skirts, geniuses striped for jungle camouflage. They pile to the rails of the highest bridges. Famous geniuses, long-forgotten, geniuses with poor hygiene, geniuses with too many appendages. We can hardly see for all the geniuses outside the windows.
The savvy come next, falling all tangled into the piles of geniuses. Lab coats flutter. Whiffs of pipe smoke filter up from the bottom strata. It is an odd sort of quiet; just the occasional whump in the distance. Placing the stadium chair upon a nearby pile of geniuses becomes necessary. The stench of algebra fills the air.
Then the dunces: village idiots, morons in capes, dullards, thickies, cretins, dolts, dimwits, painters of rural decay, those who love cats unconditionally, those who own too large a variety of spatulas, their falling ranks in the blue air punctuated by furiously dialing executives, disc jockeys, sports heroes. Last minute interviews take place. The tops of highrises disappear. Soon no one is left but soap opera stars, middle managers, and performers who can’t sing, and everyone, everyone composes verse of staggering proportions.
One day I unzipped a zipper behind my ear.
There was a lot of smoke, some shouting,
and a horn going off.
It’s like that lightbulb in Livermore, California
that’s been on since 1901, glowing for all it’s worth
night and day for 110 years, maybe more.
I visit the Bulbcam now and then and I wait.
This guy had brain surgery while playing his banjo.
His hands shook on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,”
so they had him fixed up where they said “play” and moved stuff around
in his head to see what the banjo sounded like.
(And it was suddenly “Miss Otis Regrets,”
and then suddenly “Glass Onion,” and nobody knew why
and the brain doc I bet couldn’t resist
wondering what would happen if he left a twist tie
there inside the banjoist’s skull.)
I tinker like that.
I’m full of regret.
It was, after all, only a chair. That was the mystery of it. Only a chair, sitting on a floor, obeying the laws of perspective. Its crisscrossing pieces of white wood all gave way to the same vanishing point, and it receded precisely as it ought. But why a chair? What compelled it to its chairdom? What encoded the wood with this unasked for weight of significance, this tag, this moniker? It was no longer wood, but a chair, even a chair of Windsor stylings, and it sat placidly being a chair. This was what infuriated me.
How could it just go on like that, not addressing the mystery of its chairness? How could it merely be what it was and nothing else? But it did not give way. The floor met it, it reached the floor, shadows fell on it precisely as they would if falling on a chair. If one sat upon it, one felt comfortably seated, and did not feel any danger of the chair suddenly becoming something else, some small animal or even something like a chair, say a bench or couch. It was undeniably what it claimed to be. But did it claim anything? I think in fact it did not.
It was a chair, it possessed chairness, it was an example of “chair,” with all its connotations of comfort, of legs and a back and being sat upon. I wanted it to disclose something, but it would not. It was there when I went to bed, there when I awoke. I have catalogued its particulars, noted its curves, its pegs and grooves, counted even the scratches on its aged finish, and examined the faint stain (glue, food, what?) at the base of the right rear leg. It is unforthcoming, silent, and stiff.
I will go on sitting upon its planks. It will continue to sit upon the floor and I in turn upon it and all of us in turn upon the foundation and the mantle and the core and there’s no use going on about it. That is the case, and it is a chair, even if perhaps it was not always and perhaps will not always be.
James Heflin is the current holder of the Greenfield, Massachusetts Poet’s Seat. He writes fiction and poetry, and has published work in Ploughshares, Poetry Ireland Review, Conduit, Bateau, JMWW, The Prose-Poem Project, elimae and others. He holds an MFA in poetry from UMass-Amherst and an MA in fiction from Hollins University, and is arts editor of an alt-weekly newspaper in Northampton, Mass