- Home Letter
- War museum
Rex Webster, elusive and familiar
by Rudy Mesicek
Footprints are rarely what sticks with you about a person who has gone. But there are other spoors.
In the early ’90s, Rex Webster and I worked on the literary journal Walkabout. Submissions littered the floor of an apartment where he and his girlfriend, Kristi, lived. A bench-sized chest, which one would expect to find belowdecks on a clipper, stood ajar under the window, a ballast of albums. Industrial grooves ground along. Bits of poems were read out loud. For pleasure, for laughs.
I learned to drink port by the dram, not by tumbler.
The night I am thinking of had Rex on the far side of a handsome, tawny specimen centered on a small kitchen table, with a cork at its side. The talk was Portishead, then the ease of acquiring books from the place he worked — without spending a dime.
«Let’s face it,» he said, «when you strip magic realism to the bones, you’ll find Kafka.»
Another pour, another pull. The bottle in no danger of outlasting the night.
What went on in conversation, goes on in Rex’s lines. The cemeteries of the bayou country with bondage thick in the air, the iodine of skin through which race and legacy of war flicker — such things draw you in. Lovers expressing intimacy by way of Anne Frank and Bertolt Brecht — whose script comes off as some solemn echo of Williams’ «plums» — such things make you bend to their own logic.
He spoke of historical extremes. Lipstadt’s book on Holocaust deniers he’d just gotten through. That long track record of atrocity that marks our species. Of homosexuals in concentration camps: Victims whom Sustained Bigotry is loathe to commingle with other victims.
Then a jab at the tedium of Peking opera, which had flashed across the public imagination via «Farewell My Concubine.»
On campus, in workshops, Rex and Kristi were inseparable. Her writing matching his in intensity. Both with a penchant for comics, in the vein of The Crow. She, in love with E.E. Cummings, high-brow scorn be damned. He, expansive in vision, writing from the syllable out, with exactitude, a sense of vocabulary alien to the homegrown short-timers out merely to dip a toe into the world of poetry.
While Rex’s work can be elusive, it has familiar cairns, which lead to novel excursions. Cairns like Phaeton and plantation houses, Shostakovich and chicken florentine. For those caught between cultures, there’s often no rack to put one’s coat on. The result is the pile in the corner of the room. Creased, multiform, volcanic.
Through his lines I see Rex — soft-spoken, thought-laden — trying to make do under the Flatirons of hyper-rich, hyper-crass Boulder, Colorado. I see Rex, not-white, not-Vietnamese, buoyed by uncommon recall, writing as writers should.
«Let’s face it,» I hear still, some thirteen years after our last bottoms up.
In the summer of ’99, I worked for a booze-seller, where I’d flourished throughout my years in school. Arriving to start a shift, I got a message, which was left by a girl whose name none could recall: Rex had died.
The last time I saw him was some weeks prior, on a trail south of town, from the back, walking alone, with a slightly awkward gait. I chose not to get his attention.
This was the script for The Threepenny Opera you left tucked
like an unlit taper in my runabout clogs that turned to mush
and sepia, as well your transcriptions for your replies
to Anne Frank and the two phrases «the imp’s back,»
and «puberty like the roof blooming with rain, swollen
in the shingles.» These accidents occur
at whatever time — a fly swatted at noon and two minutes,
the timetables for metro busses retabulated
because of a pedestrian’s hairline indemnity
of rain and shoes. We leave our memorandums
like a score for a radio symphony at the capital: our
personal music imagined at the oddest points of distance,
at first receding bawdily and returning,
then finally emptying itself at the chamber’s back
and we receive that transmission of fine fiction
like the morse of rain — there is always message.
Very the one left here on a machine:
it’s in your shoe, and I thought the excitement
of a spy’s trade tools take in my heel, no doubt
not what you meant but of course not a daily
saying. We need to bookkeep our finance:
what we can gain by accident, what we lose.
Olivia, in this city the angels
are all black, she writes to me, Olivia,
here teeth all rubbed obsidian as the
off-season tourists come rubbing
the stalactites down. Here,
I think of the mausoleums planted
above ground, so floods do not
bloat cadavers like so
many sodden boats, and then
here I think about touches
of children in the busses
running kerosene on the road and innocent
coquettishness of play. Touches here or there.
And seeming lonelinesses
of restored plantation houses, all of old
decadence and metal words
I truly do not understand —
colonnade and balustrade, the expanses of green
and wet’s slow barbarism on iron. Olivia, I
would think of you where all the men
laugh — the word juggler comes to me, I don’t know
why — the cacophony — their eyes
burnished, wet fire, fired. And I remember the way
pottery rosettes dipped in paints with immense
names like lithium or magnesium
transformed from blunt glosses to
dazzle of teak wines, and then I
remember the wines here, milked
from the south vineyards, the first
taste from a glass pushed into my hand
at a wake, laughter spat purple and tears
from an old man. And then I remember
your kisses, everything red to red to the inside and out,
then the word dazzle and harlequin colors
and wavers the British once painted warships
distorting away distance from submarines. I palmed
a crucifix at the parade, Olivia — I can’t believe me. But they
are all angels here, all sweetness and who knows —
wings maybe! And I will think that here, the angels are all black.
I would love the last poet who had fallen
in the revolution, search the long rain
the signatures of stars fallen like lucid
angels to water and write
the most beautiful verse is one
that has never been written or forgotten
for I am tired of naming you
without the rain or losing what you were once
called like an actor in invisible theater
forgetting perpetually punchlines
that would slay the fathers, bloody tresses
of fine suitors and provide alibis
for the displaced king. I would make
love, yes, with you nameless one, for you
are here in the letter if you look
in the watermark.
That I can undress without you at my body
slice garlic into teacups of fish broth and peppers
that burn to the tongue and to the eye that I
can bathe without your nails at my scalp’s thin
and alone I can read Shostakovich’s faked
memoirs rinse the scum of my arms’ sallow
feel my sex’s declivity and hate it barely
pull myself into words would you
understand rain are commas would you
fall inside of yourself like reverse film mother
that I could take iodine from your skin forty years
and that pigment I could color nothing
colonial houses yellow with mortar and shavings
of perhaps your father’s propaganda would you
swallow castor oils tell me the daughter dead twenty
years would you give pennies to me if this house
a boulevard you were told you should be a whore would I
soap I cannot bring to your face or to clothe crumpled
stitched feel that someone’s arms are not discarded
shirts left to the water.
You have found your children. This is in the letter
as I read of desire and poplars of this year
the trigger of unknown guns in classified
territories. As if defenestration could mean
anything but itself, windows like carnal
words in the briars and shades of bottle green
popped out of their existence frames,
and I am recalling the word defenestration
catalogued in an invisible library
so that I would pluck it out if I wrote it
and what alters is the season that suitors
full of consumption beg alms at the doors. You
have found your children and they love me,
though my name is a single syllable
and this is the aubade.
Everything is the mythic need for loss — Sisyphus beneath the stone,
Phaeton split beneath the wheels, lovers shorn by syllables of grief
and backward glances. The plantation house you told me you
were raped in poured poison down your gullet in is by now
masonry crumpled like paper or torn bread. And what we leave
like invisible trade in its absence is nothing less
than metaphor, always retold: grief that could be placed
on barren stumps and bartered for glinting spinels,
rainclouds screwed up in mason jars, daguerreotypes
of daughters following the family tradition,
except too successful in it: you alone believed
you escaped perdition and unslaked thirsts. Singularities:
do not believe that. This vacuum is always
of our own tales as well: of best friends who one night
become almost paramours at a dinner party
held against the wall as the chicken florentine
crisps on the stove, all furtive kisses and dismissals,
or friends who will forever be lovers
but only through currents of the body; eddies
and undertows that reach like electric arcs
and bruised meridians into the skin, these faint
moments catch their solar apogees, then falter,
become pantheons coursing through washed-out roads,
bits of feather and wax men perpetually wash
from their eyes, or crones cackling at fathers’ artifice,
or the promise our tales will continue.
The dressing gown hanging like ghosts, glass eyes
preserved in denture water, maps of the peninsula
blackened out like innumerable skewers in Spanish bulls,
shores of the detonated atoll beached with glass,
the toreador song, photographs of liberation, yellow
dog-eared leaflets of Nazi propaganda
and commas of rain and long sentences yes
if hills can be words. And this the library
the guide chops here with her young
hand Zyclon B was once manufactured
for dispersal in black vans breaking down
once too often to the country. Cups
with monograms of unrecorded lovers.
The nostalgia for our youth