What kind of Providence was it that gave tax breaks to delirium
and discipline, but left me in the wash of harsh chemicals
of feeling and a mind like the Exxon Valdez that spilled that year
11 million gallons of crude into the sound? Heavy sheens of oil
in my dream. Seabirds and otters, seals and eagles dead, drowned
in their own wet silhouettes. Downtown the river was paved over
then dug up and set on fire, Fridays, when Puccini blared
from the loud speakers, Nessun dorma, Nessun dorma, and nobody slept.
Everybody’s dream transferred like currency into the river,
then set on fire in little pyres by the mayor whose unctions
were Venetian. Tax breaks for strippers and business stiffs.
That year I walked downtown into the volatile markets
of starlings, the mergers and acquisitions at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel,
the oil money injected by Dubai. By the liquidated river,
I sat down and wept. At the intersection of Hope and Power
I was colonized and made my way into Narraganset Bay
and then into the sound. Without her I stopped depicting things.
So narcissistic in sorrow, I saw myself in bank windows
and in the river and in the fire. In dream I tried to clean
the feathers of a murrelet, held, like shadows, the necks of loons.
Cormorants coughed up a slimy likeness of her while the waters
burned. I lost irony and looked for it a half hour at a time
in the coffee shops and living rooms of Seinfeld.
My punishment was teaching poetry. I cried
the clothes off strippers who slid down poles like firefighters.
One was, Ladies and Gentleman, Miss Mystery. In Venice,
the punishment for crimes was either exposure –
the gates thrown open to citizens looking in your windows, citizens
in your kitchen tasting your sauces – or quarantine, the damp
asylum of the self where nobody sleeps. In Providence, on the hill,
there was no end to the delirium, no end to the spillage, and no accounting
for the devotion I had to TV reruns as they were depicted by the loveless,
feckless, infantile schlubs whose motto was no hugging, no learning.
A tear is an intellectual thing
, I said Blake said. Teaching was
stand-up that wasn’t funny, exposure and quarantine. On the hill,
everyone was Shelly, nineteen, pretty, watery, and either fascist
or revolutionary. That year I walked downtown to Fellini’s for a slice.
In dream, I could not undo the seabirds from their shadows. “Dying
is easy, comedy is hard,” I said but did not know who said it.

Bruce Smith is the author of five books of poems, most recently, Songs for Two Voices (University of Chicago, 2005). Poems in this collection have appeared in The Best American Poetry, 2003 and 2004. His fourth book, The Other Lover (University of Chicago, 2000) was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Partisan Review, The American Poetry Review, and many others. Essays and reviews of his have appeared in Harvard Review, Boston Review and Newsday. He has been a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship as well as twice receiving grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Arts.