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154| I Don't Understand Shakespeare's Sonnet #154

Wayne Koestenbaum

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I don’t know who the love-god is or why he’s asleep. I don’t know why a branding-iron inflames his heart. I don’t know why chaste nymphs shop for keepsakes and then throw their souvenirs in the Thames. I don’t know why, ransacking a shtetl closet, I found cocaine in a mink coat’s pocket (as if the laden article were a relic from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story I’d misremembered). I don’t know why the pianist lit a votive candle: to aid her seduction of my chaste worthless body in the mountain chalet? I don’t know why Dad came down with Legionnaires’ Disease and re-proposed to Mom, though she’d long ago exiled him and pronounced him false. I don’t know why Buster Keaton (my nickname) desires no one, only a cocktail sign neon-lit in the Nevada desert. I don’t know why virgins keep their virginity, or why ephebe butts are considered cute near graduation-time, or why it is the responsibility of bucktoothed coloraturas to apostrophize a novice rear’s rotundity. I don’t know why the painter put her prosthetic arm on the seminar table and then asked a pert question about blindness, or why I sang “Suicidio!” offpitch as substitute for vespers. I don’t know why my Sunday School teacher Mrs. Forkash was prettier than the previous year’s Sunday School teacher, or why minor differences in prettiness are solemn as state secrets. I don’t know why taking a bath with my brother provoked no hard-on, at least not a hard-on I can remember, and I remember every hard-on, especially the kitsch ones, the nepenthe ones, the hard-ons that have the power (even in retrospect) to eviscerate my will to survive. I don’t know why after kissing the diseased man my lips felt tingly and chapped, as if I’d covered them with Tabasco sauce. I don’t know why the sick man allegedly found his trick in the library basement, and why I imagined that the death-bringing trick was well-hung. I don’t know why smallpox on blankets creates genocide, but I know a genocide when I see one, and I’m the poet here; I’m the loser who gets to decide how the poem ends.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His latest book is My 1980s & Other Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

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