THE EMPEROR OF THE EMPIRE
There was no such thing as salt, nor
was there a taste called salt, nor did anyone
wish his meat or his bread salted
or its bitterness soothed by salt, nor
were there tongues to appreciate salt
or the absence of salt, which was what they had,
though, of course, they did not know it, though
perhaps they had, before the Emperor of the Empire,
a space in which there was nothing, but which
they probably used for resting coffee cups
and knick knacks and hummel figurines, a space
of no importance that might, should the occasion
arise, be used for the sensation of salt, for the
desire to experience saltiness, which surely
they would, which surely they could not avoid,
once the Emperor of the Empire arrived
to tell them about the Empire and to give them tongues
and to tell them how they tasted.
That is my name on the billboard.
I recognize it from my identification,
where it is typed beneath a crude rendering
of my face, which is also on the billboard
though it does not resemble me: a woman
with a seashell pressed against her ear.
I am standing under the air surrounded
by sections of light like big aquariums.
I am on my way to the coastal village
to visit a friend who lives there, I carry
in my jacket the letter he has written:
a drawing of my friend writing a letter.
He is transparent; behind him is a sheet
of dirty paper covered with my fingerprints.
The billboard makes a sound like a motorized ocean.
Once I found a piano wedged under a slab of rock.
The keys smelled like a woman I had married.
Often I dream of her — a tournament of innocence
played in lycra with stone tablets.
It’s hissing in the forest there
and the pine trees shiver in a haze.
I ask the billboard if it knows my friend
or the place in my memory to which I return.
The Twilight City.
The Dawn City.
The City That Smells Like a Piano.
The billboard is covered with lights
and the lights are the color of oceans
in which I remember swimming:
a toy boat, a paper kite.
Often I would lean against a high wave.
Often I would press my ear
against an automobile’s hood or a frayed suitcase.
The wind has sawdust in it.
When I cough sawdust comes out of me.
The wind sways the billboard
and rustles the curled flaps of paper
peeling from its edges.
Behind it is the road to the coastal village
where they play a game of cards
that tests your ability to remember.
I cough like I have a kite stuck in my throat.
I am late. It says so on my identification.
One of the cards has a bird on it.
My friend has enclosed it with the letter
he has sent me. It is in my jacket now,
which smells like seawater and pine needles.
I am on my way to the coastal village,
a collection of cedar shacks and saltwind.
They have to nail the cards to their flimsy tables.
It is difficult to turn them over.
I had a friend whose skin was malfunctioning due to a slow and progressive and permanent condition that began in middle childhood and had at its earliest moments seemed like a minor curiosity a yolk-sized translucent patch beneath his shoulder blade a band aid-shaped void behind his knee or at his hip bone but as he aged the condition had slid glacially over his body such that every year he would while toweling off after a shower or passing a mirror notice that some new area of his skin had succumbed to this condition leaving patches of my friend pallid shapeless transparently afuzz and there would be awkward moments he would roll up his shirt sleeves or the collar of his shirt would fall open or he would reach for a jar of brandied peaches on a high shelf and his shirt would rise up and some of my friend’s malfunctioning skin would be exposed and we my friends and I would try to avert our eyes knowing that our friend my friend was at times self-conscious about the progressive and permanent condition of his skin which was of course not in any way his my friend’s fault and we would try to look at something else but when we were trying not to look at something or when I was trying not to look at something I failed because I wasn’t looking genuinely at anything I was merely avoiding looking at one particular thing and the result was awkward one finds it difficult to convincingly feign interest in a patch of dust-fuzzed sunlight or the blank middle distance or the knots in one’s own shoelaces and my friends I and we would look eventually at each other hoping one assumes to get some clue about how to compose one’s face so as to appear to be looking at something besides the thing one is actually thinking about looking at or to perhaps follow someone’s eyes to something to look authentically at or at least look at with something approximating genuine interest and inevitably we would find ourselves looking into each others’ eyes in these I’m a little embarrassed to say intimate moments during which we would as the expression goes forget ourselves staring for longer periods than are acceptable under the norms of casual social behavior into one another’s eyes and our friend would often turn around or look up from folding the cuff of his shirt to see us in what one should refer to if one wishes to make any claims to seriousness or honesty and we believe the situation to demand both as the frankly erotic embrace of each other’s stare which to my friend our friend must have looked given his self-consciousness regarding his skin condition conspiratorial and opaque and even villainously exclusive and of course he was right
KEITH DRIVER was born and raised in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. His poems have appeared in Third Bed, Jubilat, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere.
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