“Remembering Nerval” and “Principal Beauty” by William Doreski
In 1855 Gérard de Nerval found himself hanged from the grille of a cabinet-maker’s stall on Rue de la Vielle-Lanterne, the belt of a woman’s apron around his neck. He wore a hat, two shirts, two vests, and sported a tetragrammaton sketched in ink on his chest. No more walking Thibault, his pet lobster, on a leash. No more drinking wine from human skulls. No more pitching tents in his room to better insulate himself from the world. No longer would he honor his carved renaissance bed by sleeping on the floor beside it.
From Nerval I’ve learned not to hang myself, to avoid aprons and the company of cabinet-makers. I’ve pledged to be kind to seafood, find utility in vacant skulls, respect the urge to camp out, preserve antiquities by resisting their honest utility. I can’t remember reading any of Nerval’s poetry, but if I have it will come back to me later.
For now, I want to try wearing two shirts and two vests, and maybe a hat, if I can find one nineteenth-century slouchy enough. Later, in the mirror, I’ll try inking a tetragrammaton—the pure name of God—on the visible part of me, and see if it makes any difference.
Eventually climate change will claim our shack by the lagoon and render us homeless as kittens. Maybe by then, age will have erased the details that keep us perking. Like the most famous yachtsmen of Bar Harbor and North Haven, we’ll sink beneath our shadows without leaving the slightest ripple. Will we then prose our way to heaven? Or will our atoms renew their acquaintance with rhythms too large for subject / verb agreement? Our shack reeks of fish that lost their scales a hundred years ago. Your poet friend found those scales the “principal beauty” of certain unfortunate specimens. Possibly they’re your principal beauty, too. Although we’ve lived in this shack all our lives, I’ve never seen your actual skin. In your frankest incarnation, you may be as scaly as a herring. So even though I see you naked every day, I realize that’s an illusion, like climate change. An authentic illusion, like everything else in this potbellied world. Maybe if like the circuit riders of the nineteenth century we were to gallop horseback through downpour, windstorm, or blizzard we would glimpse something of the principal beauty that underlies even the meanest little landscape. I would like to think that those yachtsmen who raced to Bermuda and back, defying hurricanes, read the runes of the sea in colors that enlightened them. Maybe when they sank in whirlpools deep as the blue of your gaze they regretted only dying fully clothed, their principal beauties concealed forever.
William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in a small house in the woods. He taught at Keene State College for many years, but has now retired to feed the deer and wild turkeys. He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals and several small-press books. His forthcoming book of poetry is The Last Concert (Salmon Press).