It's Not At All Like That
It's not at all like that.
I have seen her in the surf,
But not in the slit sarong and the bikini bra:
She's wearing a sensible specialty-catalog item,
A décolleté one-piece with contrasting piping.
A wave curls at her waist:
She buoys and is carried a bit,
Brushing her hands through the crest,
Then through her hair, that wet still curls.
Behind her and to my left the sun flattens on the horizon,
Puddling fire over the sea.
Closer, with the waves at her calves,
She draws her hair across the nape of her neck,
And rests a hand there, above her breast.
Where the longest rollers tumble and foam,
Where they flatten across the hard sand,
And seep away in a receding sheen:
I've seen her come so close.
Sometimes she'll speak.
"Hello, Jorge," she says. "It's been a long time."
The ungainly lyric "It's Not At All Like That" turned up among mss deposited with the Bodleian by the poet's agent and executor, Swifty Lazar. The poem was known previously only through Fletcher Owen's recollection in his intermitently reliable memoirs, Boredom and Terror: My Years with Jorge Luis González, (New York, 1995):
That evening Mr. González didn't take his scalded sweet milk, and I knew he'd be up all the night at his work. Around two o'clock I knocked at the library to ask if he might be in need of anything before the morning. He was in dishabille at his desk, looking more tired than at any time since he'd started writing again. He assured me that I wouldn't be needed, and asked if I would be on holiday the morrow. Before I could answer, he insisted that I take a car to the coast. I accepted, having decided the matter with him some five or six times before, and having made provision against the day with the cook. After moving the floor lamp closer to his desk and producing an ashtray and knife for the Macanudo he was holding, I retired straightaway.
As I am a light sleeper since the War, I'm awakened by persons ascending the back staircase. It was near to four o'clock when I heard Mr. González coming up from the kitchen, reciting some verses.
The reader will find it irregular, but it was no unusual thing for Mr. González to come up late at night by way of the kitchen stairs, especially when he was composing. I even kept a bottle of Armagnac to meet the eventuality. (González père, who was born and who died in this house, and in whose service I counted myself during most of the time between, attained to the age of sixty-eight before an uproar in the kitchen during my absence led to his astonished discovery of the back staircase.)
I went out in my dressing gown and ordered the new maid back into her room at the end of the hall. Mr. González walked into my apartments and lay down on the sofa.
"Can't sleep, huh, Owen?" he said. "I know just how you feel, dude. You get in bed and start thinking, and you might be shit-face tired, but you spend all night floppin' around like a fresh-caught brim. Got a bottle up here? Hell, I can't sleep, either. Hey man, pour yourself a glass, too: go ahead. Keep any of those Northern Lights bones around here? Owen, man, I respect you. I mean, I really respect you. Owen...it's Fletcher, right? I'm not shittin' you, man. I really listen to what you say. Dude, you gotta do me a favor. I know you weren't wild about the Gary-Coleman-as-Othello thing last night, but this time, dude, I slam-dunked it. Just one more time: it's the last one, I swear it. Listen to this and tell me what you think. Really, be honest. Just tell me what you think. Pour us out some more of that stuff. Now you gotta imagine--a little more--you gotta imagine this. Ready? Imagine: You have a time machine and you go back and get Catullus and give him a ninty-minute Poetry Special on, like, the Fox Network."
He took the rest of his Armagnac at one swallow. "You got that, dude? The thing about Catullus?"
I assumed an agreeable countenance as best I could, bracing for what would follow. It was easily, and by far, the worst of the lot. I've blessedly forgotten most of it--"It's Not At All As I Imagined It," the poem was called--but the memory of that hideous last line, "Come up and see me, Jorge. It's been a long time," afflicts me daily.
When he was finished reciting, he sat up, relighted the Macanudo, and peered at me through the cobalt eddies of smoke.
"Well, dude? How 'bout it?"
"Yes, sir," I replied. I was trying to concentrate on my breathing, on relaxing the muscles in my neck and shoulders.
"Whaddaya mean, 'Yes, sir'?" he said. "Is that it? Just fuckin' 'Yes, sir'?"
It had happened before. I began edging my way toward the door.
"No, man, really: don't you get it? I mean, do I have to point out all this intricate shit? What the hell does it take? Just tell me that, would you? What the hell do I have to do?"
He discerned my intentions, like a beast, and put his back against the door.
"I mean, shit, man. I know it's shit, okay? Are you satisfied now? It's shit. It sucks, okay? I admit it. Go ahead; tell me it's shit. Be honest with me. Why not, everybody else is."
He turned toward the door and gave a sob. Immediately he spun around.
"Hey, man, you're fuckin' with me, aren't you. You're trying to fuck with my head."
The window behind me was open; I was assessing it as means of escape when he rushed me.
"What does it all mean, Owen?" he cried. He had me by the lapels of my gown. "What does it all mean?" he asked again; and put his cigar in his mouth before falling silent and looking at me imploringly, the ember of the Macanudo at my nose."
"Perhaps, sir," I stammered, "I should copy it out."
"Copy it out?" He repeated it after me twice, once in some heat, but the second time thoughtfully. A second passed; another. The ember pulsed. "Copy it out?" he muttered, and at once he was transfixed by an excitement beyond words. He released me and shook his hands beside his head as though to indicate an ecstatic quivering in his brain.
"Copy it out!" he cried finally. "Shit yes, dude! That's it! Shit, man, how do you come up with this stuff? Dag-NABBIT, Owen, you're like Mr. Dick, settin' us all right. You crafty fucker. I love you, guy." He kissed both my hands, patted the papers he had left upon the sofa, and walked out singing and playing air guitar.
Two days later he went shooting with Diana Vreeland and Colonel Parker. Come the afternoon, he was in warm spirits. They had had a good day in the field, though old Colonel Parker shot a beater early on. I laid a fire in the library and Mr. González sat before it with a Bushmills-and-soda, cleaning the L. C. Smith 12-gauge while his putees steamed dry on the fender. It was reassuring to see him in the rough tweeds and the deerstalker cap; to see Tripod and Miss Dollie, the two oldest bird dogs, en couchant beside his chair dopily watching the flames: he looked, if I might, like himself again.
I saw to it that the birds were properly hanged, and returned with a few inquiries about dinner. He stopped me as I was leaving.
"Dude, I think I'll have a book."
"A book, sir?
"Yeah, somethin' to read. Just for a while."
"Small Appliance Repair?" I offered.
"No, not that." He looked away into the fire, and then, as in a dream, I heard him ask for his Milton.
Twelve years!--twelve cold winters with his powers frozen at their source! Twelve years laid waste by cleverness and literary chatter, and, now, by Cheesy Lyrics. Twelve years since I climbed the ladder to the upper gallery ringed with busts and surmounted at the dome's apex by a representation of Errata, Muse of Scholarship, and shelved that volume. My hands trembled as I handed him the book. And into my mind came the Alexandrine from a poem of his minority:
And Milton was my milk; the Ancients my first meat.
"Will you have pen and paper, sir?" I asked.
"Gimme a pen, thanks."
Mr. González took dinner alone that evening out on the lawn, perched on the folding shooting seat he'd been carrying about all day. There was a damp easterly breeze and the deerstalker's earflaps were tied below his chin. After the port and a well-regarded local double-cream, he thanked the staff and then called me aside to ask if I'd copied out the poem he had read to me two nights previous. I returned directly with my faircopy, as well as the original in his own hand.
Later, as I was cracking rock candy for his milk, he came in and inquired if there were others of the Cheesy Lyrics lying about. I fetched an accordian file stuffed full with the dreadful things. He was notably relieved to be in possesion of these effects, and requested that I ring up Mr. Lazar and bring him the flip-phone.
(p. 283, ff.)
For an account of how "It's Not At All Like That" and the other eighty-nine Cheesy Lyrics of 1994 were recovered, see: Hitchley Egrep, "Cheeze Whiz!" in The Shorter Poems of Jorge Luis González: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Angus McNabb on the Occasion of his Retirement, (Edinburgh, 1995).
The holograph of "It's Not At All Like That" (reproduced in my forthcoming Variorum of the Poetical Works) is dated September 10, 1994, and shows emendations throughout. The undated faircopy is in Owen's beautiful amanuensis's uncials, with a penciled marginalis by JL: "Swifty, Shred this for me, will ya?"
Professor Joseph "Mr. Backmatter" Giardia, who provided our notes to the poem is an awardee of the Jefferson Medal, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Corresponding Fellow to the Royal Academy. He holds appointed chairs on three continents and delivered the Norton Lectures in 19--. Professor Giardia has never used a dimestore word when a sesquipedalian one could be wedged into place.
Jorge Luis González
Last modified: July 5, 2001