Home » Issues & Poems » Issue 29 » Discourse of Palsies

Discourse of Palsies

Mary Leader

Long ago, I invented a character called Crescenzago, and wrote around him a surrealistic fantasia. Despite revisions, the long poem refused to gel, but the loquacious character lingered.  Crescenzago haunted me with his distinctive way of talking.  I thought to try a third-person narrative, putting him in relationship to other characters, with their perspectives.  Then the poet Donald Platt, a friend and colleague, suggested I try a persona poem with Crescenzago speaking in first-person.  Persona poems, driven by a speaker who – although speaking as an ‘I’ – is decidedly not the poet, attract me.  I’ve experimented with taking them further, into dramatic monologues, more like performances for the stage.  Recently, I ordered from Shearsman Books  a copy of The Ring and the Book, opus of Robert Browning, past master of the dramatic monologue.Browning intrigues me: his speakers inadvertently reveal aspects of character and circumstance, so the audience learns more than the speaker intends.  This approach makes for a parallax view between what the character says and what the audience understands.  It facilitates making acquaintance with human flaws.  Someone might be of more interest than first appeared, more complicated, possibly lovable, flaws and all.  In the following dramatic monologue – Part One of a longer work – we meet Crescenzago Smith, once an impecunious would-be screenwriter, now a frugal gray-beard, who receives news of the death of an old friend, Yggdrasil Wall, a prosperous member of the bar, who had welcomed Crescenzago, as a guest, in the apartment over her garage, long ago.

Discourse of Palsies


For when the fires and broils of youth are passed . . . then we love to think, not act; the present seems more unsubstantial than the past; then, we seek out gray-beards like ourselves; and hold discourse of palsies, hearses, shrouds, and tombs; appoint our undertakers; our mantles gather round us, like to winding-sheets; and every night lie down to die. Melville



By the time I hear of it,

I possess a cell.  I have

in addition achieved home

ownership, well, cabin-deep-


ownership.  Wood-burning stove.

My cell (situated not

on my person, but on my

stove-side-chair side table next

to my readers) pings me up

from a post-prandial snooze

this day, the Twelfth of Never,

or October, whichever

comes last.  Texts to me are rare.

Hey, Cres.  Up go my hackles.

I can’t abide truncation

of my name, Crescenzago

Smith, thank you very much,

and I don’t like ‘Hey’ for ‘Hi’.

Found this number at my Mom’s.

Hope it still works.

Sorry to tell you this but

she passed away last April.

Cerebral hemorrage (sp?).

So her poor brain finally

gave out.  Ona was reading

to her and said she could feel

Mom squeeze her hand every once

in a while.  Hope you’re doing

okay.  Best, Lem Wall.  ‘Demise’?

‘Decease’?  I close down my eyes.

I know not what momently

to feel.  Well, we neither one,

his mother and I, knew what

to expect then, either.  Ah,

the salad days, then didst I

concur when Yggdrasil said

I might as well, between jobs,

spend time working on the six-

figure house she bought with her

divorce settlement.  Land-line

life in a toney section

of Indianapolis.




Yggdrasil P. Wall, Esquire,

was not old enough to be

my mother.  As her guest, fair

to say, I may not have worn

time well.  But hey, Yggdrasil’s

middle name was Patience.  My

middle name is Solitaire.

Evening comes a slant-rhyme near

whereupon I situate

the back of my olden neck

on a slump of leather chair,

hand-me-down from Yggdrasil.

I don’t like the now clichéd

expression ‘back in the day’

yet who just this minute wrote

‘salad days’?  The room (or ‘suite’

call it: bath but no kitchen)

wherein I sojourned during

lost time, above Yggdrasil’s

garage situated, had

a low ceiling; a close view

from my supine position.

Hark!  What wakes?  Ah, I can hear

clearly now.  Electrical

garage door grumbling open,

a sound that never varies

a jot.  We (Yggdrasil’s new

sleek black car, Yggdrasil’s old

sleek black cat, and I) wait for

the said garage door to klunk

to cessation.  The said cat,

full name Paolo Uccello

(which name, by the way, never

sat well with him given that

‘uccello’ is Italian

for ‘bird’), called Cello for short,

is situated under

the said car, both sleek and black,

as mentioned heretofore.  Zoom

in on quasi-young actor,

abed, open-eyed, attuned

(that would be me) attending

to the car that vrooms to life,

eases in reverse gear out,

rolling hearse-like-slowly back.




This time the garage door is

lowering, as I count down

the seconds: 1 boy scout 2

boy scouts 3 boy scouts 4 boy

scouts 5 boy 6 bkunk.  I let

out my breath.  I will arise and

go now.  Unbeknownst to all,

save the cat Cello, the high-

end long sleek black car’s engine

has achieved a slow oil leak.

Not foreshadowing.  At no

point does the car catch on fire.

None of the two, then three, drops

of oil is, by Cello, licked.

Nor does Cello ever get

smushed by the car.  Without fail,

he scoots out from under it

the minute he hears the sound

(pressurized-sounding squelch of:

rubber-edged utility-

room door) heralding human

arrival: ’tis Yggdrasil,

brief-case flapped and car-key out.

I have dubbed my large over-

the-garage room ‘the garret’.

By the time I achieve full

investiture in work clothes

up to and including shoes,

Yggdrasil achieves the end

of her cul de sac’s shade-trees

from the luxury of which

she heads for the thoroughfare,

Meridian Street, and turns

south, simultaneously

flipping downward her visor

against summer’s southeast sun.

By the time I myself squelch

the utility-room door

into the garage to start

my day helping out around

the yard and the house, Cello

achieves leaping up on to

the garage’s window’s broad

window-sill and inserting

himself into the still-life

‘composed’ thereon, randomly,

in addition artfully,

if you count chance as smart which

I, for one, certainly do.




So one vintage screwdriver

(wooden handle covered with

fingermarks of blue-green paint);

pussy-willow wands (bundled

with jute twine, propped up against

the window frame to dry out

and become decorative,

never to achieve the stage

of flowering, let alone

propagation); and a shard

(unfortunate incident)

elegantly retaining

a partial curve of orange-glazed

white-underneath pottery

bowl which, when manufactured

in the 1930s, cost

maybe a nickel or dime.

But by the time Yggdrasil

happened upon the said bowl

in a posh antique shop in

1994, she paid

75 bucks for it.

Whose undisciplined elbow

knocked that gorgeous orange bowl off

the foyer table onto

the terrazzo floor spilling

its dirt and causing to sprawl

the philodendron among

the breakage?  Not Yggdrasil’s. 

Not Ona’s, her tired daughter. 

Not my own, her ne’er-do-well

writer friend referred to by

Ona as Moochenzago. 

Not sleek-graced Cello’s, never.

If anyone’s elbow could

break things with impunity

in that house, it was Lem’s, Lem

the Younger, being the son

more or less grown, if not self-

supporting, still the fair-haired

child, in perpetuity.




Back to our protagonist

(that would be me, as mentioned

heretofore) t-shirt under

overalls, transitioning

to the oft-said garage.  First,

I check the pussy-willows’

dryness by feel.  I trouble

not Cello’s nap on the wide

windowsill.  Really, it is

almost a shelf.   A moth-gray

gray moth rests vertically

on the garage’s moth-gray

drywall.  I think not about

my schedule when the Lady

Yggdrasil is at home, but

once she has headed for Court,

I do first-rate work.  Inside,

I tick dishwasher, laundry,

cat-litter box, recycling,

trash, general tidying.

The positioning of throw

pillows, to my surprise, turns

out to be something I am

good at and enjoy more than

screenplay-writing.  In the yard:

edging, mowing, flower-box

construction, painting, mounting

on L-shaped brackets outside

the kitchen window, pruning,

plucking (whereat I’d dug in

manure) unwanted green shoots,

sprinkling water on wanted

green shoots.  Yggdrasil pays for

garden tools, any I think

I can use, and high-end they

are, too, and when we are done

at TLC Nursery,

we swing by Hastings for her

to buy murder mysteries,

and house magazines, and health

magazines.  At the counter,

I dare to throw in multi-

colored pens and a large-scale

graph-paper moleskine notebook. 

I design brilliant flower

beds.  Scarlet zinnias next

to burnt orange zinnias next

to yellow ones but muted,

nearly pastel, to set off

bright yellow magnificence:

coreopsis.  Yggdrasil

puts, on fond dreams, the kibosh.

‘I like white, what about all

white?  Or, maybe pink.  Maybe.’





One mundane seven a.m.,

Yggdrasil heads off to Court

as per usual: steering

from curvy street to avenue.  

Again no foreshadowing.

No wreck.  But a split screen, right? 

I am engaged wiping down

the granite kitchen counter. 

She is engaged consulting

her blind spot, swerving around

a green-and-cream bus stopped at

a green-and-cream bus-stop while,

in the said kitchen, a bowl

(pottery glazed blue with tan-

underneath, circa, oh, say

1890) is engaged

creeping to the counter edge

indecipherably then

falling suicidally

in slow motion toward floor where-

upon it shatters thereby

achieving a reunion

with its erstwhile companion,

the orange-glazed white-underneath

bowl.  I entertain the thought

of adding to the still-life

an elegant curved blue shard:

complementary colors,

don’t you see, saturated

shades of them, too, fabulous

with Cello, his beautiful

sleek black.  He’s napping, grooming,

looking haughtily down at

the more or less abandoned

screwdriver, looking out wide

across the yard for any

sign of action, touching nose

to a pussy-willow bud.





Close-up 1: the black car’s floor

on the front passenger side

rumbles, littered with junk mail

and real mail, manila file

folders spilled out of red-rope

expandable pockets and

tattered paperback novels

about three generations

of strong women complete with

book-club questions.  See also,

road-maps made pre-GPS,

pre-google (the age of print,

the mists of time); newspapers:

the Indianapolis

Star, the Sunday New York Times;

Walgreen’s receipts rich with Cash

Rewards.  Close-up 2: I fetch

broom and dustpan, from their nails

in the garage, the first time

I am in there without so

much as a glance at the wands

of pussy-willow drying.

The broom, wielded, smoothly slides

across the white kitchen tiles,

somehow missing one very

small, very small splinter of

ceramic.  Or, from another POV,

the said splinter scoots from sight

underneath the cabinet

overhang whereat, days hence,

Yggdrasil, barefooted, steps

on it and ends up needing

six stitches in the nearest

emergency room to which

I drive her in her long sleek

black car, one of the few times

that I am the one behind

the wheel and she is the one

in the front passenger seat,

sulking, actually not

sulking but angry, telling

me where and when to change lanes,

unless she’s watching her foot

bleed like the dickens into

one of her plush-terry bath-

towels and all that paper trash. 





Cue the smarmy young actor who

plays Lem.  Sometimes, in cahoots,

the two of us go out for

big cheeseburgers with bacon

and mayo notwithstanding

Yggdrasil’s insistence on

saying she’s a vegan, which

she is not.  Increasingly,

I dodge those jaunts with Lem who

goes over every detail

of every hare-brained scheme while

saying often, ‘My parents

both make a ton of money. 

Why won’t they help me out?’  Cue

Ona, played by a fret-faced

actress with brutal migraines,

a busybody who rules

over the fridge photographs

and to-do lists for mom and

in time for me and luv-ya

notes cornered by cute magnets. 

The fact of the matter is

that neither one of them comes

around much, which suits us all. 

In summer, the thermostat

achieves seventy degrees

but the garret gets damned hot.

In the drooping foliage

of the sycamore beyond

my upstairs window some bird

who is emitting four notes

in a row emits the said

four notes four hours on end. 

Morning is tolerable

but on the hottest weekday

afternoons, I’m ever wont

to take one of my moleskines

or one of her yellow pads

and descend to the living

room, wherein, on ever-new

pages, I write down: I can’t

really write in the living

room.  I stay nevertheless

there for a while listening

to the Grandfather Clock tick,

or more like tock, loud as it

did in Donegal wherefrom

Yggdrasil’s forebears didst hail. 





Grandfather’s tock rate can be

discerned and duplicated,

as Yggdrasil demonstrates

when she couch-potatoes on

August afternoons (Court is

in recess) synchronizing

her anxious molar-clicking with

his tocks.  I find that my old-

fashioned travel clock, unfurled

into its triangle, lacks

an audible tick.  (Maybe

to a dog or to a moth.) 

Its numerals nightly glow. 

In haze or in clarity

the moon might or might not be

situated (where?) in my

one window.  Windows like this

one, being of the attic

kind, are not always able

to provide much of a patch

of sky visibility.

Stuffy gives way to chilly.

The garage windowsill dims.

As for the pussy-willows,

they’ve had it.  First they’ve acquired

cobwebs.  Then they’ve lost their good

posture.  They’ve sprinkled their dry

shrunken constituent parts

to the broad windowsill, hence

to be scooted by hand-edge

(that would be mine) all at once

into the dust-pan, and from

hence into the trash bin’s maw. 

Winter adds white to the sky.

Cello takes more of his naps

snuggled against a rolled-up

Persian rug, in old age, rolled

loosely, slung down to the floor

under the garage window

onto cold dirty concrete.

A time, the time, is coming

for the rug.  Yggdrasil will

trip on it, stare down at it,

recognizing not one thing

about its colors, about

its appearance, let alone

about authenticity.





I first become aware of

the slight tremor when shaving. 

After a couple of months

of trying left hand versus

right hand and doctoring nicks,

I grow a serious beard.

‘Why?’ Yggdrasil near-howls, ‘Why!?  

You don’t have to look scruffy!’

Male pattern baldness does not

run in my family, not

on either side.  Yggdrasil

has metamorphosed into

a big-time slammer of doors. 

She begins to formulate

her new ‘goal’: ‘relocate’ to

a somewhat smaller house, in,

(of course) the same neighborhood.

The hand-writing’s on the wall.  

(Oops, a pun on her surname.)

I will probably be asked

to leave, even though my hair

still achieves that windswept look. 

In the event, I am asked

to please leave, not that I split

infinitives, but that is

a direct quote, ‘I’m asking

you to please leave.’  Which does not

mean, she claims, ‘abdicating

her respect for the writer

in you’ (me).  In self-defense,

I do achieve plugging in

my Selectric typewriter. 

Its small metal letter-globe

rattles off ‘Yjr grsf omrddr op d;;’

instead of what I swear I

typed: ‘The readinesse is all.’  

I am ready and then some

to be on my way.  Pages

fly off the calendar fast

as the catcher’s-mitt-sized leaves

fly off the sycamore tree

outside my window upstairs

within my contemplation

where I am situated

rolling a marijuana

joint in an E-Z Wider

paper in violation

of the relationship of

guest to host, especially

where, as here, the host maintains

a professional interest

in law-upholding and where,

as here, the guest claims to have

no reliable income.


[to be continued]


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