Francesca Abbate

Fata Morgana
 
Montaigne begins his essay “On Liars” with a critique of his own memory: “I can hardly,” he claims, “find a trace of it in myself.” On today’s late afternoon walk by the river, Not Baby watches as, in the just lifting fog of another mild winter day, the antenna-masted paperboard factory turns into an antique vessel and sets sail.
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Because of the warmth and lack of snow, biologists have counted fewer bald eagles this year at the confluence just west, though there have been some sightings on smaller tributaries as they scavenge carcasses in farm fields.
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Rarely does Not Baby call up her ghosts; so many may, after all, still be breathing, like the young man who camped near the radiator next to her apartment door twenty years ago, either because the shelter down the street was full, or because he preferred the solitude of the 2nd floor foyer in that half-tenanted building where, for a week, he didn’t—as many others had, and would—snore, piss himself, or go for her ankle when she stepped over him at 3am after closing up the bar.
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He disappeared—as though she’d proved him, against his will or wishes, visible—right after she left him a paper bag containing an orange, a five dollar bill, and a cinnamon-raisin bagel. 
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“NO MORTALITY= NO PITY” is the sole notation a much younger self had left for Not Baby to wrestle with in her copy of De Rerum Natura, under the passage in which Lucretius explains that the man who claims to be “aggrieved” that after death “he will either moulder in the grave or fall prey to flames or to the jaws of predatory beasts” is lying. The ungrounded fear that he will feel these things is the real problem; such a man “has not banished himself from the scene.”
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Every few steps Not Baby pauses to wiggle a heel from the clay. Below her, where the river has come through the ice, several large rocks seem to be weighing down some clouds, or no, those are rocks the sky’s reflecting.
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Though what’s left of the faces she once studied on those mornings she was scheduled to open—the 3rd shifters drinking 50 cent taps of Hamm’s, the alcoholics whose coffee grew cold while they struggled to lift their first shots—reminds Not Baby of the ash hive (Oh, Louie! Oh, Arnold!) a cigarette tip leaves in paper, she clearly recalls that once, in late spring, the sun’s broad rays came spilling over the mountains and through the open bar door just like the graphic on a breakfast menu at one of those now-extinct diners named for their owners—Pat’s, Carol’s Corner, Mary’s—or, here, “If my exempla do not fit,” as Montaigne says, “supply your own for me.”
 
 

Seedy Mysteries

  

Although it’s possible that at full noon on this particularly bright day the scar ruching the bottom left quadrant of Not Baby’s face is less noticeable, she’s not walking through the woods with a mirror.
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The dog’s name was Gigi. It was, as her mother said, one vituperative poodle, an apricot shiver of snarl, mange, and fang who guarded her grandmother’s condo in Naples from nobody but Not Baby and her mother.
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During their annual August pilgrimages, under the matriarchal pall of cigarette smoke and nail polish fumes and the tang of feet sweating in nylons, Not Baby sat out the daily monsoon’s sickly elision of water and sky in front of the sliding glass balcony doors while they read Ellery Queen novels.
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“Just as women left alone may sometimes be seen to produce shapeless lumps of flesh but need to be kept busy by a semen other than her own in order to produce good natural offspring: so too with our minds,” Montaigne warns of idleness, that “ranging to and fro over the wasteland of our thoughts.”
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Not Baby finally finds the mud path that leads—between the plots of rock-anchored black tarp the Friends of Riparian Conservation are using to contain the invasive Reed Canary Grass (a dicey prospect, she’s read, since some rhizomes can spread beyond the edges of the plastic)—to the new concrete canoe/kayak launch and its three steps down to a mostly frozen river, a ripple of starlings, a lone slow gull.
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Today—Perihelion—we are one hundred forty-seven million fifty five thousand kilometers from the sun, the closest we get each year, an event which the British scientist on the radio this morning assured Not Baby will keep happening for at least a few billion years, until at last “the sun swells into a red giant and cooks the Earth like a banger in a blowtorch.”
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It’s like an exemption from thought, the light shattering off the ice: even with sunglasses and squinting, Not Baby has to put a hand out to see that what’s moving in front of the 4-car garage on the other, higher, bank isn’t the wind-tossed tree she’d thought it was, but a very tall, very thin man in a jumpsuit who’s leaning over the open hood of a red pickup.
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As the textual notation in her edition of the Essays attest, it took Montaigne twelve years to arrive, however ineffably, at this sentence describing the genesis of his friendship with Etienne de La Boetie: “Mediating this union there was, beyond all my reasoning, beyond all that I can say [C] specifically [A] about it, some [C] inexplicable [A] force of destiny.”
 
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The man, distracted no doubt by the sound of Not Baby’s unsuccessful attempt to skip fist-sized balls of ice across the river, is waving now, and Not Baby, who, once home—despite the helpful photographs in the Betty Crocker Bridal Edition Cookbook she picked up from Salvation Army—will not manage to cook the scrambled eggs pictured over the caption “These eggs are perfect. There is nothing wrong with these eggs,” waves back.

 



Your Boat

  

“Birdwatchers have been seeing red-winged blackbirds, the willows have turned yellow, the maple sap is flowing, the wild turkeys gobbling,” was the report before the next spate of unusually warm weather sent those soft maples budding, which made the sap bitter, ending the syrup season just as it started for a good portion of the state.
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Also the river thawed, and the lake, and its latest body.
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Not Baby’s not sure where she’s been. Here, obviously. And yet—it’s like being bashed over the head, this falling in love—no, like reading history: sure, there are countless petty skirmishes one could dwell on, but why bother? Sacked, the Hagia Sophia’s long since been sailed, in chunks, to Venice, and the Battle of Lepanto is about to begin.
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Or: it seems only yesterday eight men were rescued from a shelf of ice that had unlatched itself from shore. Some didn’t know they were floating until they noticed the currents in their fishing hole.
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Speaking of dreams, “We must picture this succession as taking place at high speed: the films fly so quickly and are drawn from so many sources,” Lucretius says of the images morphing within.
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Not Baby, though prone to dreaming words—last night’s were then I unzipped my fur and toppled from the magician’s hat—lately sees vast restrooms, serpentine with pipes, the toilets stopped and overflowing. “At the street corners in Rome they kept jars and demijohns for passers-by to piss in,” as Montaigne notes—hence Lucretius writing of little boys who dream of “lifting their robes and pissing in the public urinals.”
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“The Philosophy of” is what she’d known of rapture: its taxonomy from sneeze to seizure, that one wants paradox when one wants, wants metaphor, wants the way the wind on the bridge where almost you can touch the tops of trees half-rooted in the river wants the umbrella.
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If a body leaps from the highway over the inlet only to moor in sand or weed or muck, her engineer, the district’s Environmental Spills Coordinator, gets the call. It’s the Coast Guard if it floats.
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But against ravishment, says Montaigne, “it was no good that great poet… philosophizing and bracing himself,” for, shade among shades, almost nothing’s recorded of Lucretius except St. Jerome’s myth that he killed himself upon being driven wild by a love potion.

 

 

Francesca Abbate is the author of a Troy, Unincorporated (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Field, Free Verse, The Iowa Review, Poetry, and Poetry Daily, and, most recently, in The Laurel Review, The Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast online. An associate professor of English at Beloit College, she lives in Beloit and Milwaukee.