All the Things I Want
"An imaginary shopping list, whose first item is the undoing of a war, and whose other items are equally implausible"
Late Saturday night I found myself writing a piece of antipropaganda. It turned into something between a poem and a shopping list. I confess lately I have been trying to make sense of things through poetry. This would ordinarily be a paywalled feature, but call it a gift and consider a subscription. May we all get the impossible things we want.
The first thing I want is for none of this to be happening. The dead in war and the coming dead, the millions displaced, the way war warps those who live through it and even who watch it from a distance. The way successive wars, and interlocking wars, build on each other and calcify thought in cruel forms, the way hackery and propaganda and sincere and insincere emotion emanate out from the site of the violence. I want none of that to be happening, or to happen again. I want the blood to be unspilled, the buildings unbroken, the whirl of awful speech to slip back into open mouths, the words to be sucked back into the keyboards that birthed them. That is the first thing I want.
I can’t have it, so I find myself wanting other things: chiefly to escape the reality that these things are happening, and I can’t stop them. Escapism is useful but it has its limits; at a certain point one finds oneself conscious of the fact that one is trying to escape the bad things, and that unravels the premise and makes it untenable. The book closes, the songs go tinny and unreal, horror creeps back.
So I am building an imaginary shopping list, whose first item is the undoing of a war, and whose other items are equally implausible. A list of impossible and joyous things.
I want a small companion—a tiny homunculus, a goldfinch, a tortoise the size of my palm, a fish in a glass bubble—who can speak eloquently and soothe me and soothe others. This small being knows every language and can recite poetry—Mandelstam, Celan, Pessoa, The Song of Roland. I can put it in my pocket. It is immortal.
I want a carpet that projects other people’s dreams—but only the good ones. Even the half-remembered ones that make you wake up smiling. I want it to show me only the dreams of strangers.
I want a bowl of pudding the size of my head flavored with the extinct plant silphium, which once grew in the Mediterranean plateaus; the Greek writer Theophrastus noted that it came after a black rain showered on the Gardens of the Hesperides, and Pliny the Elder said it was worth its weight in gold when the last stalk of it was sent to the emperor Nero. Its flowers were probably yellow.
I want a hidden door through which I can step instantaneously into another person’s life in another person’s body and which I can always find again. At whim I can be short or tall or devastatingly beautiful or a child or a very old man. I would spend as much time as I could being a man or a hundred men. I would walk a thousand streets in a thousand cities. I would be a ghost in their minds and then gone, less substantial than a dream; the door would resurface in Dakkar, in Talinn, in Cape Town, in Funafuti, in appropriate regional camouflage, and vanish again.
I want a phoenix to visit me, a dragon to visit me, a demon to chitter at me, an angel to alight at the top of the wire fence where the trumpet vine is shedding leaves.
I want an explanation for all this.
I want a dress that turns me into a streak of shadow: not quite invisible but hard to notice except in a bright noon.
I want a bed the size of a room and a room the size of a wedding hall and a chandelier made out of hacked-out pieces of Siberian permafrost to hang above it. It would always be that cold in the vast room with the bed. The blankets would be heavy and warm as living flesh, and I would never be alone in it.
I want peace.
I want a helmet of eggshell-thin jade that would keep bad thoughts away.
I want a tin cup that never stops being full of clear water, just above the point of freezing.
I want a sword the size of a man that is light as a feather and very sharp and requires no skill to wield perfectly. I want to wield it perfectly.
I want safety for my family.
I want a big red silk scarf that hangs down to my waist and is softer than the first grass in spring.
I want to be able to speak the language of wasps.
I want a caring God to stop His children at their slaughter and every man who profits from it to be struck down.
I want a genial crow to make me its compatriot and speak in a heavy deep-borough New York accent. I will feed it spumoni and minister to its flock.
I want peace.
I want a bureau drawer full of vials of pure memory: the memories of rocks and of seals and of enormous primordial fishlike creatures and of moss and even the quick and transient memories of rains, who only remember the ground they soak and the clouds that birthed them. I want to drink the memories of the north wind and the south wind and the wind off the river.
I want a jagged stone that can cut anything open and a needle that can sew anything shut.
I want to live in a loaf of bread. Whether I am small in this desire or the loaf of bread is enormous is immaterial.
I want a big goldenrod-colored house where everyone I love can sleep safely. And everyone who needs safety can find it. Space is immaterial in this house, it can accommodate all who are displaced, and it can appear and reappear at will, like the Starship Enterprise through the power of warp speed and convenient film editing. Anyone who reaches the threshold can cross through it and be safe. There is a garden there. Silphium grows in it. Rosemary. Lilac. Valencia oranges. Long-vanished Saint Helena olives grow here, and wild Franklin trees, whose flowers look like softboiled eggs.
Like Catullus I want as many kisses as there are sands in Libya.
I want answers to all those prayers going unanswered. To hold gods hostage to their promises, or people to their best selves.
I want clean sands, unbroken windows, unfired missiles, uncut throats.
I want to be a small red bird or an icecap or a thornbush.
I want this not to be happening and to carry its sequelae off into a miniature universe sealed off in impenetrable glass. I want the half-eternity of being a star and that unconsciousness, to be only light in airless darkness, my only task to burn.