Nostalgia for the New and other works by James Nolan
James Nolan's collection of New Orleans-themed stories, Perpetual Care, was awarded the 2007 Jefferson Press Prize, and the manuscript of his post-Katrina novel, Higher Ground, won this year's William Faulkner Award. His collections of poetry are Why I Live in the Forest and What Moves Is Not the Wind, both from Wesleyan University Press. He lives in the French Quarter.
Nostalgia for the New
I'm lounging on Mae West's lips,
the faded carmine divan of Mae West's lips,
surveying the past century
like an after-the-party spread
of pits, butts, and empty
wine glasses, sprinkled with guts
and ashes. Everything that shocked
and delighted now seems ratty,
rundown, silly. Modernity doesn't wear
well, soon loses its sex appeal,
that new-car smell.
The zipper on the album cover
gets stuck and falls off, and the boogey-
woogey zigzag winds up at the second-
hand shop. This poem would look great
over the kidney-shaped formica coffee-
table I just bought at the dustbin
of the decades sale. Here's a cute
mannerism (circa 1923) that I found
on the 25-cent rack. You really don't
need to say anything-just put it on,
sit back, and type, type, type.
I'm languishing on Mae West's lips
in the Dalí Museum in Figueras
where the Tramontana is blowing away
what's left of the 20th century. Limp
plastic sacks of gizmos and gimcracks
are piled high against the oncoming
flood of gristle and blood.
"Is that a melted watch
in your pocket," mouths the sagging
postmodernist sofa, "or are you just sad
o see me go?"
More or Less, Sooner or Later
after a line by Andrei Codrescu
Late in the late 20th century
the people who had everything got more
and they locked themselves inside
against thieves of time and money.
Convinced they'd never grow old or die
the people who had everything ate less:
they took the skin off the chicken
and the butter off the bread,
they took the sugar out the coffee
and the icing off the cake.
And the people who had everything
became skinnier and more scared
until all they did was sit home alone
staring with horror at the TV screen
not eating or smoking or drinking
or going out or loving or dancing
afraid at night-late, late at night.
Late in the late 20th century
the people who had nothing got less
and they crowded the streets and
crossed the borders to sit on corners
to see what they could get
from the people who had everything,
at home alone behind locked gates.
The people who had nothing ate more
convinced they wouldn't live past thirty:
they wanted skin on their wings
and butter on their bread right now,
they wanted sugar in their coffee
and icing on their cake right now.
The people who had nothing grew fatter
and angrier at the people who had everything
and spent their days eating and drinking
and smoking and laughing and killing
each other at night-late, late at night.
So late in the late 20th century
this is how the skinny and scared
and the fat and angry squared off
to split the world into more or less.
The rest, as sooner or later you'll see,
is the history of the 21st century.
While we're raising the roof
they're busy eating beneath
the floor we're standing on:
underground mountain of pale
larvae, a souk of devilish
appetite chewing, chewing,
undoing the beams of dawn.
In morning light we mount
the day so purposefully,
our work already undone
by those who lurk in shadows
inside the hives of holocausts
we tread upon, until one fine day
the banister is marshmallow,
joists turned to peanut brittle.
Termites flutter from slits in
kitchen walls while above,
the long-buried chrysalis
of a death wish sprouts wings.
Two black birds attack the towers:
destruction swarms from simple things,
floors, windows, suitcases, flights home.
Underneath they're chewing, chewing
humble mouthfuls in hollow places
while above ground we're framing
buildings that almost touch the sky.