‘The Art of Seeing’ by Michael Milton
I wrote the poem “The Man From Number 4” late last year, after witnessing the eviction of a confused and lonely elderly person from the building where I live. Several months after I had written the poem, I chanced upon a story by Jeremiah Budin in November 2014’s CURBED.
It dealt with senior citizens faced with the possibility of being evicted from their assisted living facility at 1 Prospect Park West in Park Slope because their building was being sold. However, Budin wrote that the real estate deal had stalled. The owner had sold the building based upon an agreement that he would “clear out the special needs facility, especially tailored for dementia patients, which takes up part of the 4th floor,”and had yet to do so.
I was struck by the curious parallels between my poem and Mr. Budin’s piece, and I was especially haunted by the way in which the number ‘4’ figured into both. Coincidence?
Einstein wrote, ‘If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, then it is science. If it is communicated through forms whose constructions are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively, then it is art.’
Theories proliferate about how all imaginative thought resides up in “the creative cloud” or “the noosphere.” Some reach into “the cloud” in their sleep, some by getting stoned, some by meditating. Art requires inspiration, a “new” way to see the world that by-passes conscious strictures and allows the artist entry through “the backdoor.” It would seem I reached up and came back with the number “4.”
THE MAN FROM NUMBER 4
‘Don’t worry. It will be fine,’ our super assures me,
the elevator door closing between us.
‘He’ll be happier,’ is the last I hear.
‘Yes?’ I ask steel doors, not quite believing.
Behind me, strewn up and down the hall,
piled moving boxes, a motley bunch,
bulging here, collapsing there, tape already coming unfixed.
A tarnished tea pot sits exposed at the ripped seam
of one of these cardboard reliquaries,
other contents threatened with revelation
if this sagging becomes more pronounced.
The man from Number 4 has spent the afternoon
distractedly pacing well known stations along a path 100 or so feet long,
an impenetrable new door lock at one end,
an open window onto an air shaft at the other.
Back and forth, back and forth,
waiting—clearly–but for what?
Who will come to move this life forward, or at least, elsewhere?
I deny him a third time as I steam past en route to Number 1.
With each passing, my close hauled, captain-less neighbor has kept his eyes cast down
and I’m relieved, at least, by that.
After all, whatever he has taken on might be contagious.
(One way or the other, it probably is, I think grimly to myself)
A sharp inhale. Even at this distance, I know he hasn’t showered;
But that is hardly the worst of it.
As I fumble with my keys I foolishly glance up
just as his pilgrimage takes him beyond the turn in our hall.
Moments ago, my memory held only the image
of his grey, much stained shirt seen from the front, tails bravely tucked in,
his hope, perhaps, that whoever saw him coming
might still conjure up some ghost of his best self.
But held within that last glance, I now must add
a simulacrum of the back of his shirt;
now there’s the real story.
Between suspenders barely suspending his too short pants
tails spill out and are stained in an awful way.
It’s clear now that hope has already been abandoned,
no time left him to repair any poor first impressions.
Safe back in my apartment now and I drink to dull,
nursing the notion I might ever be the right size to wear that confused lost look,
or sport the coat of finality he purchased before the end had even arrived.
What do we forget first and when do we know better
than to struggle against incoming tides?
Already I am drowning in all I have learned, (or in all I wish to forget);
and there is so little time left to distill the difference, as I am keenly aware
of some test looming, as soon, perhaps, as tomorrow.
As I drift into sleep, I am strangely gratified to realize
that at least I haven’t forgotten the name of the man from Number 4.
How could I?
I never knew it.