The Thorn Merchant’s Family

In screenplays, characters are introduced with a 1-2 sentence description, something short but vivid enough to paint a picture. For instance, from the Out of Sight screenplay, “a guard, PUPKO (“PUP”), heavy-set, dumb as dirt.” Or from Pulp Fiction, ” LANCE, late 20s, is a young man with a wild and woolly appearance that goes hand-in-hand with his wild and woolly personality.”

Yusef Komunyakaa‘s poem “The Thorn Merchant” begins,

There are teeth marks
on everything he loves.

What a character intro! The poem is entirely a character description, slowly and beautifully building a portrait of a trafficker of harm. The language is a taut mix of straightforward images (“The ink on contracts disappears,” “Another stool pigeon leans/over a wrought-iron balcony,” “shadow of a crow over a lake”) and language that imparts more tone than explicable information. “There are teeth marks/on everything he loves” isn’t too (forgive me) thorny — things dogs have chewed, things rats have gnawed, or even a pencil that has been absentmindedly chewed. But what about “In the brain’s shooting gallery/he goes down real slow.” What does that mean?

“The brain’s shooting gallery” — a shooting gallery inside his head? He’s imagining shooting people? Dreaming of being shot? Shooting at his own thoughts? How does one “go down real slow” in a shooting gallery? Doesn’t really matter what it means, because what it does is add menace.

“The Thorn Merchant” is, of course, noir. It’s atmosphere and build-up, the first scene with the murderer before he’s taken the job. The images are vivid but equivocal. “The stool pigeon leans/over a wrought-iron balcony” — easy to picture, but chances are he’s being leaned over the balcony, threatened with (or shown just before) a “fall.” But the poem doesn’t say. Maybe he’s leaning over to see something, to see the blood money at work in the next line. The poem gets to have it both ways, which is part of its power.

He’s not very active in the poem, it’s all, again, menace. He enters a room and makes someone important (“The Minister of Hard Knocks and Golden Keys”) nervous, and he chokes (or pantomimes choking) himself, but no one else. In the last line-and-a-half of the first stanza, with its incestual overtones, all his hands do is “dally.” Even his heart is suspended. The implication, of course, is that the “men in black wetsuits” dragging Blue Lake are doing so to look for one of his victims, but the murder happens “off-camera.”

The last line break of the poem,

he knows how death waits
in us like a light switch.

is one of my favorite examples of the power of a line break. If it were

he knows how death waits in us
like a light switch.

the emphasis would be on the simile, the light switch. But as it is, “he knows how death waits/in us like a light switch” the “in us” gets all the weight (without dampening the power of the simile).

There are five other “thorn merchant” poems — “The Thorn Merchant’s Right-Hand Man,” “The Thorn Merchant’s Mistress,” “The Thorn Merchant’s Wife,” “The Thorn Merchant’s Son,” and “The Thorn-Merchant’s Daughter.”

The Thorn Merchant’s Right-Hand Man” shifts tone from the menace, the not-yet, the “death waits” to the action, the fight, the zoot-suit gangster:

Well, that’s Pretty Boy Emeritus
alias Leo the Machine, great-grandson
of Eddie the Immune, a real ladies’ man
in his handmade elevated Spanish shoes.

The tone of the speaker in “The Thorn Merchant” is dark, respectful. Komunyakaa changes the tone from that in just one word, the opening “Well,” and then the nicknames. The speaker here is more of an observer, a cop or a reporter, whereas the Merchant was described by an intimate.  “The “Right-Hand Man” has a little sarcasm (“a real ladies’ man”) which “The Thorn Merchant” lacks, but otherwise it has a similar mix of explicable and tonal images —

[…] eclipsed
by fedoras in bulletproof
limousines […]”

followed right away by “A looted brain case/succumbs.”

(Pretty Boy puts me in mind less of 40s movie actor and more of Tom Waits’ “Romeo is Bleeding.”)

I love the complicated “with his tongue in pawn” at the end, as a way to describe lack of speech, but,

his tongue in pawn
clear down to where a plea forms
the root word for flesh.

has never entirely made sense to me. The Germanic (I think) root similar to “flay”? Still doesn’t really make sense. That ending has always bugged me.

The Thorn Merchant’s Mistress” and “The Thorn Merchant’s Wife,” unlike “The Right-Hand Man,” further describe The Thorn Merchant himself (well, the Right-Hand Man describes by association, the man the Merchant chose for his second-in-command, but indirectly.) We find out that he owns (or used to) a “flashy two-tone Buick” and that he (used to) make his women feel wonderful, “That night she was a big smile” (the wife’s poem) but it’s a big smile “in the moon’s brokendown alley.”

That image, from the wife poem, and “a swan unfractured by August” from the mistress, are images that are slightly displaced. What I mean is that it’s not a moon shining into a brokendown alley, it is the moon’s alley. Owned by the moon? On the moon? He has taken her ‘over the moon’? I think it means just the moonlight shone into the alley, but, again, the equivocal image opens the poem up. And how does August fracture anything? (Melt, sure, but fracture?) Swans, entire, don’t fracture (though parts of them, bone or beak, could). These little displacements, side-steps, add to the feeling of unhappiness in both poems. Things aren’t quite “right.”

Both the women’s poems are memoir, looking back from the unpleasant present, but “The Thorn Merchant’s Son” is a narrative of one moment, a sequential list of actions, with no other characterization or omnipotence, and it anchors the action in a specific time, or at least, after 1978 when Pretty Baby came out. He is bored, and creepy, and an underachieving offspring (though he can hit a bullseye). Where his father seduces women in a flashy two-tone Buick, all the son is doing is licking a poster and being a peeping tom. His father makes officials nervous, and knows all about death. The son just throws tchotchkes against the wall.

[…] he throws
a wooden puzzle against a wall
& the fist-shaped piece
flies apart like a clay pigeon.

takes us right back to the father’s “In the brain’s shooting gallery…”

And then there’s “The Thorn Merchant’s Daughter” (his hands dally…).

When she cocks her head
the last carrier pigeon’s ghost
cries out across a cobalt sky.
The glossy snapshot of her
draped in a sun-blanched dress
before a garden of stone phalluses
slants crooked in its gold frame.

In the wife’s poem, “Morphine/leaned into the gold frame.” The daughter’s poem is full of allusions and alisases, she is  “A Janus-headed/figure,” “She’s Mary Magdalen in the Grotto” & she “was eyeing Lee Morgan at Slugs’/when the pistol flash burned/through his solo.” (Lee Morgan was a jazz trumpeter whose common-law wife shot him while he was between sets at a club (Slugs) in NYC in 1972.)

[…] Her aliases
narrate tales from Nepal & Paris,
Texas, from Bathsheba to the woman
flaming like poppies against sky
at the theater with John
Dillinger. […]

That’s a complex and fascinating bunch of references. (The “woman flaming like poppies” I just learned this evening refers to the woman who helped the FBI corner John Dillinger — she wore an orange dress so the feds could identify her in the movie theater crowd.)

The last sentence of “The Thorn Merchant’s Daughter” is as good a character description as “There are teeth marks/on everything he loves.”

[…] To see her
straight, there’s no choice
but to walk with a limp.

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2 thoughts on “The Thorn Merchant’s Family

  1. […] isn’t quite one of those touchstone poets for me, like Elizabeth Bishop, Larry Levis, and Yusef Komunyakaa are, that I could just read forever and would love to be able to write like, but he is definitely […]

  2. […] touched on most of my other major gods in this blog before (Mark Doty, Yusef Komunyakaa, and the most recent addition, Larry Levis), but haven’t said much yet about her. One must […]

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