On Desire
by David-Glen Smith

Shakespeare’s sonnet #44

For R.

1. If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,

The day begins with motions of an opening hand: the action of pulling back thin-laced curtains from attic windows of the hotel— then gesturing open the sash. Leaning out into the fall morning, my head and chest hang over the sill, dangerously balanced half outside the building to gain a better view of the neighborhood. Victorian houses spread thinly into both sides of my perspective, all white on white, a row of buildings meeting the horizon, filling out the landscape.

The dark gray of the hotel room contrasts severely with the colors outside: heavy blues and bright yellows. A glare shines out of small puddles in the streets. Everything seems sacred, my mind struggling due to conflictions between dramamine and too much coffee swallowed on the plane just a few hours previous.

Back home, in my apartment, time shifts into early morning: three a.m., a time when the city settles deeper into itself, forgetting its prior existence, forgetting the homeless sleeping openly on the park benches.   Back home is the city where I lived for ten years, where I completed the last cycle of my postgraduate work, my attentions centered on a growing obsession towards the English Renaissance, concentrating on the Shakespearean sonnets, those 154 lyrics focusing on similar themes of desire. The whole series gathered before me as a bouquet of small dark roses, each an example of a self analysis taken to the extreme. Echoes of my own feelings as a cluster of personal language. Until now, this moment when here I am, a tourist in London staring out from my hotel window, staring at the passing residents.


2. Injurious distance should not stop my way,

The jazz of the moment changes, a small epiphany in a sense, the way desire opens itself secretly, with subtle motion of undressing for bed, the body momentarily exposed to elements, shirt and pants draped over a chair, soiled shoes tumbled by a small pile of books to read later in the evening— the way a cicada slowly slips out of the shell of its former life, with sudden, lifting wings.

Leaving the curtains open, I allow the tidal noise of traffic from Gower Street to fill up the room. Somehow I manage to fall asleep for a few quick hours, wanting to catch up with the missing hours, my dreams heavy with their private symbolism.


3. For then despite of space I would be brought,

At one time, I plotted out an essay on themes of desire in English Renaissance literature. Notes still clutter my older journals, the meaning lost on vague observations: 1. discuss what you are relating deals with the poet speaker— not the traditional ‘established’ image of the poet. 2. only show the limited naïve knowledge of possibilities of the sexual, oftentimes leaving both men as men 3. each sonnet is a progression of a ‘now’; situations of a present looking on a past or future situation.

The language becomes lost in itself without the proper context. The meaning is forgotten without its defined desire. Over time I create a distance between different stages of my life. In a sense I lose touch with the desires of the younger version of myself, creating a distance of space and as well as time.


4. From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.

If I were still writing poetry, not living with a dull idleness, I would dedicate these words to you, these lyrics which appeared to me in mid-flight somewhere over the Atlantic:

When it snows across the geography
Of my dreams, you are always there. Your voice
I mean, it carries itself dark and fluid,
A river that does not ice over,
Or a sudden storm, heavy in the trees,
Acting without a choice or consequence—
Just instinct. Like your hands, with their motions
Through me

But this is before we will meet in the future; in this moment of now you exist as an absent figure, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a slow dry wine spilling into a glass. You, my bright unknown, remain veiled to me, your shadow pulsing within a sparse vocabulary. Another three years of impatient waiting.

In this present tense moment, the poem refuses to fully emerge into my notebook—only bland sentences appear—compositions with dry paragraphs. The flow of words stumble with a scene replaying in my mind: while boarding the plane, I almost collided with two lovers lost in an intense embrace, both busily translating themselves into a new language— their desire consuming itself openly.   His fingertips traced the outer edges of her shoulders— then moved lower, a concentration of memorization through senses, avoiding the public eyes watching his circular motions down her spine.

Hours later, I keep imagining him as he envisions her: he closes his eyes and with slight motions in the air, he conjures up the image he held in the past, all in an effort to bridge the empty spaces between them, the numerous miles of unkempt roads and under-populated villages which momentarily separate their lives. Their public love reads as a spilled lyric, heavy with open declarations of want and need. The same desire and loss the Poet used when he wrote his sonnets to a young man, repetitiously, one hundred and twenty-six times, over and over, as if he could never express the emotions correct the first time, the poems displaying an affection between two men as a means of translation, transportation of same-sex desire to a realm of the commonplace and ordinary, a desire left open, exposed to a society heavy with regulation and political intensities.


5. No matter then although my foot did stand

Perhaps this narration produces no real sense of motion, my words leaving issues exposed and unzipped in the cool evenings, the way some men gather in the parks at dusk and pull out their lives from their trousers for another hand to fondle.

My point is something other than brief expressions of desire— I am thinking of Shakespeare and how the Poet will always linger in controversy, the Poet’s identity remaining a probability, a possibility for discussion over weak coffee and bad lighting in the colleges, the Poet’s words tied to a litany of names acting as a pseudonym for Edward De Vere, William Herbert, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Wriothesley, or even Aphra Behn.

Such dialogues never resolve themselves. The conversations merely fade mid-sentence and drop behind as scraps of paper, not acknowledging that the Poet is a figure of desire, a malleable element, reshaping itself in the written word, the transmutable text.

Unknowingly, the Poet lingers, in the tired face of a young clerk in a sandwich shop. When she leans on the counter, her hair shifts like a shadow. As she daydreams, her stare extends child-like despite the small acts of defiance, the silver loops pierced across her lower lip and right eyebrow.

Unknowingly, the Poet lingers, in the addict’s veins who leans against buildings on street corners, neon pulsing red, then blue, then red over his pock-marked arms, his body exposed in the autumn weather as he begs for shillings and pounds, lost in a haze, unaware of the pedestrians as he nods, rocking back and forth, back and—

Unknowingly, the Poet lingers, in the ink of newsprint smeared across a child’s hands. Her heritage originates from Tokyo, where her grandparents bleached yards of fresh, raw paper for an industrial mill just outside the city. Settling into her present tense, the child concentrates on awkwardly stripping London newspapers to make paper-maché. Paste and paint surround her on the kitchen table.


6. Upon the farthest earth removed from thee

Seven months before we met, you slept heavily, with sheets wrapped around in a tight embrace, your whole night passing by somewhere in the States, unaware that we both slowly motioned closer through the hours, even as I headed towards Euston Station to purchase a ticket and stand on the platform, waiting, listening to numerous dialects spiraling within the Underground, unaware you slept in your early morning with a restless cat at the foot of your bed, pressing up between your knees, persistent, its paws kneading the sheets back and forth.

Both of us moved towards a night in the future when we would lie side by side with the street lights outside cutting patterns through lace curtains, casting off shadows across exposed brick of the small room and the exposed glory of your smile, both of us in a haze of too many drinks, not enough sleep, moving as if underwater, moving through the fluid darkness with our moments become one moment, a casual blending— our identities will blur, cross between the boundaries established around the other. The way the reader and the manuscript transfer themselves, letters becoming words becoming ideas becoming the reader taking the text within,

Or the way the Poet takes in the Friend into his verses gradually, the other inserting his life with rough gestures, building meters, metaphors, and issues of possession, control, jealousy, and self indulgence. The reality of the situation shifts to a spiral, a Greek triskelion; the text of the Poet becomes the friend becoming the Poet becoming the text’s language.


7. For nimble thought can jump both sea and land

Scenes exist in my life which I will never retell beyond the written word. They exist encased in thick atmospheres, becoming as elements of someone else’s imagination, those moments when you feel life pulsing within, internalized reflections that—

Mid-afternoon. Static, as I always seem to be, paused between here and there. Separated from the elusive future, for instance, as an event strategically misplaced for emphasis, the time when the phone rings and the hotel receptionist states a visitor waits in the lobby. The time when I venture into the labyrinth of stairs into the inner workings of this eighteenth century home which was converted to accommodate tourists, down to the narrow foyer where Michael stands, smiling, all golden and casual summer, posed as a young Apollo, leaning on one arm, the other snapped off, hidden by his satchel or the perspective of the narrow room and the light streaming forward, blinding. The time when, back in my room, he kisses me, deep— but I am jumping forward too quickly, this moment will fall into place afterwards, —


8. As soon as think the place where he would be

—which returns me back to Shakespeare, to the elements of separation and injurious distance, elements which repeat, as a strand of pearls, a connection of related events throughout the poems,

—like myself, walking down New Oxford Street, lost in my life, heading towards a new experience, towards the general direction of the Thames, passing mid-day traffic and authentic pubs with their pint beers and oily white fish lunch specials.

Such is my love, I realize, always moving towards a newer experience, motioning to a future unknown, myself even at this moment responding to a back page ad in The Times: whether you want a companion at home or abroad, a search for desire personified, one night with love breathing close to my neck, a second body lying down beside me on the narrow cot—the way I saw a man yesterday lie down with his sad, drunken life in the middle of the pavement, sprawled out as a drunken Noah, flat on his back, soiling his already soiled work clothes. He moved underwater, rubbing his tired drunk eyes, as he drowned in a new identity with the rest of the world casually stepping around his outstretched legs, motioning away from the disturbing, the stilled—

But wait. The chain of events have fallen apart; they have become separate events gathered up too hastily, as a broken strand of pearls waiting to be strung back, brought together and then analyzed for defect—

There are times when the reality of my actions takes hold of me, in a strange ecstasy, an excitement trembling underneath the surface, or as a private secret, an arrangement whispered into the ears of a personal journal—although, in this modern society I doubt there would be much scandal or repercussion even if the public at large became fully aware of my actions. Even if a large scarlet triangle were sewn on all my clothing, would any changes emerge in the day to day extremes?

I stray from the general topic: desire. Perhaps, the reason for this is the fact the topic centers on a too broad of horizon. It should be narrowed, pinpointed to a smaller conversation piece, that is, if all these words are even necessary. The memories themselves will remain intact for later use: days, months, years later, artifacts buried within the back of the subconscious.

My search for casual sex is not out of desperation or loneliness, rather out of curiosity and a strong libido. A shock of the different. It all comes down to the fact that I need to force myself into situations of impulse and sudden action. A fear exists, a phobia towards simply walking into a crowded room, without forethought for instance, then talking to a complete stranger — or shift the scene to a crowded train, or even the waiting station itself in the Underground. Gradual movements within the confines of social actions.

Do I want to discuss the beautiful room with subtle gray paint on the wall?

The way it seduces its visitors by arranging itself in precise detail, as scenery for the theatre, with a cello resting back, lingering beside a row of crowded bookshelves. A magazine analyzing modern architecture unfolds and leans across a catalog of Asian herbs. Personal photos line the mantel. The whole atmosphere surrounds in a tight embrace, choking me with the surface realities of character and personality. A catalog of names will be shown. A selection will be made.


9. But ah thought kills me that I am not thought

Despite the cyclical images of traffic below and the shifting ghost-curtains overhead, I fall asleep; my dreams flood over, heavy with a dense forest surrounded in winter. A mountain exists in the middle of the woods. Cold mist lifts out of the trees.

A mild silence moves in my direction, towards me sitting in my small cabin. We are companions, this spirit of the woods and myself. Call him Familiar, Acceptance, or Solitude. He approaches; he wears a short kilt. He holds a rough clay bowl, painted bright red. He calls out my name.


10. To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone

Which leads me back to the first image of Michael appearing at the foot of the stairs, standing with a warm smile, an Apollo wearing a dark blue shirt, opened collar, and a black blazer, casual slacks. Back to the wicked, beautiful smile. The smooth fingers strong in a handshake. Fragments cannot describe his character enough. I do not have the ability to read the strategies for people such as he, I cannot turn back a few pages in their lives and see beyond the end product. Even now his erotic nature infects my waking life, following me around my small room, throughout the early morning hours— reminding me of the motions of his body shrugging off his shirt, as if stepping out of shadows, and he pauses, the body defined, a slight down of hair running down to the stomach, with muscles imitating a gray hound. Lean. Athletic. Large patches of freckles run across his shoulders and back: a constellation to follow, a path for the senses to casually trace with eye, fingers, tongue.


11. But that so much of earth and water wrought

Then there is a calm undressing of the remaining short litany of clothes: casual Italian shoes, dark socks, worn belt, faded jeans— until wearing only white designer briefs, he stretches. He appears as if slightly damp from a long warm bath, his beauty opening out, at a distance. My nervous arms feel an increase of the sense of territory and want. And then the final disrobing—revelation of a young god stepping out of the divine element into human form, a figure intervening in the lives of mortals, just for the sake of desire as a young god of summer.

A flowering emerges between his legs. Darkling rose bud. Shadowed tulip. Figment of reality and illusion: earth and water.

“Come here,” he smiles.

His kiss devours me. I drown in the complexity of his blonde body.


12. I must attend time’s leisure with my moan

And yet, many stories often have no true transitions, they only exist within themselves, in mid-transformation, like a snake swallowing its own tail, devouring itself within itself, retranslating its image, that portion of society housed in the individual.

Before we will meet in the future, there are nights, frequent and large as a natural landscape, where I find myself waiting, merely watching the moon open over the horizon as a large yellow rose, or simply as a constant ringing in the ears, as impatience personified— waiting as always, for a dramatic change, as if expecting the world to change overnight, erasing all indifferences within itself.

On other occasions, my idleness acts out the mannerisms of a doomed character from Chekhov, a young doctor reciting out of erotic boredom a litany of minute anatomical divisions of the masculine instrument: corpora cavernosa, corpus spongiosum, ductus deferens, epididymis, efferent ductules, rete testis, tunica vaginalis, dartos.

But instead, the young character is myself, lost in a London museum, reciting softly from the manuscript of a sixteenth century scribe, Ludovico degli Arrighi, who lists the anatomy of a quill, Tonda dela penna, Canaletto, Curuita, Primo taglio, Secondi tagli, Vemero, Squinzo, Punta temperate. Each word delineating aspects of the writing instrument in full detail—


13. Receiving naught by elements so slow

Casual encounters are limited to just that concept: brief expressions. Fragments of memory replayed in the head when we sleep. Impulsive actions which leave us exhausted, trying to catch our breaths as we lie trembling, side by side in the damp bedding.

Within the definition of casual, one of us will eventually ask for an allotted sum. He will redress slowly to leave an indelible impression, a watermark across one’s memory. A choreographed motion, as one last flirtation. Then leave the equation.

The other remains with empty hands tracing folds in the bleached white sheet.


14. But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

Once, years ago, at a bus terminal I sat as an angel of history, trapped in a winter layover, as if it were 1953, a decade before I was born, trapped thousands of miles north, somewhere in the American Midwest, my form huddled beneath a constant neon sign, rocking back and forth with a strange mantra, no needle, no life, no needle, no life.

Actually, that was someone else’s life, not my own. It is an image borrowed, to haunt myself in late days of the century, a bitter melodramatic prediction of a probable future —

It is not the image of addiction which haunts; it is the image of isolation. The sacrifice of everything, leaving one suicidally trapped in a moment of desire, a consumption of the self by want. How easy it would be to step across the boundaries just to remove a sense of emptiness.

The image is a badge, an emblem of prediction, of a time when depression settles without warning, a simple embrace unfolding over you as you sleep— or a child devouring an apple, core and all, changing the horizon of his desire with small bites: the sphere becoming the boy’s expectations of the future, those unexpected turn of events, those controlling moments and plot developments which leave without any real sense of closure—until a future time opens itself and transforms the notions of the established present tense into something entirely other.

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