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March Issue

from American Amnesiac: A History in Ghazals

Diane Raptosh

All text and design © 2010, by Diane Raptosh and Gene Doty.


The name Rinehart doesn't bang on any gongs, but, man, this photo does:
the walrus-style mustache, that wrecked blond wing slung across the brow.

It's who I think myself to be but please keep calling me Jon Doe; the name
is calm, a truth, the meaning of itself. It fits me like a velvet movie seat.

I fear someday my recall may come back: Will I want it? Will it want in
like water always does? I sit here reading my own mind, widower to all

but wonder's worn down ear . . . Jon Doe AKA Cal Rinehart: Calvin J.
Ex-New York sous-chef. Favorite recipe: Fort Adams Fried Okra.

A think-tanker in Guangzhou. Financial consultant. Art historian.
Husband. Expert in P.R. NGO pundit. The doctors say I am

my sister's kid sibling (I've lost her name). We had a falling out.
Low winds blew wide all blood-trust at once. I flagged a purple bus

and woke in Gas Works Park three states away, six hundred bucks
stuffed in my right sock. My life has always been a flock of mishaps

waiting to take flight. The accident of life works no wonders for the nervous
system. Six docs have ruled out epilepsy, dementia, and delirium.

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* * *

I'm neither too disturbed by my odd fate nor merely casual.
I sit here with some bread and syllabub and try to reassemble who I am.

And was. Here, have a sip — sweet cream and wine. It salves the nerves.
This much for sure (I think): I'm an expat. How mad would I have to be

to say "He beheld a better order in Vienna, where he began
to unbelong from every place he knew"? Or better still,

"They say it was the broken neck of basic decency he had to flee"?
I've had to man my own protectorate, it's true. But worlds are never

quite that willed. The rational mind's the moon we trust — but through it
ululates mirage. No knowing is neutral. Here's how it is:

My name is Jon Doe. My name is Calvin J. Rinehart.
And I have agnosia. Amnesia. One of the two. Plus six hundred

dollars to both of my names. This fine pair of khakis. Some cookware.
I've forgotten what herbs do. Where my bills are. I don't know my mother.

Say, Cal, does the soul have a torso? The self is a smalto. A smart card.
So far as I know, the I is another, is a blue blazer, a waiter suspended on a tray.

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* * *

The name's Jon Doe. And I am a place, the holder of a pose.
Most persons are other people, and I am no exception to this rule.

Calvin J. Rinehart must be some fabulist's rendition
of a different face. Or turn of mind. I'm Jon, without the middle "h."

And I have heard the doctors kvetching in their cotton gowns:
"We're pleased to say we're pretty sure that Jon — or Cal — is genuine."

I, in turn, wax into what I listen to. Just now a thousand sea chameleons
chomp down crabs. What I see are their wide black, bat-shaped pupils.

Their blue-green blood, bubbles of ink acting as decoys. My body
remembers the sensible objects that used to quiver around it:

my two plastic sacks full of meds, the outpatient papers, those four fat
squirrels chasing each other up the honey locust. I remember my wife,

Lisette, but friends and loved ones have it that I never married.
I found her daubed out in our bed when she lost our child.

Since then I've searched for something kind and specific. Der Tafelspitz
in den Fleischtöpfen Wiens, to start. The soul's composed of the entire planet.

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* * *

With the name Jon Doe I can remain the man on the street
from inside my home. Every face will stay new, including my own.

Each word and sentence too. And every sentience must come to feel secure . . .
A few things are finally starting to come clear — the long thin bones of rain

help me to think. I have lived in Bratislava, Slovakia. Baked bread
for the homeless in New York. Attended a grade school named Lizzie Brown.

Backpacked across Australia, where I recently delivered an address:
111 Walker Street. I have heard of what is thought to be the coldest, calmest

place on earth, where no man has set boot. Australian scientists
call this land "Ridge A," high on the Antarctic flats, landmass

at the bottom of the world — so calm no wind blows at all.
Its sky is dark and dry. I'd like to go there. But I'm a missing man.

I am a man missing a nation and a wife, strung up between a past
I may not want and a present in which I cannot make myself at ease.

"Cal J. will be fondly recalled as the race's member who could not
remember," researchers bray into the left ear of the penguin emperor.

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* * *

If pressed to name my brand of worldly thought, if I can track the words,
I'd call it . . . Incredulous Bolshevistic Placidity. Or perhaps

Skeptical Insurrectionary Tranquility. I have to feel what I think
or I can't even finish a sentence. I've had to learn

to get by like folks do after fire takes their house —
how to live without loving stuff: without the 11-inch sauté pans'

wooden handles. Minus the wedding silver. I am forced to slow
my nervous system almost to

a halt. I crush coriander seeds between heartbeats: Mushrooms
a la Grecque. I think. Anonymity allows us to understand

we're always shadowed by our third-string selves. The six-eyed
jumping sand spider has this innate camouflage technique:

Buries itself in beach. I form no new memories — inhumed by the now,
a nightmare waiting to be dreamed about. Coriander is an herb.

I sometimes think I'm slowly coming to. I am participant-observer
of Cal J./Jon Doe. At odds and harmonious: an outhouse with two seats.

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Editor's Comments

Thu Feb 25 11:10:08 2010

Where does your identity reside? In your name? In your memory? The speaker in these five ghazals has lost one identity and assembled another. He has lost name and memory, and his "real" name seems alien to him. Perhaps your identity is a medical condition: go see a doctor, a professional. But when all organic causes, all mental warpings have been ruled out, what then? In what mirror can you see your self?

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate, a classmate was experiencing emotional difficulties. His identity felt nebulous; he went to a therapist, who advised him to get a job, and, when he received his first paycheck, to stand before a mirror, hold up his paycheck, and say, "Here I am, this is me, [your name here]." Cal Rinehart has $600: is that enough to establish identity?

A name, a diagnosis, money, ordinary personal objects (clothes, cookware); even for those without amnesia, they are not always enough to ensure identity. Rimbaud's famous "Je suis un autre" can apply to any one of us at any time. Cal/Jon paraphrases this sentence at the end of the second ghazal. Any of us could easily say it before an early morning mirror, a mantram of our distances.

Duplication, multiplication. And, some day, substraction. The self as slideshow of memory, fantasy, desire. These five poems express well the tensions and perplexities of identity as experienced through its loss.

These ghazals play very free with the form — no qafiya (monorhyme) or repetend (radif) and many of the couplets are enjambed. Are they not ghazals at all? Genre and form can either release poet and reader or confine them. Testing the limits of form tests the memory — the identity — of the form. These poems are ghazals in spirit and approach and presentation. Read the enjambed lines with awareness of the break; the break creates a suspension, a suspense, before the poem continues. The line-breaks provide emphases that underscore the disjunct nature of Cal J./Jon Doe's experience and reflections on it.

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