We talked then of Polish poetry, of Russian poetry, of Turkish and Greek and Argentine poetry, of Sappho and the lost notebooks of Pasternak, of the death of Ungaretti, the suicide of Weldon Kees, and the disappearance of Arthur Cravan, who Daniel claimed was still alive, cared for by the whores of Mexico City. But sometimes, in the dip or hollow between one rambling sentence and the next, a dark cloud would cross his face, hesitate for a moment as if it might stay, and then slide past, dissolving toward the edges of the room, and at those moments I almost felt I should turn away, since though we talked a lot about poetry we had not yet said much of anything about ourselves.
At a certain point Daniel jumped up and went rifling through the desk with all the drawers, opening some and closing others, in search of a cycle of poems he'd written. It was called Forget Everything I Ever Said, or something like that, and he had translated it himself. He cleared his throat and began to read aloud in a voice that coming from anyone else might have seemed affected or even comic, touched as it was with a faint tremolo, but coming from Daniel seemed completely natural. He didn't apologize or hide behind the pages. Just the opposite. He straightened up like a pole, as if he were borrowing energy from the poem, and looked up frequently, so frequently that I began to suspect he had memorized what he'd written. It was at one of these moments, as we met eye-to-eye across a word, that I realized he was actually quite good-looking. He had a big nose, a big Chilean- Jewish nose, and big hands with skinny fingers, and big feet, but there was also something delicate about him, something to do with his long eyelashes or his bones. The poem was good, not great but very good, or maybe it was even better than very good, it was hard to tell without being able to read it myself. It seemed to be about a girl who had broken his heart, though it could just as easily have been about a dog; halfway through I got lost, and started to think about how R always used to wash his narrow feet before he got into bed because the floor of our apartment was dirty, and though he never told me to wash mine it was implicit, since if I hadn't then the sheets would have gotten dirty, making his own washing pointless. I didn't like sitting on the edge of the tub or standing at the sink with one knee to my ear, watching the black dirt swirl in the white porcelain, but it was one of those countless things one does in life to avoid an argument, and now the thought of it made me want to laugh or possibly choke.
By then Daniel Varsky's apartment had gotten dim and aquatic, the sun having gone down behind a building, and the shadows that had been hiding behind everything began to flood out. I remember there were some very large books on his shelf, fine books with tall cloth spines. I don't remember any of their titles, perhaps they were a set, but they seemed somehow to be in collusion with the darkening hour. It was as if the walls of his apartment were suddenly carpeted like the walls of a movie theater to keep the sound from getting out, or other sounds from getting in, and inside that tank, Your Honor, in what light there was, we were both the audience and the picture. Or as if we alone had been cut loose from the island and were now drifting in uncharted waters, black waters of unknowable depth. I was considered attractive in those days, some people even called me beautiful, though my skin was never good and it was this that I noticed when I looked in the mirror, this and a faintly perturbed look, a slight wrinkling of the forehead that I hadn't known I was doing. But before I was with R, and while I was with him, too, there were plenty of men who made it clear they would have liked to go home with me, either for a night or longer, and as Daniel and I got up and moved to the living room I wondered what he thought of me.
Reprinted from Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss Copyright (c) 2010 by Nicole Krauss. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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