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Excess

To see you laugh and smile, so free
And joyful, to look across the table
Into your glad eyes and realize how long
It’s been since I’ve seen you like this and how
It makes me happy in a way nothing else can,
I want to risk raising a glass to you
Before we even lift our forks,
Not out of some mindless urge,
Some rampant intimacy a boob
Succumbs to, jumping out of his seat
And applauding a concert before it ends,
But as your sensitive accompanist,
Or better yet as an unintrusive
Though starved gnat that hovers over a banquet,
That fogbound gnat who in a sunburst
Of an invitation alights on the potlatch
Cristoforo Messibugo orchestrated
for Ippolito D’este, and follows
The guests as they arrive after a recital,
Led by dancers across the garden
Under swags of flowers strung from tree
To tree, where more musicians begin
To play beneath a festooned canopy.
All eyes aglitter amid glittering wine bottles
And silverware on bright white linen,
Tables decorated with flowers, salt cellars,
Gold and silver finger bowls of scented water
And fifteen great gilded sugar sculptures
Of Venus, Bacchus and a plump Cupid,
They devour the antipasti: asparagus salad,
Anchovies, herbs, and marzipan biscuits,
Not knowing eighteen courses await them,
Each consisting of seven different dishes,
Each announced by a different entertainment:
The first by three trombones, its centerpiece
A huge boiled sturgeon with garlic and red sauce;
The second—pike strewn with blue borage flowers
And tench dressed alla francese—
By the lighter sounds of flute and oboe.
The music nearly overwhelms the fifth course,
When clowns tumble around the tables,
Followed by singers and jaunty dancers.
During the ninth course, 1,000 oysters
Served with plates of oranges and pears,
Pipers start to play what many mistake
For the finale—until squires re-lay the tables
With new centerpieces: fifteen nude figures,
Male and female, made of black biscuit
Flavored with honey and sesame;
Their gilded heads garlanded with bay leaves,
Their modesty guarded by wild flowers.
This time the salads are served with caviar
To the sound of a bassoon, and as a lutist
Sings madrigals, cuttlefish arrives,
And fried squid, crayfish and macaroni,
While singers dressed as peasants dip and sway,
Pretending to scythe the garden grass
And bring the season to a bounteous end.
After the seventeenth course—broad beans, raw
Artichokes, Parmesan, cherries, sweetmeats—
Squires again re-lay the tables, bringing
Perfumed toothpicks and more scented water.
Along with the final course—candied fruits,
And cakes, candied lettuce and cucumbers—
The orchestra assembles and all the singers.
Servants carry in a great silver bowl
Brimming with bracelets, earrings, rings,
Necklaces and fragrant gloves, gifts
That the Duke himself is supposed
To bestow as he bids his guests goodbye,
But instead he jumps up in the middle
Of a madrigal and demands an encore.
The conductor exuberantly complies
And the musicians pick up the tempo
With an urgency I can’t help but liken
To a horde of insatiable gnats
That from out of nowhere plunges
Onto the campsite in the dunes
Where a famished John James Audubon
After a day of trudging through marshland
Searching for curlew on the Carolina banks,
Hunkers over firelight and plops fish,
Oysters and beefsteaks onto the embers.
He travels light in the wild, packs no fork
Or plate, so snatches his food barehanded
From the coals and juggles the meat, scorched
And rare, until it’s not too hot to hold.
Neither does he bother to carry salt;
A sprinkle—a fistful of gunpowder
Makes the steaks savory enough for him.
He stumbles to the shore to scrub the grease,
Charcoal and powder off his blackened face
And hands, then, gnats vanishing as stars
Begin to sparkle and swarm, drops back
On the sand, weary though inexpressibly
Happy, sprawled beneath a plenitude
That he begins to hum and play along with,
Echoing what after years of searching
He first heard only hours before when
A few curlew flew overhead, then
Dozens, then hundreds and thousands more,
A continuous flow whose silence—not
A note—not a cry—perplexed him until
He felt as much as heard it, the upsurge,
His enskyment, and soft and low,
A whir of wings beyond number.
But, come to think of it, if I did
Raise my glass now, would I risk
Sounding like Audubon, poor Audubon,
Later on in his life, happy
But mindless in his early dementia,
(maybe it was all that gunpowder)
Seated all day in his dining room
Stuck in the continual present,
The memory of each meal erased
As soon as he finishes eating it,
So he rings his little bell again
For another to be brought to the table,
Eight, nine, ten dinners a day,
Consisting of various meats, mostly pork
And potatoes, boiled vegetables, duck,
Sometimes stewed eels with anchovies,
Seasoned with salt and pepper, sage,
And onion, served with nutmeg
And juice of half a

Paul Violi’s latest book, his eleventh, is Overnight, published by Hanging Loose Press. He teaches at New School, NYU, and Columbia University.

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