What I Know (Making Free with Villon's Smalltalk)

Phyllis Gotlieb


I know how to ring down a chime of dimes
in a dime slot if you can find me a dime slot,
I know how to push the button at a stoplight
so the red flicks green before you blink, and
I know how to do a cat's cradle behind my back;
I know how to love a stem and a leaf
so the flower reaches up to kiss me
but other than that, I don't know anything

and I am the greatest of puzzle solvers:
give me two letters of a 14-letter word you got it,
and words, I know every word spoken in jest
and every lying word because every
lie is as weak as a cobweb, because
everyone who believes a lie is a liar
to the own self, oh sure, I know all that
but other than that I'm an ignoramus.

I know where there is love deep as a river
and I know how to swim in it, thank God,
and also the bitterness of the seas it can decant into,
but the thready fibrillations of its sources are mysteries
to me, and though I know how to love a soul alive
I'm damned if I know how to make a soul rejoice.
I give up on it. I don't know anything.

O François, I know how to rip off one of your ballades
and add a little archy to make it my own
and I know how to end a line with a whipcrack,
but other than that I don't know anything.


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François Villon (1431-1465?), French poet and rascal. More here.
archy: the vers libre poet transformed into a cockroach, for which see archy and mehitabel (1927) by Don Marquis (1878-1937). (Thanks to Representative Poetry Online)

Original text: Phyllis Gotlieb, Red Blood, Black Ink, White Paper: new and selected poems, 1961-2001 (Toronto: Exile Editions, 2002): 112. PS 8513.O77R33 Robarts Library
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Source. Information about the poet. Illustration is by artist Nanna Ask (from Denmark). (Thanks to Boboho.)

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