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Alan Liu

William Gibson
Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992)

This is the text portion of Agrippa (A Book of The Dead), text by William Gibson, etchings by Dennis Ashbaugh, (C)1992 Kevin Begos Publishing, 1411 York Ave. New York, NY All Rights Reserved. (The text is widely available on the Internet. The present copy was created with line numbers for purposes of study.) For a discussion of the unique read-once-only publication of this text in its original format, see Peter Schwenger, "Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book," South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1994): 617-26, as well as this note. See also Kevin Begos's letter to Alan Liu about the origin of AGRIPPA (Additional resources on Gibson and Cyperpunk)

I hesitated  
before untying the bow  
that bound this book together.  
A black book:  
     ALBUMS 5
     Order Extra Leaves  
        By Letter and Name  
A Kodak album of time-burned  
black construction paper 10
The string he tied  
Has been unravelled by years  
and the dry weather of trunks  
Like a lady's shoestring from the First World War  
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen 15
Until they resemble cigarette-ash  
Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite  
Now lost  
Then his name  
W.F. Gibson Jr.  20
and something, comma,  
Then he glued his Kodak prints down  
And wrote under them  
In chalk-like white pencil:  25
"Papa's saw mill, Aug. 1919."  
A flat-roofed shack  
Against a mountain ridge  
In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts  
He must have smelled the pitch, In August  30
The sweet hot reek  
Of the electric saw  
Biting into decades  
Next the spaniel Moko  
"Moko 1919"  35
Poses on small bench or table  
Before a backyard tree  
His coat is lustrous  
The grass needs cutting  
Beyond the tree,  40
In eerie Kodak clarity,  
Are the summer backstairs of Wheeling,  
     West Virginia  
Someone's left a wooden stepladder out  
"Aunt Fran and [obscured]"  45
Although he isn't, this gent  
He has a "G" belt-buckle  
A lapel-device of Masonic origin  
A patent propelling-pencil  
A fountain-pen 50 
And the flowers they pose behind so solidly  
Are rooted in an upright length of whitewashed  
     concrete sewer-pipe.  
Daddy had a horse named Dixie  
"Ford on Dixie 1917"  55
A saddle-blanket marked with a single star  
Corduroy jodpurs  
A western saddle  
And a cloth cap  
Proud and happy  60
As any boy could be  
"Arthur and Ford fishing 1919"  
Shot by an adult  
(Witness the steady hand  
that captures the wildflowers  65
the shadows on their broad straw hats  
reflections of a split-rail fence)  
standing opposite them,  
on the far side of the pond,  
amid the snake-doctors and the mud,  70
Kodak in hand,  
Ford Sr.?  
And "Moma July, 1919"  
strolls beside the pond,  
in white big city shoes,  75
Purse tucked behind her,  
While either Ford or Arthur, still straw-hatted,  
approaches a canvas-topped touring car.  
"Moma and Mrs. Graham at fish hatchery 1919"  
Moma and Mrs. G. sit atop a graceful concrete  80
"Arthur on Dixie", likewise 1919,  
    rather ill at ease.  
On the roof behind the barn, behind him,  
can be made out this cryptic mark:  85
"Papa's Mill 1919", my grandfather most regal amid a wrack of  
cut lumber,  
might as easily be the record  
of some later demolition, and  90
His cotton sleeves are rolled  
to but not past the elbow,  
striped, with a white neckband  
for the attachment of a collar.  
Behind him stands a cone of sawdust some thirty feet in height.  95
(How that feels to tumble down,  
or smells when it is wet)  

The mechanism: stamped black tin,  
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,  
A lens 100
The shutter falls  
Dividing that from this.  
Now in high-ceiling bedrooms,  
unoccupied, unvisited, 105
in the bottom drawers of veneered bureaus  
in cool chemical darkness curl commemorative  
montages of the country's World War dead,  
just as I myself discovered  
one other summer in an attic trunk,  110
and beneath that every boy's best treasure  
of tarnished actual ammunition  
real little bits of war  
but also  
the mechanism  115
The blued finish of firearms  
is a process, controlled, derived from common  
     rust, but there  
under so rare and uncommon a patina  120
that many years untouched  
until I took it up  
and turning, entranced, down the unpainted  
to the hallway where I swear  125
I never heard the first shot.  
The copper-jacketed slug recovered  
from the bathroom's cardboard cylinder of  
    Morton's Salt  
was undeformed  130
save for the faint bright marks of lands  
    and grooves  
so hot, stilled energy,  
it blistered my hand.  
The gun lay on the dusty carpet.  135
Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up  
That the second shot, equally unintended,  
    notched the hardwood bannister and brought  
    a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life  
    in a beam of dusty sunlight.  140
    Absolutely alone  
    in awareness of the mechanism.  
Like the first time you put your mouth  
    on a woman.  

"Ice Gorge at Wheeling  145
Iron bridge in the distance,  
Beyond it a city.  
Hotels where pimps went about their business  
on the sidewalks of a lost world.  150
But the foreground is in focus,  
this corner of carpenter's Gothic,  
these backyards running down to the freeze.  
"Steamboat on Ohio River",  
its smoke foul and dark,  155
its year unknown,  
beyond it the far bank  
overgrown with factories.  
"Our Wytheville  
House Sept. 1921"  160
They have moved down from Wheeling and my father wears his  
city clothes. Main Street is unpaved and an electric streetlamp is  
slung high in the frame, centered above the tracked dust on a  
slack wire, suggesting the way it might pitch in a strong wind,  
the shadows that might throw.  165
The house is heavy, unattractive, sheathed in stucco, not native  
to the region. My grandfather, who sold supplies to contractors,  
was prone to modern materials, which he used with  
wholesaler's enthusiasm. In 1921 he replaced the section of brick  
sidewalk in front of his house with the broad smooth slab of poured  170
concrete, signing this improvement with a flourish, "W.F.  
Gibson 1921". He believed in concrete and plywood  
particularly. Seventy years later his signature remains, the slab  
floating perfectly level and charmless between mossy stretches of  
sweet uneven brick that knew the iron shoes of Yankee horses.  175
"Mama Jan. 1922" has come out to sweep the concrete with a  
broom. Her boots are fastened with buttons requiring a special instrument.  
Ice gorge again, the Ohio, 1917. The mechanism closes. A  
torn clipping offers a 1957 DeSOTO FIREDOME, 4-door Sedan,  
torqueflite radio, heater and power steering and brakes, new 180
w.s.w. premium tires. One owner. $1,595.  

He made it to the age of torqueflite radio  
but not much past that, and never in that town.  
That was mine to know, Main Street lined  
with Rocket Eighty-eights,  185
the dimestore floored with wooden planks  
pies under plastic in the Soda Shop,  
and the mystery untold, the other thing,  
sensed in the creaking of a sign after midnight  
when nobody else was there.  190
In the talc-fine dust beneath the platform of the  
    Norfolk & Western  
lay indian-head pennies undisturbed  
    since the dawn of man.  
In the banks and courthouse, a fossil time  195
    prevailed, limestone centuries.  
When I went up to Toronto  
    in the draft,  
my Local Board was there on Main Street,  
above a store that bought and sold pistols.  200
I'd once traded that man a derringer for a  
    Walther P-38.  
The pistols were in the window  
behind an amber roller-blind  
    like sunglasses.  205
I was seventeen or so but basically I guess  
you just had to be a white boy.  
I'd hike out to a shale pit and run  
ten dollars worth of 9mm  
through it, so worn you hardly  210
had to pull the trigger.  
Bored, tried shooting  
down into a distant stream but  
one of them came back at me  
off a round of river rock  215
clipping walnut twigs from a branch  
two feet above my head.  
So that I remembered the mechanism.  

In the all night bus station  
they sold scrambled eggs to state troopers  220
the long skinny clasp-knives called fruit knives  
which were pearl handled watermelon-slicers  
and hillbilly novelties in brown varnished wood  
which were made in Japan.  
First I'd be sent there at night only  225
if Mom's carton of Camels ran out  
but gradually I came to value  
the submarine light, the alien reek  
of the long human haul, the strangers  
straight down from Port Authority  230
headed for Nashville, Memphis, Miami.  
Sometimes the Sheriff watched them get off  
making sure they got back on.  
When the colored restroom  
was no longer required  235
they knocked open the cinderblock  
and extended the magazine rack  
to new dimensions,  
a cool fluorescent cave of dreams  
smelling faintly and forever of disinfectant,  240
perhaps as well of the travelled fears  
of those dark uncounted others who,  
moving as though contours of hot iron,  
were made thus to dance  
or not to dance  245
as the law saw fit.  
There it was that I was marked out as a writer,  
having discovered in that alcove  
copies of certain magazines  
esoteric and precious, and, yes,  250
I knew then, knew utterly,  
the deal done in my heart forever,  
though how I knew not,  
nor ever have.  
Walking home  255
through all the streets unmoving  
so quiet I could hear the timers of the traffic lights a block away:  
    the mechanism.  
Nobody else, just the silence  
    spreading out  260
to where the long trucks groaned  
    on the highway  
their vast brute souls in want.  

There must have been a true last time  
I saw the station but I don't remember  265
I remember the stiff black horsehide coat  
gift in Tucson of a kid named Natkin  
I remember the cold  
I remember the Army duffle  
that was lost and the black man in Buffalo  270
trying to sell me a fine diamond ring,  
and in the coffee shop in Washington  
I'd eavesdropped on a man wearing a black tie  
embroidered with red roses  
that I have looked for ever since.  275
They must have asked me something  
at the border  
I was admitted  
and behind me swung the stamped tin shutter  280
across the very sky  
and I went free  
to find myself  
mazed in Victorian brick  
amid sweet tea with milk  285
and smoke from a cigarette called a Black Cat  
and every unknown brand of chocolate  
and girls with blunt-cut bangs  
not even Americans  
looking down from high narrow windows  290
on the melting snow  
of the city undreamed  
and on the revealed grace  
of the mechanism,  
no round trip.  295
They tore down the bus station  
there's chainlink there  
no buses stop at all  
and I'm walking through Chiyoda-ku  
in a typhoon 300
the fine rain horizontal  
umbrella everted in the storm's Pacific breath  
tonight red lanterns are battered,  
in the mechanism. 305

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