On The Duplicity Of Shoes

By Peter Halstead

Enclosed please find 2 Mephistos
Swaddled by our men at Christo’s,
Very much like getting Dristan
Packaged by Iseult and Tristan,
Or a waltz by Liszt, oh,
Acted out by Rocco Sisto:
Sprung from lowly racks at Vons
Then christened for a son of Mann’s:
For such clogs, it’s only fit
They come to mean their opposite
(The epitome of paradox is
Spending life in endless boxes)
Proving in the end that wrappings
Are nothing but the Devil’s trappings.


I sent this to our friends the Holdsworths along with shoes they left at our house in Vail. It is an indictment of the surface of things, of the wrapping, and of the wrapping that a poet has to do to turn an old shoe into a bauble. The Holdsworthian shoes were double agents, walking oxymorons, being Mephistos, a name that invokes a certain irony between the lowly product and their high-stepping antecedent, the devil.
Thomas Mann’s son Klaus wrote a novel called Mephisto, a prelude to his suicide, about gradually selling his soul while dancing with the devil (Hitler). Liszt wrote the “Mephisto Waltz” (for which Mephisto shoes would be too squeaky).
Tension between the trivial and the profound causes linguistic contradictions, good and bad twins, false mirrors of the soul. Two shoes are the first duplicity, simply a doubling. A pair of deuces is the second doubling. Christ and the devil provide the third set of interchangeable twinnings (Christo, Tristan, son of Man, christened, swaddling clothes).
Wrapping gradually becomes a metaphor for the superficial, who only respect honors, not the honorable thing unhonored (Christ by the Romans). A friend of mine used to chide me (“trivial people write trivial novels”), so here by way of penance I use trivial things as windows to darker houses, as paths to their Platonic essences.
Words come to mean their opposites: “doxy,” a girl, came over time to mean a drab, a trollop; and a pair of doxies, two girls, two shoes, two meanings, is a pun inside the word “paradox” itself.
Paradoxes (deeper duplicities, sophist no matter how philosophical) trap us in the endless boxes of ambiguity. As Hamlet says, I could be bounded in a nutshell, but that I have bad dreams. Paradoxes confine us like bad dreams, but at the same time free us (like bad dreams). Shoes here are the footprints of the soul, more reverberant bases than footwear. Another paradox is the lèse-majesté of the shoes being wrapped by the poet for mailing: he makes something better out of a chore, the way Iphigenia turns her sacrifice into a voluntary gift. The rhymes compare ludicrous things to their betters, a linguistic version of the same irony.

Tippet Alley
September 12th, 2002, 8:07 P.M.