Here, in this writing chamber,
with its desk set, vase of ink,
the faint depressions of the blotter
lit with oil harvested at sea;
our weary insomniac, John
Keats, is not well, though he
cannot know this yet, what
we know, how the story ends.
He cannot see us, his future,
let in a draft from the highlands
and whisper of his ailment.
He is too busy looking out
on a world that is half-dark,
half-garden and a ghost-reflection
of the self who, mesmerized
by silence, marks the dying fall
of poems in an empty room,
to hear in words the emptiness.
It is a piece he will not finish,
though he works night into day
talking with disconsolate gods
bereft of acolytes and a sense
of humor. That said, his speaker,
our sole avatar, barely speaks,
though all the pantheon is there
on the vine-beleaguered portico,
each a scrap of marble in a plot
whose civic matrix is dismantled,
whose mortar mists at daybreak,
where cobbles of the otherworld
jewel against the bright onset.
It will be life to see them, he writes,
but what he sees he sees through
like a window laid across a stand
of oak whose unheard tunes are
sweeter, clearer, he tells himself,
whose story comes to a stream made
of glaciers in decline, goliaths
of weather and the long clear pull
of its turbulence, downstream.
Once men walked across the water,
and children followed, and the willows
leaned down like lions to the lyre.
Women traced their silhouettes
on the walls of caves, and when
they died, the shadows remained
and drew our shadows, in kind, to them.
as if our death had met its match.
The bodies of the killing fields
would not be still and rose the way
tidal waters do and exalted tones
as their horrors rise, undaunted.
Iron from the veins of leopards
poured over the lips of cataracts,
and the names they bore were a river’s
name, and their god a river still.
When I was a kid, I had a puppet,
a lion with one eye, his ear
eaten by rain or rot or some
corrosive creature. A castaway
I found in the bushes, or he
found me, his face half-alive,
the other half-blind, and I laid
my voice in the darker portion.
What was that you lost, my friend
leaned in to ask me, that key
to the boathouse, life before life,
that lamentation in the ocean.
He was talking about a dream
I had, the childhood I left,
my other father and the small
red pail of sand, and then. I woke.
A wave rolled through my chest.
It broke and, in the silence, roared.
Tonight, in the mausoleum
stillness, as day burns down its house
of glass and calls it progress,
my wife lights a Shabbat candle,
and I see the smoke her mother
saw, the ovens of the war years,
their ecstasies of filth and cinders.
Beauty overpowers all other
considerations, the writer writes,
and then he hears a gold bell
in a nearby room and answers
with bowls of mangoes and broth
and towels to wipe the discharge
from his brother’s lip. His gods
grow more and more contagious,
the air metallic, the verses more
difficult to finish, though he swears
an oath. He breathes into the corpse
of earth to swell the core, to raise
a fountainhead of dolls and monsters.
Terror writes what terror burns,
each dawn, and the sun gods die,
and the sky moves still. Clouds tear
like hands from a helicopter rope.
So what is lost, or spent, what
superannuations of sunk realms.
What gems inside the marble
forehead of the heroine if not
the theater dark that holds her
to us. Ask the man who coughs
blood into his brother’s name.
Blood dries, the name continues.
In a day or two, it pales, it dries,
all things drawn through the mirror
of each other. Remember me,
says the movie that cannot move
beyond its dull montage: stone
lion, stone lamb, stoned retirement
home and boy who is its gardener.
You could live this way for years,
in a graveyard of the stars, writing
melancholic odes with real wine
in them. A drowsy numbness could
pain your sense, until one night
in the labyrinths of Rome, you
lose your way. The café awnings
fold their wings in the cold façade,
and a downpour drowns your coat
and hair. When a god dies, what then.
You could submit to starvations
and bleedings, the terrible science
romance is made of, and find comfort
in the company. And why not.
Go on. Make them fabulous,
these Athenas dying of neglect,
their robes in ribbons, luxurious
as rope that floats above the factories.
Make them idols out of beach
glass and expenditures of breath
grown deep and weary from the journey.
Sometimes the more merciful view
is a porch in ruins. The beauty
of decaying things. On the far side
of the world, there is a word for that,
for rust that eats across the signage.
A word for the heads of flowers
bent beneath the burden of light,
for the brittle legs of bees,
green striations of a stream
gone dry, a word for the scratch
of hieroglyphic on the gold-plate
tomb that no one understands.
A word for the father when he
has no words, but looks out on
the sea with a voice that makes
no sense, and, yes, I nodded, yes.
The red door of the eye swings
wide to say, you too, come, sit.
I can’t sleep either. Dead lions,
patriots, letters on the far side
of the suffering that makes them
sing, come. Put a little music
on. Or not. You are not alone.
You with your gash of diamonds
bound in a common fabric.
A man’s infection lies inside you,
in petals of ash and abandoned
pages, the disinfected bucket
and scanned line, the sharp green scent
of lime on things that go unspoken.
In you, the decomposition
that winter brings to an end.
And in the sap that aches one
April over breakfast: you. You.
In the dinner passed in silence,
the distant shrieking of a swan.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 5, on page 28
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