Authors: J.D. McClatchy
Left behind, in clover’s
a solitary honeybee
plies her trade.
Circumspect, all twelve
thousand eyes are trained
on her needlework:
and pollen purl.
Her pattern is the field’s.
There is no hum, of course, nor is the bird
That shiver of stained glass iridescence
Through which the garden appears—itself
In flight not from but toward an intensity
Of outline, color, scent, each flower
An imperium—as in a paragraph of Proust.
Mine is a shade of that branch it rests on
Between rounds: bark-wing, lichen-breast,
The butternut’s furthest, hollow twig.
How to make from sow thistle to purslane?
So, into this airy vault of jewelweed,
Slipped past the drowsing bee watch,
Deep into the half-inch, bloodgold
Petal curve, tongue of the still untold.
Deaf to tones so low, the bees never mind
The dull grinding, these rusted gears
Pushed to the limit of extracting
From so many its little myth of rarity.
What was my fault? A book, and something I saw.
The one he never read, the other
He was author of.
Not his daughter—her adulteries
Were with boys from other men’s beds, mine
Merely with women from other men’s poems—
But his empire. He had long since made his Peace
And thereby the fear that would keep it,
The commerce of praise
And the short sword, a vomit that cleanses
The palate. The same horses that tear
The flesh at night by day drive over the tribes.
The quarry falls into his toils. We all have
Our methods of conquest. Even me.
Mine was the dove-drawn
Chariot named Illusion, cockeyed
Laurel crown, and whispers on the way.
I could have chosen another theme—the sons
Who kill their fathers, the brothers who salt each
Other’s cities, or the empire’s spawn,
To sacrifice, bloody baths and nets.
But mine was love-in-idleness scratched
On an apple. In that sweet anatomy
Of desire he smells a treason. Woodland
Shrines and pillow-books, the subversive
Mirror, its fragrant
Incestuous tear beneath the bark—
These conspire against the down-turned
Thumb, policy for sale with chalk on its feet
And locks around its heels. When gods make themselves
Into men, they become less than men,
A human desire.
When men would be gods, they pass new laws
And strengthen the Family. Like gods,
Then, they breed contempt and their own betrayal.
Though whatever work I tried turned under me
Into verse, the spells and bullroarers
Of family life
Resisted all but a low satire,
The cold late supper of everyday.
I had chosen and loved a life in the shade,
A cough, certain oils, her blue lips from under.
It was from such shadows that I saw
His daughter come to
Kick against his rule. I ignored her,
Of course, but one of her slaves had seen
Me, and seen a way to pay for his freedom.
Slaves, our living shades, are like readers, always
Eager for a new master. Lovers
Look for somewhere else
To live, and when they find it, they ask
The poet for passage. Now it is
My turn to pay for love. First my poems made me
Friends, now fame has made my enemies. Tomis?
In Greek the word means “amputation”
And so he would have
My tongue cut out. The title is his,
Not mine, called the Master of Changes.
The life to come will be all the past, the world
Before Rome, rough skins and grunts and frenzied wasps
In their rain-ruined tents. I hear they
Have only one god
To worship. How can one god fill up
The sky? Or answer for this wrangle
In the heart? Perhaps the sky there in Tomis—
Where the Kid is drowned under waves, and the Bear
Kept chained to his pole—is small enough.
I am to be changed
Whose lover is at wine and gaming
With knuckle-bones. She smears her eyes with charcoal
So he will not see her—if he should look up—
Looking away. Or, if not that girl,
Then what is the same,
A ghost, skirling inside an urn called
Tomis. Flattery! That is the work
Of a woman and a ghost. Let us play them
Tonight, before I am both, and you neither.
My friends tell me, Fabia, I am
Married to story,
And so to change. But men do not change,
They grow old, and grow afraid. I have
Left wives before, but not one I loved. There, there,
… The very poem of Troy is enacted!
The fires wept on, the hearth gods smashed,
The old queen’s ashes
Passed from hand to hair. They are afraid
For themselves, my friends, and come to offer
Advice like gentlemen. I may as well count
On the critics. Not that I mind to beg them
For it. Their pity is a fool’s gold
And dealt in Caesar-
Struck coin. One will pay my ferry-ride.
But what shall I take from this last night?
A book? A strong leather cloak? A pen to blind
Myself with petitions? We all live someone
Else’s story, so we may know how
It turns out. I have
Taken something before, then … But what?
My brother’s life. Yes. No one knows that,
Nor ever thought it then, thirty years ago.
One day, in an island of wheatspikes,
We were playing our war, his mattock
Up in the noonlight’s
Angry hour, my barrel-siding
Like an elephant on the mountain.
Having leaped into some last ditch of defense,
His angular stillness was itself both call
And surrender. Not meant to win,
I wondered, then saw
The snake, black standard of an army
Marching off under the world. I watched
Its tongue question the distance to the boy.
When it stopped, the tale came to my lips. “Brother,
Show respect to the god, a sea-borne
God, come to favor—”
My own panic made up its mission—
“The purple shells on his cave’s ceiling
Were tongues that told of the Sun’s only daughter
Who kept his light from the dead, their souls the chaff
Winnowed from life. If a snake could slip
Into the mill’s pin.…”
Calmed, I continued, and backed away.
He turned to me, as one who believes
Will turn the page, and as he turned, the snake struck.
The stone in my throat was that one said
To turn black in the hand of a liar.
Dog’s milk was rubbed on
His gums, a wolf’s liver in thin wine
Was forced, and cow dung through a fresh reed.
Superstitions save what’s no longer wanted.
He died. He died as silent as I’ve remained.
The next day I dreamed the god came back,
Had truly returned
And come to the chamber of the dead.
My brother, pale as a grain fallen
On a cloth, recognized him and stood, head bowed,
Intent on his part. Then the god took him up
To Hercules whose quiver behind
Is a crown of stars.
But the great Serpent coiled in night,
As the boy approached, wound itself round
The hero’s outstretched arm who was to hold
Him fast by his side, a friend to his labors.
So the boy in error was taken
Further up, farther
Away, too far to be seen by men.
But I have, there between the bowstring
And the shaft, whenever I look up for a line.
Exile—a boy into death, the bit of life
Stranded in a song, or its singer—
Is the end of our
Belief. It comes to pass, the last change
As the first, from a stream of star-shot
Wonderment that falls down to our home on earth.
Already in place, her tears are chainlink gold,
Her grief a silken streamer of “blood” that friends
Draw slowly from her mouth while she is told
A rival has worked her magic. Who’s the witch?
The unseen girl will have her hour, then ends
Up on fire. And the star’s in fact an old
Man, with clay breasts and trailing robe
Forty pounds of mirror flints enrich,
Who never says a word I comprehend.
What happens when the language is a mask,
And the words we use to hush this up have failed?
The chorus—beekeepers with samisens—ask
That question (I think) over and over again.
Is tragedy finally wrenched from fairy tale
When we ought to understand but can’t pretend?
She doesn’t hear a thing. Her dragon cart—
The bucket of a sleek hydraulic lift—
Sways above us all. By now the part
Has worn out her revenge. We’re made to feel
Even she is beyond the spell of speech, the gift
Of fate she gave the others. But a moral starts
To echo. The children’s screams. And to each wheel
A body’s tied with ribbons, pale and stiff.
The words had made no sense, but the sword was real.
The faintly digital click of the overhead fan
stroking what was left of the dark
had finally given way to a rooster alarm.
Not that we needed one.
We’d been kept awake all night by cats, cats
in the crawlspace, in the yard,
up and down the back lane, until it seemed
they were in your head,
their guttural chittering, then a courting sound—
more like tires spinning on ice—
a sort of erotic simmer that would mount
to a wail in heat, a wailing,
one pair, and soon after another, the same,
sex shrieking all around and under us,
who hadn’t touched, or barely spoken, for days.
When I leaned over you
to bang on the window, your back was hot on my chest.
I banged louder, longer, less to scare
the cats away than to feel your heat, the flesh
and an inch above the flesh,
while listening to theirs, though theirs hurt less
because the pain thrilled, you could hear it,
the now worried tom helplessly caught in her
until she’d had enough.
And then they set to fighting. Again and again
I’d be getting out of bed to stamp or shout
into the dark, and they would stop for a minute
before turning on each other
with a threatening sigh-long cough. No point, no use
trying to silence it. And the losers,
self-pitying, moved off further under the house,
making a curious new sound,
a wounded coo and some hen-gabble (Christ!
I should have known that rooster was a cat).
By morning we were all exhausted, trying to start
something or stop it,
giving in to another day, angry—but angry at what?
There on the porch, when I opened the screen door,
a black, three-legged, pregnant cat was sitting,
our brooding household god,
last night’s own story staring back at me in the slatted
early palmlight, all the accidents of envy and will
thrown together in one mangled, swollen creature,
mewling, limping, her stump
dangling down beneath her belly. When I took one,
then two hesitant steps toward her, she arched
and hobbled away. Sometimes a life comes to its senses,
or suddenly just speeds up,
as when we first met, whole months it seemed collapsed
to a night, an emptiness years-deep filled
and spilling over by dawn into—but first things first.
Some milk. A shallow bowl.
By the time I’d returned with it, the cat had vanished.
But there beside the door, earlier overlooked,
you’d already set a milkbowl down for her yourself,
someone else’s earthenware,