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Authors: J.D. McClatchy

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BOOK: Plundered Hearts
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Left behind, in clover’s

    common sense,

a solitary honeybee

    plies her trade.

Circumspect, all twelve

thousand eyes are trained

    on her needlework:

genetic cross-stitch

    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,

               Glistered avenues

    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

    Into a
a woman

    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,

BOOK: Plundered Hearts
10.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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