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Authors: J.D. McClatchy

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BOOK: Plundered Hearts
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the glazed, coarse-grained gesture neither of us

               can make for each other. Poor, stupid cat,

    where are you? All day the bowls have sat there,

                         side by side, untouched.

THE SHIELD OF HERAKLES

The ocean circles its outer rim,

With dented silver swan-shaped studs

To hold taut the backing, deerskin

Lashed to a frame of olive wood.

Next, as if on shore, a round

Of horsemen, loosening their reins,

Gaining on a prize forever unwon.

The face of each is worked in pain.

(Who once coughed up the Milky Way

And later, maddened, killed his sons

Has guiltily now to undertake

Labors to please a weaker man.)

And then a city with seven gates

Of gold where men are bringing home

A bride in her high-wheeled chariot.

Shrill bridal pipes and their echo

Mingle with the swollen torches,

Women, one foot lifted to the lyre,

And a pack of young men watching

Or laughing in the dance, tired,

Others mounted, galloping past

A field the ploughman’s just turned up.

Sharpened hooks have reaped the last

Bending stalks that children prop

In sheaves. Beside them now a row

Of vines, with ivory tendrils curled

On grapes soon trod upon to draw

Their sweetness for the frightened girl.

(My journal of dreams this month: “One

By one the twelve new monsters yield.”

The doctor says the threat’s begun

To counterattack. Is strength a shield?)

Deeper within stand ranks of men

In warring harness, to hold or sack

The town, while corpses, enemy by friend,

Lie near widows tearing their cheeks—

They could have been alive. The Fates,

Shrouded in black enamel, loom

Behind, clawing a soldier to taste

The blood that drips from an open wound.

And closer still four faces stare—

Panic, Slaughter, Chaos, Dread—

Each knotted to the next one’s hair

By serpents, like the Gorgon’s head.

And here are souls now swept beneath

The world, all made of palest glass,

Their skin and bones long since bequeathed

To earth, where the wandering stars pass.

(The archers squint at a gleaming phalanx,

As if from nowhere moved into place.

Machine-made Armageddons—tanks

Or missile shields in outer space—

Threaten always to turn against

The false-hearted power they excite.

What draws attack is self-defense,

A target for the arrow’s flight.)

And at its very center, a wonder

Held up to see, the figure of Fear

Was hammered fast by fire and thunder.

But only half her face appears.

The other half is turned away,

A quivering lip, one widened eye,

Turned back as if to warn in vain

The armored giant, come to rely

On what protects to terrify,

That while at night his dreams explain

The city and field, the dance, the bride,

A crow is picking at one of the slain.

FOG TROPES

A sheet of water turned over.

Sedge script. River erasure.

The smoke out of the factory

Stacks drifts to the title page—

Words too big to read, too quickly

Gone to say what they are.

The water turbine is stalled

And sighs. There go last night’s

Now forgotten dreams, airborne,

Homebound, on their way to work.


Again this morning: five-storey elm spoons

Stirring the wheylight, fur on the knobby

Melon rind left in the sink, the china egg

Under the laying hen, the quilt’s missing

Patch, and now the full moon’s steamed-up

Shaving mirror leaning against the blue.


When my daughter died, from the bottom

Of every pleasure something bitter

Rose up, a sour taste of nausea,

The certain sense of having failed

Not to save her but in the end to know

I could not keep her from passing

As through the last, faintest intake

Of breath to somewhere unsure of itself,

The dim landscape that grief supposes.

I remember how, in the hospital,

Without a word she put her glasses on

And stared ahead, just before she died.

I take mine off these days, to see

More of my solitude, its incidental

Humiliations. Nothing satisfies

Its demand that she appear in order

To leave my life over and over again.

If, from my car, I should glimpse her

In a doorway, bright against the dark

Inside, and stop and squint at the glare—

It’s a rag on a barbed-wire fence.

Or I spot her in a sidewalk crowd

But almost at once she disappears

The way one day slips behind the next.

I’ve come to think of her now, in fact,

Or of her ghost I guess you’d have to say,

As the tear that rides and overrides

My eye, so that the edges of things go

Soft, a girl is there and not there.


Even in the dark

The long shadow of the stars

Drifts beneath the pines.


Snagged on a stalk: fresh tufts of rabbit down,

Thistle silk, a thumbnail’s lot of spittle spawn.


Fidgeting among the goateed professors

And parlor radicals at the
Pension Russe,

The girls whispered to themselves

About the tubercular young Reinhard,

Alone at a corner table, smoking,

Who had introduced them to immortality

By burning a cigarette paper

And as the ash plummeted upward

Exclaiming “
Die Seele fliegt!


It’s the first breath of the dead

That rises from the firing squad

While the anarchist who squealed

Gets drunk and argues with God.

It’s Shelley’s lung in the lake

And his hand in the ashes on shore.

It’s the finespun shirt he ordered

And the winding sheet he wore.


When the two famous novelists discovered

Each the other in the same dress—

A shot-silk “creation” of orris-dust

Laid on blanched silver, like the irony

That is the conscience of style, obscuring

To clarify, bickering to be forgiven—

One retired with her pale young admirers,

Disdain for whom creamed up in her tea,

To a folly by the buckled apple tree.

She sat and pretended to listen to herself

Being praised, picking at grizzled lichen

On the bench, like drops of blistered enamel.

The other tugged at her pearls and stayed

Near the smiles, her dress insinuated

Among the lead crystal teardrops

On the fixture above her, each one

The size, and now the color, of a blossom

On an apple bough outside, and herself

Inside, tiny and helplessly upsidedown.


The first month of the first marriage.

The second year of the second marriage.

The third betrayal of the third marriage.

And love. Love. Always love.


a deep winter yawn

                         the wind caught napping

static on the news

                         charred ozone glaze

dead-petal weather

                         the air’s loose skin

the albino’s birthmark

                         the vinegar mother

a bubble in the artery

                         the pebble in Demosthenes’ mouth

love asleep at the wheel

                         childhood stunned and dumped

the philosopher’s divorce

                         the psychopomp’s coin

self-pity’s last tissue

                         the blister on the burn

the emptiness added daily

                         the abstract’s arsenal

quarry of doubts

                         earthrise from the dark side

the holy sleeve

                         the beatific blindness

white root of heaven

                         the hedge around happiness


The sound of it? A silence

Understood as all the noise

Ignored or stifled, nods

Exchanged on the trading floor,

Or sex in the next room,

His hand over her mouth,

Her belt, the overcast leather,

Clenched between his teeth.

Where the needle stuck,

Its hiss and hard swallow

Halfway into the heart

Of the nocturne, two notes

Fell further apart, the space

Between them a darkness

Clotting, the moon

Having passed behind

A black key, then risen

Higher across the record’s

Rutted, familiar road.


Suddenly, lengths of storm gauze

Drawn across the clearing.

We must not want too much

To know. Uncertainty

Condenses on the windshield,

Then runs down the cheek,

A single waxen tear.

When last night’s grief

Is pulled back from,

Who will be the brighter?

Hush. Be careful. Turn

Those headlights down, low

As a curtained candle flame

Shivering in the dark dispelled.


First, the diagnosis: those night sweats

And thrush, the breathing that misplaces air,

The clouds gathering on a horizon of lung …

Translated as
pneumocystis,
the word from a dead

Language meant to sound like a swab

On a wound open but everywhere unseen.

Then, the options. There were options,

Left like food trays outside your door.

Protocols, support groups, diets,

A promising treatment.

               But three months later

You began to forget the doctor’s appointments,

And the next week no longer cared that you forgot.

The friends who failed to visit, even their letters

Grew hard to parse. It was not as if their “real”

Feelings lay between the lines, but that the lines

Themselves would break apart:
the fight so long

All your work the circumstances remember when.

But remember was precisely what you couldn’t do,

And to pay attention more than you could afford.

The books you’d read now looked back at you

With blank pages memories might fill in

With makeshift, events haphazardly recalled—

Snow swarming on the canal that Christmas

In Venice with Claudio who cried to see it,

Or globes of watery sunlight in your Chelsea flat,

White lilacs at their lips last May, no one there

For a change but just you two.

                                        And here you are

Still, propped up in the half-light, my shadow,

My likeness, your hand wandering to the arm

Of the chair, as if your fingers might trace

The chalkdust of whole years erased.

Is this, then, what it means to lose your life?

But the question is forgotten before it can be

Answered. I take your hand, and give it back

To you, and watch you then look up, giving in,

Unknowing all, whose pain has just begun.

HEADS

As if layered in a wedge of honey cake,

    The aromas of split persimmon,

               Mint, cat spray, and cardamom

    All mingle with the bitter coffee

               On this morning’s scuffed brass tray

Brought into the shop by a cripple with wings.

The match for two Marlboros also now strikes

    The end to one loud bit of holy

               (“Faith” in Arabic is “
din
”)

    Bargaining at the end of the street.

               Peels of old light lie scattered

Outside. Dogs barking. Market day in the souk.

Muhammad deals in goat heads. His rival’s shop

    Is beef, swags of lung and counters heaped

               With livers like paving stones,

    A child-high pile of squat, outsize shins

               And marbleized, harelipped hearts—

Food the rich man eats to settle his conscience.

And
there are flies next door, and a hose to wash

    Dung out of the cow guts … which reminds

               Muhammad of his brother

    Who left to become headwaiter at

               Rasputin’s Piano-Bar.

Both his grandfathers, his father too, had worked

In this tiled hollow lit by one bare bulb.

    Stuck in the mirror are their postcards

               Of the Kaaba, the silk-veiled,

    Quartz-veined sky-stone, Islam’s one closed eye.

               Muhammad hasn’t made his

Required pilgrimage. He went west instead,

The hajj to California, but came up six

    Credits shy at Fresno State. (Shy too

               Of the girlfriend who’d wanted

    To marry “for good,” not a green card.)

               So he’s back in the shop now,

Next to a copper tub of boiling water.

BOOK: Plundered Hearts
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