Published Humanitas, Volume X, No. 2, 1997
Mount Holyoke College
While trying at age eighty to survive my own recent heart attacks, I’m writing these rhythm-variations of dying for Joseph Brodsky (for, not about, not to), who died of a heart attack January 28, 1996. Two speakers: myself and a woman of blurred I.D. card. Her voice is indented, in quotes, in italics. —P. V.
Part One: AT LAND’S END
Part Two: CALYX
Part Three: LANDLOCKED BRINE
Part Four: GATE
Part Five: RE-INVENTING MAN AND—
Part Six: —AND SON OF MAN
Part Seven: AMAZED TO CARE
Part One: AT LAND’S END
Part One: AT LAND’S END
TaTUM: sea’s breakers break
That strand I pace, its ‘peace’ is a misnomer.
Me. An unlone loner,
I’m crowded—let me go—by tidal sonar.
No intimacy, ankle-deep, can slake
Tide’s thirsty cadence. Though faint as moon’s corona
(When rays nudge waves), tide pulses every dust-flake.
Two rival scansions argue: heartbeat and sea. Sea wins.
“Tide’s easy to argue with, hard to convince.
Leviathan-sea gulps heart’s iambic Jonah.”
‘Catch a baboon,’ my heart doc winks;
‘Graft a red pump from a blue-assed donor.’
“Landlocked from gull wings, from sea winds,
Your freak scars make me wince.
Broiled in sun’s sauna, a landlubber fauna,
You’re a boner, a rogue-gene mistake.”
Yet with one goofy honor: as soul’s—no, word’s—brief owner.
“Old moaner, what you’d housebreak
Is language itself, word’s bratsy demeanor,
Re-Formed for muse’s manor.”
No, for a friend. I bring, as old-style mourner,
My lock of hair for a wordsmith none can wake:
My inferiae in the classic manner
For Brodsky’s karma.
“Accept that coffin’s nails. They’re dust’s last drama,
Its trauma-healing trauma.”
Once one nailed carpenter made all nails quake.
“Undertakers still undertake.
Meet Jack the Reaper, the one friend time can’t take,
The geezer’s sidekick, the ebb no flow can rinse.”
Escaped from ebb, my blood’s an inland lake.
“Not in enough from surf’s long rake.
Tide drinks its drinker when he thinks he drinks.
There is no inland. Never since
A gasping lungfish climbed on fraying fins
Uphill for Darwin’s sake.
You’re just a landfish with a tumor,
Called ‘mind,’ your homo-sap diploma.
Mind? Drugged by soma.”
Mind: the most seedful pome-fruit of Pomona.
“Your brain-rot (called ‘Form’) has an overripe odor.”
My thoughts are as skeptic as Rubaiyat’s Omar.
“But brain-washed while in fetal coma
By Unda Marina. In caul’s wet arena,
Linking two worlds like a comma,
She dunked you while you were a nine-month roomer
Awaiting birth’s subpoena.”
Half dry, half wet, am I land or
Bath? I’m a shoreline sandbar.
. . .
“Sandbar? A quicksand bar.
Ablutions don’t ablute. No rinse can launder
The shipwrecked skulls below. Depth is a launcher
Of Down from Up. Beware of Down’s agenda.”
Both saline catnips, womb’s and semen’s genre,
Arouse a double-entendre, known as ‘gender.’
“Brine is love’s censored mentor.
Not really freed by hips’ meander
From skirts to jeans, not really heartbreak’s mender,
Love still intones too gentrified a mantra:
‘Romeo loves Juliet, Ferdinand loves Miranda.’
No well-groomed manner and no sky-baked manna
But stinky brine is the raw wet core of the matter.”
All groin’s in the head, that kinky master.
“Same coin spins tails, spins heads. Brine spins it madder.
Spin, fortune-cookie coin, our luck’s commander,
Wheeling as south as palms, as north as reindeer.
Each of us gets a throw with no remainder.
At first: bright disk of life (men bet, men dare).
Soon: obol of Charon, fee for tomb’s dark mensa.”
Circle, spin on: now spouse, now child for mater;
Now flow, now ebb for ‘il mare.’
“Roll on, fate’s penny, computer chip of Moira,
Meter of cycles, psyche’s mirror.
Shine me illusions, coined by Maya,
A fate morgana where pasts are mañana,
Dead myths my living future. Millennia
Of autumn’s hit-men, time’s red mafia,
Come mulch me with a dead leaf’s fecund mania.”
Some orb clanks on, now hub of year-wheel’s rotor.
“Now suddenly my breath is shorter.
Whose Bacchic rock-and-roll across myth’s border
Strums my aorta?
It’s wine’s traveling salesman. I’m his farmer’s daughter.
I sprawl, all maenad to his fire, his water.
No, that’s too underling an aura.
There’s just one rhythm every tree has awe for.
Orb, shudder me the lilt that’s Kora.
A zigzag godling: no altar, no ardor
For righteous systems or straight-line order.
My seasons spin in dervish furor.
I was born tomorrow; I’m a sometimes: I’m flora
And frost. And flora’s restorer.”
And a child fleeing on a roller-coaster
From a dirty-old-man molester.
“Oh that? That was my Pluto semester.
Now spring. I’m spinning faster, faster,—
A panting spirit-flesh fiesta.
My turn to molest. I stroke each pasture
Till stalks rise tall in posture.
Till fall, till scythe (unmerry-go-round, spin closer)
Brings closure. Poet, for you I venture
A ‘gracious’ (condescending) gesture:
I crown you—clown you—with seaweed (starting to fester)
As laureate (no, court jester).
These algae are bays (I mean bells) for your tonsure.”
It’s true your cryptic smile can conjure,
But you’re no real Gioconda.
You’re a bodiless myth seeking bodily contour.
[for three lines, she dancing round him, strewing seaweed]
“I confess I’m a myth. I plead guilty with candor.
Can’t fly like a condor, can’t swim like piranha.
I confess I’m a non-exister. . . .
But doom-scarred Existence, a chilblained Cassandra,
Wills-into-being (on Jack Frost’s veranda)
My warm April vista.
What makes earth earthly? Gender, gender, MY gender.”
Part Two: CALYX
Your gender? Too smirched—and too prettied—to fathom.
“Unsmirch, ungentrify, and we’ll illume
‘Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.’ “
End, when we can, the lines of our she-poem
With the suckling letter, the mom letter, the ‘m’
And then with the war letter ‘r’ as countertheme.
“Labia. Lap. A calyx wisdom.
The wound that heals the wounded. Welcome
Back to your lost first home.”
Calyx as soul zone. (The erogenous zone is the cranium.)
“Nothing stays in. Male enterers? Brief flotsam,
Staying no longer than, say, some tampon jetsam.”
One Enterer stays: a scythe, not condom.
“What can’t die is her cornucopia’s maelstrom
Of generations, all creation’s mainstream.
This one-eyed stare: a cyclops in a cave dome.
This four-lipped yawn of immemorial boredom:
‘I am my granny’s granny; time makes numb.’
But the location! Such a slum:
’Two garbage-dumping neighbors, I between them.’ “
Anatomy plays cruel pranks on queendom.
“To punish her for outwitting the scam
Of nature’s loveless breeder-scheme,
Anatomy threw—instead of balm—
A custard pie as a terrorist bomb.”
The custard drips; I honor her pied aplomb.
O anyhow queen. By this ‘anyhow’ paradigm
Of self-surpass, transcending our simian kingdom,
She alone made it natural to overcome
Nature. A soaring struck me dumb
(Ad astra or ad absurdum?)
Each time I overflowed where undertow toward home.
I owe to a depth I cannot plumb
A warmth I can’t repay. Accept what I am.
“Cat’s cradle, woven on a four-legged loom.
Plowed loam, new bloom.”
Babylonian loam: ‘the fertile crescent,’ a phantom
Phrase that’s my obsessive anthem.
Entrance and exit, both in tandem:
Love’s condominium, birth’s waiting-room.
Crescent as half-moon: two wobbly full moons roam
Around it. They bounce in high-heeled tum-ta-tum;
Whole hordes of whistlers, a sniggering bedlam,
Watch from behind. She’s not demeaned by them.
Louts can’t make phoenix dim.
“Calyx as window. With flexible frame.”
More flexible than any shuttered transom.
Wrenched torture-wide for baby’s big cerebrum,
Or—with swelled veins—clamped milkmaid-tight for Adam:
No smile so handsome as Eve-lips bulging buxom.
“One fragile little fur-lined seam
Will ever be in final sum
Unrest’s rest and ransom.”
Are Sphinx and sphincter then the same
In the riddle of the spasm?
In Molly’s ‘yes,’ in Saint Teresa’s psalm?
Can meat be soul, by awe made awesome?
Are paired physiques less physical than they seem?
Then flesh transfigures flesh in tangled twosome.
“It isn’t real, you know. Charade. A game.
I fibbed; I drugged you with odeur de femme,
Plus Muse-mush opium.”
Well, sudden reversals are your abnormal norm.
“Striking while the irony’s hot, I retract my gender nostrum.”
You, a her, belittling her. How come?
Your voice is oddly kind; yet your facts damn.
“I love you; I love fact more.
Lone flowers wilt. Calyx needs stamen stem,
So don’t cry over spilt milt.
Male milt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Calyx, though more than sperm-spit’s cuspidor,
Is less than wisdom’s door.
‘Calyx wisdom’? I said it, but it’s mere
Saws like ‘wipe from front to rear’ and ‘wear
Absorbent underthings in summer.’ “
‘Under.’ Evocative word. Caressive? Sinister?
‘Under’ and ‘over,’ somehow they’re each other.
From under winter, April weather.
We all know who shares Pluto’s lair;
Wherever under and lofty share
One center, she is there.
“And isn’t. I spoofed it all. A slit-skirt lure.”
No, no, her lore is greater, though unaware,
Than wildest spoofs could dare.
There are wisdoms none can bear to bear.
“My gender: a myth and a fact—and the spoor
Of the dreadful iron of God. A brand-mark bloodier
On Eve’s gut than on brow of Abel’s brother.
That hour, tell me, did God’s nostrils flare?
Say, did God’s macho scepter rear?
Weren’t they heady enough, the rites of yore,
The lambs with neck outstretched, eyes trusting, white throat bare?
Did sky crave kinkier fare?
Infinite thirst, finite gore.
Cervix in Latin means neck. An armorless Amor:
Eve’s red throat slashed, now every woman’s scar.
Then came red’s sopping altar:
The countless breach births, each Caesarean scimitar,
The labor screams, all future torture.
I feel (as if my body were my mugger)
Ten thousand future coat hangers abort her.
For Eve, man’s granny, man’s daughter, now what shelter?
She shrugs—it’s the pluck of the fragile—and combs her hair.”
The scar forgot to close; the rose lacks thorns that scare;
This unendurable givenness her givingness learnt to endure.
A slashed red throat, flesh-bridge to flesh’s future;
Of passion and hearth the warmth-affirming color;
Red slash of life across the grave’s black cancer.
A shelter of sorts. And a mysterium.
There are whispers none hears clear enough to hear.
“I wouldn’t dream of dreaming up such flimflam.
Today her giddy trivia are sheer
Fluff, unworthy of all the torture.
Call a red slash ‘pink slit’ and—wham—
Dignity’s on the lam. And pride must scram
When giggly girlie ‘ie’ ends a first name.
And the word ‘panties’ sounds downright unsolemn.
Trifles, but saying, ‘No matter how regal the skirt rim,
Goddess and girlie are sisters under the hem.’ “
Reductiveness doesn’t reduce them.
“She-ness envy is what you suffer from.
That’s Venus envy and Kora syndrome,
A composite she. She as fulcrum.”
Around this fulcrum, loves and seasons swarm;
Grant me, like rafts to ships in storm,
Her tragic seesaw equilibrium.
“The custard pie degrades her flame.”
You’re repeating the slum-locale theme.
I repeat: ‘anyhow.’ She can’t be shamed by shame.
Not even by fame.
As bitter as surf, as pulsed as a far drum,
Calyx is still the core we’re orphaned from:
Sheer rhythm, tide itself, the hint
Of grail we pilgrims hunt.
“Speak English. Do you maybe mean wet cunt?
Look, all things (pity for you chokes my calm)—
All, whether calyx or stamen or cranium—
Look, all things human are slaves of shame and sham.
Moon bullies tide in queendom’s monthly thraldom,
And nine moons rule the two-way slot machine.
. . . But stop, —what’s that spun coin within her skin?”
The fateful orb of all that’s random
Spins on, spins in, with doom’s momentum,
The doom we’re flipped by when we flip a dime
To cross a crossroads scene.
Our pollen gambles on her inner spin:
Roulette of gene.
Va banque; win egg or die; few swimmers win.
“Big lotteries—between just two small knees—
Can win a Nero or a Nazarene.
Losers lose and winners lose. A nemesis
Of absent-minded butcheries.”
What’s left us? Roots and continuities,
Tempered by gypsy laughter under the hill.
“The lifelong sword-dance of your vaudeville.”
Part Three: LANDLOCKED BRINE
And your dance? Year-dance? Your spring is an impostor.
The Potemkin-village season, faked by plaster.
I don’t believe your huckster-goddess patter;
Faith is a lemming pastor.
Green, in Signora Primavera’s pasta,
(Al dente for whom? For Pluto’s platter?)
Is arsenic and reddens poisoned pasture.
Your frost rips down your May’s idyllic poster,
Your twirl becoming a twister.
“Scratch Pollyanna and find tornadoes. My roster
Balances light and dark like Zoroaster,
Halves twinned like Pollux and Castor.
Love twirls my twirling; she’s my sister;
A double-star bevy of astra circling astra.
Love is a contradictory disaster;
Floods drench her just when flames consume her.”
Farm brat or Kora, blurred I.D. or Uma,
Laugh me a crocus from frost’s macabre humor.
Meanwhile sea’s corduroys, made corrugate by luna,
Ripple me down. Am I a water-logged schooner?
“A baby’s mattress, briny as a tuna.”
Through every exit flesh has room for,
From sweat, spit, snot, tears, urine, not from pneuma,
Brine hollers at me like a slanderous rumor.
Do meanings flow in that blind flow’s wake?
Or were my seekings merely the mistake
Of a thinking lake, a draining lake?
“Sniff—be sniffed by—the salt aroma.”
. . .
Aroma and echo and glow: the trio of flow’s terza rima.
Shore’s terrors and toys at the rim are
A noose, a strangling panorama.
All roads lead to Roma; all hopes to heartbreak;
All waves to my veins, the wine-dark of Homer.
Sea dawn: flamingoes shooed by daybreak’s hammer,
Rising on foam with flabbergasting grandeur.
“Then dusk: black ax of umbra,
Felling light’s golden lumber.”
Tell Venus she’s not the only foam-launched wonder,
Nor Pluto the only lumberjack from under.
“I’m sinking toward Pluto, and under my ember
Aboveness is over and ebbing is ever.”
I’m clay. I was always an ebber.
“Gulp the black juice of a void only silences utter;
The poppy of the morgue is like no other.
It laughs the unshed tears you owed another.
It weeps your unearned laughter.”
All somethings are nothings after the after.
. . .
Is tide heart’s pacemaker? Its wearer terra?
“Wee wave-lilt, piled on wave-lilt, swells to tremor.
Wee tremor, vibes still swelling, strikes as temblor,
Piercing your systole’s heart with an undulant heartache.”
And piercing your vamping head-smile with a heart-stake?
“All my I.D.s are true, are fake,
When breakwaters crumble and break.
When Thanatos is Thalassa’s emperor,
When tide pounds Marlowe’s berserk pentameter,
I’m tugged down too. What tamperer,
A thousand nights too deep to tether,
Calls and calls with siren timbre?
Play deaf when undertow talks tender.
Tsunamis wake in us when we’re unawake.”
My inner weather is always winter.
When sky is an ice cube, when sun is a cinder,
Exiles return to their center, no drop of my veins a defector.
Then drowning is my December tempter.
I loll at the edge where sandpipers scamper.
Sand sandpapers me as its timber.
Jailbreak! My landlocked waters, straining at every trapdoor
Of skin, want mer, want mère, the rapture
Of fleeing their leashing tormentor.
“Stay leashed. Rhyme being a bartender,
Souse both of us free of sea’s blue clamor.
Enchant me. Be my seaweed-laureled chanter.”
I can’t. Your role-shifts encumber.
“Unda is AT me. Is at ME. To sunder
Me from Olympus. To hug me to slumber.
Sky is a camera. Land is a newcomer.
It sinks. Some blue is unbearable. My knees shake.”
Where’s queendom now? You blubber;
Stand sober. No, run. It’s time to forsake.
. . . What’s that? What throat is howling from a comber?
My kenneled brine throbs back. A heart attack?
“When they hear wolves howl free, dogs bite their owner.”
Part Four: GATE
Why do I hear a shell shout?
“Maybe some seeker, seeking you out.”
Out? What’s dimming my east with murk?
“Some fogs smirk.”
I’ve oodles of seekers. I put them on hold.
“One seeker is always cold.”
I trust familiars. Cushions, colors, bells.
“Some things are something else.”
Which else (you’re blurred) is my ex-mistress?
“No cold seeker. Ask my mattress.”
Then warm me through Act Five. Stay. Wait.
“No waiting-room at west gate.”
A bit soon for gate talk here.
“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
Some poets truly have inspiration.
“Don’t operate machinery while taking this medication.”
East, not west I’d flow, were I a torrent.
Beached scion of a lungfish Argonaut,
I want to shine on land, not be forgot.
Will I live to achieve this artist wish?
“To shine, fish first must rot.”
When my pace creeps old with dread,
Will you wait with me at the gate?
“When your face sleeps cold and dead,
Mortician-rouge will blush it red.”
Strewn seeds bounce back. The two-way of crops.
‘Up’ and ‘hope’ almost rhyme. A mulched leaf drops
“First down. As I’ve said before,
I love you; I love fact more.”
Fact? We’re fiction. Each the other’s author.
“Here’s my offer:
I stop goddessing, you stop committing rhyme,
We both less fictive ever after.”
A deal. But you’re getting drunk on sobriety.
“You on magic. Which kind?”
That of the guild, the noble-browed uplifters,
Won’t work. Mine’s of the other breed of
Charlatan, the outsider.
“Honor the third magic, the wow of the commonplace.
What saves isn’t saviors; it’s every-day chores,
The miracle of dowdy kindness.
Your craftiness is unkind, is word tricks.
Yet it crafts (being fecund nonsense) beauty.”
That’s how I smuggled meaning and form
(In a false-bottom suitcase of feigned with-it)
Right past the deconstructionist cops.
“You once were a scandal of wonder, a flash of a what.”
“Then why try surviving your heart’s failed iambics?”
Only the living can write about dying.
And for terminal cases the narcotic of choice is scribble.
. . .
“It’s dotingly to shield you that I warn you:
Distrust your dawns. They’re insincere.
They’re dusk, pretending.”
Pretendings succeed. My dusk is dawn,
Replayed in reverse. A palindrome backwards.
“It hurts me to hurt you again into fact. But:
Dear dignified elder statesman, precisely how
Is senile incontinence repaid?”
Spell ‘repaid’ backwards.
“A spelling bee. Wraith, spell solid.”
“Artist, spell ‘arts live.’ “
Evil star. Vile rats.
“Do you savor the English word ‘savior’?”
I prefer the French word ‘savoir.’
“Do you believe ‘Santa’ exists?”
Yes, Virginia, there is a ‘Satan.’
“While aging into dust, spell ‘age.’ “
‘A Ge.’ An earth goddess for dust.
. . .
You’ve many voices, none for long.
“D’ya figure, like they say in sci-fi,
There’s UFO Aliens amongst us?”
Who needs UFOs? I’m more alienated
Than any Martian. And yet as earth-clutching
As my friend, the shade-giving sycamore.
“I’m also a giver. If your straight line could boomerang,
My givingness would wish you back to May.”
My goingness wishes lines round.
“Only cans get recycled. Professor Life
I touched clouds. I made tunes.
“You made! You made! But earth—”
I talked her, not lived her. So now
Must I lack a giver at west gate?
Some goers don’t wait lone. But I?
“No giver, not even that
Sycamore, has patient enough feet.”
I’ll clutch earth all the tighter. Can’t let go
Of touching what I can’t touch.
An ancient witch keeps phoning me. Where from?
“From the year 2100.
She’ll be your grandchild’s grown-up grandchild, saying,
‘You’ll be dismantled any day now—but not
This poem. It will be remembered.’ “
. . .
Don’t take death personal. It’s merely that both archways
Happen to salivate for protein.”
Bon appétit, mom.
“Umbilic snake, slashed off from your birth, returns
To noose your throat. I wish it weren’t so.”
I know you wish. The body language of your crassest
Words is still, as before, kind.
“A ‘life’ is the short-lived remission of terminal cancer.”
Then more pressed grapes, then more pressed lips. Fill, feel.
“Yes, press. Yes, harder. —No, too late.
Countdown. No Act Six.”
Anyhow press press press.
“Countdown. No Act—”
Sky’s very absence talks. It says, ‘Hang on there.’
I will hang on like rats at Coney Island,
Scrounging beady-eyed for popcorn under dumps.
Your spare minutes to my beggar bowl.
“Gate gate gate gate.”
This kleptomaniac clock. I sleepy, sleepy.
“Cliff-hanger, hush, let go.”
Part Five: RE-INVENTING MAN AND—
Tidings to urb and orb: mankind
Is stomping its own hard-won ant hills.
“So what’s the date? A.D.? B.C.?
A good question. Either way,
Somewhere an old peasant mom is wailing.
“Bosnia, Carthage, equally near, equally remote.
Sometimes Kentucky means dark and bloody ground,
Sometimes fried derby and chicken races;
Does now-flux matter in your tower?
Why can’t Parnassians, as grove-crests do,
Ignore the now?”
The now doesn’t ignore them. Bang.
“What’s this world-flood of hate and garbage?”
This loudest century. What stays
Is whispers: Bonhoeffer, Mandelstam.
“Drowned songs drape sea’s floor.
Carve from their deeps an Ark.”
That flood is now inside us all, is us.
One can’t chip away at one’s own heart.
The drowned whispers guide me. But
What most needs doing hasn’t time to start.
“Then strew your Almosts far, your warm confetti
The way consoling grove-arms lavish
A tawny quilt on summer’s chilly close.”
I’m part of all that anywhere is sinking.
It’s me year’s treadmill treads.
Look, I’m a tightrope’s tightrope, veins of greenhood
Pirouetting on my veins, both snapping.
Gravity plunks me on graves.
“The better to dance on. Law of levity.”
I’ve been watching. You’re suspiciously bulletproof
To the thermometer. You’re Teflon to wrinkles.
Sneaking those pomegranates in your bra,
With complicitous leers at crops,
You’re still—admit it—goddessing around.
You said you’d stop. You’re always at it, bedding
In green seedbeds, and then fall’s red-light district.
“My job: to be clay’s year-spin.”
The human job: to be clay’s consciousness.
. . .
“Humans? I’m lodging a complaint about them at the gene bank.
I’m returning for credit the ones I haven’t used.
They’re just not user-friendly. When played with—”
On second thought—
“Played with, they break.”
On second thought, I’d just as soon—
“Yet at YOUR gate I’ll wait with—”
I’d just as soon wait lone.
“I’ll wait with you. An exception, just you. To share your
Mortality, your throat’s last rasp.”
Your errand-of-mercy I return unused.
Too busy ending this life-end poem,
My no to nothingness. My futile no.
“Futile sweetened by the honesty of bitter.
But earlier mortals said it all,
And said forth gods.”
And unsaid them. True godliness? There’s plenty
In hospices, reeking of urine, but not on Olympus.
True grace? I’ll show you courage in cancer wards.
As for gods—
“I bet man toiled awful hard to invent us.”
Man re-invents man. Inventing gods was a cinch.
“What you can’t ‘re’ is death.”
I’m re-inventing not death but dying,
A knack gods lack. My hospital cot hones it.
“You write one poem and one poem only:
The gallant human mess.
There’s self-destruct hubris when humans hump muses
On a mattress off-limits to gods.”
Gods, we humans are a jealous people.
We worship graven images, engraved by
Pain, another knack you lack.
Pain plus brevity, making life
Keep re-inventing life.
“No Act Six.”
Were there more than Act Five, there’d be less.
Part Six: —AND SON OF MAN
“Don’t tell the folks, but gods are atheists, and existence
Needs non-existers. That’s why folks value values.”
Now we, the veterans of pain, devalue
“And what of the enigma of the valued?
There was only one Christian. Not one of you understood.
Tide’s water knew your carpenter had goatfeet.
He was dancing—not walking—on water.
Sky enough for both crowns, the thorned and the vine-leaved.
Our famous feud? Mere ideology. Privately
I would have brought him water on the hill.
That day his man-clay was tested—was tempered—
Annealed! And strewn Osiris, also annealed,
And hacked Dionysus and—and—
“The same, the same, and not quite the same.
Only the nailed one was doubly god. The miracle
Is in the mishmash, blending
A Pan who Found Out about pity
And a Jew-god drunk at last.”
The carpenter’s lips were dry; man wet them with wine.
Pan’s eyes were dry; man wet them with tears.
Man’s crisscross made god-halves whole.
“Miracle, yes, but retuning no winds.
From leaf to leaf the sun seeps down as before.
Blind rounds roll on. Blank coin rolls on.
All rolls and is and isn’t.
Or—was there a ripple of swerve, a quick shrug of light,
In the circuits indifferent to man?
A blink of aware in their sleepwalk?”
I wish I knew.
I want to cry because I want to cry.
And because of how softly the moon silvers the treetops.
“The word you’re fumbling for is ‘poignant.’ “
Let’s both shut up just a minute and hear small raindrops.
Part Seven: AMAZED TO CARE
“Back to business. What—now—of my year wheel?”
Now spins without you. Your nipples are brushing
No dust awake. Your ever-young unwrinkled
Hands stroke no buds.
Flower beds taunt you, ‘Stick to Pluto’s bed.’
Crops jeer, ‘Look, we sprout solo.’
“Well, sure, eternal infinites don’t last.
All gods were immortal.
Some poets will be.”
Euphoria. Act Six.
“And some won’t. For you, no reprieve.”
. . .
Ah Joseph, gates enter us, not we the gate.
I, being older, should be where you are now.
Thin ice: your trampoline. Can leaves fall up?
Our meeting in ’62: in your burg of the bear.
Later: bringing you to my Yank college.
Our joint course: ‘Poets Under Big Brother.’
Our students called it ‘Rhyme and Punishment.’
Today I’m writing not to you (no address)
But for you. Some mulch falls up.
. . .
And when my own gate, too, comes knocking,
How, Kora, will I know ahead?
“Your throat. Rattling.”
And you? Can a godling outlast her last believer?
My devalued Kora and my decaying self,
We’ve shared quite a cycle of poems.
And now their end. And—like a kind
Hand over eyes—our end.
“Ours. Tonight we’ll be stroked to sleep
By the kind stroke of twelve.
. . . But wingbeats. Enter our three unkind
Vultures: Regret, Remorse, and Too Late.”
I have to laugh because I have to laugh.
Doc Morpheus, sleep-god of I.V., drip me
The last morphine,—the ages, not the age.
All fragments of one lost lewd tune.
“Even the cold, cold seeker?
All interweaving though there is no weaver?”
Atoms, twirl on, twirl on: snowflake and morning star,
Calyx and lexicon,
Last leaf, kind storm.
“Broken, you go for broke, stripped now of pose, of props.”
Naked come, naked go.
. . .
“At land’s end, where the sullen surf-slurp mumbles,
We end Act Five. Same strand once more.”
Squashed dunes squish back. Ten thousand years of footprints,
Three-toed or five, sign here in vain.
The strand I pace, the sandglass of the sea,
Crumbles my time-grains while the wavelets tailgate
The waves and bump ashore.
“And throb your veins. There is no inland. Tide
Is telling you something.”
I feel change near. Tide talking. Can’t decode.
“Listen inside you.”
Can’t pause. So much to finish. What’s
This odd rattle?
Have I swallowed some toy? Lucky no rattlesnakes here.
Surely merely some baby’s rattle.
Say ‘yes’ quick to confirm all’s well.
“Amazed to care—I loving mere dust?—I saying
Tide’s one kind wise reply:
Honing—not hoping—more from ever less,
Outdream the gate. Until it seeks you out.”
† Peter Viereck is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College. In publishing “Gate Talk for Brodsky” Humanitas opens its pages to what the author expects will be his last major poem. A meditation on life and death and the ultimate things, the poem integrates themes of the author’s writing in the last six decades. “Gate Talk for Brodsky” is presented together with an interpretive article that relates the poem to the author’s work as a whole. “Gate Talk for Brodsky” (along with Lisa Hajaj’s poem “Two Flutes”) won the Gretchen Warren Prize of the New England Poetry Club for the best published poem by a member during 1998.
* The author’s earlier Persephone dialogues, of which this is the previously unpublished culmination, appear in his poetry book Tide and Continuities, University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
1 Lock of hair: placed by Orestes on grave of Agamemnon, a reference (as metaphor for poetry) that Brodsky was fond of. Inferiae: ancient offerings for the revered dead.
2 Kora, a blurred ambiguity, can mean either shuttling Persephone or simply a maiden. Moira: Greek goddess of destiny. Maya: Hindu goddess of illusion. Charon: ferryman of the dead, his fee the Greek coin called “obol.” Uma: Hindu goddess of Light, as aspect of Deva. La Gioconda: Leonardi’s smiling Mona Lisa. Pomona, cited earlier: protector of fruit (hence “pome” and “pomme“). Despite the high mortality rate for immortals, all the above goddesses stay alive for us today through the connotations of the vowel sounds of their names, which blithely outlive their theological denotations.
3 American Heritage Dictionary: “Comber: a long wave of sea that has reached its peak.”