Solomon Grey | Gen V
Bending over her bed, I saw the smile
I must have seen when I looked up from the crib.
Knowing death comes, imagining it, smelling it,
may be a fair price for consciousness.
But looking at my sister lying there, I wished
she could have been snatched up from behind
to die by surprise, without ever knowing about death.
Too late. Wendy said, “I am in three parts.
Here on the left is red. That is pain.
On the right is yellow. That is exhaustion.
The rest is white. I don’t know yet what white is.”
For most people. one day everything is OK.
The next, the limbic node catches fire. The day after,
the malleus in one ear starts missing the incus.
Then the arthritic opposable thumb no longer opposes
whoever screwed the top onto the jam jar.
Then the coraco-humeral ligament frizzles apart,
the liver speckles, the kidneys dent,
two toes lose their souls. Of course,
before things get worse, a person could run.
I could take off right now, climb the pure forms
that surmount time and death, follow a line
drawn along Avenue D, make a 90° turn right on 8th Street,
90° left on C, right on 7th, left on B, then cross
to Sixth Avenue, catch the A train to Nassau,
the station where the A pulls up beside the Z,
get off and hop on the Z and hurtle under the river
and rise on Euclid under the stars and taste,
with a woman, in perfectly circular kisses,
the actual honey of paradise.
Then, as if Wendy suddenly understood
this flaw in me, that I could die
still wanting what is not to be had here, drink
and drink and yet have most of my thirst
intact for the water table, she opened her eyes.
"I want you to know I’m not afraid of dying,"
she said. “I only wish it didn’t take so long.”
Seeing her look so young and begin to die
all on her own, I wanted to whisk her off.
Quickly she said, “Let’s go home.” From outside
in the driveway came the gargling noise
of a starter motor, and a low steady rumbling, as if
my car had turned itself on and was warming up the engine.
She said this as if we had gone over to visit
a friend, to sign our names on the plaster cast
on her leg, broken on the swing in our backyard,
and some awful indoor game had gone wrong,
and Wendy had turned to me and said, “Let’s go home.”
She had closed her eyes. She looked entirely white.
Her hair had been white for years; in her illness
her skin was as if powdered with twice-bleached flour;
now her lips seemed to have given up their blood.
Color flashed only when she opened her eyes.
Snow will come down next winter, in the woods;
the fallen trees will have that flesh on their bones.
When the eyes of the woods open, a bluejay shuttles.
Outside, suddenly, all was quiet, and
I realized my car had shut off its engine.
And now she felt hot to the touch, as if
an almost immaterial fat were still clinging,
like a lining, to the inside of her skin,
burning. There was a looseness to her flesh.
A translucency came into it, as had happened
with our mother when she was about to die.
At last a spot of rosiness showed in each cheek;
blushes, perhaps, at a joy she had kept from us,
from somewhere in her life, perhaps two mouths,
hers and a beloved’s, near each other, like roses
sticking out of a bottle of invisible water.
She was losing the half-given, half-learned
art of speech, and it became a struggle for her
to find the words, to form them, to position them,
and then quickly utter them. After much effort
she said to me, “Now is when the point of the story
After that, one eye at a time, the left listened,
and drifted, the right focused, gleamed
meanings at me, drifted. Stalwart,
the halves of the brain, especially the right.
Now, as they rachet the box holding
her body into the earth, I hear her voice,
calling back across the region she passes through,
in prolonged, even notes, which swell and diminish,
a far landscape I seem to see as if from above,
much light, much darkness, tumbling clouds,
sounding back to us from its farthest edge.
Now her voice comes from under the horizon,
and now it grows faint, and now I cannot hear it.
Through portico of my elegant house you stalk
With your wild furies, disturbing garlands of fruit
And the fabulous lutes and peacocks, rending the net
Of all decorum which holds the whirlwind back.
Now, rich order of walls is fallen; rooks croak
Above the appalling ruin; in bleak light
Of your stormy eye, magic takes flight
Like a daunted witch, quitting castle when real days break.
Fractured pillars frame prospects of rock;
While you stand heroic in coat and tie, I sit
Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,
Rooted to your black look, the play turned tragic:
Which such blight wrought on our bankrupt estate,
What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?
…for it is said, they went to school at Gabii, and were well
instructed in letters, and other accomplishments, befitting their
birth. And they were called Romulus and Remus (from ruma, the
dug), as we had before, because they were found sucking the wolf.
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
Dear sons - for I am not, as you believed,
your uncle - forgive me now in my dereliction.
In those nine months the single thought that grieved
me most was not your terrible instruction
in the works of men, the disillusionments -
Nanking and Srebrenica, Babi Yar -
you, bent above those tables of events
by whose low indices you might infer
how far you’d fallen. No, it was instead
the years you’d spend reconstituting all
the billion tedious skills of humanhood:
the infinite laws of Rome, the protocols
of every minor court and consulate -
that city that must rise up from its razed
foundations, mirrored and immaculate,
for as often as we come back to this place.
In sum, they might account it a disaster
but whatever I did, I did it as a deft
composer of the elements, the master
of all terrestrial drag and spin and heft;
look at this hand - the way it knows how light
to grip the pen, how far above the brim
to fill the cup, or hard to steer the kite,
or slowly it can travel through the flame.
More, it knows the vanity of each.
But were I to commend just one reserve
of study - one I promise that will teach
you nothing of use, and so not merely serve
to deepen your attachment of your debt,
where each small talent added to the horde
is doubled in its spending, and somehow yet
no more or less than its own clean reward -
it would be this: the honouring of your lover.
Learn this and she will guide you, if not home
then at least to its true memory. Then wherever
the world loses you, in her you are the same.
First, she will address you in a tongue
so secret she must close her mouth on yours.
In the curves and corners of this silent song
will lie the whole code of your intercourse.
Then, as you break, at once you understand
how the roses of her breast will draw in tight
at your touch, how that parched scrubland
between her thighs breaks open into wet
suddenly, as though you’d find the stream
running through it like a seam of milk;
know, by its tiny pulse and its low gleam
just where the pearl sits knuckled in its silk,
how that ochre-pink anemone relaxes
and unknots under your light hand and white spit;
and how that lovely mouth has no kiss
will take the deepest you can plant in it;
and how to make that shape that boys, alas,
will know already as the sign for gun
yet slide it with a woman’s gentleness
till you meet that other muzzle coming down.
Now, in all humility, retrace
your steps, that you might understand in full
the privilege that brought you to this place,
that let you know the break below the wool:
and as you lie there by her side, and feel
the wet snout of her womb nuzzle and lather
your fingertips - then you might recall
your mother; or her who said she was your mother.
I’m thinking about how I shave my face because yesterday
I shaved my father’s for the first time. This sun’s going to rise
a little farther right now every day. Soon I will return
to my normal life in another city and the year will decay
in an orderly fashion. He gestured me to cut
off the mustache. I wouldn’t. Everybody I said, every
damn body should have a mustache. Life is trouble.
Later I strode out looking for the car: one who can
walks from the hospital. This mirror,
I can’t get it right. The edge of my eye
comes and goes, watering. After a while I know
the days will turn back and walk north. I try to do
what I’m told. My sneeze rings louder in my father’s house,
I pace his carpets on naked feet, one of his cigarettes
in my hand. All the machines there hum and glow,
warming up, ready with readouts.
Outside his window, here, a mockingbird
runs on for minutes without repeating, stops
to consider her options, runs it exactly through once more.
She does the wren, the crow, the creaking door.
The sun gives up and lets go of the horizon.
I turn the light off and the razor on,
get back to work on a face I know
even in shadow.
I once loved a boy with an iron hand.
He kissed me and he said:
Come for a walk on the old black path -
You can sit on my iron bed.
When I sat on his iron counterpane
He kneeled down before me and said:
Kathleen slip off your sensible shoes
And lie in my iron bed.
I’ll bring you whisky and silver,
A bird in an iron cage.
I’ll read you this poem and let you look
At the other side of the page.
It’s true I loved my iron man
From the depths of his iron bed.
I loved him and my life ran out
And I was left for dead.
I learned how his poem continued
On the far side of the page -
The hero could never distinguish
Tenderness from rage,
And locked me in the iron bed
From dawn till dead of night,
Mending children’s jerseys
While my coal-black hair turned white.
I gave him thirteen children
And ten were dead at birth.
Professor now you tell me how
To estimate my worth.
It’s true I loved my iron man
From the depths of his iron bed.
I loved him and my life ran out
And I was left for dead.
Lovers, all the drifting continents, are one
in the imagined world, Pangaea.
There, the hip of Africa
beats against the coast of Brazil.
Birds rain over the shared plains
of Eurasia and North America.
Mother, father. How long ago it seems.
Two hundred million years at least
since I left that fertile valley.
And still the sea floor is spreading,
setting my loved countries adrift.
Mapmaker, palm reader, I turn to you
and the ancients who seeing between
islands of stars, linked
Andromeda, her Perseus.
What if it were possible to vanquish
All this shame with a wash of varnish
Instead of wishing the stain would vanish?
What if you gave it a glossy finish?
What if there were a way to burnish
All this foolishness, all the anguish?
What if you gave yourself leave to ravish
All these ravages with famished relish?
What if this were your way to flourish?
What if the self you love to punish —
Knavish, peevish, wolfish, sheepish —
Were all slicked up in something lavish?
Why so squeamish? Why make a fetish
Out of everything you must relinquish?
Why not embellish what you can’t abolish?
What would be left if you couldn’t brandish
All the slavishness you’ve failed to banish?
What would you be without this gibberish?
What if the true worth of the varnish
Were to replenish your resolve to vanquish
Every vain wish before you vanish?
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
In Rapid City, South Dakota, my mother gave me ice cubes wrapped in napkins to suck on. I was teething then and the ice numbed my gums.
That night we crossed the Badlands. I rode in the shelf behind the back seat of the Plymouth and stared out at the stars. The glass of the window was freezing cold if you touched it.
We stopped on the prairie at a place with huge white plaster dinosaurs standing around in the circle. There was no town. Just these dinosaurs with lights shining up at them from the ground.
My mother carried me around in a brown Army blanket humming a slow tune. I think it was ”Peg a’ My Heart”. She hummed it very softly to herself. Like her thoughts were far away.
We weaved slowly in and out through the dinosaurs. Through their legs. Under their bellies. Circling the Brontosaurus. Staring up at the teeth of Tyrannosaurus Rex. They all had these little blue lights for eyes.
There were no people around. Just us and the dinosaurs.
I became a human bee at twelve.
when they gave me my small wand,
my flask of pollen,
and I walked with the other bees
out to the orchards.
I worked first in apples,
climbed the ladder
into the childless arms of a tree
and busied myself, dipping and
duping and tackling, tracing
the petal’s guidelines
down to the stigma.
I knew my lessons by heart:
The ovary would become the fruit,
the ovule the seed,
fertilised by my golden touch,
my Midas dust.
I moved to pears,
head and shoulders
lost in blossom; dawn till dusk,
my delicate blessing.
All must be docile, kind. unfraught
for one fruit -
nectarine, plum, the rhymeless
And if an opening bud
was out of range,
I’d jump from my ladder onto a
So that was my working life as a bee,
till my eyesight blurred,
my hand was a trembling bird
in the leaves,
the bones of my fingers thinner than
And when they retired me,
I had my wine from the silent vines,
and I’d known love,
and I’d saved some money -
but I could not fly and I made no
‘If you could just keep going in a straight line’ –
Said my father, innocent of Einstein,
As we walked home one night of winter stars –
‘You’d come at last to somewhere where there was
Nothing at all. I mean, there has to be
A last star, and what then?’ This troubled me.
That night in bed I travelled in my mind
Through stars that whirled like snowflakes in the wind
Until I found, beyond one last faint glow,
A blank, like morning fog outside my window.
I woke and cried, but when my father came
To ask what ailed me, was it some old dream,
Sobbed ‘Nothing!’, so was left to sleep again
Like the blind Cyclops in his cave of pain.
Later I learned: my father had it wrong:
All lines bend back at last, however long.
There is no end to the great blizzard of light
I’d like to tell him now, and so I might
Had he not journeyed on, to somewhere far
Beyond all words of mine, and any star.