A milk-glass bowl hanging by three chains
from the discoloured ceiling
is beautiful tonight. On the floor, leaves, crayons,
innocent dust foregather.

Neither obedient nor sick, I turn my head
feeling the weight of a thick gold ring
in either lobe. I see the corpse-plants
clustered in a hobnailed tumbler

at my elbow, white as death, I’d say
if I’d ever seen death;
whiter than life, at all events,
next to my summer-stained hand.

Is it in the sun that truth begins?
Lying under that battering light
the first few hours of summer
I felt scraped clean, washed down

to ignorance. The gold in my ears,
souvenir of a wicked old city,
might have been wearing thin as wires
found in the ears of a woman’s head

miraculously kept in its first essentials
in some hot cradle-tomb of time.
I felt my body slipping through
the fingers of its mind.

Later, I slid on wet roots,
threw my shoes across a brook,
waded on algae-furred stones
to join them. That day it was I found

the corpse-plants, growing like
shadows on a negative
in the chill of fern and lichen-rust.
That day for the first time

I gave them their deathly names—
or did they name themselves?—
not “Indian-pipes” as once
we children called them.

Tonight, an August night, feeling
the apples yellow as young moons
on the tree behind the house,
I think of my winter—

all my winters, of mind and of flesh,
the wet undercover I’ve grubbed at,
sick with the rot-smell of leaves
black as silt and heavy as tarpaulin,

obedient as the elevator cage
lowering itself, crank by crank
into the mine-pit,
forced labor hopelessly renewed—

but the horror is dimmed:
like the negative of one
intolerable photograph
it barely sorts itself out

under the radiance of the milk-glass shade.
Only death’s insect whiteness
crooks its neck in a tumbler
where I placed its sign by choice.

This Issue

October 17, 1963