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Archive for November, 2007

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

I

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby gray;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
“That fellow’s got to swing.”

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what haunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men
Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not feel that sickening thirst
That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves
Comes through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the anguish of his soul
Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
Through a little roof of glass:
He does not pray with lips of clay
For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
The kiss of Caiaphas.

II

Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,
In the suit of shabby gray:
His cricket cap was on his head,
And his step was light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
The man who had to swing.

For strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.

The oak and elm have pleasant leaves
That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
With its alder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is the seat of grace
For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer’s collar take
His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock’s dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
For weal or woe again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other’s way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men we were:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.

III

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman’s day was near.

But why he said so strange a thing
No warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher’s doom
Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
Could help a brother’s soul? (more…)

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Letter Home

–New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still

I must write to you of no work. I’ve worn down

the soles and walked through the tightness

of my new shoes calling upon the merchants,

their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking

my plain English and good writing would secure

for me some modest position Though I dress each day

in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves

you crocheted–no one needs a girl. How flat

the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.

I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet

industry, to mask the desperation that tightens

my throat. I sit watching–

though I pretend not to notice–the dark maids

ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive

anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown

as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite

what I pretend to be. I walk these streets

a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes

of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,

a negress again. There are enough things here

to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through

the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall

the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard

at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking

their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads

on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots

and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending

and domestic; my schooling a gift–even those half days

at picking time, listening to Miss J–. How

I’d come to know words, the recitations I practiced

to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up

or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until

I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,

I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart,

spelling each word in my head to make a picture

I could see, as well as a weight I could feel

in my mouth. So now, even as I write this

and think of you at home, Goodbye

is the waving map of your palm, is

a stone on my tongue.

-Natasha Trethewey

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City That Does Not Sleep

In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.

Nobody is asleep.

The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.

The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,

and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the

street corner

the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the

stars.

Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.

Nobody is asleep.

In a graveyard far off there is a corpse

who has moaned for three years

because of a dry countryside on his knee;

and that boy they buried this morning cried so much

it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!

We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth

or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead

dahlias.

But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;

flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths

in a thicket of new veins,

and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever

and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

One day

the horses will live in the saloons

and the enraged ants

will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the

eyes of cows.

Another day

we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead

and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats

we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.

Careful! Be careful! Be careful!

The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,

and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention

of the bridge,

or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,

we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes

are waiting,

where the bear’s teeth are waiting,

where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,

and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.

Nobody is sleeping.

If someone does close his eyes,

a whip, boys, a whip!

Let there be a landscape of open eyes

and bitter wounds on fire.

No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.

I have said it before.

No one is sleeping.

But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the

night,

open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight

the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.

-Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, translated by Robert Bly

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Memoirs of a Spider

glass webs
hang low
in the sky

my compass
breath weapon
fits snugly between

silently
avoiding

among the white
blankets
a thorn fire
heavy

disappearing
when we begin
empiricism

the day-to-day subjective
lingers
tramping
torn
foreign
page remnants
beneath my feet

still

layered
edited
stories

copied

a forced reflective
upon the still
hanging glass

erases thick
that
which I try so desperately
to remain true

Brad Jadwin 

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Are You There?

Each lover has some theory of his own
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone:

Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.

Narcissus disbelieves in the unknown;
He cannot join his image in the lake
So long as he assumes he is alone.

The child, the waterfall, the fire, the stone,
Are always up to mischief, though, and take
The universe for granted as their own.

The elderly, like Proust, are always prone
To think of love as a subjective fake;
The more they love, the more they feel alone.

Whatever view we hold, it must be shown
Why every lover has a wish to make
Some kind of otherness his own:
Perhaps, in fact, we never are alone.

-W. H. Auden

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Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

-Robert Frost

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The Dream

O God, in the dream the terrible horse began
To paw at the air, and make for me with his blows,
Fear kept for thirty-five years poured through his mane,
And retribution equally old, or nearly, breathed through his nose.

Coward complete, I lay and wept on the ground
When some strong creature appeared, and leapt for the rein.
Another woman, as I lay half in a swound
Leapt in the air, and clutched at the leather and chain.

Give him, she said, something of yours as a charm.
Throw him, she said, some poor thing you alone claim.
No, no, I cried, he hates me; he is out for harm,
And whether I yield or not, it is all the same.

But, like a lion in a legend, when I flung the glove
Pulled from my sweating, my cold right hand;
The terrible beast, that no one may understand,
Came to my side, and put down his head in love.

-Louise Bogan

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