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The Inner Room

It is mine – the little chamber,
Mine alone.
I had it from my forbears
Years agone.
Yet within its walls I see
A most motley company,
And they one and all claim me
As their own.

There’s one who is a soldier
Bluff and keen;
Single-minded, heavy-fisted,
Rude of mien.
He would gain a purse or stake it,
He would win a heart or break it,
He would give a life or take it,
Conscience-clean.

And near him is a priest
Still schism-whole;
He loves the censer-reek
And organ-roll.
He has leanings to the mystic,
Sacramental, eucharistic;
And dim yearnings altruistic
Thrill his soul.

There’s another who with doubts
Is overcast;
I think him younger brother
To the last.
Walking wary stride by stride,
Peering forwards anxious-eyed,
Since he learned to doubt his guide
In the past.

And ‘mid them all, alert,
But somewhat cowed,
There sits a stark-faced fellow,
Beetle-browed,
Whose black soul shrinks away
From a lawyer-ridden day,
And has thoughts he dare not say
Half avowed.

There are others who are sitting,
Grim as doom,
In the dim ill-boding shadow
Of my room.
Darkling figures, stern or quaint,
Now a savage, now a saint,
Showing fitfully and faint
Through the gloom.

And those shadows are so dense,
There may be
Many – very many – more
Than I see.
They are sitting day and night
Soldier, rogue, and anchorite;
And they wrangle and they fight
Over me.

If the stark-faced fellow win,
All is o’er!
If the priest should gain his will,
I doubt no more!
But if each shall have his day,
I shall swing and I shall sway
In the same old weary way
As before.

THE OLD HUNTSMAN

There’s a keen and grim old huntsman
On a horse as white as snow;
Sometimes he is very swift
And sometimes he is slow.
But he never is at fault,
For he always hunts at view
And he rides without a halt
After you.

The huntsman’s name is Death,
His horse’s name is Time;
He is coming, he is coming
As I sit and write this rhyme;
He is coming, he is coming,
As you read the rhyme I write;
You can hear the hoofs’ low drumming
Day and night.

You can hear the distant drumming
As the clock goes tick-a-tack,
And the chiming of the hours
Is the music of his pack.
You may hardly note their growling
Underneath the noonday sun,
But at night you hear them howling
As they run.

And they never check or falter
For they never miss their kill;
Seasons change and systems alter,
But the hunt is running still.
Hark! the evening chime is playing,
O’er the long grey town it peals;
Don’t you hear the death-hound baying
At your heels?

Where is there an earth or burrow?
Where a cover left for you?
A year, a week, perhaps to-morrow
Brings the Huntsman’s death halloo!
Day by day he gains upon us,
And the most that we can claim
Is that when the hounds are on us
We die game.

And somewhere dwells the Master,
By whom it was decreed;
He sent the savage huntsman,
He bred the snow-white steed.
These hounds which run for ever,
He set them on your track;
He hears you scream, but never
Calls them back.

He does not heed our suing,
We never see his face;
He hunts to our undoing,
We thank him for the chase.
We thank him and we flatter,
We hope – because we must –
But have we cause? No matter!
Let us trust!

-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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In honor of the soon-to-be new Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Simic.

The White Room

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees…

Charles Simic

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In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

-Elizabeth Bishop

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