Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or niqht come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother.
Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
Hiqh and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.
Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.
O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.
O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the niqht’s carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois'd sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.
Do not be decoy’d elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria’s meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,)
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.
This poem is in the public domain.
This is the key to the kingdom, rustproof
nickel silver, cut in the hardware aisle
by a man in uniform on a rotating steel
carbide blade, a vice securing the blank,
the key’s rounded bow a medallion of sun
with a hole punched through to hang
on its galactic ring. Weightless in the palm,
the shoulder is sharp to mark the exact
depth of engagement. A jagged range
of peaks garnish the shaft, align
with wards in the pin tumbler keyway
and unlock the door, swung open to reveal
the kingdom. Of rain, of infancy, kingdom
of clapboard, concealed carry, of the night shift
at Frito-Lay, nuclear gerontology at Los Alamos,
L-shaped couches, tributaries of heroin up
the Mississippi basin, of prison writing workshops,
kingdom of arugula, of a slaughtered pee wee team
invoking the mercy rule, peaches and asters, of
helicopter cinematography, a girl blowing bubbles
over the river, of a poet unable to sustain
the Blakean conviction that all subjectivities,
predator and prey, are holy, that police are,
a coyote stalking the pinnacles, bald eagle at the zoo.
In that kingdom there is a state, “the state
with the prettiest name,” land of flowers
on the conquistador’s tongue, the state of
brackish water, coastline and glade, made
habitable by sugar and central air, porn mecca
with oranges, flakka zombie flail, grandchildren
lollygagging in manatee exhibits, space exploration
over a red tide choking the cape east of the polis
where a dance club pulses until a man
enucleates its love. If blinded by hatred
of those unlike himself, or by hatred of himself,
the stem that anchors the thorn is the same.
In that state there is a city, initiating its morning
thaw, flag over the courthouse at half mast,
a hollow sidewalk yawning to accept boxes of granola,
olives, wheels of manchego slid down into the deli’s
larder, newspapers slung at stoops from the window
of a crawling minivan, women in yoga pants
clutching Lululemon mats like scrolls, diesel exhaust,
certified nurses in scrubs streaming into the hospital
where a man bleeds from a hole in his still
uncertain future and a woman veers into labor,
the ovaries in the fetus in her womb already freighted
with all the egg cells her child will possess.
Over that city there is a forecast, severe weather,
a storm that hangs like a decaying gourd from twine
in the kingdom’s portico, gourd of a variety present
in the New World before Columbus, the exact moment
of its breaking impossible to predict but certain
to arrive when its curved neck can no longer
sustain the weight of its own rot and snaps, drops,
blows open nutty white flesh on steps below,
gale force and hail wrung out of the jet stream’s
trough and bulge contact zones, over grasslands then
south to the city where white men confuse any threat
to their absolute power as a form of persecution.
In that storm there is a house, its roofline lashed
by rain that courses down asphalt shingles
to decorative gables, slides over dormers,
pools in gutters then runs down downspouts
onto the saturated lawn, water wrapping the house
like a body in muslin. A house in old Colonial style
but thrown off by additions in the back, interior walls
subtracted for flow, a decade-by-decade replacement
of hardwood floors, fixtures, the chimney sealed up,
molting over generations each original element
like the ship of Theseus, this poem of slow violence
with bodies that change in a form that remains.
And now that she is at rest, poor woman,
now that the sky’s ritual errancies have tried
to sack her house and failed, and fled,
Justine is alone again. A black kerchief
tied across her eyes, she measures in darkness
ground coffee beans strong as rocket fuel
on a digital scale, pours steaming water in circles
to bloom the beans. When the brew is rich
and viscous, she glides to her typewriter and writes
“In that house there is only this room.”
She removes her sword from the wall
and cuts the blindfold from her eyes.
In that room there is a bed, Justine’s bed,
tucked with hospital corners, quilt spread
tight as a drum skin and depicting a black cross
side to side, toe to head, marking the kingdom’s
epicenter in crosshairs beneath which she nightly
slept. The bed is empty. Justine is gone. She drags
her sword through thick woods, alive with new
perceptual acuity, hacking at brambles, hoverflies
mobbing her head as she reaches the brook, blade
glinting with orange flecks of sunset as she writes
the word “retribution” in the sky, leaving tracers
in her vision like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
On the bed Justine left behind, there is a book
bound in leather, the one that wrote her into allegory
long before statues in her honor were erected
in civil squares, dog eared at the passage in which
she is still an ideal, standing blind in train tracks
with a falcon on her shoulder. Before she sees
the locomotive, she hears the bell, bell, bell,
feels the ties tremble, and then the engine’s
pistons announcing the arrival of freight: an eight
ton Bearcat armored personnel vehicle, assault rifles,
Kevlar helmets, pilotless surveillance drone, hounds of hell,
bomb-disarming robots and 400 sworn officers of the law.
In the final pages of that book there is a flowering plant,
blue false indigo, native to America, growing wild
at the border of the forest where Justine now stands,
its roots described as woody, black, unkillable, branching
underground in a rhizomatic hydra of power belonging
to no one, to all, its genus derived from the Greek,
bapto, as in dip, immerse, baptize, and make new
from criminal soil. In writing, the plant is motionless,
an image that flickers in the mind and recedes again
into the grammar of its making, but in the wind
that wraps Justine just now, the plant is stereoscopic,
grey-green leaves waving, violet flowers in riot.
In that plant there is a sap that goes blue
on contact with oxygen. It contains a toxin.
Toxic blue dye comes alive as Justine slices
into the hairless stem. Silken weapon, it beads
then streams toward her heels, a blue
the Greeks could not see, blue of the ribbon
holding back Washington’s hair, blue robin egg
hidden in the nest, blue of the officer’s uniform
the moment before he raises his firearm, Neptune’s
blue glow, blue of her birth certificate and a darker
blue passport embossed with the kingdom’s gold eagle,
one talon for the olive branch, one for the arrows.
In that blue there is a belief
that the kingdom’s dome has been sealed
from within, that the exceptions have devoured
the rule, that the watchers need watched
and the charges dismissed, that the presumption
of safety has been put on permanent layaway
for those not born into it, a presumption replaced
with this color that cuts, as it has, as it must,
both ways. Justine’s eyes ache. The sky
is bright with exhortation. She fills each vial
like an inkwell, clambers over monster ferns,
and heads to the city to face the king.
Belief in the blue, in its cruel illusion
of habeas corpus, of “You may have a body.”
Blue in the sap, in its toxin of last resort.
Sap in the plant, blue false indigo,
its deep and communal roots. Plant
in the book where Justine’s an ideal.
Book on the bed in the room she fled
for the city, where if you stand, if you run,
if you resist or comply, where if your pants
are low or high, where to be visible is to hang
in the balance. Bed in the room, room in the house
where she cut the kerchief from her eyes.
House in a storm mistaking its temporary
strength as permanent weather, storm in the city
where Justine follows a river of others
into the tear gas plume. City in the state
with the prettiest name, state in the kingdom
that forgot its key and kicked in the door.
Copyright © 2016 by Ted Mathys. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 30, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.