The cactus in the desert stands 
    Like time’s inviolate sentinel, 
Watching the sun-washed waste of sands
     Lest they their ancient secrets tell. 
And the lost lore of mournful lands
     It knows alone and guards too well. 

Wiser than Sphynx or pyramid, 
     It points a stark hand at the sky, 
And all the stars alight or hid 
     It counts as they go rolling by;
And mysteries the gods forbid
     Darken its heavy memory. 

I asked how old the world was—yea,
     And why yon ruddy mountain grew
Out of hell’s fire. By night nor day 
     It answered not, though all it knew, 
But lifted, as it stopped my way, 
     Its wrinkled fingers toward the blue 

Inscrutable and stern and still 
     It waits the everlasting doom. 
Races and years may do their will—
     Lo, it will rise above their tomb, 
Till the drugged earth has drunk her fill
     Of light, and falls asleep in gloom. 

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on March 23, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.

To Certain Poets About to Die

Take your fill of intimate remorse, perfumed sorrow,
Over the dead child of a millionaire,
And the pity of Death refusing any check on the bank
Which the millionaire might order his secretary to scratch off
And get cashed.

  Very well,
You for your grief and I for mine.
Let me have a sorrow my own if I want to.

I shall cry over the dead child of a stockyards hunky.
His job is sweeping blood off the floor.
He gets a dollar seventy cents a day when he works
And it’s many tubs of blood he shoves out with a broom day by day.

Now his three year old daughter
Is in a white coffin that cost him a week’s wages.
Every Saturday night he will pay the undertaker fifty cents till the debt is wiped out.

The hunky and his wife and the kids
Cry over the pinched face almost at peace in the white box.

They remember it was scrawny and ran up high doctor bills.
They are glad it is gone for the rest of the family now will have more to eat and wear.

Yet before the majesty of Death they cry around the coffin
And wipe their eyes with red bandanas and sob when the priest says, “God have mercy on us all.”

I have a right to feel my throat choke about this.
You take your grief and I mine—see?
To-morrow there is no funeral and the hunky goes back to his job sweeping blood off the floor at a dollar seventy cents a day.
All he does all day long is keep on shoving hog blood ahead of him with a broom.

This poem is in the public domain.