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 grey;
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 hunted 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 place

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 know that sickening thirst
  That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
  Slips 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 terror 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 our guardsman walked the yard,
  In a suit of shabby grey:
His 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 wandering cloud that trailed
  Its raveled 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.

And 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.

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

The loftiest place is that 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
  In God's sweet world 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 were we:
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 hands were 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?

With slouch and swing around the ring
  We trod the Fool's Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
  The Devil's Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
  Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
  We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
  And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
  Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
  That waits for fool and knave
, Till once, as we tramped in from work,
  We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
  Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
  To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
  Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
  On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
  Went shuffling through the gloom
And each man trembled as he crept
  Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
  Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
  Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
  White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
  In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watcher watched him as he slept,
  And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
  With a hangman close at hand?

But there is no sleep when men must weep
  Who never yet have wept:
So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—
  That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
  Another's terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
  To feel another's guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
  Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
  For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
  Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
  Grey figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
  Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
  Mad mourners of a corpse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
  The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
  Was the savior of Remorse.

The cock crew, the red cock crew,
  But never came the day:
And crooked shape of Terror crouched,
  In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
  Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
  Like travelers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
  Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
  The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
  Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
  They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
  Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
  They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
  As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and loud they sang,
  For they sang to wake the dead.

"Oho!" they cried, "The world is wide,
  But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
  Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
  In the secret House of Shame."

No things of air these antics were
  That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
  And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
  Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
  Some wheeled in smirking pairs:
With the mincing step of demirep
  Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
  Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
  But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
  Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
  Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
  The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
  We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
  To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
  Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
  That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
  God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
  At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
  The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
  Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
  Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
  Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
  To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
  Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
  Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
  And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
  And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
  The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
  Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
  That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
  For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
  Save to wait for the sign to com
e: So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
  Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick
  Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
  Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
  Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
  From a leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
  In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
  Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
  Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
  That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
  None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
  More deaths than one must die.

IV

There is no chapel on the day
  On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
  Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
  Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
  And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
  Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
  Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God's sweet air we went,
  But not in wonted way,
For this man's face was white with fear,
  And that man's face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
  In happy freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
  Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
  They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived
  Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
  Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
  And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood
  And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
  With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
  The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
  And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
  And through each hollow mind
The memory of dreadful things
  Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
  And terror crept behind.

The Warders strutted up and down,
  And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
  And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
  By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,
  There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
  By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
  That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
  Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
  Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
  Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
  Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
  And the soft flesh by the day,
It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
  But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
  Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
  Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
  With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer's heart would taint
  Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God's kindly earth
  Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
  The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
  Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
  Christ brings his will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
  Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
  May bloom in prison air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
  Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
  A common man's despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
  Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
  By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
<7nbsp; That God's Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
  Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit man not walk by night
  That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may not weep that lies
  In such unholy ground,

He is at peace—this wretched man—
  At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
  Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
  Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
  They did not even toll
A reguiem that might have brought
  Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
  And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
  And gave him to the flies;
They mocked the swollen purple throat
  And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
  In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
  By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
  That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
  Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
  To Life's appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
  Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
  And outcasts always mourn.

V

I know not whether Laws be right,
  Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
  Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
  A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
  With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
  If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
  How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
  And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
  For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
  Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
  That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
  And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
  And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
  And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
  Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
  Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
  In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
  Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
  Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
  Wild-eyed and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
  Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
  For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
  Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,
  And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
  Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
  Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
  To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
  Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
  With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
  Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
  And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
  And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
  In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
  Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
  With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
  And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
  And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
  May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
  And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
  The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
  The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
  His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
  Became Christ's snow-white seal.

VI

In Reading gaol by Reading town
  There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
  Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
  And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
  In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
  Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
  And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
  By all 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!

This poem is in the public domain.

    She looked over his shoulder
       For vines and olive trees,
    Marble well-governed cities
       And ships upon untamed seas,
    But there on the shining metal
       His hands had put instead
    An artificial wilderness
       And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
   An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
   Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
   No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
   Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

    She looked over his shoulder
       For ritual pieties,
    White flower-garlanded heifers,
       Libation and sacrifice,
    But there on the shining metal
       Where the altar should have been,
    She saw by his flickering forge-light
       Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
   Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
   A crowd of ordinary decent folk
   Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
   That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
   And could not hope for help and no help came:
   What their foes liked to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

    She looked over his shoulder
       For athletes at their games,
    Men and women in a dance
       Moving their sweet limbs
    Quick, quick, to music,
       But there on the shining shield
    His hands had set no dancing-floor
       But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

    The thin-lipped armorer,
       Hephaestos, hobbled away,
    Thetis of the shining breasts
       Cried out in dismay
    At what the god had wrought
       To please her son, the strong
    Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
       Who would not live long.

From The Shield of Achilles by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1955 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

An initial, fine-grained impulse is to claim an anagoge,
The pure image not enough in its ochres and rouge
For us who, like Ariadne, long to weave its spackled ore
Within our sight without retreat to the ovoid view of Mars
We would recall from the probe’s first aching photos
Showing us as much of absence as any articulation
Of what an alien language might say with its discolorations
Along the risen seafloor face of a mountain, barren of blessing,
Garneted with Pompeian lavas and eddyings
Predicted to evanesce under our mesmeric gaze.
We retreat from witness of its charnal blooms,
Our own premonitions of decay, but the eternal itself,
Balanced on its white stool, elephantine oval,
Baroque bruisings of loss, dorsal of earth,
Clawing nail of Cimabue trapped within
The splintered, shit-colored rot of the Cross
No one regrets having disavowed,
Still rises in our guileless dreaming,
Pure blood from our yellow bones,
A quail’s pure egg speckled in splashes of sleep.

Copyright © 2022 by Garrett Hongo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 7, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

One figure is female, the other is male.

Both are contained.

One figure is mythical, the other historical.

To the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, they occupy different millennia, different continents.

But, to the extent that one can be said to have existed at all, both figures are considered Asian—one from Colchis, one from Korea.

To mention the Asianness of the figures creates a “racial marker” in the poem.

This means that the poem can no longer pass as a white poem, that different people can be expected to read the poem, that they can be expected to read the poem in different ways.

To mention the Asianness of the figures is also to mention, by implication, the Asianness of the poet.

Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.

After such a revelation, the poem is about race, the story is about the gun, the dance is about the body of the dancer—it is no longer considered a dance at all and is subject to regulation.

Topics that have this gravitational quality of aboutness are known as “hot button” topics, such as race, violence, or sex.

“Hot button” is a marketing term, coined by Walter Kiechel III, in a September 1978 issue of Fortune magazine.

The term evokes laboratory animals and refers to consumer desires that need to be slaked.

The term “hot button” suggests not only the slaking of such desires but also a shock or punishment for having acted on those desires, a deterrent to further actions pursuing such desires, and by extension, a deterrent to desire itself.

Violence and sex are examples of desires and can be satisfied, punished, and deterred.

Race is not usually considered an example of desire.

Both the female and the male figures are able to articulate their desires with an unusual degree of candor and specificity.

Both are responsible for many sexual deaths.

The male figure says, “When anger grips me, I cannot contain myself. Only after I kill something—a person, perhaps an animal, even a chicken—can I calm down.... I am sad that Your Majesty does not love me and terrified when you criticize me. All this turns to anger.” “Your Majesty,” here, refers to the king, his father.

The female figure is never directly quoted, but Pseudo-Apollodorus writes that she casts a spell upon the king her husband so that when he has sex with another woman, he ejaculates wild creatures into the woman’s vagina, thereby killing her. Although the punishment is enacted on the body of the woman, this punishment is meant to deter the king from slaking his desires.

Both figures, royal themselves, are angry at the king, but neither attempts to kill the king—which would be political. Instead they displace this anger onto other unnamed deaths, which are considered sexual but not political.

Both figures have spouses known for strategy, for self-preservation in 
politically tumultuous times, times of many unnamed deaths.

Both figures are counterfoils to their strategizing spouses, figures of excessive 
desire, requiring containment.

Both containers are wooden.

Both containers are camouflaged with a soft, yielding substance—one with grass, one with fur.

Both containers are ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

One problem is political. One problem is sexual.

They are both the same problem.

They have the same solution.

The male figure waits in the container for death to come. He waits for eight days. His son will live. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.

The female figure waits in the container for the generation of a life. We do not know how long she waits. Her son will die, after waiting in his own wooden container. This ensures the succession, the frictionless transfer of power.

There are many artistic representations of both containers.

The male figure’s container is blockish, unadorned, a household object of standard size and quotidian function. Tourists climb into it and pose for photos, post them online. The cramped position of their bodies generates a combination of horror and glee. This, in turn, creates discomfort, the recognition that horror and glee should not be combined, that such a combination is taboo.

The female figure’s container is customized, lushly contoured. Its contours are excessively articulated to the same degree that her desire is excessively articulated. Artists depict the container in cutaway view, revealing the female figure within, awaiting the wild creature. The abject position of the female figure—on all fours, pressing her genitalia back against the hollow cow’s genitalia—generates a combination of lust and revenge. This, in turn, creates discomfort—the recognition that lust and revenge should not be combined, that wild creatures and female figures should not be combined, that these combinations are taboo.

Hot button topics are taboo because they generate discomfort.

The male figure slakes his violent desires and is punished. The male figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the violent desires of tourists 
are slaked, while generating discomfort in these tourists.

The female figure slakes her sexual desires and is punished. The female 
figure also functions as a hot button, a means whereby the sexual desires of artists are slaked, while generating discomfort in these artists.

The tourist can climb into the rice chest. The tourist can pose for a photo in the rice chest. Then the tourist can climb out of the rice chest and walk away.

The artist can look into the hollow cow. The artist can render the contours of the hollow cow, the contours of the female figure. Then the artist can walk away.

Both containers allow the tourist and artist to touch the hot button, the taboo.

The desire and the discomfort remain contained.

Both containers allow the tourist and the artist to walk away.

The male and female figures remain contained.

Neither container—the rice chest, the hollow cow—appears to have any necessary connection to race.

To mention race where it is not necessary to mention race is taboo.

I have not mentioned the race of the tourist or the artist.

The tourist and the artist are allowed to pass for white.

The tourist and the artist are not contained.

I have already mentioned the race of the poet.

But to the extent that the poet is not contained, the poet is allowed to pass for white.

I have already mentioned the race of the male and female figures.

The male and female figures are contained.

The rice chest and the hollow cow are containers.

The rice chest and the hollow cow are not the only containers in this poem.

Colchis and Korea are containers in this poem.

Asianness is a container in this poem.

Race is a container in this poem.

Each of these containers contains desire and its satisfaction.

Each of these containers contains discomfort and deterrence.

Each of these containers contains a hot button, a taboo.

The tourist and the artist can enter each of these containers.

The tourist and the artist can touch the hot button and walk away.

Each of these containers separates the slaking of desire from the punishment of desire.

Each of these containers is an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem.

They are the same problem.

They have the same solution.

Each of these containers ensures the frictionless transfer of power.

Each of these containers holds a male or female figure.

The name of the male figure can be translated as “Think of me in sadness.”

The name of the female figure can be translated as “I shine for all of you.”

Copyright © 2019 by Monica Youn. Originally published in Poetry. Used with the permission of the poet.

“The light range was so narrow if you exposed film
for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would
be rendered invisible except for the whites of his
eyes and teeth. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest
clients—the confectionary and furniture industries—
complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture
were losing out that it came up with a solution.”
—Broomberg and Chanarin

“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve
except by a lie, then we know it is really a door.”
—Simone Weil

I keep referring to the cold, as if that were the point.

Fact. Not point.

Forty-below was a good day. “In short, fine weather,” you wrote once, before cutting out blocks of ice and fashioning another igloo for the whole crew each night.

But it isn’t the point, that it was cold, is it?

How many days before arriving did you sit on the deck in that chair, staring out to sea, wearing a coarse blue shirt, the lost, well-mannered rhetoric of your day spiraling beneath a blue hat—concertina (at your ankle) outside the placid frame?

Thank you, whoever you are, for standing behind the camera and thinking “Matthew Henson” and “photograph” at the same time.

*

The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue. Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale frosted azuls. It makes me wonder—yet again—was there ever such a thing as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.

I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.

*

To arrive in a place.

And this place in which you have arrived finally: a place you have always dreamt of arriving. Perhaps you have tried—for eighteen years—to get there, dreaming of landscapes, people, food. Always repulsed by your effort, unable to attain the trophy.

And then finally somehow you arrive one day and are immediately stunned because you realize more than anything, it isn’t the landscape, food, the people. That thing which most astonishes you is the light, the way the air appears, how the sunlight hovers just before your eyes. 

And you—then—wanting nothing more than to spend the day indoors watching the room. The vast ocean always nothing more than an open window. So you stay inside and choose to watch the same wall turn fifty reds, then later: slow, countless variations of blue. Blues you have never seen. There is a black beam overhead on the ceiling. Without it, the ability to see such light would disappear. The light is toying with you, and you like it. All of this because the darkness is now always overhead. That. That is what arriving means.

*

I want to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Or I want to say many different things, but merely one way.

Perhaps there is only one word after all. Beneath all languages, beneath all other words: only one. Perhaps whenever we speak we are repeating it. All day long, the same single word over and over again. 

*

Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark.

*

Out on the ice, the light can blind you. The annals laced with men who set out without the protection of darkness. All finished blind.

Blackbirds, black bowhead whales, the raven, the night sky, the body inside, blue ink, pencil lead, chocolate, marzipan. Like us.

All water is color. But what does that have to do with you and me, Matthew?

*

Maybe life is just this: walking with each other from one dark room to another. And looking.

Sometimes the paintings come to life. Sometimes you just love the word pewter. Sometimes the ocean waves at you. Sometimes there are goldfish in a jar. A bowl of oranges. Sometimes a woman steps down out of a frame and walks toward you. Sometimes she discards the white scarf, which covers her, and reveals her real body. Sometimes she leaves, moments later, covered in a striped jacket and leather hat.

Our lady of the dressing table.
Our lady of the rainy day.
Our lady of palm leaves, periwinkle, calla lilies.
Our lady of acanthus.
A garden redone three times.

*

Sometimes someone you love just falls through. Gone. The blue massive ridges of pressure shift, float away, move. Sometimes the ice breaks open. That’s it. Sledge, dogs and all.

*

I fell through once. I’d grown cold, so I stood up and walked to get my coat. I was told it was hanging on the far wall of a very dark room. Because it was dark, I could see, really see—for the first time—how a particular gold thread sparkled on the collar. I reached out my hand. But before the wall, there was a large hole where stairs were being built, which I could not see. I walked into air and landed on my head. Underground.

Everything then turned a vivid black.

*

I wonder, Matthew, when you were out on the ice for years, trying very hard not to fall through, I wonder whether—like me—you ever thought of the same woman over and over again, whether you ever imagined her draped in a loose-fitting emerald robe, seated in a pink velvet chair, engulfed by a black so bright it was luminous?

I do.

Sometimes I lie here in bed before the fire, unable to move—this cane, this hideous cane, this glorious cane, cutting cane—and imagine that one particular curl falling forward toward her forehead. I imagine the same curl at this angle, then that. A recurring dream. When my bed becomes a vast field of frozen ice the color of indigo, and I cannot move, I begin to see her face. Each strand of her hair becomes a radiant small flame, twisting and burning so quietly. Then I look at your picture, you out on the ice, and I wonder if you ever feel like that, Matthew? 

Like a woman, faceless and flung over
a desk, at rest or in tears, exquisite

quickly drawn ruffles about your shoulder,
halos of wide banana leaves

hovering just above your head?
Were there images you could not fling

from your mind? Events that clung
to you, coated you, repeating

themselves in a series: movements
or instruments in a symphony?

Objects that would not let you go:
an avocado tree; a certain street

at night where someone exceptionally kind
once took your arm as the two of you walked

along a wet sidewalk; trying
to remember the light on that certain gait:

your mother twirling a parasol, also walking
through a grove of olive trees?

Did you begin to find comfort
in the serial, the inexplicable and constant

reappearance of things, people, sensations,
every moment symphonically realized

and reentered. The way the days begin
to rhyme. Every moment

walking into the room again.
Sledge after sledge.

Matthew?

*

I fell through, into a hole in the floor. I landed far below, on my head. Sometimes I still forget my name. Sometimes I forget yours. Sometimes I forget how to spell the. Regularly I am unable to remember Adam Clayton Powell. Or how to conjugate exist. Sometimes I lie in bed and cannot feel my legs. It’s like something quietly gnawed them off while I was in the kitchen making tea. From the knees down: this odd sensation, not nothing, but something, just not legs. If ice were not cold perhaps. Or the memory of a leg. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel their memory.

In conversation, my face goes numb. It starts at my mouth and spreads out. When I am quiet it recedes. Why is numbness ascribed the color blue? It’s not. It’s red.

By the end of the day, my left hand has disappeared from the end of my arm. I ignore it. Hold my pen. Smile at you. What year is it, darling? I once lived where? With whom? Where is she now? What was her name?

*

I remember nurses. Their faces. Someone very, very kind—a woman—began to tape a pen inside my hand. I remember being suspended in a harness. Being lowered down into a warm blue pool. All the other patients there were very old. Here is how we all learned to walk properly again. Underwater. Blue.

Once I fell through—into the dark.

*

Braces and casts.

Being told not to write.

Being told not to read.

Forgetting someone I once promised I would never forget.

Remembering her finally, one year, then forgetting her again, the next day.

Remembering not remembering I’d forgotten.

Forgetting them completely.

*

When I look at photographs of Matisse, unable to walk, drawing on the wall from the bed, his charcoal tied to the end of a very long pole, I stop breathing.

Him, I think. Yes. I could marry him.

I could slip into his bed.

We could talk about real things.

I could be his dark line hovering above.

We could watch the light turning the room every color.

From Gulf Coast 29, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2017). Copyright © 2017 Robin Coste Lewis. Used with the permission of the poet.

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

Copyright © 2021 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 5, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.

This is not a small voice
you hear               this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Darryl. Shaquille.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.

This is not a small love
you hear               this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the alphabet
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron and lace.
This is a love initialed Black Genius.

This is not a small voice
you hear.

From Wounded in the House of a Friend. Copyright © 1995 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.