I can bless a death this human, this leaf
the size of my hand. From the life-line spreads
a sapped, distended jaundice
toward the edges, still green.
I've seen the sick starve out beyond
the grip of their disease.
They sleep for days, their stomachs gone,
the bones in their hands
seeming to rise to the hour
that will receive them.
Sometimes on their last evening, they sit up
and ask for food,
their faces bloodless, almost golden,
they inquire about the future.
One August I drove the back roads,
the dust wheeling behind me.
I wandered through the ruins of sharecrop farms
and saw the weeds in the sun frames
opening the floorboards.
Once behind what must have been an outhouse
the way wild yellow roses bunched and climbed
the sweaty walls, I found a pile of letters,
All afternoon the sun brought the field to me.
The insects hushed as I approached.
I read how the world had failed who ever lived behind
the page, behind the misquoted Bible verses,
that awkward backhand trying to explain deliverance.
The morning Keats left Guys Hospital's cadaver rooms
for the last time, he said he was afraid.
This was the future, this corning down a stairway
under the elms' summer green,
passing the barber shops along the avenue that still
performed the surgeries, still dumped
blood caught in sand from porcelain washtubs
into the road-side sewer. From those windows,
from a distance, he could have been anyone
taking in the trees, mistaking the muse for this new
warmth around his heart—the first symptom
of his illness—that so swelled the look of things,
it made leaves into poems, though he'd write later
he had not grieved, not loved enough to claim them.