Song After Sadness

Despair is still servant
to the violet and wild ongoings
of bone. You, remember, are 
that which must be made 
servant only to salt, only 
to the watery acre that is the body
of the beloved, only to the child
leaning forward into 
the exhibit of birches 
the forest has made of bronze light
and snow. Even as the day kneels 
forward, the oceans and strung garnets, too,
kneel, they are all kneeling, 
the city, the goat, the lime tree
and mother, the fearful doctor,
kneeling. Don't say it's the beautiful 
I praise. I praise the human, 
gutted and rising.

More by Katie Ford


After all the days and nights we've spent 
with Starry Messenger, with Dante, 
with Plato, his temperance
painted as a woman who pours 
water into a bowl but does not spill, 
after particle theory and the geologic time of this quartz 
gilded beneath the roaming gone, 
composites of limestone calculated down to the animal
that laid upon it and quietly died, 

after hearing how camels carted away the broken 
Colossus of Rhodes, showing us how to carry 
and build back our destroyed selves,

hearing there was once a hand 
that first learned to turn 
an infant right in the womb, 

that there was, inside Michelangelo, an Isaiah to carve out 
the David, the idea, the one buried 
in us who can slay the enormities, 

after all visions and prophecies that made the heart large, 
once and again, true or untrue, 

after learning to shave the gleaming steel down—
the weapon, the bomb we make, 
and the watercolor made after 
of the dropped-upon crowd, thin strokes 
over a pale wash—
                            after all this, still 
one of us can’t know another.  
Once under an iron sky I listened 
to a small assemblage of voices. 
Two by two broke off into the field 
to strip down the unbroken flock of starling dark 
between them. The ceremony of the closing in,
the hope each to each might not stay tourists
before the separate, chiseled ruin of the other: 

The unspeakable, illegible one before us—

this is what the linguists call the dead, isn't it? 

But how are you, we say, 
meaning how have you been made,  
what is wrong, what 
happened, we ask, how long have you been waiting, 
are you on my side, can you promise to stay, 
will you keep 
the etchings clear on my stone 
and come visit me, your never-known,  
                                                           will you lean over my ghost 
how we leaned over the green pools of the Japanese garden,
a cluster of lanterns blowing out above us
wisp by wisp, a school of koi pausing at the surface, 
letting us look all the way in
until we saw each eye 
                                 was like a net heaped on shore.

Just like our eyes, weren’t they? all accidents, wastes, 
all saving needs filled and unfilled, the cracked shells, 
the kelp fronds torn from their buoys, all caught here, 
inside us—
               the seven we loved, the six we lost— 
seaglass the living
and the human, alone.


I stared at the ruin, the powder of the dead 
now beneath ground, a crowd 
assembled and breathing with 
indiscernible sadnesses, light 
from other light, far off 
and without explanation. Somewhere unseen 
the ocean deepened then and now 
into more ocean, the black fins 
of the bony fish obscuring 
its bottommost floor, carcasses of mollusks 
settling, casting one last blur of sand, 
unable to close again. Next to me a woman, 
the seventeen pins it took to set 
her limb, to keep every part flush with blood. 


In the book on the ancient mayfly
which lives only four hundred minutes 
and is, for this reason, called ephemeral,
I couldn't understand why the veins laid across 
the transparent sheets of wings, impossibly 
fragile, weren't blown through in their half-day 
of flight. Or how that design has carried the species 
through antiquity with collapsing
horses, hailstorms and diffracted confusions of light.  


If I remember correctly what's missing 
broke off all at once, not into streets 
but into rows portioned off for shade as it
fell here, the sun there 
where the poled awning ended. Didn't the heat 
and dust funnel down 
to the condemned as they fought 
until the animal took them completely? Didn't at least one stand  
perfectly still?


I said to myself: Beyond my husband there are strange trees 
growing on one of the seven hills. 
They look like intricately tended bonsais, but 
enormous and with unreachable hollows. 
He takes photographs for our black folios, 
thin India paper separating one from another.  
There is no scientific evidence of consciousness 
lasting outside the body. I think when I die 
it will be completely. 


But it didn't break off all at once. 
It turns out there is a fault line under Rome 
that shook the theater walls 
slight quake by quake. After the empire fell
the arena was left untended 
and exotic plants spread a massive overgrowth, 
their seeds brought from Asia and Africa, sewn accidentally
in the waste of the beasts. 
Like our emptying, then aching questions,
the vessel filled with unrecognizable faunas. 


How great is the darkness in which we grope, 
William James said, not speaking of the earth, but the mind 
split into its caves and plinth from which to watch
its one great fight. 

And then, when it is over, 
when those who populate your life return
to their curtained rooms and lie down without you,    
you are alone, you 
are quarry. 


When the mayflies emerge it is in great numbers
from lakes where they have lived in nymphal skins 
through many molts. At the last  
a downy skin is shed and what proofed them 
is gone. Above water there is 
nothing for them to feed on—

they don't even look, except for each other.

They form hurried swarms in that starving, sudden hour
and mate fully. When it is finished it is said 
the expiring flies gather beneath boatlights 
or lampposts and die under them minutely, 
drifting down in a flock called snowfall. 


Nothing wants to break, but this wanted to break,
built for slaughter, open arches to climb through,
lines of glassless squares above, elaborate 
pulleys raising the animals on platforms
out of the passaged darkness. 

When one is the site of so much pain, one must pray
to be abandoned. When abandonment is 
that much more—beauty and terror 
before every witness and suddenly 
you are not there. 

Breaking Across Us Now

I began to see things in parts again,
segments, a pen drawn against the skin
to show where to cut, lamppost through the stained glass
with its etchings of light against the wall —
it was the middle of the night. It was something we would tell no one:
The hospital roads with standing water, I drove quickly through,
saying, you won’t have to stay.
                                                 But then I left without you,
you whom I’ve felt missing all this time —
when I sat in the weeds of the yard, told to pull them
from the root, not to touch the wild trillium, tying knots in the daffodil stalks,
discontented. When I watched the scatters
of firs sway their birds out through my storm windows,
the tree itself now and no more,
I thought I needed belief — walking through the stubbed wheat grass
requesting everything that would undo me — the nearness of Christ,
abandon and devotion — no one has to teach me
my disobediences. No one sees
the shed I see now, its roof bent with snow, all of it
leaning south how it was never built.
The inches overcome it, but
the green wood darkens, oceanic and deep.
                                                                   He might not wake up,
I thought that night —
                                         I remembered the house I boarded in one summer
with a widower, his wife’s fabric samples left draped over
the arm of the unfinished chair. I could feel her eyes
in my own when I tried to choose
between them, almost, if the sun of the alcove
hadn’t faded them, the dust and his arms worn them.
The sky as stark as the first sheet laid down
after they took her body.
                                           But on that night
while I waited, the clouds casketed the stars,
stars with no chambers or hollows, filling themselves
with their own heat how a hive quivers
to fill each crevice with itself,
how I have never been able.

Related Poems

Another Song [Are they shadows that we see?]

    Are they shadows that we see?
    And can shadows pleasure give?
    Pleasures only shadows be
    Cast by bodies we conceive,
    And are made the things we deem,
    In those figures which they seem.
But these pleasures vanish fast,
Which by shadows are exprest:
    Pleasures are not, if they last, 
    In their passing, is their best.
    Glory is most bright and gay
    In a flash, and so away.
Feed apace then greedy eyes
On the wonder you behold.
    Take it sudden as it flies
    Though you yake it not to hold:
    When your eyes have done their part,
    Thought must length it in the heart.