Published on Academy of American Poets (


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.


Copyright © 2008 by Katie Ford. Reprinted from Colosseum with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.


Katie Ford

Katie Ford is the author of If You Have to Go (Graywolf Press, 2018), Blood Lyrics (Graywolf Press, 2014), Colosseum (Graywolf, 2008), and Deposition (Graywolf Press, 2002). She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Levis Reading Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

Date Published: 2008-01-01

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