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by Billy Collins
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or eating a steak,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
LYCANTHROPYBy Miriam N. Kotzin
Especially for a woman the change
is painful, to watch my nails grow thick,
the hair on my body lengthen and coarsen.
Difficult, too, to be the subject of speculation.
I, who had always seemed so
conventional, suddenly afflicted.
I suffer the whispers of neighbors,
rightfully suspicious of my knowledge
of darkness, of unexplained bloodstains.
Unpleasant to be forced to wander,
night after night from village to village.
To be sure, there is more to it than hiding
in ditches, slinking up to the lonely cottage,
hunted by men made brutal by fear.
I am not expecting your sympathy.
I am afraid there is something messy,
unladylike about my acquired appetite,
about giving in to compulsion.
But something attractive, too.
Power, locks falling away, doors flying open.
Knowing I am the calm center of terror.
Myself childless, I began by devouring
my sisters' children, as is the custom.
It could have been a dead giveaway
when I did not join the women wailing
at the funeral. The remains
surrounded by watchers were no more
to me than my leavings.
Understand. Others have had a taste
for young flesh, have sinned and escaped
loathesome transformations. True,
it is a misfortune to be singled out,
to be made into a moral lesson,
tiresome to become an example.
But I have never had patience
with women given to self-pity.
The earth is stained
around the spot
where roses have lain;
snowed-on, they rot,
small sunsets, in heaps.
Like a dress getting hiked
to her throat
the blown snow keeps
drifting the headstone,
surmounting the cross,
exposing the narrow,
yet unflattened mound
with a hiss like a airlock
as the wind moves on.
Strange paradise, complete with worms,
monument of an obsessive will to fix forms;
every apricot or yellow spot's seen so closely,
in these blown blooms and fruit, that exactitude
is not quite imitation. Leaf and root,
the sweet flag's flaring bud already,
at the tip, blackened; it's hard to remember
these were ballooned and shaped by breath
they're lovely because they seem
to decay; blue spots on bluer plums,
mold tarring a striped rose. I don't want to admire
the glassblower's academic replica,
his copies correct only to a single sense.
And why did a god so invested in permanence
choose so fragile a medium, the last material
he might expect to last? Better prose
to tell the forms of things, or illustration.
Though there's something seductive in this impossibility:
transparent color telling the live mottle of peach,
the blush or tint of crab, englobed,
gorgeous, edible. How else match that flush?
He's built a perfection out of hunger,
fused layer upon layer, swirled until
what can't be swallowed, won't yield
almost satisfies, an art
mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,
how good, before they disappear.
I suddenly understand; I'm watching you chop away
at a cabbage, you're humming, the kitchen is light
and knife-thrust, light and knife-thrust,
lightslaw, airslaw, and humming. That would be the way
Life gets its blade out, then goes at it
with a human heart: maybe like somebody hacking
jungle undergrowth, so the whole heart's lost in a minute,
ribbons, pulp; or maybe making an exquisite show
of almondlike slivers, holding up
the fussy ricegrain-sized inscribings, studying
its artistry from many angles, taking years,
taking seventy years; but humming
in an absentminded, pleasurable way, no matter
the time involved, or what the technique -- happy. This
was the lesson, now I remember, carried by the moted light
of the bulky, asthmatically-purring projector
they used for grade school "nature films." The room
was darkened, our tittering hushed, and then a voice,
a grave yet understanding, deeply male voice, came forth
from that machine, while on the screen a grainy lion
brought a grainy zebra down, and this was followed
by a few frames of its running with the bowel. This
was "the law of the jungle," "the law of fang and claw," and
so we understood that what we saw
as horrifying slaughter -- and that zebra's widened jaws
and splayed gray teeth would bray inside my brain
for years -- was part of a governing system, a balance:
there was pain, but it was ordered pain, and Life
was in the greenish jungle vapor, or the sky, all the while,
surveying its handiwork, calmly. Not a life, but Life
was happy, standing grandly in the kitchen
with its tools and its purview, neither king nor cabbage
more endeared to it, the knife out, at some moments
even looking like love, its hair, its hips,
its smooth, assumed efficiency,
its dearly off-key humming.
Our mother is always awake
and her baby is always asleep
Are they both wrapped in gold after all
Or is it just paint: a veil
She is ordinary in ordinary mourning
and her baby is not going to live
She leans her curls against his skull
because she is awake but he is thought
her big hands were cut by stone-cutters
when the world was rich and brown
Her eyes are tired because he is an old man
a little corpse in ghostly swaddling
You say it is all for the love of a child
but she would like to sob with her beautiful neck
and her ornamental uneconomical curls
the beautiful that could not save this child
At the foot of the Cross
That has grown within her
she will remember his loud rebuke
and infinitesimal fingers curled together without end
The historians have applied the X-rays
and they found nothing
They were searching for gold and haloes and dates
She was offering the ordinary meal again
She is awake and in trouble and he is dreaming
of riots, earthquakes, cut flesh, fire, open graves
and a lion on its discontented path
and his blood dripping into his mother's cup
Our mother's eyes are open but he has turned away
in a dream of cities and palms, victories
that look like catastrophe, and indestructible fury
and silence which he will maintain his whole life
And silence in which he will maintain our life