The Rites of Darkness

By Kenneth Patchen 1911–1972 Kenneth Patchen
The sleds of the children
Move down the right slope.
To the left, hazed in the tumbling air,   
A thousand lights smudge
Within the branches of the old forest,   
Like colored moons in a well of milk.

The sleds of the children
Make no sound on the hard-packed snow.   
Their bright cries are not heard   
On that strange hill.
The youngest are wrapped
In cloth of gold, and their scarfs   
Have been dipped in blood.   
All the others, from the son   
Of Tegos, who is the Bishop
Of Black Church—near Tarn,
On to the daughter of the least slut,   
Are garbed in love's shining dress;   
Naked little eels, they flash
Across the amazed ice.
And behind each sled
There trots a man with his sex
Held like a whip in his snaking hand.

But no one sees the giant horse
That climbs the steps which stretch forth   
Between the calling lights and that hill   
Straight up to the throne of God.   
He is taller than the highest tree
And his flanks steam under the cold moon.   
The beat of his heart shakes the sky   
And his reaching muzzle snuffles   
At the most ancient star.


The innocent alone approach evil   
Without fear; in their appointed flame   
They acknowledge all living things.   
The only evil is doubt; the only good   
Is not death, but life. To be is to love.   
This I thought as I stood while the snow   
Fell in that bitter place, and the riders   
Rode their motionless sleds into a nowhere   
Of sleep. Ah, God, we can walk so easily,   
Bed with women, do every business   
That houses and roads are for, scratch   
Our shanks and lug candles through
These caves; but, God, we can't believe,   
We can't believe in anything.
Because nothing is pure enough.
Because nothing will ever happen
To make us good in our own sight.   
Because nothing is evil enough.


I squat on my heels, raise my head   
To the moon, and howl.
I dig my nails into my sides,
And laugh when the snow turns red.   
As I bend to drink,
I laugh at everything that anyone loves.

All your damn horses climbing to heaven

Kenneth Patchen, “The Rites of Darkness” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1942 by Kenneth Patchen. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1957)

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Poet Kenneth Patchen 1911–1972


 Kenneth  Patchen


Largely a self-taught writer, Kenneth Patchen never appeared to win widespread recognition from the professors at universities or many literary critics. As the New York Times Book Review noted, "While some critics tended to dismiss his work as naive, romantic, capricious and concerned often with the social problems of the 1930's, others found him a major voice in American poetry.... Even the most generous praise was usually . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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