This Scribe, My Hand

By Ben Belitt 1911–2003 Ben Belitt

When this warm scribe, my hand, is in the grave.
—John Keats


You are here
on the underside of the page,   
writing in water,

showing your head   
with its delicate fuses,

its fatal telemetry,
a moundful of triggers and gunpowder   
like a field-mine,

your sixty-one inches
and your gem-cutter’s fingers,   

taking the weight
of a “roomful of people”   
but making no mark,

pressing the page as I write,   
while the traffic in Rome,
demotic with engines and klaxons,

circles the Pyramid of Cestius,   
crosses a graveyard, and submerges   
again like the fin of a shark.


I write, in the posthumous way,   
on the flat of a headstone
with a quarrier’s ink, like yourself:

an anthologist’s date and an asterisk,   
a parenthetical mark in the gas   
of the pyramid-builders,

an obelisk whirling with Vespas   
in a poisonous motorcade.
I make your surgeon’s incision for

solitude—one living hand, two
poets strangled in seawater and phlegm,   
an incestuous

ego to reach for
the heart in the funeral ashes,   
a deathbed with friends.


Something murderous flows   
from the page to my hand—
a silence that wars

with the letters, a fist
that closes on paper: a blow   
with the straight edge of a razor

that falls with a madman’s   
monotony; or the adze
of a sleepwalking Sumerian

nicking the wet of the clay,   
hacking a wedge in a tablet   
in the blood and the mica,

till all glistens with language.
The criminal folds up his claspknife. The shutters   
slam down on the streets. Nobody listens.


Out of breath with the climb, and   
tasting a hashish of blood,
what did he see on the brink

of the Piazza di Spagna? A hand   
in the frame of a cithara   
where beggars and sunbathers

clotted the levels like musical   
signatures, a Wordsworthian   
dream of “degree,” “unimaginable

time” touched by an axe   
blade—or a pram   
on the Steps of Odessa

torn from the hands of
its mother, gathering speed for the   
plunge and rocking its tires

in the rifling, like a gun barrel,   
smashing its way through the Tzar’s   
executioners, to a scream at the bottom?


A failed solitude ... The bees   
in the Protestant grass
speak of it delicately

in the sweat of a
Palatine summer, guiding my hand   
through the Braille of the letters.

Violet, bluet, or squill—
what was it I picked   
under the epitaph, what

rose to my touch
in the thirst of the marble, a cup   
from the well of your grave

in the noonday miasma,
a hieroglyph in the water, saying:   
solitude, solitude, solitude:

you have it at last—your   
solitude writing on water,   
alone with its failure.


You are there
on the underside of the page,   
a blue flower in my Baedeker,

writing on water. I know it.   
The paper pulls under my pen   
peaks into waves

running strongly into the horizon.   
The emptiness hardens   
with balustrades, risers, and levels,

a staircase of Roman
azaleas. I slip on the blood and the ink   
toward the exigent bed

of a poet. All is precarious. A maniac
waits on the streets. Nobody listens. What   
must I do? I am writing on water,

blazing with failures, ascending,   
descending among lovers and trippers.   
You are pressing me hard

under the paper. At Santa Trinità dei Monti   
the stairway parts like an   
estuary, rises and falls like a fountain.

There is nothing to see but a death-mask, your   
room in an island of risers and treads, oddly   
gregarious, an invisible hand in the granite.


The tidal salts drain on a living horizon,   
leaving a glare on the blemishing
paper. The silence is mortal.
                                                       Nobody answers.

for Joan Hutton Landis

Ben Belitt, “This Scribe, My Hand” from The Double Witness: Poems 1970-1976. Copyright © 1977 by Princeton University Press. Used with the permission of the Princeton University Press.

Source: This Scribe, My Hand: The Complete Poems of Ben Belitt (Louisiana State University Press, 1998)

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Poet Ben Belitt 1911–2003

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Poetry & Poets, Arts & Sciences

 Ben  Belitt


Poet, translator, and professor Ben Belitt was born in New York City in 1911. He earned degrees from the University of Virginia and taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont. Sometimes described as one of the neglected masters of 20th century American poetry, Belitt taught and influenced poets such as Susan Wheeler, Reginald Shepherd, and Lynn Emanuel while at Bennington. Susan Wheeler has described Belitt’s . . .

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SUBJECT Poetry & Poets, Arts & Sciences

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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