The Third Hour of the Night

By Frank Bidart b. 1939 Frank Bidart
When the eye
When the edgeless screen receiving
light from the edgeless universe
When the eye first
When the edgeless screen facing
outward as if hypnotized by the edgeless universe
When the eye first saw that it
Hungry for more light
resistlessly began to fold back upon itself      TWIST
As if a dog sniffing
Ignorant of origins
familiar with hunger
As if a dog sniffing a dead dog
Before nervous like itself but now
weird inert cold nerveless
Twisting in panic had abruptly sniffed itself
When the eye
first saw that it must die      When the eye first
Brooding on our origins you
ask  When and I say
wound-dresser      let us call the creature
driven again and again to dress with fresh
bandages and a pail of disinfectant
suppurations that cannot
heal for the wound that confers existence is mortal
what wound is dressed      the wound of being
Understand that it can drink till it is
sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.
It alone knows you. It does not wish you well.
Understand that when your mother, in her only
pregnancy, gave birth to twins
painfully stitched into the flesh, the bone of one child
was the impossible-to-remove cloak that confers
invisibility. The cloak that maimed it gave it power.
Painfully stitched into the flesh, the bone of the other child
was the impossible-to-remove cloak that confers
visibility. The cloak that maimed it gave it power.
Envying the other, of course each twin
tried to punish and become the other.
Understand that when the beast within you
succeeds again in paralyzing into unending
incompletion whatever you again had the temerity to
try to make
its triumph is made sweeter by confirmation of its
rectitude. It knows that it alone
knows you. It alone remembers your mother’s
mother’s grasping immigrant bewildered
stroke-filled slide-to-the-grave
you wiped from your adolescent American feet.
Your hick purer-than-thou overreaching veiling
mediocrity. Understand that you can delude others but
not what you more and more
now call the beast within you. Understand
the cloak that maimed each gave each power.
Understand that there is a beast within you
that can drink till it is
sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied. Understand
that it will use the conventions of the visible world
to turn your tongue to stone. It alone
knows you. It does
not wish you well.  These are instructions for the wrangler.
Three Fates. One
fate, with three faces.
Clotho      Lachesis      Atropos
Thread spun by one
from all those forever unspun.
Thread touched by one and in
touching twisted into something
forever unlike all others spun.
Thread touched by one and in
touching withered to nothing.
Atropos      Lachesis      Clotho
Three, who gave us in recompense
for death
the first alphabet, to engrave in stone
what is most evanescent,
the mind. According to Hesiod, daughters of Night.
Unless teeth devour it it
rots: now is its season.
My teeth have sunk into firm-skinned
pears so succulent time stopped.
When my wife, dead now
ten years, pulls her dress over her petticoats
and hair, the air crackles, her hair rising
tangles in ecstasy. We are electric ghosts.
You hear the strange cricket in the oven
sing, and ask what it sings.
This is what it sings.
Because Benvenuto in my native tongue
means welcome, write
here lies an artist who did not
recoil from residence on earth — but,
truly named, welcomed it.
But I mis-spoke: not wife. Servant: model: mother
of my child, also now dead.
In prison, immured in the black pit where the Pope
once fed Benedetto da Foiano less and less each day
until God’s will, not the Pope’s own hand, killed him, —
where outside my door each day the castellan
repeated that darkness will teach me I am
a counterfeit bat, and he a real one, —
blackness, silence so unremitted
I knew I had survived another day only by the malignant
welcome singsong of his triumphant voice, —
Benvenuto is a counterfeit bat, and I a real one, —
where God had not found me worthy of seeing the sun
even in a dream, I asked the God of Nature
what unexpiated act the suffocation of my senses, such
suffering, served to expiate.
(This was my first prison.)
For the two murders I had committed, — their just,
free but necessary cause
revenge, however imperfect the justice —
two successive Popes recognized the necessity
and pardoned me. Absolved me.
Because my fame as a maker in gold and silver
preceded me, though I was hardly more
than an apprentice, when Pope Clement came into
possession of the second largest diamond in the world
he summoned me from Florence to Rome — called me
into his presence to serve him. To crown the resplendent
glittering vestment covering his surplice, he wanted
a golden clasp big and round as a small
plate, with God the Father in half-relief above the diamond
and cherubs, arms raised, below. Hurry, he said,
finish it quickly, so that I may enjoy its
use a little while.
Pope Clement, unlike the great I now serve, was
an excellent, subtle
connoisseur; he approved my design.
Each week he summoned me into the presence
two or three times, eager to inspect my progress.
Then Cecchino, my brother, two years younger than I
and still beardless, died —
was killed, as he tried to avenge the unjust killing of
a comrade by the ruthless guard of the Bargello.
Thus was stolen from him the chance to incise
his presence into the hard, careless surface of the world.
The fool who killed him
in what justice must call self-defense
later proved his nature by
boasting of it.
His boasting enraged, maddened me. In this
great grief the Pope rebuked me: You act as if
grief can change death.
Sleepless, eatless, by day I worked at the Pope’s
absorbing golden button — and by night, hypnotized
as a jealous lover, I watched and followed
the fatuous creature who murdered my brother.
At last, overcoming my repugnance to an enterprise
not-quite-praiseworthy, I decided
to end my torment. My dagger entered the juncture
of the nape-bone and the neck
so deep into the bone
with all my strength I could not pull it out.
I ran to the palace of Duke Alessandro — for those who
pursued me knew me. The Pope’s natural son,
later he became Duke of Florence, before his murder
by his own cousin Lorenzino, whose too-familiar
intimacies and pretensions to power
he not only indulged but openly mocked.
Alessandro told me to stay indoors
for eight days. For eight days I stayed indoors, working
at the jewel the Pope had set his heart on.
For eight days the Pope failed
to summon me. Then his chamberlain, saying that all was
well if I minded my work and kept silent, ushered me
into the presence. The Pope cast so menacing
a glance toward me I trembled.
Examining my work, his countenance cleared,
saying that I had accomplished a vast amount
in a short time. Then he said, Now that you are
cured, Benvenuto — change your life.
I promised that I would.  Soon after this, I opened
a fine shop, my first; and finished the jewel.
As the knife descended (forgive me, O God of
Nature, but thus you have arranged it, —)
to my fevered mind
each moment was infinite, and mine.
Late one night, in farewell, Michelangelo
turning to me said, Benvenuto,
you deliver yourself into their hands.
Here I leapt   Here I leapt   Here I leapt   Here I leapt
the shrilling cricket in the shrilling summer evening
sings; as did my father in the sweet years
he served the pleasure of the lords of Florence
as a piper, in the Consort of Pipers.
Imagine my father, no longer young, married, still
childless, an engineer who designs bridges and
battlements for the Duke, but whose
first love is music — the flute. He joined
the Duke’s Consort of Pipers. Now his nights
often are spent not bending over charts and plans
but dazzled at the court of Lorenzo, called The Magnificent
the same Lorenzo who once plucked Michelangelo, still
a boy, from among the horde of the merely-talented
bending to copy the masters in the ducal palace.
Lorenzo, with his father’s consent, adopted
the boy; fed him at his own table.
Imagine, tonight, the brief concert is over —
the Consort of Pipers (respectable, honorable
amateurs: small merchants, a banker, a scholar)
mingle, slightly awed, with an ambassador, a Cardinal . . .
Suddenly Lorenzo is at my father’s ear: He stood
not six inches from me.
Not six inches from my father’s ear Lorenzo
in a low voice as he begins to move through
the crowd followed by his son Piero
(as now my father must struggle to follow)
tells my father he has painfully and increasingly
remarked that the flute has led my father to neglect
his fine engineering talent and therefore my
father will understand why Piero and the Duke
must dismiss him from the Consort of Pipers.
Lorenzo, entering the private apartments, was gone.
In later years, my father repeated to his
children: He stood not six inches from me.
It is a lie. It is a lie that the Medici and you and I
stand on the same earth. What the sane eye
saw, was a lie: —
two things alone cross the illimitable distance
between the great and the rest of
us, who serve them: —
a knife; and art.
The emblem of Florence is the lion; therefore
lions, caged but restless and living, centuries ago
began to announce to the Piazza della Signoria
this is the fearsome seat of the free
government of the Republic of Florence.
Duke Cosimo, hating the noise and smell, had them
moved behind the palace. For years, I had known
the old man who fed and tended the lions, —
one day he humbly asked me if I could make a ring
unlike all others for his daughter’s wedding.
I said yes, of course; but, as payment for its
rarity, I wanted him to drug the strongest lion
asleep, so that I could
examine, for my art, his body.
He said he knew no art of drugging; such poison
could kill the creature; a week later,
in fury he said yes.
The animal was numbed but not
sleeping; he tried to raise
his great head, as I lay lengthwise against his warm body;
the head fell back. My head
nestling behind his, each arm, outstretched, slowly
descending along each leg, at last with both hands I
pulled back the fur and touched a claw.
This creature whose claw waking could kill me, —
. . . I wore its skin.
After the Medici were returned from eighteen years’
banishment, placed over us again not by the will
of Florentines, but by a Spanish army —
my father, though during the republic he regained
his position as piper, ever loyal to the Medici
wrote a poem celebrating his party’s victory
and prophesying the imminent
advent of a Medici pope. Then Julius II died;
Cardinal de’ Medici, against expectation, was elected;
the new pope wrote my father that he must
come to Rome and serve him.
My father had no will to travel. Then Jacopo
Salviati, in power because married to a Medici,
took from my father his place at the Duke’s new court;
took from him his profit, his hope, his will.
Thus began that slow extinguishment
of hope, the self ’s obsequies for the self
at which effacement I felt not only a helpless
witness, but
cause, author.
He said I was his heart.
I had asked to be his heart
before I knew what I was asking.
Against his mania to make me a musician
at fifteen I put myself to the goldsmith’s trade;
without money
or position, he now could not oppose this.
Help the boy — for his father is poor
rang in my ears as I began to sell
the first trinkets I had made. Later, to escape
the plague then raging, he made me
quickly leave Florence; when I returned,
he, my sister, her husband and child, were dead.
These events, many occurring before my birth, I
see because my father described them
often and with outrage.
To be a child is to see things and not
know them; then you know them.
Despite the malicious
stars, decisive at my birth: despite their
sufficient instrument, the hand within me that moves
against me: in the utter darkness of my first prison
God granted me vision:
surrounded by my stinks, an Angel, his beauty
austere, not wanton, graciously
showed me a room in half-light crowded with the dead:
postures blunted as if all promise of change
was lost, the dead
walked up and down and back and forth:
as if the promise of change
fleeing had stolen the light.
Then, on the wall, there was a square of light.
Careless of blindness I turned my eyes
to the full sun. I did not care
to look on anything again but this. The sun
withering and quickening without distinction
then bulged out: the boss
expanded: the calm body of the dead Christ
formed itself from the same
substance as the sun. Still on the cross,
he was the same substance as the sun.
The bait the Duke laid
was Perseus. Perseus
standing before the Piazza della Signoria.
My statue’s audience and theater, Michelangelo’s
David; Donatello’s
Judith With the Head of Holofernes . . .
Here the school of Florence, swaggering, says
to the world: Eat.
Only Bandinelli’s odious Hercules and Cacus
reminds one that when one walks
streets on earth one steps in shit.
Duke Cosimo desired, he said, a statue of Perseus
triumphant, after intricate trials able
at last to raise high
Medusa’s mutilated head — he imagined,
perhaps, decapitation of the fickle
rabble of republican Florence . . .
I conceived the hero’s gesture as more generous: —
Kill the thing that looked
upon makes us stone.
Soon enough, on my great bronze bust of the great
Duke, I placed — staring out from his chest —
Medusa, her head not yet cut, living.
Remember, Benvenuto, you cannot bring your
great gifts to light by your strength alone
You show your greatness only through
the opportunities we give you
Hold your tongue     I will drown you in gold
As we stared down at the vast square, at
David, at Judith — then at Hercules and Cacus
approved and placed there by Cosimo himself —
from high on the fortress lookout of the palace,
against whose severe façade so many
human promises had been so cunningly
or indifferently crushed, I told the Duke that I
cannot make his statue. My brief return from France
was designed only to provide for the future of
my sister and six nieces, now without husband
or father. The King of France alone had saved me
from the Pope’s dungeon — not any lord of Italy!
At this, the Duke looked at me
sharply, but said nothing.
All Rome knew that though I had disproved
the theft that was pretext for my arrest, Pope Paul
still kept me imprisoned, out of spite —
vengeance of his malignant son Pier Luigi, now
assassinated by his own retainers.
One night at dinner, the King’s emissary gave the Pope
gossip so delicious that out of merriment, and about to vomit
from indulgence, he agreed
to free me. I owed King Francis
my art, my service. The same stipend he once paid
Leonardo, he now paid me; along with a house in Paris.
This house was, in truth, a castle . . .
I omitted, of course, quarrels with the King’s
mistress, demon who taunted me for the slowness
of my work, out of her petty hatred of art itself;
omitted her insistence to the King that I
am insolent and by example teach
insolence to others. Omitted that I overheard the King
joke with her lieutenant: —
Kill him, if you can find me
his equal in art.
Before the school of Florence I had only been able,
young, to show myself as goldsmith
and jeweler; not yet as sculptor.
Duke Cosimo then announced that all the King of France
had given me, he would surpass: boasting,
he beckoned me to follow him past the public
common galleries, into the private apartments . . .
Dutiful abashed puppet, I followed; I knew
I would remain and make his statue.
In the mirror of art, you who are familiar with the rituals of
decorum and bloodshed before which you are
silence and submission
while within stone
the mind writhes
contemplate, as if a refrain were wisdom, the glistening
of bronze and will and circumstance in the mirror of art.
Bandinelli for months insinuated in the Duke’s ear
Perseus never would be finished: —
I lacked the art, he said, to move from the small
wax model the Duke rightly praised, to lifesize
bronze whose secrets tormented even Donatello.
So eighteen months after work began, Duke Cosimo grew
tired, and withdrew his subsidy. Lattanzo Gorini,
spider-handed and gnat-voiced, refusing to hand over
payment said, Why do you not finish?
Then Bandinelli hissed Sodomite! at
me — after my enumeration, to the court’s
amusement, of the sins against art and sense
committed by his Hercules and Cacus, recital
designed to kill either him or his authority . . .
The Duke, at the ugly word, frowned
and turned away. I replied that the sculptor of
Hercules and Cacus must be a madman to think that I
presumed to understand the art that Jove in heaven
used on Ganymede, art nobly practiced here on earth
by so many emperors and kings. My saucy speech
ended: My poor wick does not dare to burn so high!
Duke and court broke into laughter. Thus was
born my resolve to murder Bandinelli.
I’d hurl the creature to hell. In despair at what must
follow — the Duke’s rage, abandonment of my
never-to-be-born Perseus — I cast
myself away for lost: with a hundred crowns
and a swift horse, I resolved first to bid
farewell to my natural son, put to wet-nurse in Fiesole;
then to descend to San Domenico, where Bandinelli
returned each evening. Then, after blood, France.
Reaching Fiesole, I saw the boy
was in good health; his wet-nurse
was my old familiar, old gossip, now
married to one of my workmen. The boy
clung to me: wonderful in a two-year-old, in
grief he flailed his arms when at last
in the thick half-dusk
I began to disengage myself. Entering the square
of San Domenico on one side, I saw my prey
arriving on the other. Enraged that he still
drew breath, when I reached him
I saw he was unarmed. He rode a small sorry
mule. A wheezing donkey carried a ten-year-old
boy at his side. In my sudden presence, his face
went white. I nodded my head and rode past.
I had a vision of Bandinelli surrounded
by the heaped-up works of his hand.
Not one thing that he had made
did I want to have made.
From somewhere within his body
like a thread
he spun the piles surrounding him. Then he
tried to pull away, to release the thread; I saw
the thread was a leash.
He tried and tried to cut it.
At this, in my vision I said out-loud: —
My art is my revenge.
When I returned to Florence from Fiesole, after
three days news was brought to me that my little boy
was smothered by his wet-nurse
turning over on him as they both slept.
His panic, as I left; his arms raised, in panic.
from the great unchosen narration you will soon
be released
Benvenuto Cellini
dirtied by blood and earth
but now
you have again taught yourself to disappear
moving wax from arm
to thigh
you have again taught yourself to disappear
here where each soul is its
orbit spinning
sweetly around the center of itself
at the edge of its eye the great
design of virtue
here your Medusa and your Perseus are twins
his triumphant body still furious with purpose
but his face abstracted absorbed in
contemplation as she is
abstracted absorbed
though blood still spurts from her neck
defeated by a mirror
as in concentration you move wax
from thigh to arm
under your hand it grows
The idyll began when the Duke reached me a goldsmith’s
hammer, with which I struck the goldsmith’s
chisel he held; and so the little statues were
disengaged from earth and rust. Bronze
antiquities, newly found near Arezzo, they lacked
either head or hands or feet. Impatient for my
presence, the Duke insisted that I join him each evening
at his new pastime, playing artisan — leaving orders
for my free admittance to his rooms, day or night.
His four boys, when the Duke’s eyes were turned,
hovered around me, teasing. One night
I begged them to hold their peace.
The boldest replied, That we can’t do! I said
what one cannot do is required of no one.
So have your will! Faced with their sons’
delight in this new principle, the Duke and Duchess
smiling accused me of a taste for chaos . . .
At last the four figures wrought for the four
facets of the pedestal beneath Perseus
were finished. I brought them one evening to the Duke,
arranging them on his worktable in a row: —
figures, postures from scenes that the eye cannot
entirely decipher, story haunting the eye with its
resonance, unseen ground that explains nothing . . .
The Duke appeared, then immediately
retreated; reappearing, in his right hand
he held a pear slip. This is for your garden, the garden of
your house. I began, Do you mean, but he cut me off
saying, Yes, Benvenuto: garden and house now are yours.
Thus I received what earlier was only lent me.
I thanked him and his Duchess; then both
took seats before my figures.
For two hours talk was of their beauty, —
the Duchess insisted they were too exquisite
to be wasted down there
in the piazza; I must place them in her apartments.
No argument from intention or design
unconvinced her.
So I waited till the next day — entering the private
chambers at the hour the Duke and Duchess
each afternoon went riding, I carried the statues
down and soldered them with lead into their niches.
Returning, how angry the Duchess became! The Duke
abandoned his workshop. I went there no more.
The old inertia of earth that hates the new
(as from a rim I watched)
rose from the ground, legion: —
truceless ministers of the great unerasable
ZERO, eager to annihilate lineament and light,
waited, pent, against the horizon: —
some great force (massive, stubborn, multiform as
earth, fury whose single name is LEGION, — )
wanted my Perseus not to exist: —
and I must
defeat them.
Then my trembling assistants woke me.
They said all my work
was spoiled.
Perseus was spoiled. He lay buried in earth
wreathed in fragile earthenware veins from the furnace
above, veins through which he still
waited to be filled with burning metal.
The metal was curdled. As I slept, sick,
the bronze had been allowed to cake, to curdle.
Feverish, made sick by my exertions for
days, for months, I slept; while those charged
with evenly feeding the furnace that I had so well
prepared, LARKED —
I thought, Unwitting ministers of the gorgon
Medusa herself. The furnace choked with caking, curdling
metal that no art known to man could
uncurdle, must be utterly dismantled — all
who made it agreed this must destroy
the fragile, thirsty mould of Perseus beneath.
But Perseus was not more strong
than Medusa, but more clever: — if he ever
was to exist as idea, he must first exist as matter: —
all my old inborn
daring returned,
furious to reverse
the unjust triumphs of the world’s mere
arrangements of power, that seemingly on earth
cannot be reversed. First, I surveyed my forces: —
seven guilty workmen, timid, sullen,
resentful; a groom; two maids; a cook.
I harassed these skeptical troops into battle: —
two hands were sent to fetch from the butcher
Capretta a load of young oak, —
in bronze furnaces the only woods you use
are slow-burning alder, willow, pine: now I needed
oak and its fierce heat. As the oak
was fed log by log into the fire, how the cake began
to stir, to glow and sparkle. Now
from the increased
combustion of the furnace, a conflagration
shot up from the roof: two windows
burst into flame: I saw the violent storm
filling the sky fan the flames.
All the while with pokers and iron rods
we stirred and stirred the channels—
the metal, bubbling, refused to flow.
I sent for all my pewter plates, dishes, porringers —
the cook and maids brought some two hundred.
Piece by piece, I had them thrown
into the turgid mass. As I watched the metal for
movement, the cap of the furnace
exploded — bronze welling over on all sides.
I had the plugs pulled, the mouths of the mould
opened; in perfect liquefaction
the veins of Perseus filled . . .
Days later, when the bronze had cooled, when the clay
sheath had been with great care removed, I found
what was dead brought to life again.
Now, my second
prison. It began soon after Perseus was unveiled
to acclaim — great acclaim. Perhaps I grew
too glorious. Perseus, whose birth consumed
nine years, found stuck to his pedestal
sonnets celebrating the master’s hand that made him . . .
On the day of unveiling, Duke Cosimo stationed himself
at a window just above the entrance to the palace;
there, half-hidden, he listened for hours to the crowd’s
wonder. He sent his attendant Sforza to say
my reward
soon would astonish me.
Ten days passed. At last Sforza appeared and asked
what price I placed on my statue.
I was indeed astonished: It is not my custom,
I replied, to set a price for my work, as if
he were a merchant and I a mere tradesman.
Then, at risk of the Duke’s severe displeasure, I was
warned I must set a price: infuriated, I said
ten thousand golden crowns.
Cities and great palaces are built with ten thousand
golden crowns, the Duke
two days later flung at me in anger.
Many men can build cities and palaces,
I replied, but not one can make
a second Perseus.
Bandinelli, consulted by the Duke, reluctantly
concluded that the statue was worth
sixteen thousand.
The Duke replied that for two farthings
Perseus could go to the scrap heap; that would
resolve our differences.
At last, the settlement was thirty-five hundred, one
hundred a month. Soon after, charges were brought
against me, for sodomy —
I escaped Florence as far as Scarperia, but there
the Duke’s soldiers caught me and in chains
brought me back.
I confessed. If I had not, I could have been made
to serve as a slave in the Duke’s galleys for life.
The Duke listened behind a screen as I was made
publicly to confess, in full court . . . Punishment
was four years imprisonment. Without the Duke’s
concurrence, of course, no charges could have been
lodged, no public humiliation arranged
to silence the insolent. The first Cosimo, founder of Medici
power, all his life protected Donatello whose
affections and bliss were found in Ganymede.
After imprisonment one month, Cosimo
finally commuted my sentence to house arrest.
There his magnanimity allowed me to complete
my Christ of the whitest marble
set upon a cross of the blackest.
Now, my Christ sits still packed in a crate
in the Duke’s new chapel; my bust of the Duke
is exiled to Elba, there to frighten in open air
slaves peering out from his passing galleys.
Now, after the Duchess and two of their sons
died of fever within two months, Cosimo
grows stranger: he murdered Sforza
by running him through with a spear: —
he does not own
his mind; or will.
When I ask release from his service, he says
that he cannot, that he soon
will have need of me for great projects; no
commissions come. Catherine de’ Medici, regent of
the young French king, petitioned that I be allowed
to enter her service. He said I had no will now to work.
In prison I wrote my sonnet addressed
to Fortune: — Fortune,  you sow!
You turned from me because Ganymede
also is my joy . . . O God of Nature, author
of my nature,
where does your son Jesus forbid it?
When I was five, one night my father
woke me. He pulled me to the basement, making me
stare into the oak fire and see what he just had seen.
There a little lizard was sporting
at the core of the intensest flames.
My father boxed me on the ears, then kissed me —
saying that I must remember this night: —
My dear little boy, the lizard you see
is a salamander, a creature that lives
at the heart of fire. You and I are blessed: no other
soul now living has been allowed to see it.
I am too old to fight to leave Florence: —
here, young, this goldsmith and jeweler
began to imagine that
severity, that chastity of style
certain remnants of the ancient world
left my hand hungry to emulate: —
equilibrium of ferocious, contradictory
forces: equilibrium whose balance or poise is their
tension, and does not efface them, —
as if the surface of each thing
arranged within the frame, the surface of each
body the eye must circle
gives up to the eye its vibration, its nature.
Two or three times, perhaps,— you
say where, — I have achieved it.
See, in my great bronze bust of the great
Duke, embedded in the right epaulette like a trophy
an open-mouthed
face part lion part man part goat, with an iron
bar jammed in its lower jaw
rising resistlessly across its mouth.
See, in Vasari’s clumsy portrait of me, as I float
above the right shoulder of the Duke, the same face.”
As if your hand fumbling to reach inside
reached inside
As if light falling on the surface
fell on what made the surface
As if there were no scarcity of sun
on the sun
I covered my arm with orchid juice.
With my hatchet I split a mangrove stick
from a tree, and sharpened it.
I covered the killing stick with orchid juice.
We were camping at Marunga Island
looking for oysters. This woman I was about to kill
at last separated herself from the others
to hunt lilies. She walked into the swamp, then
got cold, and lay down on sandy ground.
After I hit her between the eyes with my hatchet
she kicked, but couldn’t
raise up.
With my thumb over the end of the killing stick
I jabbed her Mount of Venus until her skin pushed
back up to her navel. Her large intestine
protruded as though it were red calico.
With my thumb over the end of the killing stick
each time she inhaled
I pushed my arm
in a little. When she exhaled, I stopped. Little by little
I got my hand
inside her. Finally I touched her heart.
Once you reach what is
inside it is outside. I pushed the killing stick
into her heart.
The spirit that belonged to that dead woman
went into my heart then.
I felt it go in.
I pulled my arm
out. I covered my arm with orchid juice.
Next I broke a nest of green ants
off a tree, and watched the live ants
bite her skin until her skin moved by itself
downward from her navel and covered her bones.
Then I took some dry mud and put my sweat
and her blood in the dry mud
and warmed it over a fire. Six or eight times
I put the blood and sweat and mud
inside her uterus until there was no trace of her
wound or what I had done.
I was careful none of her pubic hair was left
inside her vagina for her husband to feel.
Her large intestine stuck out several feet.
When I shook some green ants on it, a little
went in. I shook some more. All of it went in.
When I whirled the killing stick with her heart’s blood
over her head, her head
moved. When I whirled it some more, she moved
more. The third time I whirled the killing stick
she gasped for breath. She blew some breath
out of her mouth, and was all right.
I said, You go eat some lilies. She
got up. I said, You will live
two days. One day you will be happy. The next, sick.
She ate some lilies. She walked around, then
came back and slept. When laughing and talking women
woke her she gathered her lilies and returned to camp.
The next day she walked around and played,
talked and made fun, gathering with others oysters
and lilies. She brought into camp what she
gathered. That night she lay down and died.
Even the gods cannot
end death. In this universe anybody can kill anybody
with a stick. What the gods gave me
is their gift, the power to bury within each
creature the hour it ceases.
Everyone knows I have powers but not such power.
If they knew I would be so famous
they would kill me.
I tell you because your tongue is stone.
If the gods ever give you words, one night in
sleep you will wake to find me above you.
After sex & metaphysics, —
. . . what?
What you have made.
Infinite the forms, finite
tonight as I find again in the mirror the familiar appeaseless
eater’s face
Ignorant of cause or source or end
in silence he repeats
Eater, become food
All life exists at the expense of other life
Because you have eaten and eat as eat you must
Eater, become food
unlike the burning stars
burning merely to be
Then I ask him how to become food
In silence he repeats that others have
other fates, but that I must fashion out of the corruptible
body a new body good to eat a thousand years
Then I tell the eater’s face that within me is no
sustenance, on my famished
plate centuries have been served me and still I am famished
He smirks, and in silence repeats that all life exists
at the expense of other life
You must fashion out of the corruptible
body a new body good to eat a thousand years
Because you have eaten and eat as eat you must
ignorant of cause or source or end
drugged to sleep by repetition of the diurnal
round, the monotonous sorrow of the finite,
within       I am awake
repairing in dirt the frayed immaculate thread
forced by being to watch the birth of suns
This is the end of the third hour of the night.

NOTES: In Part II, my largest debts are to John Addington Symonds’s translation, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, Written by Himself (1887); and to Michael W. Cole’s Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture (2002). Part III, section one, is based on W. Lloyd Warner’s A Black Civilization (1958), pages 198-200; reprinted under the title “Black Magic: An Australian Sorcerer (Arnhem Land)” in Mircea Eliade’s From Primitives to Zen: A Thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions (1977; 443-445).   –F. B.

Source: Poetry (October 2004).


This poem originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Poetry magazine

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October 2004
 Frank  Bidart


Frank Bidart’s first books, Golden State and The Book of the Body, both published in the 1970s, gained critical attention and praise, but his reputation as a poet of uncompromising originality was made with The Sacrifice, published in 1983. All three books are collected In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990. His position in American letters has been solidified through his later works, including Desire, Star Dust, and . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Health & Illness, Relationships, Birth & Birthdays, Family & Ancestors, Nature, The Body

Poetic Terms Imagery, Free Verse

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