Keats Is Coughing

Everything is made of everything.
— Leonardo da Vinci

I found Rome in the woods.

Fair to admit it’s mostly
tundra to the west in the park, past Toklat
the Denali I revised, low grasslands
engineered to freeze deep
by October — this being Alaska — the great

            Tabularium close to the Temple of
            Castor and Pollux I rebuilt that same summer — 
            not superimposed, exact as any scheme

in secret — the Arch of Septimius Severus at the gravel bar
        where fox drank from a river turned stream,
           a Theater of Marcellus near
               the ranger station where one raven,
                                                                                    such a brat,
   complained of
                      my Circus Maximus, Trajan’s Column,
                              my Baths of Diocletian,
too many spots
soaked in unpronounceable Latin.

                    I really did, I shouldered bits of it,
      a ruin-hushed haunted business, my brain
                                                         a truck bed, a lift,
pulleys big as a whale’s heart,
expletives of cheap wonder all over
                                                                  my woodlot
and expanse.
                          One self-anoints to embellish
day, years, life thus far, and think oneself so ...    

                       Then busted — 
by a raven!

Well, that’s memory for you, that’s so-called
        civilization for you, to layer up,
                         to redo the already done.

I mean it’s a fact, the puny life span we’re allotted.
              And proof — Denali in August, fireweed,
spunky scrawny first Latinate — Erechtites hieracifolia — 

               giving off flowers to mark
               what weeks left, little
               time bomber, time traveler, ancient
               slips red-flagging the countdown to winter
               by climbing its own stalk.

Something perverse about that.
Something perfectly fiendishly self-conscious about that.
 

From the start perverse, any premise.
      Ask ... We can’t know. To be compelled

            makes an occasion. Rome’s grand
     past horrific, fire and ash, swamp into bog, lust
              and bloodlust — 

The Alaska Range dreams lurid as Rome,
                                        the worst
way below being fire, summer snow at night
      off the highest peaks by noon
              as distant from our cabin as the size
of a hand if I
                         held up the one with
                         an eye in the middle

to know how this works. Some have the power to
raise from the dead a before, before
scary and beautiful
           back to mystery cults, in caves, rubble
far under a Roman street, the altar to
Mithras still slaying his bull, crumbling the stonework.

             All things being equal. But they’re not.
                    Agony, it’s older.
                      Ask the moose at Denali,
                         the snowshoe hare, the lynx,

such a wily courtly lot.
                                           Ask Ovid
      banished to his hovel on the Black Sea, aching
                for Rome’s exalted rude cacophony, each
      exiled month a big thick X down

                                   Februarius,
                                 Aprilis to home-shattered sick enough

for an undersong.
Look it up! Undersong: a strain; a droning;
the burden of a song — 
                                             Maybe that lowest
common denominator
is contagious. Rome or Denali,
a mash-up of lunge and cry out, predator
and prey throwing coins to a fountain,
footholds made first by a hoof,
pickpockets at buses and trains, nuns
queuing up their no-nonsense, thorny brambles,
raggedy spruce groves,
                                           a look, a nod to sell loveless
love on the street, a chain of mountains in
choral repeat, saints
stained to glass, how ice gouged rivers
from rock-bound,
                                 the one-lung rapturous
common-sense Pope
all outstretched arms, his little popemobile circling
the thrilled at St. Peter’s
up on our rickety chairs to see in six, seven languages
how radiant — 
                            Cross my heart, he was.
And Keats,
Keats is coughing.
 

You find the fossil record everywhere. In woods,
tundra, under streets, in cadaver labs.
                                 Not those bright transparencies,
wistful orderly page after page in
biology, a lie, a kind of flip-book romance.
It’s the one big mess of us
in us, the generous extraordinary dead prove that,
signing a paper, giving themselves away
                                            to be cut, disembodied for
the knowing it,
sunk to their chemical depth in some afterlife, opened
on a table by kids really,
                                             belabored doctors-to-be, our
shabby shared wilderness to untangle,
bones   joints   arteries   valves,
                                                         The Dissector
in hand, weirdest
how-to book on the planet. For Keats too, 1819, his
scribbled roses and sunflowers in margins,
                                                                  his training,
                                                           his anatomy theatre,
looking down and later: still
London, then Rome (he who gets it,
  body fails, second floor, beside the Spanish Steps).
                                           Heart, not
my heart anymore.
                                     Forgive me. I’m worse
than the hopelessly confused misnamed
English sparrow, descendant of the great weaver birds
of Africa, a finch that lost the gene

       for nest, how to beneath, to across so intricate,
precise, bringing bringing
sticks and hair and bits of shiny paper.
Undersong: the burden of a song.
                                                       Poor bird. Poor sweet
muddled middle of it. I watched
morning after morning, his offering ...    
                                                                       It’s Keats
who made claims about beauty and time.
His bed at the last
                        too low for the window, his must-have
                                 tell me, what’s out there — 

I admit: a ridiculous layering, Rome in Denali.
Just because? Because I went to both in short order?
Two continents, an ocean apart. My mother
loved hand-me-down expressions —
never the twain shall meet.
They do meet.
                           To repeat: that’s civilization for you.
Happenstance and right now drag along
future and past
                             and why the hell not
the Denali, the Rome in any of us, no two
states of being more
unalike, worn-out compulsion
to collect and harbor, piece together,
                                                                    stupid into
some remember machine.

   Such fabulous unthinkable inventions we’ve made
to merge or unmake: the trash compactor,
   the poem, all tragedy and story, pencils sharpened to

a point that keeps breaking, wilderness gone inward as

                   an ocean-going ship’s container,
                         a Gatling gun,
                                 the AR-15 of the seething deranged,
                                         the H-bomb,
                                             Roman legions
to Canterbury to blood-up
fields into legend then dig the first plumbing but

                                             how can you
                                             be in two places at once
                                             when you’re not anywhere at all!

        (Thank you, Firesign Theatre, brilliant wackos,
              old vinyl on a turntable still in the game ... )

                      Fine. Fuck it. Start over.
 

See the sheep on high ledges, the arctic squirrels below.

See the way Dante saw, sweeping his arm across
Vasari’s great painting as Boccaccio looks off, the plague
sealing city after city. Dante

in hell, steady-luminous
     those fact-finding trips to service
           his worldly Inferno.

Winter sleeps through.
August at Denali, bears shovel it down
       a razor-edged maw — 
                                                twigs! berries! more stems! — 
Fate hoards to prepare, sub-zeros, fattens into ....    

See the park’s camper bus, 92 miles how
most of us jolt and slow, crossing
hours more daylight than night all summer,
rattling tin can with its
exhaust and hissing gravel, the fear
landslide
                  an undersong just-possible, how we
zigzag a mountain. Look!

                  Nearing a bear, the young caribou abruptly
                             hesitant, shy as a leaf — 

No! Don’t! Do not! That grizzly
huge, bent to his ploy just
                                                 these berries around here,
his ignore ignore, sure,
quiet-tense as a trigger, and we of
                      fogged scratched windows so hard to open — 

stop! The bus stopped. Jesus. The thing curious, closer ...    
                      They’re not

that smart anyhow, a stage-whispering drunk from the back
      of our imperial realm, mile 62, the Park Road.

What did Venus decree in her temple up whichever
narrow street in Rome, the Ancients’
                             stink of slops, standing water,
           a bear chained to a slave (out of slav, by the way,
                             backdrop is horde, human spoils)

both shackled to a grindstone for
                                                             a later mob and roar.

Here’s what we saw: the little caribou
  in reverse wanders sideways and safe.
                                             Our bus one big sigh or
like a wheezing asthmatic
the brakes unbrake.

Bad dream, bad dream, the undersong start to all fable if
                        for real we’d seen that kill
back to lions off their continent
cornered, bloodied in the great amphitheaters, rearing up,
a nail to hammer’s
                                   bite and blow. The wilderness in us

is endless. Near the cabin, near evening, a warbler
                               in the fireweed
                                                    hawk saw or heard,
                          his switchblade clicked to — 
                                                                        I was and I was
                      whirling feathers, either bird — 
   Every hunger
                            is first century. Forever-thus
   feral cats at the Forum about to leap too.
                                                        The Forum, last homage
   I shoveled holes and rocks to
   remake, mile 82, while the haymouse riddled the meadow
   down deep, her catacombs.
 

Time + beauty = ruins. Perfect shapes in the mind
       meet my friends Pointless and Threat and Years of
       Failure to Meld or Put to Rest. Ruthless
                                                                                 is human.

I ask a composer: How to live with this undersong thing
                             over and over, how to
                                                                    get rid of it,
                                                                        the world of it — 

  He looks at me. What undersong thing? And shrugs
       I’ll put it on the test! Let students define it.

      So I dreamt such a test: Go there. To Rome.
                    Half-doze against a wall
                      two thousand years of

     flesh    sweat    insect wing ago, stone laid by hand, by
a boy when a whip, a whip, a welling up, his will not speak.

    Have at it. Please explain. Please fill in this blank.

Grief punctures like ice, moves like a glacier
   to flat and slog and myth, low blue and white flowers
       we hiked trail-less. The rangers insist. They insist — 

       never follow or lead, never lay down a path.

                                                                        From above
the look of us spread out, our seven or eight
a band, little
stray exhausted figures
                                           as over the land bridge from Asia,

circa: prehistory keeps coming, older than Rome,
both   both underfoot, understory, underway

         miles below numb, it’s burning.
 

To see at all, you time
                                         and this time and time again.

The spirit leans
intrigued, the other part bored, then there’s want,
                                                                    then there’s wait.

Once a city began with a wolf whose two human pups would
      build, would watch it fall, nursing
                                              at her milk for centuries
               in marble
               in bronze.

          She stands there and cries of
                                                               that pleasure, by turns
a blood-chill. The tundra. At night.

A snake eats its own tail, forever at it on a fresco.
A real snake
                       leaves his skin near the gravel bar. Some words
sting, some are sung. Another life
isn’t smaller.
More Poems by Marianne Boruch