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Etching of the Plague Years

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In the valley of your art history book,   
the corpses stack in the back of a cart
drawn by an ox whose rolling shoulder muscles   
show its considerable weight.

He does this often. His velvet nostrils   
flare to indicate the stench.

It’s the smell you catch after class
while descending a urine-soaked
subway stair on a summer night
in a neighborhood where cabs won’t drive:   
the odor of dead flowers, fear
multiplied a thousand times.

The train door’s hiss
seals you inside with a frail boy   
swaying from a silver hoop.
He coughs in your direction, his eyes   
are burn holes in his face.

Back in the fourteenth-century print   
lying in your lap, a hand
white as an orchid has sprouted   
from the pyramid of flesh.
It claws the smoky air.

Were it not for that,
the cart might carry green cordwood   
(the human body knobby and unplaned).

Wrap your fingers around your neck   
and feel the stony glands.   
Count the holes in your belt loop
for lost weight.

In the black unfurling glass,
study the hard planes of your face.

Compare it to the prom picture   
in your wallet, the orchid
pinned to your chest like a spider.

Think of the flames
at your high school bonfire
licking the black sky, ashes rising,
innumerable stars. The fingers that wove   
with your fingers
have somehow turned to bone.

The subway shudders between dark and light.   
The ox plods across the page.

Think of everyone
you ever loved: the boy   
who gets off at your stop
is a faint ideogram for each.

Offer him your hand.   
Help him climb the stair.

Mary Karr, “Etching of the Plague Years” from The Devil's Tour. Copyright © 1993 by Mary Karr. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: Poetry (1993)

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This poem originally appeared in the May 1990 issue of Poetry magazine

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Etching of the Plague Years

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