1. Home
  2. The Fourth Hour of the Night by Frank Bidart
The Fourth Hour of the Night

Related Poem Content Details


Out of scarcity,—
... being.

Because, when you were nine, your father

was murdered,

Because the traveler was betrayed by those with

whom he had the right to seek
refuge, the Tatárs.

Because the universe then allowed a creature

stronger, taller, more
ruthless than you

to fasten around your neck a thick wooden wheel

to throw off.

Because at nine your cunning was not equal

to iron-fastened
immense wood.

Because, stripped of what was his from birth, the slave

at ten

the universe, tore the wheel from his neck: —

because your neck
carries it still, Scarcity is the mother of being.


Hour in which betrayal and slavery
are the great teachers.

Hour in which acquisition

looks like, and for
a moment is, safety.

Hour in which the earth, looking into

a mirror, names what it sees
by the history of weapons.

Hour from which I cannot wake.


Ch’ang-ch’un was determined that he would not
prostrate himself before

the conqueror of the world

though Alexander the Great, drunk, had
executed Aristotle’s nephew when he refused

to grovel before his uncle’s pupil.


Ch’ang-ch’un bowed his head with clasped
hands. The Great Khan was gracious.

Though Ch’ang-ch’un, much younger,
had refused invitations from the King of Gold

and even the emperor of Hang-chou, now,
in his old age, he discovered he was

tired of waiting for apotheosis.

At last invited to court by the terrifying
conqueror of the world, he said Yes.


He traveled for a year and a half
following the route the Great Khan

himself had taken. He passed valley after valley

that, years later, still were filled with
ungathered, whitening bones.


He bowed his head with clasped hands.

The most powerful man on earth
then asked him to teach him the secret

of the Taoist masters —

the elixir
that allows men to cheat death.

Temujin was in pain. Temujin

for fifty years lived as if immortal —
though surrounded, all his life, by death.

Now he had fallen from a horse. The injury

had not entirely, after much
time, healed. He brooded about death, his

death. Now he must conquer the ancient

that would bend

heaven to his need.

He asked Ch’ang-ch’un for the fabled


The world. He was born at the great world’s
poor far edge. In order to see the rich

debris that must lie at the bottom of the sea,

he sucked and sucked till he swallowed
the ocean.


Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Nestorians —
he summoned

each. Each eloquent spokesman

praised abnegations, offered transformation, even
ecstasies —; just renounce

sex, or food, or love.


Eating power, he fucked a new woman every night.
Best, he said, was the wife or daughter or mother of

an enemy.


He watched his friend Bo’orchu hunt
each day as if hunting were the purpose of life, work

sufficient for a man. As a boy he discovered his

work when he had a wooden wheel around his neck:
to escape the wheel.

Every single thing tastes like, reeks with

the power that put it there. Weapons
keep in place

who gets rewarded how much for what. The world


is good at telling itself this is a lie. The world.


Each unit made up of

ten: ten soldiers
whose leader reports to a unit of one

hundred soldiers, whose leader reports to a unit of one
thousand soldiers, whose leader reports to a unit of

ten thousand.

With iron logic he had raised the great structure

from the flat
internecine earth

(— abyss where absolute, necessary

is fettered, bewildered by something working within us,

MUD IN THE VEINS, to paralyze

decision—; as well as by that necessary
sweet daring

that leaps across the abyss to risk all, to correct and cripple

... but then finds, in despair, it must try to master it).


Though Temujin’s father, alive, was

the remnant of his family was, at his
poisoning, driven from the circle of the wagons.

had shining eyes, but at nine no force.

They survived by eating roots, berries, stray
rodents, birds the boys’

cunning pulled from the air.


Temujin’s father out of his mother had two sons.
His poisoned

father, out of his second wife, also had two sons.


One day, with a freshly sharpened juniper
arrow, he brought down a lark, and his

half-brother, Bekter, nearly his age,
reaching the bird first, refused to give it up.

Temujin ran to his mother, who told him he must
accept this, that four boys with two

women alone must cease fighting.
With his bow and arrow, the next day Temujin

murdered his half-brother.


His half-brother at each moment relentlessly
disputed and clearly forever would

dispute everything Temujin possessed.


When he confessed to his mother she shrieked
only his shadow

ever again could bear to be with him.
He didn’t believe her. She lived

blinded by panic. He looked
around him. Human beings

live by killing other living beings.


His father’s rival, who told his father that Temujin
had shining eyes, when his father
died decided he now could make Temujin a slave.

Temujin rammed
the wheel down on the idiot guard’s

Sorqan-shira and his sons found him
drowning among
reeds at the edge of the river.

Frenzied, risking their
lives, Sorqan-shira and his sons
work to cut away the wheel from his body.


The arrow flew
as if of itself.

Temujin’s half-brother turned and saw

Temujin’s unerring aim
aimed at

his chest.

Before the arrow
was released

his half-brother did not beg to live.

His half-brother’s
gaze was filled with

everything that would happen would happen.


In the delirium of Temujin’s adult
dreams, the knife he stole

is useless
in unlocking
the wheel.


How each child finds that it must deal with
the intolerable

becomes its fate.



with this  A R R O W

I thee wed.


Even the conqueror of the world
is powerless against the dead.

The most intricate plan his friend Jamuqa
ever accomplished

was to make Temujin execute him.


They met as boys.

By the frozen waters of the Onon, Temujin
gave Jamuqa the knucklebone of a deer.

Jamuqa gave Temujin the knucklebone of a deer.

They could see their breaths. They mingled
breaths. They swore they were anda,

brothers. They sharpened arrows — juniper, cypress.


When they met again, many years
later, Temujin’s

wife, Borte, had been seized by another tribe.

Jamuqa commanded a whole tribe. He
pledged his friend twenty thousand men.

Temujin also by this time was chief, but of

many fewer. The two friends and two armies
found and freed Borte after nine months.

The anda celebrated by the waters of the Onon.


They were too drunk, too happy. Jamuqa
pulled a blanket over himself and Temujin.

They lay all night under the same blanket.


For either to have expressed desire, to have
reached, would have been to offer the object of desire

power. It could not be done.


Jamuqa forever wants them to
do it to them

together, in tandem, two couples next to
each other —; so Temujin can and must

look over and see his insouciant

bravado as he dismounts, hear Jamuqa’s
girl cry out first, more jaggedly.


When the chiefs gather to choose, for
the first time in decades, a Great Khan,

to Jamuqa’s surprise

Temujin is chosen. Someone points out
his family is royal —; Jamuqa

is merely descended from a favorite concubine.


At feasts, Jamuqa thinks supplicants
shuffle him aside to reach Temujin.

As the world more and more defers to Temujin

Jamuqa becomes, in his own eyes, a ghost.
He is the memory of Jamuqa.


In the new army under Temujin, aristocracy has
few privileges. A friend who has fought under

Jamuqa for years must, to rise, compete

against peasants. Panache, the sweet disdain for
mere consequences, gain, victory, is lost.


Many, like the tribe that tried to enslave him, will
never accept Temujin.

Whenever a new group rebels, Temujin finds
Jamuqa is in their company.


Men don’t want to serve under Jamuqa — 

because his friend would not fight against
the Great Khan, he cut off the friend’s head, and hung it

from his horse’s tail.


Jamuqa joined the Nayman army;
Jamuqa deserted the Nayman army.


An outcast with five last remaining
followers, Jamuqa

in the high snowy Tangu mountains
at the very limit of his native country

as he eats a wild ram he has killed and roasted

is taken prisoner by his companions
and delivered to Temujin.


Your father seized your mother as a girl
just after her

marriage to someone from her own tribe. This was
common practice. Just after

your marriage, the same tribe

seized your wife, and gave her to the brother of the chief.
All proceeded from desire — from

deferred justice, the chancre of unclosed

injury. This bred
enmity through generation after generation, blood

feuds, tribe against tribe against tribe.

As the Great Khan, Temujin outlawed such
seizures. He did What was there to be done.


The axes of your work, work that
throughout the illusory chaos of your life

absorbed your essential

mind, were there always — What was
there to be done. You saw many men

refuse, or try to refuse

what needed to be done. Whether they could not
find it, or were, finding it, disgusted, they

without it wandered, like Jamuqa.


When Temujin entered the dark room the prisoner
was naked.

His genitals hung pendant, bulbous — 

as if swollen
from rubbing.

He still is a creature that is beautiful, but all dirty.


Jamuqa said, What you must do is kill me.

I will never accede to your power.

Alive, I will rally your enemies.

Dead, I will, in their eyes, just be one more fool.

Temujin replied that he
could not. They had been, since boyhood,

anda. Without him, would he have recovered

Jamuqa replied that he did not want his skin

broken during
execution. He repeated, twice,

I will never accede to your power.

Temujin refused. Jamuqa was
sick in the head. Healthy men don’t want to die.


Jamuqa escaped. Two men who Temujin valued
died bringing him back.

Then Jamuqa escaped again. When Jamuqa was

returned again, Temujin
hesitated for months.

Then he granted his wish.


He insisted the skin not be broken.
When he saw the body, the head was severed,
as if someone for some reason had been


Temujin was furious with him for letting
pride, some

sickness of the mind, poison

 ... they had been, since boyhood, anda.


Even the conqueror of the world
is powerless against the dead.

He saw, smelt

the carcass of

... who had known that Temujin was too
smart not to be, by his

death, forever tormented.


He watched you take from him what he thought was
his — the world of indolent chaos

inhabited by the beautiful

and lucky — 
fuck anything that walks, if that is whatever inside you

demands. In the end the something

that was broken in him was mute.
He insisted that it did not exist.


There was an immense silence between Temujin and Borte.


In the beginning, sweetness, because there had been no need to talk.


Temujin’s father had taken him at nine on a journey to find Temujin a bride.


She was ten, and beautiful.


His father and her father were old allies, and it was agreed.


On the way home the Tatárs poisoned his father.


Temujin was sixteen when they were at last married.


Within days, Borte was abducted.


Borte was abducted because, when their camp was attacked, there was only one free horse.


Temujin thrust the horse at his mother, not his wife.


This was as it should be.


Borte knew this, accepted this.


When she returned from those who had seized her, she returned about to give birth.


Temujin did not ask what humiliations she had endured.


Whose child was it?


It could have been Temujin’s or the creature’s who took her.


Temujin declared the child, a son, his.


He needed to be perceived, among his own people, as someone of impeccable justice.


Someone whose rectitude is above vanity.


They had three more sons.


He needed legitimate sons.


Borte raised, as well, orphans that Temujin’s soldiers plucked from burning villages that they themselves had burned.


Those thus saved proved to be among the fiercest, the most loyal of his soldiers.


After Borte returned, the armies of Temujin and Jamuqa camped together for a year and a half.


Borte and Temujin’s mother found the closeness between the two men humiliating, an insult, an embarrassment.


Borte and Temujin’s mother told Temujin that as long as he was tied to this debauched, fickle friendship, the other chiefs never would choose Temujin as the Great Khan.


It was the first month of spring.


The two armies had to move off to fresh grazing.


Temujin, furious, listened to the two women as if he were a statue.


He heard Jamuqa say that camp pitched on the slopes of the mountain gave the herders of horses what they wanted, but camp pitched on the banks of the river was better for the 
herders of sheep.


The women said that when night fell and Jamuqa’s wagon stopped to pitch camp Temujin’s wagon should continue.


Temujin’s wagon as Jamuqa’s wagon stopped to pitch camp on a mountainside continued.


As the night passed the clans realized what was happening, and, frightened, debated to stop with Jamuqa or stop with Temujin.


Schisms within a tribe, even sometimes within a clan.


One shaman dreamt that a cow white as snow struck at Jamuqa’s wagon until it broke one of its horns, bellowing that Jamuqa had to give back its lost horn, striking the ground with its hoof.


The shaman dreamt that a white bull followed Temujin’s wagon bellowing that Heaven and Earth have decided the empire should be Temujin’s.


When Temujin heard this he promised the shaman thirty concubines.


As day broke and Temujin at last stopped, count could be taken of which clans followed Temujin and which stopped with Jamuqa.


Temujin camped near the sources of the Onon.


The clans who had chosen Temujin in the disorder and uncertainty 
of the night now were joined by others.


They had weighed the situation.


Temujin was famous for the care and probity of his decisions.


The princes of the royal blood joined Temujin.


Many days passed before Temujin looked directly at Borte when they spoke.


She was the vehicle of necessity.


Of what had to be.


He would not forgive her.


In time, he lost interest in forgiving her.


When he returned from his last long campaign which lasted eight unbroken years, he was grateful she did not ask about each night’s new woman.


In time, near the sources of the Onon the princes of the royal blood elected Temujin Great Khan.


Fame clung to the story of how he saved the beautiful Borte.


The irony was not lost on Borte that as Mother of Orphans she was married to the force that made them orphans.


Only at the age of thirty-nine Temujin
at last was master of all Mongolia.

The emissaries of the Kings of Gold

had played tribe against tribe
all his life, to castrate them.

To achieve unity, to achieve the empire
essential to maintain unity

half the tribes had to be massacred.


The Tatárs killed his father, then after
subduing them, followed by their unending

involuted betrayals and rebellions,

Temujin without
sorrow exterminated them.

Every male standing higher than a wagon axle

was killed;
the rest enslaved.


is not a question of vengeance. It is a question of

safety. Of not allowing what happened to happen.


Under Temujin, the Mongols crossed the Great Wall
that the Kingdom of Gold over centuries

built to contain them.

Before them, the lush, cultivated great plain

stretched five hundred miles,—
... from Beijing to Nanking.


Between the Mongols and the Kings of Gold
lay a trench of

blood, inexpiable wrongs.

Fifty years earlier, betraying Tatárs handed off
the Mongol khan Ambaqay

to Beijing’s
King of Gold, — 

... who impaled him on a wooden ass.


Temujin drummed into his troops past atrocities.

After they took Huai-lai, the ground for some ten miles
around was for years still strewn with human bones.


The full fury of the Mongols was reserved
for the great cities of Islam.

Their Sultan had twice murdered Temujin’s emissaries — 

what rose in Temujin was the rage to annihilate
not just the civilization that

insulted him, but what made it possible ...

In the end, there was little left for his tax collectors
in the future to tax.

This was a world everywhere on the edge of desert — 

the Mongols in fury dismantled the intricate
networks that preserved and gathered and channeled

water. Without dams, without the multitudinous

screens of trees that were the handiwork of centuries,
for Samarkand, for the cities of Scheherazade,

not just defeat, but dismemberment.


Nightmare from which not even the rich awoke.


......................... Stonework

of hive-like
intrication, its hard
face airy as lace,

indifferent hooves erased to sand.


Ch’ang-ch’un thought if he answered honestly
he would be executed.

He asked Temujin
to tell him Temujin’s story.

The Great Khan, to his own surprise, wasn’t
offended. He liked the earnest old man.

Seized, suddenly absorbed, with relish
he began to tell the old man his

story, omitting nothing he imagined essential.

The Taoist master at last answered that there exists
no elixir for eternal life.

He told him that the largest square
has no corners.

He told him that they go east and west at
the will of the wind, so that in the end

they know not if the wind carries them
or they the wind.

But as Temujin listened to his own voice tell
his story, the lineaments of his story, this

is what he heard: — 

Because you could not master whatever
enmeshed you

you became its slave — 

You learned this bitterly, early.
In order not to become its slave

you had to become its master.

You became
its master.

Even as master, of course, you remain its slave.


A S H. What yesterday was the lockstep
logic of his every

position, purity in which he took just
pride, cunning

solutions to what the universe thrust at him

appeared to him now ash, not
his, or, if

his, not his.


Too often now he woke with his mouth
gasping above water, the great wooden

wheel around his neck now

buoy, now too
heavy to lift.

Jamuqa’s face, mutilated — 

Jamuqa, with whom
he lay under the same blanket.

The familiar universe began to assume its shape.

enmity of equals. Each master

not a master. A fraud. A master slave.


His own voice said it.


Old, he included
himself in his scorn for those who

young want the opposite of this earth

then settle
for more of it.


The life he had not
led, could not even now lead

was a burning-glass

between himself
and the sun.


Temujin saw that the Taoist master
was terrified.

The old man, facing
the verge, had leapt into the sea — 

he had given the conqueror of the world
simply what he had already.

He liked the old man. After dallying
for months discussing

the dead surrounding them
he allowed him to return to his own country.


slave, you who have survived thus far

the lottery of who will live, and who will die — 
contemplate Genghis Khan, great,

khan, born Temujin, master slave.


The death of his grandson Mutugen
seemed to Temujin

harbinger of his own death. This boy

raised in a desert dust-storm
was innocent of dust.

He who made one imagine something
undeformed could emerge from deformity

died by an arrow.

That he should die —.

That he should die assaulting a Muslim citadel
meant that Temujin himself, bareheaded,

took part in the final attack that destroyed it,

that every living thing therein, man and beast,
the child slain in its mother’s womb,

must die —; that no loot, no booty

should be taken, but everything inexorably
erased; a place thereafter forever accursed.


When Temujin heard of his grandson’s death,
he learned it before the boy’s own father.

He called all his sons to share a meal, and at it

announced that he was angry
his sons no longer obeyed him.

Jaghatay, Mutugen’s father, protested.

Then Temujin told Jaghatay that the boy
was dead.

Gazing fixedly, Temujin with a choked

voice forbade
Jaghatay GRIEF.

Forbade him not just the signs of grief, but GRIEF itself.

He kept them at table for hours. At the end
Jaghatay, when Temujin left the room, wept.


He now knew how he wanted to be buried.

He wanted the course of the Onon temporarily
diverted —; there, at its muddy center,

burial in a sealed chamber.

Then the river
sent back over it.

Any travelers encountering by chance

the funeral cortege
were to be executed.


clings to

... those who inherit

the powerful
dead imagine
them and cling.

Hero to his people,— 

... curse (except in
to everyone else.

The dream I dreamed

was not denied me.
It was not, in
the mind, denied me.


This is the end of the fourth hour of the night.
Source: Poetry (May 2015)

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Search every issue of Poetry

Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine. Search the whole site

The Fourth Hour of the Night

Related Poem Content Details

  • Search every issue of Poetry

Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine. Search the whole site

Other Information

  • Browse Poems