"The Last Hours of Laódikê, Sister of Hektor" is a poem written in response to 9/11. I had actually composed the beginning of the poem some time earlier. It concerned a city under siege, and civilian victims of warfare. Laódikę is a minor character in The Iliad, a sister of Hektor who is murdered after her brother's death in battle and the subsequent fall of Troy. She seemed to me an archetypal victim of war, an innocent bystanderthe kind of person who today, in the sanitized, euphemistic language of the military and the mass media, is referred to as "collateral damage." I live in lower Manhattan. I witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers. I smelled the smoke from Ground Zero for many weeks. During that time, in the shadow of that tragedy, I completed this poem.
"Lake Como" is a poem that began as two stories in my head: a man who has lost his wife, and apparently much else, and the life he now leads, anonymous and isolate in a big city; and Lake Como in Italy, both as a real placebeautiful unto itselfand an elusive, ethereal destination with, perhaps, another kind of beauty. The sort of place, simultaneously real and imagined, part memory and part dream, that is crucial to every person, and can offer a glimpse, however fleeting, into that person's spiritual life.
Cold missiles and a rain
of embers accompany the men
who slide like shadows into the city
stones for teeth no eyes
who slit the throats of everone
they encounter until breaking down
my door they drag me into the darkness
that floods the corridor
and lock me in an icy chamber
where a torch of thorns sputters
and a man more bone than flesh
is playing music old
as time itself on a flute
and a girl clutching her knees
burns with fever before I apply
a square of moonlight to her brow
before she whispers her name
both of us falling now
the room falling too and the city
and no one to hear our cries
just the dead waiting in a bottomless canyon
and the sound relentless
of the gods grinding this world to dust
The searchlight of a February moon
at the end of the street
bare trees black railing
an eastern star set like a pearl atop a steeple
that shadows the doorway
where the one-armed card sharp squats
shuffling his deck on a milk crate
waiting for the No. 6 bus to discharge
the off-duty cop the seamstress
the drunken mechanic and the clerk on crutches
who pauses before his building to watch
the mechanic lose three dollars at blackjack
and then stiffly ascends the five flights
to his two rooms on a shaftway
hanging his coat on a hook
and sitting down at the table
on which this morning he placed
a soup bowl and spoon
a tin of crackers and the crossword
puzzle he had been laboring over
beneath the gaze of his late wife
her color photograph propped up in a small frame
a young woman in a boxy dress and felt cap
waving shyly by the edge of a lake
where over her shoulder beneath a clear sky
a sailboat rides the wind
passengers on the polished deck
gazing at the glowing mountain peaks
the cypresses lining the shore
and the pink palazzi with ancient gardens
these men and women in white
who seem to live upon the water
gliding among themselves oblivious to strife
and all else that wears a body down
some sipping from crystal goblets
others just drinking in the light
Bashô says the body is composed of one hundred bones and nine openings.
Within which flimsy structure the spirit dwells.
Floating by the park at dusk, through the heavy trees,
the white building glides like a ship.
An amber lamp is lit in a top-floor window
and a woman in her robe is leaning on the sill, eyes closed to the sunset.
A violet shadow is pouring down the side of the building from her long hair.
Two pigeons are perched in the next window, against a black room.
Beyond the trees, down a rough slope, the river is winding
around the island, flowing into the sea.
Slowly the mist off the river coils around the building, concealing it.
And just as slowly it lifts.
Only now the woman's lamp is extinguished.
Her window remains open, the curtain flutters,
but there is no sign of her, laid down to sleep in the darkness
her pale body with its one hundred bones and nine openings
from which the spirit will one day slip, like the mist seeping
back through the trees, along the river, out to sea.
No one came.
Bands of heat, like a rainbow, shimmered over the desert.
Two birds punctured a cactus with their beaks, drinking deeply.
A cloud the size of a silver dollar dissolved in the sun.
A woman in white, swinging her hips,
came out of the crematorium to meet the hearse.
She wore cherry lipstick and green mascara.
Her many bracelets clattered.
She introduced herself as the funeral director
and, smiling, swatted away a fly.
He was a short, blustery man with blue eyes,
a barrel chest, and wavy white hair.
In his last days, putting away a fifth of Scotch daily
in a furnished studio overlooking a parking lot
in the Duke of Devon apartments,
he constructed a schooner inside a bottle,
which he left unfinished and labeled
"The Shipwreck in the Bottle."
This may have been his most inspired moment.
At eighty-five, he smoked a corona every morning,
scanned the racing forms,
and watched the fights on television
with the sound turned off.
A man who in his youth had worked
as a stevedore and a bouncer,
who boxed for his supper in the makeshift rings
behind the stockyards on Lake Michigan,
he died in his sleep with a table fan ruffling the sheets.
Among his personal effects were a purple heart
awarded for valor in the Argonne forest in 1917,
an honorary badge from the Chicago Police Department,
a photograph of himself with Gene Tunney and Mayor Daley,
and the birth certificate of a daughter
(dated December 24, 1932, in Miami)
who died within a week, unnamed.
None of his four wives survived him,
though the last was twenty years his junior,
and he had no other children.
In my childhood he sent me a hundred dollar bill
every Christmas, and once, on my birthday,
a pair of spats and an ebony walking stick.
Another year, there was a basket of mangoes
from San Juan and a telescope
with MONTE CARLO printed on the barrel.
When I was nine, summering at a house
in the mountains, he came to a family reunion,
arriving all the way from Detroit
in a chauffeur-driven Daimler with a box of kippers
(which he ate daily, for longevity),
a case of Johnnie Walker Black,
and a set of pool cues, though there was no pool table.
Also, one of his wives, a former showgirl
who sat on the front porch in a white dress
shooing away flies with a Japanese fan.
His will, otherwise unremarkable, specified
that he be cremated at noon the day
after his death and that a recording of the Overture
to Don Giovanni be played in the chapel.
As the brief plume of smoke sailed into the sky
from the stack discreetly concealed by palms,
the funeral director sat alone in the rear,
oblivious to the music, and flipping open
her compact, inclining her head into the shadows,
applied lipstick to her parted lips.