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When the coward goes out.

I am eating the wing of a honeybee, my tepid life is a glass of tea.
Remember the sound of the gold trombones,
and the flick of the carpet, glimmering red,
meat served on alabaster platters,
dim light, dimly flattering the bastards.

They said I was great in my day, always nervous or chipper,
a glass slipper ready to shatter.
If the earth's tilt or my father's cigarette had shifted,
there's no telling who might sit here quaking.

The third revolution worked like a charm
and broke the poor stick of my back.
The critics laughed up their sleeves at you.
They said, honey, you are through.

I was an anteater then, sleeping pills my ants.
I washed them down with milk,
or was it water? No matter.

Death said, I hate my life. In the middle of the night,
the march of the heart attacks starts, followed
by trumpets of tremors and strokes.
All night long I rush back and forth,
pushing the dead into paddleboats.

My wife's name is Grief. Her hands are bells with writing
on them. In God Our Lamb, and so on. Let us be cake.
Death requests you hold your clappers.

Early bells, forged sheet iron, rang for celebration
and signaling. Enemy at the gate, for example,
time for dinner.
They carved the roast in slivers fine as slipper soles.
Potatoes, like baby thumbs, came a dozen for everyone.

Sugared almonds, smooth, white teeth full of secrets,
smiled in their baskets. Lastly the mushrooms,
not all of them good. The party in shambles
over gastronomic agony, I ran through the woods.

I thought to hide with the choir in a valley,
who kept at their singing, giving me away
immediately. Oh, he sits amidst us!
Will anyone save the kingdom from burning?

To this day we don't know the composition
of a chemical substance called Greek Fire;
a mess wrapped in linen that burst into flames in water.
It contained sulfur, saltpeter, path, naphtha, charcoal,
possibly wax.

I crawled on, I lived in a tree, more ape than man,
more fruit than beast.

When the soldiers came for dinner,
I hid in the shed and would not come out.
Everyone said I was very pleasant and would do well
once I buckled down.
Instead I knuckled under.

I nodded my head as if I were dead but the neck still worked,
a bit of a hinge, mostly a fool.

The critics said, you should have seen yourself.
You were funny as a set of lungs gasping,
a kidney wincing at passing urine,
which is to say, you made us antsy, you hussy.

Milksop, Pantywaist, Foolish-Elastic; names are plastic
and last an age, past the empty plaza of the mercantile exchange,
past water sitting in Windsor Castle's drains,
a collection of strip malls, wildly unhappy dogs
scratching the dry earth with black and yellow claws.

Death says shake my paw. Carry my scythe, why don't you?
Steal my beloved.

My poor wife, her name is Grief. She's a thief, all sticky fingers
and milky hair. My poor wife is a venerated saint.
Her bells are thin as the skin of birds,
we divide her finger bone into thirds.
I sew her knuckle into my coat pocket,
and hold her sandal, like a lantern, aloft.

MARLYS WEST received her M.F.A. from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin. The University of Akron Press published her book of poems, "Notes for a Late-Blooming Martyr," in 1999. She was a 2002-2003 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and a 2003-2004 National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient in poetry.
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Article Details
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Author:West, Marlys
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Poem
Date:May 1, 2005
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