She bore only the heart,
Worked at the stem with her
Fingers, pulling it to her,
And into her, like a cord.
She would sustain him,
Would cover his heart.
The hairy needles
And the bigger leaves,
These she licked into shape,
Tipping each with its point.
He is the mud-flower,
The thorny hugger.
She sent packs of great beasts to pass
Over him, trailing belly-fur and dust,
Bending their nostrils to his frail spear.
This was to toughen him. For what?
Stupidly, like a squirrel, standing up,
Looking here and there, looking to all sides,
He is cut down and taken away.
She can smell him steaming, his crowns
Already tender, his spine giving in.
Now he is threatening to wither terribly,
And slip from the water altogether,
And billow through the kitchen like prayer.
Her words clot in his head.
He presses himself to remember
And feels the skin peel back,
The skull bleach, crack, fall away.
All that's left of him is the brain,
Its tissue knotting up to shade him,
The pain of its light pulsing
How to move, how to move.
Before fog leaves the scrub-oak
Or the grasses of the downland,
Take dragonwort under the black alder,
Take cockspur grass and henbane,
The belladonna, the deadly nightshade.
Free them as you would a spider's web,
Singing over them: Out, little wen,
Out, little wen.
Sing this into the mouth of the woman.
I am the corn quail.
What I do is quick.
You will know only
The muffled clucking,
The scurry, the first
Shiver of feathers
And I will be up,
I will be in your
Head with no way out,
Wings beating at the
Air behind your eyes.
The hope with
water is that it
will conceal nothing,
that a clearness
will follow upon it
like the clearness
after much rain,
or the clearness
where the air
reaches to the river
and touches it,
where the rain
falls from the trees
into the river.
To find enough rooms for the gathering
The walls go on alone not waiting
For corners but thinking of sleeves
And how the wind fills them and the snow
Fills them and how cold it is without
Fires when there are not enough rooms.
It had been growing in her like vegetables.
She was going into the ground where it could
Do better, where she could have potatoes.
They would be small and easily mistaken
For stones. It would fall to her to
Sort them out, persuade them to stay
Close to her, comforting her, letting her
Wear them on her body, in her hair,
Helping her hold always very still.
* * * * *
James McMichael is emeritus professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Capacity (2006), a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry; Each in a Place Apart (1994); The Lover's Familiar (1978); Four Good Things (1980); and The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (1996), in which the above poem appears. He has received multiple awards, including the 2007 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Foundation Writer's Award, the Arthur O. Rense Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America.