Late Afternoon

Canzone No. 9*

The impossible distance of childhood follows me now,
A poisonous snake whose fangs are dripping with time,
Its tail so far out of reach I feel that a crime
Is necessary, a knife in memory’s heart.
And why is that charming boy so near, and how
Did his promise become a lethal curse? I mime
An assault with a bayonet; I scatter lime
To speed up the rotting; I spread the white ribs apart.
But this wounding is nothing, no; nothing but art.
From an amber, unwavering light that now shadows me,
A familiar voice is an echo; I cannot respond;
I’ve no easy words to repeat. If he were so fond
As to lead me away, if he were still able to see,
I’d smash the serpent’s glass eye and run to the dark.
But he’s gone for too long for any but laughter. Free
Of the poison and out of the jaws, he’ll only mark
The passage I might once have taken, an empty mile.
“But no matter,” he’d say, no matter but he and his smile.

Urging the old convertible’s power
I hurtled past the tangled vines
Of a long, abandoned estate. Pines,
Hung heavy with fungied cones, shared
The trellis beneath the old black tower,
Their trunks prying its nails. Lines
To silent telephones, signs
For vanished guests were all time spared;
The tower’s lifeless windows stared.
The gate opened on weedy green;
This time I turned to take the long
And sweeping lane. If I were wrong
And something waited there, a lean,
Tall shadow, leering, I would snarl,
Gas it, and make the man a sheen
Of blood on pavement. Only the gnarl
Of an ancient oak — I might have cried;
It still was true; the man had died.

“A dozen bottles for the summer!” Frown,
Adjusting next the big umbrella — wide
As a fan of leaves. Its sunburned owner tried
To shield his unprotected calves. “Scarred
For life,” he said, rubbing the lotion down
His tortured skin. I saw he had much pride;
He’d made a choice; about it he’d not lied,
Except about the consequences: “Guard
Your rights of property; it’s not so hard.”
The lawn lay brown beneath the house; new seed
Had sprouted yellow, roses limp or gone.
The rotted stumps of oaks through which he’d sawn
Invited fungi, termites and a weed.
The sunlight he had opened with his art
Exposed a driveway cracked, a wall in need
Of siding, notes he’d pinioned with a dart
To roll new tar, to show the stumps his spite
By covering up the faded siding white.

“You’ll find him where the mice are gnawing iron,” avowed
The man digging post holes and stretching out a wire.
“The rodents dance; the old man pants, and once a sire
Becomes a gelding, joking of some fellow’s star
That’s embered out. He’s had his run and roses, proud
When pride was prodded by his jockey, but that fire
Is long extinguished and the embers soaked are drier
Than ashes in the desert. Better try a bar.”
The tallest glass, however, showed me just how far
I’d traveled, highways blue and red, avoiding sleep,
A danger to all passersby, to break a bond
I knew had tied me to the living once. Such fond-
Ness, foreheads grown together, made me sometimes weep
For freedom. But, our tears have such small skills to charm
The coiled shadows of the dead, which then may seep
A poisoned memory. One can do bitter harm,
As when one twin may die when trying to divide
A pair of Siamese. I had not found the pride.

But, shadows fade; the Tao
Of darkness is sublime,
Is light, and spreads through time.
The brown wrens dive and dart,
Still hunting for the now,
Untroubled by the clime.
And though still watchful, I’m
No longer on a chart
That keeps me from depart-
ing. This shading canopy,
This dark and lifeless pond
No longer correspond
To sorrow, rage or glee.
The clasping patriarch
A faded absentee,
I’m free to disembark,
To walk a treasured mile,
Untroubled by his smile.

Arthur Mortensen of Brooklyn has appeared in many journals and has three collections: A Disciple After the Fact, a novel in verse (Kaba Press); Life in the Theater, sequel, and Why Hamlet Waited So Long (San Sebastian Press). Upcoming is After the Crash, currently in submission. He has been editor & publisher of Somers Rocks Press, Pivot Press, and is Webmaster of