A Narcissus; Buddleia; The Breaches

A Narcissus

(i.m. Seamus Heaney 1939–2013)

I led you that day through the gallery,
or so I thought, a smiling public man,
now slowed a little, but good-naturedly
revisiting the classics one by one—
Raphael’s mistress; wronged Beatrice Cenci—
as if in a kind of valediction,
testing them on your life, finding them true
or not: but in fact I was led by you.

And only gradually did I realize
that there was more. You were looking for something,
beyond the gilded swag of centuries,
the amazements of Da Cortona’s ceiling
or of Borromini’s spiral staircase,
and your wise passiveness was all pretending.
But what? What was it made you go canny,
each image charged, set to go off maybe?

Not the calm of St. Francis in Meditation,
nor the deep tribal hatred of Judith
Beheading Holofernes, the old crone
beside the aroused girl so intent with
revenge, set to receive, in jubilation,
the gory trophy in her rough brown cloth,
the white bed linen webbed in ropes of blood.
Such violence you had known and rejected.

The enchantress Circe wasn’t it, either,
who transformed men to pigs (but you remained
unchanged) and Picus into a woodpecker
for jealousy of his wife, who at the end,
in grief at losing him, became all water
and vanished on the breeze; whose song returned
birds to their branch and moved rocks: after all,
there was no time for such a pretty fable.

At last you stopped before a darker place,
being the world’s mirror, the self’s deep lake,
where a lovely boy swooned at his own pale face,
his knee bent so that it looked anamorphic,
his doublet figured, in the absolute stillness,
with constant need, an art so long to make.
You looked to ensure there was no reflection—
I saw—then nodded slightly and moved on.



The Buster Brown shoe-sizing machine
may have dealt gamma rays,
but how could a mother and son ever have known,
back in the old days?

And what steps, in that first pair of dress shoes,
led from there to here,
from that store to the several monarch butterflies,
their wings flame and char,

that tremble now on my garden’s butterfly bush,
riding its violet cones,
then rise by feints into the morning hush,
through the air’s invisible obstructions?

The thyroid gland (and mine was acting up)
is shaped like a butterfly,
so while the doctor pushed his needle deep
during the biopsy

and I lay like a specimen transfixed, forbidden
to swallow, breathe or move,
I thought again of the butterflies in my garden,
and I wanted to live

only with buddleia and the summer weeks
of its sweet smell,
with butterflies (according to the Greeks
an emblem of the soul)

and their erratic flickering upward.
I wanted not,
even if thyroid means a door-shaped shield,
not yet to go through it.


The Breaches

Up on the ramparts of the Papal Wall,
on a deserted path—
Urban VIII built it indestructible
out of the garish wrath

and lingering smoke of the Thirty Years’ War,
built it cannon-proof,
beetling with backsweep, loophole and wild caper—
is a substantial coil of

human excrement, being night soil and night work,
now delicately scattered with
petals from a climbing rose, that light and dark
might both mingle to earth.

And just nearby, there is a marble plaque,
tiara and crossed keys
commemorating, not the French attack
that breached the wall for Pius,

but the largesse with which that later Pope,
once the Republican
menace was routed, and all secular hope,
rebuilt what he had broken

and came out of it smelling like a rose,
both destruction and healing
being his, like shit and white petals: which shows
life’s usual double-dealing.