The Disquieting Muses (1957)

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouth less, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when fathers twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
"Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don't care!" 

But those ladies broke the panes.


When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother.

 I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

 Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.



Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds' irregular babel
And the leaves' litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover's gestures unbalance the air,
His gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then!---
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment within border,
And heart's frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here---a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley---
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.


 Parliament Hill Fields (1961)


 On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
 Faceless and pale as china
 The round sky goes on minding its business.
 Your absence is inconspicuous;
 Nobody can tell what I lack.

 Gulls have threaded the river's mud bed back
 To this crest of grass. Inland, they argue,
 Settling and stirring like blown paper
 Or the hands of an invalid. The wan
 Sun manages to strike such tin glints

 From the linked ponds that my eyes wince
 And brim; the city melts like sugar.
 A crocodile of small girls
 Knotting and stopping, ill-assorted, in blue uniforms,
 Opens to swallow me. I'm a stone, a stick,

 One child drops a barrette of pink plastic;
 None of them seem to notice.
 Their shrill, gravelly gossip's funneled off.
 Now silence after silence offers itself.
 The wind stops my breath like a bandage.

 Southward, over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge
 Swaddles roof and tree.
 It could be a snowfield or a cloudbank.
 I suppose it's pointless to think of you at all.
 Already your doll grip lets go.

 The tumulus, even at noon, guards its black shadow:
 You know me less constant,
 Ghost of a leaf, ghost of a bird.
 I circle the writhen trees. I am too happy.
 These faithful dark-boughed cypresses

 Brood, rooted in their heaped losses.
 Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
 I lose sight of you on your blind journey,
 While the heath grass glitters and the spindling rivulets
 Unspool and spend themselves. My mind runs with them,

 Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling pebble and stem.
 The day empties its images
 Like a cup or a room. The moon's crook whitens,
 Thin as the skin seaming a scar.
 Now, on the nursery wall,

 The blue night plants, the little pale blue hill
 In your sister's birthday picture start to glow.
 The orange pompons, the Egyptian papyrus
 Light up. Each rabbit-eared
 Blue shrub behind the glass

 Exhales an indigo nimbus,
 A sort of cellophane balloon.
 The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.
 Gulls stiffen to their chill vigil in the drafty half-light;
 I enter the lit house.

11 February 1961

7. The Stones (from Poem for a Birthday- 1959)

 This is the city where men are mended.
 I lie on a great anvil.
 The flat blue sky-circle

 Flew off like the hat of a doll
 When I fell out of the light. I entered
 The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.

 The mother of pestles diminished me.
 I became a still pebble.
 The stones of the belly were peaceable,

 The head-stone quiet, jostled by nothing.
 Only the mouth-hole piped out,
 Importunate cricket

 In a quarry of silences.
 The people of the city heard it.
 They hunted the stones, taciturn and separate,

 The mouth-hole crying their locations.
 Drunk as a foetus
 I suck at the paps of darkness.

 The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens away.
 The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry
 Open one stone eye.

 This is the after-hell: I see the light.
 A wind unstoppers the chamber
 Of the ear, old worrier.

 Water mollifies the flint lip,
 And daylight lays its sameness on the wall.
 The grafters are cheerful,

 Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers.
 A current agitates the wires
 Volt upon volt. Catgut stitches my fissures.


 A workman walks by carrying a pink torso.
 The storerooms are full of hearts.
 This is the city of spare parts.


 My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber.
 Here they can doctor heads, or any limb.
 On Fridays the little children come

 To trade their hooks for hands.
 Dead men leave eyes for others.
 Love is the uniform of my bald nurse.

 Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.
 The vase, reconstructed, houses
 The elusive rose.

 Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.
 My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
 I shall be good as new.


4 November 1959



 Leaving Early (1960)

 Lady, your room is lousy with flowers.
 When you kick me out, that's what I'll remember,
 Me, sitting here bored as a leopard
 In your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,
 Velvet pillows the color of blood pudding
 And the white china flying fish from Italy.
 I forget you, hearing the cut flowers
 Sipping their liquids from assorted pots,
 Pitchers and Coronation goblets
 Like Monday drunkards. The milky berries
 Bow down, a local constellation,

 Toward their admirers in the tabletop:
 Mobs of eyeballs looking up.
 Are those petals or leaves you've paired them with---
 Those green-striped ovals of silver tissue?
 The red geraniums I know.
 Friends, friends. They stink of armpits
 And the involved maladies of autumn,
 Musky as a lovebed the morning after.
 My nostrils prickle with nostalgia.
 Henna hags: cloth of your cloth.
 They toe old water thick as fog.

 The roses in the toby jug
 Gave up the ghost last night. High time.
 Their yellow corsets were ready to split.
 You snored, and I heard the petals unlatch,
 Tapping and ticking like nervous fingers.
 You should have junked them before they died.
 Daybreak discovered the bureau lid
 Littered with Chinese hands. Now I'm stared at
 By chrysanthemums the size
 Of Holofernes' head, dipped in the same
 Magenta as this fubsy sofa.
 In the mirror their doubles back them up.
 Listen: your tenant mice
 Are rattling the cracker packets. Fine flour
 Muffles their bird-feet: they whistle for joy.
 And you doze on, nose to the wall.
 This mizzle fits me like a sad jacket.
 How did we make it up to your attic?
 You handed me gin in a glass bud vase.
 We slept like stones. Lady, what am I doing
 With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood,
 Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?



25 September 1960



Candles (1960)

 They are the last romantics, these candles:
 Upside down hearts of light tipping wax fingers,
 And the fingers, taken in by their own haloes,
 Grown milky, almost clear, like the bodies of saints.
 It is touching, the way they'll ignore

 A whole family of prominent objects
 Simply to plumb the deeps of an eye
 In its hollow of shadows, its fringe of reeds,
 And the owner past thirty, no beauty at all.
 Daylight would be more judicious,

 Giving everybody a fair hearing.
 They should have gone out with balloon flights and the stereopticon.
 This is no time for the private point of view.
 When I light them, my nostrils prickle.
 Their pale, tentative yellows

 Drag up false, Edwardian sentiments,
 And I remember my maternal grandmother from Vienna.
 As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef.
 The burghers sweated and wept. The children wore white.
 And my grandfather moped in the Tyrol,

 Imagining himself a headwaiter in America,
 Floating in a high-church hush
 Among ice buckets, frosty napkins.
 These little globes of light are sweet as pears.
 Kindly with invalids and mawkish women,

 They mollify the bald moon.
 Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry.
 The eyes of the child I nurse are scarcely open.
 In twenty years I shall be retrograde
 As these draughty ephemerids.

 I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls.
 How shall I tell anything at all
 To this infant still in a birth-drowse?
 Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her,
 The shadows stoop over like guests at a christening.


17 October 1960


Mushrooms (1959)

 Overnight, very
 Whitely, discreetly,
 Very quietly
 Our toes, our noses
 Take hold on the loam,
 Acquire the air.

 Nobody sees us,
 Stops us, betrays us;
 The small grains make room.

 Soft fists insist on
 Heaving the needles,
 The leafy bedding,

 Even the paving.
 Our hammers, our rams,
 Earless and eyeless,

 Perfectly voiceless,
 Widen the crannies,
 Shoulder through holes. We

 Diet on water,
 On crumbs of shadow,
 Bland-mannered, asking

 Little or nothing.
 So many of us!
 So many of us!

 We are shelves, we are
 Tables, we are meek,
 We are edible,

 Nudgers and shovers
 In spite of ourselves.
 Our kind multiplies:

 We shall by morning
 Inherit the earth.
 Our foot's in the door.


13 November 1959


Berck-Plage (1962)


 This is the sea, then, this great abeyance.
 How the sun's poultice draws on my inflammation.

 Electrifyingly-colored sherbets, scooped from the freeze
 By pale girls, travel the air in scorched hands.


 Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?
 I have two legs, and I move smilingly.

 A sandy damper kills the vibrations;
 It stretches for miles, the shrunk voices

 Waving and crutchless, half their old size.
 The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces,

 Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner.
 Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses?

 Is it any wonder he affects a black cassock?
 Here he comes now, among the mackerel gatherers

 Who wall up their backs against him.
 They are handling the black and green lozenges like the parts of a body.


 The sea, that crystallized these,
 Creeps away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress.


 This black boot has no mercy for anybody.
 Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot,

 The high, dead, toeless foot of this priest
 Who plumbs the well of his book,


 The bent print bulging before him like scenery.
 Obscene bikinis hide in the dunes,

 Breasts and hips a confectioner's sugar
 Of little crystals, titillating the light,

 While a green pool opens its eye,
 Sick with what it has swallowed------

 Limbs, images, shrieks. Behind the concrete bunkers
 Two lovers unstick themselves.

 O white sea-crockery,
 What cupped sighs, what salt in the throat....

 And the onlooker, trembling,
 Drawn like a long material

 Through a still virulence,
 And a weed, hairy as privates.


 On the balconies of the hotel, things are glittering.
 Things, things------

 Tubular steel wheelchairs, aluminum crutches.
 Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk

 Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?
 I am not a nurse, white and attendant,

 I am not a smile.
 These children are after something, with hooks and cries,

 And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.
 This is the side of a man: his red ribs,

 The nerves bursting like trees, and this is the surgeon:
 One mirrory eye------

 A facet of knowledge.
 On a striped mattress in one room

 An old man is vanishing.
 There is no help in his weeping wife.

 Where are the eye-stones, yellow and valuable,
 And the tongue, sapphire of ash.


 A wedding-cake face in a paper frill.
 How superior he is now.

 It is like possessing a saint.
 The nurses in their wing-caps are no longer so beautiful;

 They are browning, like touched gardenias.
 The bed is rolled from the wall.

 This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
 Is he wearing pajamas or an evening suit

 Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
 Rises so whitely unbuffeted?

 They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
 And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.

 Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
 The pillow cases are sweetening.

 It is a blessing, it is a blessing:
 The long coffin of soap-colored oak,

 The curious bearers and the raw date
 Engraving itself in silver with marvelous calm.


 The gray sky lowers, the hills like a green sea
 Run fold upon fold far off, concealing their hollows,

 The hollows in which rock the thoughts of the wife------
 Blunt, practical boats

 Full of dresses and hats and china and married daughters.
 In the parlor of the stone house

 One curtain is flickering from the open window,
 Flickering and pouring, a pitiful candle.

 This is the tongue of the dead man: remember, remember.
 How far he is now, his actions


 Around him like livingroom furniture, like a décor.
 As the pallors gather------

 The pallors of hands and neighborly faces,
 The elate pallors of flying iris.

 They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
 The empty benches of memory look over stones,

 Marble façades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
 It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.


 The natural fatness of these lime leaves!------
 Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church.

 The voice of the priest, in thin air,
 Meets the corpse at the gate,

 Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell;
 A glitter of wheat and crude earth.

 What is the name of that color?------
 Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,

 Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.
 The widow with her black pocketbook and three daughters,


 Necessary among the flowers,
 Enfolds her face like fine linen,

 Not to be spread again.
 While a sky, wormy with put-by smiles,

 Passes cloud after cloud.
 And the bride flowers expend a freshness,

 And the soul is a bride
 In a still place, and the groom is red and forgetful, he is featureless.


 Behind the glass of this car
 The world purrs, shut-off and gentle.

 And I am dark-suited and still, a member of the party,
 Gliding up in low gear behind the cart.

 And the priest is a vessel,
 A tarred fabric, sorry and dull,

 Following the coffin on its flowery cart like a beautiful woman,
 A crest of breasts, eyelids and lips

 Storming the hilltop.
 Then, from the barred yard, the children

 Smell the melt of shoe-blacking,
 Their facts turning, wordless and slow,

 Their eyes opening
 On a wonderful thing------

 Six round black hats in the grass and a lozenge of wood,
 And a naked mouth, red and awkward.

 For a minute the sky pours into the hole like plasma.
 There is no hope, it is given up.


30 June 1962



 Surgeon at 2 a.m. (1961)

(before : The Surgeon at 2 a. m. )





 The white light is artificial, and hygienic as heaven.
 The microbes cannot survive it.
 They are departing in their transparent garments, turned aside
 From the scalpels and the rubber hands.
 The scalded sheet is a snowfield, frozen and peaceful.
 The body under it is in my hands.
 As usual there is no face. A lump of Chinese white
 With seven holes thumbed in. The soul is another light.
 I have not seen it; it does not fly up.
 Tonight it has receded like a ship's light.

 It is a garden I have to do with---tubers and fruits
 Oozing their jammy substances,
 A mat of roots. My assistants hook them back.
 Stenches and colors assail me.
 This is the lung-tree.
 These orchids are splendid. They spot and coil like snakes.

 The heart is a red-bell-bloom, in distress.
 I am so small
 In comparison to these organs!
 I worm and hack in a purple wilderness.


 The blood is a sunset. I admire it.
 I am up to my elbows in it, red and squeaking.
 Still it seeps up, it is not exhausted.
 So magical! A hot spring
 I must seal off and let fill
 The intricate, blue piping under this pale marble.
 How I admire the Romans---
 Aqueducts, the Baths of Caracalla, the eagle nose!
 The body is a Roman thing.
 It his shut its mouth on the stone pill of repose.

 It is a statue the orderlies are wheeling off.
 I have perfected it.
 I am left with an arm or a leg,
 A set of teeth, or stones
 To rattle in a bottle and take home,
 And tissue in slices---a pathological salami.
 Tonight the parts are entombed in an icebox.
 Tomorrow they will swim
 In vinegar like saints' relics.
 Tomorrow the patient will have a clean, pink plastic limb.

 Over one bed in the ward, a small blue light
 Announces a new soul. The bed is blue.
 Tonight, for this person, blue is a beautiful color.
 The angels of morphia have borne him up.
 He floats an inch from the ceiling,
 Smelling the dawn drafts.
 I walk among sleepers in gauze sarcophagi.
 The red night lights are flat moons. They are dull with blood.
 I am the sun, in my white coat,
 Gray faces, shuttered by drugs, follow me like flowers.


29 September 1961