03-17-2020

Cyrus Cassells 

THE SHADOW

 

after Hans Christian Anderson

Traveler, I came to a colossus

of clustered houses—a sultry kingdom,

replete with breeze-swept balconies,

belled donkeys, and vying boys

slyly triggering Roman candles —

all of it beneath a glittering

caravansary of detectable stars—

 

In the bullying heat  

of that equatorial city,

my rambunctious shadow grew

thinner, desiccated, restless,

and leaped, abracadabra

(more jack-in-the-box

than agile gazelle!),

onto my mysterious neighbor’s

intricate balcony.

When my rogue-swift, dark counterpart

returned, I asked:

What did you see? Who lives there?

Poetry, he revealed.

Yes, Poetry, as numinous and longed-for 

as the Northern Lights,

often lives in palm-guarded places,

as a shuttered Garbo, an elusive

recluse cloistered among us—

 

Imagine: I was a seeker tantalized

by light and shadow

that I faithfully mimicked

in expressive oils and aquarelles,

an ardent, itinerant painter, attuned

to the way garden shadows

become diligent brushstrokes

or late afternoon lace.

So why should I be surprised

at my headstrong shadow?

 

After his first enlightening escapades

in Poetry’s captivating rooms,

in one magnanimous gesture,

I set free my shadow to emerge

as his own up-and-coming man,

to acquire blue serge, a boutonniere,

a dapper bowler—

But he employed his newfound humanity,

his effusive charm and flair

to persuade the winsome princess,

my beloved fiancée,

that I was the unruly imposter, the mad

shadow who deserved oblivion:

first bedlam, then the chilly

volley of a firing squad—

 

And in the flash point I was manacled, I saw

our fierce mirroring was never        

friendship, twin-ship,

but a crafty fisherman’s net,

a supplanting spider’s stratagem—I saw

how slowly and inexorably I became 

a Christ in distress,

and my rebellious shadow                       

a charioteer, a ruffian god,

a key-cold executioner.

 

 

 

VII. Communion

 

 

A revering pitcher of milk

poured on a slave’s

 

cool resting place

(even a ghost

 

needs sustenance, Augutus),

an artful Sea Island slave

 

christened Jupiter

who festooned his banjo

 

with crude, blue,

cantering horses,

 

a blinded slave who lived to savor

unbossed days.

 

My chains fell away:

that dream.

 

My chains fell away

with a Juneteenth glory.

 

 

*

 

In the midst of bondage,

ingenuity,

 

a deepdown plenty;

in the midst of plenty,

 

a glorious, saving

self-forgetfulness:

 

time spent with the bold-horsed,

at-the-ready banjo

 

seemed heaven time—

replenishing, redeeming,

 

warming him

as thoroughly as hoe-cakes

 

and the homeplace blue

of supper fires.

 

Likewise, in Carolina, a whole

dog day morning could be occupied

 

with the brusque wedding

of a disheveled wheelbarrow

 

and the windblown apples

from my grandfather’s hardy trees.

 

 

*

 

Ghostyhead,

move-along man,

 

what is this night cousin to,

this Low Country night?

 

The onerous passage:

the well-deep dark of the hold,

 

the not-gutted baritone

crying and singing—

 

eoho, eoho—

of the man chained next to you—

 

as if God’s Eden-intact fruit

were eternally out of reach,

 

as if solace and dayclean,

have mercy, were impossible:

 

dark of the hold

thick as blackstrap syrup.

 

 

*

 

Nevertheless, dayclean comes,

enlivening, bold as a posse,

 

with its buffer

of buttered cornbread,

 

of bracing coffee cooled

just-so in a china saucer,

 

and hurried back to the cup

(my grandfather Frank’s habit)—

 

Sustenance:

a shrimp-and-grits pipe dream,

 

then the real plate, oh my,

the real communion.

 

 

*

 

As if we could be fed,

washed clean, and crowned

 

with bride-soft shore birds

(that dream),

 

all of our deeply stored wishes

waterborne, Augustus,

 

all of our derided people’s

countless night terrors

 

hushed at last—whip-scars,

tears, and chimeras

 

of the slave-holding past

dissolved in dayclean’s  

 

cleansing power, its pennant-clear

promise of resurrection.

 

 

*

 

 

On days of upending hunger,

breakspirit days,

 

able wrought-iron makers, able watermen

defer their dreams—

 

Heart, make room

for the blinded Gullah ghosts,

 

for the breadline men, make room

for the windfall apples.

from the sequence The Gospel According to Wild Indigo

ELEGY WITH A GOLD CRADLE

 

 

Now that you’re forever

ministering wind and turquoise, ashes

 

eclipsed by the sea’s thrust

and the farthest tor

 

(I know you were always

more than my mother)—

 

giveaway flecks tipped and scattered

from an island palisade;

 

now that you’re a restless synonym

for the whistling fisherman’s

 

surfacing mesh,

the alluring moon’s path and progress

         

through a vast chaos

of unrelenting waves, 

 

let me reveal:

in the at-a-loss days

 

following your scattering,

in my panoramic hotel, I found

 

a sun-flooded cradle—

so pristine, so spot-lit and sacramental

 

beside my harbor-facing bed,

I couldn’t bear to rock

 

 

or even touch it, Mother:

I marveled at the gold-leafed bars

 

and contours—the indomitable,

antique wood beneath, an emblem

 

of unbeatable hope

and prevailing tenderness—

 

then, for a crest-like, hallowing hour,

listen, my mourning was suffused

 

with the specter of your lake-calm

cascade of hair, inkwell-dark

 

in the accruing shadows,

your rescuing, soothing contralto,

 

and oh yes, Isabel,

the longed-for fluttering

 

of my nap-time lids:

entrancing gold

 

of the first revealing dawns,

the first indispensable lullabies—

-from The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, Southern Illinois University Press (Feb 22, 2018)

 

Cyrus Cassells is the author of The Mud Actor, winner of the 1981 National Poetry Series Competition; Soul Make a Path through Shouting, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Beautiful Signor, winner of the Lambda Literary Award; and The Crossed-Out Swastika, finalist for the Balcones Prize for Best Poetry Book of 2012. He teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos.