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Cyrus Cassells 



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,



a deepdown plenty;

in the midst of plenty,


a glorious, saving



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.






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)—



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




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.

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