Bust of Camille

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I am exhausted, can’t you see it,
How my eyes are so ripe with lassitude,

And you call them beautiful.

What is yet unborn wells up in me
And disturbs the symmetry of my charm.

And you think I have become so secretive,
But what could I now say?

The things that I fashion grow so frightening,

And speak on my behalf with
Distorted mouths.

And see my hand,
What you once so fondly called

The coil of my creation,
See how monstrous it has grown,

And it already shapes my famed madness,
And it is as though I was no more than hand,

Brutal instrument of my genius
That would one day smother us.

But then you remember my lips,
Which have always been so childlike,

Fragile,

A sensuality wholly reserved for me alone
And waiting to break.

The Burghers of Calais

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Some with eyes of bold acceptance
Of impending horrors
That cancel others.
And this one turning back,

With open pleading mouth
To the city that
Already goes about its daily business,
And hears the hawkers in the streets,
And sees the watchmen at the wall.

And this one with grim determined cheeks,
Gazing straight ahead
At the arrayed captors,
While the condemned hour
Dances on his lips

And he almost smiles.
And at last, the key holder,
In the centre,
around whom the others
Revolve like abandoned stars,

His head bowed with the weight
Of the sacredness of his death,
While it is not despair, but
A sense of release
That floats across his gaunt face.

That the city may be saved,
These five must go away.
And so, like one without a homeland,
Whose body is no longer chained

To anything,
His feet move toward the open field
As though they were
Of another’s volition,

And how light,
How pleasant the wet grass
As he gazes into immense distances,

Eyes filled with reverence,
Far beyond the bristling soldiers
And the walls of the surrendered city.

Danaïd

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You were cruel to leave me alone,
With only my hands, and
Only my art.
In your absence I turned the chisel
Against my own longing,

My despair entered this stone,
And like nerve pulling at nerve
I retrieved your impossible, naked
Soul from its guts.

See how your shoulders arch here,
Where the light becomes sharp and unforgiving,
This is where I first cut my heart out
With your touch.

And here, where your hair plunges
Like a leviathan of caresses,
Down into the unhewn rock,
Here my belief in the separateness
Of our bodies finally fails.

I am curled into every curve,
And surge and retreat of your terrible absence.

When you return, you
Will discover I have gone quite mad.
Night after night in my atelier
I have disemboweled myself,
A dozen new figures to worship your savagery.

Charles and Jeanne

Molten of your loins,
your half-caste Venus of a thousand poems
on a delicate cushion,
rubbed with wine, her old perfume.
They said you loved her most,
mistress of mistresses.

She’s not much to a modern eye,
face of pock-marked eyelids,
cleft lip, spine ravaged by
undiscovered disease,
and scars that trace
the progress of her soul into hell.

She’s doomed,
but you’re doomed too,
twenty seven would be a good age to die
to syphilis, or opiates, or poetry,
lives burning from the rafters
of a choleric slum.

Waifs of life, extinguishing yourselves
in fast and terrible Parisian quarters,
in the doorways, in the dram shops,
under the lamps burning whale fat,

dripping with the lyricism
of the copulating masses,
you could admire, you could despise.

You embraced your exterminating century,
the brief lungs,
you burned for her broken body,
utterly entombed in her
infinite malaise.

Calais

My boy, I dragged you out
of our besieged night,
our piles of books and cupboards of food,
places we’d kept neat
for mothers and sisters,

because the years and the State
and the extremists
had turned against
those who think and talk and
dance with their neighbours.

Three times we’ve criss-crossed the ocean
in weeping ships,
seen ports brown as hulls,
walked brigand deserts
that plundered our coats
and expelled us onto
cold, dawnless shores.

We’ve caged rides on barges
taking scrap metal to Marseilles,
hooked our blind souls to migrating lorries,
unrolling the thinning strand
of life as far as Calais.

And no one once took notice
of two stray Syrians,
ejected foam of the earth.
Now we live on this edge
of an angry channel

where date trees would wither
under snow that falls like smog,
slowly erasing us from all records.
We scrape the animals from our eyes,

bum dimes from dark hats
heavy with hatred,
sleep in tarpaulin bags
full of damp families.
My son, I kindle the hope that warms in you
to keep me moving closer,
back to life.

But when you shut your eyes
to the sound of the trains
rolling out of reach in the night,
and I’m left alone with all my loss,
then I see only the walls that shut us out,
and the high fences
that pen us in.