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Plague

By
October 1, 2008

 

Fold back your sleeve, cara, so I can see
the lining and the wrist bone’s alp. A girl
in Castello grew white fur on her tongue

when I was fifteen. All but the pink tip,
like a tiny monk’s head, a tonsured pate.
Then the fur blackened, and the monk

grew horribly young. The tongue that I
had jealously watched accept the Host
on Easter. The hands that had peeled

a mandarin after Mass in the piazza
turned black as bread stumps forsaken
in the oven by a stewed baker. Plague

burned through town leaping from flesh
to flesh through breath, as quick as fire
in a library licks Revelations to Genesis.

I’ve dreamed I watch my own fingers melt
as I paint the sun’s reflection on a chalice.
Wondered if my final strokes—gold gobs,

welts of yellow—might surpass the best
work I’ve done, a moth’s red underwing
I captured flashing as it fled from Jesus’

clumsy toddler’s grasp, the gurgling
Child who roasts men and women
from within until their skin splits.

Wondered if a god could become
God only by becoming human,
losing control of the chariot.

Think of it. Not just a young woman’s
groin bursting out of its smock with
black buboes, but her child starving

in silence because the wheat fields
are harvestmen’s graves. One after
another mashes his face into earth

to escape the light that has become
excruciating, and then lies writhing
by his scythe. Don’t move, cara, that’s

the look I want: a man who looks now
in your eyes may think you gaze at him
with desire—no, with interest, interest

he collects like a banker—but I know
your gaze is not on him but the thing
I saw on the street in Città di Castello

in 1499, a girl’s death forcing itself
out of her belly in a parody of birth.
He’ll recognize the fear in your eyes

but also a hint of relish as you begin
to understand it could be this very
evening, while he strolls through

his vineyards testing the firmness
of a fist of grapes (not quite ripe)
with his practiced fingers, that he

will become a thing: he will look up
at Scorpio and know and know and
rage that not everyone dies alone, not

everyone, and if God is omnipotent,
then He can will Himself to not exist
for those who come to realize too late

that their whole life—each sip of wine
under the arbor—must have sounded
to Him like a prayer to be left alone,

a prayer that even He had to answer.

 

Robert Thomas’s first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham, and his second book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize.

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