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The Missouri Review 29.4 (2006) 94-103

The Ladder
V. Penelope Pelizzon
[About the Author]

In the wolf's mouth.
In the lion's den.
In the storm's eye.
Under Time's wing.

Let me choke the wolf.
Let me skin the lion.
Let me blind the storm.

And from Time's wing
Let me pluck the feather
That sends it flying.

* * *

The bee's legs wore little hooking hairs, my mother said,
So it climbed the ridges of my fingertips
As easily as I could climb the stairs.
We watched it ambling along my thumb.

By the waking hive, we lazed. The bees were flying from
Its dark mouth into the sun,
Tuning their wings' vibrations to the spring.
The hive, like a mind on the hillside,
Mouth whispering
Something about flowers, in almost-familiar words. [End Page 94]

* * *

In Rome this zero year, the cattle trade runs cheap. A fertile spring
Gluts every market town with calves. For slaves, too, prices are low.

Publius Ovidius Naso, in the circus seeing men turned
To beasts, thinks: Now I am ready to sing of bodies changing form.

Celts sharpen iron blades along the empire's edge, and nightly
Through the east a comet drags its rouged, portentous chariot of sparks.

O Ancients, a few centuries till your gods lived in their star-struck
Names alone. Could you read that future in the entrails of a cock?

And we who freed the atom's genii from its lamp—are we more literate,
Scrying through the microscope the scripts curled in our cells?

* * *

The Lone Star State. Here it's oil, not coal
They pull from underneath the hills. Still,
What's a cowgirl when you take away her boots,
Spurs, her two-step, hat and hope? Carbon and its flaws.
The geneticist who scans the pregnant wrangler's
Fetal cells for trisomies feels a spin of pleasure when
The babe's chromosomes pair up
Cheek-to-cheek without a wallflower on the slide.
Two Xes—though her mother wants to keep that a surprise.
"Little girl, little girl," the geneticist croons with her radio. [End Page 95]

* * *

(The mute shepherd)

Sing me something, Caedmon.
  I cannot sing!
Caedmon, sing the ladder:
  Measured the Maker
A ladder whose legs lengthened and spiraled.
Rung after rung ringing like strings
Fretted by fingers it fleshed into form
The Maker's music with modulations.
Though toothed Time tears the hours
Devours days and down the ladder
Razes each rung, rejoice regardless.
Safe in its small cell swells the first song.
* * *

Koko's turned thirty and keeps saying she wants a baby.

Trouble is, she's a gorilla, taught from birth to sign,
And the world's only other signing gorilla is her brother:

No spark there. The zoo's new male silverback,
Introduced to solve the problem, frightens her

With his chest-beating cries. Her fix draws a wry
Laugh from girls a few seats up the double helix.

Is there no mate who communicates with her
Hybrid life? Meanwhile, science waits: if chemistry

Brings Koko her wish, what language will she teach it? [End Page 96]

* * *

(Dreaming in the library)

To add the next rung to a ladder made of words
I clung at its top in clouds above a chasm.

The ladder rocked in wind. What led me here
Were the poets who had raised the form, keening in the gusts,

To its present slant across the void. The far bank remained
Impossible to see. Nonetheless I had to add my rung

Steadily, despite the buffeting and cold. Failure meant
Oblivion. And success? Oblivion also,

But my rung would extend the ladder's reach.
My rung like a twig in my hand.

* * *

The library opens its bright glass eye
High amid twigs now trembling green; Spring summons us to attend
Her fluent digressions.
          Veering to madness on such a day,
Virginia Woolf would catch the birds at her window
Arguing in Greek, though when Saint Francis called them
"Little sisters," they spoke the local tongue.

How plausible all language seems for...


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