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  • Le Moribond, and: At Assateague, and: End
  • John James (bio)

Le Moribond

after Jacques Brel

In the catacombs I am impatient.In this hall shuttling between

one world and the next, fromnothing to being and back again,

I stand, restless, following the wormof thought to its blacked-out end:

I study the bones before me,observe fine cracks in the skulls,

hairline fractures, the pits of teethgone missing. History compounds.

The skulls are yellow, tar-colored,mangled with dust, tucked along

niches in the tunnels' run. I am notready to be among them. And so,

for now, I wait. Tonight I walkthe city's soft quays, watch mist

cloud over the Seine, people flickingcigarettes, striking guitars, strumming

nickel strings—doing whatthe French do. Empty bottles lounge [End Page 9]

in the river. This far beneath groundone hardly hopes to escape. Femur,

tailbone, marrowless rib: touristspass photographing the dead, tombless

remnants unearthed by late priests.Nightly their procession of cloth-

covered wagons emptied the citycemeteries. A picture is a fine memento.

Bones tell us little. In this networkof interlaced tunnels six million

people lie buried. Many timesthe walls collapsed, combining the bodies

of municipal workers with the oneswe find here. It adds them to the tomb.

The stacks of bodies are endless.Now as I trace the path from one gray

lamp to another, the pattern of lightsbetween exits guides my walk

through the cold. Dark lettersurge me on, etched on a tableau of flat

stone: Halt. Here is death's empire.Those who walk among them

no doubt return alive, thoughoccasionally a pair of lovers lose their way,

spend a night or two among the dead.My task is simple: leave the bones [End Page 10]

interred. On the other side of thesedim-lit tunnels, sun attacks the nerves. Inveterate

monuments skulk from the squareat Montparnasse. Their eyelids do not

faze me. Death, whatever it is,sleeps belowground. It doesn't mix

with the light. Fractures. Some of them diedfrom only hairline fractures, enough

to place silence in a grown man's teeth,to plant his broken jaw beneath the dirt. [End Page 11]

At Assateague

The sun is a thin line of redbroadening over the bay.It slices the horizon, strikes lightinto a darkness poisedto disclose some secret the nightcouldn't shake out of it.

Trout smokes over hot coals.Wild ponies in the distancecharge along the strand, kick sandup behind them, an inelegant cloudthat smears the dawn's gouache.

It's unbearable, this scene,its sickening romance.

Still I want to hold it, to freezeits sudden architecturein the flotsam of the beach—to suck the ichor from its rib.

It wouldn't sustain me, I know.The gulls turning their circleswould grow dull.I'd berate the sand flea's itch.The gravitation of the tide's pullwould choke me with ennui.

Pear blossoms soon give way to pears,I'll never stop eating them. [End Page 12]



A cloud steeps the gorge I drive beside.The cars moving toward me are dull

bellies of yellow jackets washed in a seaof bright foam. Time rushes—toward me,

and away. I hold the median, the rockjutting from the river. In the fog

I hardly see it. Smoke settles around melike a pocket of blue. I forget nothing;

nothing forgets. Carbon only remains.The all of us pressed in a rock of mined coal.

Summer dissipates. The worldturns about. Buckets, the poet says, of old

light going home. I like the mystery of it.I like to think the atoms of the stones

beneath the river are not the finite end,that the south-departing mallards signal

something other than themselves.Driving home, I feel the axle-hum,

liquid fossils exploding beneath the pedalsat my feet. Its gases fill the air. October

lasts no time at all. I pick my daughterup from school, rush against the clock.

The cells in her body divide. Minedecay. Already I feel a twitch in my...


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