September 29, 2021

THE UNDERTAKING

—After Neruda

Mighty death beckoned me many times:
it was like invisible brine in the waves,
and what that inscrutable savor disseminated
was like half-sinking, half-rising heights
or vast constructions of snowdrift and wind.

I came to the iron edge, to the narrows
of air, to the burial shroud of farmland and stone,
to the star-scattered void of the final steps—
and the wild vertigo of the spiral highway:

Death, vast sea, you don’t come wave after wave
but with a gallop of nocturnal clarity
or like the final onslaught of night.

You have never come rummaging in your pockets;
you couldn’t possibly visit without your red robe,
your dawning raiment of clinging silence:
your lofty, buried heritage of tears.

Not in every single being could I love a tree
with its own little autumn on its shoulders
(a death of a thousand leaves).
I dismissed the fraudulent deaths and resurrections
out of nowhere—not the earth, not the abyss.

I tried to swim out into the widest lives,
the most wide-open river-mouths—
my way of ascending toward the summit—
and when humanity went denying me bit by bit,

blocking the pass and the entry so I’d never touch
its wounded absence with my gushing hands,
then I went through street after street, river after river,
city after city, from bed to bed,
and pressed ahead through the desert in my salt mask,

and there, in the last humiliated hovels—lampless, fireless,
with no bread, no stone, no silence, alone—
I rolled on, dying the death that was my own.

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