Stephen Massimilla


—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.


-After Neruda

The dead of one abysm, shadows of one chasm,
of such depth, defined the highest measure
of your magnitude, Macchu Picchu,
your true, most all-consuming
death: From the quarried rocks,
from the scarlet turrets,
from the staggered stairways of the aqueducts,
you tumbled down as if into autumn
to a single death.
Today the hollow air no longer cries,
no longer acquainted with your feet of clay;
your pitchers that filtered the firmament
when the blades of a cloudburst flashed forth
are already forgotten,
and the mighty tree was swallowed
by fog, struck down by gusts.

Suddenly, from the highest summit, the hand
that it held up toppled
to the end of time.
You are gone now, spidery fingers, delicate
filaments, interwoven mesh;
all that you were has dropped away: customs, unraveled
syllables, masks of resplendent light.

But this permanence of stone and word,
this city, like a cup, was uplifted in the hands
of all—the quick, the dead, the silenced—sustained
by so much death, a wall: out of so much life, a hard blow
of stone petals: the sempiternal rose, the traveler’s abode,
this Andean breakwater of glacial colonies.

When the clay-colored hands
turned to clay; when the diminutive eyelids closed,
crammed with coarse walls, crowded with castles,

and when the whole of man lay ensnared in his crater,
exactitude remained there waving like a flag:
the high site of the dawn of humanity.
The loftiest vessel ever to contain the silence;
a life of stone after so many lives.


It makes us into what we recognize
of ourselves but supposedly are not,
which means suppressing…
how this time, the reputedly reflective
monologist was rippled so strangely
that he didn’t even think he resembled
the double—a phantom as unaware
as the hair the hand runs through,
seen from such an angle
that it was jostled by black-
backed gulls shadowboxing
across the docks and shivered
by prismatic sun slipping
into Gravesend Bay—as if
some brilliant sweat
had been swept off the brow
into the ocean, becoming part
of everything dissolving. So
he thought about something else.


You think for the echoing reason that thunder
startles your back, like a cat—wish you knew
where the fire was made.

Think of birds without wings, lazy atoms
in the mountain’s sunlit hair
waiting for sky.

Beyond, black stars bound
to perish in
endlessness. Flesh of time,

the ash-tide slowly
swells. Your pulse
drowns in it.

Stephen Massimilla is a poet, scholar, professor, and painter. His multi-genre volume Cooking with the Muse (Tupelo, 2016) won the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the National Indie Excellence Award, and others. Previous books include The Plague Doctorin His Hull-Shaped Hat  (SFASU Press Prize), Forty Floors from Yesterday (the Bordighera/CUNY Prize), Later on Aiaia (the Grolier Prize), and a critical dissertation. He has recent work in hundreds of publications such as Agni, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Poet Lore, Poetry Daily, and The Southern Review. Massimilla holds an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University and teaches at Columbia University and The New School. For more info: www.stephenmassimilla.com and www.cookingwiththemuse.com