Streaked and fretted with effort, the thick vine

Of the world, red nervelets coiled at its tips.
All roads lead from it. All night

And wainwrights work to complete the wheeled coffin
Of the Emperor’s dead favorite, the child’s corpse
Propped on brocade cushions. Frankincense, rouge,

Kohl on the stiff lids. Slaves spread rose petals
On the street for the cortege. Our mortal faces
Flowers that shoot from blisters on the one same vine,

 to streets. On mine, Rockwell Avenue,
It was embarrassing: Trouble— fights, the police,
Sickness— seemed never to come for anybody

When they were fully dressed. It was always
Underwear or soiled pajamas, unseemly stretches
Of skin livid through a torn housecoat. Once,

A stranger drove off in a car
 with somebody’s wife
And he ran after them in his undershirt, to throw
His shoe at the car. It bounced into the street

Harmlessly and we carried it back to him, but
The man had too much dignity
 to put it back on,
So he accepted and held it, weeping in the street:

“He’s breaking up my home,” he said,
 “The son
Of a bitch bastard is breaking up my home.”
The street rose undulant in black, road-cracking coils

And still holding his shoe he rode those waves,
Upright like a trick rider in the circus parade
That marched full-force down Rockwell every August.

Dragon-like humps of road swelled and plunged, him
Atop them, cursing and ready to throw his shoe—
Woven into the fabulous
 flesh of the vine,

Carried with bears and clowns along the tendril
From Flock’s Mortuary Home at Rockwell and Broadway
To Flanagan’s Field. . . . It was a seedy place

And off the center, and so much a place to itself
I felt
 like a prince or aspirant squire. I knew
Ivanhoe was about race. The Saxons were Jews,

Or even Coloreds, with their sour-smelling houses
Down by the river docks. Each thing was written
Or woven, ivory and pink and emerald. Nothing

Was too ugly or petty or terrible to be weighed
In the great scales of the dead, the silver balances
Looming on the live, shifting surface of our street.





Robert Pinsky was a three-term US Poet Laureate. His work has earned him the PEN/Voelcker Award, the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Lenore Marshall Prize, Italy’s Premio Capri, the Korean Manhae Award, and the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago, among others. His anthology The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His most recent poetry collection, At the Foundling Hospital, was published in 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Other poetry collections include Selected Poems (FSG, 2011), Gulf Music (FSG, 2007), and Jersey Rain (FSG, 2001). In 2013 WW Norton published Singing School: Learning to Read (and Write) Poetry by Studying with the Masters.

His translation of The Inferno of Dante received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Howard Morton Landon Prize for translation. Pinsky is also co-translator of The Separate Notebooks, poems by Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz.


Current Issue #69 April 2017
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