Steep Ascension

Amit Majmudar

for John Hollander

A last tercet reworked like a last will,
    he’d told me he was writing, feeling well,
        but I found his body turned to face the wall,

no bigger than a child’s. Eight years ill,
    he slept with his legs drawn up, a letter L.
        I saw three cards beside his bed and all

his meds, hope’s aspirin, the spirit’s pill,
    the withered fig tree of his IV pole,
        his white skin withered too, beyond the pale.

I saw how age can leave the skull a hill
    and the breath a white wind whistling in a hole.
        He awoke when a gurney squealed down the hall.

We spoke. He told me how a poem ticks:
    a clock, a bomb, a heart that’s been attacked.
        It felt like medicine to hear him talk,

heart medicine because my heart was sick
    to see another Alexandria sacked,
        Goethe burning, Lowell, Job, Balzac,

and though I told myself that death begins
    the work of stocking all the shelves again,
        I knew this rare edition would be gone.

His room’s barbaric, biometric din
    was full of screens that lit up and trilled like dawn
        whenever a heart lead came undone.

For all our neat rhymes, John said, death’s a mess.
    A juice cup tipped, bed pans, a bleeding mass.
        It doesn’t lack for the lachrymose:

I guess sophistication must regress
    to speech as rusticated as the grass
        where rumination bows its head to graze.

We write, we die, and what we’ve written dies,
    he said, but damn it those were blessed days
        deciding if a given rhyme would do.

His cuff inflated, and gave out with a sigh
    the same old numbers, nothing more to say.
        To think the heartsblood could be measured so:

systolic, diastolic; waking, dream.
    What use defining rhythms for the drama
        if soul won’t put her bare fist through the drum?

Back when I was young, he said, it seemed
    the art and the artful were one and the same,
        no sweeter labor than to do my sums,

to jump the fence and grin around the bit.
    Listen, Amit—that’s not what it’s about.
        It isn’t worth it if it isn’t bought

with suffering. The best of us have written
    maybe a dozen lines that tap the root.
        The rest? Bout-rimes with dead men, overwrought.

I sensed the disappointment in him, the fear.
    But John, I told him, beauty is a fire
        those who burn hardest labor coldly for

and I for one will hold your labors dear,
    the music of meaning, the artistry that dares
        to conjure walls that it might conjure doors.

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