weekend-readsSteep Declension

John Hollander

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer 2007, Vol. XXIX, No. 3

The fortune-teller was nonspecific: Will
    I have to fall into some silly well
        Or smash a borrowed car into a wall?

Or fall (as it is often said) quite ill
    And lie, frail as a lower-case letter l
        In bed for many months and then—that’s all?

Or shall some medico give me a pill
    To send me out beyond some ultimate pole,
        Darkness invisible under Nothing’s pall,

Hm? Had she warned that when I climbed a hill
    I’d end up deep down in some dreadful hole?
        Or: that I’d dream I lay in some vast hall

All shivering with fear, on a straw tick,
    While vile invaders gathered to attack
        Against the flimsy castle, and the tock!

Of the first arrows fell down on its sick
    Defenders at the walls so that the sack
        Of the whole sad town, stuck in the cul-de-sac

Of a barren valley could then begin
    In earnest. As for me, it first began
        When a huge yet-to-be-invented gun

Boomed out among the hills: the echoing din
    Was ominous. My second cousin Dan
        (Why bring him in? I perhaps might have done

Without him if I’d—well . . . ) who made a mess
    Of many things by trying to amass
        A fortune, ended broke and lachrymose

About it after all—(but I digress;
    Let’s see . . . well, back to the bad dream) the grass
        Outside the castle wall was wet and gross

With blood and body parts, and all would die
    Within its walls during that dreadful day
        While the wind howled like a stricken doe

Deep in some forest, fading to a sigh
    As if it wanted somehow (but how?) to say
        That I had reaped what I could not yet sow,

Remembered what I’d never known. The dream
    Would stop then; I’d awake and down a dram
        Of Glenwhatever, while an inner drum

Slowly ceased to rumble, and, it would seem
    Quickly cease to matter (Dan’s boyfriend, Sam,
        Suddenly comes to mind just now, for some

Strong, but silly, reason). So, bit by bit
    We come to see that our lives are about
        Paying for what we had not known we’d bought

In our digressions: brandishing its writ
    Of habeas corpus, till Death puts to rout
        The hopes we’d pampered, and the woes we’d wrought

We’ve come down to the place where smoldering fear
    Flares up in certainty’s consuming fire
        Sparked by the gypsy’s mumblings long before,

And crossed thresholds can lead to what is dear
    No longer, but to what is surely dire
        Behind the ultimately closing door.

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