Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.
—Stephen Crane, “In the Desert”

No one else can tell you about Stephen Crane’s
last dream of this earth,
but I can.

He is twenty-eight. He is listening
for the doomed soldiers singing
through the spruces of a wild
Confederate night,
and he can almost hear them.

We can almost hear them. They touch
the black-eyed Susans stitched
into the thinness of their woolen
hems, and they are silent.

They fold their hands against their breasts
where their hymnals would have been,
and they sing on.

When he wakes, Crane
will throw another copy of his Red Badge
onto the fire and cough
blood. Outside, the Black Forest
will sing nothing,

and the flames will rage on.


Nothing, his body

whispered, when he was asked what he’d been doing
with that wild-eyed woman
they’d found him carrying

into Jacksonville, Florida, the thick
pitch of the forest in her
satin, her crinoline like a city hymning
fire, and tonight, because

he is dying, and because he loves so completely
the music of his future

in the still-boyish embouchure of his consumptive
mouth, he will whisper it
again, over and over

and over: nothing, nothing,
nothing, until it sounds
like history, until it sounds like the spring’s wings

unraveling the last strength
in the rafters, the dun wings
in the forests of his heart.

And then he will slumber on.

O Shenandoah, the soldiers
sing, O Wide Missouri.


it is New York and December, and if I have stumbled back
through the bitter fields
of ghosted clover,

it is only because I have found
out, in a silo’s wall, a photograph
of my father’s boyish father

as he stands behind the kneeling body
of a Nazi, the curved, rusted iron
of his bayonet
against the small spur of that bare
Teutonic larynx, fighting back the bitter grin
of victory.

What I know of it

is this much, only: If history
is a young, combed colonel,
his face pressed in a carnation

in some city, his future
on the tattered bed behind him,
her fingers in the strap
between his shoulders, then

what she has wanted, what she has always wanted
to admit to him

is her terrible dream she be undone by him,
her terrible thirst
he be undone by her, like the blossoms
on his black belt she has tasted—crown

vetch, chicory, lobelia; knot
weed, heron’s bill, azalea. What he has wanted

is the amnesty of the particular.


it is afterward and December

and if my father’s father has a boy’s life
in his own hands,
what I have wanted to tell you

is I have wanted to kill another man. What
I have wanted to show you
is the thin, Afghan boy
gagged and bound
to the shoulders
of his brother, a coin laid on his outstretched tongue

because, his inquisitor told him,
to swallow it was
mercy, because it would tumble, he was told,
heads or not-heads
on his forearms, when he tired.

And he would have to, he would have to tire.

This is not about history.
This is not about the young
Dutch painter who slept on the floor of his century,
his eyes lost
in the soft bells of his religion,

his starved heart like a wild pike
in a pharaoh’s tomb,
with only his fist
as his pillow. Nor how he lived

with that woman's body until it was holy.
This is not about the country within this country.
In the dream


within the dream that Crane
is dreaming, he has climbed up

to an ancient church
beyond the mountains,
and what he sees there is so simple

it could crush you:

not fire, not the wild
of a martyr,
but the carved form of a young
in the stone floor, her features worn

by the centuries of pilgrims.

She is so simple
even the shadows
forget her. She does not know

she is guarding Dante
in the mortared
wall; she does not know

of this stranger in the
threshold, that when he lies down on the cold stone
of her body,

he will ask her
what none have thought
to ask her:
for gold, not
for catacombs
of silver,
but for one more moment
of his dream again, sustains her.

He will ask again for the love that follows love.

Listen: if the afterlife


has the big, boyish eyes
of an anonymous martyr

hidden in full armor in the ranks of a Roman
legion, then tonight the spirit of Crane

isn’t looking for him
in a chorus of the ghost soldiers in the German

woods, their thin arms
interlocking in their blue wool,
the foliage of Savannah in their hair.

When he wakes
to find the wind has slipped
the hinges,

he will stumble out
into the ruins of the Teutonic
night, a daguerreotype
of Lincoln in his one
hand, a blossom
from Savannah in the other,

and will lie down in the coming rush of snow.

In the desert, the hymn
begins, in his pocket.
In the desert in the desert in the desert.

What he hears there is the mercy
of what can’t last: scrub oak, red-
wing, forsythia; O Shenandoah, O

America, O Missouri. What he hears there
is the fire within the fire.


But maybe Crane can hear
what the dead sing
to the living.

In the low fields, in a new moon,
they are waiting.

They are listening
to the dark flocks in the night
air. They are listening

for the dark wings in their own
hearts, their dark hearts
like the common loon

in the birches, its cleft breast
as subtle
in its severance

as the break between this bitter world
and another. But the bitter wings are bitter
and infolded. But the singing

of unfolding doesn’t come.


Listen: if the afterlife

is the medieval equestrian kneeling in the excavation
at Agincourt, still reined there
to the dressed heft

of this kingdom, then

I am telling you this

because winter comes
to winter. I am telling you
because the story is our story.

Once, in the high
pines above some city, where my father’s father

had lain down after slaughter, he woke

to see a gathering
of horses—blue roan, buck-
skin, pinto—
laying down their masked heads

on his forearms, his fingers in the swift rings
of their bridles, as they sniffed him through the bitters
of that wool.

But why
make his brief letters
merciless—they were horses, just horses
in December

undone without their cavalry
for water, and when he turned

to see a woman with her halters, when she turned
with a mocking wave
toward the far trough
and they left him in the ruins of that cold
place, he waited

and waited, and waited—
and it happened: the night came
in its steel shoes, the night laid

its bridle on his shoulder, the sacred, the ancient things
were still there, saying
listen, listen,

to the vanishing—
it comes, it does
come, though it goes.


Come, son,
I am talking to you
now. One day, when you are thirty-three

and exhausted, when you have stumbled out
beneath the dark stars

of your nation, when you have gone out
into union’s
end, or after, you may look out across the pastures

of your country
and hear nothing in the night air
but the night air, nothing on the far shore
but its ruin.

I will not be behind you, stranger.
I will not be the iron in the night air.

Go on. Go on
and hymn
to winter. Once, in a French town

spared no quarter, in its ancient
days, before my father’s

was paraded through its bitter streets
in winter,

a bewildered
his dark hair strewn with petals,

the villagers awoke
to hear a strange song: the horses

of the occupying army
drifting swiftly through the not-yet-
sunlit cobbles,
their riders gone in an amnesty from reason.

scrub oak, red-
wing, forsythia;
lilac, swamp

rose, briar—


If only
we could wade out
after winter.
If only we could walk out

like those children, those wakers
in their night-
gowns, in their dark
hair, the ones

who wandered up
to still those horses
where they pressed their lips

to dark and iron
bridles, saying yes, O yes, my

brothers, as the rains
came, as the wild rains

traced their faces,
as the ancient gods that turned
the earth
were herded,

as the swift world tossed its real flesh in its chains.  

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