II. The Taverns
My tankard full,
I emptied all
And felt no secret sting
From any distant solitude
Or any starveling thing.
I had no need
To wish Godspeed
To others of my kind.
I would as soon have delved them deep
To shut them from my mind.
I knew each door
The knocker and the plate
I knew each gate
Hung double from each port.
Those haunted halls —
I was their cause —
I rendered shimmering bright.
They kindled in my presence,
In my absence lost all light.
They freed me of my wanderlust
And bid my conscience sleep.
They turned each pang of shame to dust
And sank my past so deep
I had no past to doubt or trust
And no regret to weep.
A reveler all dark hours I was,
A dreamer through God’s day,
Full chalices my soul’s delight
But emptied far more gay.
I cannot count the years delayed
To set my reckoning right.
I cannot name the years I strayed
To toast the festive night.
I lived impossibilities
And knew no wrongs to right.
The very dogs knew how to dance
To cheer me as I dined.
It was a joy to see them prance
And share my fine red wine.
Sad tigers sought me in my place
To wish my table kind God’s grace
And stretch a begging paw.
I crossed each with a sapphire fine
From Kashmir where the best are mined
Whose purple hearts wherein reside
Dye deep as regal robes are dyed.
One leopard, white,
Would pace the night
And snatch a scrap
Should any fall
Or clear a lonely deadman’s stall
When some cracked heart did pale and pall.
She set upon each corpse with ire
To satisfy her starved desire.
She set upon each corpse with greed
To satisfy her deadly need.
I roared, the echoes roared me round,
When any dead gave way,
The tavern’s most exultant sound
To welcome death upon a day,
For then the leopard showed good cheer
For one safe month of one dread year.
I watched her at the window pant
When scraps of savory flesh were scant.
Her jaw would sag, her belly swell,
She drooped, a hide so thin and pale.
I almost thought to end her bale
With some short sot who seemed least hale.
My taverns did such magic make
They bred a thirst no sea could slake.
Each room, within whose living din
We swayed and raucous anthems sang,
Dissolved each soul-assailing care.
I sought joy there where, in my prayer,
I plead to pledge my health again.
But melancholy’s shade encroached
Which no mad celebration staunched.
In time, cold conscience called my case;
Before me an intruding face,
All bone and leathered skin,
Came shrunken, sunk, and old to haunt
My presence with my sin,
And at his side there did abide
One shaped and sure my twin,
Yet with a smile too sly for mine —
And she, both troubled and divine,
With at each breast a child, unknown
Flesh of whose flesh, bone of whose bone.
Anon my revels wild would grow.
I’d canter not to see or know
The purport of my dread,
Until the past again would seem
As absent as a dream.
Then calm would quell
My glimpse of Hell.
The same four drinking halls I sought,
And nowhere else could veil the thought
Of what I might, some time, have wrought.
The first “The Salamander’s Rest”
With tapestries, the weavers’ best,
Of flaring colors master-dyed
Of loathly worms in scaleless hides
Impending from the walls as though
About to slither down, sublime,
Where patrons might not hark in time.
The next “The Burning Bride” was called
In fresco tints of flesh and flame.
She, like an angel at her fall,
Seemed bringing fire to lovers all
With sure some immolative aim
For those who shared her hidden shame.
The third “The Weeping Birds at Nest”
Was wrapped in fire as all the rest,
Two eagles and their eaglets perched
In tangled branches licked by flame
Where panicked parents vainly searched
To snatch gray chicks before death came.
The fourth “The Man in Endless Fire,”
Brought dread when first I drank and saw
Its ebon frame and paint at war.
The black set off the whitest smoke
And caught in square its brightest fire
So charged I seemed to singe and choke.
And when my bitter humor came
This was the spot I uttered blame.
Inured I was to this one street
That held the taverns of my whim,
And when the Nightmare bid me quake,
And hounded me to flee and seek
The kin I loved and did forsake,
I knew not how to hither go
Or even to begin.