Christian Wiman

(1966 / Texas / United States)

Night's Thousand Shadows

1. deathbed
There is a word that is not water,
has nothing to do with heat or light,
is unrelated to any one pain
though the torn body tears itself further
trying to speak it.
There is a sound
beyond all the sounds that I have made,
the needs that one by one I've tried to name.
It burns clear in the eyes searching mine,
the lips beginning to bleed again,
her hand squeezing my hand,
pleading and pleading that I understand.

2. living will
All afternoon in the afterlife
of little things that love,
or pain, or need could not let go of
I hunt for the will
that will let me let you go.

I am distracted and slow—
all the grainy faces
in old photographs, letters
from the dead, deeds to places
that are only air,

some bright nowhere
of broad fields and sunlight
that was my idea of heaven
one long afternoon
of clouds and steady rain

when you sat and explained
where a garden was, a well,
excited by it, the hell
ahead of you
just a brief tightness at your heart.

Outside in the yard, crickets start,
cry here and here and here,
night's thousand shadows growing tall.
And now I have it, formal, final.
I touch each keepsake like a wall.

3. going
In the hard light and hum
of the room to which I've come
to stay, I watch the clock,
and wait, and hour by hour
begin to disappear.
Movements, mutterings: the brain
darkens like a landscape. Pain
in the pale arterial hills
flashes and vanishes,
takes with it one whole year.
Cotton and killdeer, a cloud
looks down, something's happened
in the wellhouse, someone runs
through tall trees, breathe and breathe,
is it my hand you hold?
The fever climbs. You grow cold,
then warm, now cold again,
a hive of nerves in the skin.
Some glimmer breaks through
and I bend whispering as fear
like a wind shakes you,
I'm right here, I'm right here...

Midnight, moonlight gauzing
the walls, the iron and umber
of intensive care:
I watch as it swells and falls
the puttied scar at your heart,
and read each beat and falter
on a screen and match my breathing
to the breathing of a machine
to know this time as it passes,
each moment as it goes—
until, early, you shudder
and quieten, blood gases
begin to rapidly rise
and somewhere behind your eyes
I fall in fragments away:
a child surprised at his play,
encroached upon by air,
a shattered man near dawn,
something about the way
he holds so still, his hair.

Submitted: Monday, July 21, 2014
Edited: Monday, July 21, 2014

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