Elegy Poem by Ernest Hilbert


To pass the time we played backgammon with
Husks of carved whalebone on a smooth steel board.
I always seemed to win, though I knew you
Cheated. We had spent the past weeks in a warehouse
Lined with old boilers, iron pods that we
Imagined were atom bombs as heavy
As rising moons, waiting to be lifted
And dropped on distant cities. Outside, the
Demolition of the industrial park
Continued through the late winter, engines
Growling over mud, bricks clacking down in
Choking exhaust, concrete cracking apart,
Immense gears squealing like children playing
With megaphones. Some light escaped in dove
Rays from that annihilation, the walls
Of our humid chambers dotted with tear-
Soaked globes and our mirrors speckled with strange
Alphabets. We loved our maps, compasses,
Silks. Stiffening with asthma, with wooden
Flowers, enamel throats, cicatrices
In their red rooms, our friends had given us up,
Unable or unwilling to join us
On our own dried Vistula in pine-swirled
Sunlight, so we slowly dismantled their
Timepieces in our humid cellophane
Greenhouse, our books stolen by the workmen
Who sold them at the Strand for gin money,
Our papers and documents blown down the
Rotted fire escapes, fluttering like startled
Gulls, cautious and insatiable. None
Of it mattered then. You were too deadened
To even close your eyes, my mannequin,
Addicted to my fragile gold eyedropper,
Your dyed blond hair charged with wet sunlight in
The electric din, your skin evaporating
To white smoke like loosened veils. And there was
Something that loved us in our isolation,
Something that calmed us when we faced the great
Instrument that shrieked phosphorous at
Our bellies and pressed burning foil down on
Our vein-luscious wrists, something that extinguished
Ambition like foam on fire, squeezing and
Binding like wire, snowy and numbing as
Anesthesia, leaving us spread under
Brittle lights for surgeons who emerged from
The hollow candle-glow of plasma and
Dead stars. That last day, I remember it
Took me nearly two hours to finally
Dress and find my keys, limp down staircases
Past sleeping drunks to the clamoring street
From our century-old building, the last
One standing on the block, the surrounding
Structures gone as if in an old photo
Of bombed London. I hadn’t been outside
In so long that I was surprised. The air
Tasted of stone dust. I never knew we
Were the last. New fast-food franchises glowed
In plastic where the refineries had
Been, and to think I had left only to
Fetch wine and Tunisian cigarettes for
You, as if you would rise from the balloon-fall
And suffocation of the coma in
Which you were snared, stretched peacefully in the
Grimy shadows. I smoked them alone, coughed,
Dribbling sweet wine down my stubble until
Men in yellow helmets entered and
Mouthed silent sentences through the liquid
Haze and called an ambulance for us both.
If you had only known what I saw then
Before they strapped me down, the moon leaning
Down to you in a cool summer twilight,
Spilling its vivid harvests for you, my
Abandoned mistress, as you peered into
Shimmering icy water and whirlpools,
Sifting the ripples, feeling for a source.

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