Thursday, June 25, 2015

Signs and Portents by Stanley Kunitz

Signs and Portents


Jonathan, the last of the giant tortoises 
on wind-beaten Saint Helena, 
misses his island mate, 
who died in a fall from a cliff 
a century ago.
He is ancient and crusty, 
more lonely than Bonaparte 
strutting on the volcanic beach, 
reviewing his triumphs.
Lately he has made himself 
a deliberate nuisance 
to the sporting set 
of the British Crown Colony 
by butting and upending benches 
near the tennis courts 
and disrupting croquet games 
by sitting on the croquet balls.


At the Porch of the Caryatids 
on the Acropolis 
the noble supportive maidens 
are stepping down 
from their weathered pedestals, 
one by one, 
to seek asylum in a museum.
Their places will be taken 
by identical synthetic sisters 
conditioned to withstand 
the high, classic, polluted air.


Three thousand years ago 
they soaked him in pickling brine, 
stuffed his body with resins, 
baked him in desert heat. 
He was Ramses the Second, 
feared by Hittites and Israelites, 
the hard Pharaoh of Exodus
colossal as the temples 
his minions sweated out of rock.
Paris has him now on temporary loan.
In the aseptic laboratory 
of the Musée de L'Homme, 
where he lies in state 
for special treatment, 
who will cure the old mummy 
of the loathsome fire 
raging under his bandages?


Children at play in a field, 
tumbling down a hole 
into the pristine Palaeolithic, 
showed us the way, 
ripped the lid from the grotto. 
We sped to the spot on wheels 
with our cameras and basket lunches. 
Now the bison of Lascaux, 
prodded from the centuries 
of limestone sleep, are sick.
Clots of virulent mold 
suppurate on their flanks, 
emitting a green stain. 
We name it la maladie verte
an infection from people.
At the back of our minds 
squat figures, whose hairy hands 
carried torches and the dream of art 
through cheerless labyrinths, 
gabble in the shadows. 


On Twelfth Street in Manhattan, 
opposite St. Vincent's Mental Pavilion, 
while I was sweeping the sidewalk 
of its increment of filth, 
deposited by dogs and unleashed humans, 
a blue van rolled by 
with its sidepanel reading: 
I did not catch the face of the driver.

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