Poetry | March 01, 1999

i. Elizabeth: a sailor’s wife

The Spaniards arriving in that septentrional part of America,     about the latitude of Florida, soon got taint of this Disease,     and after a year or two of roving there, in 1494, they returned home well frought with this Indian Commodity(1)

 

i see the blackbird guarding the road

how he sings away other wings

from his twelve-stride length of hedge

and behind in the grasses happy

his mate duties bits of straw, maybe

even my own flown hairs into a fine nest

 

on Friday, i imagine he’ll bring cinnamon sticks,

and a dog, flat faced and small enough

for my lap when i sit at the fire     let him bring

a piece of whalebone, smooth and white as my teeth,

carved with a cunning E

 

and Saturday after market, i gift Blind Peter at the door

of the chapel with a small copper coin, another

lights a candle for the virgin     let him be here

soon, sea—wash him in, let him come so soon now, soon, i am

waiting, i am—, bring him whole and still wearing

the braided ring of my hair     and i walk again,

again to the docks holding

to the edge of the world

 

ii. her husband

 

    Columbus’ soldiers at their return from discovering the Western World, 

    brought it thence into Spain; who upon their arrival were dispatched

        away to Naples

    (being then besieged by the French) did propagate this venereous evil 

    amongst the Italian Women; and that they spread it amongst the French, 

    in whose army it raged very fiercely

 

before the morning of our second night, i pour

as she rinses her hair in the white basin    the water is cold,

her gasp like a love-cry—shocked at how the familiar

still surprises    ill carry her—parting

the tangled silk with a bone comb from Madrid,

her long fingers winging around her crown—

inside my eye, and behind a small mole on my left breast

 

my sex smells her breasts, some flowers and oil

i want to swallow their brown eyes, and the three freckles

that whirl in a constellation on the ridge of her chin

 

to please me, she strips, as if a sailor, to the waist

and washes me while her breasts nudge like puppies

at my face and neck; she comes to the bed

naked and does not shy behind her hands    two nights

until the legion waits at dawn, before going

i trace the blades of her sleeping shoulders

to find the remnants of wings

 

iii. Elizabeth

 

    doubtless the Husband could not lie with his Wife 

    so long together but both must be infected

 

i saw it again after so long

when he stepped out of his pants and it rose

proud as a schoolboy who leaps from his chair

with a bright answer—so pretty

even birds would want to perch there,

twine a nest in the springy hair—when i bathed

 

him after love, it spiked new as a bulbed lily in the oaken tub

I tapped it with a finger

and it bobbed and rolled like a well trimmed ship between swells

before righting itself again to home    next morning

i lay late in the sheets

still warm with his body, and heard

the door closing in the gray light

 

iv. a prostitute

 

    the [Neapolitans] being distressed for provisions, 

    eased themselves of some of their superfluous women

    such as were over-ridden and notably seasoned with the Indian Itch, 

    and sent them into the besieger’s camp,

    where they were entertained as welcome variety

 

i was born here, and sure, my mother

was a paid woman    i never doubted

i’d he on my back for bread    to each other

we named ourselves Magdalenes, daydreamed

some sweet jesus would smell beauty in the crushed

lavender flowers we pressed to our breasts, save us

with the thinnest wedding band    truth is

i liked my late mornings, cat snug while the sun climbed

 

i lowered my eyes passing ladies

though i knew husbands’ tales of what cold

treasures their undies held

and when the sailors came to relieve our city

i played them out for half loaves and lemons

to lighten my hair

 

but when i went to the square for soup

they herded us out of the city

and locked the gates: too many hungry

children and god will not bless with sin amongst us

sick i was, too    sick in my bones, pock breasted

and my hair thinning by clumps—lucky for me

soldiers fight by day, darkness is a veil,

their blind worms think

my ague passion, my fevering thrill

 

v. a soldier

 

    these Courtesans so sauced the French,

    that in a short time this Venereal Lues raged throughout the Camp, 

    and for an aggravation of the matter, the diet of the French Army 

    did not a little contribute to the fury of the Disease

 

that smell must waft

from rotting corpses in the field below

i could unhear the moans of the almost dead

while she crooned red silk in my arms—passion, i felt it—

then i lifted her skirts and thrust my big boy

at her in-betweens

 

vi. the cook

 

    the Victualers that provided for the Army, 

    amongst the boars flesh that was appointed

    and commonly barreled up for the Leaguers, did mix therewith 

    the flesh of dead men, these two having great similitudes,

    so that the cheat passed undiscovered for some time

 

so I stole out to the deathyard in the dead predawn

—so many hungry and my head

would have been off with one more soup

of boiled onions and leather scraps—crawled

below the seep of voices leaking from camp    out there

ghosts wait, scab ready to peel loose or split

along the spine, as a cicada, with the last chest heave

 

one wheezed me devil when I struck

my cleaver to his thigh (funny that the dead ones

don’t bleed anymore    I’ll say I’ve been keeping back

three barrels of pig)    let anyone say

he’s braver than me—who harvested sweet as a maggot

and still wears the fear smell of their piss

and sweat, a garland—that blood on my apron

answers to a question that bites

like a flea in your pants

 

vii. a soldier

 

    the French were so abused with Mans flesh for their food,

    it could not but highly exasperate the taint of the Indian Pox, 

    which two shaking hands together,

    the result must be something extraordinary

 

even whores (they hide the disease in their smiling privates)

sicken and die; men shake in their blankets with heat,

boils run like punctured eyes, clothes stick

to the oozing pocks before crusting black

let them kill me for a deserter,

or let me turn to home

once, i held a dying bird—

as it stopped twitching and cooled,

mites fled over my hand and up my shirt sleeve

 

viii. the doctor’s journal

 

    untainted persons using immoderate, unusual, 

    and bestial venery may procure the first symptoms

    leading to this Lues, which neglected, may introduce and settle the pox

 

symptoms:

 

disease enters mostly through the male organ,

leaves a chancre—a small corn—at the infection site—thus

it is a disease of the sexual parts and spread

by prostitutes and the men who frequent them

buboes soon follow and a rash that gives

to pain in the joints and bones, palpitations of heart, night

fevers,

skin lesions into moist ulcers that ooze for weeks

and blacken    scalps moth-eaten and some

throw themselves into the river or hang themselves

escaping the devil indwelling their bones; some say

it is the reward of God for sin

 

later stages:

 

ghosty-like, the disease plays at seek and hide in defiled bodies

given time, vile gummas mushroom on the bones and soft tissues;

eats away at nasal bones and soft palate in some, causes blindness

and madness; gummas leak and crust; flesh

rots on the bones; the stench is distinct—this Monday—

examined a man with his right-side flesh eaten away, his organs

clearly visible, and yet he lived

 

treatment:

 

   one is always affected

when chancre first appears, cut it out with a knife; then tie

the patient to a table and make two incisions

 in the part

with scissors to the base of the prepuce;

following this, cauterize the surgical wound with a hot iron;

   that does the sinning

cautery should be clean and shiny—not rusty;

the boils treat with ointment of mercury, arsenic, sulphur, black

hellebore, and pine resin—these may cause rotting

in the bones and blackened teeth

 

ix. Elizabeth

 

    it is very uncharitable to censure every person

    tainted with the Venereal Lues,

    as lewd and vitious, when as this malady hath assaulted 

    the most virtuous and innocent persons

 

i could not suckle my sick baby

when the illness came on me again

it ground my teeth down with pain,

bathed my ulcers in mercury paste

 

sent for, the wet nurse

took my baby from my ulcered breasts

now, Stephana accuses me of poisoning

her home and her babe through the wet nurse;

 

for nine days i said the novena,

but Margaret’s baby has died this past week—

sent to sleep eternal in a fine blue gown

stitched by her own hand as she sat

beside its cradle in the night    the wet nurse

does not come anymore; she has begun to pock

 

like wool moths, sickness riddles her house, our houses

i swear i could not have been cleaner

or cosseted my baby more    dear God

of the world—

 

(1) All quotes taken from The History and Mystery of the Venereal Lues, a tract authored in 1673 by E. Maynwaring, who claimed to be an authority on the (relatively) new disease that came to be known as syphilis.

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