The Living

Robert Pinsky

The living, the unfallen lords of life,
Move heavily through the dazzle
Where all things shift, glitter or swim—

As on a day at the beach, or under
The stark, absolute blue of a snow morning,
With concentric peals of brightness

Ringing in the cold air. They seem drugged.
Their abrupt good fortune clings heavily
With the slow sway and pomp of dirty velvet,

Their purple, the unaccustomed garb—
Worn slipshod—of the Court
Of Misrule: animal-headed, staring

As if sleepy or drunk, riding a goat
Or perched backwards on a donkey,
Widdershins, hectic. Beggars, bad governors,

We thrive awkwardly—some maimed slightly
In the course of war; some torn by fear sometimes;
Yet not paralyzed: we are moved. The strange

Stories of the degradations of the martyrs—
Crucified upside down, cooked live
On a grill—bother us doubly: in themselves,

And because a strange opiate intervenes
As if they were suffering now, at this
Apex of time, and for some reason we

Could not concentrate, lost on the slopes
Below. We ape court manners clumsily;
Or shake fists, in awkward parade,

Exalted and confused. Even in affliction—grotesque
Illnesses, poverty, ruined hopes, the world’s
Rage and the body’s—the most miserable

Find in the mere daylight and air
A miraculous daily bread. Fairy bread:
We eat and are changed. Survivors

After a catastrophe, transported, feel
Nearly as if they could find the lost,
Luckless ones, somewhere, perhaps not far—

Crowded, maybe, behind some one
Of the innumerable doors of the palace.
Plump Chance beams like an effigy

Of Mardi Gras—the apparent origin
And end of so much: disease, fame,
Unemployment, intrigue. The world, random,

Is so real, it is as if our own
Good or bad luck were here only
As a kind of filler, holding together

Just that much of the adjacent
Splendor and terror. Only,
Sometimes, a sharp violent burr, discordant,

Sizzles for one instant in jagged
Hachures in the brain—momentary scream
Of the powersaw wincing back

From a buried nail. Seizure: with a rising
Whoop, like a child on a steep slide,
A woman fell heavily to the floor

A few feet away from me, her scalp
Split a little, blood on my sleeve
As I raised her shoulders, acting the part

Of a stranger helping—asking a clerk
To please get something to cover her,
Please call for an ambulance: maybe

She has had a seizure. Epileptic—
The Falling Evil; something about the tongue,
Something for the teeth. But her mouth

Was not rigid, her eyes open—why
Should she look at me so knowingly,
Almost with contempt, was she crazy?—

As if I had made her fall: or were no
Stranger at all but a son, lover, lord
And master who had thus humiliated her

And now, tucking the blanket around her,
Hypocritical automaton, pretended
To urge—as if without complicity or shame

Or least sense of betrayal—the old embrace
Of this impenetrable haze, this prolonged
But not infinite surfeit of glory.

Robert Pinsky is the author of Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, an autobiography forthcoming in October.
Originally published:
October 1, 1980


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