The Cold Green Element

At the end of the garden walk

the wind and its satellite wait for me;

their meaning I will not know

                until I go there,

but the black-hatted undertaker


who, passing, saw my heart beating in the grass,

is also going there. Hi, I tell him,

a great squall in the Pacific blew a dead poet

                out of the water,

who now hangs from the city’s gates.


Crowds depart daily to see it, and return

with grimaces and incomprehension;

if its limbs twitched in the air

                they would sit at its feet

peeling their oranges.


And turning over I embrace like a lover

the trunk of a tree, one of those

for whom the lightning was too much

                and grew a brilliant

hunchback with a crown of leaves.


The ailments escaped from the labels

of medicine bottles are all fled to the wind;

I’ve seen myself lately in the eyes

                of old women,

spent streams mourning my manhood,


in whose old pupils the sun became

a bloodsmear on broad catalpa leaves

and hanging from ancient twigs,

                my murdered selves

sparked the air like the muted collisions


of fruit. A black dog howls down my blood,

a black dog with yellow eyes;

he too by someone’s inadvertence

                saw the bloodsmear

on the broad catalpa leaves.


But the furies clear a path for me to the worm

who sang for an hour in the throat of a robin,

and misled by the cries of young boys

                I am again

a breathless swimmer in that cold green element. 

Bibliographical info

Irving Layton, “The Cold Green Element” from A Wild Peculiar Joy. Copyright © 1982, 2004 by Irving Layton. Copyright © 2007 by the Estate of Irving Layton. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

Source: The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (Oxford University Press, 1983)

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