ATLANTIC SHORELINE, NORTH CAROLINA:
With the blare of tourist radios finally silenced,
tonight I may learn to love this place that I never
seemed to care for in summer. In the absence of June's
commotion, the ocean seems larger, beats its steady,
tranquil violence against the shore, leaving strewn
shells washed with saltwater, latticed with torn seaweed.
In the distance, an ancient drunk's arms hang
between his knees. He looks like a wounded gull,
singing something through his bourboned haze,
singing to the graveyard of mollusk and oyster
collecting under his fingertips.
October 6,1997 1:23 a.m.
MR. MERRICK'S LAST DAY IN BEDSTEAD SQUARE
They have told me to call this home.
I can stay here as long as I like,
but the light shines through the great,
airy windows, glazing the state furniture in a way
that doesn't suit me. Most days
I have visitors--all grades, actresses,
aristocrats, the merely polite--and at night sometimes
Mr. Treves takes me to the opera or theatre
as a "celebrated guest." The night Dame Kendall announced
me to the audience, they stood and clapped because
our private box was darkened, and from orchestra seats
they couldn't see me as clearly as all the nurses who
have dropped this meal or that to the floor,
reeling from the great head uncloaked
from the musty burlap of my old public face.
Nurse Mothershead, old lady who never flinched
at the sight of me, would come in behind
them and sweep the broken porcelain from the floor,
then bring another meal to the isolation ward.
She would leave, then I would try to sleep,
six pillows heaped under me, so my head--"exactly as wide
as my waist," said the anatomists in their sadly fascinated way--
wouldn't swagger back and snap my neck. I want sleep,
but there is never sleep after this,
after the thin, white arm falls as though the tiles in the floor
jerk it down, after the scream (always the same
scream, no matter which nurse) insists
its impossible echo in my pillows.
The sour bell of breaking bowls rings
me back to the workhouse in Leicester, back
to the sideshows of London, then Brussels, always
moving. The ones who weren't stunned silent
when the curtain fell had the same scream as the nurses
but brought no food to drop...
Most days I have visitors. They come to tea
to chat with this cause celebre, this "Elephant Man"
that they all call "Mr. Merrick" to my face--my face
which threatens to break their forced smiles
as they nod, pretend to understand speech my mother
could not untangle from this mangled swash of words.
Guests usually suffer one cup, rarely more,
and lately I drink mine fast. They bring me gifts,
photographs with the signatures of lord or lady someone,
and in the same, rehearsed tones of the theatre tell me,
"Mr. Merrick, I am so very glad to have made your acquaintance."
Thank you, sir, for the very fine eau de cologne.
(I will wear it in the garden, where I wait until nightfall
to walk among the sightless green things.)
Thank you, madame, for the lovely silver brushes,
the shaving kit you tell me is like the prince's.
(The nurses have removed all mirrors from my room.
Even the glass has been taken from the picture frames
in case they dare reflection.)
And thank you, Dame Kendall, star of the London stage,
for your autographed portrait smiling so easily on my bureau
and for the tickets to Faust.
(I don't remember you smiling so easily. You prefer
your gargoyles in papier-maiche.)
Down Whitechapel Road, St. Philip's rings
nine baritone notes into the night, and I think
of haunting the blind garden, moving through
the lilacs' silence, but stay inside and with my one
good hand unheap the pillows from this bed, leaving
just one. I want sleep, and tonight I will lie
on my back like a cat, waiting for the cosmos to scratch
my belly, dreaming of perfect, clean limbs.