Etching of the Plague Years by Mary Karr

In the valley of your art history book,
the corpses stack in the back of a cart
drawn by an ox whose rolling shoulder muscles
show its considerable weight.

He does this often. His velvet nostrils
flare to indicate the stench.

It’s the smell you catch after class
while descending a urine-soaked
subway stair on a summer night
in a neighborhood where cabs won’t drive:
the odor of dead flowers, fear
multiplied a thousand times.

The train door’s hiss
seals you inside with a frail boy
swaying from a silver hoop.
He coughs in your direction, his eyes
are burn holes in his face.

Back in the fourteenth-century print
lying in your lap, a hand
white as an orchid has sprouted
from the pyramid of flesh.
It claws the smoky air.

Were it not for that,
the cart might carry green cordwood
(the human body knobby and unplaned).

Wrap your fingers around your neck
and feel the stony glands.
Count the holes in your belt loop
for lost weight.

In the black unfurling glass,
study the hard planes of your face.

Compare it to the prom picture
in your wallet, the orchid
pinned to your chest like a spider.

Think of the flames
at your high school bonfire
licking the black sky, ashes rising,
innumerable stars. The fingers that wove
with your fingers
have somehow turned to bone.

The subway shudders between dark and light.
The ox plods across the page.

Think of everyone
you ever loved: the boy
who gets off at your stop
is a faint ideogram for each.

Offer him your hand.
Help him climb the stair.

From: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/26991

Date: 1990

By: Mary Karr (1955- )

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