To the mercy of the flies (a sestina)

(a percolation through time and mind of the poem, First Death, by Donald Justice)

(this is version #11 of a poem I’ve been working on for about 6 years….this is how poems go for me right now…..slowly…..so slowly……and it’s probably still not done….I changed it as I posted it….I’m changing it as we speak….)

(and for whatever silly reason, sestinas seem to be the only kind of poem I can work on with any kind of focus these days…I inflict upon myself retrogradatio cruciata)

(but I’ve been feeling like a poem is a thing that has been needing to happen around here…)

(the teleutons [the six repeating end words] are from the final line of First Death)

To the mercy of the flies

Listen— I’ve been wanting to talk to
you about something. Do you remember the
other day when we were talking about mercy?
About the price of
going off in all the
wrong directions at once? How time flies

when you’re fleeing time and how it flies
when you’re trying to
get back the things that the
the life you had took from you and all the
other things that you thought you had but took from yourself? Of
course, I realize sometimes it’s too late for mercy

really, because so often mercy
is just a thing—a too-thin thing—that flies
away from most us of
its own dissonant accord to
somewhere else and leaves the
lot of us standing and blinking in the

brittle light of another day, looking for the
things we lost, as if mercy
could help us find them, as if the
horrors that we find will fly
away from us to
some other place through the act of

our simply staring at them. Of
course this is silly, isn’t it, since the
problem isn’t really whether to
have mercy or not but whether or not mercy
has us, and any lack we may feel just flies
on down the

long halls of our histories and the
merciless missing of
our various mysteries flies
away from our understanding and the
fragile questions of our mercy
end up coming down not to

whether we try and hold these things for ourselves

but to whether we give them, in the end, to the mercy of the flies.


And here, the poem by Donald Justice:


First Death

JUNE 12, 1933

I saw my grandmother grow weak.
When she died, I kissed her cheek.

I remember the new taste—
Powder mixed with a drying paste.

Down the hallway, on the table,
Lay the family’s great bible.

In the dark, by lamplight stirred,
The Void grew pregnant with the Word.

In black ink they wrote it down.
The older ink was turning brown.

From the woods there came a cry,
The hoot owl asking who not why.

The men sat silent on the porch,
Each lighted pipe a friendly torch

Against the unknown and the known.
But the child knew himself alone.

JUNE 13, 1933

The morning sun rose up and struck.
Sunflower strove with hollyhock.

I ran the worn path past the sty.
Nothing was hidden from God’s eye.

The barn door creaked. I walked among
Chaff and wrinkled cakes of dung.

In the dim light I read the dates
On the dusty license plates

Nailed to the wall as souvenirs.
I breathed the dust in of the years.

I circled the abandoned Ford
Before I tried the running board.

At the wheel I felt the heat
Press upward through the springless seat.

And when I pressed the silent horn,
Small mice scattered through the corn.

JUNE 14, 1933

I remember the soprano
Fanning herself at the piano,

And the preacher looming large
Above me in his dark blue serge.

My shoes brought in the smell of clay
To mingle with the faint sachet

Of flowers sweating in their vases.
A stranger showed us to our places.

A stiff fan stirred in mother’s hand.
Air moved, but only when she fanned.

I wondered how could all her grief
Be squeezed into one small handkerchief.

There was a buzzing on the sill.
It stopped, and everything was still.

We bowed our heads, we closed our eyes
To the mercy of the flies.