Text of the Poem
Sleepless as Prospero back in his bedroom In Milan, with all his miracles Reduced to sailors’ tales, He sits up in the dark. The islands loom. His seasickness upwells, 5 Silence creeps by in memory as it crept By him on water, while the sailors slept, From broken eggs and vacant tortoise shells. His voyage around the cape of middle age Comes, with a feat of sight, to a close, 10 The same way Prospero’s Ended before he left the stage To be led home across the blue-white sea, When he had spoken of the clouds and globe, Breaking his wand, and taking off his robe: 15 Knowledge increases unreality. He quickly dresses. Form wavers like his shadow on the stair As he descends, in need of air To cure his dizziness, 20 Down past the shipsunk emptiness Of grownup children’s rooms and hallways where The family portraits blindly stare, All haunted by each other’s likenesses. Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon 25 Are islands, he an island as he walks, Brushing against weed stalks. By hook and plume The seeds gathering on his trouser legs Are archipelagoes, like nests he sees 30 Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees, Each with unique expressions in its eggs. Different islands conjure Different beings; different beings call From different isles. And after all 35 His scrutiny of Nature All he can see Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear, A coastline fading from a traveler Aboard a survey ship. Slowly, 40 As coasts depart, Nature had left behind a naturalist Bound for a place where species don’t exist, Where no emergence has a counterpart. He’s heard from friends 45 About the other night, the banquet hall Ringing with bravos—like a curtain call, He thinks, when the performance ends, Failing to summon from the wings An actor who had lost his taste for verse, 50 Having beheld, in larger theaters, Much greater banquet-vanishings Without the quaint device and thunderclap Required in Act 3. He wrote, Let your indulgence set me free, 55 To the Academy, and took a nap Beneath a London Daily tent, Then puttered on his hothouse walk Watching his orchids beautifully stalk Their unreturning paths, where each descendant 60 Is the last— Their inner staircases Haunted by vanished insect faces So tiny, so intolerably vast. And, while they gave his proxy the award, 65 He dined in Downe and stayed up rather late For backgammon with his beloved mate Who reads his books and is, quite frankly, bored. Now, done with beetle jaws and beaks of gulls And bivalve hinges, now, utterly done, 70 One miracle remains, and only one. An ocean swell of sickness rushes, pulls, He leans against the fence And lights a cigarette and deeply draws, Done with fixed laws, 75 Done with experiments Within his greenhouse heaven where His offspring, Frank, for half the afternoon Played, like an awkward angel, his bassoon Into the humid air 80 So he could tell If sound would make a Venus’s-Flytrap close. And, done for good with scientific prose, That raging hell Of tortured grammars writhing on their stakes, 85 He’d turned to his memoirs, chuckling to write About his boyhood in an upright Home: a boy preferring gartersnakes To schoolwork, a lazy, strutting liar Who quite provoked her aggravated look, 90 Shushed in the drawingroom behind her book, His bossy sister itching with desire To tattletale—yes, that was good. But even then, much like the conjurer Grown cranky with impatience to abjure 95 All his gigantic works and livelihood In order to immerse Himself in tales where he could be the man In Once upon a time there was a man, He’d quite by chance beheld the universe: 100 A disregarded game of chess Between two love-dazed heirs Who fiddle with the tiny pairs Of statues in their hands, while numberless Abstract unseen 105 Combinings on the silent board remain Unplayed forever when they leave the game To turn, themselves, into a king and queen. Now, like the coming day, Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves. 110 He turns, taking the sandwalk as it curves Back to the yard, the house, the entrance way Where, not to waken her, He softly shuts the door, And leans against it for a spell before 115 He climbs the stairs, holding the banister, Up to their room: there Emma sleeps, moored In illusion, blown past the storm he conjured With his book, into a harbor 120 Where it all comes clear, Where island beings leap from shape to shape As to escape Their terrifying turns to disappear. He lies down on the quilt, 125 He lies down like a fabulous-headed Fossil in a vanished riverbed, In ocean-drifts, in canyon floors, in silt, In lime, in deepening blue ice, In cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float; 130 He lies down in his boots and overcoat, And shuts his eyes.