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Published: Sun Apr 15 1990
Salman Toor, Fag Puddle with Candle, Shoe, and Flag (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
His Shadow

Steinberg Case

hiding girl

. . . the sounds
of morning, of people
succeeding, of people helping
others to succeed . . .

you crouched in the closet, you were
_     _a good little girl, you had done
one of everything;

it will become
clear to you why you
offered yourself to your own destruction

believing he was all
_     _power and consequence — or didn’t

offer, no, that’s not it, go on now —

Isaac put himself on a slab
thinking he owed him something
in an eternity based on sacrifice;

and doesn’t fear give that child
some position in space?

_                                           because at the edge
of your becoming, something kept trying
to erase you . . .
                             the implicate
gold, the violin-
       _ brown of your hair . . .

the closet

. . . so you could not be
punished for not having tried;
that was the main thing . . .
_     and in the closet, with your
‘bad attitude’
     _ you could make yourself fit anywhere:

into the crevice where winter begins
_     _ or the Y where the cypress
unbraids itself

or the plane where the shadow sees
just how to live: it hovers
_     just underneath the sulphur butterfly,
                     _not inside;

the truth of the wound
is a narrow truth . . .
you could go like the worm

back to the pre-earth, stay there for years
_       _fitting neatly against the sides,

come out with a double
_     _ hope: first to enter
the room as a girl, let’s say,

— then, not to be recognized!

elusive one

. . . the poem wanted
to be just like you! it agreed
to erase itself . . .

_                             _ He stood quite near
in the quaint, positive rooms
looking down at you as someone looks
at a stain on a new shirt, perhaps,

not hoping to get it out
but hoping someone else will get it out . . .

So it becomes clear
to you why you
offered yourself to your own destruction;

the women look at their flasks
in the chemical plant,
not knowing what they mix,

the orange-beaked eagle
_     _veers toward the maiden
in the myths of his intelligence

_     _and each tiny white nail
of the clock ticks out your fate

— though he made his hands
_     _into fists his hands
meant to hurt you he
didn’t didn’t didn’t didn’t

mean to did he —

and so you looked up at him
_     _with all your childish logic,
you who did not rank among the saved . . .

fourth question

_      Where
were they, those that were fixed
on the world, where
     _were they, why didn’t they hear you

(always too
busy, I guess, busy busy!
_     _trying to be agreeable)

In the vision, see the horse stumble;
the sled goes too fast and all are killed except
one ‘soul,’ who is male,

_     _and he who has survived
can hardly wait to present himself
with all the excess of the living, crying oh papa!

but the female soul?
why, gone!
it clashed like matter with anti-matter,
slid back to Imperial Memory;

it’s like it was lined
with a kind of excellent fur
as it went — cancelled brightly!
but cancelled nevertheless . . .

killed shadow

. . . do not avert
your eyes from what
you cannot bear:
_                     _that she had gathered

herself up in her joy, was playing,
then she—
no. Then he dug a trench
in her body and put his brutal childhood into her.

Peer into the face of it. Is not
_     _ your face there, in the wide look
of the dead girl,

in all the world that wears his darkness: old
_      speeding cadillac on the bridge, twin
     _ upper shadows fitting under
the lower lip of the fender, in the drugged

redhead’s ripped
fishnet stockings on Telegraph: poor beaten wretch.

— From the split
yawn of the cypress, summon the cry.
Summon the memory into which
_     _ you cannot vanish further,

you who have
scoured the terrors of your life
in his name . . .
_                            all right then. That’s
fine then. What you can’t
recall       _shall be your instrument . . .

god’s shadow

. . . you waited for him.
In the clear circles of your murdered heart
you’d waited for him,

_     through pale nights, from the so-called
watchtower where you had
placed yourself as borderguard at dawn — the sparrow
     _ cavalry outside the window

— saying
look I am
tired my lord

oh ancient eye relative to none
why hast thou cast
and so on.

Then thought: what constitutes
_     _ the ark: taking two
of everything, one light, one dark

and you watched the killed place shine . . .

So when he came to you with his
brilliant eyes, his little tube
of flame

you understood that his crime,
_     _ like your crime
was being insufficiently loved,

that in your agony,
you must not blame him . . .

extra life

I will cry out
as the strap
to him and to all time
I will not go

though I am measured by what I do;
I’d rather be manifest as air
than hurt the child . . .

So many years later.
‘She’ is gone and it’s
possible to be of two minds about this,

too often inspecting the place of the wound . . .
I wanted to forgive him, that’s not the problem.
But her years like vectors pass into the earth;

too fast the living move over them.

Facing the flat, wise city,
_     _ two hawks, like a colon: looking forward
at those who look back at civilization;

generation upon generation of this
and someone will have a childhood;

but still in the dark
I hold the abject one, who says

I will come out now because the day invites me:
the ellipsis of the carpenter’s nails, three black taps,
the stars of milk in the coffee . . .

See what's inside AGNI 29 and 30

Brenda Hillman is the author of eight books of poetry. Her books have been finalists for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has received awards including a Pushcart Prize, a Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, and fellowships from the Poetry Society of America and the Guggenheim Foundation. (updated 6/2010)

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