Daniel Nathan Terry
Elegy Written in November
I. The Backward Glance
On the way home from the store,
I thought I saw you, white bird of my childhood,
bathing in the public fountain on Market Street.
Or was it only a white paper cup floating
on the water’s skin like a wish that would not drown,
even though it had been wished away?
Then this evening, again I saw your face
in the face of the tired man
buying bread and beer
at the checkout of The Village Market.
And again, just now—in the window
above the frayed, green sofa—your face
in the reflection of my face, as I searched the air,
beginning to darken, for a bird I was certain
I’d heard call out a moment before.
II. Day of the Dead, 1994
before you died, our friends strung your flotation bed
with a garland of pumpkin lights in celebration of Halloween,
your favorite holiday. When Tony, our old roommate,
came to visit, you were already a skeleton—your face
a ghost’s mask of morphine, your mind just earthbound
enough to pull your pale lips into a grin as you whispered: boo.
You are handsome and still
twenty-three on the brown scroll
of negatives curled in the camera
bag’s black next to Risk, Monopoly, Life—
board-games I will never play again,
next to worn-out dancing shoes
I would never wear now, but
refuse to throw away. So what?
I will leave you with them
on the floor of the closet.
I won’t deliver you into the light
of my fortieth year. Stay where you are—
little more than a child I loved
when I was little more than a child—
almost forgotten in the closet’s dark belly,
still pregnant with what is dead.
IV. Poncirus trifoliata ‘Monstrosa’
Common Name: Flying Dragon
When I look at the contorted citrus tree in winter, leafless, its green limbs twisted and curled
with long thorns sharp as claws, I can almost see the body of a dragon revealed in the plant’s
brambles. It reminds me of the ancient story about a painter so skilled, everything he created
looked real enough to breathe—with one exception—the eyes of his creatures were always
blank, intentionally unpainted.
The artist moved from village to village, leaving eyeless tigers and blind herons behind him on
walls and vases. The Emperor, enamored with the artist’s skill, demanded he paint a great dragon
to curl about the walls of his palace.
The artist obliged. He created his finest work—a dragon greener than the skin of the citrus tree,
each scale rendered perfectly—but with a face as eyeless as a branch. Enraged by the flaw, the
Emperor demanded the eyes be painted, that his dragon be complete.
Reluctantly, the artist acquiesced. But the moment he painted the eyes, the dragon drew breath,
uncoiled and flew away. And the Emperor was left with only the memory of his great dragon
and its waking eyes. But even this memory would not stay. Over his long life, it faded like a
procession of clouds that had almost returned the faces of lost lovers, but never their eyes.
V. David, Full-blown
They say you pulled the IV from your arm, disconnected
the morphine drip, tugged your street clothes over your bones
and walked from the hospital on your own. In a daze,
you caught the downtown bus, headed home. They say
they found you curled in your bed like a child,
that they had to wake you and take you back to the hospital,
plug you in for your own safety. Out of your mind, they say.
Disoriented. As if you left the hospital for no good reason.
As if you didn’t know where you were going.
VI. Heavy pumpkin
bought in October, round and bright
as the sinking sun—believe me,
I meant to slice you
a smile so terrifying you’d make the night
moths shriek as you breathed them in
through your teeth of fire and smoke
like an idol’s sacrificial throat.
But I couldn’t
bring myself to make a monster of you—
not with all the losses we’d suffered through
the fall. So I left you as you were by the garden gate
and assured myself
I’d made a holy gesture—
not to the leering dead—but to the autumn
harvest, to the promises of rebirth and youth made
by the spring and the summer.
now it is winter and the long cold night
has picked up the knife I put down. And without
a thought, it has carved for us both—
and what’s worse,
it has carved from within—a rotting mask, a death-head’s
I take it on my brow: I never loved you
while you lived. Gifts, suppers, that you brought
the quilt over my cold shoulder,
that my discomfort made you wakeful
as I slept on—these things notwithstanding—
your kisses never made me burn. I hold it in my heart:
you needed to be loved and I failed you,
that you were sick and kept it hidden,
that you chose to die as quietly as you lived,
that you reached my soul at last
through terror. I know it in the core of me:
no one deserves to be as frightened as you were
at the end, no one deserves to be afraid as I still am—
even if they are liars, cowards, slow to love, even
if to this day, they can think solely of themselves.
Right or wrong, God may brand my skin like Cain’s:
I have outlived you.
VIII. The Open Umbrella
that threw off its owner in a fit
of envy as a crow flashed overhead,
now lingers on the curb.
Cars and trucks pass by, trailed
by the soft, beckoning hands of the wind.
Who can blame the open umbrella
for refusing a lift from these strangers—
however welcoming? But how long
is too long to wait for forgiveness
from the one who held you
in the rain? Night comes,
the umbrella’s ribs blacken
beneath the starless sky. Concealed
from the moon, the umbrella’s heart
beats blacker still. The open umbrella
turns into a lamp of darkness.
Daniel Nathan Terry is the author of three books of poetry: Capturing the Dead (NFSPS 2008), winner of The Stevens Prize; Waxwings (Lethe Press 2012); and City of Starlings (Sibling Rivalry Press 2015); as well as a chapbook, Days of Dark Miracles (Seven Kitchens Press 2011). His poems and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Greensboro Review. He lives in Wilmington, NC with his husband, painter and printmaker, Benjamin Billingsley.
This poem appeared in Waxwings.