John Estes

To a young poet, workshopped

Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.  Emerson on Montaigne

To call you dear one would, no doubt, further
injure your already-insulted
soft tissue, though it might surprise
you to know my well-craquelured
heart ached—ached
with an ache reserved for trainers
of lions whose job entails they witness
carnage they’ve not discouraged—
before we began.  Such fragile smiles
stretch just-so on frames so glibly
bent by impatient cruelties, inflicted
so surely by your exacting father.
I can see him now, cursing the gadget
salesmen on the home shopping channel,
and occasionally kicking the yapping
lapdog across a threadbare carpet.

A more compassionate man, one
who readily skims a psyche and reads there
apocrypha no polite tongue dare repeat,
might have suffered less discussion
of your poem.  As my manly neighbor
did when—I was no more than three—
he rescued us kids from a milk snake
meandering, or foraging, across the front
yard, distinguishing its head and tail
by the sharp edge of his spade:
I wish I’d seen what was at stake.  Wish
I’d detected beneath the din of instruction—
my moldy insistence on performing
the present moment—your crying
like Abel’s spirit out from within a ground
appearing ordinary and solid enough.
What could I know?  I persisted
in thinking we talked of mere poetry.

It might surprise you that I tried
to protect you.  My invocation of the rule
of the silent writer—that bubble,
that force field of tried convention—
meant to shelter you
against the barbarous stings of your
own protests.  If it felt imperialist, so be it.
When Emperor Hadrian waged his wars
and conquests, built long walls or sentenced
his Christians to death, he did so not
in the name of a common good, or peace,
or an august Olympian in loco parentis.
He certainly had no prejudice for pagans
or even for Empire in some abstract sense.
He moved by fidelity to the art of governing
as an end in itself, an art whose craft—
like old theories of gravity—he understood
to follow simple laws like the attractions
of bodies to other bodies and the disposition
of all bodies to fall toward the earth,
or water to flow.  In a post-participial age,
this hardly describes the making of poems
or the production of anything good
and fair, where weight, we think, is displaced
continuums of space-time.  These arts are
not coterminous with any so-called seat
of the soul—not the liver, the thyroid
or the brainpan—or the self, that everready
last supper of the passions never managing
to end.  Nothing cascades from center
or source in the making of states or poems.
No creation depends upon alluvial
floods or conceiving people from stones.

I think I forgot to give my little lecture,
my prolegomena on recursive nature wherein
I suggest that, after a fashion, perfection—
and I mean that as a farmer means it and not
a despot—of the work perfects the life.

Here is not the place nor now the time
to make amends, but since apologies
are not immaterial, I offer you this story:
Long before he deathbed mumbled
his gut-wrenching famous last oration—
animula vagula blandula,
dear sweet wandering soul, it begins—
Hadrian condemned to die three sisters,
daughters of a woman called Sophia,
whose names we only know—shrouded
in their sanctity—as Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Their fate—in many ways a stock, tabloid
martyrdom for refusing to renounce
their trust in nonsense—was unusually cruel.
As he does for particular friends,
always lip-sealed and suffering-enthusiasts,
their God protracted the inevitable
with a veil of protective power shielding
them from easy mortal harm,
a stroke of love that only stokes
a torturer’s zeal for torture.
They endured the ring—left leopards,
wild boars and rabid heifers
hungrier by far—and frustrated emperor
and centurion alike inured to beating,
burning, scalding pitch and hot pincers
that peeled off skin then ripped
off breasts.  The three fiery furnace boys
hardly broke a sweat for Nebuchadnezzar,
but the hymns suggest these girls bled
when their wounds weren’t spouting milk.
In the end authorities resorted
to the one known cure for such headaches:
as their troparion says,
by the sword they were made perfect.
Within days, their mother fell asleep for good
praying at their tombs.

I tell you this only because they are, for me,
patrons of the next attempt.


John Estes: Artist Statement

John Estes: Bio


Other Featured Artists