The Creature Has a Purpose


by Daniel Tobin


 George Keats, Louisville, KY, Christmas Eve 1841

Incongruities of the “English Palace,”
And a rush of Ohio River air
That smells of millwork and the driven flange
Mingle in the great poet’s brother’s room
Where he lies, dying of the family complaint,
The rusted bellows of his lungs giving out.
Penniless, he has become his debtors,
Having braved the Great Western Road across
The Alleghenies’ broad and fordable sublime,
Their expendable grandeur mastered in flat
And keelboat, broadhorn and ark, to make
his name: two fortunes won, two sawyered
in the roiling confluence of the New World.

No death is a death of luxury—not this life
That pioneered “the Dark and Bloody Land,”
Nor the boy pent, opaque, in a Hampstead room;
Or the one who stayed and wrote and broached
His end in a far country consigned to the past,
Fountain, Forum, sun-burnished piazzas
Where posthumous lives encounter their ruin
In catacomb and column and shuttered light—
This brother absent all ends but his own.

On the mantle, the poet’s portrait, wreathed
In hyacinth, Apollo’s flower, looks off,
Akin to a figure on that antique vase—
All unmoving activity and scope; though
Where the poet is, now, is not the place
He sat to have this minor image drawn.
Margate is gone, and Cheapside, and Wentworth.
Which makes the brother fading here, alone,
Or tended by his slaves, a dreaming thing.
Without the social thought of thee
, the poet wrote,
Nothing could stay life from the vastness,
The blue-green expanse of sea and sky.
And this, amid the great outpouring,
The poet against all likelihood breeching
The conditions: The moon is now shining, full
And bright; she is the same to me in matter
What you are to me in spirit
, the hurt belied
On the letter’s fraught, disconsolate seal:
Qui me negligee, me desole
—“By neglect
You have ruined me,” the gem signaling
The poet’s final letter to the beloved,
How short is the longest life
. And, at the crux:
We cannot be created for such suffering

But to have stayed, or turned back, to have
Chosen sacrifice, owned that capability,
Unlike the stoat the poet glimpsed, its head
Peeping from a patch of withered grass—
The creature has a purpose and its eyes
Are bright with it
?  Though how to make a soul,
The poet asked, but through the medium
Of a world like this, the elemental space
That schools and scars till each becomes oneself?

He shifts a little on the bed, the one
Whose body was electric with leaving,
So he might be again at sea, sails flown
In pursuit of the Narrows, the continent
Beyond, its wonders and wealth, his offices,
Parlor life brimming with old world ways—
The nagging neatness of a well-made life.
Under him the waters lift, purgatorial
In their predatory depths, dolphin, shark,
The greater bodies cruising, thrashing,
Scale after scale in the moonwashed swell,
A nautilus, scenting currents, scavenging,
All mother-of pearl chambers spiraling
Logarithmic, prized, rises to the surface,
The pin-hole camera of its eye open, blind
To this teeming speck of a firmament.
A breath. One more. His mouth opens,
Wider now, as if he had begun to sing.

About the Author:

Daniel Tobin is the author of five books of poems, Where the World is Made (University Press of New England, 1999), Double Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), The Narrows (Four Way Books, 2005), Second Things (Four Way Books, 2008), and Belated Heavens (Four Way Books, 2010). His poems have appeared nationally and internationally in such journals as The Nation, The New Republic, The Harvard Review, Poetry, The American Scholar, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Image, The Times Literary Supplement (England), Stand (England), Agenda (England), Descant (Canada), and Poetry Ireland Review. He has also published numerous essays on modern and contemporary poetry in the United States and abroad. He is Interim Dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston.