Siege of Mountjoy


Dennis Nurkse

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.

For Richard Cheney

Day after day passes
and we do not lift a hand
to defend ourselves.

The enemy will storm the high tower?
We leave a side-door unbolted.

The enemy will starve us out?:
We let the wheat rot
in the few fields we control.

The enemy will divide us?
We hate the one we sleep with
for touching us naked,
for being like mother and father
but with no distance,
while the enemy is just a blur,
a cricket, a cloud passing
unless... until...

Sometimes we imagine buckling on greaves
or saddling the plumed destrier--
sometimes the armor is brought before us
in the order in which it would be girded on
but no: take it away:
it would chafe.. it smells of rancid oil...

So we tell the future
by haruspicy and bird flight.
Truly the days have taken wing,
the great flocks are leaving this kingdom--

quail, starling, passerine sparrow,
even the birds of the open ocean,
merganser, skua, jaeger, albatross,
even the most solitary--snowy owls--
wheeling over us in columns
just to show us they are departing:

the tea leaves smudge
at the bottom of the cup,
a die rolls under the armoire:

but we have one prisoner
whom we torture
night after night,
stripping him naked, dressing him

in a wimple and chemise,
beating him with the pommel,
reviving him at the last moment
with heal-all, saxifrage, hyssops--

sometimes we let a rutting ram
into his cell, and bind his hands..
We do not stay to see what happens.

We allow water to drip on him;
what could be more kind than water..

We barrage him with questions:
who are the enemy?
Are they ruthless?
Do they have innumerable legions?
Where are they deployed?
Behind which tree?

We interpret his sighs, his groans.
Even under the hot iron
he is absentminded,
sometimes he blesses us...

We argue among ourselves:
a thousand thousand legions? No legions?
A division? A regiment?
Bivouacked in the wheat? The barley?
The topless mountains?

When he sleeps
we listen with great longing
to his sighs, his belches,
his trembling, and record them all
in a great leatherbound book--

but days, days are the great enemy,
our captive is growing old,
his eyes are dimming,
he complains of ringing in the ears,
stiff joints, amnesia, a feeling
of no longer being able to suffer--
torments we played no part in--
and we tremble:

when he dies we will live on
at the whim of a mote of dust
whirling in the last shaft of evening.