Insomnia (Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828- 1882)
This thrum like insect wings
beneath his breastbone, louder
towards midnight when the house
has gone down to its half-death.
Systole. Diastole. The wash of blood
behind the tympanum.
Mid-Spring. In the pond below
his windows a hoop of moonlight
floats among the lily pads; the soil
sparkles with a rime of ice
to singe the rising green. Inside,
whorls of dust like thumbprints
as he takes each halting step;
in his left hip, the mortar and pestle
grind of ball and socket, as if
glass were returning to sand.
Serous fluid dense as a dollop
of honey bloats his torso,
makes each breath feel drawn
through cotton batting, then settles
in a dull ache inside his testicles.
In his studio, flecks of carmine
stain the folded dropcloth
like sputum from tubercular lungs,
the canvas itself ghostly
where a goddess vanishes
into space white and lunar~
as if the artist’s vision
had been suddenly eclipsed.
The truth is, his palette is useless
now. 180 grains of chloral
each day and strong whiskey
have rendered his left arm and
hand slack as the jaws
of the dumbfounded.
He fears he is turning to stone.
Twenty years ago he sanctioned
sacrilege at Highgate, his wife’s grave
plundered to retrieve the sole
volume of his poems which grief
had prompted him to place
in her clasp. By bonfire light
the coffin overflowed with the
copper flax of Lizzie’s hair
which burgeoned in the sealed
dark, a hellish bridal veil
that coiled, serpentine, around
her cool fingers, the delicate bones
belying a grasp so rigorous each one
had to be broken, her wedding
band ringing like a tiny golden bell
as it dropped into the cavernous black.
He thinks how small his love
must have seemed to her those years
she sat, pale and hushed, holding
her hands, the angle of her head,
just so, while he brooded
behind the easel and later left
without saying a word to lose
himself inside a woman
whose body did not make him feel
he was defiling an angel.
Little wonder, he thinks,
the daughter Lizzie bore came
into the world blue as sea water
and breathless, her mother losing
herself in melancholy and drams
of laudanum until that February night
when she put herself forever to sleep,
as he lay distant blocks away,
wound in sheets redolent with
his mistress’s perfume.
Now the women he brought to life
brushstroke by brushstroke,
his vision slowly growing nebulous,
are scoffed at for their eyes,
too wide, impossible throats like
columns of alabaster, mouths stained
by pomegranates, the opulent
colours which smoulder
against his canvases. All night,
phantom voices whisper behind
the wall’s velvet flocking.
He cannot recall the last time
he slept. Each heartbeat, he knows,
is stolen~ a shovelful of earth,
a delicate bone breaking.
Already his left side takes on
the numb life of burnished stone.
Inside his body, it rains without ceasing.
Each cell fills with a killing gold.