“The certificate of Coroner Patterson in the case of Mrs. Henry Adams, who died suddenly in this city on Sunday last, is to the effect that she came to her death through an overdose of potassium cyanide, administered by herself. She was just recovering from a long illness, and had been suffering from mental depression. She left no children.”
—The Washington Critic
Dec. 9, 1885
Who is it on the stair, who in the hall?
My hemisphere, the master of the house.
More flowers! All the porcelain, love,
is choked with purple iris and carnations—
you garland my room as if I were a corpse.
Did you startle me? Like a baited chain
of mousetraps, my nerves go off at a hair’s fall.
You might have tiptoed in on a down cloud
(as you seem to do), your breath hushed,
and still slammed my soul in terror between
the bedroom door and the broken window of my heart,
out of which flies, what? My thought
in letter-winged shape of a white dove.
What was I writing? Oh nothing. What sort
of nothing needs to hide itself from my husband?
Just a note to my sister, news of the day.
“Elms bend with wet snow along a street
mobbed with foreigners rushing on
preposterous errands, Patagonian trade,
treaties, hawking foghorns and elixirs.
The house we are building is almost done.
From my creaking balcony next door
I trap it in my camera: the gargoyle drains,
the corner turret scanning the White House.
Our great lawmakers lodged across the Square
trample on the Mormons and Chinese.
Blaine is called up, Shipherd testifies.
Madame Catalano sails away
to Russia Wednesday next with three
babies, an alligator, a wolfhound.
I have all this by hearsay,
augury and my window’s parallax.
For we are declining the circuit of winter teas.
I don’t go out. I won’t go out at all.”
I was about to add:
“Through all the hours of sorrow, my husband
stands like an archangel at my side,
riposting harpies with a paper knife.”
Thus I would lie for you, though no one
will ever know the true range of your kindness.
You are the gentle hand holding
the knife to my throat.
Why do you snatch it away?
Now you’ve scattered the pages on the floor,
go on and read the first lie of the day
in my letter’s true address, “Dear Father.”
Why do I write to my father, why
should I lie to you, my husband? You shine
your pitiless study lamp into my mind,
plot the navigation of my blood,
tide and wind, my calm and rising gale.
It was only last April that the doctor died
who was my father, and my fever began to rage,
the sickness that is grief unmoved by prayer.
No mother to share my sorrow, none to remember,
no child to nurse and laugh away despair—
Why shouldn’t I write to him? The words are mine.
Our Sunday letters held me in his world
whether I journeyed to hell or Washington.
And who is more distant than the newly dead,
more starved for comfort, love words in the dark?
You, my husband, you, my inquisitor.
Does your jealousy reach into his grave?
I think that he is more alive than you.
And if he’s not. Why shouldn’t I address the dead?
It is the house profession, the house passion,
your weird Confucian necrology,
stuffing your presidential ancestry
with feathers of shredded fact, excelsior.
My husband is the son of a great house,
the house of Adam, fathers of the tribe
of Adams, unfallen Adams all.
My husband is the end of perfect breeding,
thought out of action, action ended,
the begonia flowering out of a wheat-field.
My husband is the mortician of his clan.
You cram them to the lips and prop them up,
President, Grand-President, Senator,
for all the world as if they were alive.
So they are more alive than you and I
who live across from the ancestral home,
spectral saboteurs of the White House.
Forgive me love. It is the sickness, sickness
of grief and loneliness. He was all
the father and mother I had. Where are my children?
Was there no more room in history
for children? Oh I have heard you mourn
our fated incapacity to bear
another Adam or a dewy Eve,
a child for your knee, another President.
But how does it happen, love, in some
naked space dreamed high above the bed,
or breathing the common air, sharing a thought?
Ideas never made a child, though they kill men.
Forgive me, love, it is the sickness
of December, and loneliness, and irony.
What comfort can you afford, try as you may?
You whisper to my sadness: “All of life
is nothing but a series of farewells.
The bitterest is spoken. Look to the future.”
Then you rise, kick open the study door
on such a howling multiverse of dragons
no monk in guilt’s traction could conceive:
“A million homicidal engineers
running an ungodly godlike train
a hundred million horsepower full speed
up and down the shrinking landscape.
Space deranged by electricity, horsepower
doubling every 15 years, the days
of time are numbered in a meteor world
where Rome will no longer be Rome, nor time time.
We are the slaves of coal, die with our master.
Apocalypse by law of logarithms. New York a nest
of 20 million insects in the throes
of metamorphosis, changing worms to wings—”
Enough! Just leave the future to itself!
Must the historian turn to prophecy? Help!
First you drive me into my father’s arms,
then you cite your revelation
that when the body’s broken, content spills
into a maze of branching rivulets,
a vapor of quick rainbows in the blue,
a few drops in the reservoir of truth.
Not even my father’s ghost can hear me now!
What consolation in your nightmare future
if it is not “Better to be dead”?
Let me follow my father. You live on.
You say I cannot die, “for we are one.”
And you have hidden from me, half in jest,
every pointed object in the house,
knives honed for vengeance by the Japanese,
your razorblade, the ivory-handled cutlery.
Your irony is under lock and key
with dueling pistols rusted impotent,
or disguised as an obsequious compassion.
Am I chained to the pleasure of your company?
What am I to you, your wife,
an image at the banquet table’s end,
the hostess schooled in fashionable wit,
companion on horseback, partner in despair.
And more than this, when all the guests are gone:
mother, sister, cradle, sepulchre,
repository of such terror and remorse
as only an infant of 200 years
could know and bawl out in the nursery.
This and more than this. We are not one,
but you have lived within me, crowded
precious space I needed for my soul,
lived within me, not in the happy way
of man in woman, the circle of her arms,
to die bodily then rise in love again.
You have fattened in me like
a foetus satisfied to live unborn
in the body of a virgin. I
was the woman you could never be,
nor can I, for the goddess will explode
the strongest temple men can shut her in.
The house we are building is almost done.
From my balcony I’ve watched it rise
out of the mud, on the backs of laborers
shouldering mortar hods, sinews of brick
to launch in double arches for the portals.
The architect has taught you Romanesque.
Sometimes I think the soul of it is dust
as brick powder sifts into my room
tincturing the window pane.
Sometimes I think the house is history meant
to be seen from afar, never lived in,
a foursquare, window-slotted monument
three stories high with a turret at the quoin.
I will not live there though it’s built for me.
But I have kept a record of the house
in photographs with the tripod camera
you gave me to keep my mind out of the past.
Here is the vacant lot, here is the canyon
delved and blasted out of Lafayette Square.
Here is the first story. Scantlings
of white pine sketch out the halls
of the second story you shall walk alone,
bedroom, dressing room, a suite for guests,
all flooded with skylight, without the walls.
Here you are wrangling with Richardson
whether the parlor window should look out
street-level, or pitch above the roof
of our neighbors across the way,
over the White House toward the whiter sky.
Here is the sea-green, onyx chimney piece.
We wanted purple African porphyry
(a stray vein runs from Braintree to Lynn
under Boston harbor,
diamond-hard, a curse to the quarrymen.)
It was too dear, though nothing be too dear,
and the Mexican onyx glowed so exquisitely
it made your soul yearn, you wrote to me
in the North, while I watched my father die.
So here is the history of our home
from mud to sky,
cobweb of running beams and crossing planks,
the naked corner and the standing wall.
A miracle, this little box, a time machine
where a slide coated in silver collodion
is struck eternal witness to the light.
The camera masters time! In nitrate
solution, silver, and the fixative
potassium cyanide, so deadly some say
three drops in a cup of tea will heat
one’s blood to gall and paralyze the heart.
I have planned a portrait of myself
to keep you company when I am indisposed,
so wan and winter-pale
the light cuts through me to the world beyond.
You will forgive me if it is not drawn
as Whistler would have me, or your friend
St. Gaudens might cast his American saint
in the light of science, or as virgin chained
somewhere between the portal and the shrine.
We want something more Gothic about the house.
South of the weathervane cocked for a May wind,
North of the red chimney there will break
through solid beam and attic tile and slate,
a slender tower sprung from a broken arch,
unbuttressed, aiming at the infinite.
From the crown of that tower, in full view
of all the capital, I’ll wave goodbye . . . .
Go on your stroll without me, and forget
all this, forgive my winter weariness,
my anger and my love if it proves cruel.
Solstice cautions the daylight and I weep
for the absence winter glorifies to a season,
glazing nature, widowing the world.
Leave me to my work, my solitude.
The picture will be waiting when you return.