Saturday, August 15, 2009

Faustina, or Rock Roses

Tended by Faustina
yes in a crazy house
upon a crazy bed,
frail, of chipped enamel,
blooming above her head
into four vaguely roselike
flower-formations,

the white woman whispers to
herself. The floorboards sag
this way and that. The crooked
towel-covered table
bears a can of talcum
and five pasteboard boxes
of little pills,

most half-crystallized.
The visitor sits and watches
the dew glint on the screen
and in it two glow-worms
burning a drowned green.
Meanwhile the eighty-watt bulb
betrays us all,

discovering the concern
within our stupefaction;
lighting as well on heads
of tacks in the wallpaper,
on a paper wall-pocket,
violet-embossed, glistening
with mica flakes.

It exposes the fine white hair,
the gown with the undershirt
showing at the neck,
the pallid palm-leaf fan
she holds but cannot wield,
her white disordered sheets
like wilted roses.

Clutter of trophies,
chamber of bleached flags!
–Rags or ragged garments
hung on the chairs and hooks
each contributing its
shade of white, confusing
as undazzling.

The visitor is embarrassed
not by pain nor age
nor even nakedness,
though perhaps by its reverse.
By and by the whisper
says, “Faustina, Faustina. . .”
Vengo, senora!”

On bare scraping feet
Faustina nears the bed.
She exhibits the talcum powder,
the pills, the cans of “cream,”
the white bowl of farina,
requesting for herself
a little conac;

complaining of, explaining,
the terms of her employment.
She bends above the other.
Her sinister kind face
presents a cruel black
coincident conundrum.
Oh, is it

freedom at last, a lifelong
dream of time and silence,
dream of protection and rest?
Or is it the very worst,
the unimaginable nightmare
that never before dared last
more than a second?

The acuteness of the question
forks instantly and starts
a snake-tongue flickering;
blurs further, blunts, softens,
separates, falls, our problems
becoming helplessly
proliferative.

There is no way of telling.
The eyes say only either.
At last the visitor rises,
awkwardly proffers her bunch
of rust-perforated roses
and wonders oh, whence come
all the petals.

-Elizabeth Bishop