William Carlos Williams

The Clouds

Filling the mind
upon the rim of the overarching sky, the horses of
the dawn charge from south to north, gigantic beasts
rearing flame-edged above the pit,
a rank confusion of the imagination still uncured,
a rule, piebald under the streetlamps, reluctant
to be torn from its hold.
                                       Their flanks still
caught among low, blocking forms their fore-parts
rise lucid beyond this smell of a swamp, a mud
livid with decay and life! turtles
that burrowing among the white roots lift their green
red-striped faces startled before the dawn.

A black flag, writhing and whipping at the staff-head
mounts the sepulcher of the empty bank, fights
to be free…

                   South to north! the direction
unmistakable, they move, distinct beyond the unclear
edge of the world, clouds! like statues
before which we are drawn—in darkness, thinking of
our dead, unable, knowing no place
where else rightly to lodge them.

                                          Tragic outlines
and the bodies of horses, mindfilling—but
visible! against the invisible; actual against
the imagined and the concocted; unspoiled by hands
and unshaped also by them but caressed by sight only,
moving among them, not that that propels
the eyes from under, while it blinds:

—upon whose backs the dead ride, high!
undirtied by the putridity we fasten upon them—
South to north, for this moment distinct and undeformed,
into the no-knowledge of their nameless destiny.

Where are the good minds of past days, the unshorn?
Villon, to be sure, with his
saw-toothed will and testament? Erasmus
who praised folly and

Shakespeare who wrote so that
no school man or churchman could sanction him without
revealing his own imbecility? Aristotle.
shrewd and alone, a onetime herb peddler?

They all, like Aristophanes, knew the clouds and
said next to nothing of the soul’s flight
but kept their heads and died—
like Socrates, Plato’s better self, unmoved.

Where? They live today in their old state because
of the pace they kept that keeps
them now fresh in our thoughts, their
relics, ourselves: Toulouse-Lautrec, the

deformed who lived in a brothel and painted 
the beauty of whores. These were
the truth-tellers of whom we are the sole heirs
beneath the clouds that bring
shadow and darkness full of thought deepened
by rain against the clatter
of an empty sky. But anything to escape humanity!
Now it’s spiritualism—again,

as if the certainty of a future life
were any solution to our dilemma: how to get
published not what we write but what we would write were
it not for the laws against libelous truth.

The poor brain unwilling to own the obtrusive body
would crawl from it like a crab and
because it succeeds, at times, in doffing that,
by its wiles of drugs or other ‘ecstasies,’ thinks

at last that it is quite free—exulted, scurrying to
some slightly larger shell some snail
has lost (where it will live). And so, thinking,
pretends a mystery! an unbodied

thing that would still be a brain—but no body,
something that does not eat but flies by the propulsions
of pure—what? into the sun itself, illimitedly
and exists so forever, blest, washed, purged

and a tease in non-representational burst
of shapeless flame, sentient, (naturally!)—and keeps
touch with the earth (by former works) at least.
The intellect leads, leads still! Beyond the clouds.

I came upon a priest once at St. Andrew's
in Amalfi in crimson and gold brocade riding
the clouds of his belief.

It happened that we tourists had intervened
at some mid-moment of the ritual––
tipped the sacristan or whatever it was.

No one else was there –– porphyry and alabaster,
the light flooding in scented
with sandalwood––but this holy man

jiggling upon his buttocks to the litany
chanted, in response, by two kneeling altar boys!
I was amazed and stared in such manner

that he, caught half off the earth
in his ecstasy––though without losing beat––
turned and grinned at me from his cloud.

With each, dies a piece of the old life, which he carries,
a precious burden, beyond! Thus each
is valued by what he carries and that is his soul—
diminishing the bins by that much
unless replenished.

                                It is that which is the brotherhood:
the old life, treasured. But if they live?
What then?

                 The clouds remain
—the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds
or dormant, a calligraphy of scaly dragons and bright moths,
of straining thought, bulbous or smooth,
ornate, the flesh itself (in which
the poet foretells his own death); convoluted, lunging upon
a pismire, a conflagration, a…….

spoken = Leon Branton