Robert Pinsky

The Street

Streaked and fretted with effort, the thick
Vine of the world, red nervelets
Coiled at its tips.

All roads lead from it. All night
Wainwrights and upholsterers work finishing
The wheeled coffin.

Of the dead favorite of the Emperor,
The child’s corpse propped seated
On brocade, with yellow

Oiled curls, kohl on the stiff lids.
Slaves throw petals on the roadway
For the cortege, white

Languid flowers shooting from dark
Blisters on the vine, ramifying
Into streets. On mine,

Rockwell Avenue, it was embarrassing:
Trouble—fights, the police, sickness—
Seemed never to come

For anyone when they were fully dressed.
It was always underwear or dirty pajamas,
Unseemly stretches

Of skin showing through a torn housecoat.
Once a stranger drove off in a car
With somebody’s wife,

And he ran after them in his undershirt
And threw his shoe at the car. It bounced
Into the street

Harmlessly, and we carried it back to him;
But the man had too much dignity
To put it back on,

So he held it and stood crying in the street:
“He’s breaking up my home,” he said,
“The son of a bitch

Bastard is breaking up my home.” The street
Rose undulant in pavement-breaking coils
And the man rode it,

Still holding his shoe and stiffly upright
Like a trick rider in the circus parade
That came down the street

Each August. As the powerful dragonlike
Hump swelled he rose cursing and ready 
To throw his shoe — woven

Angular as a twig into the fabulous
Rug or brocade with crowns and camels,
Leopards and rosettes,

All riding the vegetable wave of the street
From the John Flock Mortuary Home
Down to the river.

It was a small place, and off the center,
But so much a place to itself, I felt
Like a young prince

Or aspirant squire. I knew that Ivanhoe
Was about race. The Saxons were Jews,
Or even Coloreds,

With their low-ceilinged, unbelievably 
Sour-smelling houses down by the docks.
Everything was written

Or woven, ivory and pink and emerald —
Nothin was too ugly or petty or terrible
To be weighed in the immense

Silver scales of the dead: the looming
Balances set right onto the live, dangerous
Gray bark of the street.