David Jauss

The Descent

      in memory of Lynda Hull 

Of those who journeyed to the world below,
who descended in order to rise &, rising, 

restored the leaves to the tree, the petals to the flower,
I sing; & those who did not return, who remain 

where darkness is the only language & silence
its one word, of these I also sing; & of you, 

whose name I cannot write save in wind or water
for it has become everyone’s name, & no one’s; 

& of all who are yet to depart, & the shadow
that shall pass over them, & the terror 

of those they shall leave behind, & of those whose words
can bring back no one, not even themselves, 

of all these I sing, &, singing, praise. 

All that cornball talk of shepherds, “lorn Urania,”
“the blind Fury with th’ abhorréd shears,”
etcetera: neither “Lycidas” nor “Adonais” ever moved me 

until now.  I thought Milton & Shelley cared more
about Petrarch, Virgil, & Theocritus
than Edward King or Keats, the pastoral elegy
more difficult to tame than any grief.  But O 

the heavy change, now thou art gone.  Now I read
O, weep for Adonais—he is dead!
& I do weep, for Adonais is truly dead
& so is Milton, & Shelley, & so, too, 

the pastoral elegy, that bullet-proof vest
they put on to save their murdered lives. 

You are neither the first nor the last.
Who, at fifty-one, cannot pass a long dark night
adding them up?  And who cannot lie awake 

trying not to count? . . . In grief there is nothing
but the past, & memory is a room whose only door
opens into an identical room with an identical door 

& each door I enter only takes me farther
from the way out.  Did Orpheus learn this
when he turned to see Eurydice & found himself 

in a darker hell?  Circles belong to the gods.
We walk always backward, each glance forward
predicting our past. 

The night is long.  But not long enough. 

We had washed her face, hands, & feet,
arranged on the table beside her bed the talismans:
crucifix, two candles, bottle of holy water, saucer of salt,
linen napkin, tablespoon, six balls of cotton
& two slices of lemon on a plate.  We awaited only 

the priest who would hear her confession, administer
the Viaticum, then recite the magical words
as he anointed her eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, & feet
with olive oil.  He was on his way.  Everything was prepared. 

At first she was breathing way down low,
then just in her chest, & then
only in her throat. 

Grandmother, we were not prepared. 

Mirrors & dreams, the pathways of the soul.
Witness the Aru custom of not sleeping
in the same house as the dead, for fear the dreaming soul
will rise out of the body like a somnabulist 

& follow the ghost into the other world.
And the ancient Greeks & Indians,
the Zulus, Basutos, & Melanesians, all warn us
about the dark spirits residing within water 

who hunger to devour our reflected souls.
And so after a death we cover the mirrors
where the soul hovers, caught between the two worlds,
& looks back at us with glazed eyes 

like a sleepwalker dreaming of drowning. 

Enkidu the beloved, Enkidu the companion,
who risked Hell for his friend, is dead.  Must Gilgamesh

die too?  Must his own face darken?  Beneath the great udders
of the mountain Mashu, which hang down 

into the Cavern of the Earth, he descends, companionless;
through the airless tunnel he journeys, blind, breathing in 

the darkness which is both nothing & something;
all twelve leagues of the sun’s night he traverses, 

then crosses the glittering sea of sky to the waters of death,
all to pick the magic plant, so fragrant & thorny, known as 

How-the-Old-Man-Becomes-Young-Again . . . 

Meanwhile, back at the House of the Dead,
the doorknob grows thick with dust. 

When he arose from the cave wherein he’d lain,
swaddled in graveclothes, his jaw strapped shut 

with a knotted cloth, eyes blinking
fiercely in the blast of light, Lazarus 

ached to tell his sisters how it feels to witness
your own disappearance, the betrayal, 

one by one, of the senses that comprise you,
the swirl of snow that, rising, drops you, 

numb, a stone, into a well so deep no one can hear
the echo of your long fall.  But words 

failed him, or he failed them, till the day
he died again &, dying, cursed the Lord 

for cursing him, twice, with life. 

A mummy stands before the mammoth throne,
a pair of scales balanced on his shoulders,
the bird of evil in one pan, the other empty, waiting 

for the souls of the dead who climb the nine steps
to their judgment, while an ape drives
the last man judged, transformed into a pig, 

toward a fire darker even than that burning black
in the face of Osiris.  O, who can behold His face,
who can stand before His perfect justice,
trembling, waiting to be burned or born, 

without judging Him?  And after such judgment,
whose soul would not fall, light as a bird’s feather,

on that terrible scale? 

Reader, I confess I am tempted
to say to hell with metaphors
for I am bone weary of Death and God,
those personifications of absence, & I know
Hell is not a place but a way to talk
about loss.  I’d like to give these metaphors back 

to those who think them fact.  I’d like
to face my grief directly, like a man.
No props.  No tricks with mirrors.
But I crave the comfort & company
of those who throughout time gathered
in the dark woods of these metaphors: 

Judgment.  Hellfire.  The return from the dead. 


Tell me, you who have returned from that land,
how fares the drowned man there?
They bring him saltwater to drink.

And what is the fate of him who perished in flame?
His eyes are white coals that see everything.

The woman who swallowed poison, is she there too?
Words crawl out of her mouth like worms. 

What does the woman do whose children remain behind?
She sits by the wall & weeps.

And the childless man, what does he do?
He also sits by the wall & weeps.

And what of the man who died unmourned & forgotten?
He is the one for whom they weep.


Baby Dima, our last mammoth, 40,000 years you’ve slept
in Siberian ice, & now scientists squint at your tissue
through microscopes.  One undamaged cell 

they can clone & implant in an elephant egg
&, presto chango, you’ll rise from the dead,
half son, half father of yourself, 

& bring back with you, like icicles on your woolly fur,
lost time.  What kind of nostalgia makes us yearn
for a past that existed before we did?
An inverted longing for our future 

extinction?  And what of you?  What will you think,
lumbering between bars in some zoo or traveling exhibit,
of this hell we’ve rescued you to? 


Blessed is He who permits what is forbidden.
Explain this.

Praise God, for only He can defy Himself.
Explain this.

He forbids you to live forever, so that you may.
Explain this.

In the house of the dead are many cradles.
Explain this.

Praise God, for He permits you to live forever.
Explain this.

Praise God, for He has forbidden death.
Explain this. 

You will die. 


Death, by what signs shall I recognize Thee? 

I am the fire before it’s lit, the open door
to the locked house, the room that becomes empty
when you enter it, & you have seen me 

in the black spots surfacing on old mirrors,
in the strange green light that precedes an eclipse,
in the halo that surrounds everything 

after you’ve stared at the sun, & you have heard me
in the silence that follows a dial tone, in trainwhistles
distorted by rain, in deadbolts sliding shut . . .

And by what name shall I address Thee? 

By no name, for that is the sum
of all the names of the dead.


Down where darkness is married to dark
they descend, the scholars, past Aramaic, Ugaritic,
& Sumero-Akkadian, dust rising with each footstep 

& swirling slowly in the dead air, down they descend
(& down I follow) in search of our veiled mother, the Ur-word
that gave birth to ours.  We want to bring her back 

& marry her at last, we want to sleep for once
in our origin, suckled as we fuck
the Word.  And so we fill books with dust 

while each day word after word dies in our throats,
the true dictionaries.  We are choking on dust. 

In the beginning was the Word.
But in the end, Silence. 



These poems allude to, and sometimes quote, the following sources:  Gilgamesh, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Kaballah, John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais,” D. H. Lawrence’s “Bavarian Gentians,” Sir E. A. Wallis Budge’s The Gods of the Egyptians, Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, John F. Healey’s The Early Alphabet, and Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown’s Second Record Book of Weird and Wonderful Facts.




(photo by Jennifer Smith)