The death of poets

It’s a shadow puppet game,
I explain. We’ll take turns acting
out the death of poets while waiting
to fall asleep at night,
but the other players drag
their feet, so, to get things started, I offer the example of a broken

Sylvia Plath inserting her head in an oven, though the broken-
lined shadow hand that swallows the fingers of the other looks more like a game
of fetch than death, dog-hand dragging
bone-hand away to bury in a supremely mammalian act
of selfishness. Maybe that’s why dogs and men keep company at night,
pretend friendship while we watch and wait

for each other to fall asleep, bowed by the weight
of self-knowledge breaking
over our just-above-water heads like waves. Nights
when you don’t sleep at all, when the dog doesn’t sleep but makes a game
of walking back and forth between the back door and your room, acting
as if she needs to pee again, you drag

yourself out of bed, dragging
your feet, hoping to make a statement, and keep the dog waiting
for keeping you awake, while her actions
might be likewise motivated—unbroken
barking meant to punish you for your insistence on a game
that keeps her up all night.

Between the ups and downs tonight
you rehearse charades, drag
one hand over the bridge of another, game
away your family then try to win it back, waiting
a little too long to play that hand: the party breaks
up before you have a chance to act,

to leap from the boat, to walk into traffic,
to swallow your pills, to drown in bed. Some nights
it’s clear that you know too much about poets’ broken
lives, their deaths a drug
that should’ve put you down some time ago, except that you waited
too long between doses, built up immunity, ruined the game

by acting on knowledge that the bedraggled
dog—benighted, beside herself—couldn’t possibly have, waiting
for the breakdown that you know is not a game.


Wendy Vardaman