From Issue 19: St. Dunstan in the West

Philip St. Clair

Down Fleet Street, then into a tiny courtyard: above us
Good Queen Bess
with orb and scepter hovered ten feet above our heads.
Then a flash of panic –
three swollen corpses, their mottled flesh blue-green,
lurched toward me
from a niche off the vestry porch, but after a moment
I saw they were only
life-sized metal statues, disfigured and corroded by rust:
King Lud and his sons
clad in Roman armor, carried here, the guidebook said,
from the old Lud Gate
pulled down more than three hundred years ago,

and I remembered my childhood
and the comic books bought from a metal rack
at the corner drugstore:
Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear
with the dripping, rotting
faces of the dead that infected me with terror
while their soulless bodies,
reanimated by black magic or unholy science
or a transcendent magic
impossible to explain by logic or experience,
would shamble at dusk
down red-dirt roads to the mansions of the wicked
and take revenge,

and I thought about the ghosts I might have seen:
the first one came
just after I’d started high school – we had to live
with my brooding grandma
in her narrow house on Route 422 while my father
rolled sheet steel
in the mills of Niles and Youngstown. Over the years
she grew senile:
she couldn’t leave her bed and then she died there,
and on one moonless night
a few months later, I opened the door to my room,
saw a pillar of mist
next to the foot of my bed, and when I cried out
from fright and surprise
it vanished in the glare of the sixty-watt bulb
I’d somehow switched on,

and many years later in Kentucky, grieving
over my only brother’s death,
I walked with a girlfriend into my dark apartment,
and as I entered the kitchen
and reached for the light switch, I saw a pillar of mist
in front of the stove,
and I cried out to my companion to ask her if she
smelled any smoke,
and when the lights flashed on it disappeared
just like the time before,

and even though I could have no proof, I knew
they were discarnate spirits
that visited me for a reason I could not understand,
and because they were
faceless and unformed meant I did not have the grace
to see them whole,

and I remembered the one-celled creatures
I watched one summer
through the eyepiece of a junk-store microscope:
slippers and golf balls,
barrels and arrowheads and highway cones.
One was a Roman warship,
armed both fore and aft with ramming spikes;
one was an amulet
of mottled jade, lashing its black whip-tail;
one was a bladder
full of clots of blood, crawling over logjams
of green algae;
one, with great patience, made ropes and lobes
out of its own plasma,
carefully pulling itself across a glass slide
away from the light.

 

Philip St. Clair has published six collections of poetry. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council and was awarded the Bullis Prize by Poetry Northwest. He lives in Ashland, Kentucky.