Tuesday, February 27, 2007

345. Last Laugh - Robert Penn Warren

The little Sam Clemens, one night back in Hannibal,
Peeped through the dining-room keyhole, to see, outspread
And naked, the father split open, lights, liver, and all
Spilling out from that sack of mysterious pain, and the head

Sawed through, where his Word, like God’s, held its deepest den,
And candlelight glimmered on blood-slick, post-mortem steel,
And the two dead fish eyes stared steadily ceilingward--well, then,
If you yourself were, say, eleven, just how would you feel?

Oh, not that you’d love him—that ramrod son of Virginia,
Though born for success, failing westward bitterly on.
“Armed truce,” was all, years later, you could find to say in you.
But still, when a father’s dead, an umbrella’s gone

From between the son and the direful elements.
No, Sam couldn’t turn from the keyhole. It’s not every night
You can see God butchered in such learned dismemberments,
And when the chance comes you should make the most of the sight.

Though making the most, Sam couldn’t make terms with the fact
Of the strangely prismatic glitter that grew in his eye,
Or, climbing the stairs, why his will felt detached from the act,
Or why, stripping for bed, he stared so nakedly
At the pore little body and thought of the slick things therein.
Then he wept on the pillow, surprised at what he thought grief,
Then fixed eyes at darkness while, slow, on his face grew a grin,
Till suddenly something inside him burst with relief,

Like a hog bladder blown up to bust when the hog-killing frost
Makes the brat’s holiday. Then he just began laughing and could not
Stop, and so laughed himself crying to sleep. At last,
Far off in Nevada, by campfire or sluice or gulch-hut,

Or in roaring S.F., in an acre of mirror and gilt,
Where the boys with the dust bellied-up, he’d find words come,
His own face as stiff as a shingle, and him little-built.
Then whammo—the backslapping riot! He’d stand, looking dumb.

God was dead, for a fact. He knew, in short, the best joke.
He had learned its thousand forms, and, since the dark stair hall,
Had learned what was worth more than bullion or gold-dust-plump poke.
And married rich, too, with an extra spin to the ball,

For Livy loved God, and he’d show her the joke, how they lied.
Quite a tussle it was but, hot deck or cold, he was sly
And won every hand but the last. Then, at her bedside,
He watched dying eyes look up at a comfortless sky

And was left alone with his joke, God dead, till he died.

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