POEM: The singing head

beardsley-aubrey-aubrey-b20139-96What do you want? asks the old king of the dancing princess.
I want you to bring me, on a silver platter, the head
of John the Baptist. The head of the prophet, the head
of the ascetic, the head of the man who said
that Herod trespassed in marrying his brother’s wife.
O Jokonan, Jokonan! and Oscar Wilde imagines her
kissing the blood-frothed lips and Richard Strauss
writes ravening music so that she may dance for the prophet
as she danced for the king. She took it to her mother,
says the scripture, and John’s disciples claimed his body.
Did Herodias leave it on its platter till it rotted, till
the stink of it filled her chambers and kept Herod
from her bed? Did she command the guard to place it
on a pole, like the serpent raised in the wilderness,
a warning and a remedy, withering dry in the summer heat?
Did she send it to the butcher that it might be rendered;
did the dry skull, smooth and hollow and white, sit
on its dish under a clean cloth, in a corner, in a closet,
until it whispered to Herodias? Did its teeth chatter?
Did it denounce its murderess, until she rose up in fury
yet could not bring herself to smash the skull, and
she rose and flew out the window and haunted the night,
screaming, until her name became Aradia and
she taught the poor how to kill unjust kings.

I am the singing head, says the voice of the beheaded prophet.
Kill me if you want the truth. On an island in the north
the great god Bran’s head tells stories that still bring blessing
until the door is opened that leads back to the lands
where time passes. He who would be king, let him be a bridge.
If you find his hall on Harlech, go in and close the door,
and you will hear the stories which the wounded king poured forth,
the banquet of the wonderful head. I am the singing head,
says the voice of Orpheus, floating down the stream
under the alder trees. The fox-women tore me limb from limb;
the nymphs of the forest gathered my bones and built me
a shrine, but my head still floats. I sang to Monteverdi
and to Gluck and to Rilke, as I sang to the Muses,
my mother among them, and the trees and the beasts.
My song makes everything dance. Do you want to dance
for me, like Salome danced for Herod? Do you want
to go down to the underworld and climb back up again?

A skull in a niche, a mask of gold, a whispering chatter,
a hall of stories, a lyre in the stars, Apollo and Dionysus,
Hermes stayed out of this one, Salome and Ishtar,
Oscar and Rainer, a skull and two bones in a gold reliquary,
the sacred head, the sacred heart, blood-flecked froth
on dry cracked lips, turn to your neighbor and pass
the story, whisper the secret, tell what you heard.
Meanwhile the sun is setting behind the browning trees
where the cicadas sing their song of love and death.

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