Variations on a Fever of Unknown Origin

“ . . . a mild slow-burning rapture all the time.”
Joseph Campbell

I. Global Warming

Even one degree—night after night—
must have its effect as rivers rise
and the ozone layer forms new holes
spawning frogs with extraneous limbs.

At the edge of the polar ice-cap
where glaciers melt slowly
no penguin suspects
a complicity she will not disclose.

Wakeful each night
she hears the cries of gulls and terns
and the sound of wings
fanning the air to no avail.

II. Marche Funebré

Flesh crawls a little
as though fire ants had been granted
a parade permit across her back.
Surely they cannot take forever
to line up and begin
their slow procession down her spine.

It is not quite 2:00 A.M.
Yet crowds are already gathering,
eager to watch the harlequins
in red satin and sequins—
and those flambeaux carriers,
dark men in hoods,
who light the way to catacombs.
Such a strange pageant on a night
in which all is otherwise strangely quiet.

III. Combustion

Late at night I have seen
the Hindenburg on fire,
that huge dirigible filled with hydrogen
instantly erupt and burn
like some monstrous whale
engulfed by flame.

Feverish, I lie charred
by slow incineration
that consumes all combustible fuel
until thought itself is vaporized
and each high-flown fancy
falls from the sky.

No one exclaims over the sight—
Not even I—
as breathlessly, imperceptibly
I oxidize
in plain view.
Those seen running away
cannot say why.

IV. Rx

Like leeches mechanically applied,
my black pen sucks toxins from the bloodstream
until they are engorged
and fall writhing on white sheets

where they form squiggles, letters, words—
as the cards in Wonderland became croquet hoops
or as hedgehogs rolled themselves into balls—

so there flows a strange script—
dark, clotted rivulets of ink
drawn from fouled blood
across a blank page.

X. Consequence

It is a veritable waterfall of words
Rushing precipitously
Over the mind’s cliff.

Someone in a barrel
Has decided to risk his neck,
No mere stunt,
But a last hare-brained attempt
To get to the bottom of things.

No one has seen anything of him since.
Perhaps, like Orpheus,
As least the head
Is floating downstream
In the swift current,
Singing still
Of what it felt.

Maxine Cassin
From her book Against the Clock
Portals Press, 2003

Used with permission of the poet’s estate and Portals Press

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