I found the first few verses on a newspaper clipping in an old wallet. The blurb likened it
to "...[playing] with the idea of death like a child splashing in a bathtub."
It took me twenty years to discover the rest of the poem. Perhaps I should have written it myself, instead of waiting for chance to bring me the missing lines.
If I were an English professor, instead of a hoary old computer scientist, I'd give the opening stanzas to each of my students and demand they write the rest.
Father dead, loved one dead.
Aunt dead, brother born dead.
Cousins dead, friend dead.
Grandfather dead, mother dead
(hands white, portrait on the wall always crooked, speck of dust in the eyes).
Acquaintances dead, teacher dead.
Fiancée dead, girl friends dead.
Engineer dead, passenger dead.
Unrecognized body dead: a man's? an animal's?
Dog dead, bird dead.
Rosebush dead, orange trees dead.
Air dead, bay dead.
Hope, patience, eyes, sleep, movement of hands: dead.
Man dead. Lights go on.
He works at night as if he were living.
Good morning! He is stronger (as if he were living).
Dead without an obituary, secretly dead.
He knows how to imitate hunger, and how to pretend to love.
And how to insist on walking, and how well he walks.
He could walk through walls, but he uses doors.
His pale hand says good-bye to Russia.
Time enters and leaves him endlessly.
The dead pass quickly; they cannot be held on to.
As soon as one leaves, another one is tapping your shoulder.
I woke up and saw the city:
the dead were like machines,
the houses belonged to the dead,
an exhausted chest smelling of lilies,
feet bound up.
I slept and went to the city:
everything was burning,
crackling of bamboo,
mouth dry, suddenly puckering.
I dreamt and returned to the city.
But it wasn't the city anymore.
They were all dead, the medical examiner was checking the tags on the the corpses.
The medical examiner himself had died years ago but his hand continued implacably.
The awful stench was everywhere.
From this veranda without a railing I watch both twilights.
I watch my life running away with a wolf's speed, I want to stop it, but would I be bitten?
I look at my feet, how they have grown, flies circulate among them.
I look at everything and add it up, nothing is left, I am poor, poor, poor,
but I cannot enter the circle,
I cannot remain alone,
I shall kiss everyone on the forehead,
I shall distribute moist flowers,
after . . . There is no after or before.
There is cold on all sides,
and a central cold, whiter still.
Colder still . . .
A whiteness that pays well our old anger and bitterness . . .
Feeling myself so clear among you, kissing you and getting no dust in my mouth or face.
Peace of wispy trees,
of fragile mountains down below, of timid riverbanks, of gestures that can no longer annoy,
sweet peace without eyes, in the dark, in the air.
Sweet peace within me,
within my family that came from a fog unbroken by the sun
and returns to their islands by underground roads,
in my street, in my time—finally—reconciled,
in the city of my birth, in my rented rooms,
in my life, in everyone's life, in the mild and deep death of myself and everyone.