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"Dying Scarlet"

"I have had a great deal of pleasant time with Rice lately, and am getting initiated into a little band-they call drinking deep dying scarlet."
- Keats to his brothers, January, 1818

John Keats and his circle in their cups
died scarlet. And the poet's life
to its dregs did the same, his linen
bedsheets and nightshirt finely spotted.
The world loves him for drinking so deep
from the few years he had, for those pretty
tipples he took from his days' good wine;
the world honours blood flushed in a pale
brow that bends above the blank pages in candle-
flicker, giving joy, believing. Vitality
is beautiful even coughed on a lace cuff,
o little red cosmos, little red heaven,
that last faint breath exhaled before dust
and the cold grave smothered his youth.

I don't know anything certain about the dead
except they're gone, young Keats and his brothers,
the two women named Fanny he loved, his friends,
the publishers who respected his art, the guardian
who didn't, Shelley with a drowned volume in his
shirt-pocket under Italian stars, gone. A century
of letter-writing, gossip, tuberculosis and poems.
And I don't know where the spirit of any poet goes
if it doesn't die scarlet wherever it can, Keats's
joy in October sunsets over the Adams River, full in
the salmon's scales as they scrabble to spawn before
the air eats to nothing their lace-threaded bones,
Keats's fear in the eyes of the ring-necked pheasant
shot out of its heart in the blue skies of my marshland
home, the long script of its bright death trailing
off into the ditches and rushes. I have heard the music
of his lines gasped from a thousand slack jaws
while the world stood crowded on the riverbanks,
amazed; my hands have touched the spots of his truth
on a thousand downed wings still quivering in frost.
In my wrists live the ghosts of all the words
ever written in his, and his Queen's, English;
they gather in my pulses, drinking life, dying scarlet,
unrestrained in their gaiety and rowdiness, dying
like the salmon and the pheasant and the flushed
eves of fall, dying as a poet dies, face turned
towards what's left of his life, the spatter
of his joy's heaven on his clothes,
the light going out on his page forever, the wax
of the last candle on his nightstand melted down,
as he lies grieving for every second he's lost
of the sun: I don't expect to know the vivid dawn
that finally dissolved the gay circle of Keats,
but if I'm blessed to die scarlet on my native ground,
let the wind dig a grave for my pallid song.