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PN Review 276
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This poem is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

The Ghost Orchids of Berdun Robert Minhinnick

    Ace of diamonds
    three of clubs.
The lorry drivers put down their cards
and swing into their cabs
where the rosaries wait, the photographs
of women with orchids in their hair.

The previous day I had come to a village
where henbane stood in its sackcloth.

On the wall of the tavern were one hammer and one scythe.
On the wall outside was an iron hook.

I had started drinking at dawn
but always the brandy looked down at me
while I never looked down at the brandy glass.
The wound in the barrel
was bleeding black light.

I had walked in the pass
with my book and compass
and without raising my eyes I knew they were there:
the vultures on their rampart.
And what I was to them the grass was to me.
Our eyes had discovered something growing out of the earth.

That day, I had come up from Berdun
with my carton of wine and bread sliced into napkins.
It was a lorry drivers' halt under the pines,
a tap there, a table, a coil of rope, a tarpaulin, a bucket of tar,
and I sat under the pines and made a spout for the wine
and there were others there. Waiting for me. In the pine dust
and needles, those others, waiting in that dust
the pines were shrugging like ghosts out of themselves.

What are you? I asked.
What makes the you in you?
    And I stared.
These ghosts that had given birth to ghosts were the daughters of ghosts.
    I stared.
At three moons in their orbits stilled at my foot.
    I stared.
At three sisters who were dancing barefoot
and the pine needles did not pierce them.
    I listened.
Three ropes were pulled taut in the earth's belfry.
    I listened.
Meanwhile, three messengers had arrived
carrying the golden saddlebags of language.
    I saw.
Three effigies of myself in salt and iron under the pines.
    I heard.
Three strangers reciting backwards my biography.
    I looked.
Into three microscopes that had fixed themselves
    on the one cell of this world.

Maybe three moths, I thought,
in my dungeon of daylight.

Or the plasma that a centrifruge
had beaten from my blood.

Under the earth
the ghost orchids sleep on mirrors.
Their bandoleras are thrown about them,
their horses laden with bread and bullets
and apricots' shrunken meat.

Every year
the ghost orchids
are a revolution
in this manilla dust.

I had started walking at dawn,
and always the vultures looked down at me
while I never looked at the vultures.
I was the traveller in the pass below the snow.

Now here I knelt
at a calculus of orchids under the trees.
But theirs was a closed system,
and these were initiates
deep in their doctrine.

With my ear to the earth I listened to their chant.
With my eye to the earth I saw their energy was blue.
It vectored in their veils.

What are you? I asked again.
I had seen orchids with faces
like cadillacs and pterodactyls,

orchids slow and greenhaired
as sloths, and indistinguishable
from the mosses where they clung.

The lorry drivers threw down their cards
on the floor of pine needles;

they ate the bread, they took the wine,
they darkened their necks under the tap.

Stretching like lurchers
they climbed into the cabs.
How steep the road was ahead
through the empty villages
past the tavern doors where old men used to sit.
And how soon there was nothing left of them
but the dew of their diesel.

What could I do?
I was the only witness.
The one survivor left among the pines.

It was I who stuffed the oilsoaked rags
into the mouths of the ghost orchids:
I who poured the tar
into their transparency.
It was I who hid their graves away
under the tarpaulin.

But it is no use.
There's not a drop of the green world in them.
They root like plutonium
    in the bone,
their seeds are chariots racing around Troy,
    in their minds are more multitudes
    than Microsoft

Traveller, I can tell you
there is nothing like the orchid's spur
to slash through this world's skin.
And choose for yourself the orchid's eye
to see into the soul.

I stand in the clearing of the pines
where the bodies have come out of the ground.
The corpses point their fingers at the firing squad.
The ghost orchids
                         the ghost
have returned
as every year they must return.

Under the pines
I learn the grief of ghost orchids.
What can I say that our conspiracy permits?
My genes are only a poker hand:
ace of diamonds
three of clubs.
What I make of myself
I make

as the lorry drivers throw down their cards

as a man approaches the snow line

as the wound in the barrel bleeds

as the lorries climb

as the vultures look

as a man puts three wafers of snow to his lips

as every year at this time
in the clearing under the pines
the ghost orchids
the ghost orchids
wait with shovels beside their own graves.

This poem is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
Further Reading: - Robert Minhinnick More Poems by... (33) Interview with... (1) Reviews of... (5) Translations by... (2)
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