The Prisoner

Matthew Chamberlin

The prisoner behind the door cries softly: I am free
and undulates upon the sands beside a distant sea.

I hasten up the attic stair and fumble at the lock
fall in upon the empty room where sits a quiet clock.

Long seconds pass incredulous — the pendulous design —
the innerworks of brass and spring encased in lustrous pine —

how came it here, whose shameful need to measure out the day
in dying rooms where darkened suns and seasons, shunned, decay?

Beetle-footed, apprehension chitters to me, rolling dung-balls
down the dim-lit halls, a tiny voice extolling

mutely, as I drift — its dark regard attends to farther lands
than I know of, wide ancient wastes of winds and endless sands —

but come to think, did she who came so long ago collect
these things, insisting they were gods — in madness I suspect.

those paroxysmic times aroused demented fantasies
but hers — hers pulsed somehow, her talk of singularities

within each clock. Insanity! Conceive of this: a boll
of seedling worms that swallow time at every hour’s toll!

The holy men who, pillar-braced, expounded on eternal grace
grew dark to hear of gods so near, and so infernal.

Crucifixions failed, though. Vast incurable flocks amassed,
a singing congeries swinging thurible clocks.

All as one they trill the worm-song! Convolving through the halls.
He comes, he comes, they hum, and crack their clocks against the walls.

We prisoned her within these rooms — long years I held the key —
through the floors her susurrations filtered down to me.

The songs she sang so soft and low and ever slowing — from
below my own rough singing rose to join her gentle sough —

And none must ever know! I turn, intent to disappear —
but cannot go, for something pulls my limbs and holds me here.

I shout aloud — but cannot hear — I fling me out the door —
and slam it shut — then look around — the clock stands on the floor.

and wakens, wheels softly ticking! Whereon I gape agog,
as coiled chain-weights shudder, leaping swiftly cog to cog

Visions birthed of meshing teeth commence, of marbled bones
that spill immense from ruined graves beneath a hill of stones.

I grip it up and peevish peer beyond the clouded glass
where through a tiny aperture the stony planets pass.

Vast surfaces wheel into view across the boundless cold
and tumble out of mind once more immeasurably old.

There ships as great as cities wait, aslump in hasty weft
of scaffolding, which crumbles slow into the ashy drift.

What am I witness to, what end? Could in a clock expire
as well as misbegotten hours whole galaxies entire?

Beauty throngs within me! Welling quickly from me spilling
comes my lonely ululation, swelling to a trilling —

I crouch and caper by the stair! Then pluck up wheel and spring
and leaping naked in the air I swallow every thing.

The clock’s cold entrails move through mine as joyfully I jape
then void upon the bloody steps an earthy clicking shape.

With time adrift as blue as babes abandoned on the floe
I belch a noxious gnomon breath to measure ebb and flow.

While this upon the floor, new thing, gives birth to swelling song,
I raise it high for all to see and gambol through the throng,

whose eyeless faces weep in joy as pendulous they sway
I dance above their humming heads and frolic in the fray.

In rhythm to my noisome dance She whistles from the dune
and calms the restless ice-wolves gathered underneath the moon.

MATTHEW CHAMBERLIN teaches at James Madison University in Virginia, where he also writes. He has work forthcoming in Strangelet, Apex and Star*line and a published poem in Mirror Dance.