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Ernest Hilbert


Appeared as conqueror flanked by spirits
Drawing light down Avenue of the Americas —

Tomb of harpies, Theseus emerging
From shadow dust of urinal

With cocaine haloed under his nose,
Hailing barmaid for more cold vodka

To blank sight of abandonment
And smoke going up from shelled villages

When Persians encircled his surrendering men
Outside Kraków, machine-gunned his officers,

When T-34s slipped down streets on ice
Over the steaming mass of bodies

Collected like sacks of manure in dead wind
[Item temporarily removed for cleaning]

Lost twenty-four ranking generals to the enemy
So were issued with cyanide capsules,

Only ever used them to avoid capture
By their own spies —

Ephesus, Stalingrad, target of pilgrimage,
Minotaur in NorthFace puff jacket

Surveying the gate, dealing pills
And hosting an escort service on the side,

With satyrs reveling on psykter and molding,
Procession of horse soldiers in black herding shoppers —

Clever Helen, horny even in dotage, stirring
Pernod and Pelegrino in a calyx-krater

Decorated with Herakles and Apollo hugging
For death over the Delphic Tripod —

In his last pillowed moments in Chelsea, Turner panted
"God . . . is . . . light," sea-goddess

Painted over by the time German heavy artillery
Pounded its siege forward,

As Satan dragged unwilling damned
Into war with heaven, Nereids windblown

Now headless above podium frieze,
Blockade by sea and cavalry on the plain:

The leading horseman glances over his shoulder
Like a Panzer commander across the steppes —

"All my goddesses are wingèd, my warriors naked."
Two miniature men carved in whale's bone,

Seated under arches, one with nimbus,
The other leaning aside as if just comprehending

What he has been told, about to weep
Or turn away completely into his enemy's shadow.

—On seeing in Paris La main de Dieu, The Hand of God, by Auguste Rodin, 1896, marble carved by Soudbinine in 1902, 94 x 82,5 x 54,9 cm


Unstemmed, drain of rivers with light granted,
Even if quickened, by a pace to extinction:
Bright core and throw of ocean,
Lions choked dead by smog in plaster caves at London Zoo —

Mayakovsky, so impressed by harnessed electricity,
Was afraid he would grow bored with nature.
A poet forced pieces of cardboard into his shoes
And strolled in drizzle to diner as rain echoed

Down an avenue, surveyed steam fracture over coffee.
Leaving once his sweltering summer interiors, Charles I
Visited Van Dyck by barge, and Reynolds raised obelisks
Outside his house. "Do you mind if I smoke? Of course not."

And of the blonde countess whose estate stranded him
In prism of leaves spindling through light on palace lawn,
That they once advanced the gravel towpath of the Isis
Watching the stony chasm of English sunset

Over ice-soaked meadow, past the empty boathouse, lit
Cigarettes as one or another hummed Wagner; that she
Now floats dreaming with turtles off an Aegean isle
With no phone or e-mail; what of it —

Fearing that dawn would otherwise fail the world,
She arrived in the wet breeze as Concert Master,
Rachmaninov that morning, and the announcer remarked
That she also raced wolves on her Westchester compound.

When introduced, she commented
"I think I've already slept with you," turned away
To kiss the Swedish cultural attaché on three cheeks.
Seizing a red wine from the garnished table beneath the Picasso,

Sidonius climbed the fire escape to the roof in Brooklyn
As Manhattan brightened into dusk, toasted:
"Orbis Roma tui." When a soldier returned from
The wars, only one woman sobbed openly in the dusty square.

Nasser called his monstrous Soviet damn at Aswan
"A pyramid for the people"
: He remembered
Her, a girl, reading alone at the tangled crown
Of an apple tree swayed to valley wind—

"Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone."
Some wept seeing stars, lights falling in a TV Studio,
Hushed imagining death had been made
Merely tumult. A black-skirted waitress

Leaned over with pitcher, an inverted silver cross
Aimed between her breasts. He drank coffee until rain
Let up over the park, curtains blowing in and apart.
He dreamed of a flood, a darkened café.

He never completed
A poem once begun, up through
The night type-setting obituaries. He imagined himself
A French officer on the eve of the Marne,

Reassured himself of his waitress: "She has
The magnificent blonde plaits, the pale skin,
And O the full strong thighs of
The conquering daughters of Germania."

—On Anthony van Dyck's Andromeda Chained to the Rock, 1637-1638


Raised villa and sculpture against groaning sky
To recoil with sentries from his own senate,
Emperor exiled before ravenous sea —
Roaming through Imperial baths, loggia, terrace to ambulatio;

Gnomon etching pin of shadow toward coast;
Cloudburst enclosed ruins still
When Mussolini sent his podestà
And cyclamen was gathered only for hotel tables;

As Seneca on the elderly Hannibal:
"Happy to side with any at war with Rome" —
Journeyed as a boy to the city and arraigned as accessory
In orgies with the daughter of Germanicus;

Or to endure with a father in the tomb this day,
Brooklyn spreads to crater and stir of sprained distance,
Astoria, many clamors immersed
Into a single barrage of truck and scream of rail;

Imperiled republic lunged far to winds —
Cloven and disrobed to slump seductively
On future torrent and span, shudder
Merged to seedtime and silence;

All is now rendered, terrible frames assembled,
Martyr yoked to mule,
Queen dragged in dog cart, peasants' spit
Dangling from her torn hair;

Bone and cinder then intermingled
And skirmish thronged to urn, measured and gold —
Mist arrived and snuffed pyres,
Exalted beneath rolling of enemy hooves and tires;

Leapt into order and sunk in cultish repetition —
What to defend against such noise and warfare,
Bronze doors obese with casting and dent,
A year brought Passchendaele, the Winter Palace, Sur-réalisme;

The most beautiful not always the most useless —
Devoured a whole gram of cocaine to qualm
And laid on divan hearing Lament of the Nymph
Youth granted apart to adoration and study of horses;

No sleep triumphed over that shiver and sugared clatter,
So a young poet, her hair tressed over tattoos,
Ignited syrupy heroin into his ankle
And read to him until he slept;

Afterward, he devised an opium den in his seaward room,
Tacky imitation of a Roman nymphaeum,
But little more than a chamber where his wife
Filmed pornos she sold in shops on the continent;

Hoard of Roman military equipment clanked up from
Crop by a clogmaker's son; Eurytus lays bow
And arrow-tip on bar, drops his head after twelve shots of gin.
Not his Nereids, nor any, may wake him now.

—On Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, 1425-1452


Warlord Pineapple, most intimidating of fruits,
You squat magnificently on the counter
Like a Russian tank or sea mine,
Stiff as a legionnaire and twice as rugged,
A warrior with spiked headdress and barbed plates of armor,
I sing your glory and your feats, enormous grenade,
Though your warlike bearing hardly deters us,
We of the sharpened blades and empty bowls.

You campaigned from balmy fields of the equator
To distant New York, and there you hunkered in rank
With others at the corner grocer's awaiting orders,
When at once you were overpowered and brought back
To this apartment. To think this could happen to so celebrated
A gladiator, placed on the block and sold to an artist
As model for a still life, but you proved to be
So much greater than that cramped genre could contain,

Like David's Napoleon rearing back on the proud
White charger, his cherry cape billowing in the martial wind,
And you remain there dominating the still life
Like a Hector or Beowulf beneath steel sheath
And great helm, golden greaves and gilt breastplate,
Like a medieval club bouncer, arms folded,
Watching the pretty soft fruits dance and flirt
On the other side of the table; you brood in your rough casing,

Your gaze harsh as brass, dense as lead, as though jealous
And far from home you wished only hurt upon
The natives of this place, this city. Little did you know
That they too, the nectarines, grapefruit, even the apples
Came from lost homes in the sun and look upon you
As a menace, an invader, a great bunker of solitude
Blocking light from the kitchen window, thug and mugger,
Driver of Dragon Ships, silent jungle gunman, NFL linebacker —;

Tropical Zhukov, you make your Stalin smile,
And you rest knowing you could mush the
Bitchy strawberries into pulp just by rolling
Over on them in your sleep; you make the guavas tense;
The grapes cower behind the rim of their bowl,
And even the coconut, your one-time ally,
Keeps his eyes facing the wall, for fear
You might call on his assistance to retrieve your Gaza —

Secretly penning De Bello Fructo when no one was looking,
The cookbooks your von Clauswitz, the table's edge
Your barbarian frontier, the bananas your Vercingetorix —
They would lay their peels at your feet in tribute —
You imagined yourself a Caesar gazing over the battlements
Of your northern fortress; how long you plotted your advance,
Sweet Charlemagne, juicy Attila, succulent Richard Coeur de Lion,
How long you dreamed of the whole table, no,

The whole kitchen as yours alone (for you knew of nothing
Beyond that room but your own home), a realm over which
You would rule, levying taxes, waging war, erecting towers
And digging roads, but then you heard the fateful words
Of your assassins from another room, "some pineapple
Might be nice for desert. Are you done painting it?"
Seized from your chamber, Archbishop, King Henry's
Knights have come for you as you kneel praying;

They corner you with their stainless steel.
Who would have known that you had the heart
Of a poet or angel beneath the armor you spent
Your whole life building up? Who could have known
That you weren't so spiny straight through if they
Hadn't murdered many of your kind before to
Find the blond flesh and sweet chunks of that heart?
There you fell, wounded and rolling over

Trying to escape the cutting board,
You, pierced, hewn and gored before your enemies,
Those against whom you hoped to wage war,
The smug melons, pears, and haughty oranges,
The Triple Entente; they thought they could take you,
Wilhelm, but now your juice glistens like blood of sunlight
In the shadows of the formica counter,
The brutal final throes on your Senate steps.


I balanced on my tall stool in the crowded
Mahogany light of Astor Bar, squinting
At Carlo di Braccesco's Annunciation
With Saints.
Brian, smiling and half-silhouetted
Before a bright glow of backlit bottles,

My friend and coconspirator — a cheerful variation of
Manet's Bar des Folies-Bergères — bounced
Over to take my empty glass and glanced
Down, "what's that?" He spun the book around
And flipped the pages briskly, as if refreshed,

"Now that's good," tapping his paint-cuticled
Fingernail down on Hans Baldun Grien's
The Knight, The Young Girl, and Death. "Yes," I answered,
The picture inverted from my view as
If reflected in water, with the too-blue

Sky poured down to the bottom. I told him,
"That's what the sky used to look like when we
Sat out drinking beers in front of your old
Gallery," Blue, down on Lafayette Street,
Watching the clouds break up in the early

Evening behind the World Trade Center,
Watching the models float out and away
From the agency next door as if we weren't there,
The pigeons wafting in squadrons from dumpsters
To disappear over rooftops; at the end of

The block, the giant Absolut Vodka billboard
Smeared itself up five stories above Corner Deli,
Where junkies dozed out in the late sunlight
Of Petrocino Square. I spun the book back
Around, lit a cigarette, sipped at the free

Gin and tonic he fixed for me. We both
Knew that no sky ever actually looked
Like Grien's, that it just couldn't really
Ever have been so blue, but, as ever,
Then as before, we were too alive to care.


Ernest Hilbert’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in American Writing, The Boston Review, The Cortland Review, LIT, Pleiades, The American Scholar, Fence, and Slope. He is the Director of the Literature Division at, and on the staff of The Contemporary Poetry Review. He is an editor for Random House’s online literary magazine Bold Type. The first issue of Posterband was devoted to his poems and recordings. He is also the North American liaison of the Parisian literary magazine of Upstairs at Duroc.

Hilbert received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master’s Degree in Research Methods in English Literature and founded the Oxford Quarterly. He also worked as a contributing editor for Long Shot magazine, founded in 1982 by Danny Shot and Eliot Katz in part with money donated by Allen Ginsberg. He lives in New York City.

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