It was a curious sight.
Three of the wingless creatures known as humans stood in a row. Each of them straddled a skinny two-wheeled thing with one large wheel in front and a smaller one behind. Planting their feet under them, the men shoved themselves forward with great thrusts of their legs. The wheels hummed like honeybees.
Directly in their path sat a young man, his head cradled in his arms. I wondered if he was in pain. He looked up as the travelers zipped up to him and stopped just short of his face. They called out to him in the harshest of voices:
Never was there a young man so encrusted with conceit!
Back to the apothecary shop, Mr. John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes!
Then, perfectly in time, they each lifted a leg like a dog and released a spray of liquid that splashed onto the face and chest of the young man. The deed done, they galloped off on their wheeled mounts.
Adding to the strangeness, all this was happening in midair, in the deepening dusk, in the middle of a great city, high above a broad flight of worn grey stairs and a vast nest of stone buildings and fountains.
A young woman, clothed in the color of leaves, flickered up to the dripping young man and perched near him. Her face was long and smooth, and her mouth was the red of berries.
As I’ve said before, I wish to be appreciated for more than mere beauty. I have never loved nor never will love you, John.
She turned and walked off on the arm of a tall man in a red jacket and a high black cap.
A dried-up old man in breeches and half boots glided into sight, seated at a great desk and patting a bag that overflowed with a shiny metal. He pointed his nose, sharp and protruding like the beak of a raven, toward the young man.
You again? It was almost more than I could bear, trying to usher the wayward Keats brood into lives as responsible adults. After your parents left you with nothing but their weakness for sins of the flesh and of the bottle.
I am not here to listen to your insults, the young man replied.
Then I suppose you have come again to ask for money. But it’s a bit too late for that now, don’t you think? Do I need to remind you of your boast, “I mean to rely upon my abilities as a poet”?
He extended a long arm, plunged a claw into the young man’s chest, and tore out his heart. He dropped it to the floor, where it fluttered like the wings of a wounded sparrow.
With a dry chuckle, Raven man turned his attention back to the columns of figures on the parchment before him.
Somewhere inside me, in the place where songs are born, I knew I needed to stay with this young man and keep him company.
But why? What could I offer him?
We are simple birds.
We sing. We eat. We sleep.
We sing of summer in full-throated ease and are no strangers to ecstasy. When it is time, we depart from this earth with no care or concern for what comes next.
True, I had met him once or twice before. For several hours early one morning, I trilled my songs high in the boughs of my plum tree while he—quite alive then—lounged in a chair below, glancing up every now and then. I could tell he was listening closely, and I added some special, joyful notes. It wasn’t long before his hand sprang to life and began to fill up some white squares with long trails of those things they call words.
There might have been one brief, earlier encounter as well.
But that was all.
When I am near him now, I feel a strange tug—as if I owe him something. Something feels incomplete, like at the start of nest-building season, but what could it be?
The young man was hunched over again. I darted up to him, intending to demand, What do I owe you?
But no song sprang forth. Several times I tried—nothing. Not a whistle, trill, warble, buzz. I was silent.
Yet somehow he realized I was there, for he glanced up at me. I will never forget the look in his eyes.
He was in pain. More than pain. The young man was in peril.
Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced. All my life and death remain a mystery but for one certainty.
In every dream that I cherished, I failed.
No epic poem to number me among the English poets. No great love that bottled up its fiery beginnings, then mellowed over a lifetime like a fine vintage. No wise insights that could offer light and hope to the lives of men and women.
My one success was an intimate acquaintance with pain—physical and mental anguish. In all else, I fell short.
In truth, I have only myself to blame. I vowed early on that I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.
The last few months of my life, as I languished in a fevered dream in Rome, felt like a posthumous existence. But what was then a simile has become my new reality. Where is the mood, the tense, the syntax to capture this?
Wafting above the Spanish Steps like a hot-air balloon, I have stalled over an open area. Could this be some sort of way station? Beneath me my life unravels, scattered like a pack of cards.
What bashful and curious spirit is this that gleams in the dusk beside me? As small as a tumbler, as wayward as a firefly, it flits here and there but never quite leaves my side.
Do you know who I am? Or was? Or hoped to be? I ask.
It flutters before me as if listening.
I was a poet.