Conrad in the Underworld



Following yesterday, here is Book 31 from To the House of the Sun, and my version of the Underworld journey.

In Books 29 and 30, Conrad has spent the winter of 1865 communing with the ghosts of the Donner Party at Donner Lake; but upon seeing his starved body suddenly rejuvenating, they flee, and he begins to sink through the earth. The poem began with Conrad mourning the death of his wife Emily, and here is his meeting with her in the Underworld.

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& when I dropped through a ceiling of earth, I landed on ground I couldn’t go through—ground next to a gravestone—& the name on it, was Emily’s—& the ground before it was all disturbed, as if she’d dug herself up & run away—
& there she was in the distance,
earth & mud still clinging to her:

& I began to run after her when a tiny man, no more than a shadow covered in mud, came to me: & he pulled a small jar from his long coat:

“I won’t ask how you came here,
    such a far road:
I won’t ask how you got here,
    to be in my presence:
I won’t ask how you crossed
    the seas & the underground.
Rather, rub this on you:
    you smell like you’re alive—
it has to be as if you’re dead:”

& I thanked him—& sick as it made me, I rubbed it on my arms & face & legs & feet: & as I did this, he messed up my clothes & took my shoes & muttered

“Don’t dress in a clean garment down here—
        they’ll know you’re alive:
    don’t wear shoes on your feet—
        you’ve already shaken the ground
        with your walking:
    & don’t—though I know this is impossible—
        kiss the wife you loved:
        don’t kiss the wife you loved,
        because you can’t & won’t:”

& I passed a group of muddy spirits holding another’s body down: & the restrained man screamed “I’m thirsty! I’m thirsty!” & the men around turned to speak with mouthless faces:

“His family doesn’t know he’s dead:
    his family hasn’t buried him:
there’s no grave with food or drink for him—
& bones that haven’t found rest
    can never cross the waters peacefully:
& bones that have no tomb
    have to go this horrid way—
& he doesn’t want to be dead:”

& I watched them hold the newly dead man down:
& they made him repeat the parts of his own body:
& they made him repeat the names of his own bones:
& they made him admit to his horror
that he could see all the organs of his own body
through his skin, until he spoke the final words—
& his body slumped: & as it sank, a spirit rose in its place—& just as it began to look around, two birds came at him & took his arms in their claws & led him off elsewhere: & I followed them, & found a good trail covered in recent footprints & bordered by the blackest yew trees—

but the birds & the reluctant spirit flew ahead & away, as I came to a crowd that surrounded a narrow bridge. Two men guarded it, & inspected each person before let-ting them pass: & as I waited, I got to hear the impatient muttering of the dead: & I gathered that everyone had a gift of some kind: I gathered everyone had a piece of cake, or a bottle they had to give the men as they passed—& they were annoyed, to give away what their family & friends had left for them above:

& when they came to me, they saw my hands were empty—
but they saw too I wasn’t scared:
& they were clueless, surrounded by so many dead gifts:
& I finally had to tell them I wasn’t dead—& instead of standing back or becoming angry, one of them said “If I am to tell you the way things are ordered here, you will weep—sit you down and weep!”

“Then let me sit down and weep” I said: & at this, they & all the rest came with their noses & smelled at me: & at first they only found the deadness I’d covered myself with—but when they came to a scent that was alive, they backed away:
& they saw that I cast my shadow:
& they saw that I moved what I touched:
& they were amazed,
& they muttered that
    I was one who still ate & drank
        & put on clothes:
& I was still one
    with the body I’d always had—
& forgetful of their sorrow,
    they stared at me, & wondered:
& it was only when they marveled
that I could open & closed my eyes,
that I saw they never blinked:
& I finally told them my wife had gone ahead: & I said she had died.
    “Well what would you have her do:
        you can’t bring her back to life—
    why are you here:
        why have you gone away
    from where you belong:
        how could your heart take you here?”
& I said I wasn’t sure: I said I hadn’t asked to come here: & I said couldn’t I at least spend some time with her? & this seemed to touch them somehow: & they let me by:

& I crossed the bridge & began running: & I passed so many dead who were annoyed at my energy: I passed so many languid dead who hadn’t heard I was alive, & they sneered & even yelled that the dead have no reason to run, being dead:

& I finally saw a dark body of water: & when I got to its shore, she was suddenly at my side—& along with so many other soft voices whispering at that shore: & along with the hideous tangling weeds & the ooze of that swamp, she said “I’m nothing now. How can you get my body back? You can’t.” & I reached for her hand but it fell away at my touch—& as a dark light passed, I saw how ruined her body had become: & she saw I was sad to see this, & said

“You can come with me on the boat:
    you at least smell like you’re dead—
but you won’t be able to stay.”

& we passed over to the other side: & there were more crowds of dead there, all on another narrow bridge: & huge birds swooped down & frightened them, & made them fall over the side to the water—& those that fell became fish in that sea:

& we came to three more guards:
    & the first said to the second:
“This one here isn’t really dead:”
    & the second said to the third:
“He smells like it but he isn’t really dead:”
    & the third went to the first:
“If he were dead he wouldn’t look around:
    but this one looks around—
he isn’t dead:
    he hasn’t seen his final evening.”
& the first looked at Emily:
    “Who was it fetched this fellow?”
& the second looked at Emily:
    “Who was it brought this fellow here?”
& the third looked at Emily:
    “Do you want him here?”
“Let him in for a time:
    he knows he can’t stay:”
but one of them glanced up—& one of the birds suddenly came down at me—& I lifted my arm—& it halted & did a quick circle round me & settled there, on my arm—& they didn’t know what to make of this: & the one who’d nodded gestured again: & the bird flew off:

& in time we came to another man who said to me
    “Your wife’s body is dead in the ground:
        her bones are only bones now:
    her soul is here for now,
        & it can’t return with you:”
& I told him I understood: & I said I didn’t want to bring her back, but that I would leave the next day, if they would show me how: & I only wanted an evening with her:

& I watched her & many there
    dig their hands into the ground:
& I watched her & many there
    bring up handfuls of clay & soil,
& have this for their only food:
& when they were done
    they all donned coats of feathers:
they all put on the coats of birds:

& they began to dance, just as if they were alive:
& the dead all formed so many circles:
& at first they only danced around a pale blue flame,
but then one spirit broke each circle
    & stood in the middle
as the rest danced around it—
    & as before,
Emily was in the middle of her circle:

& not being dead, I could only watch from the side:
& so many of the dead there danced round my Emily:
& she took the first place, & led them:
& for all their decay
& the dimness of that world
& the way they had to dance so slow with their rotted limbs,
there was real joy.
& the dead soul beside me was proud too
at all the dead movement:
“Look at your wife.
Tomorrow you will see no one:”

& that night I slept beside her: & we had time to talk of all that had happened since she died—but she only nodded & whispered I know: I was there. & I wanted to touch her & hold her body, but it was still falling apart:
& we could only stare like our first night.
& I wanted to tell her something before we slept:
I wanted to keep telling her things before we slept:
I wanted to say so many things before we slept:
& before we slept I only wanted to hear her voice say anything, anything at all—but sleep came quickly, & I only woke the next morning:

& where she’d been, I found a new tree growing: & two birds sat on its branches—& one of them told the other “He smells like he’s dead but he isn’t: the smell of the living is worse & won’t go away:”

& the little man in the long coat was there: “You see? Nothing’s perfect—but my jar worked well enough. They were all amazed at how unafraid you were.” & we walked through the empty world: & all was bare but for mounds of mud & earth, thrown dark against the weird light of that odd horizon:

& we finally came to a third bridge: & the small man stopped with me in the middle: & far down below us, black water flowed: & far in the distance, some dim grey sun rose to light this decent place silver & ash—& the wind there was like the wind anywhere:
& the small man finally said
“I can’t go near that door with you:
I can’t go through that door with you.”

& I saw a door at the end of the bridge, at the top of three dirt steps: & I suddenly said “Wait: my wife: she died years ago—what was she doing with people who’ve only died just now?” “Would you be afraid if I told you that wasn’t your wife at all?” “No.” “That wasn’t your wife at all: we did the best we could to cobble together a body to trick you: to sicken you—we did our best to imitate her voice: we did our best to find memories in your heart to give her—did you notice you slept so quickly?
You are not allowed to love a spirit:
    we cannot allow the embrace of bones:
you are forbidden to kiss a skull—
there can be no coupling with a skeleton:
& we couldn’t keep up: we could make her speak & remember, but you believed in her so much—& you loved her, despite how rotted she was: & we thought for sure you would shun her, for no longer being beautiful, your wasted wife combing her grave hair with a cactus brush—
but at your great love
    our great labor became small—
our great labor
    spilled away like water—
    & you ate our food
        & you drank our water—
how could you eat the food
    that had gone bad:
how could you drink the water
    that had gone bad—”
“I only wanted to be with her” I said: “I only said
Food that is not food,
    let me eat with her:
water that is not water,
    let me drink with her—”
“& yes, we just can’t make anything like that affection: & we dead have a pleasure peculiar to you: we don’t want to do things & we don’t want to feel—enough has been felt: enough done:
    go & find her somewhere else:
        she’s not here:
    she was never here:
        I’ve never seen her:
    the boat that carried her away
        was not one of ours—
    her smoke went up
        to the heavens:”

& I walked to the door but it wouldn’t open:
& I turned back & the small man was gone:
& the bridge was gone:
& there were only the three muddy steps
& an awful drop to that black water:

& suddenly I was terrified: & so I said these words:

“My dear Emily: the door of truth is covered by a golden disc: my Emily, open it—my nourisher, remove it so I can come to you: remove it so I can worship you & see you:

oh my nourisher: oh my Emily:
    oh lone traveler of the sky:
oh bright sun my Emily
    who brings me closer to the God I know:
oh house of the sun my God,
    open this door
so I can worship her & come to you:

oh my Emily: my dear:
    my dear Emily, you are not dead:
you are the sun, & our God is the house of the sun:

oh my Emily: my dear:
    my dear Emily, you are not dead:
& so remember all we’ve done, since you died:
remember all we did, before we were born:
remember all we did
    when we were blessed to be alive together:
remember our past & our bodies
    & the God who graced us with this:

oh my Emily my sun:
    & oh my God the house of my sun,
oh the sun of my eyes,
lead me by the good path
towards the enjoyment of you:
lead me away
from the deceit of death & the lie of dying,
& open this door:”