African American Poetry (1870-1927): A Digital Anthology

Claude McKay, "Desolate" (1927)

DESOLATE

MY SPIRIT is a pestilential city,
With misery triumphant everywhere,
Glutted with baffled hopes and lost to pity;
Strange agonies make quiet lodgment there.
Its bursting sewers ooze up from below,
And spread their loathsome substance through its lanes,
Flooding all areas with their evil flow,
And blocking all the motion of its veins.
Its life is sealed to love or hope or pity;
My spirit is a pestilential city.

Above its walls the air is heavy-wet,
Brooding in fever mood and hanging thick
Round empty tower and broken minaret,
Settling upon the tree-tops stricken sick
And withered in its dank contagious breath;
Their leaves are shrivelled silver, parched decay,
Like wilting creepers trailing underneath
The chalky yellow of a tropic way.
Round crumbling tower and leaning minaret,
The air hangs fever-filled and heavy-wet.

And all its many fountains no more spurt;
Within the dammed-up tubes they tide and foam
Around the drifting sludge and silted dirt,
And weep against the soft and liquid loam,
And so the city's ways are washed no more;
All is neglected and decayed within.
Clean waters beat against its high-walled shore
In furious force, but cannot enter in.
The suffocated fountains cannot spurt;
They foam and weep against the silted dirt.

Beneath the ebon gloom of mounting rocks
The little pools lie poisonously still.
And birds come to the edge in forlorn flocks,
And utter sudden plaintive notes and shrill,
Pecking at fatty grey-green substances;
But never do they dip their bills and drink.
They twitter sad, beneath the mournful trees,
And fretfully flit to and from the brink,
In little dull brown, green-and-purple flocks,
Beneath the jet-gloom of the mounting rocks.

And green-eyed moths of curious design,
With gold-black wings and brightly silver-dotted,
On nests of flowers among those rocks recline
Bold, burning blossoms, strangely leopard-spotted,
But breathing deadly poison at the lips.
Oh, every lovely moth that wanders by,
And on the blossoms fatal nectar sips,
Is doomed in drooping stupor there to die
All green-eyed moths of curious design
That on the fiercely-burning rocks recline.

Oh cold as death is all the loveliness
That breathes out of the strangeness of the scene,
And sickening like a skeleton's caress,
With clammy clinging fingers, long and lean.
Above it float a host of yellow flies,
Circling in changeless motion in their place,
Snow-thick and mucid in the drooping skies,
Swarming across the glassy floor of space.
Oh cold as death is all the loveliness
And sickening like a skeleton's caress.

There was a time when, happy with the birds,
The little children clapped their hands and laughed;
And midst the clouds the glad winds heard their words,
And blew down all the merry ways to waft
Their music to the scented fields of flowers.
Oh sweet were children's voices in those days,
Before the fall of pestilential showers,
That drove them forth from all the city's ways.
Now never, never more their silver words
Will mingle with the golden of the birds.

Gone, gone forever the familiar forms
To which my spirit once so dearly clung,
Blown worlds beyond by the destroying storms,
And lost away like lovely songs unsung.
Yet life still lingers, questioningly strange,
Timid and quivering, naked and alone,
Biding the cycle of disruptive change,
Though all the fond familiar forms are gone
Forever gone, the fond familiar forms,
Blown worlds beyond by the destroying storms.

Published in Caroling Dusk1927