Her voice dragged me in, this old crone
who sat in her chair rigid like a schoolgirl.
It beat against the wisteria tendrilled heat
and the cloistered darkness where we sat,
my aunt and I, me home from school to the barren
bower of her past, where jilted desires hung unspoken,
an endlessly fingered bridal dress of twisted longing.
And beyond the close suffocating gloom
a bird against the curtained window pane,
incessant in its blind activity.
Miss Coldfield, aunt by connection not blood,
pale against the backdrop of my nightmares,
dead in all but memory, droning on and on.
I should go, I must go, I wanted to say
to the encroaching darkness of sundown
where the long shadow of Colonel Sutpen
loomed over child, slave, woman, mongrel.
West Virginia is no Bethlehem to give rise
to a king with palace and servants and land
burdened with heirs and thrones falling to decay.
But Sutpen fathered Absalom, no two Absaloms,
and the dynasty tottered among the swampy weeds
of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
Tottered into my past through my father who knew
Colonel Sutpen when he wed Miss Coldfield’s sister.
I see her wan outraged face, her voice condensing now
into a cold, blank hatred for the man, widowed,
heirless, coming to propose, not on bended knee,
but with a contract dependent on her fecundity.
The helpless voice of thwarted love spinning on and on,
not for incest, or blood shed, or cruelty and deceit,
murder avenged, but for the Coldfield honor
dragged through the dust of the Jefferson streets.
And all long in the ground, the Coldfields & Sutpens,
their last blood mingled in a half-sentient child-man
howling in the burnt out embers of a ruined house.
“So?” Shreve cried. “You’re not them!” No, I said, turning,
I’m Quentin Compson. I’m not Rosa or Judith or Henry
or Charles Bon or any of them
But the half-buried warped root of the past,
its voice, her voice.
To let the dead bury the dead
is to believe the paradox that life triumphs somehow,
that the bird fluttering against the window is known,
that history and fate though tied are not blind,
and all is not lost, not even Absalom, but can be
yes, can be redeemed.
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) on which the poem is based is a masterpiece of literary fiction, chock-full of Biblical allusions though shaded by the author’s nihilism. But like any good story, there is much truth to be gleaned of ourselves, of life, of experience, along with a taste of the genius of words employed however idiosyncratically but with just that quality of thought and precision that makes characters and events thrive richly in the imagination.