Adult Joy

by Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

The slender vessel used for weddings
was also used for funerals.
Loutrophoros. Handles curled
like rams' horns, and beneath some rigid frills,
the ghost-bride greets the master
of the underworld. Are terra-cotta
slaves running around with stylized
gestures on the back of the vase?
Nothing is obvious but that the bride
is confused. What was to be joy
is not continuing. Jagged
lightning designs. Death
greets her like a senator.
I sat last night in a cheap cafe
leaning on the dignity of a small table.
Worn carpet with an eighteenth century
pattern. And all around the room,
bent over silver paperbacks, eating
and being filled, others
like myself, one writing a treatise
on a napkin.. . How
did this sudden joy come in?
Joy by subtraction,
joy in the dim human realm.
I thought of Wordsworth's
formal joy fading in fourteen
lines commending him to death
or Herbert's childlike adjunct
to renunciation... No, it was
the little adult joy
he'd raised in me, pure, like the tube
of space-time after an accident:
the worst has already happened!
I fattened the book; the plate
of splendid vegetables arrived,
healthy food for the readers
of Berkeley whose faces glow
but not perfectly... The owner
slouched behind the counter,
selling his jars of night.
And under a grate on Center,
an iron ladder greeted the revised hell
where the pool shimmered, filled
the space that would transform
the wedding. The death
bride adjusts her tiara.. . Freud
walks to the desk; his favorite
statue, bronze Athena,
has lost her spear. We grow up.
Joy becomes the missing event,
what reaches us unknown
without wisdom. Joy is the spear.

Bright Existence

Last updated December 17, 2022