“Four for the Duke” by Charlie Clark

Four for the Duke
“Catholic Campus–Dodge Street” by Elizabeth Leader, collage with found object

1. The Duke’s Letter to His Wife Explaining His Prolonged Stay at the Spring Cottage

Some have to travel a long way to discover
the pleasure of a good deep square of green.
But that sounds too much like wisdom.
The year is young, I’m only partly in the country,
and all I know of grass is what the groundsman tells me.
The last time I put my body down in some, I was drunk.
Quaint, I know, though it may have been why the magic didn’t take.
Or it may have been because of whatever darkness was crawling through the dustbins,
making me sweat two hundred yellow pounds.
It smelled like peppermint schnapps and a sun-burnt slaughterhouse.
You couldn’t have told us apart, there upon the ground.
I say that like I’m proud.
Of all the things to poison myself with
I keep choosing the least effective.


2. Third Draft of the Duke’s Annual Summer Letter to His Mistress

It’s almost easy, love, sitting here while the sky blackens through the bare,
devil-fingered limbs of my courtyard’s sole strange tree, its trunk so narrow
one can grasp it, nearly, like a handle, except for how the bark’s jagged shingles scrape the hand,
the gashes quickly going red and welled along the palm.
Not knowing, I call it the tree of knowledge.
(It’s common knowledge pain eases with a joke, even one so bad.)
I’m sure there’s someone who knows how to suck the poison out
while someone else knows how to enter such a wound and come through the other end improved.
You’re adept at one of these at least.
Each takes a skill beyond my understanding.
Most skills are beyond me
except for how, when my limits bleed like this,
I gather their unspooling contents, and, making a ladle of my hands,
offer up as much as you will drink.


3. The Duke’s Letter About His Last Fall Walk, Its Recipient Uncertain

Stopping last evening at the curve along the creek
where one has a good clear view of the portion of the dilapidated graveyard
whose headstones all have fallen among a rash of still-hanging-on little yellow flowers we called
poppers when I was young,
I saw the long, fist-thick coil of a serpent soaking from one slab the last of the season’s heat.
Stalled there watching, I suddenly recalled the dream in which I wore a jacket made of snakes.
Not just skins, but whole live ones wrapped around me,
tails always rattling to warn others of my approach.
And constant biting. The first would kill while the next one would revive me.
No mercy in it, though their clacking sounded happy, like workmen when they whistle.
Thinking this while watching across the water, just before the light gave out completely,
I saw a rabbit, grazing on the flowers, wander in among the graves.
I thought they had a better nose for these things.
When I shouted it stared in my direction.
It had eyes like a Byzantine Jesus.


4. Winter; the Duke’s Last Letter, Copied in Triplicate

It took distance to realize what I need is distance.
On my walks, I look out at the empty trees
and am satisfied not knowing any of their names,
feeling for them only sorrow.
There are days when even looking at them is too much,
when it’s enough to sit listening to the oscillations of my heart.
I’d say you should hear the range of it,
the way it seems sometimes it should tear
from all the blood it’s taking in,
but that would require you placing your head against my chest,
and, separating your pulse from mine,
listening as best you can.
Even then you might not hear the thing I mean.
Please think of me when you see shadows.



Charlie Clark’s work has appeared in Crazyhorse; Forklift, Ohio; Fugue; The Missouri Review; New Orleans Review; Smartish Pace; and elsewhere. He earned his MFA in poetry at the University of Maryland.