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Cléante to Elmire


Rising, Madame, towards heaven in a bed

That elevates my knees and lifts my head

To sustenance, that is, a plastic tray

Of Jell-O, applesauce, and consommé,

I have become a connoisseur of juice,

Which leaves me liquid, not to mention loose,

And keeps my precious fluids running clear

Until such time as I shall disappear—

Like what descends transparently for pain,

Dripping, ex machina, to tubes that drain.

What has, you may well ask, contributed

To this apostrophe to one long dead

From one so nearly so?  You come to me,

As Sting might say, in synchronicity;

Searching just now for bulletins about

This storm called Cara which, I have no doubt,

Shall live up to its namesake, namely you,

And do us in before the day is through,

I channel-surfed and lit on PBS.

My dear, shall I be coy and make you guess

What stopped me there and brought a hurricane

And you into one focus in my brain?

One line, in Mr. Wilbur's fine translation:

And cultivate a sober moderation ....

Think of it!  If we ever needed proof

Of greater patterns, wasn't it Tartuffe

That brought us once and brings us now together—

Molière and two lost souls and raging weather?

Lord, twenty years have passed and still each line

Smacks tartly on the tongue like a good wine

Heady with epigram and foiled seduction.


It was The Coastal Players' great production—

Rhymed verse they said our audience could not

Make much of, let alone digest the plot—

Yet how we triumphed, I the raisonneur

Cléante and you the faithful spouse, the pure

Elmire, the model of a perfect wife.

So much for art. Who says it mirrors life?

Like leaves whirling outside, the years have flown

And taken with them Pernelle and Orgon.

Dorine the maid (Remember?  What a bitch!)

Went into real estate and came out rich,

Sweet Marianne had children and grew fat,

And you'd have thought it less than fitting that

The charge against Tartuffe, so like the play's,

Was finally dropped:  not only virtue pays.

In spite of the applause I found so sweet

I never found the courage to repeat

Those evenings' glories in another play.

And you?  We gathered you were on your way

To greater things.  A touring company

(A Chorus Line!) had called, you gushed to me

At the cast party, and our toasts went on

(Fuck "sober moderation"!) until dawn,

When I appeared, bedraggled, in your gown—

My coming out, no small thing in this town—

Battering Blanche against your not-so-manly

Peruked and powdered parody of Stanley

While Matt, your surly boyfriend, hulked and glared.

You laughed at him. I must say I was scared.


After that night our paths diverged.  I learned

Your offers never came, heard that you'd turned

To wilder exploits, but, then, I was so

Into my own pursuits I didn't know

How dark your path became.  Often our cars

Would pass en route to our respective bars.

We'd honk and wave like drunken teens.  Dare I

Hope that one kiss I blew you said good-bye?

Your end came the next summer.  Tom, the cop

Who'd played Laurent, came by the flower shop

To tell me what he knew—in rapid order,

Marriage, your panicked calls—quick as the border

Of this new storm front alters.  Drugs, of course,

Were much of it, and there was the divorce

Which had turned ugly.  Still, the Lord knows what

Led to that final beating and the shot

That tore your face away—before Matt made

The 911 call, sobbing while he played

His own death scene.  I only pray it's true

What Tom believed himself:  he said that you

Were dead already when the shot was fired.


My own death is the kind that is "acquired,"

Which makes it sound like something one might paste

Into a book, as one "acquires" a taste

For sherry, leather scenes, or the ballet.

All prance around the piper.  All must pay.

No more of that.  The plot by now is stale.

Let Tony Kushner live to tell the tale

And garner all the money and awards.

May my audition be one aiming towards

A long run somewhere in a stellar cast

In which no bow I take will be my last.

Corny?  You know me, Cara, for I am

The same as you, eternally a ham

Who holds out hopes of One who can explain,

A raisonneur of happiness and pain,

Who proves for us that love is possible

And need not climax in so great a fall

As what we've suffered ... and that The Machine

Will lower with a Prince who makes us clean

And whole again, who lends His blessed grace

To salve my wreckage and restore your face—

Who lets the memory of a dead friend's laugh,

In the dark valley, be my rod and staff.

In a world full of such unwelcome guests

As storms, Tartuffe, and sickness, small requests.


It makes a curious dénouement that I,

Too ill for anything except to die,

May be evacuated, which shall save

These sodden relics for a drier grave.

The winds are rising, Cara, your own winds

With the great closing curtain that descends

Upon us as we play our games again

With tracking charts and crayons.  CNN

Leads the hour with your great whirling eye.

Live oaks and sweetgums just outside my high

Window gesticulate the agon for us

As fiercely as a Sophoclean chorus.

The living board their windows, and their eyes

Lift past their fragile rooflines to the skies.

What wind is this? they ask themselves.

                                                               I say

It is the wind that bears the world away.


R.S. Gwynn



From No Word of Farewell: Poems 1970-2000, Story Line
Press, (c) 2001.  Used by permission of the author.


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