Campbell McGrath
Sugar or Blood

    In the kitchen Elizabeth has been making marmalade 
with the luxurious crop of our lemon tree, 
and from my desk I can almost taste the caramelizing essence 
of citrus rind and vanilla beans and burnt sugar, 
and I can hear the piano concerto by Mozart she is listening to, 
which sounds like a pavilion constructed from lemon-tinted panes of         sugar-glass, 
and the Zairean music I’m listening to is like a tessellated and                       betasseled tapestry 
thrown upon the floor of a nomad’s tent, and the sands of the Sahara 
continue their migration into the timeworn grasslands of the Sahel, 
and the Virunga volcanoes comprise a fog-shouldered heaven 
to the last families of mountain gorillas awaking before dawn, 
shy, Herculean versions of ourselves, brothers 
from a simpler dream, luminous and transient as meteors. 
There will come no more into this world 
when we have killed the last of them. So many 
spools of golden sorrow to unwind, 
so much pathos to weave upon a loom of human agency. 
As if we were not ourselves baboons on the savannah, 
not jackals, not giraffes in our ungainliness. 
As if to desire the coat of a jaguar, the fur of a snow leopard,
was not a form of worship, as raw ore minted and coined 
resembles the child’s flattering imitation of a mastery it will never             equal.
Who would not be a great cat in the Amazon or the Hindu Kush?
Even the greenish pelt of a river monkey, its iridescent aura, 
even our too-human bodies shimmer with the weird, atomic eclipse-       light of life.
Talking to myself like this, in a blazon and an emblem, 
I realize I have never said plainly most of what I truly believe, 
I have shied from difficulty and misstated my deepest fears, 
I have not born full witness to the suffering in the streets of the cities I love, 
I have not walked a picket line against the tyranny of greed, 
I have been wily and evasive even on behalf of art, 
I have not praised the movies in tones equal to the rapture 
I have known there, 
I cannot remember King Lear
I did not finish Ulysses or even start on Proust,
even now I seek diversion in the candy necklace of delight, 
even now I refuse to commit, 
even now I would walk among jaguars 
wearing the skin of a jaguar 
as if it were not necessary to declare my allegiance, 
as if I did not have to choose. 
Which will it be, sugar or blood?

Found In Volume 41, No. 01
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Campbell McGrath
About the Author

Campbell McGrath is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco, 2012). Among his many honors are the MacArthur Fellowship and Kingsley Tufts Award.  He teaches at Florida International University in Miami, where he is the Frost Professor of Creative Writing. This poem is from his forthcoming book, XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century.