The Night-Blooming Cereus


            And so for nights
we waited, hoping to see
the heavy bud
            break into flower.

            On its neck-like tube
hooking down from the edge
of the leaf-branch
            nearly to the floor,

            the bud packed
tight with its miracle swayed
stiffly on breaths
            of air, moved

            as though impelled
by stirrings within itself.
It repelled as much
            as it fascinated me

            sometimes–snake,
eyeless bird head,
beak that would gape
            with grotesque life-squawk.

            But you, my dear,
conceded less to the bizarre
than to the imminence
            of bloom. Yet we agreed

            we ought
to celebrate the blossom,
paint ourselves, dance
            in honor of

            archaic mysteries
when it appeared. Meanwhile
we waited, aware
            of rigorous design.

            Backster's
polygraph, I thought,
would have shown
            (as clearly as it had

            a philodendron's
fear) tribal sentience
in the cactus, focused
            energy of will.

            The belling of
tropic perfume–that
signaling
            not meant for us;

            the darkness
cloying with summoning
fragrance. We dropped
            trivial tasks

            and marveling
beheld at last the achieved
flower. Its moonlight
            petals were

            still unfold-
ing, the spike fringe of the outer
perianth recessing
            as we watched.

            Lunar presence,
foredoomed, already dying,
it charged the room
            with plangency

            older than human
cries, ancient as prayers
invoking Osiris, Krishna,
            Tezcatlipoca.

            We spoke
in whispers when
we spoke
            at all . . .


Robert Hayden, Collected Poems, Liveright Publishing, 1997.