Incident in a Rose Garden (2)


The gardener came running,
An old man, out of breath.
Fear had given him legs.
            Sir, I encountered Death
            Just now among our roses.
            Thin as a scythe he stood there.
            I knew him by his pictures.
            He had his black coat on,
            Black gloves, a broad black hat.
            I think he would have spoken,
            Seeing his mouth stood open.
            Big it was, with white teeth.
            As soon as he beckoned, I ran.
            I ran until I found you.
            Sir, I am quitting my job.
            I want to see my sons
            Once more before I die.
            I want to see California.
We shook hands; he was off.

And there stood Death in the garden,
Dressed like a Spanish waiter.
He had the air of someone
Who, because he likes arriving
At all appointments early,
Learns to think himself patient.
I watched him pinch one bloom off
And hold it to his nose–
A connoisseur of roses–
One bloom and then another.
They strewed the earth around him.
            Sir, you must be that stranger
            Who threatened my gardener.
            This is my property, sir.
            I welcome only friends here.

Death grinned, and his eyes lit up
With the pale glow of those lanterns
That workmen carry sometimes
To light their way through the dusk.
Now with great care he slid
The glove from his right hand
And held that out in greeting,
A little cage of bone.
            Sir, I knew your father,
            And we were friends at the end.
            As for your gardener,
            I did not threaten him.
            Old men mistake my gestures.
            I only meant to ask him
            To show me to his master.
            I take it you are he?


Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.