The Robert Poems by S. Yarberry

William Blake’s youngest brother, Robert Blake (William’s “special favorite” as one book puts), died at the age of 25 in 1787 of tuberculosis—at least scholars are pretty sure. As Aileen Ward writes in her article Who Was Robert Blake?, “[M]ost puzzling of all, nowhere in the St. James Parish register is the birth or baptism of Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert to be found. Robert’s absence from the record remains the most controversial question regarding the makeup of Blake’s family.” Robert appeared to William often after his death—a ghost, a vision—most famously when, in a dream, he showed William his printing method that would transform not only his own work, but the entire genre of art printing. For someone so essential to William Blake’s life—there is little to nothing known of Robert. He remains an apparition—not only to his brother but to history. 

Milton 37.  Copy D.

Milton 37.  Copy D., is the title of the image below. It appears in William Blake’s prophetic text, Milton. This is the only known image of Robert Blake.

 Robert thrusts back 
 as if a string pulled taut
 from his center up
 toward the sky. Pained, 
 he thrusts back. One poet, 
 suggests ascent
 though I know it’s descent. 
 Or, I don’t know,
 but I can feel it. His brother
 draws a star. Draws 
 his brother’s body.
 Nearly naked. Each limb 
 and a head. A falling 
 star. Translucent
 shorts that cover 
 nothing. One goes 
 down into this place
 only once. Hard truth. 
 One comes to 
 outside in the night. 
 The night sky. A brick 
 staircase losing shape 
 behind him. 
 I always want back 
 what’s been lost. 

Robert Descending

 When I found Robert
 his life was like the space
 between walls—hollow, 
 the quick flicker of a rat 
 running through them. Nothing
 like a comet crashing. His life teetered 
 between this world
 and the next. I built him
 this way then another. He must 
 be a drinker, I thought,
 Port in the afternoon. 
 Scraped his knees as a boy.
 Licked his lips at Revolution. 
 At night, he watched a lover 
 weep in the city streets. I thought it,
 then he thought it. Terrifying 
 and inscrutable. It was sleep 
 then it was like sleep, 
 it was living then it was like a picture
 of the living. He is dying. 
 Absent but not quite
 gone. He lived in a house.
 Lived, the worst word. 
 His body in the ground? 
 His body in the ground. I thought, 
 What an image of somebody you love.  

Robert Comes Back

My shirt was blue 
 and my pants were blue 
 and I loved the sky in the morning. 
 Wind taking the snow 
 off the tenement roof top—
 like smoke you used to say. Like smoke 
 I appear, I disappear. The snow
 twirls up like a fire put out.
 As boys we always wondered,
 what it was like to be divine. 
 A holy scale, my eyes, 
 they glimmer like that. 
 Hellacious serpent. Green 
 then blue then back again. The Thames 
 flipping shades
 under the good moonlight. I laughed a lot; 
 I did things wrong. Salacious, 
 and unforgiving. I went down hard 
 inside myself—wanting to die 
 and wanting to live 
 and always wanting both 
 at the same time. 
 We’d stare up 
 the perpetual maple. 
 I never saw anything
 where you saw it all. I threw myself 
 perpetually into another perpetual night. 
 Epic? I so wanted to be. 
 People love when something happens—
 Yet, in the end, 
 what? I was sick and died. 
 It was so simple, 
 how it happened. Life, end stopped.
 I made no mark. Dreams, dreams? 
 No, nothing. Obliterated. Done.  

Blake’s Parable

 I draw a line in the sand. 
 I say, my life begins here
 starting now. I am leaving
 it all behind. Robert,
 laughs. He goes to stand 
 on the other side 
 of my line. And now? 
 What about me? He says. 
 Robert so desires an origin
 and I tell him so—hitting him
 where it hurts. Robert
 takes the stick. He draws
 another line—parallel 
 to the first. He stands 
 on the other side of his line. 
 Distance, Robert says
 without saying it. The lines 
 seem arbitrary at first—
 just things that are. Then 
 they grow into something 
 else entirely. 
 Robert stayed silent—
 and so did I. He takes 
 the stick and begins to dig,
 slowly, between the two
 lines. Depth, I consider, 
 but remain quiet, even 
 when I don’t want to. He digs. 
 He digs silently, slowly. Digging. 
 Days and nights come to pass. 
 There was nothing beautiful 
 about the distance
 nor the silence, that became
 their lives. 
                            One day, 
 the digging is done.

 Robert gets into the hole 
 and lays down. 
 I call to Robert. Nothing. 
 I reach my arm down 
 into the hole. Nothing. I peer
 down with a light. It provokes
 nothing. I am alone now. 
 The bad kind. Robert? I say. 
 Nothing. Robert I find myself
 saying my whole life now—
 getting nothing and wanting 
 only this one thing.  

Robert’s Dream

 I never was : I never could be : my eyes
 : don’t matter : my lips were red like a boy
 playing : sweet fruit : I made 
 a glance : the glance looked sweet : I wore
 red gloves : it was winter : I wore a cigarillo 
 in my mouth : I wore expensive wool : I wore 
 a big cock tucked into my jeans : I was a man: 
 frighteningly sentimental : I looked : 
 behind me : a world : a tree : a chevy silverado : 
 pepsi cans skirching across the road : I walked : 
 I walked and walked : like I knew 
 what I was doing : there was a question : 
 on my mind : the question became clear :
 I was looking through a window : William approached :
 He said : Never : I said : What? : William said :
 Never, it will never be wrong : Wrong, 
 the sound a bell makes : The world, from before, 
 was emptying, now : of everything : it had never 
 been there : and nothing 
 ever came back : it was night: foiled and endless : 
 it was time: yes: outrageous and very quiet 

S. Yarberry is a trans poet and writer. Their poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, jubilatIndiana ReviewRedivider, The Boiler, and miscellaneous zines, among others. Their articles and interviews have appeared in BOMB magazine, The Adroit Journal, and Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. S. is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Northwestern University, where they hold a Mellon Cluster Fellowship in Poetry & Poetics. S. is the Poetry Editor of The Spectacle literary magazine. Their first book of poems, A Boy in the City, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum.