Robert Frost |
Her teacher's certainty it must be Mabel
Made Maple first take notice of her name.
She asked her father and he told her, "Maple—
Maple is right.
"But teacher told the school
There's no such name.
"Teachers don't know as much
As fathers about children, you tell teacher.
You tell her that it's M-A-P-L-E.
You ask her if she knows a maple tree.
Well, you were named after a maple tree.
Your mother named you.
You and she just saw
Each other in passing in the room upstairs,
One coming this way into life, and one
Going the other out of life—you know?
So you can't have much recollection of her.
She had been having a long look at you.
She put her finger in your cheek so hard
It must have made your dimple there, and said,
' I said it too: 'Yes, for her name.
So we're sure there's no mistake.
I don't know what she wanted it to mean,
But it seems like some word she left to bid you
Be a good girl—be like a maple tree.
How like a maple tree's for us to guess.
Or for a little girl to guess sometime.
Not now—at least I shouldn't try too hard now.
By and by I will tell you all I know
About the different trees, and something, too,
About your mother that perhaps may help.
Dangerous self-arousing words to sow.
Luckily all she wanted of her name then
Was to rebuke her teacher with it next day,
And give the teacher a scare as from her father.
Anything further had been wasted on her,
Or so he tried to think to avoid blame.
She would forget it.
She all but forgot it.
What he sowed with her slept so long a sleep,
And came so near death in the dark of years,
That when it woke and came to life again
The flower was different from the parent seed.
It carne back vaguely at the glass one day,
As she stood saying her name over aloud,
Striking it gently across her lowered eyes
To make it go well with the way she looked.
What was it about her name? Its strangeness lay
In having too much meaning.
As Lesley, Carol, Irma, Marjorie,
Rose could have a meaning,
But hadn't as it went.
(She knew a Rose.
This difference from other names it was
Made people notice it—and notice her.
(They either noticed it, or got it wrong.
Her problem was to find out what it asked
In dress or manner of the girl who bore it.
If she could form some notion of her mother—
What she bad thought was lovely, and what good.
This was her mother's childhood home;
The house one story high in front, three stories
On the end it presented to the road.
(The arrangement made a pleasant sunny cellar.
Her mother's bedroom was her father's still,
Where she could watch her mother's picture fading.
Once she found for a bookmark in the Bible
A maple leaf she thought must have been laid
In wait for her there.
She read every word
Of the two pages it was pressed between,
As if it was her mother speaking to her.
But forgot to put the leaf back in closing
And lost the place never to read again.
She was sure, though, there had been nothing in it.
So she looked for herself, as everyone
Looks for himself, more or less outwardly.
And her self-seeking, fitful though it was,
May still have been what led her on to read,
And think a little, and get some city schooling.
She learned shorthand, whatever shorthand may
Have had to do with it--she sometimes wondered.
So, till she found herself in a strange place
For the name Maple to have brought her to,
Taking dictation on a paper pad
And, in the pauses when she raised her eyes,
Watching out of a nineteenth story window
An airship laboring with unshiplike motion
And a vague all-disturbing roar above the river
Beyond the highest city built with hands.
Someone was saying in such natural tones
She almost wrote the words down on her knee,
"Do you know you remind me of a tree--
A maple tree?"
"Because my name is Maple?"
"Isn't it Mabel? I thought it was Mabel.
"No doubt you've heard the office call me Mabel.
I have to let them call me what they like.
They were both stirred that he should have divined
Without the name her personal mystery.
It made it seem as if there must be something
She must have missed herself.
So they were married,
And took the fancy home with them to live by.
They went on pilgrimage once to her father's
(The house one story high in front, three stories
On the side it presented to the road)
To see if there was not some special tree
She might have overlooked.
They could find none,
Not so much as a single tree for shade,
Let alone grove of trees for sugar orchard.
She told him of the bookmark maple leaf
In the big Bible, and all she remembered
of the place marked with it—"Wave offering,
Something about wave offering, it said.
"You've never asked your father outright, have you?"
"I have, and been Put off sometime, I think.
(This was her faded memory of the way
Once long ago her father had put himself off.
"Because no telling but it may have been
Something between your father and your mother
Not meant for us at all.
"Not meant for me?
Where would the fairness be in giving me
A name to carry for life and never know
The secret of?"
"And then it may have been
Something a father couldn't tell a daughter
As well as could a mother.
It may have been their one lapse into fancy
'Twould be too bad to make him sorry for
By bringing it up to him when be was too old.
Your father feels us round him with our questing,
And holds us off unnecessarily,
As if he didn't know what little thing
Might lead us on to a discovery.
It was as personal as be could be
About the way he saw it was with you
To say your mother, bad she lived, would be
As far again as from being born to bearing.
"Just one look more with what you say in mind,
And I give up"; which last look came to nothing.
But though they now gave up the search forever,
They clung to what one had seen in the other
It proved there was something.
They kept their thoughts away from when the maples
Stood uniform in buckets, and the steam
Of sap and snow rolled off the sugarhouse.
When they made her related to the maples,
It was the tree the autumn fire ran through
And swept of leathern leaves, but left the bark
Unscorched, unblackened, even, by any smoke.
They always took their holidays in autumn.
Once they came on a maple in a glade,
Standing alone with smooth arms lifted up,
And every leaf of foliage she'd worn
Laid scarlet and pale pink about her feet.
But its age kept them from considering this one.
Twenty-five years ago at Maple's naming
It hardly could have been a two-leaved seedling
The next cow might have licked up out at pasture.
Could it have been another maple like it?
They hovered for a moment near discovery,
Figurative enough to see the symbol,
But lacking faith in anything to mean
The same at different times to different people.
Perhaps a filial diffidence partly kept them
From thinking it could be a thing so bridal.
And anyway it came too late for Maple.
She used her hands to cover up her eyes.
"We would not see the secret if we could now:
We are not looking for it any more.
Thus had a name with meaning, given in death,
Made a girl's marriage, and ruled in her life.
No matter that the meaning was not clear.
A name with meaning could bring up a child,
Taking the child out of the parents' hands.
Better a meaningless name, I should say,
As leaving more to nature and happy chance.
Name children some names and see what you do.
Billy Collins |
Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called "Find the Cow.
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage.
We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.
The 1790's will never come again.
Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.
James Tate |
Some people go their whole lives
without ever writing a single poem.
Extraordinary people who don't hesitate
to cut somebody's heart or skull open.
They go to baseball games with the greatest of ease.
and play a few rounds of golf as if it were nothing.
These same people stroll into a church
as if that were a natural part of life.
Investing money is second nature to them.
They contribute to political campaigns
that have absolutely no poetry in them
and promise none for the future.
They sit around the dinner table at night
and pretend as though nothing is missing.
Their children get caught shoplifting at the mall
and no one admits that it is poetry they are missing.
The family dog howls all night,
lonely and starving for more poetry in his life.
Why is it so difficult for them to see
that, without poetry, their lives are effluvial.
Sure, they have their banquets, their celebrations,
croquet, fox hunts, their sea shores and sunsets,
their cocktails on the balcony, dog races,
and all that kissing and hugging, and don't
forget the good deeds, the charity work,
nursing the baby squirrels all through the night,
filling the birdfeeders all winter,
helping the stranger change her tire.
Still, there's that disagreeable exhalation
from decaying matter, subtle but everpresent.
They walk around erect like champions.
They are smooth-spoken and witty.
When alone, rare occasion, they stare
into the mirror for hours, bewildered.
There was something they meant to say, but didn't:
"And if we put the statue of the rhinoceros
next to the tweezers, and walk around the room three times,
learn to yodel, shave our heads, call
our ancestors back from the dead--"
poetrywise it's still a bust, bankrupt.
You haven't scribbled a syllable of it.
You're a nowhere man misfiring
the very essence of your life, flustering
nothing from nothing and back again.
The hereafter may not last all that long.
Radiant childhood sweetheart,
secret code of everlasting joy and sorrow,
fanciful pen strokes beneath the eyelids:
all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day's extravagant labor.
And yet it's cruel to expect too much.
It's a rare species of bird
that refuses to be categorized.
Its song is barely audible.
It is like a dragonfly in a dream--
here, then there, then here again,
low-flying amber-wing darting upward
then out of sight.
And the dream has a pain in its heart
the wonders of which are manifold,
or so the story is told.
Pablo Neruda |
The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
Deserted like the dwarves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!
Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.
In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.
You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time.
In you everything sank!
It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.
Pilot's dread, fury of blind driver,
turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!
In the childhood of mist my soul, winged and wounded.
Lost discoverer, in you everything sank!
You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!
I made the wall of shadow draw back,
beyond desire and act, I walked on.
Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,
I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.
Like a jar you housed infinite tenderness.
and the infinite oblivion shattered you like a jar.
There was the black solitude of the islands,
and there, woman of love, your arms took me in.
There was thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and ruins, and you were the miracle.
Ah woman, I do not know how you could contain me
in the earth of your soul, in the cross of your arms!
How terrible and brief my desire was to you!
How difficult and drunken, how tensed and avid.
Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs,
still the fruited boughs burn, pecked at by birds.
Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs,
oh the hungering teeth, oh the entwined bodies.
Oh the mad coupling of hope and force
in which we merged and despaired.
And the tenderness, light as water and as flour.
And the word scarcely begun on the lips.
This was my destiny and in it was my voyage of my longing,
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!
Oh pit of debris, everything fell into you,
what sorrow did you not express, in what sorrow are you not drowned!
From billow to billow you still called and sang.
Standing like a sailor in the prow of a vessel.
You still flowered in songs, you still brike the currents.
Oh pit of debris, open and bitter well.
Pale blind diver, luckless slinger,
lost discoverer, in you everything sank!
It is the hour of departure, the hard cold hour
which the night fastens to all the timetables.
The rustling belt of the sea girdles the shore.
Cold stars heave up, black birds migrate.
Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
Only tremulous shadow twists in my hands.
Oh farther than everything.
Oh farther than everything.
It is the hour of departure.
Oh abandoned one!
Richard Aldington |
the misery, the wretchedness of childhood
Put me out of love with God.
I can't believe in God's goodness;
I can believe
In many avenging gods.
Most of all I believe
In gods of bitter dullness,
Cruel local gods
Who scared my childhood.
I've seen people put
A chrysalis in a match-box,
"To see," they told me, "what sort of moth would come.
But when it broke its shell
It slipped and stumbled and fell about its prison
And tried to climb to the light
For space to dry its wings.
That's how I was.
Somebody found my chrysalis
And shut it in a match-box.
My shrivelled wings were beaten,
Shed their colours in dusty scales
Before the box was opened
For the moth to fly.
I hate that town;
I hate the town I lived in when I was little;
I hate to think of it.
There wre always clouds, smoke, rain
In that dingly little valley.
It rained; it always rained.
I think I never saw the sun until I was nine --
And then it was too late;
Everything's too late after the first seven years.
The long street we lived in
Was duller than a drain
And nearly as dingy.
There were the big College
And the pseudo-Gothic town-hall.
There were the sordid provincial shops --
The grocer's, and the shops for women,
The shop where I bought transfers,
And the piano and gramaphone shop
Where I used to stand
Staring at the huge shiny pianos and at the pictures
Of a white dog looking into a gramaphone.
How dull and greasy and grey and sordid it was!
On wet days -- it was always wet --
I used to kneel on a chair
And look at it from the window.
The dirty yellow trams
Dragged noisily along
With a clatter of wheels and bells
And a humming of wires overhead.
They threw up the filthy rain-water from the hollow lines
And then the water ran back
Full of brownish foam bubbles.
There was nothing else to see --
It was all so dull --
Except a few grey legs under shiny black umbrellas
Running along the grey shiny pavements;
Sometimes there was a waggon
Whose horses made a strange loud hollow sound
With their hoofs
Through the silent rain.
And there was a grey museum
Full of dead birds and dead insects and dead animals
And a few relics of the Romans -- dead also.
There was a sea-front,
A long asphalt walk with a bleak road beside it,
Three piers, a row of houses,
And a salt dirty smell from the little harbour.
I was like a moth --
Like one of those grey Emperor moths
Which flutter through the vines at Capri.
And that damned little town was my match-box,
Against whose sides I beat and beat
Until my wings were torn and faded, and dingy
As that damned little town.
At school it was just as dull as that dull High Street.
The front was dull;
The High Street and the other street were dull --
And there was a public park, I remember,
And that was damned dull, too,
With its beds of geraniums no one was allowed to pick,
And its clipped lawns you weren't allowed to walk on,
And the gold-fish pond you mustn't paddle in,
And the gate made out of a whale's jaw-bones,
And the swings, which were for "Board-School children,"
And its gravel paths.
And on Sundays they rang the bells,
From Baptist and Evangelical and Catholic churches.
They had a Salvation Army.
I was taken to a High Church;
The parson's name was Mowbray,
"Which is a good name but he thinks too much of it --"
That's what I heard people say.
I took a little black book
To that cold, grey, damp, smelling church,
And I had to sit on a hard bench,
Wriggle off it to kneel down when they sang psalms
And wriggle off it to kneel down when they prayed,
And then there was nothing to do
Except to play trains with the hymn-books.
There was nothing to see,
Nothing to do,
Nothing to play with,
Except that in an empty room upstairs
There was a large tin box
Containing reproductions of the Magna Charta,
Of the Declaration of Independence
And of a letter from Raleigh after the Armada.
There were also several packets of stamps,
Yellow and blue Guatemala parrots,
Blue stags and red baboons and birds from Sarawak,
Indians and Men-of-war
From the United States,
And the green and red portraits
Of King Francobello
I don't believe in God.
I do believe in avenging gods
Who plague us for sins we never sinned
But who avenge us.
That's why I'll never have a child,
Never shut up a chrysalis in a match-box
For the moth to spoil and crush its brght colours,
Beating its wings against the dingy prison-wall.
Henry Kendall |
RIFTED mountains, clad with forests, girded round by gleaming pines,
Where the morning, like an angel, robed in golden splendour shines;
Shimmering mountains, throwing downward on the slopes a mazy glare
Where the noonday glory sails through gulfs of calm and glittering air;
Stately mountains, high and hoary, piled with blocks of amber cloud,
Where the fading twilight lingers, when the winds are wailing loud;
Grand old mountains, overbeetling brawling brooks and deep ravines,
Where the moonshine, pale and mournful, flows on rocks and evergreens.
Underneath these regal ridges - underneath the gnarly trees,
I am sitting, lonely-hearted, listening to a lonely breeze!
Sitting by an ancient casement, casting many a longing look
Out across the hazy gloaming - out beyond the brawling brook!
Over pathways leading skyward - over crag and swelling cone,
Past long hillocks looking like to waves of ocean turned to stone;
Yearning for a bliss unworldly, yearning for a brighter change,
Yearning for the mystic Aidenn, built beyond this mountain range.
Happy years, amongst these valleys, happy years have come and gone,
And my youthful hopes and friendships withered with them one by one;
Days and moments bearing onward many a bright and beauteous dream,
All have passed me like to sunstreaks flying down a distant stream.
Oh, the love returned by loved ones! Oh, the faces that I knew!
Oh, the wrecks of fond affection! Oh, the hearts so warm and true!
But their voices I remember, and a something lingers still,
Like a dying echo roaming sadly round a far off hill.
I would sojourn here contented, tranquil as I was of yore,
And would never wish to clamber, seeking for an unknown shore;
I have dwelt within this cottage twenty summers, and mine eyes
Never wandered erewhile round in search of undiscovered skies;
But a spirit sits beside me, veiled in robes of dazzling white,
And a dear one's whisper wakens with the symphonies of night;
And a low sad music cometh, borne along on windy wings,
Like a strain familiar rising from a maze of slumbering springs.
And the Spirit, by my window, speaketh to my restless soul,
Telling of the clime she came from, where the silent moments roll;
Telling of the bourne mysterious, where the sunny summers flee
Cliffs and coasts, by man untrodden, ridging round a shipless sea.
There the years of yore are blooming - there departed life-dreams dwell,
There the faces beam with gladness that I loved in youth so well;
There the songs of childhood travel, over wave-worn steep and strand -
Over dale and upland stretching out behind this mountain land.
``Lovely Being, can a mortal, weary of this changeless scene,
Cross these cloudy summits to the land where man hath never been?
Can he find a pathway leading through that wildering mass of pines,
So that he shall reach the country where ethereal glory shines;
So that he may glance at waters never dark with coming ships;
Hearing round him gentle language floating from angelic lips;
Casting off his earthly fetters, living there for evermore;
All the blooms of Beauty near him, gleaming on that quiet shore?
``Ere you quit this ancient casement, tell me, is it well to yearn
For the evanescent visions, vanished never to return?
Is it well that I should with to leave this dreary world behind,
Seeking for your fair Utopia, which perchance I may not find?
Passing through a gloomy forest, scaling steeps like prison walls,
Where the scanty sunshine wavers and the moonlight seldom falls?
Oh, the feelings re-awakened! Oh, the hopes of loftier range!
Is it well, thou friendly Being, well to wish for such a change?''
But the Spirit answers nothing! and the dazzling mantle fades;
And a wailing whisper wanders out from dismal seaside shades!
``Lo, the trees are moaning loudly, underneath their hood-like shrouds,
And the arch above us darkens, scarred with ragged thunder clouds!''
But the spirit answers nothing, and I linger all alone,
Gazing through the moony vapours where the lovely Dream has flown;
And my heart is beating sadly, and the music waxeth faint,
Sailing up to holy Heaven, like the anthems of a Saint.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning |
I MIND me in the days departed,
How often underneath the sun
With childish bounds I used to run
To a garden long deserted.
The beds and walks were vanish'd quite; 5
And wheresoe'er had struck the spade,
The greenest grasses Nature laid,
To sanctify her right.
I call'd the place my wilderness,
For no one enter'd there but I.
The sheep look'd in, the grass to espy,
And pass'd it ne'ertheless.
The trees were interwoven wild,
And spread their boughs enough about
To keep both sheep and shepherd out, 15
But not a happy child.
Adventurous joy it was for me!
I crept beneath the boughs, and found
A circle smooth of mossy ground
Beneath a poplar-tree.
Old garden rose-trees hedged it in,
Bedropt with roses waxen-white,
Well satisfied with dew and light,
And careless to be seen.
Long years ago, it might befall, 25
When all the garden flowers were trim,
The grave old gardener prided him
On these the most of all.
Some Lady, stately overmuch,
Here moving with a silken noise, 30
Has blush'd beside them at the voice
That liken'd her to such.
Or these, to make a diadem,
She often may have pluck'd and twined;
Half-smiling as it came to mind, 35
That few would look at them.
O, little thought that Lady proud,
A child would watch her fair white rose,
When buried lay her whiter brows,
And silk was changed for shroud!¡ª 40
Nor thought that gardener (full of scorns
For men unlearn'd and simple phrase)
A child would bring it all its praise,
By creeping through the thorns!
To me upon my low moss seat, 45
Though never a dream the roses sent
Of science or love's compliment,
I ween they smelt as sweet.
It did not move my grief to see
The trace of human step departed: 50
Because the garden was deserted,
The blither place for me!
Friends, blame me not! a narrow ken
Hath childhood 'twixt the sun and sward:
We draw the moral afterward¡ª 55
We feel the gladness then.
And gladdest hours for me did glide
In silence at the rose-tree wall:
A thrush made gladness musical
Upon the other side.
Nor he nor I did e'er incline
To peck or pluck the blossoms white:¡ª
How should I know but that they might
Lead lives as glad as mine?
To make my hermit-home complete, 65
I brought clear water from the spring
Praised in its own low murmuring,
And cresses glossy wet.
And so, I thought, my likeness grew
(Without the melancholy tale) 70
To 'gentle hermit of the dale,'
And Angelina too.
For oft I read within my nook
Such minstrel stories; till the breeze
Made sounds poetic in the trees, 75
And then I shut the book.
If I shut this wherein I write,
I hear no more the wind athwart
Those trees, nor feel that childish heart
Delighting in delight.
My childhood from my life is parted,
My footstep from the moss which drew
Its fairy circle round: anew
The garden is deserted.
Another thrush may there rehearse 85
The madrigals which sweetest are;
No more for me!¡ªmyself afar
Do sing a sadder verse.
Ah me! ah me! when erst I lay
In that child's-nest so greenly wrought, 90
I laugh'd unto myself and thought,
'The time will pass away.
And still I laugh'd, and did not fear
But that, whene'er was pass'd away
The childish time, some happier play 95
My womanhood would cheer.
I knew the time would pass away;
And yet, beside the rose-tree wall,
Dear God, how seldom, if at all,
Did I look up to pray! 100
The time is past: and now that grows
The cypress high among the trees,
And I behold white sepulchres
As well as the white rose,¡ª
When wiser, meeker thoughts are given, 105
And I have learnt to lift my face,
Reminded how earth's greenest place
The colour draws from heaven,¡ª
It something saith for earthly pain,
But more for heavenly promise free, 110
That I who was, would shrink to be
That happy child again.
Mark Strand |
We are reading the story of our lives
which takes place in a room.
The room looks out on a street.
There is no one there,
no sound of anything.
The tress are heavy with leaves,
the parked cars never move.
We keep turning the pages, hoping for something,
something like mercy or change,
a black line that would bind us
or keep us apart.
The way it is, it would seem
the book of our lives is empty.
The furniture in the room is never shifted,
and the rugs become darker each time
our shadows pass over them.
It is almost as if the room were the world.
We sit beside each other on the couch,
reading about the couch.
We say it is ideal.
It is ideal.
We are reading the story of our lives,
as though we were in it,
as though we had written it.
This comes up again and again.
In one of the chapters
I lean back and push the book aside
because the book says
it is what I am doing.
I lean back and begin to write about the book.
I write that I wish to move beyond the book.
Beyond my life into another life.
I put the pen down.
The book says: "He put the pen down
and turned and watched her reading
the part about herself falling in love.
The book is more accurate than we can imagine.
I lean back and watch you read
about the man across the street.
They built a house there,
and one day a man walked out of it.
You fell in love with him
because you knew that he would never visit you,
would never know you were waiting.
Night after night you would say
that he was like me.
I lean back and watch you grow older without me.
Sunlight falls on your silver hair.
The rugs, the furniture,
seem almost imaginary now.
"She continued to read.
She seemed to consider his absence
of no special importance,
as someone on a perfect day will consider
the weather a failure
because it did not change his mind.
You narrow your eyes.
You have the impulse to close the book
which describes my resistance:
how when I lean back I imagine
my life without you, imagine moving
into another life, another book.
It describes your dependence on desire,
how the momentary disclosures
of purpose make you afraid.
The book describes much more than it should.
It wants to divide us.
This morning I woke and believed
there was no more to to our lives
than the story of our lives.
When you disagreed, I pointed
to the place in the book where you disagreed.
You fell back to sleep and I began to read
those mysterious parts you used to guess at
while they were being written
and lose interest in after they became
part of the story.
In one of them cold dresses of moonlight
are draped over the chairs in a man's room.
He dreams of a woman whose dresses are lost,
who sits in a garden and waits.
She believes that love is a sacrifice.
The part describes her death
and she is never named,
which is one of the things
you could not stand about her.
A little later we learn
that the dreaming man lives
in the new house across the street.
This morning after you fell back to sleep
I began to turn the pages early in the book:
it was like dreaming of childhood,
so much seemed to vanish,
so much seemed to come to life again.
I did not know what to do.
The book said: "In those moments it was his book.
A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head.
He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord,
anxious in his own kingdom.
Before you woke
I read another part that described your absence
and told how you sleep to reverse
the progress of your life.
I was touched by my own loneliness as I read,
knowing that what I feel is often the crude
and unsuccessful form of a story
that may never be told.
"He wanted to see her naked and vulnerable,
to see her in the refuse, the discarded
plots of old dreams, the costumes and masks
of unattainable states.
It was as if he were drawn
irresistably to failure.
It was hard to keep reading.
I was tired and wanted to give up.
The book seemed aware of this.
It hinted at changing the subject.
I waited for you to wake not knowing
how long I waited,
and it seemed that I was no longer reading.
I heard the wind passing
like a stream of sighs
and I heard the shiver of leaves
in the trees outside the window.
It would be in the book.
Everything would be there.
I looked at your face
and I read the eyes, the nose, the mouth .
If only there were a perfect moment in the book;
if only we could live in that moment,
we could being the book again
as if we had not written it,
as if we were not in it.
But the dark approaches
to any page are too numerous
and the escapes are too narrow.
We read through the day.
Each page turning is like a candle
moving through the mind.
Each moment is like a hopeless cause.
If only we could stop reading.
"He never wanted to read another book
and she kept staring into the street.
The cars were still there,
the deep shade of trees covered them.
The shades were drawn in the new house.
Maybe the man who lived there,
the man she loved, was reading
the story of another life.
She imagine a bare parlor,
a cold fireplace, a man sitting
writing a letter to a woman
who has sacrificed her life for love.
If there were a perfect moment in the book,
it would be the last.
The book never discusses the causes of love.
It claims confusion is a necessary good.
It never explains.
It only reveals.
The day goes on.
We study what we remember.
We look into the mirror across the room.
We cannot bear to be alone.
The book goes on.
"They became silent and did not know how to begin
the dialogue which was necessary.
It was words that created divisions in the first place,
that created loneliness.
they would turn the pages, hoping
something would happen.
They would patch up their lives in secret:
each defeat forgiven because it could not be tested,
each pain rewarded because it was unreal.
They did nothing.
The book will not survive.
We are the living proof of that.
It is dark outside, in the room it is darker.
I hear your breathing.
You are asking me if I am tired,
if I want to keep reading.
Yes, I am tired.
Yes, I want to keep reading.
I say yes to everything.
You cannot hear me.
"They sat beside each other on the couch.
They were the copies, the tired phantoms
of something they had been before.
The attitudes they took were jaded.
They stared into the book
and were horrified by their innocence,
their reluctance to give up.
They sat beside each other on the couch.
They were determined to accept the truth.
Whatever it was they would accept it.
The book would have to be written
and would have to be read.
They are the book and they are
Philip Levine |
On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa,
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a
government pay station at Orleansville.
Because of the subsequent
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot.
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.
from a last camp near St.
I dig in the soft earth all
afternoon, spacing the holes
a foot or so from the wall.
Tonight we eat potatoes,
tomorrow rice and carrots.
The earth here is like the earth
nowhere, ancient with wood rot.
How can anything come forth,
I wonder; and the days are
all alike, if there is more
than one day.
If there is more
of this I will not endure.
I have grown so used to being
watched I can no longer sleep
without my watcher.
I fought against, the dark cape,
crimsoned with terror that
I so hated comforts me now.
Thomas is dead; insanity,
prison, cowardice, or slow
has found us all, and all men
turn from us, knowing our pain
is not theirs or caused by them.
from a hospital in Algiers
Dear Suzanne: this letter will
not reach you because I can't
write it; I have no pencil,
no paper, only the blunt
end of my anger.
if I had words how could I
report the imperfect failure
for which I began to die?
I might begin by saying
that it was for clarity,
though I did not find it in
entered each act, unsure
of who I was and what I
did, touching my face for fear
I was another inside
my head I played back pictures
of my childhood, of my wife
even, for it was in her
I found myself beaten, safe,
and furthest from the present.
It is her face I see now
though all I say is meant
for you, her face in the slow
agony of sexual
I cannot see you.
The dark wall ribbed with spittle
on which I play my childhood
brings me to this bed, mastered
by what I was, betrayed by
those I trusted.
The one word
my mouth must open to is why.
from a hotel in Tampa, Florida
From Orleansville we drove
south until we reached the hills,
then east until
the road stopped.
I was nervous
and couldn't eat.
over, told us when to think
and when to ****.
We turned north and reached Blida
by first dawn and the City
by morning, having dumped our
weapons beside an empty
We were free.
We parted, and to this hour
I haven't seen them, except
in photographs: the black hair
and torn features
of Thomas Delain captured
a moment before his death
on the pages of the world,
smeared in the act.
myself with their
betrayal: alone I hurled
them into freedom, inner
freedom which I can't find
nor ever will
until they are dead.
In my mind
Delain stands against the wall
precise in detail, steadied
for the betrayal.
C'Est Moi," he cried,
but the irony was lost.
I returned to the U.
nothing goes well.
I stay up
too late, don't sleep,
and am losing weight.
I say, is dead, but what use
telling myself what I won't
The hotel quiets
early at night,
the aged brace themselves for
another sleep, and offshore
the sea quickens its pace.
old, caught in a strange country
for which no man would die.
from a journal found on his person
At night wakened by the freight
trains boring through the suburbs
of Lyon, I watched first light
corrode the darkness, disturb
what little wildlife was left
in the alleys: birds moved from
branch to branch, and the dogs leapt
at the garbage.
even the hearts of the young
who had only their hearts.
heard the war coming; the long
wait was over, and we moved
along the crowded roads south
not looking for what lost loves
fell by the roadsides.
at all cost, that was my youth.
Here in the African night
wakened by what I do not
know and shivering in the heat,
listen as the men fight
Loosed from their weapons
they cry out, frightened and young,
who have never been children.
Once merely to be strong,
to live, was moral.
these uniforms we accept
the evil we were chosen
to deliver, and no act
human or benign can free
us from ourselves.
Wait, sleep, blind
soldiers of a blind will, and
listen for that old command
dreaming of authority.
David Berman |
I know it's a bad title
but I'm giving it to myself as a gift
on a day nearly canceled by sunlight
when the entire hill is approaching
the ideal of Virginia
brochured with goldenrod and loblolly
and I think "at least I have not woken up
with a bloody knife in my hand"
by then having absently wandered
one hundred yards from the house
while still seated in this chair
with my eyes closed.
It is a certain hill
the one I imagine when I hear the word "hill"
and if the apocalypse turns out
to be a world-wide nervous breakdown
if our five billion minds collapse at once
well I'd call that a surprise ending
and this hill would still be beautiful
a place I wouldn't mind dying
alone or with you.
I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.
My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments,
popping tar bubbles on the driveway in the summer
a certain amount of pride at school
everytime they called it "our sun"
and playing football when the only play
was "go out long" are what stand out now.
If squeezed for more information
I can remember old clock radios
with flipping metal numbers
and an entree called Surf and Turf.
As a way of getting in touch with my origins
every night I set the alarm clock
for the time I was born so that waking up
becomes a historical reenactment and the first thing I do
is take a reading of the day and try to flow with it like
when you're riding a mechanical bull and you strain to learn
the pattern quickly so you don't inadverantly resist it.
I can't remember being born
and no one else can remember it either
even the doctor who I met years later
at a cocktail party.
It's one of the little disappointments
that makes you think about getting away
going to Holly Springs or Coral Gables
and taking a room on the square
with a landlady whose hands are scored
by disinfectant, telling the people you meet
that you are from Alaska, and listen
to what they have to say about Alaska
until you have learned much more about Alaska
than you ever will about Holly Springs or Coral Gables.
Sometimes I am buying a newspaper
in a strange city and think
"I am about to learn what it's like to live here.
Oftentimes there is a news item
about the complaints of homeowners
who live beside the airport
and I realize that I read an article
on this subject nearly once a year
and always receive the same image.
I am in bed late at night
in my house near the airport
listening to the jets fly overhead
a strange wife sleeping beside me.
In my mind, the bedroom is an amalgamation
of various cold medicine commercial sets
(there is always a box of tissue on the nightstand).
I know these recurring news articles are clues,
flaws in the design though I haven't figured out
how to string them together yet,
but I've begun to notice that the same people
are dying over and over again,
for instance Minnie Pearl
who died this year
for the fourth time in four years.
Today is the first day of Lent
and once again I'm not really sure what it is.
How many more years will I let pass
before I take the trouble to ask someone?
It reminds of this morning
when you were getting ready for work.
I was sitting by the space heater
numbly watching you dress
and when you asked why I never wear a robe
I had so many good reasons
I didn't know where to begin.
If you were cool in high school
you didn't ask too many questions.
You could tell who'd been to last night's
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallway.
You didn't have to ask
and that's what cool was:
the ability to deduct
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don't know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.
A yearbook's endpages, filled with promises
to stay in touch, stand as proof of the uselessness
of a teenager's promise.
Not like I'm dying
for a letter from the class stoner
ten years on but.
Do you remember the way the girls
would call out "love you!"
conveniently leaving out the "I"
as if they didn't want to commit
to their own declarations.
I agree that the "I" is a pretty heavy concept
and hope you won't get uncomfortable
if I should go into some deeper stuff here.
There are things I've given up on
like recording funny answering machine messages.
It's part of growing older
and the human race as a group
has matured along the same lines.
It seems our comedy dates the quickest.
If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes
I hope you won't be insulted
if I say you're trying too hard.
Even sketches from the original Saturday Night Live
seem slow-witted and obvious now.
It's just that our advances are irrepressible.
Nowadays little kids can't even set up lemonade stands.
It makes people too self-conscious about the past,
though try explaining that to a kid.
I'm not saying it should be this way.
All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.
We will travel to Mars
even as folks on Earth
are still ripping open potato chip
bags with their teeth.
Why? I don't have the time or intelligence
to make all the connections
like my friend Gordon
(this is a true story)
who grew up in Braintree Massachusetts
and had never pictured a brain snagged in a tree
until I brought it up.
He'd never broken the name down to its parts.
By then it was too late.
He had moved to Coral Gables.
The hill out my window is still looking beautiful
suffused in a kind of gold national park light
and it seems to say,
I'm sorry the world could not possibly
use another poem about Orpheus
but I'm available if you're not working
on a self-portrait or anything.
I'm watching my dog have nightmares,
twitching and whining on the office floor
and I try to imagine what beast
has cornered him in the meadow
where his dreams are set.
I'm just letting the day be what it is:
a place for a large number of things
to gather and interact --
not even a place but an occasion
a reality for real things.
Friends warned me not to get too psychedelic
or religious with this piece:
"They won't accept it if it's too psychedelic
or religious," but these are valid topics
and I'm the one with the dog twitching on the floor
possibly dreaming of me
that part of me that would beat a dog
for no good reason
no reason that a dog could see.
I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don't disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.
I can't trust the accuracy of my own memories,
many of them having blended with sentimental
telephone and margarine commercials
plainly ruined by Madison Avenue
though no one seems to call the advertising world
"Madison Avenue" anymore.
Have they moved?
Let's get an update on this.
But first I have some business to take care of.
I walked out to the hill behind our house
which looks positively Alaskan today
and it would be easier to explain this
if I had a picture to show you
but I was with our young dog
and he was running through the tall grass
like running through the tall grass
is all of life together
until a bird calls or he finds a beer can
and that thing fills all the space in his head.
his mind can only hold one thought at a time
and when he finally hears me call his name
he looks up and cocks his head
and for a single moment
my voice is everything:
Self-portrait at 28.