Bruce Coffin was born and raised in Woodstock, Vermont and educated at the University of Vermont; Trinity College, Dublin; New York University; and Wesleyan University. He has taught English in independent schools in the U.S. and in England and is a contributor to scholarly journals. Since 1972 he has been on the faculty of Westover. He is married with two grown children, and he divides his time between Middlebury and Woodstock. He has taught English at Westover for 39 years, and we hope to hold on to his expertise in poetry for a few more.
It will be February there,
a foreign-language newspaper
rolling along the dock
in an icy wind, a few
old winos wiping their eyes
over a barrel of fire;
down the streets, mad women
shaking rats from their mops
on each stoop, and odd,
playing with matches and knives.
Then, behind us, trombones:
the horns of the tugs
turning our great gray ship
back into the mist.
They stand, each half a bole higher
up the bare hornstone — the old bone
of the world broken
before the Miocene — their green
caverns ravening wind, sun,
white cloud and bright air,
cries of the hylas. Higher
than houses they are, and higher
still for the hill under them
and full of gold glints and old
winter glooms in their crowdark steeples.
And can they, for all their fathoms-and-fathoms-
deep converse with the light, be blind — and for all their whistling
and trestling, deaf — neither seeing nor hearing
themselves nor the matted monks’ –cloth
acres tumbling buff colored into the greenblush
of April and the frogs’ comic
and cacophonous chorus, “Rack-
ety-ax-ax, rackety – . . .” Ex-
actly! Exactly how
to be beautiful: to know
nothing, nothing of it all,
to be still waving in Eden
a million Aprils ago.
—Peter Kane Dufault
We had gone to the park to kiss, to kiss
one another’s lips. It was
the first kiss. It was winter. There was a ship
crossing an ocean
we didn’t know existed, and
with a cargo of spices
and gold and slaves
and something else
we couldn’t name—that
ship bringing with it
our disease, the one
we’d never heard of, the one
we’d die of sweetly.
Sweetly, we kissed quickly
with our mouths closed.
After years I forget about him, and he
forgets about me. There
is never a path through that damp park. That
park made of memory is always
foggy and gray. The snow
finally melts, but under it all
there’s nothing but newspaper, faded
into the lawn and the sidewalk, until
suddenly it’s spring. The world
is hard as marble, and green.
His children are screaming in his yard
My children are screaming in mine.
They are children.
They know nothing
but the trances of being children.
When the light is dim
I can see through them
and on the other side, there’s him. —Laura Kasischke
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the storm tracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save everyone of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and sisters;
but I felt excited, too,
and scarcely touched my plate.
So my mother scolded me
and sent me to my room.
The whole family’s asleep now
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red-brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.
The View From the Attic Window
Among the high-brancing, leafless boughs
Above the roof-peaks of the town,
Snow flakes unnumberably come down.
I watched out of the attic window
The laced sway of family trees,
Whose strict, reserved gentility,
Trembling, impossible to bow,
Received the appalling fall of snow.
All during Sunday afternoon,
Not storming, but befittingly,
Out of a still, grey, devout sky,
The snowflakes fell, until all shapes
Went under, and thickening, drunken lines
Cobwebbed the sleep of solemn pines.
Up in the attic among many things
Inherited and out of style,
I cried, then fell asleep awhile,
Waking at night now, as the snow-
Flakes from darkness to darkness go
Past yellow lights in the streets below.
I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful.
And like a child I cried myself to sleep
High in the head of the house, feeling the hull
Beneath me pitch and roll among the steep
Mountains and valleys of the many years
That brought me to tears.
Down in the cellar, furnace and washing machine,
Pump, fuse-box, water heater, work their hearts
Out at my life, which narrowly runs between
Them and this cemetery of spare parts
For discontinued men, whose hats and canes
Are my rich remains.
And women, their portraits and wedding gowns
Stacked in the corners, brooding in wooden trunks;
And children’s rattles, books about lions and clowns;
And headless, hanging dresses swayed like drunks
Whenever a living footstep shakes the floor;
I mention no more.
But what I thought today, that made me cry,
Is this, that we live in two kinds of thing:
The powerful trees, thrusting into the sky
Their black patience, are one, and that branching
Relation teaches how we endure and grow;
The other is the snow,
Falling in a white chaos from the sky,
As many as the sands of all the seas,
As all the men who died or who will die,
As stars in heaven, as leaves of all the trees;
As Abraham was promised of his seed;
Till I, high in the tower of my time
Among familiar ruins, began to cry
For accident, sickness, justice, war and crime,
Because all died, because I had to die.
The snow fell, the trees stood, the promise kept,
And a child I slept.
I follow with my mouth the small wing of muscle
under your shoulder, lean over your back, breathing
into your hair and thinking of nothing. I want
to lie down with you under the sails of a wooden sloop
and drift away from all of it, our two cars rusting
in the parking lot, our families whining like tame geese
at feeding time, and all the bosses of the earth
cursing the traffic in the morning haze.
They will telephone each other from their sofas
and glass desks, with no idea of where we could be,
unable to picture the dark throat
of the saxophone player upriver, or the fire
we gather between us on this fantail of dusty light,
having stolen a truckload of roses
and thrown them into the sea.
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou are slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the park. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but ambers, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
They hang around, hitting on your friends
or else you never hear from them again.
They call when they’re drunk, or finally get sober,
they’re passing through town and want dinner,
they take your hand across the table, kiss you
when you come back from the bathroom.
They were your loves, your victims,
your good dogs or bad boys, and they’re over
you now. One writes a book in which a woman
who sounds suspiciously like you
is the first to be sadistically dismembered
by a serial killer. They’re married
and want you to be the first to know,
or they’ve been fired and need a loan,
their new girlfriend hates you,
they say they don’t miss you but show up
in your dreams, calling to you from the shoeboxes
where they’re buried in rows in your basement.
Some nights you find one floating into bed with you,
propped on an elbow, giving you a look
of fascination, a look that says I can’t believe
I’ve found you. It’s the same way
your current boyfriend gazed at you last night,
before he pulled the plug on the tiny white lights
above the bed, and moved against you in the dark
broken occasionally by the faint restless arcs
of headlights from the freeway’s passing trucks,
the big rigs that travel and travel,
hauling their loads between cities, warehouses,
following the familiar routes of their loneliness.
Today the snow is drifting
on Belle Isle, and the ducks
are searching for some opening
to the filthy waters of their river.
On Grand River Avenue, which is not
in Venice but in Detroit, Michigan,
the traffic has slowed to a standstill
and yet a sober man has hit a parked car
and swears to the police he was
not guilty. The bright squads of children
on their way to school howl
at the foolishness of the world
they will try not to inherit.
Seen from inside a window,
even a filthy one like those
at Automotive Supply Company, the snow
which has been falling for hours
is more beautiful than even the spring
grass which once unfurled here
before the invention of steel and fire,
for spring grass is what the earth sang
in answer to the new sun, to
melting snow, and the dark rain
of spring nights. But snow is nothing.
It has no melody or form, it
is as though the tears of all
the lost souls rose to heaven
and were finally heard and blessed
with substance and the power of flight
and given their choice chose then
to return to earth, to lay their
great pale cheek against the burning
cheek of earth and say, There, there, child.
A Gyre from Brother Jack
The canvas, called A Morning Long Ago,
Hangs now in Dublin’s National Gallery
Of Ireland, and for capturing the flow
Of life, its radiant circularity,
Yeats the painter leaves Yeats the poet beaten flat.
I hear you saying, “How can he say that?”
But look. Here is the foyer of a grand
Theatre. It is always interval.
On the upper level, brilliant people stand.
What they have seen inside invests them all
With liquid light, and some of them descend
The sweet, slow, curving, anti-clockwise bend
Of staircase and go out into that park
Where yet another spectacle has formed:
A lake made bright by the oncoming dark.
And at the left of that, white wings have stormed
Upward towards where this rondeau begins.
Birds? Angels? Avatars? Forgiven sins?
He doesn’t say: the aspect I like best.
William had theories. Jack has just the thrill.
We see a little but we miss the rest,
And what we keep to ponder, time will kill.
The lives we might have led had we but known
Check out at dawn and take off on their own
Even as we arrive. Sad, it might seem,
When talked about: but shown, it shines like day.
The only realistic general scheme
Of the divine is in this rich display—
Proof that the evanescent present tense
Is made eternal by our transience.
The Abominable Snowman
Up here on the forehead of the world, it’s always
cold. On the other hand, there’s very little crime.
My wife and I live in a cave way above the snow
line. It’s a simple life with no distractions to
speak of. There’s lots of foraging. Otherwise
we practice nonchalance. For fun, we leave
footprints and sometimes intriguing scat
a cameraman has to take a close-up of.
There’s always a cameraman, part of a team:
someone in a Nessie baseball hat, and this time
ardent Nora who wants to be the first woman
to photograph us. She thinks the men have
gone about it all wrong and her notes, pinned
to a glacier, are charming: Help me believe!
And I have fire. Really. In her journal, which I
pilfer while they sleep or hike, Nora’s worried
about her hair. She’s planned an assignation
with a man she met on the plane. Well, well.
Someone handsomer than I, no doubt. Still,
I like her, so I grunt into a tape recorder
before I leave and urinate into a hat, not the one
she planned to wear for her rendezvous in Bhutan,
The wise men; Joseph; the tiny Infant; Mary;
the cows; the drovers, each with his dromedary;
the bulking shepherds in their sheepskins—they
have all become toy figures made of clay.
In the cotton-batting snow that’s strewn with glints,
a fire is blazing. You’d like to touch the tinsel
star with a finger—or all five of them,
as the infant wished to do in Bethlehem.
All this, in Bethlehem, was of greater size.
Yet the clay, round which the drifted cotton lies,
with tinsel overhead, feels good to be
enacting what we can no longer see.
Now you are huge compared to them, and high
beyond their ken. Like a midnight passerby
who finds the pane of some small hut aglow,
you peer from the cosmos at this little show.
There life goes on, although the centuries
require that some diminish by degrees,
while others grow, like you. The small folk there
contend with granular snow and icy air,
and the smallest reaches for the breast, and you
half wish to clench your eyes, or step into
a different galaxy, in whose wastes there shine
more lights than there were sands in Palestine.
–Joseph Brodsky (translated by Richard Wilbur)
When we tried to blast free of Earth’s pull,
whirling debris hammered us in near space—
a toaster, a blender, spare parts to satellites,
Father’s putting iron, Baby’s bronze shoe;
we had to turn back with a breached hull
and touch down on the launchpad
where the brass band, which had plodded to see us off,
welcomed us with sardonic oompahs. No Mars,
no Venus, no moons of Jupiter; we would grow old
to “Summertime” on a dented tuba, self-hating trumpet,
trombone uncoiling like a mantis, each reprise
the last, in the flickering light of storms.
You Don’t Know What Love Is
You don’t know what love is
but you know how to raise it in me
like a dead girl winched up from a river. How to
wash off the sludge, the stench of our past.
How to start clean. This love even sits up
and blinks; amazed, she takes a few shaky steps.
Any day now she’ll try to eat solid food. She’ll want
to get into a fast car, one low to the ground, and drive
to some cinderblock shithole in the desert
where she can drink and get sick and then
dance in nothing but her underwear. You know
where she’s headed, you know she’ll wake up
with an ache she can’t locate and no money
and a terrible thirst. So to hell
with your warm hands sliding inside my shirt
and your tongue down my throat
like an oxygen tube. Cover me
in black plastic. Let the mourners through.
All year they’ve given things away:
lipsticks, stockings, movie tickets,
wiper blades and cigarette money.
At dawn they stand over our sleeping bodies
gazing into our faces, into our future.
Then they stay outdoors after dinner
smoking, watching the road turn dark
and they don’t want to come back inside.
Ten thousand of them have rested later
under a gray coat still wet with rain
in their belt buckles and reading glasses,
their hatbands and tobacco smells.
When they all asleep
night collects in their palms,
miles of track turn bright with dew
and a net of stars rises
over the river. They hear a voice
asking for order, asking for quiet
while the world tilts away from the sun
and the shadows grow long at the end of fall
over the wisps and stubble,
over the dust and chaff.
Snails spit glistening threads on my poor pansies, chewed to lace.
Let me not hear one more rattler when I walk up the canyon!
Darwinian nineteenth century crepuscular dread overcomes me
when the sun goes down and some thing scuttles in the attic.
That’s a bit of a lie, but I’ve succeeded in saying crepuscular.
You could say I’ve had a yes/no relationship with nature.
Sunning themselves on the patio, geckos, of whom I’m not fond, do
I swoosh my broom around, a warning to centipedes oozing their way
across the carpet.
This is the deal: we all stay where we belong, and no one gets hurt.
I was satisfied with haiku until I met you,
jar of octopus, cuckoo’s cry, 5-7-5,
but now I want a Russian novel,
a 50-page description of you sleeping,
another 75 of what you think staring out
a window. I don’t care about the plot
although I suppose there will have to be one,
the usual separation of the lovers, turbulent
seas, danger of decommission in spite
of constant war, time in gulps and glitches
passing, squibs of threnody, a fallen nest,
speckled eggs somehow uncrushed, the sled
outracing the wolves on the steppes, the huge
glittering ball where all that matters
is a kiss at the end of a dark hall.
At dawn the officers ride back to the garrison,
one without a glove, the entire last chapter
about a necklace that couldn’t be worn
inherited by a great-niece
along with the love letters bound in silk.
Day of the Dead
Last night the owl swooped low overhead
and dropped a torn hen carcass
on the neighbor’s roof,
red feathers scattered, feet hanging down
which they’ve left sprawled on the shingles
like some occult sign
hoping to see him return,
and here come the children up the walk
through the pine mulch and drizzle
into my yellow porch light:
Count Dracula with porcelain fangs,
a five-year-old Cleopatra
wearing a vest with gold trim.
All day I’ve tried to ignore the ice cream truck
jingling its bell past the cemetery
where the tramp in his watch cap sings to himself
like a mad general or movie director:
Jean Cocteau letting the stage dust
filter the twilit underworld
where death looks like a torch singer
who wants to make love to Orpheus,
or Sam Peckinpah with his bullets and dynamite
getting ready to blow up the water tower,
the script in one hand and a gin in the other
keeping an eye out for beauty.
They held my friend’s funeral yesterday
out west under the night’s long windows,
under its dying stars,
my friend who didn’t trust doctors or cops,
who left behind him the green country roads
and the tilted black streets of town,
who left behind the pale flower
whose delicate roots they never could find
blooming inside his brain.
The children paw through the sugar skulls,
their big sister hanging back in the shadows
whispering into her cell phone
like a homicide detective,
the vampire count and Egyptian queen,
history’s most famous suicide.
Listen to the night freight coming down,
its engines, its wheels, its sacks of ripe grain,
its gray rats grown fat by the iron tracks,
its love-moan traveling back through the rain.
Now I Can No Longer Use You
Now I can no longer use you
as a rose in my love poems:
you are much too large, much too beautiful
and much, much too much yourself.
Now I can really only look at you
as one looks at a river
which has found its own bed
and enjoys it in each of its movements
each of its turns, each of its fish
and each of its sunsets
between the mountains
which are mine and mine alone
because you have carved your way through them.
Now I can only mirror myself
in your calm flowing waters
along with the fallen petals of flowers
the barges and the deserted mining towns
where your lovers get drunk
and drown themselves in your moonshine
and are washed up on the banks
in the distant country where we meet in our dreams.
Pigeons at Dawn
Extraordinary efforts are being made
To hide things from us, my friend.
Some stay up into the wee hours
To search their souls.
Others undress each other in darkened rooms.
The creaky old elevator
Took us down to the icy cellar first
To show us a mop and a bucket
Before it deigned to ascend again
With a sigh of exasperation.
Under the vast, early-dawn sky
The city lay silent before us.
Everything on hold:
Rooftops and water towers,
Clouds and wisps of white smoke.
We must be patient, we told ourselves,
See if the pigeons will coo now
For the one who comes to her window
To feed them angel cake,
All but invisible, but for her slender arm.
“Upon Julia’s Breasts”
Who now reads Herrick? —Allen Tate
Since our prescriptive age cannot abide
the mannish gazing that’s objectified
the female shape (both gamine-slim and more
curvaceous in its lineaments), I swore
correctness, chiefly to avoid the din
one risks to laud the callipygian.
So, turning chicken, now I praise your skin
rubbed with fresh herbs; and hungrily begin
to taste the parts you help me to prepare,
so plump, for my delight; and, ravished, dare
to broadcast that your white meat drives me wild,
dear circummortal chef, sweet Julia Child.
The storm shakes out its sheets
against the darkening window:
the glass flinches under thrown hail.
Unhinged, the television slips its hold,
streams into black and white
then silence, as the lines go down.
Her postcards stir on the shelf, tip over;
the lights of Calais trip out one by one.
He cannot tell her
how the geese scull back at twilight,
how the lighthouse walks its beam
across the trenches of the sea.
He cannot tell her how the open night
swings like a door without her,
how he is the lock
and she is the key.
The End of Summer School
At dawn today the spider’s web was cold
With dew as heavy as silver to the sight,
Where, kicked and spun, with clear wings befouled,
Lay in the shrouds some victims of the night.
This morning, too, as if they had decided,
A few first leaves came loose and drifted down
Still slopes of air; in silence they paraded
Their ominous detachment to the lawn.
How strange and slow the many apples ripened
And suddenly were red beneath the bough.
A master of our school has said this happened
“Quiet as grass can ruminate a cow.”
And now the seeds go on their voyages,
Drifting, gliding, spinning in quiet storms
Obedient to the air’s lightest laws;
And where they fall, a few will find their forms.
And baby spiders, on their shining threads,
The middle air make glisten gold all day;
Sailing, as if the sun had blessed their roads,
Hundreds of miles, and sometimes out to sea.
This is the end of summer school, the change
Behind the green wall and the steady weather:
Something that turns upon a hidden hinge
Brings down the dead leaf and live seed together.
And of the strength that slowly warps the stars
To strange harbors, the learned pupil knows
How adamant the anvil, fierce the hearth
Where imperceptible summer turns the rose.
You write that you are tired,
That even language has failed you,
That each sentence doubts itself halfway through.
I start to type, “This rage
For order…” but run out of words,
And the letters fall to pieces on the page.
Monday arrives wordless,
Sun-struck, August wind in the chimes
As birds flit past, elusive as their names.
Last week a black guy bigger
Than me, and much to my surprise,
Pronounced me to be an “artificial nigger.”
Otherwise, there’s no sound
Of anyone else’s voice for days
On end, save yours through the splice and fray
Long distance, I watch, I
Wait for the mail to come around,
Then stand there disappointed under the sky.
This living alone is
Endless language left unmeasured,
And the slow coming on of sleep a pleasure
Sadder than being young.
I wake to speak, and the word was
Breaks sweeter than any berry on my tongue.
And summer mornings the mute child. rebellious,
Stupid, hating the words, the meanings, hating
The Think now, Think, the Oh but Think! would leave
On tiptoe the three chairs on the verandah
And crossing tree by tree the empty lawn
Push back the shed door and upon the sill
Stand pressing the sunlight from his eyes
And enter and with outstretched fingers feel
The grindstone and behind it the bare wall
And turn and in the corner on the cool
Hard earth sit listening. And one by one,
Out of the dazzled shadow in the room,
The shapes would gather, the brown plowshare, spades
Mattocks, the polished helves of picks, a scythe
Hung from the rafters, shovels, slender tines
Glinting across the curve of sickles—shapes
Older than men were, the wise tools, the iron
Friendly with earth. And sit there, quiet, breathing
The harsh dry smell of withered bulbs, the faint
Odor of dung, the silence. And outside
Beyond the half-shut door the blind leaves
And the corn moving. And at noon would come,
Up from the garden, his hard crooked hands
Gentle with earth, his knees still earth-stained, smelling
Of sun, of summer, the old gardener, like
A priest, like an interpreter, and bend
Over his baskets.
And they would not speak:
They would say nothing. And the child would sit there
Happy as though he had no name, as though
He had been no one: like a leaf, a stem,
Like a root growing—
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer—
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
—Carol Ann Duffy
This is for you, goddess that you are.
This is a record for us both, this is a chronicle.
There should be more of them, they should be lyrical
and factual, and true, they should be written down
and spoken out on rainy afternoons, instead of which
they fall away; so I have written this, so it will not.
My last childless winter was the same
as all the other ones. Outside my window
the motherless landscape hoarded its own kind.
Light fattened the shadows; frost harried the snowdrops.
There was a logic to it, the way my mother loved astrology—
she came from a valley in the country
where everything that was haphazard and ill-timed
about our history had happened and so it seemed natural
that what she wanted most were the arts of the predetermined.
My child was born at the end of winter. How to prove it?
Not the child, of course, who slept in pre-spring darkness,
but the fact that the ocean—moonless, stripped of current—
entered the room quietly one evening and
lay down in the weave of the rug, and could be seen
shifting and sighing in blue-green sisal and I said
nothing about it, then or later, to anyone and when
the spring arrived I was ready to see a single field in
the distance on the Dublin hills allow its heathery color
to detach itself and come upstairs and settle in
the corner of the room farthest from the window.
I could, of course, continue. I could list for you
a whole inventory of elements and fixed entities
that broke away and found themselves disordered in
that season—assembling, dispersing—and without
a thought for laws that until then had barred
an apple flower from opening out at midnight
or lilac rooting in the coldest part of ocean.
Then it stopped. Little by little what was there came back.
Slowly at first; then surely. I realized what had happened
was secret, hardly possible, to be remembered always,
which is why you are listening as rain comes down,
restored to its logic, responsive to air and land
and I am telling you this: you are after all
not simply the goddess of memory, you have
nine daughters yourself and can understand.
Heavy from her steady bellying,
the mare comes due.
of ten Kentuckies or the horse farms
east of Buffalo prepares you
for the silk of that first fur.
You’ve seen the Easter foals stilting
in toy gallops by their almost
from watching what the breeding
of Arabia will hone from all
that spindliness: in weeks the fetlocks
shapelier; in months the girth below
the withers sinewed like a harp;
in years the stance and prancing
that will stop a crowd.
But now the colt’s nudging
for horse milk nullifies a dream
to come of stallions.
it is enough to know that something
can arrive so perfectly and stand
upright among so many fallen
miracles and, standing, fill
the suddenly all-sacred barn
with trumpets and a memory of kings.
SHE WAS A DOVE
Redare her eyes, for she was a dove once,
and green was her neck and blue and gray her throat,
croon was her cry and noisy flutter her wing once
going for water, or reaching up for another note.
And yellow her bill, though white some, and red her feet,
though not to match her eyes, for they were more suave,
those feet, and he who bore down above her
his feathers dropped around her like chaff from wheat.
And black was her mood, consider a dove that black,
as if some avian fury had overcome her
and overtaken my own oh lackadaisical state,
for she was the one I loved and I abused her.
Blue we lived in, blue was our country seat,
and wrote our letters out on battered plates
and fought injustice and once or twice French-kissed there
and took each other out on desperate dates.
And it was a question always should we soar —
like eagles, you know — or should we land and stay,
the battle I fought for sixty years or more
and still go over every day.
And there was a spot of orange above the bone
that bore a wing, though I could never explain
how that was what I lived and died for
or that it blossomed in the brain.
— Gerald Stern
This poem was discovered years after Larkin’s death (1985) in a letter to his secretary written while he was spending a weekend at All Souls College, Oxford in February, 1976. It was first published in an issue of the Larkin Society Newsletter in 2003.
We met at the end of the party
When all of the drinks were dead
And all the glasses dirty:
“Have this that’s left”, you said.
We walked through the last of
When shadows reached long and blue
Across days that were growing
You said: ”There’s autumn too”.
Always for you what’s finished
Is nothing, and what survives
Cancels the failed, the famished,
As if we had fresh lives
From that night on, and just
Could make me unaware
Of June and the guests arriving,
And I not there.
We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in one single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano, and in speech,
As in a page of poetry —
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos,
The way, when we climb a mountain,
Vermont throws itself together.
— Wallace Stevens
An Elegy for My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears
I knew we had to grieve for the animals
a long time ago: weep for them, pity them.
I knew it was our strange human duty
to write their elegies after we arranged their demise.
I was young then and able for the paradox.
I am older now and ready with the question:
what happened to them all? I mean to those
old dumb implements which have
no eyes to plead with us like theirs,
no claim to make on us like theirs? I mean
there was a singing kettle. I want to know
why no one tagged its neck or ringed the tin
base of its extinct design or crouched to hear
its rising shriek in winter or wrote it down with
the birds in their blue sleeve of air
torn away with the trees that sheltered them.
And there were the brass firedogs which lay out
all evening on the grate and in the heat
thrown at them by the last of the peat fire
but no one noted down their history or put them
in the old packs under the slate-blue moonlight.
There was a wooden clotheshorse, absolutely steady
without sinews, with no main and no meadows
to canter in: carrying instead of
landlords or Irish monks, rinsed tea cloths
but still, I would have thought, worth adding to
the catalogue of what we need, what we always need
as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reaches out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts—language, language—
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate.
Newspapers: titles, titles, deaths, births, wars, deaths, marriages—
the same ones we read about last year. The bag over there with the
a long marble table; the other one, green: billiard table.
The good-looking boy with the tray listens behind the door.
Anatomy: didactic, tiring. The invariable. And anger all hollow.
Late at night a perforated moon comes up. The clouds run over
Old chimney sweeps sit on the public park benches,
quiet old men, with bronchitis, retired now. “A black hole,” they
“the world is a black hole.” They’re quiet. They cough. They
don’t get angry.
Analysis of soot, dissolution, blackness reconstituted. Across the
behind the curtains, the light comes on. A little girl is playing the
The horse beneath me seemed
To know what course to steer
Through the horror of snow I dreamed,
And so I had no fear,
Nor was I chilled to death
By the wind’s white shudders, thanks
To the veils of his patient breath
And the mist of sweat from his flanks.
It seemed that all night through,
Within my hand no rein
And nothing in my view
But the pillar of his mane,
I rode with magic ease
At a quick, unstumbling trot
Through shattered vacancies
On into what was not,
Till the weave of the storm grew thin,
With a threading of cedar-smoke,
And the ice-blind pane of an inn
Shimmered, and I awoke.
How shall I now get back
To the inn-yard where he stands,
Burdened with every lack,
And waken the stable-hands
To give him, before I think
That there was no horse at all,
Some hay, some water to drink,
A blanket and a stall?
- Richard Wilbur
Our Beautiful West Coast Thing
We are a coast people
There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.
I sit here dreaming
long thoughts of California
at the end of a November day
below a cloudy twilight
near the Pacific
listening to The Mamas and The Papas
singing a song about breaking
somebody’s heart and digging it!
I think I’ll get up
and dance around the room.
Here I go!
The Room in Which My First Child Slept
After a while I thought of it this way:
It was a town underneath a mountain
crowned by snow and every year a river
rushed through, enveloping the dusk
in a noise everyone knew signaled spring –
a small town known for a kind of calico
made there, strong and unglazed,
a makeshift of cotton in which the actual
unseparated husks still remained and
could be found if you looked behind
the coarse daisies and the red-billed bird
with swept-back wings always trying to
arrive safely on the inch or so of cotton it
might have occupied if anyone had offered it.
And if you ask me now what happened to it –
the town that is – the answer is of course
there was no town, it never actually
existed, and the calico, the glazed cotton
on which a bird never landed is not gone,
because it never was, never once, but then
how to explain that sometimes I can hear
the river in those first days of April, making
its way through the dusk, having learned
to speak the way I once spoke, saying
as if I didn’t love you,
as if I wouldn’t have died for you.
Call as You Will
the sun makes
up its mind
(in the most
vivid of vivid
and now is
good in the
Out for a deadbolt, light bulbs
and two-by-fours, I find a flock
of sparrows safe from hawks
and weather under the roof
of Lowe’s amazing discount
store. They skitter from the racks
of stockpiled posts and hoses
to a spill of winter birdseed
on the concrete floor. How
they know to forage here,
I can’t guess, but the automatic
door is close enough,
and we’ve had a week
of storms. They are, after all,
ubiquitous, though poor,
their only song an irritating noise,
and yet they soar
to offer, amid hardware, rope
and handyman brochures,
some relief, as if a flurry
of notes from Mozart swirled
from seed to ceiling, entreating
us to set aside our evening
chores and take grace where
we find it, saying it is possible,
even in this month of flood,
blackout and frustration,
to float once more on sheer
survival and the shadowy
bliss we exist to endure.
R. T. Smith
Here’s this week’s poem. Dawn Potter will be reading at Westover this Friday night. B.C.
The Land of Spices
In the 1970s, what seeker ever laid
eyes on a nutmeg grater? Something called
nutmeg leapt fully formed
from red-white-and-black Durkee boxes,
a harmless grist, innocently beige,
dry as the moon, sandy as kibble,
which mothers tapped by scant
teaspoons into One-Pie pumpkin and scattered
thriftily onto skim-milk Junket.
“Makes food look pretty!”
vowed the label, but nutmeg
wasn’t meant to be anything;
and if a child fell asleep on the sofa
with the library’s black-leather
Dickens flung open on her chest
and dreamed of Peggotty’s
red forefinger, rough as a nutmeg
grater, smelling of lye and ancient
floors, she dreamed in similes
vague as chivalry.
Then how was it that this child
born to inherit our Age of Convenience
felt so exactly the pine-cone
scrape of that phantom finger
against her sunburnt cheek?
Had callow Shelley turned out to be right
after all, blabbing his shrill claptrap
at Godwin’s high-toned soirée—
“My opinion of love is that it
acts upon the human
heart precisely as a nutmeg
grater acts upon a nutmeg”—
and was the dog-eared, grade-school
social studies book just as true,
chanting its ode of immortality for those
glory-hunters . . . da Gama,
Magellan . . . who bartered
their souls for cumin and cardamom,
vanilla and myrrh, for rattling
casks of seed more precious than prayer?
Because if the Land of Spices
is something understood,a dream well dressed,
a kind of tune, brown and sweet,
round as earth,
ragged as our laboring flesh,
then even in 1975, in the empire’s
smallest outpost, in a kitchen
pure as Saran Wrap, the slow palms sway
and the milky scent of paradise
lingers on the clean south wind:
our ordinary heaven,
this seven-day world,
transposing in an hour, as a child
snaps her flip-flops against a chair,
gobbles saltines and orange soda,
and grates away at her own
hungry heart—word, after word,
after sounding, star-bent word.
THE OLD WORLD
for Dan and Jeanne
I believe in the soul; so far
It hasn’t made much difference.
I remember an afternoon in Sicily.
The ruins of some temple.
Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.
The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious
And so did the wine
With which I toasted the coming night,
The darting swallows,
The Saracen wind and moon.
It got darker. There was something
Long before there were words:
The evening meal of shepherds…
A fleeting whiteness among the trees…
Eternity eavesdropping on time.
The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.
A Little Tooth
Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you
your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
CHRISTMAS EVE IN WHITNEYVILLE
December, and the closing of the year;
The momentary carolers complete
Their Christmas Eves, and quickly disappear
Into their houses on each lighted street.
Each car is put away in each garage;
Each husband home from work, to celebrate,
Has closed his home around him like a cage,
And wedged the tree until the tree stood straight.
Tonight you lie in Whitneyville again,
Near where you lived, and near the woods or farms
Which Eli Whitney settled with the men
Who worked at mass-producing firearms.
The main street, which was nothing after all
Except a school, a stable, and two stores,
Was improvised and individual,
Picking its way alone, among the wars.
Now Whitneyville is like the other places,
Ranch houses stretching flat beyond the square,
Same stores and movie, same composite faces
Speaking the language of the public air.
Old houses of brown shingle still surround
This graveyard where you wept when you were ten
And helped to set a coffin in the ground.
You left a friend from school behind you then,
And now return, a man of fifty-two.
Talk to the boy. Tell him about the years
When Whitneyville quadrupled, and how you
And all his friends went on to make careers,
Had cars as long as hayracks, boarded planes
For Rome or Paris where the pace was slow
And took the time to think how yearly gains,
Profit and volume made the business grow.
“The things I had to miss,” you said last week,
“Or thought I had to, take my breath away.”
You propped yourself on pillows, where your cheek
Was hollow, stubbled lightly with new gray.
This love is jail, another sets us free.
Tonight the houses and their noise distort
The thin rewards of solidarity.
The houses lean together for support.
The noises fail, and lights go on upstairs.
The men and women are undressing now
To go to sleep. They put their clothes on chairs
To take them up again. I think of how,
All over Whitneyville, when midnight comes,
They lie together and are quieted,
To sleep as children sleep, who suck their thumbs,
Cramped in the narrow rumple of each bed.
They will not have unpleasant thoughts tonight.
They make their houses jails, and they will take
No risk of freedom for the appetite,
Or knowledge of it, when they are awake.
The lights go out and it is Christmas day.
The stones are white, the grass is black and deep.
I will go back and leave you here to stay
Where the dark houses harden into sleep.
Cobwebs on the Hillside
You could explain it away
as the house bracing
for sea fog laid against it,
but I woke to oarlocks
and the creaking
of a wooden boat, then
footsteps I could follow
by ear from tree to tree.
Only mist dripping
off branches, maybe,
though all night
I overheard the music of
flirtation out there,
harmonies fitted to each other
as you and I curl
together in sleep.
The hill dreaming its dead
up again, its happy isle
of Atwoods and Snows,
Dyers and Smalls
we know vestigially:
a wild roadside asparagus
fern, a wormed cedar
fencepost the barn swallows
have stuffed with mud
and straw. Before coffee
and sense take hold, look
out at these sheet webs
the spiders make and fog
lifts into sight, these
napkins of some long-ago
breakfast in the grass.
- Brendan Galvin
A CERTAIN KIND OF EDEN
It seems like you could, but
You can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them–
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.
A SPELL BEFORE WINTER
After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October’s flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.
Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac’s candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land’s voice,
It is a cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.
- Howard Nemerov
AT A COUNTRY HOTEL
(a young widow with two pretty children)
“I watched the seeds come down this afternoon
Over the lawn, the garden and the gravel drive.
Even on the pool, where the children sailed
The paper boats you made them – paper boats
Among the lilies, frightening the frogs –
Seeds fell and were sailing.
“I never get tired of watching how the seeds
Break from that high sea of silver and green
Branches to tumble and drift, to glide and spin
Down. It makes me think of falling asleep,
The way people say, I mean, “falling’ asleep,
As if it were really a falling.
“Summer is gone, and the fire is almost out….
How tired they were with playing!
Will they dream about their boats? Autumn is here, the night
Is rainy, with a cold wind; and still the seeds
Are falling, falling in the darkness. Or else it is
The rain that taps at the window.”
It is late. He does not speak, will never speak.
She goes to the children sleeping, and he dreams
A kindly harbor, delicate with waves,
Where the tethered dories, rocking, rise and fall,
Until the high sail heightens, coming home
To landfalls of the lily and the ash.
– Howard Nemerov
It’s autumn. Are there more of us,
or is it just the illusion
of weakened gravity and doubling wind–
more flocks of letters lifting from the desk,
more rapid hikes to smooth the loose paths down.
Squirrels drilling, frantic, random,
are the old rumor confirmed
by wildflowers hitching the country road.
More of them, but all
one hard family, Compositae
(aster, goldenrod, and thistle),
except the small umbrellas of wild carrot,
touchingly precise, but useless now.
More rooms and wools, more fires
and darkness behind them. More
of our one kind–the wanting.
What flies is starling; what stays, brown.
And all thrown sideways as the planet corners
on the thrill we thought was death, but is
miles and miles of what we failed to be.
Beyond the Cloud People
By cloud people I mean elderly women
whose white hair poofs out: cumulocirrus.
Between the filaments blue ether flows.
It would be peaceful to lean my face in. . . .
Why don’t I? After all, it’s okay to touch
a pregnant woman, an acquaintance, where she feels
the baby move; I feel it too. We love
the unborn because we love the ideal
of a safe place where even as adults
we can, as over a campfire, warm our hands.
But a cloud hairdo looks cool, cold
as a person’s last pillow. Oblivion we solo.
Here is this week’s poem for the blog; it’s a little change of pace in anticipation of our upcoming parents’ weekend. Enjoy, B.C.
My mother writes from Trenton,
a comedian to the bone
but underneath serious
and all heart. “Honey,” she says,
“be a mensch and Mary too,
it’s no good, to worry, you
are doing the best you can
your Dad and everyone
thinks you turned out very well
as long as you can pay your bills
nobody can say a word
you can tell them, to drop dead
so save a dollar it can’t
hurt–remember Frank you went
to highschool with? he still lives
with his wife’s mother, his wife
works while he writes his books and
did he ever sell a one
the four kids run around naked
36, and he’s never had,
you’ll forgive my expression
even a pot to piss in
or a window to throw it,
such a smart boy he couldn’t
read the footprints on the wall
honey you think you know all
the answers you don’t, please, try
to put some money away
believe me it wouldn’t hurt
artist schmartist life’s too short
for that kind of, forgive me,
horseshit, I know what you want
better than you, all that counts
is to make a good living
and the best of everything,
as Sholem Aleichem said,
he was a great writer did
you ever read his books dear,
you should make what he makes a year
anyway he says some place
Poverty is no disgrace
but it’s no honor either
that’s what I say,
Lord, it is time. The summer was very big.
Lay thy shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go loose.
Command the last fruits that they shall be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them on to fulfillment and drive
the last sweetness into the heavy vine.
Who has no house now, will build him one no more.
Who is alone now, long will so remain,
will walk, read, write long letters
and will in the avenues to and fro
restlessly wander, when the leaves are blowing.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
Before the days of self-service,
when you never had to pump your own gas,
I was the one who did it for you, the girl
who stepped out at the sound of a bell
with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back
in a straight, unlovely ponytail.
This was before automatic shutoffs
and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,
I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas
backed up, came arcing out of the hole
in a bright gold wave and soaked me – face, breasts,
belly and legs. And I had to hurry
back to the booth, the small employee bathroom
with the button lock, to change my uniform,
peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin
and wash myself in the sink.
Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt
pure and amazed –the way the amber gas
glazed my flesh, the searing
subterranean pain of it, how my skin
shimmered and ached, glowed
like rainbowed oil on the pavement.
I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,
for the first time, in love, that man waiting
patiently in the future like a red leaf
on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty
that asks to be noticed.
How was I to know
it would begin this way: every cell of my body
burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me
a nimbus of light that would carry me
through the days, how when he found me,
weeks later, he would find me like that,
an ordinary woman who could rise
in flame, all he would have to do
is come in close and touch me.
This week’s poem for my poetry blog is by Todd Boss. It has to be set in just this form, which is that of a tornado, since that is, in part, what the poem is about.
Not Crash, Nor Roar
but chug of train is how survivors
tend to explain the score of an oncoming twister. Queer
to compare a work of nature to so
tame a thing as steel wheels riding parallel rails,
but isn’t that how terror assails us: by masquerading
its powers as everyday things, spinning clouds
into funnels, towers into tunnels?
And do we ascertain the sound as locomotive
while the tornado’s rough tongue touches down,
or do we apply the metaphoric construction
only after the destruction blows town?
And if the latter, doesn’t the sound describe
not terror’s arrival, but safety’s departure,
as it rumbles over the switches of our survival?
Does it ever get easier for us, the lovelorn,
hugging ourselves against the strain
of being left behind,
on a platform,
in the rain?
The following poem was chosen by Jo Dexter and Bruce Coffin and is by Todd Boss, a poet who will be reading his poetry at Westover this week. Read the full story on our website!
What Yesterday Appeared a Scar
of brilliant green
in the icy lake, today
arcs blue across its face and far.
And where this morning
still is frozen,
coming hours will warm until
the water’s softer
nature’s finally chosen.
Half my life is gone
to others’ business,
which, well done or not, it
matters not but that it’s gone
and won’t be gotten back.
And half my love is wasted too.
Wasted not on you, where all my
deeps and deeps of love
are dammed and so belong,
but on loving you
wrong. My sorrow
is tomorrow’s only season,
and it comes on now
like this cold thaw comes
upon the lake,
or like a soft song one sings to sing
the past to sleep,
only to keep it wide awake.
Like a dream, which when one
becomes conscious of it
becomes a confusion, so her name
slipped between the vacancies.
As little more than a child
I hurried among the phalanx
of rowdy boys across a dance floor–
such a clattering of black shoes.
Before us sat a row of girls
in pastel dresses waiting.
One sat to the right. I uttered
some clumsy grouping of sounds.
She glanced up to where I stood
and the brightness of her eyes
made small explosions within me.
That’s all that’s left.
I imagine music, an evening,
a complete story, but truly
there is only her smile and my response–
warm fingerprints crowding my chest.
A single look like an inch of canvas
cut from a painting: the shy complicity,
the expectation of pleasure, the eager
pushing forward into the mystery.
Maybe I was fourteen. Pressed
to the windows, night bloomed
in the alleyways and our futures
rushed off like shafts of light.
My hands against the small of a back,
the feel of a dress, that touch
of starched fabric, its damp warmth–
was that her or some other girl?
Scattered fragments, scattered faces–
the way a breeze at morning
disperses mist across a pond,
so the letters of her name
return to the alphabet. Her eyes,
were they gray? How can we not love
this world for what it gives us? How
can we not hate it for what it takes away?
Now can I say?
On that blackest day,
When I learned of
The uncountable, the hell-bent obscenity,
I felt, with shame, a seed in me,
Powerful and inarticulate:
I wanted to be pregnant.
Women in the street flowing toward
Home, dazed with grief, and my daze
Admixed with jealous awe, I wondered
If they were,
Or wished for it too,
To be full, to be forming
To be giving our blood’s food
To the yet to be.
To feel the warp of morning’s
Hormonal chucking, the stutter kiss
Of first movement. At first,
The idea of sex a further horror:
To take pleasure in a collision
Of bodies was vile, self-centered, too lush.
But the pushy, ennobling pulse
Of the ordinary won’t halt
For good taste. Or knows nothing of tragedy.
Thus. Today I have a boy
A week old. Blessed surplus.
A third child.
Have you heard mothers,
Matter-of-fact, call the third
The insurance policy?
That wasn’t why.
And not because when so many people
Die we want, crudely pining,
To replace them with more people.
But for the wild, heaven-grazing
Pleasure and pain of the arrival.
The small head crushed and melony
After a journey
Out. Sheer cliff
Of the first day, flat in bed, gut-empty,
Ringed by memories and sharp cries.
Sharp bliss in proximity to the roundness,
The globe already set spin, particular,
Of a whole new life.
Which might in any case
End in towering sorrow.