Elderly Couple

Those last two weeks of August before we too are married, before we

recognize another soul in town, we meet them walking here at evening,

nod, and smile hello. Until we don't awhile, then never again. Small rabbits

tensely watch us pass from the long uncut grass between headstones

where they believe they are safe. They have gone to school with stones to

learn patience and motionlessness. Rapidly graying, dissolving into one

substance with the dusk, they are so still they tremble. They are troubled

by a fear whose source they have no way of comprehending, combined

with the equally incomprehensible delight of children playing hide-and-

seek as it gets dark, sooner, enormously, with every passing day, and they

become aware in waves of being older than a person they were only

yesterday. While the trees sway soundlessly high overhead, the breeze

and first visible stars seem, if anything, younger. Mothers stand in yellow

kitchen windows pretending to listen to fathers quietly, inconsequentially

droning on behind them in the deepening evening, even when they are

the voices of men no longer alive. They say things like "Any day above

ground is a good day..." And what would they have known about that?

The mothers stand completely still, they will never turn around. Standing

with his back to a tree, barely breathing, a boy wonders if he is going to

be the one abruptly struck down from above, swiftly carried aloft over the

first soft lights of town by huge wings, never to be seen again, and decides

that he probably won't, and for a minute is perfectly happy.

Mt. Feake Cemetery, 1999

-
Franz Wright

Just Yesterday


Before prayer in the schools we had the Crusades
and we cleaned out the stockpot once a year.

Virtually everything we ate induced narcosis,
a condition we often confused with god.

Some told of a river that ran outside the city walls
and of how it moved to avoid their touch,

a giant serpent twisting forever away. If it wasn’t the devil
it was the work of the devil, like everything else we wanted.

Remorse held us together until we died young
and most of us never realized we were mammals—

indeed we were suspicious of birds but rats, well, rats
we found charming, with their eyes so full

of sympathy, their need for warmth like our own. We also
wanted love to suffice. Flies that collected on the lesions

of the dying: angels one and all: no one could be too careful.
It seemed a flood was forever rinsing ideas from my tongue

so I said nothing or spoke louder, I was always drowning.
I couldn’t have changed anything.

All right there was the alchemist
and I loved him but I could not save him.

Once I dreamt of electricity. Was this the river,
the one that altered its course like a wounded thing?

We had no trees, only sticks.
Huge gears turned in the sky.

- Mark Bibbins

The pool scene from Philip Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus"

It was very dark, the sky was low and starless, and it took a while for me to see, once again, the diving board a shade lighter than the night, and to distinguish the water from the chairs that surrounded the far side of the pool.

I pushed the straps of her bathing suit down but she said no and rolled an inch away from me, and for the first time in the two weeks I'd known her she asked me a question about me.

"Where are your parents?" she said.

"Tucson," I said. "Why?"

"My mother asked me."

I could see the life guard's chair now, white almost.

"Why are you still here? Why aren't you with them?" she asked.

"I'm not a child any more, Brenda," I said, more sharply than I'd intended. "I just can't go wherever my parents are."

"But then why do you stay with your aunt and uncle?"

"They're not my parents."

"They're better?"

"No. Worse. I don't know why I stay with them."

"Why?" she said. "Why don't I know?"

"Why do you stay? You do know, don't you?"

"My job, I suppose. It's convenient from there, and it's cheap, and it pleases my parents. My aunt's all right really ... Do I really have to explain to your mother why I live where I do?"

"It's not for my mother. I want to know. I wondered why you weren't with your parents, that's all."

"Are you cold?" I asked.

"No."

"Do you want to go home?"

"No, not unless you do. Don't you feel well, Neil?"

"I feel all right," and to let her know that I was still me, I held her to me, though that moment I was without desire.

"Neil?"

"What?"

"What about the library?"

"Who wants to know that?"

"My father," she laughed.

"And you?"

She did not answer a moment. "And me," she said finally.

"Well what about it? Do I like it? It's okay. I sold shoes once and like the library better. After the Army they tried me for a couple months at Uncle Aaron's real estate company—Doris' father—and I like the library better than that ..."

"How did you get a job there?"

"I worked there for a little while when I was in college, then when I quit Uncle Aaron's, oh, I don't know ..."

"What did you take in college?"

"At Newark Colleges of Rutgers University I majored in philosophy. I am twenty-three years old. I—"

"Why do you sound nasty again?"

"Do I?"

"Yes."

I didn't say I was sorry.

"Are you planning on making a career of the library?"

"Bren, I'm not planning anything. I haven't planned a thing in three years. At least for the year I've been out of the Army. In the Army I used to plan to go away weekends. I'm—I'm not a planner." After all the truth I'd suddenly given her, I shouldn't have ruined it for myself with that final lie. I added, "I'm a liver."

"I'm a pancreas," she said.

"I'm a—"

And she kissed the absurd game away; she wanted to be serious.

“Do you love me, Neil?”

I did not answer.

"I'll sleep with you whether you do or not, so tell me the truth."

"That was pretty crude."

"Don't be prissy," she said.

"No, I mean a crude thing to say about me."

"I don't understand," she said, and she didn't, and that she didn't pained me; I allowed myself the minor subterfuge, however, of forgiving Brenda her obtuseness. "Do you?" she said.

"No."

"I want you to."

"What about the library?"

"What about it?" she said.

Was it obtuseness again? I thought not—and it wasn't, for Brenda said, "When you love me, there'll be nothing to worry about."

"Then of course I'll love you." I smiled.

"I know you will," she said. "Why don't you go in the water, and I'll wait for you and close my eyes, and when you come back you'll surprise me with the wet. Go ahead."

"You like games, don't you?"

"Go ahead. I'll close my eyes."

I walked down to the edge of the pool and dove in. The water felt colder than it had earlier, and when I broke through and was headed blindly down I felt a touch of panic. At the top again, I started to swim the length of the pool and then turned at the end and started back, but suddenly I was sure that when I left the water Brenda would be gone. I'd be alone in this damn place. I started for the side and pulled myself up and ran to the chairs and Brenda was there and I kissed her.

"God," she shivered, "You didn't stay long."

"I know."

"My turn," she said, and then she was up and a second later I heard a little crack of water and then nothing. Nothing for quite a while.

"Bren," I called softly, "are you all right?" but no one answered.

I found her glasses on the chair beside me and held them in my hands. "Brenda?"

Nothing.

"Brenda?"

"No fair calling," she said and gave me her drenched self. "Your turn," she said.

This time I stayed below the water for a long while and when I surfaced again my lungs were ready to pop. I threw my head back for air and above me saw the sky, low like a hand pushing down, and I began to swim as though to move out from under its pressure. I wanted to get back to Brenda, for I worried once again—and there was no evidence, was there?—that if I stayed away too long she would not be there when I returned. I wished that I had carried her glasses away with me, so she would have to wait for me to lead her back home. I was having crazy thoughts, I knew, and yet they did not seem uncalled for in the darkness and strangeness of that place. Oh how I wanted to call out to her from the pool, but I knew she would not answer and I forced myself to swim the length a third time, and then a fourth, but midway through the fifth I felt a weird fright again, had momentary thoughts of my own extinction, and that time when I came back I held her tighter than either of us expected.

"Let go, let go," she laughed, "my turn—"

"But Brenda—"

But Brenda was gone and this time it seemed as though she'd never come back. I settled back and waited for the sun to dawn over the ninth hole, prayed it would if only for the comfort of its light, and when Brenda finally returned to me I would not let her go, and her cold wetness crept into me somehow and made me shiver. "That's it, Brenda. Please, no more games," I said, and then when I spoke again I held her so tightly I almost dug my body into hers, "I love you," I said, "I do."

- Philip Roth

Fragment from John Ashbery

“…Summer is all about being a season.
I’m not sure I can take too much more
of it, but while it lasts I’m along
for the ride. I’d be a jerk
not to be especially since there’s no
alternative, it just keeps coming,
and we take it in, like a barn accepting
bales of hay from a hay wain, until
they’re gone. That will have to do.
Besides (did I mention it?), I’m tired.
This day’s a wrap. Others will happen along,
maybe fall in love with one. But that’s another story.
We’ll find a new wand, horizons will be bright
and anxious. A friend will give us
what we’re owed and something extra,
something we couldn’t have imagined,
a space like a dream.”

- John Ashbery

A Warm Day

Today the sun was shining
so my neighbor washed her nightdresses in the river—
she comes home with everything folded in a basket,
beaming, as though her life had just been
lengthened a decade. Cleanliness makes her happy—
it says you can begin again,
the old mistakes needn’t hold you back.

A good neighbor—we leave each other
to our privacies. Just now
she’s singing to herself, pinning the damp wash to the line.

Little by little, days like this
will seem normal. But winter was hard:
the nights coming early, the dawns dark
with a gray, persistent rain—months of that,
and then the snow, like silence coming from the sky,
obliterating the trees and gardens.

Today, all that’s past us.
The birds are back, chattering over seeds.
All the snow’s melted; the fruit trees are covered with downy new growth.
A few couples even walk in the meadow, promising whatever they promise.

We stand in the sun and the sun heals us.
It doesn’t rush away. It hangs above us, unmoving,
like an actor pleased with his welcome.

My neighbor’s quiet a moment,
staring at the mountain, listening to the birds.

So many garments, where did they come from?
And my neighbor’s still out there,
fixing them to the line, as though the basket would never be empty—

It’s still full, nothing is finished,
though the sun’s beginning to move lower in the sky;
remember, it isn’t summer yet, only the beginning of spring;
warmth hasn’t taken hold yet, and the cold’s returning—

She feels it, as though the last bit of linen had frozen in her hands.
She looks at her hands—how old they are. It’s not the beginning, it’s the end.
And the adults, they’re all dead now.
Only the children are left, alone, growing old.

- Louise Gluck

How I Shaded the Book

I was in the town before my end.  I knew more deeply
than before I was in trouble with drinking.
I received a copy of a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, in the mail.
I sat down to read it one night, sure I would not like it,
but I could not stop reading.
I felt the romance of the book was validating one more wild prolonged fling,
alcohol at the center of the fling. I had no one in mind but I knew there would be
someone. And I knew it would be trouble.
The novel made me feel as if I could see it all.

In the middle of the night there was a knock on the door.
A neighbor—I had met no one in the few days I had been in town—
asked if I would drive her and her daughter to the hospital.
Her daughter was sick, she had no car. She had seen my light.
For some reason I was glad to do so. I took the book.
The wait was long, the mother finally told me I could leave,
she could call a relative if they had to leave the hospital.

I saw them on the street days later—she hardly spoke—I wondered if it was because
we were of different races. She simply nodded when I asked if her daughter
was all right.
They left their house within a month. The house became a place for itinerants.
Six families in six months. One afternoon I heard screaming and cackling
and looked out the window to see an overweight man who could hardly walk
limping and tilting away from the old woman on the porch.
She both screamed and cackled. The overweight man finally
hobbled off like an old wagon.

I want to thank the woman and her child for interrupting my reverie.
Although I proceeded to wildly continue an affair for drinking
I feel that couple as a pull from life, a pull
from a source I was for a final time denying.
The book meant more than life. How I shaded the book
meant more than anything, anyone.

- Michael Burkard

Joe Louis's Fist

1.

After the sun rose into rust between gravel and horizon,
after the scent of you oxidized the steel of my car going
into the lidocaine of the morning air as the highway slid

into northeast Detroit past Chill & Mingle,
I did a double-take and took a wrong turn at Rim Repair.
(Long ago my father said I should see the fist).

No one spoke Swahili on 12th Street, still rubble
after the blind pigs folded up.
It was a cliché of the image of itself but it was, it was

like nothing, the vacant burned-out bungalows, car parts, metal scraps
arson jobs, abandoned homes, barbed wire playgrounds,
shacks pummeled along Six Mile Road—derelict since ’67.

2.

My father said when Louis won, the radio static was a wave
of sound that stayed all night like the riots blocks away in Harlem,
as the scent of lilac and gin wafted down Broadway to his window

across from the Columbia gates where the sounds of
Fletcher Henderson and Dizzy buzzed the air,
where the mock Nazi salutes were shadows over the

granite lions and snake-dancing, and car horns
banged the tar and busted windshields,
even coffee shops south of 116th were looted.

3.

It came back in fragments—through the gauze
of the summer of love, through Lucy in the Sky
and other amnesias; streets of burnt-out buildings,

paratroopers bivouacked in high schools with gas and bayonets.
By 6 a.m. July 23 national guards were walking
in the rain of black cinder and pillars of smoke—

a black body hanging from a fence of an auto part yard,
whisky-faced boys shooting through the fire
as torn bags of loot trailed the streets.

Prostitutes used pool cues to defend themselves.
Booze and cartridge smoke ate their skin.
One trooper said it looked like Berlin in ’45.

4.

Samson, David, and Elijah in one left hook
my father said, (6/22/38) upbraided Neville Chamberlain
liberated Austria and Sudetenland

knocked the lights out in Berlin—
sent Polish Jews into the boulevards
for one night of phantasmal liberation.

Because Hitler banned jazz, because Black Moses led
crowds and crowds to the marvelous, inscrutable, overwhelming
balked dreams of revenge, millions seeped out of doorways, alleys, tenements—

dreaming of the diamond pots, of Chrysler heaven,
the golden girls of Hollywood and Shirley Temple
who rubbed some salt into his hands for luck.

Untermensch from Alabama—
sucker for the right hand—the other side of Hailee Salisee
black men howled to him from their electric chairs.

5.

When I drove past Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard
and the Hitsville USA sign on the studio-house,
the lights were out and I could only

imagine the snake pit where Smokey Robinson
spun into vinyl, where “Heat Wave”
came as sweet blackmail in the beach air of ’64

where the Funkbrothers and Martha Reeves
took the mini opera and dumped it on its head.

By the time I hit Jefferson and Woodward
the sun was glaring on the high windows.
and then it hit me—spinning the light—

horizontal two-foot arm smashing the blue
through the empty pyramid holding it up
in the glare of skyscraper glass: molten

bronze-hand, hypotenuse of history,
displaced knuckles—

the smooth-casting over the gouged-out wounds—
the naked, beloved, half-known forms.

- Peter Balakian

 

Fog

Hide what is far from my eyes,
pale fog, impalpable gray
vapor climbing the light
                    of the coming day,
after the storm-streaked night,                    
the rockfall skies…

Hide what has gone, and what goes,
hide what lies beyond me…
Let me see only that hedge                    
at my boundary,
and this wall, by whose crumbling edge
                    valerian grows.

Hide from my eyes what is dead:
the world is drunk on tears…
Show my two peach trees in bloom,
                    my two pears,
that spread their sugared balm
                    on my black bread.

Hide from my eyes lost things
whose need for my love is a goad...
Let me see only the white
                    of the stone road –
I too will ride it some night
                    as a tired bell rings.

Hide the far things – hide
them beyond the sweep of my heart...
Show only that cypress tree,
                    standing apart,
and here, lying sleepily,
                    this dog at my side.

- Giovanni Pascoli, trans. from Italian by Geoffrey Brock

Without Music

Only the car radio
driving from the drugstore to the restaurant to his apartment:

rock and roll, oldies but goodies,
and sometimes, softly, piano music

rising from the piano teacher's apartment on the first floor.

Most of it happened without music,
the clink of a spoon from the kitchen,

someone talking.  Silence.
Somebody sleeping.  Someone watching somebody sleep.

- Marie Howe

How Much

A boy drowns in a lake. Another opens
his head against a steering wheel. Another
goes downtown. Into a boardroom. Into
leveraged buyouts. Into Italian shoes.
Into spearheading something. Hi, you’ve reached 
Victoria Chang. I’m not at my desk right now.  
Please leave a message at the beep. 
Never mind 
the kickbacks, passing the sound barrier in
the Concorde, its needle-nosed body. How much 
mahogany we all had. Cheese stabbed with 
sticks our teeth tugged on. How many drivers 
in black cars we said Happy Valentine’s Day to.

                        *

Each morning, I put on those shoes, legs, 
nylons, sex, black briefs with texts. Each
dusk, there were martinis, drinks that said
Cocktail! No choice. Of course, starters, soup 
& salad, main meal, dessert, coffee. Always 
in that order. Business models. Pigeons on 
ledges I watched. Dimmed rooms with white 
screens, a man with a pointer. No one stops 
him. Someone make him stop. My watch gets 
tired from looking up at me. The next table is 
once again pioneering something. I can shake 
a hundred hands in an hour. Watch me.

                        *
Thirteen dollars a share. The man on the phone line 
has a rope in his throat. The closing price is 
rouged. We can believe in God again. The banks 
are full. The streets are hungover. The man on 
my left is rich. The man on my right is a month 
from dead. The Champagne ditches its bottle.  
The London air free-falls in the hotel room.  
There are plates of carved fruit. New York is 
cheering through the phone. Heaven must
be this way. Tomorrow, Germany. Then Paris.  
Hello. Goodbye. Where’s the bathroom? I don’t 
understand. I am lost. How much?

                        *
A man carrying a tray of sandwiches.  
A woman on a cell phone. The doorman 
on California Street. The cable-car driver.  
No one knows how beautiful the check 
looks in my wallet. $94 million. Tomorrow, 
$106 million. From: IV Drip. To: Bob 
Dahl. From: Ivy hiccupping up a wall.  
To: John Hedge. Everyone is drunk today.  
Everyone is preparing for sex today. Little 
turquoise boxes with white ribbon are hand-
delivered around town today. The smell of 
beef is powerful. The cemeteries are still full.

                        *
Tired of the stitched ball, line of breeze.  
Tired of the corporate seats. The Samsung.  
The Solectron. The Synopsys. The Pitch. 
Positioning. Presentations. Tired of summer 
that can’t stop its inverting. Of the cartoon ball 
under the cartoon hats that keep moving.  
One, two, three, the crowd shouts. Someday 
the big screen will dangle in rust. The headless 
field will become untethered. Someday 
the rain will withdraw from the sleeping dog.  
Somewhere in a kitchen, a mother will watch 
the last piece of beef fall off a bone.

- Victoria Chang

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

- Wallace Stevens

Like Sailboats on TV

Across from the charred white bar and grill, in the place where the
Irish still bury their dead, I stood next to your grave. Looking at it
then, it didn’t seem so final.

There was a light that fell across the marker the amber color of an
empty pill bottle.


And the distance was false.

You were gone but here, like the picture you took of sailboats on
TV. Like the handwriting of a letter you wrote in 1961.

As the light faded, my vision narrowed, and I saw the grave had
grown four legs and a long, prehensile tail.

I watched as it crawled away, a green, stone-headed creature, in a
halo of blue whatever.

- Christopher Kennedy, from “Clues From the Animal Kingdom”

The First Time They Saw the Whole Earth

My mother was washing dishes;
a turquoise pendant

dangled at her sternum
as she looked out onto the patio,

the bees cross-pollinating
her Mortgage Lifters,

her Big Boys, her Fourth
of Julys. My father came home

on the late bus, walked through
the dandelions with his

brown leather shoes
and fished the newspaper

from the hydrangea.
My sister chalked

a circle on the driveway
and stepped inside.

The next day, my mother
rode the gondola up the mountain

—she wanted to really
see the moon—

and my father discovered
country music, that he had

a voice for those sad, celestial notes.
And my sister played croquet

by her own rules, sent
balls with coloured stripes

plock plocking all over the yard.

- Clear Roberts

[You who never arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me—the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods—
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house—, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon,—
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening...

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Return

Quiet as is proper for such places;
The street, subdued, half-snow, half-rain,
Endless, but ending in the darkened doors.
Inside, they who will be there always,
Quiet as is proper for such people--
Enough for now to be here, and
To know my door is one of these.

- Robert Creeley

Midi

Muscles and torsoes of cloud 
ascended over the mountains. 
The fields looked like high speed 
so new-mown was the hay,

then the dark blue Italian lavender 
met overhead, a strange maize 
deeply planted as mass javelins 
in the hoed floor of the land.

Insects in plastic armour stared 
from their turrets, and munched 
as others machined stiffly over us 
and we turned, enchanted 
in sweet walling breath 
under far-up gables of the lavender.

- Les Murray