Backing out the driveway the car lights cast an eerie glow in the morning fog centering on movement in the rain slick street Hitting brakes I anticipate a squirrel or a cat or sometimes a little raccoon I once braked for a blind little mole who try though he did could not escape the cat toying with his life Mother-to-be possum occasionally lopes home . . . being naturally . . . slow her condition makes her even more ginger We need a sign POSSUM CROSSING to warn coffee-gurgling neighbors: we share the streets with more than trucks and vans and railroad crossings All birds being the living kin of dinosaurs think themselves invincible and pay no heed to the rolling wheels while they dine on an unlucky rabbit I hit brakes for the flutter of the lights hoping it's not a deer or a skunk or a groundhog coffee splashes over the cup which I quickly put away from me and into the empty passenger seat I look . . . relieved and exasperated ... to discover I have just missed a big wet leaf struggling . . . to lift itself into the wind and live
Ashley Hogan ENG 200 Poetry Anthology
The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I worked for a woman, She wasn't mean— But she had a twelve-room House to clean. Had to get breakfast, Dinner, and supper, too— Then take care of her children When I got through. Wash, iron, and scrub, Walk the dog around— It was too much, Nearly broke me down. I said, Madam, Can it be You trying to make a Pack-horse out of me? She opened her mouth. She cried, Oh, no! You know, Alberta, I love you so! I said, Madam, That may be true— But I'll be dogged If I love you!
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.) O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. (There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.") Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one's own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That's made America the land it has become. O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa's strand I came To build a "homeland of the free." The free? Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we've dreamed And all the songs we've sung And all the hopes we've held And all the flags we've hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that's almost dead today. O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
(for Sally Sellers) Like a fading piece of cloth I am a failure No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able To hold the hot and cold I wish for those first days When just woven I could keep water From seeping through Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave Dazzled the sunlight with my Reflection I grow old though pleased with my memories The tasks I can no longer complete Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past I offer no apology only this plea: When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt That I might keep some child warm And some old person with no one else to talk to Will hear my whispers And cuddle near
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry. Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back. I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile. One morning last March, I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake. Two months after marching through Boston, half the regiment was dead; at the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. Its Colonel is as lean as a compass-needle. He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy. He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die-- when he leads his black soldiers to death, he cannot bend his back. On a thousand small town New England greens, the old white churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier grow slimmer and younger each year-- wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets and muse through their sideburns . . . Shaw's father wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son's body was thrown and lost with his "niggers." The ditch is nearer. There are no statues for the last war here; on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages" that survived the blast. Space is nearer. When I crouch to my television set, the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons. Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble, he waits for the blessèd break. The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning, I hog a whole house on Boston's "hardly passionate Marlborough Street," where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is "a young Republican." I have a nine months' daughter, young enough to be my granddaughter. Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear. These are the tranquilized Fifties, and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statement, telling off the state and president, and then sat waiting sentence in the bull pen beside a negro boy with curlicues of marijuana in his hair. Given a year, I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short enclosure like my school soccer court, and saw the Hudson River once a day through sooty clothesline entanglements and bleaching khaki tenements. Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz, a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan") and fly-weight pacifist, so vegetarian, he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit. He tried to convert Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood pimps, to his diet. Hairy, muscular, suburban, wearing chocolate double-breasted suits, they blew their tops and beat him black and blue. I was so out of things, I'd never heard of the Jehovah's Witnesses. "Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird. "No," he answered, "I'm a J.W." He taught me the "hospital tuck," and pointed out the T-shirted back of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke, there piling towels on a rack, or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full of things forbidden to the common man: a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm. Flabby, bald, lobotomized, he drifted in a sheepish calm, where no agonizing reappraisal jarred his concentration on the electric chair hanging like an oasis in his air of lost connections. . . .
What was is . . . since 1930; the boys in my old gang are senior partners. They start up bald like baby birds to embrace retirement. At the altar of surrender, I met you in the hour of credulity. How your misfortune came out clearly to us at twenty. At the gingerbread casino, how innocent the nights we made it on our Vesuvio martinis with no vermouth but vodka to sweeten the dry gin-- the lash across my face that night we adored . . . soon every night and all, when your sweet, amorous repetition changed. Fertility is not to the forward, or beauty to the precipitous-- things gone wrong clothe summer with gold leaf. Sometimes I catch my mind circling for you with glazed eye-- my lost love hunting your lost face. Summer to summer, the poplars sere in the glare-- it's a town for the young, they break themselves against the surf. No dog knows my smell.
The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of, as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones. Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag, and even now as you memorize the order of the planets, something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps, the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay. Whatever it is you are struggling to remember it is not poised on the tip of your tongue, not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen. It has floated away down a dark mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle. No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge where there are no pheasants to be seen and last time I looked, no ridge. I could drive over to Quail Falls and spend the day there playing bridge, but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge. I know a widow at Fox Run and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge. One of them smokes, and neither can run, so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge. Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge? I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.
Some days I put the people in their places at the table, bend their legs at the knees, if they come with that feature, and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs. All afternoon they face one another, the man in the brown suit, the woman in the blue dress, perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved. But other days, I am the one who is lifted up by the ribs, then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse to sit with the others at the long table. Very funny, but how would you like it if you never knew from one day to the next if you were going to spend it striding around like a vivid god, your shoulders in the clouds, or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper, staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?
The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion whose flowers have faded, like those of summer, and a small brown spider has hung out her web on a line between porch post and chain so that no one may swing without breaking it. She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with, time that the creaking and pinging and popping that sang through the ceiling were past, time now for the soft vibrations of moths, the wasp tapping each board for an entrance, the cool dewdrops to brush from her work every morning, one world at a time.
Slap of the screen door, flat knock of my grandmother's boxy black shoes on the wooden stoop, the hush and sweep of her knob-kneed, cotton-aproned stride out to the edge and then, toed in with a furious twist and heave, a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands and hangs there shining for fifty years over the mystified chickens, over the swaying nettles, the ragweed, the clay slope down to the creek, over the redwing blackbirds in the tops of the willows, a glorious rainbow with an empty dishpan swinging at one end.
Oh, but it is dirty! —this little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match! Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him (it's a family filling station), all quite thoroughly dirty. Do they live in the station? It has a cement porch behind the pumps, and on it a set of crushed and grease- impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy. Some comic books provide the only note of color— of certain color. They lie upon a big dim doily draping a taboret (part of the set), beside a big hirsute begonia. Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? (Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.) Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant, or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: ESSO—SO—SO—SO to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.
In Worcester, Massachusetts, I went with Aunt Consuelo to keep her dentist's appointment and sat and waited for her in the dentist's waiting room. It was winter. It got dark early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, lamps and magazines. My aunt was inside what seemed like a long time and while I waited I read the National Geographic (I could read) and carefully studied the photographs: the inside of a volcano, black, and full of ashes; then it was spilling over in rivulets of fire. Osa and Martin Johnson dressed in riding breeches, laced boots, and pith helmets. A dead man slung on a pole --"Long Pig," the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it right straight through. I was too shy to stop. And then I looked at the cover: the yellow margins, the date. Suddenly, from inside, came an oh! of pain --Aunt Consuelo's voice-- not very loud or long. I wasn't at all surprised; even then I knew she was a foolish, timid woman. I might have been embarrassed, but wasn't. What took me completely by surprise was that it was me: my voice, in my mouth. Without thinking at all I was my foolish aunt, I--we--were falling, falling, our eyes glued to the cover of the National Geographic, February, 1918. I said to myself: three days and you'll be seven years old. I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off the round, turning world. into cold, blue-black space. But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too? I scarcely dared to look to see what it was I was. I gave a sidelong glance --I couldn't look any higher-- at shadowy gray knees, trousers and skirts and boots and different pairs of hands lying under the lamps. I knew that nothing stranger had ever happened, that nothing stranger could ever happen. Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities-- boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts-- held us all together or made us all just one? How--I didn't know any word for it--how "unlikely". . . How had I come to be here, like them, and overhear a cry of pain that could have got loud and worse but hadn't? The waiting room was bright and too hot. It was sliding beneath a big black wave, another, and another. Then I was back in it. The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918.
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed; the rising sun in war paint dyes us red; in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine, abandoned, almost Dionysian. At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street, blossoms on our magnolia ignite the morning with their murderous five days' white. All night I've held your hand, as if you had a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad— its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye— and dragged me home alive. . . .Oh my Petite, clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve: you were in your twenties, and I, once hand on glass and heart in mouth, outdrank the Rahvs in the heat of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet— too boiled and shy and poker-faced to make a pass, while the shrill verve of your invective scorched the traditional South. Now twelve years later, you turn your back. Sleepless, you hold your pillow to your hollows like a child; your old-fashioned tirade— loving, rapid, merciless— breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
Although it is a cold evening, down by one of the fishhouses an old man sits netting, his net, in the gloaming almost invisible, a dark purple-brown, and his shuttle worn and polished. The air smells so strong of codfish it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water. The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up to storerooms in the gables for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on. All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence like the small old buildings with an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls. The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them. Up on the little slope behind the houses, set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass, is an ancient wooden capstan, cracked, with two long bleached handles and some melancholy stains, like dried blood, where the ironwork has rusted. The old man accepts a Lucky Strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline in the population and of codfish and herring while he waits for a herring boat to come in. There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb. He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, the blade of which is almost worn away. Down at the water's edge, at the place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals of four or five feet. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening. He was curious about me. He was interested in music; like me a believer in total immersion, so I used to sing him Baptist hymns. I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." He stood up in the water and regarded me steadily, moving his head a little. Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug as if it were against his better judgment. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us, the dignified tall firs begin. Bluish, associating with their shadows, a million Christmas trees stand waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones. I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, icily free above the stones, above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
No matter what life you lead the virgin is a lovely number: cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper, arms and legs made of Limoges, lips like Vin Du Rhône, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut. Open to say, Good Day Mama, and shut for the thrust of the unicorn. She is unsoiled. She is as white as a bonefish. Once there was a lovely virgin called Snow White. Say she was thirteen. Her stepmother, a beauty in her own right, though eaten, of course, by age, would hear of no beauty surpassing her own. Beauty is a simple passion, but, oh my friends, in the end you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes. The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred-- something like the weather forecast-- a mirror that proclaimed the one beauty of the land. She would ask, Looking glass upon the wall, who is fairest of us all? And the mirror would reply, You are the fairest of us all. Pride pumped in her like poison. Suddenly one day the mirror replied, Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you. Until that moment Snow White had been no more important than a dust mouse under the bed. But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand and four whiskers over her lip so she condemned Snow White to be hacked to death. Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter, and I will salt it and eat it. The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar's heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. Now I am fairest, she said, lapping her slim white fingers. Snow White walked in the wildwood for weeks and weeks. At each turn there were twenty doorways and at each stood a hungry wolf, his tongue lolling out like a worm. The birds called out lewdly, talking like pink parrots, and the snakes hung down in loops, each a noose for her sweet white neck. On the seventh week she came to the seventh mountain and there she found the dwarf house. It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage and completely equipped with seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks and seven chamber pots. Snow White ate seven chicken livers and lay down, at last, to sleep. The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin. They were wise and wattled like small czars. Yes. It's a good omen, they said, and will bring us luck. They stood on tiptoes to watch Snow White wake up. She told them about the mirror and the killer-queen and they asked her to stay and keep house. Beware of your stepmother, they said. Soon she will know you are here. While we are away in the mines during the day, you must not open the door. Looking glass upon the wall . . . The mirror told and so the queen dressed herself in rags and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White. She went across seven mountains. She came to the dwarf house and Snow White opened the door and bought a bit of lacing. The queen fastened it tightly around her bodice, as tight as an Ace bandage, so tight that Snow White swooned. She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy. When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace and she revived miraculously. She was as full of life as soda pop. Beware of your stepmother, they said. She will try once more. Looking glass upon the wall. . . Once more the mirror told and once more the queen dressed in rags and once more Snow White opened the door. This time she bought a poison comb, a curved eight-inch scorpion, and put it in her hair and swooned again. The dwarfs returned and took out the comb and she revived miraculously. She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie. Beware, beware, they said, but the mirror told, the queen came, Snow White, the dumb bunny, opened the door and she bit into a poison apple and fell down for the final time. When the dwarfs returned they undid her bodice, they looked for a comb, but it did no good. Though they washed her with wine and rubbed her with butter it was to no avail. She lay as still as a gold piece. The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves to bury her in the black ground so they made a glass coffin and set it upon the seventh mountain so that all who passed by could peek in upon her beauty. A prince came one June day and would not budge. He stayed so long his hair turned green and still he would not leave. The dwarfs took pity upon him and gave him the glass Snow White-- its doll's eyes shut forever-- to keep in his far-off castle. As the prince's men carried the coffin they stumbled and dropped it and the chunk of apple flew out of her throat and she woke up miraculously. And thus Snow White became the prince's bride. The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast and when she arrived there were red-hot iron shoes, in the manner of red-hot roller skates, clamped upon her feet. First your toes will smoke and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet. Meanwhile Snow White held court, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to her mirror as women do.
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember. I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage. Then the almost unnameable lust returns. Even then I have nothing against life. I know well the grass blades you mention, the furniture you have placed under the sun. But suicides have a special language. Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build. Twice I have so simply declared myself, have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy, have taken on his craft, his magic. In this way, heavy and thoughtful, warmer than oil or water, I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole. I did not think of my body at needle point. Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone. Suicides have already betrayed the body. Still-born, they don't always die, but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet that even children would look on and smile. To thrust all that life under your tongue!-- that, all by itself, becomes a passion. Death's a sad Bone; bruised, you'd say, and yet she waits for me, year after year, to so delicately undo an old wound, to empty my breath from its bad prison. Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet, raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon, leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss, leaving the page of the book carelessly open, something unsaid, the phone off the hook and the love, whatever it was, an infection.
For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959
Gone, I say and walk from church, refusing the stiff procession to the grave, letting the dead ride alone in the hearse. It is June. I am tired of being brave. We drive to the Cape. I cultivate myself where the sun gutters from the sky, where the sea swings in like an iron gate and we touch. In another country people die. My darling, the wind falls in like stones from the whitehearted water and when we touch we enter touch entirely. No one's alone. Men kill for this, or for as much. And what of the dead? They lie without shoes in the stone boats. They are more like stone than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
"It is the future generation that presses into being by means of
these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours."
"The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open. Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen. My hopped up husband drops his home disputes, and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes, free-lancing out along the razor's edge. This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge. Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . . It's the injustice . . . he is so unjust— whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five. My only thought is how to keep alive. What makes him tick? Each night now I tie ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . . Gored by the climacteric of his want, he stalls above me like an elephant."
For Grace Bulmer Bowers
From narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea, home of the long tides where the bay leaves the sea twice a day and takes the herrings long rides, where if the river enters or retreats in a wall of brown foam depends on if it meets the bay coming in, the bay not at home; where, silted red, sometimes the sun sets facing a red sea, and others, veins the flats' lavender, rich mud in burning rivulets; on red, gravelly roads, down rows of sugar maples, past clapboard farmhouses and neat, clapboard churches, bleached, ridged as clamshells, past twin silver birches, through late afternoon a bus journeys west, the windshield flashing pink, pink glancing off of metal, brushing the dented flank of blue, beat-up enamel; down hollows, up rises, and waits, patient, while a lone traveller gives kisses and embraces to seven relatives and a collie supervises. Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in. Its cold, round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens' feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles; the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences. One stop at Bass River. Then the Economies Lower, Middle, Upper; Five Islands, Five Houses, where a woman shakes a tablecloth out after supper. A pale flickering. Gone. The Tantramar marshes and the smell of salt hay. An iron bridge trembles and a loose plank rattles but doesn't give way. On the left, a red light swims through the dark: a ship's port lantern. Two rubber boots show, illuminated, solemn. A dog gives one bark. A woman climbs in with two market bags, brisk, freckled, elderly. "A grand night. Yes, sir, all the way to Boston." She regards us amicably. Moonlight as we enter the New Brunswick woods, hairy, scratchy, splintery; moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. The passengers lie back. Snores. Some long sighs. A dreamy divagation begins in the night, a gentle, auditory, slow hallucination. . . . In the creakings and noises, an old conversation --not concerning us, but recognizable, somewhere, back in the bus: Grandparents' voices uninterruptedly talking, in Eternity: names being mentioned, things cleared up finally; what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; deaths, deaths and sicknesses; the year he remarried; the year (something) happened. She died in childbirth. That was the son lost when the schooner foundered. He took to drink. Yes. She went to the bad. When Amos began to pray even in the store and finally the family had to put him away. "Yes . . ." that peculiar affirmative. "Yes . . ." A sharp, indrawn breath, half groan, half acceptance, that means "Life's like that. We know it (also death)." Talking the way they talked in the old featherbed, peacefully, on and on, dim lamplight in the hall, down in the kitchen, the dog tucked in her shawl. Now, it's all right now even to fall asleep just as on all those nights. --Suddenly the bus driver stops with a jolt, turns off his lights. A moose has come out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road. It approaches; it sniffs at the bus's hot hood. Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man's voice assures us "Perfectly harmless. . . ." Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, "Sure are big creatures." "It's awful plain." "Look! It's a she!" Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy? "Curious creatures," says our quiet driver, rolling his r's. "Look at that, would you." Then he shifts gears. For a moment longer, by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there's a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.
For Robert Lowell
This is the time of year when almost every night the frail, illegal fire balloons appear. Climbing the mountain height, rising toward a saint still honored in these parts, the paper chambers flush and fill with light that comes and goes, like hearts. Once up against the sky it's hard to tell them from the stars— planets, that is—the tinted ones: Venus going down, or Mars, or the pale green one. With a wind, they flare and falter, wobble and toss; but if it's still they steer between the kite sticks of the Southern Cross, receding, dwindling, solemnly and steadily forsaking us, or, in the downdraft from a peak, suddenly turning dangerous. Last night another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire against the cliff behind the house. The flame ran down. We saw the pair of owls who nest there flying up and up, their whirling black-and-white stained bright pink underneath, until they shrieked up out of sight. The ancient owls' nest must have burned. Hastily, all alone, a glistening armadillo left the scene, rose-flecked, head down, tail down, and then a baby rabbit jumped out, short-eared, to our surprise. So soft!—a handful of intangible ash with fixed, ignited eyes. Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and piercing cry and panic, and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky!
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness? They took my lover's tallness off to war, Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess What I can use an empty heart-cup for. He won't be coming back here any more. Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew When he went walking grandly out that door That my sweet love would have to be untrue. Would have to be untrue. Would have to court Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort) Can make a hard man hesitate—and change. And he will be the one to stammer, "Yes." Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
I have gone out, a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods; fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: whining, rearranging the disaligned. A woman like that is misunderstood. I have been her kind. I have ridden in your cart, driver, waved my nude arms at villages going by, learning the last bright routes, survivor where your flames still bite my thigh and my ribs crack where your wheels wind. A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch. The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry Took its place among the elements. Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue. In a drafty museum, your nakedness Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls. I'm no more your mother Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow Effacement at the wind's hand. All night your moth-breath Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen: A far sea moves in my ear. One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral In my Victorian nightgown. Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try Your handful of notes; The clear vowels rise like balloons.
I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it-- A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight, My face a featureless, fine Jew linen. Peel off the napkin O my enemy. Do I terrify?-- The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath Will vanish in a day. Soon, soon the flesh The grave cave ate will be At home on me And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die. This is Number Three. What a trash To annihilate each decade. What a million filaments. The peanut-crunching crowd Shoves in to see Them unwrap me hand and foot-- The big strip tease. Gentlemen, ladies These are my hands My knees. I may be skin and bone, Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman. The first time it happened I was ten. It was an accident. The second time I meant To last it out and not come back at all. I rocked shut As a seashell. They had to call and call And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls. Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call. It's easy enough to do it in a cell. It's easy enough to do it and stay put. It's the theatrical Comeback in broad day To the same place, the same face, the same brute Amused shout: 'A miracle!' That knocks me out. There is a charge For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge For the hearing of my heart-- It really goes. And there is a charge, a very large charge For a word or a touch Or a bit of blood Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. So, so, Herr Doktor. So, Herr Enemy. I am your opus, I am your valuable, The pure gold baby That melts to a shriek. I turn and burn. Do not think I underestimate your great concern. Ash, ash-- You poke and stir. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-- A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.
23-29 October 1962
arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League Arrive in the afternoon, the late light slanting In diluted gold bars across the boulevard brag Of proud, seamed faces with mercy and murder hinting Here, there, interrupting, all deep and debonair, The pink paint on the innocence of fear; Walk in a gingerly manner up the hall. Cutting with knives served by their softest care, Served by their love, so barbarously fair. Whose mothers taught: You'd better not be cruel! You had better not throw stones upon the wrens! Herein they kiss and coddle and assault Anew and dearly in the innocence With which they baffle nature. Who are full, Sleek, tender-clad, fit, fiftyish, a-glow, all Sweetly abortive, hinting at fat fruit, Judge it high time that fiftyish fingers felt Beneath the lovelier planes of enterprise. To resurrect. To moisten with milky chill. To be a random hitching post or plush. To be, for wet eyes, random and handy hem. Their guild is giving money to the poor. The worthy poor. The very very worthy And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy? Perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish Is—something less than derelict or dull. Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze! God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold! The noxious needy ones whose battle's bald Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down. But it's all so bad! and entirely too much for them. The stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans, Dead porridges of assorted dusty grains, The old smoke, heavy diapers, and, they're told, Something called chitterlings. The darkness. Drawn Darkness, or dirty light. The soil that stirs. The soil that looks the soil of centuries. And for that matter the general oldness. Old Wood. Old marble. Old tile. Old old old. Not homekind Oldness! Not Lake Forest, Glencoe. Nothing is sturdy, nothing is majestic, There is no quiet drama, no rubbed glaze, no Unkillable infirmity of such A tasteful turn as lately they have left, Glencoe, Lake Forest, and to which their cars Must presently restore them. When they're done With dullards and distortions of this fistic Patience of the poor and put-upon. They've never seen such a make-do-ness as Newspaper rugs before! In this, this "flat," Their hostess is gathering up the oozed, the rich Rugs of the morning (tattered! the bespattered . . . ), Readies to spread clean rugs for afternoon. Here is a scene for you. The Ladies look, In horror, behind a substantial citizeness Whose trains clank out across her swollen heart. Who, arms akimbo, almost fills a door. All tumbling children, quilts dragged to the floor And tortured thereover, potato peelings, soft- Eyed kitten, hunched-up, haggard, to-be-hurt. Their League is allotting largesse to the Lost. But to put their clean, their pretty money, to put Their money collected from delicate rose-fingers Tipped with their hundred flawless rose-nails seems . . . They own Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra, Mantels, and hostess gowns, and sunburst clocks, Turtle soup, Chippendale, red satin "hangings," Aubussons and Hattie Carnegie. They Winter In Palm Beach; cross the Water in June; attend, When suitable, the nice Art Institute; Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind. Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers So old old, what shall flatter the desolate? Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames And, again, the porridges of the underslung And children children children. Heavens! That Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League agree it will be better To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies, To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring Bells elsetime, better presently to cater To no more Possibilities, to get Away. Perhaps the money can be posted. Perhaps they two may choose another Slum! Some serious sooty half-unhappy home!— Where loathe-lover likelier may be invested. Keeping their scented bodies in the center Of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall, They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall, Are off at what they manage of a canter, And, resuming all the clues of what they were, Try to avoid inhaling the laden air.
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair. Dinner is a casual affair. Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, Tin flatware. Two who are Mostly Good. Two who have lived their day, But keep on putting on their clothes And putting things away. And remembering . . . Remembering, with twinklings and twinges, As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, I heard a Negro play. Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway . . . He did a lazy sway . . . To the tune o' those Weary Blues. With his ebony hands on each ivory key He made that poor piano moan with melody. O Blues! Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. Sweet Blues! Coming from a black man's soul. O Blues! In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan— "Ain't got nobody in all this world, Ain't got nobody but ma self. I's gwine to quit ma frownin' And put ma troubles on the shelf." Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then he sang some more— "I got the Weary Blues And I can't be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues And can't be satisfied— I ain't happy no mo' And I wish that I had died." And far into the night he crooned that tune. The stars went out and so did the moon. The singer stopped playing and went to bed While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Each time I go outside the world is different. This has happened all my life. * The clock stopped at 5:30 for three months. Now it's always time to quit work, have a drink, cook dinner. * "What I would do for wisdom," I cried out as a young man. Evidently not much. Or so it seems. Even on walks I follow the dog. * Old friend, perhaps we work too hard at being remembered.
The instructor said, Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you— Then, it will be true. I wonder if it's that simple? I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem. I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem. I am the only colored student in my class. The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem, through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas, Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y, the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator up to my room, sit down, and write this page: It's not easy to know what is true for you or me at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you: hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page. (I hear New York, too.) Me—who? Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. I like a pipe for a Christmas present, or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach. I guess being colored doesn't make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races. So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white. But it will be a part of you, instructor. You are white— yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That's American. Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that's true! As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me— although you're older—and white— and somewhat more free. This is my page for English B.
You say I O.K.ed LONG DISTANCE? O.K.ed it when? My goodness, Central That was then! I'm mad and disgusted With that Negro now. I don't pay no REVERSED CHARGES nohow. You say, I will pay it— Else you'll take out my phone? You better let My phone alone. I didn't ask him To telephone me. Roscoe knows darn well LONG DISTANCE Ain't free. If I ever catch him, Lawd, have pity! Calling me up From Kansas City. Just to say he loves me! I knowed that was so. Why didn't he tell me some'n I don't know? For instance, what can Them other girls do That Alberta K. Johnson Can't do—and more, too? What's that, Central? You say you don't care Nothing about my Private affair? Well, even less about your PHONE BILL, does I care! Un-humm-m! . . . Yes! You say I gave my O.K.? Well, that O.K. you may keep— But I sure ain't gonna pay!