The Great Wheel

- 1940-
In the Tuileries we came upon the Great Wheel 
rising gargantuan above the trees. Evening 
was coming on. An after-dinner stroll, descending 
by easy stages toward the river, a bridge of leaves 
above us, broken here and there by street lights 
coming on. Our time here nearly over, our return

home a shadow hovering. Paris, city of returns, 
you said, for the pleasure of it, like the Great Wheel 
looming there above us, all steel & light
& music, daredevil daunting, against the evening 
sky with the tower in the distance winking. The leaves 
still held firmly, the unthinkable descending

of what lay ahead undreamt of still, death descending 
inevitably as the Great Wheel in its return, 
(a descent first through summer's golden leaves 
and then bare ruined branches), the Great Wheel 
turning & returning. As then, with the all but evening 
over us, our wives laughing by the entrance lights,

we rose above the mansard roofs, the trees, the lights, 
lifting in a vertiginous ascent before descending, 
as we chattered on against the coming on of evening, 
our seat creaking in the rising wind, anxious to return 
now to earth's solidities. Instead, the Great Wheel 
merely sighed and lifted, stopping at the top, leaving

each of us alone now with our thoughts. The leaves 
below, green, graygreen, gray, the dollhouse roofs, lights 
like diamonds winking, aloof & distant, the Great Wheel 
playing us, two middle-aged men, each descending 
toward the Wheel's one appointed end, the Great Return 
to earth, as the books all have it, come our evening.

For all our feigned bravado, we could feel the evening 
over us, even as we stared down upon the blur of leaves, 
our wives, our distant children, on all we would return 
to, the way shipwrecked sailors search for lights 
along a distant shore, as we began the last descent, 
leaving the tents and Garden with its Great Wheel

to return, my dear dead friend, to the winking lights 
along the boulevard, leaves lifting & descending, 
as now the evening air took mastery, it & the Great Wheel.

Ghost

After so much time you think 
you'd have it netted 
in the mesh of language. But again 
it reconfigures, slick as Proteus.

You're in the kitchen talking 
with your ex-Navy brother, his two kids
snaking over his tattooed arms, as he goes on 
& on about being out of work again.

For an hour now you've listened, 
his face growing dimmer in the lamplight 
as you keep glancing at your watch 
until it's there again: the ghost rising

as it did that first time when you, 
the oldest, left home to marry. 
You're in the boat again, alone, and staring 
at the six of them, your sisters

& your brothers, their faces bobbing 
in the water, as their fingers grapple 
for the gunwales. The ship is going down, 
your mother with it. One oar's locked

and feathered, and one oar's lost, 
there's a slop of gurry pooling 
in the bottom, and your tiny boat 
keeps drifting further from them.

Between each bitter wave you can count 
their upturned faces--white roses 
scattered on a mash of sea, eyes fixed 
to see what you will do. And you?

You their old protector, you their guardian 
and go-between? Each man for himself, 
you remember thinking, their faces 
growing dimmer with each oarstroke.

Quid Pro Quo

Just after my wife's miscarriage (her second 
in four months), I was sitting in an empty 
classroom exchanging notes with my friend, 
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed 
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was, 
he surprised me by asking what I thought now 
of God's ways toward man. It was spring,

such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango 
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia 
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife 
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering. 
The sun was going down, the room's pinewood panels 
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly, 
I surprised not only myself but my colleague

by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid 
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant 
on Vanni Fucci's figs, shocking not only my friend 
but in truth the gesture's perpetrator too. I was 24, 
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions 
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure 
I'd seen enough of God's erstwhile ways toward man.

That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky 
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking, 
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied 
to the gentrified owner of the boys' camp 
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could, 
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down 
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain

(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents 
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying 
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass 
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet. 
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay 
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out 
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed

somehow to look back down on us, and in that place, 
that holy place, she must have conceived again, 
for nine months later in a New York hospital she 
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied 
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned 
to face the sun, the fact of his being there 
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,

this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst, 
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow 
everything he had to the same God I had had my own 
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups 
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?

The Gods Who Come Among Us in the Guise of Strangers

for Charlie Miller

Late nights, with summer moths clinging 
to the screens & the shadows of the Old Great 
flickering across the tv screen, suddenly, 
there would be Charlie's inquisitorial head 
peering in the window, the shock of white hair, 
followed by the heart-stopping shock 
of greeting. Just passing through, he'd say, 
and--seeing as the light was on-- 
thought we might have ourselves a talk.

Did I ever have time enough for Charlie? 
Usually not. The story of my life, 
of the one, as Chaucer says of someone, 
who seems always busier than he is. 
Then, abruptly, & discourteously, 
death put a stop to Charlie's visits. 
Summer moths collect still at the windows. 
Then leaves & winter ice. Then summer moths 
again. Each year, old ghost, I seem 
to miss you more and more, your youth spent 
with Auden & the Big Ones, words-- 
theirs, yours--helping you survive 
a brutal youth. Too late I see now 
how you honored me like those hidden 
gods of old who walk among us like 
the dispossessed, and who, if you are 
among the lucky ones, tap at your window 
when you least expect to ask you for a cup 
of water and a little of your time.