Lake on the Hill

James Longenbach
Often I walk the dog at night.
Once around the block, maybe twice,
And sometimes we head up to the reservoir.
If it's snowing, I put a little coat on the dog,
Booties if they've salted the street.

Everything you need is up there.
You can see for miles and you've got a lake,
Not large, the water black and still.
Emptiness where the city ends and farmland begins,
Lights of the houses below, and if you're quiet—

Sounds you couldn't actually hear.
Clock ticking on the wall, pipes,
A nightstand with a lamp, a desk, pencils in a cup—

Then it's time for the dog to go home,
Have a biscuit, go to bed.

Sometimes there's a kid with a skateboard,
No cars, they close the gates at dusk.
Not really a lake: it's lined with concrete,
The opposite of an island
But it beckons, as islands do.

I like arriving or leaving.
Thimble, Block, Brigantine—

When I burned my journals some of it caught 
Immediately, a brown stain
Spreading from the center of each page.
Some was stubborn: gray scraps
Rising like messages in the air.

More by James Longenbach

Second Draft

As an older man,
Graying, not stooped,
I saw the future:
Extremities

Cold, tongue
Sluggish,
Foam at the lips.
Excessive hope 

Seemed more
Indulgent
Than despair.
I ran great distances.
I stood in sunlight

Just to see my shadow,
Show it off.
For the first time I remember

My soul looked back.
What other people learn
From birth,
Betrayal,
I learned late.

My soul perched
On an olive branch
Combing itself,
Waving its plumes. I said

Being mortal,
I aspire to 
Mortal things.

I need you,
Said my soul,
If you’re telling the truth.

Mist Valley

At the end of August, when all
The letters of the alphabet are waiting,
You drop a teabag in a cup.
The same few letters making many different words,
The same words meaning different things.

Often you've rearranged them on the surface of the fridge.
Without the surface
They're repulsed by one another.

Here are the letters.  
The tea is in your cup.

At the end of August, the mind
Is neither the pokeweed piercing the grass 
Nor the grass itself.  
As Tony Cook says in The Biology of Terrestrial Mollusks

The right thing to do is nothing, the place
A place of concealment,
And the time as often as possible.

Thursday

Because the most difficult part about making something, also the best,
Is existing in the middle,
Sustaining an act of radical imagination,
I simmered a broth: onion, lemon, a big handful of mint.
 
The phone rang. So with my left 
Hand I answered it,
Sautéing the rice, then adding the broth
Slowly, one ladle at a time, with my right. What’s up?
 
The miracle of risotto, it’s easy to miss, is the moment when the husks dissolve,
Each grain of rice releasing its tiny explosion of starch.
 
If you take it off the heat just then, let it sit
While you shave the parmesan into paper-thin curls,
It will be perfectly creamy,
But will still have a bite.
 
There will be dishes to do, 
The moon will rise,
And everyone you love will be safe.
 

Related Poems

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
   Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
   Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
   I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
   'Love has no ending.

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
   Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
   And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
   Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
   Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
   For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
   And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
   Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
   Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
   And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
   Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
   And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
   The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
   A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
   And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
   And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
   The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
   And the deep river ran on.