Mercury Dressing

- 1945-2018
To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency—
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart)—
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
If I reach out and touch his wing,
What harm, what help might he then bring?

But suddenly he disappears,
As so much else has down the years...
Until I feel him deep inside
The emptiness, preoccupied.
His nerve electrifies the air.
His message is his being there.

More by J. D. McClatchy

A Winter Without Snow

Even the sky here in Connecticut has it,
That wry look of accomplished conspiracy,
The look of those who've gotten away

With a petty but regular white collar crime.
When I pick up my shirts at the laundry,
A black woman, putting down her Daily News,

Wonders why and how much longer our luck
Will hold.  "Months now and no kiss of the witch."
The whole state overcast with such particulars.

For Emerson, a century ago and farther north,
Where the country has an ode's jagged edges,
It was "frolic architecture."  Frozen blue-

Print of extravagance, shapes of a shared life
Left knee-deep in transcendental drifts:
The isolate forms of snow are its hardest fact.

Down here, the plain tercets of provision do,
Their picket snow-fence peeling, gritty,
Holding nothing back, nothing in, nothing at all.

Down here, we've come to prefer the raw material
Of everyday and this year have kept an eye
On it, shriveling but still recognizable--

A sight that disappoints even as it adds
A clearing second guess to winter.  It's
As if, in the third year of a "relocation"

To a promising notch way out on the Sunbelt,
You've grown used to the prefab housing,
The quick turnover in neighbors, the constant

Smell of factory smoke--like Plato's cave,
You sometimes think--and the stumpy trees
That summer slighted and winter just ignores,

And all the snow that never falls is now
Back home and mixed up with other piercing
Memories of childhood days you were kept in

With a Negro schoolmate, of later storms
Through which you drove and drove for hours
Without ever seeing where you were going.

Or as if you've cheated on a cold sickly wife.
Not in some overheated turnpike motel room
With an old flame, herself the mother of two,

Who looks steamy in summer-weight slacks
And a parrot-green pullover.  Not her.
Not anyone.  But every day after lunch

You go off by yourself, deep in a brown study,
Not doing much of anything for an hour or two,
Just staring out the window, or at a patch

On the wall where a picture had hung for ages,
A woman with planets in her hair, the gravity
Of perfection in her features--oh! her hair

The lengthening shadow of the galaxy's sweep.
As a young man you used to stand outside
On warm nights and watch her through the trees.

You remember how she disappeared in winter,
Obscured by snow that fell blindly on the heart,
On the house, on a world of possibilities.

Late Night Ode

It's over, love.  Look at me pushing fifty now,
   Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,
The piles and boggy prostate, the crooked penis,
   The sour taste of each day's first lie,

And that recurrent dream of years ago pulling
   A swaying bead-chain of moonlight,
Of slipping between the cool sheets of dark
   Along a body like my own, but blameless.

What good's my cut-glass conversation now, 
   Now I'm so effortlessly vulgar and sad?
You get from life what you can shake from it?
   For me, it's g and t's all day and CNN.  

Try the blond boychick lawyer, entry level
   At eighty grand, who pouts about the overtime, 
Keeps Evian and a beeper in his locker at the gym, 
   And hash in tinfoil under the office fern.  

There's your hound from heaven, with buccaneer 
   Curls and perfumed war-paint on his nipples.  
His answering machine always has room for one more 
   Slurred, embarrassed call from you-know-who.  

Some nights I've laughed so hard the tears 
   Won't stop.  Look at me now.  Why now?  
I long ago gave up pretending to believe 
   Anyone's memory will give as good as it gets.  

So why these stubborn tears?  And why do I dream 
   Almost every night of holding you again, 
Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone, 
   Through the bruised unbalanced waves?

Wolf's Trees

If trees fall in a wood and no one hears them,
Do they exist except as a page of lines
That words of rapture or grief are written on?
They are lines too while alive, pointing away
From the primer of damped air and leafmold
That underlie, or would if certain of them
Were not melon or maize, solferino or smoke,
Colors into which a sunset will collapse
On a high branch of broken promises.
Or they nail the late summer’s shingles of noon
Back onto the horizon’s overlap, reflecting
An emptiness visible on leaves that come and go.

How does a life flash before one’s eyes
At the end? How is there time for so much time?
You pick up the book and hold it, knowing
Long since the failed romance, the strained
Marriage, the messenger, the mistake,
Knowing it all at once, as if looking through
A lighted dormer on the dark crest of a barn.
You know who is inside, and who has always been
At the other edge of the wood. She is waiting
For no one in particular. It could be you.
If you can discover which tree she has become,
You will know whether it has all been true.

for Wolf Kahn

Related Poems

In the Village

I

I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn't. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there's nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught
the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning
the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk,
that the world was about to end that morning
on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work
in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective.
It was no way to die, but it's also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.

II

Everybody in New York is in a sitcom.
I'm in a Latin American novel, one
in which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some
invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction,
and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,
the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction
to his deep embarrassment. Look, it's
just the old story of a heart that won't call it quits
whatever the odds, quixotic. It's just one that'll
break nobody's heart, even if the grizzled colonel
pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle
that won't make him a statue. It is the hell
of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets
trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners
trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets
of an old man's memoirs, printed stanzas.
showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets.

III

Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.

IV

The Sweet Life Café

If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.
My lust is in great health, but, if it happens
that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand,
joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen's
elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass
white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking
in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace
I have known and which death will be taking
from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place.