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James Longenbach

James Longenbach is the author of five poetry collections: Earthling (W. W. Norton, 2017), The Iron Key (W. W. Norton, 2012), Draft of a Letter (University of Chicago Press,, 2007), Fleet River (University of Chicago Press, 2003), and Threshold (University of Chicago Press, 1998). Also a literary critic, he is the Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester. He lives in Rochester, New York. 

By This Poet

5

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.

Lake on the Hill

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.

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.