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Stars and Other Signs
 9780300127607

Table of contents :
Contents
Acknowledgments
Author’s Note
Configurations
Broken Thumb
Balance Forward
Gathering
Connecticut Light
In Range of Bells
A Visit
Interlude
Dirge for the Living
Dirge for the Living
Houses
Continuations
Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1912
Floating
Floating
Mischa Levitzki, Valse in A Major
On Powderhorn Island
Not Later, Not Less
A Medieval Carol
Solitude
To Katharine Lately Born
Walking: A Psalm
Mother, With Daughter
Partly Cloudy
Land and Sea
A Star Turn
Two Trees
Understanding Poetry
In Memoriam J. B. G.
The Waves
Autobiography
At Seventy, The Tools
A Day
Maine Brevities
With Closed Eyes
Origination
Triptych
Early Poems
Sight
Ars Poetica
The Allegro Goes Out
Driving in Pioneer Valley
The Ebb
The Dwellings
Next Moment
Belated Tribute
Song
Countersong
The Wisdom of Love
The Donors
In Another Country
In Memoriam A. M. S.
Reflections in Transit
Patient in Waiting
The Strangers
A February Scene
The Watchers

Citation preview

Stars and Other Signs

★★★ POEMS BY

MARIE

BORROFF

Stars and Other Signs

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS NEW

&

HAVEN

LONDON

Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers. Designed by Nancy Ovedovitz and set in Scala type by the Composing Room of Michigan, Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Printed in the United States of America. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources. 10

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Norman Maclean

Contents

Acknowledgments

xi

Author’s Note

xiii

Configurations

1

Broken Thumb

3

Balance Forward Gathering

4

6

Connecticut Light In Range of Bells

8 9

A Visit: Danse Macabre Interlude

11

Dirge for the Living

12

Departure and Arrival Houses

10

14

15

Continuations

16

Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1912 Floating

17

18

An Exhibition of Paintings by William Bailey

20 vii

Mischa Levitzki, Valse in A Major On Powderhorn Island Not Later, Not Less A Medieval Carol Solitude

22

24 25

26

To Katharine Lately Born

28

Walking: A Psalm 30 Mother, with Daughter Partly Cloudy

34

Land and Sea

36

A Star Turn Two Trees

32

37 38

Understanding Poetry

39

In Memoriam J. B. G.

40

The Waves

42

Autobiography

43

At Seventy, The Tools A Day

44

46

Maine Brevities With Closed Eyes

48 49

Origination 50 Triptych

I, 51; II, 54; III, 55

Early Poems Sight

59

Ars Poetica

viii c o n t e n t s

60

21

The Allegro Goes Out

61

Driving in Pioneer Valley The Ebb

64

The Dwellings Next Moment

66 67

Belated Tribute Song

62

68

70

Countersong

71

The Wisdom of Love The Donors

72

73

In Another Country

74

In Memoriam A. M. S. Reflections in Transit Patient in Waiting The Strangers

76

78

79

A February Scene The Watchers

75

80

82

contents

ix

Acknowledgments

Some of the poems in this collection appeared in the following periodicals: The American Scholar: “The Dwellings”; “The Strangers” The Grecourt Review: “Driving in Pioneer Valley”; “To Katharine Lately Born” The New Republic: “Floating” Occasional Stiles: “Walking: A Psalm” Poetry: “Patient in Waiting”; “Understanding Poetry” Quarterly West: “At Seventy, the Tools” Sequoia: “Houses”; “Solitude” The Virginia Quarterly Review: “Broken Thumb” The Yale Review: “Ars Poetica”; “Next Moment”; “Origination”; “The Waves”

xi

Author’s Note

These poems were written over a period of more than fifty years during which, though most of my time was of necessity devoted to scholarship and teaching, the writing of poems was an essential part of life. All along the way, beginning with Norman Maclean at the University of Chicago, there have been mentors and friends who encouraged me in my poetic vocation. Certain of the poems in this collection are dedicated to them; the others will know who they are and will, I hope, be aware of my continuing gratitude. Much important poetry has been written in language free of formal constraints, but for me, ideas for poems have always included patterns of meter and rhyme. Those of us who impose such patterns on language must exercise a good measure of conscious control, whereas we owe what is most memorable in what we write to the “involuntary powers,” as W. H. Auden called them. I am grateful to those powers for the mysterious process whereby the poems I wrote gradually got better, and for those even more mysterious, and lucky, occasions when a poem took off on its own and shaped itself beyond my devising.

xiii

Stars and Other Signs

Configurations For Norman Maclean

I thought I knew by sight each starry sign That shows, in June, in roadside green Where the cove’s reach is screened by spruce and pine, But here’s a face that newly makes my scene: A pattern yet to ponder and divine. I bend, reluctant—why bring word and phrase To break so full a silence? Yet behold: Even as I speak, the template, trace by trace, Declares itself: white petals, sevenfold, And narrow leaves set round the stem like rays. The book laid open verifies it all: Starflower, of primrose kind, No common chickweed, spindling stems asprawl; A namesake, keepsake, calling back to mind An early summer day. Now, with the gradual Waning of light, in slowly widening lines,

1

A boat’s long wake refigures, bar by bar, The deep-suspended cloudscape. . . . Evanescent signs, Save for one westering planetary star. I look up; there it shines.

2

Broken Thumb

Things of my world, thwart, solid, chockablock, That I was wont lightly to wield and dandle, Now, button-bungler, fool of lid, latch, lock, Thumbfoundered, I must own you all too much to handle. With dexter maladroit sadly at outs, Unruly point scrawls to a standstill, staggered, While Captain Left, sidelined in swaddling-clouts, Bears silent witness from my lap, a laggard. Old lover of this world and its hard lines, Spendthrift of news, unapt at splints and slings, It keeps its healing secret all alone, Biding that hour when, bone rejoined with bone, It sallies forth, takes pen, and straight consigns To bright black ink this new beginning: Things.

3

Balance Forward

Name, date of birth. Undress. Lie back. Care and precautions and keeping track. Early I waken one day older. The proof of all indwelling power Lies in the unlikely present hour. Each task bears witness against our will. Scoring the outraged heart across, Its one immitigable loss. The world is away and sends no word. Lips moving answering lips that move, Consensual at the quick of love. That banquet had been spread for you. Pass the gate and begrudge the toll? Clutch at the meaning and tear the scroll? Live contingent and not risk all? Empty at heart, and yet feast full?

4

Early I waken one day older. Each task bears witness against our will. The world is away and sends no word. That banquet had been spread for you.

5

Gathering

I start to search out speech, To set, or else fall dumb, Some words beyond the reach Of what I have become, When straight this crowd appears That in bright obstinacy Stands round, all eyes and ears, Talking of mine and me, Taking each empty place, Nodding each moment by, Yet some, in quieter space, Stand back, unheeded, shy, With eyes where meanings wait I might learn something of Were it not too soon, too late, To make that one wild move,

6

Give one great graceless shove And blindly shoulder through To greet that silence: you, Last gained, least guessed at: you.

7

Connecticut Light

Connecticut light: sun at the end of snow Thronging each branch, spinning the shadows wide Across white fields to where, on either side, Long hills, furred gray or plum, lie couching low; Light dallying in a spray of cherry in bloom, No flower not open full, no petal lost; Light running through the fields in waves of frost Or tamed by heavy leaves to a green gloom. Light opulent in maple red and gold As the sun’s arc leans southward day by day, Burning in state until time brings them low In drift on drift of faded color, cold Dead embers for the wind to blow away Under a somber sky portending snow.

8

In Range of Bells For Richard Brodhead

I walk in range of bells where silence (one by one) marks off each stroke that tells time ended, time begun. Daily down Prospect Hill the tally keeps (nine, ten) telling with what a constant will time brings me round and round again, and brings me schoolward here to breast the advancing line: eyes, faces, year by year, young, and more young than mine, while bell on bell, borne past as leaves blow from a tree, tells how time’s branches hold us fast only to cast us free.

9

A Visit Danse Macabre

Each face is a bad likeness of that face, drawn by An inept or an indifferent hand: the line left slack That should express the life, the jaw awry, The mouth inane, the proportions out of whack. And some are blind, and some have eyes that gleam From chair or bed, where strangers pass all day, Intent to clutch, to cry “I am not as I seem; Come closer, once you know, you will not turn away.” Mission completed, dispenser of good cheer, I smile, I wave, I call out “I’ll be back!” Past the glass doors, the air is fresh and clear, Keys, car, at hand. Only later, looking back, I see my strained and ghastly grin; I hear My words fall hollow, my jigging heels clack.

10

Interlude

“I will do such things— What they are yet, I know not, but they shall be The terrors of the earth.”—King Lear

A breakfast idyll. Silence, and the third Cup of good coffee, now, or as I choose; At home, at leisure, leafing through the news, New names, new fame, new thoughts, the latest word. The black phone broods in silence. Watchful time Has turned its back. And shall I not at last Rise up, reach out, shake off the palsied past, Address once more my world of prose and rhyme, Consider what remains to make or mend, Take the steep years by storm, be seen, be heard, Renounce your image, wasted, wan, and chill, Waiting, dear heart, in twilight, to no end? The black phone broods in silence still. And still You have not died. And still I have not stirred.

11

Dirge for the Living

These are my colors, the cut of my hair, my dress for the evening, my likeness in view. You’ll be the loveliest one there, you said. No, that was you, you in a dancing-gown of red chiffon, flame red. These are the tales of my works and my days, the memos, the meetings, the knocks at the door. You always help everyone, always, you said. Not now, no more, idle, beside your bed that strangers tend, strange bed. This is the list, the instructions, the key, the smile in the picture, the wristwatch, the ring. Your life must not be bounded by me, you said. No, that was years ago. O how could I foresee

12

the silent days, and the pall on everything, and the wakenings wild with dread? —And you not yet dead, not dead!

13

Departure and Arrival

Foregone, foreknown. Time’s slow, malignant spell That set us mute to watch the dark descend Has run its course. Parting without farewell Is our poor portion at the long road’s end. O brave, to sit behind the wheel on plush When I should weep, rave, shake my fists, cry down Heaven’s blackest torrent. In a ghostly hush Remembered scenes slide past. Foregone, foreknown. Town traffic. Lights. The many streets, the one. The house. She, all in white, unsmiling there. He poised behind her, ready to depart. Within, hushed words. Ahead, the darkened stair. “Shall one of us go with you?” No. Dear heart, I cannot miss my way. Foreknown, foregone.

14

Houses

With the entire fall of darkness, they grow bright, Astream with light, radiant as a Christmas toy: An insubstantial conjuring of night Dispels the plain dimensions of the day And the black frame glows matchwood-slight. What the blank pane withheld is innocently laid bare; Leisure’s least gesture, witnessed so, assumes A signalized, an utterance-freighted air— A woman, as she walks across a room, A man, as he sits reading in a chair— And walls that guarded with impassive face Against the advances of a daylight eye, With the entire fall of darkness out of space Expound for any passerby The simplest sum of being: body, time and place.

15

Continuations

Black rim, pale dawn: now, as to rolling drums, sun, your great signal comes to bid me on. Blackness of heavendome at late returning: blue star, your beacon burning to steer me home.

16

Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1912

“With ful assured lokyng and manere”—Troilus and Criseide

Posed like a princess, blazoned in plain sight, She takes the artist’s homage. Her left hand Rests weightless on the keyboard, while the right Half-turns a page of music on the stand. Power dissembled, well-schooled wilfulness, Accomplishment mirrored in pure repose: The bosom of her elegant blue dress Displays a frill of ruching and a rose. Now on that scene the patron takes his place, Puffs his cigar, approves the work complete. I am the future, he the past. We meet Here in the present image of one face Whose calm eyes, looking down the decades, say “I am Marie Bergersen. I play.”

The patron: Marie Bergersen’s father, who commissioned the portrait.

17

Floating

As the unmoored weed drifts wide, Wrack on the running tide, So does my body ride With limbs that trail and loll In this chill lap that all But parts to let me fall. Not the sun’s great white eye That stares from the dim sky At height of mid-July Can touch me with its heat Or quicken the numbed beat At the blood’s vital seat, For I am sea-possessed, Rocked in the changeful rest Of the tide-run, crest on crest.

18

Through half-closed lids I see Garden and house swing free From ash and maple tree, And then, receding, fade Into the shape and shade Of shores forever stayed. And the ledges blur and drown Off silent Indiantown Where I go drifting down, Fetched up at last, aswim On the tide’s utmost brim That floods the wrack-wreathed rim Till it can reach no higher: As the slackening swells retire, Beached, bleached beyond desire, Scoured as with silver fire.

19

An Exhibition of Paintings by William Bailey

“Like nothing that was ever bought or sold” —Edwin Arlington Robinson

On a dark ground, impartial light endows Each chosen vessel with a singular sheen; Ranged as for show, assembled as for use, Cup, plate, and bowl, crock, canister, tureen. Time-honored shapes set unfamiliar here, Tinctures of earth, now heightened and made new, Upon whose plain habiliments appear Bands, like heraldic bars, of bravest blue. How they detain our eyes, how they instill Their quietude into our wayward souls: Pure presences, devoid of weight and will, Angelic clays, saints without aureoles. What warehouse keeps, what shelves display them, Bill, These calm, uncumbered cups, these blessèd bowls?

20

Mischa Levitzki, Valse in A Major

Tuck back the pendulum’s tick, flex fingers, go: Treble chromatics plead—oh, pretty, pretty!— The bass, sympathetic, sustaining the flow. A minor theme chimes in in soft entreaty; Retard, reprise, then, pianissimo, The coda scatters its unseen confetti. You pause. The heavy seconds drop like sands. Silent that voice, its plangent note come home To memory now. Your life is in your hands: Much done, much yet to do, and time gives room; Twenty good years; then, as the fates command, The closing inward. Luckier than some. Meanwhile, you practice what and when you please, So try your soulful little valse again: Treble chromatics. . . . Once, when by slow degrees The last of light fell slant on what had been, I cast out grief, disclaimed the auguries, And made a song and played it on these keys. How much it mattered then. 21

On Powderhorn Island

There are three beaches of sand And one where the groundswell Climbs soundless in to steep Sea-pebble and sea-shell: Clear shapes the shallows keep Ranged as if under glass. And long rock-ledges lift Their bands of black and white, Scoured out in heave and swirl, Or writhe in headlong flight To the tidal slap and shift. Across the higher ground, From thorn and sallow grass, Calm shapes of lichened stone Rise for your eyes to reach Beyond the sea’s broad brim Toward landfalls yet unknown, Horizons round. Once more, Where a boat waits on the beach,

22

Sandpipers shadow-light And black-bibbed plover skim The foam’s advancing rim Or veer on sudden wings. Now, as the senses swim, The shapes of thought drift free, Borne seaward as a bell Counts out the grave Slow-syllabled unburdenings Of wave on wave.

23

Not Later, Not Less

All signs repeat: Rejoice. Morning, and the opening of the eyelids, And mind lifting up its voice, And world come safe in sight: Wakening, and the witnessing of objects Thronged on the pier of light As night had never been. The meanings massed, awaiting The hands that, gathering in, Weigh home all truths in one: Morning, and the gaiety of the body In the stations of the sun.

24

A Medieval Carol

“Sumer is i-cumen in”

Winter’s out and summer’s in; Loud, sing loud, cuckoo! Seeds are growing, blossoms showing, Woods in leaf anew; Sing, cuckoo! Cow, she lows and calls her calf, Likewise her lamb the ewe; Bull cavorts and he-goat farts: Sing merrily, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, Well you please us, cuckoo, Now sing the summer through! Sing, cuckoo, now, sing, cuckoo!

25

Solitude

When, as the dusk at window deepens, I rise at last in lamplight, there In counter-act rises an image, Traced luminous on darkening air. Unreal, upon the sense it flashes, A presence mute, yet eloquent, And from my solitude’s projection I turn away, as in consent. And lamps in all the rooms are lighted As now I turn to lend, with love, A relish to the act sustaining That other house in which I move. The place is set, the plate is laden, I sit, I taste, as one invited, And with due gravity observe Short ceremonials, but not slighted,

26

For dusk is gay as break of day If in my freedom I define Upon the darkening air a form That answers to me and is mine.

27

To Katharine Lately Born

“Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité, Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde, Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde Avec un indicible et mâle volupté.”—Baudelaire, “Élévation”

Words from a friend, in this your natal season, Scarcely can claim importance, for which reason, Though come to wish you well, I shall not dawdle, Nor long delay your more congenial caudle. Mewed behind bars, incontinent and shameless, We find you, wordless, to your knowledge nameless, Whom time shall witness, far from this beginning, A more instructed selfhood hardly winning, Shaping the inward welter in subjection Under one will, of hazardous election, Accused accuser, to its own impulse traitor, Reluctant witness and adjudicator.

28

May a self docile to that inward measure Yet keep its native dower of power and pleasure, Against the moil of outthrust lust and murder Shoring, at last, a more than makeshift order, And mind attain its right and consummation In “an unspeakable virile exultation,” A fitting stage for its endeavoring deeming The world that mocks it with its intricate seeming. And though the care that folds you now securely Must fail your later need, yet, just as surely, Whatever despair with darkness overtakes you, The inviolate morning waits as it awakes you.

29

Walking: A Psalm

December’s cold sun tells A truth that none excels, And the heart starts awake With every breath I take To a foothold firm and sound On being’s icy ground Where sense hails as its own Sheer wall and mortared stone. How plain, how unperplexed The scene sets forth its text! How still the meaning stays! The trees stand bare to praise, The walls ascend in light, The stones shore up my sight,

30

The street shores up my sole. The grit is bread; my sole Breaks it, and I am whole.

31

Mother, With Daughter For Edith Borroff

Out to travel a country mile, Blanketed, bonneted, tight and warm, Little dog’s chin in the crook of an arm, Spring come again, cloud, meadow and tree: “Aren’t they gorgeous?” cries ninety-three. O Death, hold off for a while. Breakfast at hand and all serene, Sampling, savoring, taking it slow; Last bite of Danish, buttered just so, Steam from the coffee-cup spiraling free: “Breakfast is good,” smiles ninety-three. O Death, this was never your scene. Misshapen fingers ranging at will Rouse at the keyboard strains that rise And dip and return, as the strong wing plies In the ongoing flight. “Just thought I’d see If I could remember it,” laughs ninety-three. O Death, can those sounds fall still?

32

One false step and the snap of a bone, And time set aside like an unfinished page, And the words of the oracle, bland and sage: “All things considered. . . . It may well be . . . . ” “Bring me my shoes!” screams ninety-three. O Death, hold off or have done.

33

Partly Cloudy

I Chair to chair, we visit by the bed. All things but one have happened; All that we had to say is long since said. Under the cuff I have opened, Intimate, trustful, warm, Your hand clings to my arm. The years you have outlived have bowed your head. You drowse a little now; I study your closed eyes, The lids moist, faintly violet, set deep Beneath the still disdainful brow. They open, as in surprise. You say, “I was asleep.” II I wheel you out in swaddled state. A narrow concrete track Outlines the well-kept yard where flowerbed

34

And tree and shrub belie Chain fence that has no gate. Our one way out is the way back. On the paved entryway, a busy squad Of sparrows pecks and flutters. Overhead, Big fresh white clouds blow by. I point, you look up, nod. You say, “Beautiful sky.” III Here at the end of the hall, The room we left an hour ago Awaits unchanged: the chairs, the empty bed. Silence. Stale air. Time drags toward what we dread And cannot see. Huddled inert, you give no sign, Then, as I lean to touch you, suddenly You lift your head. Your face is haggard, sybilline. You say (I can just hear you), “Life is small,” Then, frowning, self-correcting, “Life is slow.”

35

Land and Sea

Gold in the west that glowed Now slowly fading; Cloud into darker cloud Now coldly shading. The ripple slackens; Broad tide brims level bright. With the far shore’s first light The darkness wakens.

36

A Star Turn

From our advantage at the center here, Random convergences of years of light Have constellated you, eons untold, Huntsman of old, hail-fellow long well-met East over winter rooftops year by year, Stark-limbed, austere, Yet boyish, glorying in your glitter-gear: Your belt and dagger set With rows of triple stars, white-hot and diamond-cold. Now for the story. Once, on a clear spring night, Down under, somewhere near the Tasman Sea, I left a wakeful bed And went in search of skymarks. Can it be? There, in that brilliant crowd, a friend of mine? But wait—hold on—something is out of line: Great heavens above, you’re standing on your head! —Then, as with a giddy lurch of wheels, Great heavens below, I’m hanging by my heels!

37

Two Trees

Out Whitney way as I walked, A wind rose up in the heat That startled the maples white Where their leaves tipped over and back, And whirled down the sunstruck street Till the trees in their regiments rocked And nodded and swayed as one In a giddy dispersal of light. But I, having no part In that hoopla, walked and stood Where the great beech baffles the sun With its somber curtain of green: Bronze-green dreaming a black As deep as the secret blood, As the blood in the vein unseen Whose course is set for the heart.

38

Understanding Poetry For Maynard Mack

“Death be not proud . . . ” How proud we were, how tough, You my archpoet, I your paraphrase; Our pyrotechnics set their wits ablaze, Logic, trope, scheme, theme, structure, all that stuff. I met them, matched them, made them call my bluff; We thrashed it out, rehashed it forty ways; Strutting that little scene, I played for praise And won my share—oh yes, I had enough. “Death be not proud . . . ” When did the clapping stop? Standing in that still house, remembering how I sojourned there in joy, the joy that was, I hear, Jack Donne, beneath your razzmatazz, A quieter music. “If it be not now, Yet it will come.” Teach that, or shut up shop.

Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, textbook exemplifying the New Criticism “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come.” Hamlet, V.ii.220 ff.

39

In Memoriam J. B. G.

Darkness at morning. And the zinnias shout Their glory colors: red, flame-red, blood-red. Late yesterday I gathered them against the indifferent gray Of your slow fading out. This morning you are dead. Silent, on my ongoing enterprise The light of morning gains, That will not lie again along the planes And angles of your once and only face, And my five fingers bend To handle knife and spoon, pour coffee, place All things in readiness. Early to rise, A hearty breakfast, fresh air, exercise . . . . How to outlive your friend. Light of late afternoon. Your sum of days Is settled; mine will soon be less by one. Gazing, before the screen’s white glaze,

40

On blocks of words, dull business never done, I think how once there was Something vivid, something various, Wilful, voluble, precarious, A part of luck become a part of loss.

41

The Waves

At the threshold of diminishment, such stores of joy: chitter-call of the wild goldfinch casting off into space, skimming air as a flat stone skims water; levitation and repose of Chopin: Valse in A-Flat Major, tempo vivace, mind hushed for the arrowing of every note; quarks winking in and out the jump rope on the rim of matter; midnight’s incandescence, hub of the galaxy turning to a cricket-pulse; airborne ponderings over earthscapes, cloudscapes, cloud-mesas, cloud-chasms opening on earth-mountains, as the day lengthens westward to the beach beyond the bay and the waves slowly towering up their strength and lavishing it away

42

Autobiography

There lies the splinter, bedded in the quick. The needle trembles as you start to pick.

43

At Seventy, The Tools

are as things stand. are as things go, are as you know. Less apt, less well in hand to sink the nail, to guide the long blade’s thrust and haul. Gone lopsided, gone lame. Are as things stand, are as things fall. Risky, residual, yet not to put aside out of all calling, no, not on your life. Old lady,

44

old busybody, take another breath, set board to frame, hold the nail steady, for my sweet sake.

45

A Day For Penelope Laurans

Morning Set on a soundless course, Tipped by the sun’s odd wink, A raft of ripple bears Its fretwork toward the brink, Touches, and disappears. Moments, a season, years: Speak now, and count them yours. Noon A startled heron tries His weight on wings whose slow Deep downsweep countermands The air’s cold claim below, Glides to a far ledge, and lands. That distance mocks me. So? Cast off, reach out, and rise.

46

Afternoon Thronging beneath the eye Of the cloud-conquering sun, Exultant surges spill Their freight of fiery silver . . . Sky, Sea, shore where I stand alone, Set me to praise, until You darken, and I am done.

47

Maine Brevities

Solomon’s seal, starflower and fern; Slow days coasting the solstice turn. Roadside roses and rabbit’s-foot clover; June gone by and July half over. August goldenrod, cluster and spray; The top of the thistle is puffed with gray. Sunlit asters south of the wall; Fold up summer, head into fall.

48

With Closed Eyes

All of a summersimmer. The tall fieldgrasses full Of the wind’s staveless music: Gathering, onrush, lull. Off where the feeders hang, The finches’ bright insistence; A songsparrow’s little tune Strikes up at a distance. A jay chides. Now the wind Slows to a standstill. No voice from branch or bush Dares the sun’s heat, until Somewhere close by, a warbler Bestirs himself to take The silence, and give it One long tingling shake.

49

Origination For Harold Bloom

White weather holding: light is all but loss of light. Where the road bends, the trees that cross my line of sight fade out at half their height. A house looms, sealed adrift. No stir afoot, no whirr of startled wing, no leaf-screened chattering, only the alternating plod of soles thick-shod that know the road by rote. Bound to their forth-and-back, self treads its single track: stale thoughts, stale senses, stale 50

imaginings. No inward power can lift, no impulse countervail the weight of this dead hush— but now a hermit thrush sets one clear phrase afloat as if no living throat had ever shaped a note.

51

Triptych For Beatrice Bartlett

I An Illustration by Attilio Mussino in The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I turn another page—and am swept deep Into the labyrinth of remembered days. A portrait in dim blues and grays, The head shown sideways, like a cameo. A delicate headdress Of sheerest lawn, gold-flecked, trails down Upon the bosom of her pale blue gown. A clasp holds back beside her brow A single heavy tress Whose curving fall is highlighted in blue. Hers is the face that once bent low Above the child half-sentient, half-asleep. Commissioned by the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Yale and read at the annual banquet of the chapter in March 1998.

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Secret, serene, she dwells in a sealed space Where vague gold shapes, like symbols, mystify A simple ground of blue. I am the child in whose heart’s history She keeps her fateful share. And she? She is The Lady with Azure Hair.

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II Coastal scene, Isle of Arran, an oil painting by Alphonse Shelton

The sun has set. Beyond a stark Skyline of somber hills, colors that glowed On banks of cloud fade into brown and gray. Across the stretch of land that skirts the bay A rough road runs aslant, then leads away In turnings left and right. Some distance on, a cart trundles its load; A figure plods before—dark shapes the painter’s brush Sets indistinct against dull rock and bush No longer green. Earth, sea and sky: all things within the scene Foretell the full dominion of the dark; Only, upon the utmost height Of the far hills toward which they climb, A single steady light Directs day laborers homeward in due time.

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III Winter landscape, painting by Lu Chih (Ming dynasty)

Crowded within the tall frame’s narrow space, Softened by snows of creamy gray, The mountain’s shouldering ramparts, tier on tier, Tower into snow-gray sky. Descending sheer From its celestial vantage-point, the eye Follows the slanting plane Of the cliff-guarded summit past a lane Of stunted trees, veers sharply back On more precipitous terrain Where pillowy banks and boulders, by degrees, Mark off the downward track, Ascends a mounded overlook, Then plummets deep Down a ravine, shadowed beside the steep, Completes its headlong course and meets a frozen brook. Seen last of all, Trees in a miniature grove, Drawn fine with strokes of gray, Lift traceries of branch and twig above A frail pavilion whose wide-windowed wall Detains the winter day. A scholar centuries old is seated there. Steadfast beneath the stare Of those inhuman heights, He dips his brush and writes A poem’s first character.

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★★★ Early Poems

Sight

Darkness also is light, And we discern At every hour in turn, Day, dusk, and night. So in the conscious soul The several powers Bring each a portion to that whole Of truth which may be ours, And each must be comprised, The total to attain, Nor any, being inarticulate, despised. The all-assertive brain Illumes a nearer space But something, too, obscures, As daylight shows us one another’s face But hides the stars.

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Ars Poetica

He who would frame the corded lyre must take Not of his bone, but some more steadfast thing; There is no bended rib of body’s make To stretch such string. Some more than mortal substance may alone Hold taut and true beneath the smiting hand That iron string, whose stress his hollow bone Could not withstand.

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The Allegro Goes Out

Although today she rides At anchor still Below the curve of that south-watching hill, Tomorrow she must sail without return And from a strange and distant mooring learn New winds, new rocks, new tides. The wind that fills her sail Blows every heart from out its sheltering cove And none can chart a course upon that deep. But this stout catboat, that has had the love Of children, and those children’s children, will not fail, And she can teach us still How, as the weathers and the winds blow by, They take all things—yet there are some we keep. The years stand watching, gathered on the hill, As the big sail hoists high.

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Driving in Pioneer Valley

Swift from the wheel flies back A singing reel of road; Mile on widening mile, The billowy road flows in. Long since has dropped from sight The last spire of the town, As under a morning’s light I travel the valley down. Those ageless forms that shore Far fields to east and west Scarcely have turned their brows To mark my change of place, But this unhurrying rush Had no such note in view, Closed in its heat and hush, Rapt in its single race

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Whose transient force the wake Of streaming fence attests, Where trees like sentries wait To wave me safely through.

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The Ebb

Down the sea-river’s side, where the salt grass grows by the ledge that is dark with the stain of the standing tide, past green and brown rockweed banks at rest where the settling of the waters combed them down, and, lower yet, a few last stones, deep-set on slate-black ooze the sun leaves wet, under the shore, in the empty hall of the sea, unbidden guest upon an alien floor, who hears no sound and, in that silence, hears a secret rustling rising all around,

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whispering the slow change in the restless lap of the ebb that spills to a nearer margin now, forewarning of the vast weight of the tilting sea that, without haste, rides landward to reclaim its right at last.

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The Dwellings

Charily to our house We bid the elements, And but by stoppered vents Convenable to use; The covered copper wire, The glass-defended square, Serve for supply of fire And for sufficient air. Stilled in the pipe of brass Our water waveless comes; Into our windless rooms No part of earth may pass. Provident, to defend Our dwellings with such art From that which else would rend Their storied walls apart.

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Next Moment

Tentative, the finger of the mind Dabbles the water, future. The water wavers, Assumes all shapes in seeming, but, being water, Releases all, remains yet undefined; To the poised finger passive, seems to hold All possibles as one, alike existent, Till by time’s chemistry, sudden the present Locks into crystal, actual and cold.

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Belated Tribute For Ronald Crane

We thronged to hear him teach the sage of sages, Read the Poetics, wrote our weekly pages; Questions of sedulous contriving He set like footholds for our upward striving. He had no tolerance for imprecision, And easy certitudes earned his derision, Yet what our diligence could offer His generous mind was readiest to discover. Devoid alike of malice and indulgence, He scarcely seemed to grant us real existence Save as the name or face suggested Wit, or the wish to learn, or talents wasted. Yet we divined his genuine hope to aid us And sadly came to see that he had led us To heights of view that we could never In time to come without him rediscover.

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And so we left him. Would it much amaze him To learn how earnestly we now would praise him, Or how his word of approbation Burned in us like a lover’s declaration?

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Song

Love is a staying of desire, Desire is flight and, staying, dies; Whatever you have heard in song, This is the truth; the rest is lies. Nor is there touch or kiss to prove Love other than a foredoomed thing, For though it may conceive love’s fire, The heart cannot sustain it long. Lips heavy with the freight of love Have hung above me like a bough; Out of a deep and mastering drouth I reached and drew the dark fruits low. The pulps lost savor in my mouth And straight I heard a dead bird sing “Love is a staying of desire, A slackening fire, an unplumed wing.”

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Countersong

Yet, yet, in spite of all, Love is, love lasts. Though from the lax hand falls What it at first held fast, Though custom stills The heartbeat of delight, Though day’s each joy must pass Beneath the pall of night, Yet, yet, in time’s despite, And past all mortal ills, Love is, love lasts; If the heart wills.

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The Wisdom of Love

Love not in time; in time Love’s chiefest foe is found, That first attempts to limn The boundless with a bound, That to the unceasing says “Here must thou cease.” Sigh not for time, for time Sends no lover peace. Who measures love by time And would be loved in hours, Jealousy lives in him And his slow heart devours. Draw then from time apart, Love being sudden as light, Whose lightning in the heart Inscribes the dark world bright.

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The Donors

That which our cups contained, The water and the wine, Being secretly refined And channeled in the vein, We here have offered up For him who, to be healed, Must drink a redder cup Than any fruit can yield.

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In Another Country

I would forgo these lips and eyes And all these gesturing hands forsake For just the turning of your head, But you lie under other skies, And long days tell me I must take The looks of strangers in your stead. And though in laughter and in lies Some hours of mine have lately sped, Yet in the dawn, lying awake, For just the loveliness you make In a shared silence, breaking bread, I would forgo these lips and eyes And all these gesturing hands forsake.

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In Memoriam A. M. S.

The summer birthdays, Alan—who could say Where time was heading? What was one more year? Placing the chairs, clearing the plates away, Familiar voices, greetings and good cheer, The expectant hush, then, starting up on cue, The birthday song, the cake borne in aflame, The gifts, and, gazing from the sidelines, you, Your gleeful face putting our smiles to shame, Red hair slicked back, in jacket and bow tie! And in that shape, and as at last you came To height and bloom of manhood, memory’s eye Dwells on you still, one life sealed in one name. Laugh, let the candles burn, tall man, small boy: Even now the shades draw back before that joy.

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Reflections in Transit

The fellow in the forward seat Crosses his legs and stares atrance, And now, unconsciously, his foot Takes up a little sprightly dance, And merrily turns, around, about, In, up, down, out, As out of time in blaring phrase The streetcar stops and starts and stays. There is no music in this place To set in motion such a dance, Nor does its quickened measure rise From any festive circumstance, But the foot sways as it might be Possessor of some private glee, Rhythm intrinsic in the bone Though to the conscious mind unknown. The atom that enmattered spins Takes motion from no uttered note

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But of itself that dance begins Whereby all other comes about; From such a source in time are born The lute and silken-streamered horn, And first the mote that noiseless wheels Led the gay round of skipping heels.

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Patient in Waiting

Now in one chair they bide their hour, Unwholesome flesh, unquiet mind, Which in good time had wit and power To bring all to this place, and find If reason’s healing art can send The body’s sickness to an end. The part infirm, being grossly made, Lacks wisdom to conceive its cure, And but unquestioning obeyed The hest that sent it to this door Where soon it must lie down afraid Before the wielder and the blade, Proving therein most subjugate Of animals, alone to yield The ancient privilege of flight From instrument in hostile wield. Thus is the runner made ashamed, The flight blocked, the beast tamed.

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The Strangers

Born to inhabit earth and air, They will not leave to scale and fin The element less dense, less rare Of their remoter origin. For though they near it build, and bend To see their picture hung within, And though it parts as they descend And bears them up to breathe again, The mirrored image of their pride Slips from its unreluctant hold And drops of liquid silver slide From the spent swimmer, strange and cold.

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A February Scene

As I looked out this wintry day Every twig and every spray And every drooping tuft of pine Was clad about with crystalline, And every pod and berry and seed And every jointed stalk of weed Was closed in glass, and every one Shot back a sparkle to the sun. The ground was sealed in solid glare— No creature found a purchase there; No flirt of tail, no whir of wing, No half-glimpse of four-footed thing. Caught in that spell, I stand at gaze Behind the window’s sheltering glaze To view the scene’s impassive art: A stage-set with no moving part

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Till airborne spangles fall and break And the world turns to undertake, Doffing its glittering cloak of glass, The dull work of the days that pass.

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The Watchers

The geared dimensions mesh and move. Motion and time, together spun, Run to the closes of their course Whose substance and whose source are one. Caught in those cogs our system turns On pivots of its days and years And gears that whirl the dust of trade Are locked with all the wheels of time And yet, so pressing our concerns, The vast impingement goes unmarked Save for the cogwheeled clocks that stand Unharked at in a dust of chimes.

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