And in the Afternoons I Botanized Poem
Where we sat, on the flagstone terrace behind the house,
Gin cooling in the spill of civilian twilight, ice cubes
Doing the dead man’s float, with air rough to the touch,
The birch leaves blown yellow, in the lacerating shape of spades,
And thin boughs heaving a little with the season’s sickness,
You said: We’ve come to calamity and the end of things.
Even the bees are weary, and the honey heavy, the petals depressed.
The wars you lose last longer than the wars you win.
And it was true. I could feel the same breeze, pallbearer of the birch,
October heading the dark cortège. Where others might trace
Lifelines in the palm, I read, on the back of my hand,
Liver spots like annotations on a last draft. No goldfinch
Flew to the feeder of wild seed; in the worked earth,
No chipmunk burrowed at the sweet root of the bulb.
And yet, in the mornings, fruit still hung fresh and firm,
Dew-dappled apples, frost smoke thick on the ground.
You said: If that crusty north-of-Boston poet had put us
In a poem, would we stand stiff as figures from a snow globe,
The trees bowed down around us, each branch bent
With the weight of meditation, the cling of imagery? Or would we
Lean on a worm fence, blood stropped in the heart,
Between us those moments where anger rubs on injury—
The tone medium wry, the pace pieced out in syllables
That stick in the throat, the ache of everything unsaid?
Well, better that than chintz and chimes, some teapot dame
Who’d make us talk on stilts, or in the weak repeats of
Rondeaus and rondels, French inventions that sound like
Girl groups from the Sixties. Would you rather lose yourself
In the cold echoes of Eliot, his vaulted voice dry as
Stone commencements at the graveside? Or find yourself
Edged out by the muscle of music in late Yeats?
We’ll take our own line, broken, with a grain of sense and salt.
But no words slow down the dirt. And these drinks,
Essence of emptiness from the juniper berry, can’t bring back
A duckweb spray of maple paddling in the slipstreams of spring,
Or the flowering crab, or panicles of japonica. You said:
At 47, I’m in my prime numbers, indivisible, entered
Only by myself and one other—odd and middling and absolute—
The mind still testing out every hedge against death,
The short con and the long shot, the bet called on the come.
It’s no wonder we nail our days to the wall, and hang
Distractions of the calendar, slick colors over the Xed-out box:
Gaunt barge of Venice in the green canals; the loveknot puzzles of
Women in the pink; and from Monet, the blue and purple pulp of waterblooms.
So all our albums fail the past: pictures of picnics and the rose ribbons of
Girls dozy under the summer oak; your unparalleled apparel,
That dress the shade of bittersweet; and my brand-new panama,
Black band around the crown, hat like an elegy for the head.
You said: If we were characters cast in a play, could we choose
Some comedy written in the wit of Restoration, and call ourselves
Lord and Lady Vainhope, or the Fallshorts of a London season?
We’d stumble through contraptions of the plot, dull but not despised,
Wanting only to be better than we were, the axis of laughter
Set spinning by the jibes of gentlemen, the housemaid’s joke.
A frump of mangled language, a squire’s fat harrumph,
We’d ride out the raillery, redeemed as the footlights dimmed.
It might be worse. The Greeks would strap us both behind
A mask of agony, and raise, behind us both, tall columns
Glazed with gore, history dripping from the choral odes.
I’d rather see myself aggrieved in Italy, young and speaking
Blank verse in the twisted streets, a moonmad lover
Swooning over poison and a toy sword. These days,
They’d heap us unrehearsed in garbage cans, two bums
Practicing their rap before the bottom and the silence fell.
And what had the light left? A Chinese banner of a cloud
Burned across the sun, scarlet and gold of pennants at half-mast,
As the last glow lowered. Strung out among the spikes of dahlia,
A spider’s tension stripped the air, a tripwire brushing
The dawdly fuss of a butterfly. You said: Sometimes I feel
Like a rabbit in the brightbeams, or a statue packed in sawdust,
Chained and crated and stowed away. How could I move,
Always made to bear up the dead weight of the self?
In this state of the ladybug and the buckeye whose shell
Battles back the winter like a scaled-down mace, where each
Politician and professor fights for his own empire of ideas,
Theories that colonize the brain, we’ve reached a common level:
Freaks under the tent, as damaged as Patty the Penguin Girl
Or the Dancing Pinheads, bad goods in the chromosomes, and pain
The price of admission, as the babies know, dangling brow-down inside the thighs,
Their first look at the world bloody and the wrong way up.
If we’re all born, as Augustine said, between the feces and the urine,
We have a bone to pick with anatomy. And what was his problem—
Too much time spent cramped under the pelvic shelf? You can tell,
On every page, his pleasures in confession, nosing out the rank
And the dry rot, the mossy odors of the soul. I’d like to hear him
Alive and in Vienna, knees tucked up on the couch, as the dream doctor
Probed below the belt, fingers wrinkling in his beard: Vell, Herr Augustine,
Vunce more about your mother, and that voice calling from the vall.
Every rebel bred in appointed peace, every child squeezed from
Some squall in the loins, looks on love like a maggot,
That soft surgeon cleaning out the open festers where they hurt.
Who wouldn’t sigh to live among the satisfied, in a mansion of
White linen, high polish, white paint, the windows unfolding on
A square of fountains from which the waters leaped in chandeliers?
All those who rise from rags to rages have had their infancy
Where the ends are mean and no gods ease the difficult middle.
You said: It comes clear now, that midsummer month of rain,
And the mushrooms over the lawn, large and limp, spread flat
Like severed ears listening for the next tremor, the resurrection of the flesh.
In the darkness, after the storms, everything sounded too loud, too close.
What could I do? There’s only so much the rain can erase,
In natural baptism or new flood. That ooze draining through the night,
That rush and suck of water on the run—it frightened me,
As if heaven once more had breathed into the slippery limbs of mud.
By that stand of asters and the late mallow, where we sat
Like monks gone blind in the margin of manuscripts, and heard
Those arguments whose laws lead to the great Therefore, our hands
Stretched and met, both of us ghostly in the pale stains,
The mineral wastes of moonlight, deep dredge of shadows beneath our feet.
You said: Is there no way out of this helpless evidence?
And I put my shaken fingers to your lips, that wound,
The words come from, worn down, drifting, like leaves in a sleepy wind.
first published in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 1999