Letter after a Year Poem

Letter after a Year Poem

Here’s a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”
There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk in the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone. All winter
when ice and snow kept me away
I worried that you missed me.
“Perkins! Where the hell
are you?”
In hell. Every day
I play in repertory the same
script without you, without love,
without audience except for Gus,
who waits attentive
for cues: a walk, a biscuit,
bedtime. The year of days
without you and your body swept by
as quick as an afternoon;
but each afternoon took a year.
At first in my outrage
I daydreamed burning the house:
kerosene in pie plates
with a candle lit in the middle.
I locked myself in your study
with Gus, Ada, and the rifle
my father gave me at twelve.
I killed our cat and dog.
I swallowed a bottle of pills,
knowing that if I woke on fire
I had the gun.
After you died
I stopped rereading history.
I took up Cormac McCarthy
for the rage and murder.
Now I return to Gibbon; secure
in his reasonable civilization,
he exercises detachment
as barbarians skewer Romans.
Then Huns gallop from the sunrise
wearing skulls.
What’s new?
I see more people now. In March,
I took Kate and Mary to Piero’s.
At the end of the month ice dropped
to the pond’s bottom, and water
flashed and flowed
through pines in western light.
The year melted into April
and I lived through the hour
we learned last year you would die.
For the next ten days, my mind
sat by our bed again
as you diminished cell by cell.

Last week the goldfinches
flew back for a second spring.
Again I witnessed snowdrops
worry from dead leaves
into air. Now your hillside
daffodils edge up, and today
it’s a year since we set you down
at the border of the graveyard
on a breezy April day. We stood
in a circle around the coffin
and its hole, under pines
and birches, to lower you
into glacial sand.
When I dream
sometimes your hair is long
and we make love as we used to.
One nap time I saw your face
at eighty: many lines, more flesh,
the good bones distinct.
It’s astonishing to be old.
When I stand after sitting,
I’m shocked at how I must stretch
to ease the stiffness out.
When we first spoke of marriage
we dismissed the notion
because you’d be a widow
twenty-five years, or maybe
I wouldn’t be able to make love
while desire still flared in you.
Sometimes now I feel crazy
with desire again
as if I were forty, drinking,
and just divorced.
Ruth Houghton had a stroke.
Her daughter sent me the album
of photographs Roger took
in his documentary passion ?
inside and outside our house,
every room, every corner ?
one day in September 1984.
I howled as I gazed at that day
intact. Our furniture
looked out of place, as if vandals
had shoved everything awry.
There were pictures on the walls
we put away long ago.
The kitchen wallpaper shone
bright red in Roger’s Kodacolor;
it faded over the years,
as we watched, not seeing it fade.

Donald Hall
from Without

Letter after a Year Poem

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