“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Thus Walt Whitman, in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, expressed what has been the American poet’s struggle from the beginning – to wrest from the land a separate work of art. In honor of the Academy of American Poets, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year, Harper’s publishes fifteen poems reflecting this passion to explore the American text.
No other country’s history offers so dramatic a parallel to. the act of creation: presented with a blank page, the settlers built houses, named cities, constructed a nation. Some of our poets still confront the land itself, evoking a modern wilderness. Others contend with the evolving settlement: the houses, ramshackle or lavish, built to house exiles and immigrants; the unfinished cities, warding off their own disintegration; the great highways, still carrying for, tune hunters west.
But whether the poets locate their “greatest poem” in a landscape or a city street, a filling station or a neighborhood front yard, all of them practice what William Carlos Williams called “the poet’s business, not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.” In front yards, as both Whitman and Williams would have said, there are continents.
This Forum was arranged in cooperation with the Academy of American Poets and its executive director, Henri Cole.
Travels in North America
To Lorraine and Robert Wilbur
Here is San Luis Obispo. Here
Is Kansas City, and here is Rovere,
Kentucky. And here, a small black dot,
Unpronounceable but hard to forget,
Is where we stopped at the Seraphim Motel,
And well-fed moths flew out to greet us from the
On which a dado of petunias grew.
We threw a nickel in the wishing well,
But the moths remained, and the petunias too.
And here is Santa Barbara where
They had the heated swimming pool.
Warm in our room, we watched the bathers’ breaths.
Fell out in Santa Barbara, and the cold
Came blowing off the sea. An ancient gull
Dropped down to shiver gravely in the steady rain.
The sea-food dinner Duncan Hines had praised
Gave off a classic taste of tin. The weather was
There was a landmark, I remember, that was closed.
Here is the highway in and out of Cincinnati.
An inch or so of line along the river. Driving west
One Sunday in a smoky dawn, burnt orange along the
The radio gave forth five solid and remembered hours
Of gospel singers and New Orleans jazz,
With terse, well-phrased commercials for a funeral
They faded out-Cleves, Covington, North Bend
Made way for Evansville and Patti Page. The roads
At motels. The one that night had an Utrillo in a
The stars near Santa Fe are blurred and old,
By a milky haze; a ragged moon
Near Albuquerque shimmers the heat. Autumnal light
Falls softly on a file of candy skulls
And metal masks. Sand drifts at noon, at nine,
And now at midnight on a Navajo in levis reading
Sartre in an Avon Pocket Book, against the window
Of a Rexall store. Here one descends
To shelvings of the pit. The valleys hollow out.
The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,
Pinon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line
Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon
The University of California’s atom bomb.
The sky is soiled and charitable
Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains-
Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this “fitting
For the Capital of the Atomic Age.” We meant
To stop, but one can only see so much. A mist
Came over us outside Tryuonyi: caves, and a shattered
And possibly the towns one never sees are best,
Preserved, remote, and merely names and distances.
Cadiz, Kentucky, “noted for the quality of hams it ships, ,
The home of wealthy planters,” Dalton, Georgia,
“Center of a thriving bedspread industry, where
Of counterpanes may be observed along the highway.
The man whose Home, Sweet Home is known to all,
The champion of the Cherokee, John Howard Payne,
– Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan;
Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington
Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream,
Swept bare of formica and television aerials
And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each
– A dream that ends with towns that smell of rubber
A brownish film sticks to the windshields
And the lungs; the skies are raining soot
And other specks that failed to fit into the paint
Or the salami. A cloud of grit sweeps over you and
down the street.
And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in
The sudden sense that you have seen it all before:
The man who took your ticket at the Gem in Council
Performed a similar function for you at the Shreveport
Joe’s Lunch appears again, town after town, next door
To Larry’s Shoe Repair, adjoining, inescapably, the
Acme Doughnut Shop.
Main, First, and Market fuse together.
Bert and Lena run the laundromat. John Foster, D.D.S. ,
Has offices above the City Bank. -At three or four,
On winter afternoons, when school is letting out
And rows of children pass you, near the firehouse,
This sense is keenest, piercing as the wind
That sweeps you toward the frosted door of your hotel
And past the portly hatted traveler with moist cigar
Who turns his paper as you brush against the rubber
You have forgotten singularities. You have forgotten
Rooms that overlooked a park in Boston, brown walls
With congo masks and Mires, rain
Against a skylight, and the screaming girl
Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds
Who quoted passages from Marlowe and ‘Tis Pity She’s
You have forgotten yellow lights of San Francisco
The bridges choked with cars, and islands in the fog.
Or have forgotten why you left or why you came to
where you are,
Or by what roads and passages,
Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.
Journeys are ways of marking out a distance,
Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually,
Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this
Between the oceans – Now the smaller waves of
This sand where breakers threw their cargoes up –
Old rafts and spongy two-by-fours and inner tubes,
The spines of sharks and broken codheads,
Tinned stuff with the labels gone, and yellow weeds
Like entrails; mattresses and stones, and, by a
A ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin.
Two tiny scarlet crabs run out as I unfold it on the
Here, sodden, fading, green ink blending into blue,
Is Brooklyn Heights, and I am walking toward the
In a January snow again, at night, ten years ago. Here
California, filling stations and a Ford
Assembly plant. Here are the washboard roads
Of Wellfleet, on the Cape, and summer light and dust.
And here, now textured like a blotter, like the going
And difficult to see, is where you are, and where I am,
And where the oceans cover us.
Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1914 and disappeared in San Francisco on July 18, 1955. He spent most of his adult years in New York and San Francisco, working as a writer, painter, composer, and jazz pianist. The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees was published by the Universityof Nebraska Press in 1975.
Oh, but it is dirty!
-this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and greaseimpregnated
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books provide
the only note of color –
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911 and spent much of her life as a traveler. She lived in, among other places, Nova Scotia and Paris, London and Key West,
Poughkeepsie and Cape Cod, Mexico and Boston,North Haven and Greenwich Village, Seattle and Rio de Janeiro. Her books include Questions of Travel (1965), Geography III (1977), where “Filling Station” first appeared, and The Complete Poems (1983), all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Elizabeth Bishop died in 1979.
Some in the Godspeed, the Susan c.,
others in the Discovery,
found their too earthly paradise,
a paradise in which hope dies,
found pests and pestilence instead,
the living outnumbered by the dead.
The same reward for best and worst
doomed communism, tried at first.
Three acres each, initiative,
six bushels paid back, they could live.
Captain Dale became kidnaper – the
master – lawless when the spur
was desperation, even though
his victim had let her victim go – .
Captain John Smith. Poor Powhatan
was forced to make peace, embittered man.
Then teaching-insidious recourse enhancing
Pocahontas, flowered of course
in marriage. John Rolfe fell in love
with her and she – in rank above
what she became-renounced her name
yet found her status not too tame.
The crested moss-rose casts a spell;
and bud of solid green as well;
old deep pink one with fragrant wings
imparting balsam scent that clings
where redbrown tanbark holds the sunpath
enticing beyond comparison.
Not to begin with. No select
artlessly perfect French effect
mattered at first. (Don’t speak in rhyme
of maddened men in starving-time.]
Tested until so unnatural
that one became a cannibal.
Marriage, tobacco, and slavery,
when the Deliverance brought seed
of that now controversial weed –
Blameless, but who knows what is good?
The victims of a search for gold
cast yellow soil into the hold.
With nothing but the feeble tower
to mark the site that did not flower,
could the most ardent have been sure
that they had done what would endure?
It was enough; it is enough
if present faith mend partial proof
Marianne Moore was bom in Kirkwood, Missouri, in 1887, and spent much of her youth in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her first poems appeared during her undergraduate days at Bryn Mawr. She moved to Brooklyn in 1927 and lived there for more than thirty years. The definitive edition of her work, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, was published in 1967 by Macmillan/Viking. Marianne Moore died in New York City in 1972.
Inside the snug house, blue willow-ware
plates go round the dado, cross-stitch
domesticates the guest room, whole nutmegs
inhabit the spice rack, and when there’s fog
or a gale we get a fire going, listen
to Mozart, read Marianne Moore, or
sit looking out at the eiders, trig
in their white-aver-black as they tip
and tuck themselves into the swell, almost
as though diving under the eiderdown
in a gemutlich hotel room at Innsbruck.
At dusk we watch a porcupine, hoary
quadruped, emerge from under the spruce trees,
needle-tined paddle tail held out straight
behind, as though the ground were negotiable
only by climbing, to examine the premises,
and then withdraw from the (we presume)
alarming realm of the horizontal into
the up-and-down underbrush of normality.
From the sundeck, overhung by a galehugged
mountain ash, limbs blotched
and tufted with lichen, where in good
weather, every time we look up there’s
a new kind of warbler flirting, all ornbre
and fine stitchery, through the foliage,
one midday, looking down at the grass
we noticed a turtle – domed repousse
leather with an underlip of crimson – as
it hove eastward, a covered
wagon intent on the wrong direction.
Where at low tide the rocks, like the
back of an old sheepdog or spaniel, are
rugg’d with wet seaweed, the cove
embays a pavement of ocean, at times
wrinkling like tinfoil, at others
all isinglass flakes, or sun-pounded
gritty glitter of mica; or hanging
intact, a curtain wall just frescoed
indigo, so immense a hue, a blue
of such majesty it can’t be looked at,
at whose apex there pulses, even
in daylight, a lighthouse, lightpierced
like a needle’s eye.
Amy Clampitt was born in New Providence, 101M, and now lives in New York City. “The Cove, ” the opening poem in The Kingfisher (Knopf, (983), her first collection, appeared in the New Yorker in 1979.
A knife blade of cold air keeps prying
the bus window open. The spring country
won’t be shut out. The door to the john
keeps banging. There’re a few of us:
a stale-drunk or stoned woman in torn jeans,
a Spanish-American salesman, and, ahead,
a black woman folded in an overcoat.
Emptiness makes a companionable aura
through the upstate villages – repetitive,
but crucial in their little differences
of fields, wide yards with washing, old machinery –
where people live
with the highway’s patience and flat certainty.
Sometimes I feel sometimes
the Muse is leaving, the Muse is leaving America.
Her tired face is tired of iron fields,
its hollows sing the mines of Appalachia,
she is a chalk-thin miner’s wife with knobbled elbows,
her neck tendons taut as banjo strings,
she who was once a freckled palomino with a girl’s mane
galloping blue pastures plinkety-plunkety,
staring down at a tree-stunned summer lake,
when all the corny calendars were true.
The departure comes over me in smoke
from the far factories.
But were the willows lyres, the fanned-out potlard
with clear translation of water into song,
were the starlings as heartbroken as nightingales,
whose sorrow piles the looming thunderhead
over the Catskills, what would be their theme?
The spring hills are sun-freckled, the chaste white
through screening trees the vigor of her dream,
like a white plank bridge over a quarreling brook.
Clear images! Direct as your daughters
in the way their clear look returns your stare,
unarguable and fatal –
no, it is more sensual.
I am falling in love with America.
I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to learn her language,
to talk like birch or aspen confidently.
I will knock at the widowed door
of one of these villages
where she will admit me like a broad meadow,
like a blue space between mountains,
and holding her arms at the broken elbows
brush the dank hair from a forehead
as warm as bread or as a homecoming.
Derek Walcott was bam on the island of St. Lucia in 1930 and now lives in Trinidad and in Boston. His most recent book is Midsummer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984). “Upstate” appeared in The Fortunate Traveler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981).
An Urban Convalescence
Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
I find them tearing up part of my block
And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane
Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.
Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.
As usual in New York, everything is tom down
Before you have had time to care for it.
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.
Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
Some five floors high, of shabby stone
– Or am I confusing it with another one
In another part of town, or of theworld? –
And over its lintel into focus vaguely
Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
When did the garland become part of me?
I ask myself, amused almost,
Then shiver once from head to toe,
Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her
Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.
The words she must have spoken, setting her face
To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,
Let alone understand.
So that I am already on the stair,
As it were, of where I lived,
When the whole structure shudders at my tread
And soundlessly collapses, filling
The air with motes of stone.
Onto the still erect building next door
Are pressed levels and hues –
Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites.
Who drained the pousse-cafe?
Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.
Well, that is what life does. I stare
A moment longer, so. And presently
The massive volume of the world
Upon that book I swear
To abide by what it teaches:
Gospels of ugliness and waste,
Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,
Of a shrieking to be faced.
Full into, eyes astream with cold
All right then. With self-knowledge.
Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt
To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,
Given a glimpse of how and where I work,
To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.
Unwillingly I picture
My walls weathering in the general view.
It is not even as though the new
Buildings did very much for architecture.
Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires
That these as well be blasted in their prime.
You would think the simple fact of having lasted
Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.
There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.
For instance, how “the sickness of our time”
Enhances, then debases, what I feel.
At my desk I swallow in a glass of water
No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill
They had told me not to take until much later.
With the result that back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination
Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Charnps-Elysees, her hand in his.
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.
James Merrill was born in New York City in 1926 and now lives in Stonington, Connecticut. His two companion volumes of poetry, From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976 and The Changing
Light at Sandover, were published by Atheneum in 1982. “An Urban Convalescence” first appeared in his fourth book, Water Street (Atheneum, 1962).
A Family of Dolls’ House Dolls
The mother and father do not get along.
She is dressed in pink velvet; he
In a brown suit. The house is called a Dutch
Colonial. The living room has a secretary and
A carpet like moss. There are two medium –
Size children, both girls. Everyone
Has blue eyes and they are all blonde except
The father who has light brown hair. They bend
Quite well, though they are not jointed. I think
They are wired. Most of the time they fight. The
About who interrupted who and which
Toy belongs to which of them. They try
To pull out each other’s hair, but it
Is firmly rooted. Their room is yellow and white
And frilled with organdy the way I wish mine was.
They kick each other almost every time they
Are awake and would be lumped and bruised if
They were not composition. Maybe I will paint
Black and blues on one. Perhaps if they
Had friends they would not always fight. I have asked
For friends, but I will have to wait until
Next Christmas, unless my grandmother brings them
She comes to visit. The dining room has a chandelier
As sparkling as an earring. There is a maid, but she
Is too big to play with them. She really
Cannot do anything but be a maid.
I cut a hole in a wash cloth and made her a dress,
But the white maid-hat is part of her composition
So you could see she was still the maid.
She is always complaining about her varicose veins.
Wallpaper is the color of sky. I am not
Exactly sure why the mother and father do not
Get along. They fight sometimes about who
Interrupted who or why someone
Invested too much in something or whether they
Will be too early or too late for the dinner
Party. But mostly they do not fight, but also
They do not get along. The bathroom has
A tub and basin and toilet and towels, but no
Water. She is very beautiful, especially
When she wears her diamond earrings. Her children
Come in when she is dressing to go out
And watch her put them on. She is really
Beautiful. The father would be all right looking
Except his nose is too big. But he
Is smart. He can always answer most things
And when he cannot he says, “Let’s look it up,” and
Gets a book from their brown library right away
To look it up in, even in the middle of dinner
When the maid is just passing him the platter.
He never says anything nice about
The mother, even when she wears her earrings.
Except once when he and his children were
Looking out the window to see when she
Would come home he saw her in the distance
And they said, “How do you know it’s her?”
Because she was still too far away to tell,
And he said, “I know her walk.” That
Is as near saying something good about her
As he ever has. The lights really tum on
And off. If I thought it would help, I would ask for
Father for Christmas, but they come in pairs and what
Would I do with the new mother? Maybe she could be
A governess. But I do not know if the new father
Would be any different. There is a loaf of bread
In the bread box and red celluloid flames in the
Cynthia Macdonald was born in New York City in 1928 and had a career as a concert and opera singer. She has lived in Vancouver, Tokyo, and Westport, Connecticut, and now lives in Houston, Texas. Her books include Amputations (Braziller, 1972), where this poem appeared, and, most recently, (W)holes (Knopf, 1980).
America Began in Houses
Unlike the other countries, this one
Begins in houses, specific houses and the upstairs
Where constitutions vibrate in the blockfront drawers,
A Queen Anne highboy, or maybe the widow’s walk
On a farmhouse hundreds of miles inland and believed
By the family to be a lookout for Indians though
It was a pioneer’s conceit, fresh as the latest politics
From home: so much for that innocent thesis The
No, between the houses and the people living in them
Ought to be a view as easy to pick out from the road
As the traditional six-over-six of a double window
And just as functional. Occasionally, when this
Of artifice and artifact occurs, a national monument
Is declared, but to visit it afterward is invariably
To be dismayed: could they really have planted lilacs
By the door, had Sheraton sideboards when they were
Stencilled the dining room till only the wainscot
Had been spared? How touchingly people embrace the
Which look in retrospect like individual good taste.
Still, they lived with them and that was long enough
That it continues having its effect. It’s been said
Of a house that it’s the carapace of a soul: perhaps,
But not always of the occupant any more than the
Of a hermit crab can be said to be his own. It takes
Some growing into, or making over, here and in the
Scattered one by one in individual commonplace yards.
The squirrels come in on the wires, bringing their
The lilacs move over first for spruce and lately,
One looks, for rhododendrons. Strangely, as the
Aspirations increase they seem to diminish in promise
Yet who can say that out of these borrowed fashions
Won’t come a suburban mutant enlarging nature
Once again. The Federal fanlight opens in the sun
And on the gateleg table is a treaty to be signed.
Douglas Crase was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1944 and now lives in New York City. His first book, The Revisionist (Little, Brown, 1981), in which this poem appeared, is a chronicle of the American past and present.
Little Millionaire’s Pad, Chicago
The little millionaire’s is a sheen of copies;
at first glance most everything is French;
a sonata scored sans rigueur
is on a muddy-white baby grand piano,
the little plaster bust on it, small as a medallion,
is Franz Schubert below the colored blow-up
of the master’s wife, executive-Bronzino-ihis
frantic touch to antique her! Out the window,
two cunning cylinder apartment towersbelow
the apartments, six spirals of car garage,
below the cars, yachts at moorings-more Louis
and right than anything of the millionaire’s,
except the small daughter’s bedroom, perfect with
“Do not enter. Sock it to me, Baby.”
Robert Lowell was born in Boston in 1927 and was educated at Harvard and at Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom. His many books include For the Union Dead (1964), History (1973), where this poem appeared, The Dolphin (1973), and Day by Day (1977), all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Lowell died in New York City in 1977.
A Song in the Front Yard
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.
Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate for the state of lllinois, was bom in 1917 and lives in Chicago. Among her many volumes of poetry is The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Row, 1971), where “A Song in the Front Yard” appeared.
The Harbor at Seattle
They used to meet one night a week at a place on top of Telegraph Hill to explicate Pound’s Cantos – Peter who was a scholar; and Linda who could recite many of the parts of the poem that envisioned paradise; and Bob who wanted to understand the energy and surprise of its
music; and Bill who knew Greek and could tell them that “Dioce, whose terraces were the color of stars,” was a city in Asia Minor mentioned by Herodotus.
And that winter when Bill locked his front door and shot himself in the heart with a Webley service pistol, the others remembered the summer nights, after a long session of work, when they would climb down the steep stairs which negotiated the cliff where the hill faced the waterfront to go somewhere to get a drink and talk. The city was all lights at that hour and the air smelled of coffee and the bay.
In San Francisco coffee is a family business, and a profitable one, so the members of the families are often on the society page of the newspaper, which is why Linda remembered the wife of one of the great coffee merchants who had also killed herself; it was a memory from childhood, from those first glimpses a newspaper gives of the shape of the adult world, and is mixed now with the memory of the odor of coffee and the salt air.
And Peter recalled that the museum had a photograph of that woman by Minor White. They had all seen it. She had bobbed hair and a smart suit on with sharp lapels and padded shoulders, and her skin was perfectly clear. Looking directly into the camera, she does not seem happy but she seems confident; and it is as if Minor White understood that her elegance, because it was a matter of style, was historical, because behind her is an old bam which is the real subject of the picture – the grain of its wood planking so sharply focused that it seems
alive, greys and blacks in a rivery and complex pattern of venation.
The back of Telegraph Hill was not always so steep. At the time of the earthquake, building materials were scarce, so coastal ships made a good thing of hauling lumber down from the northwest. But the economy was paralyzed, there were no goods to take back north, so they dynamited the side of the hill and used the blasted rock for ballast, and then, in port again, they dumped the rock in the water to take on more lumber, and that was how they built the
harbor in Seattle.
Robert Hass was bom in San Francisco in 1941 and now lives in Berkeley. He has published two books of poems, Field Guide (Yale University Press, 1973) and Praise (Ecco, 1979), and a collection of criticism, Twentieth Century Pleasures (Ecco, 1984).
The Freedom of the House
A few more might have survived the fall
To read the afternoon away, navigating
In sullen peace, a finger at the lips,
From the beginning of one surf point to the end,
And again, and may have wondered why being alone
Is the condition of happiness, the substance
Of the golden hints, articulation in the hall outside,
And the condition as well of using that knowledge
To pleasure, always in confinement? Otherwise it fades
Like the rejoicing at the beginning of an opera, since
The seriousness of what lies ahead: that we can split
The ripe exchanges, kisses, sighs, only in unholy
Solitude, and sample them here, It means that a
Is weaving a net of heat lightning on the horizon, and
Will be neither bad nor good when experienced.
The night has been pushed back again, but cannot say
where it has been,
John Ashbery was bom in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and now lives in New York City. He teaches at Brooklyn College and writes regularly on art for Newsweek. Ashbery’s ten collections of poems include Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Houseboat Days, Shadow Train, where “The Freedom of the House” appeared, and, most recently, A Wave, all published by Viking.
Elizabeth and Eban, 1940
He watered brickbordered flowerbeds Saturday
And mowed and raked the lawn and weeded it,
Grass settling in his trouser cuffs and shoes.
She talked to him as she stood at the clothesline
Gathering his empty clothes into her arms,
Then swept, dusted, and baked, went shopping for
The Sunday dinner that they served today.
Their next door neighbors came, their Minister
Arrived promptly with flowers at one o’clock:
Lace tablecloth on gleaming mahogany,
Silver candlesticks, a bowl of polished fruit,
Pot roast with rich gravy, and mashed potatoes,
Applesauce, hot biscuits with raspberry jam,
Butter beans, ice water in cut glass goblets,
The Chocolate Lovelight cake she’s famous for,
And fresh hot coffee. The widower Johnson’s
Square red face beneath white hair grew worried
That the pastor’s wife might ask him what he thought
Of the sermon text her husband chose that day,
‘Then said the trees unto the bramble, Come thou,
Reign over us,’ so he drew a breath
And offered his views of a town selectman:
‘As for Williams, he’s so broad he’s flat.’
The guests are gone now and, the dishes done,
They’re in the living room, sitting within
The circle of the lamp. The evening steals
Over their windows, as over a pond,
Outside, June’s tree toads peep; she talks
Softly, abstractedly running her hands
Over her stockings, straightening the seams.
His eyes darken looking at her amid
The sprays of rosebuds on their wallpaper,
The roses in their carpet. The hall clock whirs.
And on the small round table at her elbow
Their wedding photograph keeps under glass,
A young couple cutting their wedding cake.
Next to the photo sits a crystal bowl
Of water and white rocks where angelfish
Keep rising to a surface they can’t break.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1953 and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was recently a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Schnackenberg’s first book is Portraits and Elegies (Godine, 1982), where “Elizabeth
and Eban, 1940” appeared.
Birdwatchers of America
I suffer now continually from vertigo,
and today, 23rd of January, 1862, I
received a singular warning: I felt the
wind of the wing of madness pass over
me. – Baudelaire, Journals
It’s all very well to dream of a dove that saves,
Picasso’s or the Pope’s,
The one that annually coos in Our Lady’s ear
Half the world’s hopes,
And the other one that shall cunningly engineer
The retirement of all businessmen to their graves,
And when this is brought about
Make us the loving brothers of every lout –
But in our part of the country a false dusk
Lingers for hours; it steams
From the soaked hay, wades in the cloudy woods,
Engendering other dreams.
Formless and soft beyond the fence it broods
Or rises as a faint and rotten musk
Out of a broken stalk.
There are some things of which we seldom talk;
For instance, the woman next door, whom we hear at
Claims that when she was small
She found a man stone dead near the cedar trees
After the first snowfall.
The air was clear. He seemed in ultimate peace
Except that he had no eyes. Rigid and bright
Upon the forehead, furred
With a light frost, crouched an outrageous bird.
Anthony Hecht was born in New York City in 1923 and now Uves in Rochester, New York, where he is John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at the University of Rochester. His most recent collection is The Venetian Vespers (Atheneum, 1979). “Birdwatchers of America” appeared in The Hard Hours (Atheneum, 1967).
Notes from a Child of Paradise, XII
For America is the Garden of
Paradox: new golden land, it was brave
And new to them; but in itself, old, old
As only sheer geology can be,
Before history comes to give some scale
To the monotone of eternity,
Overlaying a grid of date and place,
Memorable wars; claims and boundaries
That would supplant the concrete calendar
Of aborigines whose clock was myth.
Wilderness and garden, where liberty
Flourished, dishevelment of death mingled
With liferenewed, the green seedling rooted
In crumbling brown peat from its fallen great
Parent, that brought down also the cordage
Of wild grape, not in defeat but patience;
The tendril’s springy drill, the classic leaf
Seize and .cling to the rise of each new tree,
Sharers with them all in light sought upward-
Pillars of a temple; a roof of crowns.
When one has’ left his house: and village green,
Society of women, customs, law,
The handworked coverlet and mantel chime,
Roof in imbricate shingles, silver smoke,
With stick and pouch, a polished rifle, he
Makes his solitary way through forests;
Then, well along, in a birch-lined clearing,
He pauses for the vista-the lost trail
Back, the uphill climb to summits far off
In azure-white noon-and feels an old fear.
Alfred Com was born in Georgia in 1943 and now lives in New York City. His most recent book, Notes from a Child of Paradise (Viking, 1984),from which this is drawn, is a narrative poem that mixes personal memory and the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.