Canto One

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate

Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:

Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass

Hang all the furniture above the grass,

And how delightful when a fall of snow

10     Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so

As to make chair and bed exactly stand

Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

Retake the falling snow:  each drifting flake

Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,

A dull dark white against the day’s pale white

And abstract larches in the neutral light.

And then the gradual and dual blue

As night unites the viewer and the view,

And in the morning, diamonds of frost

20     Express amazement:  Whose spurred feet have crossed

From left to right the blank page of the road?

Reading from left to right in winter’s code:

A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:

Dot, arrow pointing back . . . A pheasant’s feet!

Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,

Finding your China right behind my house.

Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose

Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?

All colors make me happy:  even gray.

30     My eyes were such that literally they

Took photographs.  Whenever I’d permit,

Or, with a silent shiver, order it,

Whatever in my field of vision dwelt—

An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte

Stilettos of a frozen stillicide

Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side

Where it would tarry for an hour or two,

And while this lasted all I had to do

Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,

40     Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

I cannot understand why from the lake

I could make out our front porch when I’d take

Lake Road to school, whilst now, although no tree

Has intervened, I look but fail to see

Even the roof.  Maybe some quirk in space

Has caused a fold or furrow to displace

The fragile vista, the frame house between

Goldsworth and Wordsmith on its square of green.

        I had a favorite young shagbark there

50     With ample dark jade leaves and a black,            spare,

Vermiculated trunk.  The setting sun

Bronzed the black bark, around which, like undone

Garlands, the shadows of the foliage fell.

It is now stout and rough; it has done well.

White butterflies turn lavender as they

Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway

The phantom of my little daughter’s swing.

The house itself is much the same.  One wing

We’ve had revamped.  There’s a solarium.  There’s

60     A picture window flanked with fancy chairs.

TV’s huge paperclip now shines instead

Of the stiff vane so often visited

By the naïve, the gauzy mockingbird

Retelling all the programs she had heard;

Switching from chippo-chippo to a clear

To-wee, to-wee; then rasping out: come here,

Come here, come herrr’; flirting her tail aloft,

Or gracefully indulging in a soft

Upward hop-flop, and instantly (to-wee!)

70     Returning to her perch—the new TV.

I was an infant when my parents died.

They both were ornithologists.  I’ve tried

So often to evoke them that today

I have a thousand parents.  Sadly they

Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,

But certain words, chance words I hear or read,

Such as “bad heart” always to him refer,

And “cancer of the pancreas” to her.

A preterist:  one who collects cold nests.

80     Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.

Here, tucked away by the Canadian maid,

I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed

For everybody to be always well,

Uncles and aunts, the maid, her niece Adèle

Who’d seen the Pope, people in books, and God.

I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

90      She lived to hear the next babe cry.  Her room

We’ve kept intact.  Its trivia create

A still life in her style:  the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio:  Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door.

My God died young.  Theolatry I found

100    Degrading, and its premises, unsound.

No free man needs a God; but was I free?

How fully I felt nature glued to me

And how my childish palate loved the taste

Half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste!

My picture book was at an early age

The painted parchment papering our cage:

Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;

Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon

The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,

110    In a bright sky above a mountain range

One opal cloudlet in an oval form

Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm

Which in a distant valley has been staged—

For we are most artistically caged.

And there’s the wall of sound:  the nightly wall

Raised by a trillion crickets in the fall.

Impenetrable!  Halfway up the hill

I’d pause in thrall of their delirious trill.

That’s Dr. Sutton’s light.  That’s the Great Bear.

120    A thousand years ago five minutes were

Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.

Outstare the stars.  Infinite foretime and

Infinite aftertime:  above your head

They close like giant wings, and you are dead.

The regular vulgarian, I daresay,

Is happier:  he sees the Milky Way

Only when making water.  Then as now

I walked at my own risk:  whipped by the bough,

Tripped by the stump.  Asthmatic, lame and fat,

130    I never bounced a ball or swung a bat.

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.

I had a brain, five senses (one unique),

But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.

In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps

But really envied nothing—save perhaps

The miracle of a lemniscate left

Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft

Bicycle tires.                        

A thread of subtle pain,

140    Tugged at by playful death, released again,

But always present, ran through me.  One day,

When I’d just turned eleven, as I lay

Prone on the floor and watched a clockwork toy

A tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy—

Bypass chair legs and stray beneath the bed,

There was a sudden sunburst in my head.

And then black night.  That blackness was sublime.

I felt distributed through space and time:

One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand

150    Under the pebbles of a panting strand,

One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,

In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.

There were dull throbs in my Triassic; green

Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,

An icy shiver down my age of Stone,

And all tomorrows in my funnybone.

During one winter every afternoon

I’d sink into that momentary swoon.

And then it ceased.  Its memory grew dim.

160    My health improved.  I even learned to swim.

But like some little lad forced by a wench

With his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench,

I was corrupted, terrified, allured,

And though old doctor Colt pronounced me cured

Of what, he said, were mainly growing pains,

The wonder lingers and the shame remains.


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