Canto Two


There was a time in my demented youth

When somehow I suspected that the truth

About survival after death was known

170    To every human being:  I alone

Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy

Of books and people hid the truth from me.

There was the day when I began to doubt

Man’s sanity:  How could he live without

Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom

Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb?

And finally there was the sleepless night

When I decided to explore and fight

The foul, the inadmissible abyss,

180    Devoting all my twisted life to this

One task.  Today I’m sixty-one.  Waxwings

Are berry-pecking.  A cicada sings.

The little scissors I am holding are

A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.

I stand before the window and I pare

My fingernails and vaguely am aware

Of certain flinching likenesses:  the thumb,

Our grocer’s son; the index, lean and glum

College astronomer Starover Blue;

190    The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;

The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;

And little pinky clinging to her skirt.

And I make mouths as I snip off the thin

Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call “scarf-skin.”

Maud Shade was eighty when a sudden hush

Fell on her life.  We saw the angry flush

And torsion of paralysis assail

Her noble cheek.  We moved her to Pinedale,

Famed for its sanitarium.  There she’d sit

200    In the glassed sun and watch the fly that lit

Upon her dress and then upon her wrist.

Her mind kept fading in the growing mist.

She still could speak.  She paused, and groped, and found

What seemed at first a serviceable sound,

But from adjacent cells impostors took

The place of words she needed, and her look

Spelt imploration as she sought in vain

To reason with the monsters in her brain.

What moment in the gradual decay

210    Does resurrection choose?  What year?  What day?

Who has the stopwatch?  Who rewinds the tape?

Are some less lucky, or do all escape?

A syllogism:  other men die; but I

Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,

A singing in the ears.  In this hive I’m

Locked up.  Yet if prior to life we had

Been able to imagine life, what mad,

Impossible, unutterably weird,

220    Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!

So why join in the vulgar laughter?  Why

Scorn a hereafter none can verify:

The Turk’s delight, the future lyres, the talks

With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,

The seraph with his six flamingo wings,

And Flemish hells with porcupines and things?

It isn’t that we dream too wild a dream:

The trouble is we do not make it seem

Sufficiently unlikely; for the most

230    We can think up is a domestic ghost.

How ludicrous these efforts to translate

Into one’s private tongue a public fate!

Instead of poetry divinely terse,

Disjointed notes, Insomnia’s mean verse!

Life is a message scribbled in the dark.


                                Espied on a pine’s bark,

As we were walking home the day she died,

An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,

Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,

240    A gum-logged ant.

                                That Englishman in Nice,

A proud and happy linguist:  je nourris

Les pauvres cigales—meaning that he

Fed the poor sea gulls!

                            Lafontaine was wrong:

Dead is the mandible, alive the song.

And so I pare my nails, and muse, and hear

Your steps upstairs, and all is right, my dear.

Sybil, throughout our high-school days I knew

Your loveliness, but fell in love with you

During an outing of the senior class

250    To New Wye Falls.  We luncheoned on damp grass.

Our teacher of geology discussed

The cataract.  Its roar and rainbow dust

Made the tame park romantic.  I reclined

In April’s haze immediately behind

Your slender back and watched your neat small head

Bend to one side.  One palm with fingers spread,

Between a star of trillium and a stone,

Pressed on the turf.  A little phalange bone

Kept twitching.  Then you turned and offered me

260    A thimbleful of bright metallic tea.

Your profile has not changed.  The glistening teeth

Biting the careful lip; the shade beneath

The eye from the long lashes; the peach down

Rimming the cheekbone; the dark silky brown

Of hair brushed up from temple and from nape;

The very naked neck; the Persian shape

Of nose and eyebrow, you have kept it all—

And on still nights we hear the waterfall.

Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,

270    My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest

My Admirable butterfly!  Explain

How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,

Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade

Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade?

We have been married forty years.  At least

Four thousand times your pillow has been creased

By our two heads.  Four hundred thousand times

The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes

Has marked our common hour.  How many more

280    Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?

I love you when you’re standing on the lawn

Peering at something in a tree:  “It’s gone.

It was so small.  It might come back” (all this

Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).

I love you when you call me to admire

A jet’s pink trail above the sunset fire.

I love you when you’re humming as you pack

A suitcase or the farcical car sack

With round-trip zipper.  And I love you most

290    When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost

And hold her first toy on your palm, or look

At a postcard from her, found in a book.

She might have been you, me, or some quaint blend:

Nature chose me so as to wrench and rend

Your heart and mine.  At first we’d smile and say:

“All little girls are plump” or “Jim McVey

(The family oculist) will cure that slight

Squint in no time.”  And later:  “She'll be quite

Pretty, you know”; and, trying to assuage

300    The swelling torment:  “That’s the awkward age.”

“She should be taking riding lessons,” you would say

(Your eyes and mine not meeting).  “She should play

Tennis, or badminton.  Less starch, more fruit!

She may not be a beauty, but she’s cute.”

I was no use, no use.  The prizes won

In French and history, no doubt, were fun;

At Christmas parties games were rough, no doubt,

And one shy little guest might be left out;

But let’s be fair:  while children of her age

310    Were cast as elves and fairies on the stage

That she’d helped paint for the school pantomime,

My gentle girl appeared as Mother Time,

A bent charwoman with slop pail and broom,

And like a fool I sobbed in the men’s room.

Another winter was scrape-scooped away.

The Toothwort White haunted our woods in May.

Summer was power-mowed, and autumn, burned.

Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned

Into a wood duck.  And again your voice:

320    “But this is prejudice!  You should rejoice

That she is innocent.  Why overstress

The physical?  She wants to look a mess.

Virgins have written some resplendent books.

Lovemaking is not everything.  Good looks

Are not that indispensable!”  And still

Old Pan would call from every painted hill,

And still the demons of our pity spoke:

No lips would share the lipstick of her smoke;

The telephone that rang before a ball

330    Every two minutes in Sorosa Hall

For her would never ring; and, with a great

Screeching of tires on gravel, to the gate

Out of the lacquered night, a white-scarfed beau

Would never come for her; she’d never go,

A dream of gauze and jasmine, to that dance.

We sent her, though, to a château in France.

And she returned in tears, with new defeats,

New miseries.  On days when all the streets

Of College Town led to the game, she’d sit

340    On the library steps, and read or knit;

Mostly alone she’d be, or with that nice

Frail roommate, now a nun; and, once or twice,

With a Korean boy who took my course.

She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force

Of character—as when she spent three nights

Investigating certain sounds and lights

In an old barn.  She twisted words:  pot, top,

Spider, redips.  And “powder” was “red wop.”

She called you a didactic katydid.

350    She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,

It was a sign of pain.  She’d criticize

Ferociously our projects, and with eyes

Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed

Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head

With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,

Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.

She was my darling:  difficult, morose—

But still my darling.  You remember those

Almost unruffled evenings when we played

360    Mah-jongg, or she tried on your furs, which made

Her almost fetching; and the mirrors smiled,

The lights were merciful, the shadows mild.

Sometimes I’d help her with a Latin text,

Or she’d be reading in her bedroom, next

To my fluorescent lair, and you would be

In your own study, twice removed from me,

And I would hear both voices now and then:

“Mother, what’s grimpen?”  “What is what?”

“Grim Pen.”

Pause, and your guarded scholium.  Then again:

370    “Mother, what’s chtonic?”  That, too, you’d explain,

Appending:  “Would you like a tangerine?”

“No.  Yes.  And what does sempiternal mean?

You’d hesitate.  And lustily I’d roar

The answer from my desk through the closed door.

It does not matter what it was she read

(some phony modern poem that was said

In English Lit to be a document

Engazhay and compelling”—what this meant

Nobody cared); the point is that the three

380    Chambers, then bound by you and her and me,

Now form a tryptich or a three-act play

In which portrayed events forever stay.

I think she always nursed a small mad hope.

I’d finished recently my book on Pope.

Jane Dean, my typist, offered her one day

To meet Pete Dean, a cousin.  Jane’s fiancé

Would then take all of them in his new car

A score of miles to a Hawaiian bar.

The boy was picked up at a quarter past

390    Eight in New Wye.  Sleet glazed the roads.  At last

They found the place—when suddenly Pete Dean

Clutching his brow exclaimed that he had clean

Forgotten an appointment with a chum

Who’d land in jail if he, Pete, did not come,

Et cetera.  She said she understood.

After he’d gone the three young people stood

Before the azure entrance for awhile.

Puddles were neon-barred; and with a smile

She said she’d be de trop, she’d much prefer

400    Just going home.  Her friends escorted her

To the bus stop and left; but she, instead

Of riding home, got off at Lochanhead.

You scrutinized your wrist:  It’s eight fifteen.

[And here time forked.]  I’ll turn it on.”  The screen

In its blank broth evolved a lifelike blur,

And music welled.

He took one look at her,

And shot a death ray at well-meaning Jane.

A male hand traced from Florida to Maine

The curving arrows of Aeolian wars.

410    You said that later a quartet of bores,

Two writers and two critics, would debate

The Cause of Poetry on Channel 8.

A nymph came pirouetting, under white

Rotating petals, in a vernal rite

To kneel before an altar in a wood

Where various articles of toilet stood.

I went upstairs and read a galley proof,

And heard the wind roll marbles on the roof.

See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing

420    Has unmistakably the vulgar ring

Of its preposterous age.  Then came your call,

My tender mocking bird, up from the hall.

I was in time to overhear brief fame

And have a cup of tea with you:  my name

Was mentioned twice, as usual just behind

(one oozy footstep) Frost.

Sure you don’t mind?

I’ll catch the Exton plane, because you know

If I don’t come by midnight with the dough—

And then there was a kind of travelog:

430    A host narrator took us through the fog

Of a March night, where headlights from afar

Approached and grew like a dilating star,

To the green, indigo and tawny sea

Which we had visited in thirty-three,

Nine months before her birth.  Now it was all

Pepper-and-salt, and hardly could recall

That first long ramble, the relentless light,

The flock of sails (one blue among the white

Clashed queerly with the sea, and two were red),

440    The man in the old blazer, crumbing bread,

The crowding gulls insufferably loud,

And one dark pigeon waddling in the crowd.

“Was that the phone?”  You listened at the door.

Nothing.  Picked up the program from the floor.

More headlights in the fog.  There was no sense

In window-rubbing:  only some white fence

And the reflector poles passed by unmasked.

“Are we quite sure she’s acting right?” you asked.

“It’s technically a blind date, of course.

450    Well, shall we try the preview of Remorse?”

And we allowed, in all tranquillity,

The famous film to spread its charmed marquee;

The famous face flowed in, fair and inane:

The parted lips, the swimming eyes, the grain

Of beauty on the cheek, odd gallicism,

And the soft form dissolving in the prism

Of corporate desire.

                                “I think,” she said,

“I’ll get off here.”  “It’s only Lochanhead.”

“Yes, that’s okay.”  Gripping the stang, she peered

460    At ghostly trees.  Bus stopped.  Bus disappeared.

Thunder above the Jungle.  “No, not that!”

Pat Pink, our guest (antiatomic chat).

Eleven struck.  You sighed.  “Well, I’m afraid

There’s nothing else of interest.”  You played

Network roulette:  the dial turned and trk’ed.

Commercials were beheaded.  Faces flicked.

An open mouth in midsong was struck out.

An imbecile with sideburns was about

To use his gun, but you were much too quick.

470    A jovial Negro raised his trumpet.  Trk.

Your ruby ring made life and laid the law.

Oh, switch it off!  And as life snapped we saw

A pinhead light dwindle and die in black


                Out of his lakeside shack

A watchman, Father Time, all gray and bent,

Emerged with his uneasy dog and went

Along the reedy bank.  He came too late.

You gently yawned and stack away your plate.

We heard the wind.  We heard it rush and throw

480    Twigs at the windowpane.  Phone ringing?  No.

I helped you with the dishes.  The tall clock

Kept on demolishing young root, old rock.

“Midnight,” you said.  What’s midnight to the young?

And suddenly a festive blaze was flung

Across five cedar trunks, snowpatches showed,

And a patrol car on our bumpy road

Came to a crunching stop.  Retake, retake!

People have thought she tried to cross the lake

At Lochan Neck where zesty skaters crossed

490    From Exe to Wye on days of special frost.

Others supposed she might have lost her way

By turning left from Bridgeroad; and some say

She took her poor young life.  I know.  You know.

It was a night of thaw, a night of blow,

With great excitement in the air.  Black spring

Stood just around the corner, shivering

In the wet starlight and on the wet ground.

The lake lay in the mist, its ice half drowned.

A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank

500    Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.

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