L’if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it—big if!—engaged me for one term
To speak on death (“to lecture on the Worm,”
Wrote President McAber).
You and I,
And she , then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state.
510 I love great mountains. From the iron gate
Of the ramshackle house we rented there
One saw a snowy form, so far, so fair,
That one could only fetch a sigh, as if
It might assist assimilation.
Was a larvorium and a violet:
A grave in Reason’s early spring. And yet
It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed
What mostly interests the preterist;
For we die every day; oblivion thrives
520 Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.
I’m ready to become a floweret
Or a fat fly, but never, to forget.
And I’ll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
Off Hesperus; your gesture of dismay
530 On running out of cigarettes; the way
You smile at dogs; the trail of silver slime
Snails leave or flagstones; this good ink, this rhyme,
This index card, this slender rubber band
Which always forms, when dropped, an ampersand,
Are found in Heaven by the newlydead
Stored in its strongholds through the years.
The Institute assumed it might be wise
Not to expect too much of paradise:
What if there’s nobody to say hullo
540 To the newcomer, no reception, no
Indoctrination? What if you are tossed
Into a boundless void, your bearings lost,
Your spirit stripped and utterly alone,
Your task unfinished, your despair unknown,
Your body just beginning to putresce,
A non-undressable in morning dress,
Your widow lying prone on a dim bed,
Herself a blur in your dissolving head!
While snubbing gods, including the big G,
550 Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles for life’s eclipse)—
How not to panic when you’re made a ghost:
Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,
Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,
Or let a person circulate through you.
How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,
Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.
How to keep sane in spiral types of space.
560 Precautions to be taken in the case
Of freak reincarnation: what to do
On suddenly discovering that you
Are now a young and vulnerable toad
Plump in the middle of a busy road,
Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,
Or a book mite in a revived divine.
Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment. We give advice
570 To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another. Time means growth,
And growth means nothing in Elysian life.
Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife
Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond
Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,
But with a touch of tawny in the shade,
Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade
The other sits and raises a moist gaze
580 Toward the blue impenetrable haze.
How to begin? Which first to kiss? What toy
To give the babe? Does that small solemn boy
Know of the head-on crash which on a wild
March night killed both the mother and the child?
And she, the second love, with instep bare
In ballerina black, why does she wear
The earrings from the other’s jewel case?
And why does she avert her fierce young face?
For as we know from dreams it is so hard
590 To speak to our dear dead! They disregard
Our apprehension, queaziness and shame—
The awful sense that they’re not quite the same.
And our school chum killed in a distant war
Is not surprised to see us at his door,
And in a blend of jauntiness and gloom
Points at the puddles in his basement room.
But who can teach the thoughts we should roll-call
When morning finds us marching to the wall
Under the stage direction of some goon
600 Political, some uniformed baboon?
We’ll think of matters only known to us—
Empires of rhyme, Indies of calculus;
Listen to distant cocks crow, and discern
Upon the rough gray wall a rare wall fern;
And while our royal hands are being tied,
Taunt our inferiors, cheerfully deride
The dedicated imbeciles, and spit
Into their eyes just for the fun of it.
Nor can one help the exile, the old man
610 Dying in a motel, with the loud fan
Revolving in the torrid prairie night
And, from the outside, bits of colored light
Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past
Offering gems; and death is coming fast.
He suffocates and conjures in two tongues
The nebulae dilating in his lungs.
A wrench, a rift—that’s all one can foresee.
Maybe one finds le grand néant; maybe
Again one spirals from the tuber’s eye.
620 As you remarked the last time we went by
The Institute: “I really could not tell
The difference between this place and Hell.”
We heard cremationists guffaw and snort
At Grabermann’s denouncing the Retort
As detrimental to the birth of wraiths.
We all avoided criticizing faiths.
The great Starover Blue reviewed the role
Planets had played as landfalls of the soul.
The fate of beasts was pondered. A Chinese
630 Discanted on the etiquette at teas
With ancestors, and how far up to go.
I tore apart the fantasies of Poe,
And dealt with childhood memories of strange
Nacreous gleams beyond the adults’ range.
Among our auditors were a young priest
And an old Communist. Iph could at least
Compete with churches and the party line.
In later years it started to decline:
Buddhism took root. A medium smuggled in
640 Pale jellies and a floating mandolin.
Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept
All is allowed, into some classes crept;
And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,
A school of Freudians headed for the tomb.
That tasteless venture helped me in a way.
I learnt what to ignore in my survey
Of death’s abyss. And when we lost our child
I knew there would be nothing: no self-styled
Spirit would touch a keyboard of dry wood
650 To rap out her pet name; no phantom would
Rise gracefully to welcome you and me
In the dark garden, near the shagbark tree.
“What is that funny creaking—do you hear?”
“It is the shutter on the stairs, my dear.”
“If your not sleeping, let’s turn on the light.
I hate that wind! Let’s play some chess.” “All right.”
“I’m sure it’s not the shutter. There—again.”
“It is a tendril fingering the pane.”
“What glided down the roof and made that thud?”
660 “It is old winter tumbling in the mud.”
“And now what shall I do? My knight is pinned.”
Who rides so late in the night and the wind?
It is the writer’s grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with his child.
Later came minutes, hours, whole days at last,
When she’d be absent from our thoughts, so fast
Did life, the woolly caterpillar run.
We went to Italy. Sprawled in the sun
On a white beach with other pink or brown
670 Americans. Flew back to our small town.
Found that my bunch of essays The Untamed
Seahorse was “universally acclaimed”
(It sold three hundred copies in one year).
Again school started, and on hillsides, where
Wound distant roads, one saw the steady stream
Of carlights all returning to the dream
Of college education. You went on
Translating into French Marvell and Donne.
It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
680 Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died.
The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful to Us.
I gave my sermon, a dull thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called “question period” at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
690 Stood up and pointed with his pipe at me.
And then it happened—the attack, the trance,
Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
A doctor in the front row. At his feet
Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
I can’t tell you how
I knew—but I did know that I had crossed
700 The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
I realized, of course, that it was made
Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
710 The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams, and then before his eyes
The read becomes a bird, the knobby twig
An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
Of my white fountain what it did replace
Perceptually was something that, I felt,
Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
In the strange world where I was a mere stray.
720 And presently I saw it melt away:
Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
He doubted very much that in the state
He found me in “one could hallucinate
Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
But not during the actual collapse.
No, Mr. Shade.”
But, Doctor, I was dead!
He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.
However, I demurred. In mind I kept
730 Replaying the whole thing. Again I stepped
Down from the platform, and felt strange and hot,
And saw that chap stand up, and toppled, not
Because a heckler pointed with his pipe,
But probably because the time was ripe
For just that bump and wobble on the part
Of a limp blimp, an old unstable heart.
My vision reeked with truth. It had all the tone,
The quiddity and quaintness of its own.
Reality. It was. As time went on,
740 Its constant vertical in triumph shone.
Often when troubled by the outer glare
Of street and strife, inward I’d turn, and there,
There in the background of my soul it stood,
Old Faithful! And its presence always would
Console me wonderfully. Then, one day,
I came across what seemed a twin display.
It was a story in a magazine
About a Mrs. Z. whose heart had been
Rubbed back to life by a prompt surgeon’s hand.
750 She told her interviewer of “The Land
Beyond the Veil” and the account contained
A hint of angels, and a glint of stained
Windows, and some soft music, and a choice
Of hymnal items, and her mother’s voice;
But at the end she mentioned a remote
Landscape, a hazy orchard—and I quote:
“Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke
I glimpsed a tall white fountain—and awoke.”
If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt
760 Sees a new animal and captures it,
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth.
Our fountain was a signpost and a mark
Objectively enduring in the dark,
Strong as a bone, substantial as a tooth,
And almost vulgar in its robust truth!
The article was by Jim Coates. To Jim
Forthwith I wrote. Got her address from him.
Drove west three hundred miles to talk to her.
770 Arrived. Was met by an impassioned purr.
Saw that blue hair, those freckled hands, that rapt
Orchideous air—and knew that I was trapped.
“Who’d miss the opportunity to meet
A poet so distinguished?” It was sweet
Of me to come! I desperately tried
To ask my questions. They were brushed aside:
“Perhaps some other time.” The journalist
Still had her scribblings. I should not insist.
She plied me with fruit cake, turning it all
780 Into an idiotic social call.
“I can’t believe,” she said, “that it is you!
I loved your poem in the Blue Review.
That one about Mon Blon. I have a niece
Who’s climbed the Matterhorn. The other piece
I could not understand. I mean the sense.
Because, of course, the sound—But I’m so dense!”
She was. I might have persevered. I might
Have made her tell me more about the white
Fountain we both had seen “beyond the veil”
790 But if (I thought) I mentioned that detail
She’d pounce upon it as upon a fond
Affinity, a sacramental bond,
Uniting mystically her and me,
And in a jiffy our two souls would be
Brother and sister trembling on the brink
Of tender incest. “Well,” I said, “I think
It’s getting late. . . .”
I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid his notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
800 “It’s accurate. I have not changed her style.
There’s one misprint—not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch.”
Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
810 Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
820 To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns;
Kindling a long life here, extinguishing
A short one there; killing a Balkan king;
Causing a chunk of ice formed on a high-
Flying airplane to plummet from the sky
And strike a farmer dead; hiding my keys,
Glasses or pipe. Coordinating these
Events and objects with remote events
And vanished objects. Making ornaments
Of accidents and possibilities.
830 Stormcoated, I strode in: Sybil, it is
My firm conviction—“Darling, shut the door.
Had a nice trip?” Splendid—but what is more
I have returned convinced that I can grope
My way to some—to some—“Yes, dear?” Faint hope.