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.

Back Next