John Koethe


from Domes:



Cut out of board

And pinned against the sky like stars;

Or pasted on a sheet of cardboard

Like the small gold stars you used to get for being good:

Look at the steeple—

All lit up inside the snow

And yet without a single speck of snow on it.

The more I looked at it, the harder it became to see,

As though I tried to look at something cold

Through something even colder, and could not quite see.

And like the woman in the nursery rhyme

Who stared and stared into the snow until

She saw a diamond, shuddering with light, inside the storm,

I thought that we could see each snowflake wobble through the air

And hear them land.

Locked in her room

With yellow flowers on the wallpaper

That wove and welled around her like the snow

Until she almost disappeared in them,

Rapunzel in her cone let down the string the whole world could

have climbed to save her.

"Oh, don't save me right away," Rapunzel said, "just visit me,"

But only dead ones listened to her.

Only the dead could ever visit us this way: locked in a word,

Locked in a world that we can only exorcise, but not convey.




            for John Godfrey


            1. Animals

Carved—indicated, actually, from solid

Blocks of wood, the copper-, cream-, and chocolate-colored

Cows we bought in Salzburg form a tiny herd.

And in Dr. Gachet's etching, six

Or seven universal poses are assumed by cats.


Misery, hypocrisy, greed: A dying

Mouse, a cat, and a flock of puzzled blackbirds wearing

Uniforms and frock coats exhibit these traits.

Formally outlasting the motive

Of their creation with a poetry at once too vague


And too precise to do anything with but

Worship, they seem to have just blundered into our lives

By accident, completely comprehending

            Everything we find so disturbing

About them; but they never speak. They never even move

From the positions in which Grandville or some

Anonymous movie-poster artist has left them,

A sort of ghostly wolf, a lizard, an ape

            And a huge dog. And their eyes, looking

At nothing, manage to see everything invisible


To ours, even with all the time in the world

To see everything we think we have to see. And tell

Of this in the only way we really can:

            With a remark as mild as the air

In which it is to be left hanging; or a stiff scream,


Folded like a sheet of paper over all

The horrible memories of everything we were

Going to have. That vanished before our eyes

            As we woke up to nothing but these,

Our words, poor animals whose home is in another world.


            2. Summer Home


Tiny outbursts of sunlight play

On the tips of waves that look like tacks

Strewn on the surface of the bay.

Up the coast the water backs up

Behind a lofty, wooded island. Here,

According to photographs, it is less

Turbulent and blue; but much clearer.

It seems to exercise the sunlight less

Reflecting it, allowing beaten silver sheets

To roam like water across a kitchen floor.

Having begun gradually, the gravel beach

Ends abruptly in the forest on the shore.


Looked at from a distance, the forest seems

Haunted. But safe within its narrow room

Its light is innocent and green, as though

Emerging from another dream of diminution

We found ourselves of normal, human size,

Attempting to touch the leaves above our heads.

Why couldn't we have spent our summers here,

Surrounded and growing up again? Or perhaps

Arrive here late at night by car, much later

In life? If only heaven were not too near

For such sadness. And not within this world

Which heaven has finally made clear.


Green lichen fastened to a blue rock

Like a map of the spot; cobwebs crowded with stars

Of water; battalions of small white flowers.

Such clarity, unrelieved except by our

Delight and daily acquiescence in it,

Presumably the effect of a natural setting

Like this one, with all its expectations of ecstasy

And peace, demands a future of forgetting

Everything that sustains it: the dead leaves

Of winter; the new leaves of spring which summer bums

Into different kinds of happiness; for these,

When autumn drops its tear upon them, turn.


            3. Domes


"Pleased in proportion to the truth

Depicted by means of familiar images." That

One was dazed; the other I left in a forest

Surrounded by giant, sobering pines.

For I had to abandon those lives.

Their burden of living had become

Mine and it was like dying: alone,

Huddled under the cold blue dome of the stars,

Still fighting what died and so close to myself I could not even see.

I kept trying to look at myself. It was like looking into the sun and I went blind.

O, to break open that inert light

Like a stone and let the vision slowly sink down

Into the texture of things, like a comb flowing through dark,

Heavy hair; and to continue to be affected much later.

I was getting so tired of that excuse: refusing love

Until it might become so closely mated to its birth in

Acts and words of love; until a soft monstrosity of song

Might fuse these moments of affection with a dream of home;

The cold, prolonged proximity of God long after night

Has come and only starlight trickles through the dome;


And yet I only wanted to be happy.

I wanted rest and innocence; a place

Where I could hide each secret fear by blessing it,

By letting it survive inside those faces I could never understand

Love, or bear to leave. Because I wanted peace, bruised with prayer

I tried to crawl inside the heavy, slaughtered hands of love

And never move. And then I felt the wound unfold inside me

Like a stab of paradise: explode: and then at last

Exhausted, heal into pain. And that was happiness:

A dream whose ending never ends, a vein


Of blood, a hollow entity

Consumed by consummation, bleeding so.

In the sky our eyes ascend to as they sweep

Upwards into emptiness, the angels sing their listless

Lullabies and children wake up glistening with screams

They left asleep; and the dead are dead. The wounded worship death

And live a little while in love; and then are gone.

Inside the dome the stars assume the outlines of their lives:

Until we know, until we come to recognize as ours,

Those other lives that live within us as our own.


from The Late Wisconsin Spring:




Snow melts into the earth and a gentle breeze

Loosens the damp gum wrappers, the stale leaves

Left over from autumn, and the dead brown grass.

The sky shakes itself out. And the invisible birds

Winter put away somewhere return, the air relaxes,

People start to circulate again in twos and threes.

The dominant feelings are the blue sky, and the year.

—Memories of other seasons and the billowing wind;

The light gradually altering from difficult to clear

As a page melts and a photograph develops in the backyard.

When some men came to tear down the garage across the way

The light was still clear, but the salt intoxication

Was already dissipating into the atmosphere of constant day

April brings, between the isolation and the flowers.

Now the clouds are lighter, the branches are frosted green,

And suddenly the season that had seemed so tentative before

Becomes immediate, so clear the heart breaks and the vibrant

Air is laced with crystal wires leading back from hell.

Only the distraction, and the exaggerated sense of care

Here at the heart of spring—all year long these feelings

Alternately wither and bloom, while a dense abstraction

Hides them. But now the mental dance of solitude resumes,

And life seems smaller, placed against the background

Of this story with the empty, mora1 quality of an expansive

Gesture made up out of trees and clouds and air.        


The loneliness comes and goes, but the blue holds,

Permeating the early leaves that flutter in the sunlight

As the air dances up and down the street. Some kids yell.

A white dog rolls over on the grass and barks once. And

Although the incidents vary and the principal figures change,

Once established, the essential tone and character of a season

Stays inwardly the same day after day, like a person's.

The clouds are frantic. Shadows sweep across the lawn

And up the side of the house. A dappled sky, a mild blue

Watercolor light that floats the tense particulars away

As the distraction starts. Spring here is at first so wary,

And then so spare that even the birds act like strangers,

Trying out the strange air with a hesitant chirp or two,

And then subsiding. But the season intensifies by degrees,

Imperceptibly, while the colors deepen out of memory,

The flowers bloom and the thick leaves gleam in the sunlight

Of another city, in a past which has almost faded into heaven.

And even though memory always gives back so much more of

What was there than the mind initially thought it could hold,

Where will the separation and the ache between the isolated

Moments go when summer comes and turns this all into a garden?

Spring here is too subdued: the air is clear with anticipation,

But its real strength lies in the quiet tension of isolation

And living patiently, without atonement or regret,

In the eternity of the plain moments, the nest of care

—Until suddenly, all alone, the mind is lifted upward into

Light and air and the nothingness of the sky,

Held there in that vacant, circumstantial blue until,

In the vehemence of a landscape where all the co1ors disappear,

The quiet absolution of the spirit quickens into fact,

And then, into death. But the wind is cool.

The buds are starting to open on the trees.

Somewhere up in the sky an airplane drones.





Barely a week later

I'd returned to myself again.

But where a light perspective of particulars

Used to range under an accommodating blue sky

There were only numb mind tones, thoughts clenched like little fists,

And syllables struggling to release their sense to my imagination.

I tried to get out of myself

But it was like emerging into a maze:

The buildings across the street still looked the same,

But they seemed foreshortened,

Dense, and much closer than I'd ever realized,

As though I'd only seen them previously in a dream.

Why is it supposed to be so important to see things as they actually are?

The sense of life, of what life is like—isn't that

What we're always trying so desperately to say?

And whether we live in between them,

Mirror each other out of thin air, or exist only as reflections

Of everything that isn't ours, we all sense it,

And we want it to last forever.




            for Susan Koethe


This is the life I wanted, and could never see.

For almost twenty years I thought that it was enough:

That real happiness was either unreal, or lost, or endless,

And that remembrance was as close to it as I could ever come.

And I believed that deep in the past, buried in my heart

Beyond the depth of sight, there was a kingdom of peace.

And so I never imagined that when peace would finally come

It would be on a summer evening, a few blocks away from home

In a small suburban park, with some children playing aimlessly

In an endless light, and a lake shining in the distance.


Eventually, sometime around the middle of your life,

There's a moment when the first imagination begins to wane.

The future that had always seemed so limitless dissolves,

And the dreams that used to seem so real float up and fade.

The years accumulate; but they start to take on a mild,

Human tone beyond imagination, like the sound the heart makes

Pouring into the past its hymns of adoration and regret.

And then gradually the moments quicken into life,

Vibrant with possibility, sovereign, dense, serene;

And then the park is empty and the years are still.


I think the saddest memory is of a kind of light,

A kind of twilight, that seemed to permeate the air

For a few years after I'd grown up and gone away from home.

It was limitless and free. And of course I was going to change,

But freedom means that only aspects ever really change,

And that as the past recedes and the future floats away

You turn into what you are. And so I stayed basically the same

As what I'd always been, while the blond light in the trees

Became part of my memory, and my voice took on the accents

Of a mind infatuated with the rhetoric of farewell.


And now that disembodied grief has gone away.

It was a flickering, literary kind of sadness,

The suspension of a life between two other lives

Of continual remembrance, between two worlds

In which there's too much solitude, too much disdain.

But the sadness that I felt was real sadness,

And this elation now a real tremor as the deepening

Shadows lengthen upon the lake. This calm is real,

But how much of the real past can it absorb?

How far into the future can this peace extend?


I love the way the light falls over the suburbs

Late on these summer evenings, as the buried minds

Stir in their graves, the hearts swell in the warm earth

And the soul settles from the air into its human home.

This is where the prodigal began, and now his day is ending

In a great dream of contentment, where all night long

The children sleep within tomorrow's peaceful arms

And the past is still, and suddenly we turn around and smile

At the memory of a vast, inchoate dream of happiness,

Now that we know that none of it is ever going to be.


Don't you remember how free the future seemed

When it was all imagination? It was a beautiful park

Where the sky was a page of water, and when we looked up,

There were our own faces, shimmering in the clear air.

And I know that this life is the only real form of happiness,

But sometimes in its midst I can hear the dense, stifled sob

Of the unreal one we might have known, and when that ends

And my eyes are filled with tears, time seems to have stopped

And we are alone in the park where it is almost twenty years ago

And the future is still an immense, open dream.


from Falling Water:





Perhaps the hardest feeling is the one

Of unrealized possibility:

Thoughts left unspoken, actions left undone


That seemed to be of little consequence

To things considered in totality;

And yet that might have made a difference.


Sometimes the thought of what one might have done

Starts to exhaust the life that it explains,

After so much of what one knew has gone.


I guess that all things happen for the best.

And that whatever life results remains,

In its own fashion, singularly blest.


Yet when I try to think about the ways

That brought me here, I think about places

Visited, about particular days


Whiled away with a small handful of friends,

Some of them gone; and about the traces

Of a particular movement, that ends


In mild effects, but that originates

In the sheer "wonder of disappointment,"

Ascending in an arc that resonates


Through the heavens, before a dying fall.

I don't know what Wittgenstein might have meant

By nothing is hidden, if not that all


The aspects of one's life are there to see.

But last month, coming back on the Métro

From the Basilica of Saint-Denis,


My sense of here and now began to melt

Into a sensation of vertigo

I realized that I had never felt.




Start with the condition of the given:

A room, a backyard, or a city street.

Next, construct an idea of heaven


By eliminating the contingent

Accidents that make it seem familiar.

Spanning these polarities—the stringent


Vacuum and the sound of a lawn mower—

Find the everyday experiences

Making up our lives, set on the lower


Branches of the tree of knowledge. Is this

What people mean by living in the world?

A region of imaginary bliss,


Uncontaminated by reflection,

Rationalized by the controlling thought

Of simple beauty, of the perfection


Of the commonplace through acquiescence?

Think of a deeper order of beauty,

A kind of magnificence whose essence


Lies in estrangement, the anxiety

Of the unrecognized, in resistance,

And in the refusal of piety.


Nothing comes of nothing: what ideals

Alter is the look of things, the changing

Surfaces their argument reveals


To be illusory. Yet one still tries,

Pulled inward by the promissory thought

Of something time can never realize,


Both inexhaustible and self-contained;

Of something waiting to be discovered

In the dominion of the unattained.





I always think about it in a way

So inflected by the thought of places,

And of my distance from them; by other


People, and the measure of another

Year since they departed, that they get hard

To separate, like the thought of a day


From the day itself. I suppose the proof,

If there is one, is by analogy

With the kind of adolescent "knowledge"


I had on those afternoons in college

When I'd go to New York, and the evening

Deepened, and then the lights came on. Aloof,


Yet somehow grounded in the real, it's

Like an abstract diagram of a face,

Or the experience of memory


Drained of its vivifying imagery

—Of Geoff's cigars, for instance, or Willy's

Collision with the pillar at the Ritz—


Until the pure experience remains.

For over time, the personal details

Came to mean less to me than the feeling


Of simply having lived them, revealing

Another way of being in the world,

With all the inwardness it still sustains,


And the promise of happiness it brought.

So it began to take over my life—

Not like some completely arbitrary


Conception someone had imposed on me,

But more and more like a second nature;

Until it became my abiding thought.





How much can someone actually retain

Of a first idea? What the day was,

Or what the flowers in the room were like,


Or how the curtains lifted in the breeze?

The meaning lies in what a person does

In the aftermath of that abundance,


On an ordinary day in August

In the still air, beneath a milk-white sky—

As something quickens in the inner room


No one inhabits, filling its domain

With the sound of an ambiguous sigh

Muffled by traffic noises. Underneath,


The movement starts to recapitulate

Another season and another life,

Walking through the streets of Barcelona,


Its alleys and its accidents combined

Into an arabesque of feeling, rife

With imprecision, blending everything


Into a song intended to obscure,

Like the song of the wind, and so begin

To repeat the fallacy of the past:


That it was pure, and that the consummate

Achievement is to bring it back again.

Would it make any difference? Each breath


Anticipates the next, until the end.

Nothing lasts. The imperative of change

Is what the wind repeats, and night brings dreams


Illuminating the transforming thought

Of the familiar context rendered strange,

The displacement of the ordinary.





I hadn't been to Paris in six years.

My hotel room was like a pleasant cell.

On the plane I'd been bothered by vague fears


Of being by myself for the first time,

Or recognizing the sound of the bell

Of St. Germain-des-Prés, or a street mime


At Deux Magots, and being overwhelmed

By the sensation of being alone.

Even with a friend, from the distant realm


Of Rome, I couldn't shake the impression

Of exile, as though I'd come to atone

For some indescribable transgression—


A state of anonymity, without

Anonymity's deep sense of pardon.

We ate, and walked about, and talked about


The true nature of the sentimental.

Later, as I imagined the garden

Of the new Bibliotheque Nationale


Drowsing in its shade of information,

I felt the peace of insignificance,

Of a solitude like a vocation


To be inhabited, to be explored

With the single-minded perseverance

Of a blind man whose sight had been restored.


Everything seemed so mindless and abstract,

Stripped of the personality I knew.

The evening was like a secret compact,


And though it was May, the night air felt cold.

The sky was black. The sky was gold and blue

Above an Eiffel Tower lit with gold.





What is the abstract, the impersonal?

Are they the same? And whence this grandiose

Geography of a few emotions?


Think of an uninhabited landscape,

With its majesty rendered otiose

By a stranger's poverty of feeling;


Then contemplate that state without a name

In which something formless and inchoate

Stirs in an act of definition, like


A thought becoming conscious of itself,

For which the words are always late, too late.

The motion spreads its shape across the sky,


Unburdened by causality and death.

Where is that paradise? Where is that womb

Of the unreal, that expansiveness


That turned the mountains into vacant air,

The empty desert to an empty tomb

On Sunday, with the body set aside,


The sense of diminution giving way,

Through the oscillations of the sublime,

To an infinite expanse of spirit?


If only one could know, at this remove,

The private alchemy, obscured by time,

By which an inhospitable terrain


Became an open space, "a fresh, green breast"

Of a new world of such magnificence

That those who entered were as though reborn,


And everything they heard and saw and felt

Melted into shape and significance;

And what that secret amplitude was like.





But is there even anything to know?

Linger over the cases: the dead friends,

And what the obituaries omit


And one can only imagine: what it

Must have felt like at the end, suspended

Between two impossible tasks, as though


The burden of each day were to rebut

A presumption of disillusionment

And a sense of hopelessness, deflected


By the daily routine, yet protected

By the cave of the imagination;

Until at last the inner door slammed shut.


When did it all become unbearable?

The question begs the questions of their lives

Asked from the inside, taking for granted


Their very being, as though enchanted

By the way the settings, in retrospect,

Make up the logic of a parable


Whose incidents make no sense, and by how

Time tries to project a kind of order,

And the terrifying clarity it brings,


Into the enigma of the last things—

A vodka bottle lying on the floor,

An offhand remark (''I'll be going now")—


With everything contained, as in a proof,

In a few emblems of finality:

The bullet in the mouth. The sharp report


That no one else can hear. The sharp report

That only someone else could hear. The long,

Irrevocable transport from the roof.





If God in Heaven were a pair of eyes

Whose gaze could penetrate the camouflage

Of speech and thought, the innocent disguise


Of a person looking in the mirror;

If a distant mind, in its omniscience,

Could reflect and comprehend the terror


Obscured by the trappings of the body—

If these possibilities were real,

Everything would look the same: a cloudy


Sky low in the distance, and a dead tree

Visible through the window. The same thoughts

Would engage the mind: that one remains free


In a limited sense, and that the rough

Approximation of eternity

Contained in every moment is enough.


What sponsors the idea of a god

Magnificent in its indifference,

And inert above the shabby, slipshod


Furnishings that constitute the human?

What engenders the notion of a state

Transcending the familiar, common


Ground on which two people walked together

Some twenty years ago, through a small park?

The benches remain empty. The weather


Changes with the seasons, which feel the same.

The questions trace out the trajectory

Of a person traveling backwards, whose name


Occupies a space between death and birth;

Of someone awkwardly celebrating

A few diminished angels, and the earth.





It's been nine years since the telephone call

From Mark, and a year since the one from John.

And it's as though nothing's changed, but that all


The revisions were finally over.

And yet now more than half my life is gone,

Like those years of waiting to discover


That hidden paradise of the recluse

I was always just about to enter—

Until it came to seem like an excuse


For the evasion of intimacy.

At Willy's memorial last winter,

Edward Albee spoke of his privacy,


And how at last he wandered up the stairs

To a "final privacy." And perhaps

The illusions that keep us from our cares


Are projections of our mortality,

Of the impulse inside the fear it maps

Onto the sky, while in reality


The fear continues underneath. I guess

That despite the moments of resplendence

Like the one in Paris, it's still the less


Insistent ones that come to rest within.

I don't know why the thought of transcendence

Beckons us, or why we strive for it in


Solitary gestures of defiance,

Or try to discover it in our dreams,

Or by rending the veil of appearance.


Why does it have to issue from afar?

Why can't we find it in the way life seems?

As Willy would have said—So, here we are.





            There was nothing there for me to disbelieve.

                                    —Randall Jarrell


Dvorak's "Songs My Mother Taught Me,"

From the cycle Gypsy Melodies, anticipates

The sonorous emotions of the Trio in F Minor,

Though without the latter's complications.

The melody is simple, while the piece's

Mood looks backwards, carried by the sweet,

Sustaining rhythms of the mother's voice

Embodied in the figure of the violin, until,

Upon the second repetition of the theme

And on a high, protracted note, it suddenly

Evaporates, while the piano lingers underneath.

The world remains indifferent to our needs,

Unchanged by what the mind, in its attempt to

Render it in terms that it can recognize,

Imagines it to be. The notes make up a story

Set entirely in the kingdom of appearance,

Filled with images of happiness and sadness

And projected on a place from which all

Evidence of what happened once has vanished—

A deserted cabin on a lake, or an isolated

Field in which two people walked together,

Or the nondescript remains of someone's home.

The place endures, unmindful and unseen,

Until its very absence comes to seem a shape

That seems to stand for something—a schematic

Face that floats above a background made of

Words that someone spoke, from which the human

Figure gradually emerges, like a shifting pattern

Drifting through a filigree of flimsy clouds

Above the massive, slowly turning globe.

Beneath the trees, beneath the constellations

Drawn from the illusions sketched by sight,

The tiny figures move in twos and threes

To their particular conclusions, like the details

Of a vision that, for all it leaves to see,

Might never have existed-its conviction spent,

Its separate shapes retracing an ascending

Curve of entropy, dissolving in that endless

Dream of physics, in which pain becomes unreal,

And happiness breaks down into its elements.

I wish there were an answer to that wish.

Why can't the unseen world—the real world—

Be like an aspect of a place that one remembers?

Why can't each thing present itself, and stay,

Without the need to be perfected or refined?

Why can't we live in some imaginary realm

Beyond belief, in which all times seem equal,

And without the space between the way things are

And how they merely seem? In which the minor,

Incidental shapes that meant the world to me

—That mean the world to me—are real too?

Suppose that time were nothing but erasure,

And that years were just whatever one had lost.

The things that managed to remain unchanged

Would seem inhuman, while the course life took

Would have a form that was too changeable to see.

The simple act of speech would make it true,

Yet at the cost of leaving nothing to believe.

Within this field, this child's imagination,

An entire universe could seem to flicker

In the span of one's attention, each succeeding

Vision mingling with the rest to form a tapestry

Containing multitudes, a wealth of incident

As various as the mind itself, yet ultimately

Composed of nothing but its mirror image:

An imaginary person, who remained, within that

Seamless web of supposition, utterly alone.


All this is preface. Last May my mother died

And I flew back to San Diego for her funeral.

Her life was uneventful, and the last ten

Years or so had seemed increasingly dependent

On a vague and doctrineless religion—a religion

Based on reassurance rather than redemption—

Filled with hopes so unspecific, and a love so

Generalized that in the end it came to seem

A long estrangement, in the course of which those

Abstract sentiments had deepened and increased,

While all the real things—the things that

Used to seem so close I couldn't see them—

Had been burnished away by distance and by time,

Replaced by hazy recollections of contentment,

And obscured beneath a layer of association

Which had rendered them, once more, invisible.

And yet the streets still looked the same to me,

And even though the incidents seemed different,

The shapes that still remained exhibited the

Reassuring patterns of a natural order—

The quiet rhythms of a world demystified,

Without those old divisions into what was real

And what was wishful thinking. In a few days

Everything had altered, and yet nothing changed—

That was the anomalous event that happened

In the ordinary course of things, from which the

Rest of us were simply absent, or preoccupied,

Or busy with arrangements for the flowers,

The music, the reception at the house for various

Cousins, aunts, and uncles and, from next door,

Mr. Palistini with his tooth of gold. At

Length the house was empty, and I went outside.

It struck me that this place, which overnight

Had almost come to seem a part of me, was actually

The same one I had longed for years to leave.

There were differences of course—another

House or two, and different cars—and yet what

Startled me was how familiar it all seemed—

The numbers stenciled on the curb, the soap-dish

In the bathroom, the boxes still in the garage—

As though the intricate evasions of the years

Had left their underlying forms unchanged.

And this is not to say those fables were untrue,

But merely that their spells were incomplete—

Incomplete and passing. For although we can't

Exist without our fantasies, at times they

Start to come apart like clouds, to leave us

Momentarily alone, within an ordinary setting—

Disenchanted and alone, but also strangely free,

And suddenly relieved to find a vast, inhuman

World, completely independent of our lives

And yet behind them all, still there.



I drove to Oak Park, took two tours,

And looked at some of the houses.

I took the long way back along the lake.

The place that I came home to—a cavernous

Apartment on the East Side of Milwaukee—

Seems basically a part of that tradition,

With the same admixture of expansion and restraint:

The space takes off, yet leaves behind a nagging

Feeling of confinement, with the disconcerting sense

That while the superficial conflicts got resolved,

The underlying tensions brought to equilibrium,

It isn't yet a place in which I feel that I can live.

Imagine someone reading. Contemplate a man

Oblivious to his settings, and then a distant person

Standing in an ordinary room, hemmed in by limitations,

Yet possessed by the illusion of an individual life

That blooms within its own mysterious enclosure,

In a solitary space in which the soul can breathe

And where the heart can stay—not by discovering it,

But by creating it, by giving it a self-sustaining

Atmosphere of depth, both in the architecture,

And in the unconstructed life that it contains.

In a late and very brief remark, Freud speculates

That space is the projection of a "psychic apparatus"

Which remains almost entirely oblivious to itself;

And Wright extols "that primitive sense of shelter"

Which can turn a house into a refuge from despair.

I wish that time could bring the future back again

And let me see things as they used to seem to me

Before I found myself alone, in an emancipated state

Alone and free and filled with cares about tomorrow.

There used to be a logic in the way time passed

That made it flow directly towards an underlying space

Where all the minor, individual lives converged.

The moments borrowed their perceptions from the past

And bathed the future in a soft, familiar light

I remembered from home, and which has faded.

And the voices get supplanted by the rain,

The nights seem colder, and the angel in the mind

That used to sing to me beneath the wide suburban sky

Turns into dreamwork and dissolves into the air,

While in its place a kind of monument appears,

Magnificent in isolation, compromised by proximity

And standing in a small and singular expanse—

As though the years had been a pretext for reflection,

And my life had been a phase of disenchantment—

As the faces that I cherished gradually withdraw,

The reassuring settings slowly melt away,

And what remains is just a sense of getting older.

In a variation of the parable, the pure of heart

Descend into a kingdom that they never wanted

And refused to see. The homely notions of the good,

The quaint ideas of perfection swept away like

Adolescent fictions as the real forms of life

Deteriorate with manically increasing speed,

The kind man wakes into a quiet dream of shelter,

And the serenity it brings—not in reflection,

But in the paralyzing fear of being mistaken,

Of losing everything, of acquiescing in the

Obvious approach (the house shaped like a box;

The life that can't accommodate another's)—

As the heart shrinks down to tiny, local things.


Why can't the more expansive ecstasies come true?

I met you more than thirty years ago, in 1958,

In Mrs. Wolford's eighth-grade history class.

All moments weigh the same, and matter equally;

Yet those that time brings back create the fables

Of a happy or unsatisfying life, of minutes

Passing on the way to either peace or disappointment—

Like a paper calendar on which it's always autumn

And we're back in school again; or a hazy afternoon

Near the beginning of October, with the World Series

Playing quietly on the radio, and the windows open,

And the California sunlight filling up the room.

When I survey the mural stretched across the years

—Across my heart—I notice mostly small, neglected

Parts of no importance to the whole design, but which,

In their obscurity, seem more permanent and real.

I see the desks and auditorium, suffused with

Yellow light connoting earnestness and hope that

Still remains there, in a space pervaded by a

Soft and supple ache too deep to contemplate—

As though the future weren't real, and the present

Were amorphous, with nothing to hold on to,

And the past were there forever. And the art

That time inflicts upon its subjects can't

Eradicate the lines sketched out in childhood,

Which harden into shapes as it recedes.

I wish I knew a way of looking at the world

That didn't find it wanting, or of looking at my

Life that didn't always see a half-completed

Structure made of years and filled with images

And gestures emblematic of the past, like Gatsby's

Light, or Proust's imbalance on the stones.

I wish there were a place where I could stay

And leave the world alone—an enormous stadium

Where I could wander back and forth across a field

Replete with all the incidents and small details

That gave the days their textures, that bound the

Minutes into something solid, and that linked them

All together in a way that used to seem eternal.

We used to go to dances in my family's ancient

Cadillac, which blew up late one summer evening

Climbing up the hill outside Del Mar. And later

I can see us steaming off the cover of the Beatles'

Baby-butcher album at your house in Mission Bay;

And three years later listening to the Velvet

Underground performing in a roller skating rink.

Years aren't texts, or anything like texts;

And yet I often think of 1968 that way, as though

That single year contained the rhythms of the rest,

As what began in hope and eagerness concluded in

Intractable confusion, as the wedding turned into a

Puzzling fiasco over poor John Godfrey's hair.

The parts were real, and yet the dense and living

Whole they once composed seems broken now, its

Voice reduced to disembodied terms that speak to me

More distantly each day, until the tangled years

Are finally drained of feeling, and collapse into a

Sequence of the places where we lived: your parents'

House in Kensington, and mine above the canyon;

Then the flat by Sears in Cambridge, where we

Moved when we got married, and the third floor

Of the house on Francis Avenue, near Harvard Square;

The big apartment in Milwaukee where we lived the

Year that John was born, and last of all the

House in Whitefish Bay, where you live now

And all those years came inexplicably undone

In mid-July. The sequence ended late last year.

Suppose we use a lifetime as a measure of the world

As it exists for one. Then half of mine has ended,

While the fragment which has recently come to be

Contains no vantage point from which to see it whole.

I think that people are the sum of their illusions,

That the cares that make them difficult to see

Are eased by distance, with their errors blending

In an intricate harmony, their truths abiding

In a subtle "spark" or psyche (each incomparable,

Yet each the same as all the others) and their

Disparate careers all joined together in a tangled

Moral vision whose intense, meandering design

Seems lightened by a pure simplicity of feeling,

As in grief, or in the pathos of a life

Cut off by loneliness, indifference or hate,

Because the most important thing is human happiness—

Not in the sense of private satisfactions, but of

Lives that realize themselves in ordinary terms

And with the quiet inconsistencies that make them real.

The whole transcends its tensions, like the intimate

Reflections on the day that came at evening, whose

Significance was usually overlooked, or misunderstood,

Because the facts were almost always unexceptional.

Two years ago we took our son to Paris. Last night

I picked him up and took him to a Lou Reed show,

And then took him home. I look at all the houses as I

Walk down Hackett Avenue to work. I teach my classes,

Visit friends, cook introspective meals for myself,

Yet in the end the minutes don't add up. What's lost

Is the perception of the world as something good

And held in common; as a place to be perfected

In the kinds of everyday divisions and encounters

That endowed it with integrity and structure,

And that merged its private moments with the past.

What broke it into pieces? What transformed the

Flaws that gave it feeling into objects of a deep and

Smoldering resentment—like coming home too early,

Or walking too far ahead of you on the rue Jacob?

I wish that life could be a window on the sun,

Instead of just this porch where I can stand and

Contemplate the wires that lace the parking lot

And feel it moving towards some unknown resolution.

The Guggenheim Museum just reopened. Tonight I

Watched a segment of the news on PBS—narrated by a

Woman we met years ago at Bob's—that showed how

Most of Wright's interior had been restored,

And how the ramp ascends in spirals towards the sky.

I like the houses better—they flow in all directions,

Merging with the scenery and embodying a milder,

More domestic notion of perfection, on a human scale

That doesn't overwhelm the life that it encloses.

Isn't there a way to feel at home within the

Confines of this bland, accommodating structure

Made of souvenirs and emblems, like the hammock

Hanging in the backyard of an undistinguished

Prairie School house in Whitefish Bay—the lineal,

Reduced descendant of the "Flameproof" Wright house

Just a block or two away from where I live now?

I usually walk along that street on Sunday,

Musing on how beautiful it seems, how aspects of it

Recapitulate the Oak Park house and studio, with

Open spaces buried in a labyrinthine interior,

And with the entrance half concealed on the side—

A characteristic feature of his plans that made it

Difficult to find, although the hope was that in

Trying to get inside, the visitor's eye would come to

Linger over subtleties he might have failed to see—

In much the way that in the course of getting older,

And trying to reconstruct the paths that led me here,

I found myself pulled backwards through these old,

Uncertain passages, distracted by the details,

And meeting only barriers to understanding why the

Years unfolded as they did, and why my life

Turned out the way it has—like his signature

"Pathway of Discovery," with each diversion

Adding to the integrity of the whole.


There is this sweep life has that makes the

Accidents of time and place seem small.

Everything alters, and the personal concerns

That love could hold together for a little while

Decay, and then the world seems strange again,

And meaningless and free. I miss the primitive

Confusions, and the secret way things came to me

Each evening, and the pain. I still wonder

Where the tears went, standing in my room each day

And quietly inhabiting a calm, suspended state

Enveloped by the emptiness that scares and thrills me,

With the background noise cascading out of nothing

Like a song that makes the days go by, a song

Incorporating everything—not into what it says,

But simply in the way it touches me, a single

Image of dispersal, the inexhaustible perception

Of contingency and transience and isolation.

It brings them back to me. I have the inwardness

I think I must have wanted, and the quietude,

The solitary temper, and this space where I can

Linger with the silence curling all around me

Like the sound of pure passage, waiting here

Surrounded by the furniture, the books and lists

And all these other emblems of the floating world,

The prints of raindrops that begin as mist, that fall

Discreetly through the atmosphere, and disappear.

And then I feel them in the air, in a reserved,

More earthly music filled with voices reassembling

In a wellspring of remembrance, talking to me again,

And finding shelter in the same evasive movements

I can feel in my own life, cloaked in a quiet

Dignity that keeps away the dread of getting old,

And fading out of other people's consciousness,

And dying—with its deepest insecurities and fears

Concealed by their own protective colorations,

As the mind secretes its shell and calls it home.

It has the texture of an uncreated substance,

Hovering between the settings it had come to love

And some unformulated state I can't imagine—

Waiting for the telephone to ring, obsessed with

Ways to occupy these wide, unstructured hours,

And playing records by myself, and waking up alone.

All things are disparate, yet subject to the same

Intense, eradicating wills of time and personality,

Like waves demolishing the walls love seemed to build

Between our lives and emptiness, the certainty they

Seemed to have just two or three short years ago,

Before the anger spread its poison over everything.

I think about the way our visions locked together

In a nightmare play of nervousness and language,

Living day to day inside the concentrated

Force of that relentless argument, whose words

Swept over us in formless torrents of anxiety, two

People clinging to their versions of their lives

Almost like children—living out each other's

Intermittent fantasies that fed upon themselves

As though infected by some vile, concentrated hatred;

Who then woke up and planned that evening's dinner.

It's all memories now, and distance. Miles away

The cat is sleeping on the driveway, John's in school,

And sunlight filters through a curtain in the kitchen.

Nothing really changes—the external world intrudes

And then withdraws, and then becomes continuous again.

I went downtown today and got a lamp with pendant

Lanterns made of opalescent art glass—part, I guess,

Of what this morning's paper called the "Wright craze."

I like the easy way the days go by, the parts of aging

That have come to seem familiar, and the uneventful

Calm that seems to settle on the house at night.

Each morning brings the mirror's reassuring face,

As though the years had left the same enduring person

Simplified and changed—no longer vaguely desperate,

No longer torn, yet still impatient with himself

And still restless; but drained of intricacy and rage,

Like a mild paradox—uninteresting in its own right,

Yet existing for the sake of something stranger.

Now and then our life comes over me, in brief,

Involuntary glimpses of that world that blossom

Unexpectedly, in fleeting moments of regret

That come before the ache, the pang that gathers

Sharply, like an indrawn breath—a strange and

Thoughtful kind of pain, as though a steel

Band had somehow snapped inside my heart.

I don't know. But what I do know is that

None of it is ever going to come to me again.

Why did I think a person only distantly like me

Might finally represent my life? What aspects

Of my attitudes, my cast of mind, my inconclusive

Way of tossing questions at the world had I

Supposed might realize another person's fantasies

And turn her into someone else—who gradually became

A separate part of me, and argued with the very

Words I would have used, and looked at me through

Eyes I'd looked at as though gazing at myself?

I guess we only realize ourselves in dreams,

Or in these self-reflexive reveries sustaining

All the charms that contemplation holds—until the

Long enchantment of the soul with what it sees

Is lifted, and it startles at a space alight with

Objects of its infantile gaze, like people in a mall.

I saw her just the other day. I felt a kind of

Comfort at her face, one tinctured with bemusement

At the strange and guarded person she'd become—

Attractive, vaguely friendly, brisk (too brisk),

But no one I could think might represent my life.

Why did I even try to see myself in what's outside?

The strangeness pushes it away, propels the vision

Back upon itself, into these regions filled with

Shapes that I can wander through and never see,

As though their image were inherently unreal.

The houses on a street, the quiet backyard shade,

The rooms restored to life with bric-a-brac—

I started by revisiting these things, then slowly

Reconceiving them as forms of loss made visible

That balanced sympathy and space inside an

Abstract edifice combining reaches of the past

With all these speculations, all this artful

Preening of the heart. I sit here at my desk,

Perplexed and puzzled, teasing out a tangled

Skein of years we wove together, and trying to

Combine the fragments of those years into a poem.

Who cares if life—if someone's actual life—is

Finally insignificant and small? There's still a

Splendor in the way it flowers once and fades

And leaves a carapace behind. There isn't time to

Linger over why it happened, or attempt to make its

Mystery come to life again and last, like someone

Still embracing the confused perceptions of himself

Embedded in the past, as though eternity lay there—

For heaven's a delusion, and eternity is in the details,

And this tiny, insubstantial life is all there is.

—And that would be enough, but for the reoccurring

Dreams I often have of you. Sometimes at night

The banished unrealities return, as though a room

Suffused with light and poetry took shape around me.

Pictures line the walls. It's early summer.

Somewhere in Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel,

Reflecting on his years with "Albertine"—with X—

Suggests that love is just a consciousness of distance,

Of the separation of two lives in time and space.

I think the same estrangement's mirrored in each life,

In how it seems both adequate and incomplete—part

Day to day existence, part imaginary construct

Beckoning at night, and sighing through my dreams

Like some disconsolate chimera, or the subject

Of a lonely, terrifying sadness; or the isolation

Of a quiet winter evening, when the house feels empty,

And silence intervenes. But in the wonderful

Enclosure opening in my heart, I seem to recognize

Our voices lilting in the yard, inflected by the

Rhythms of a song whose words are seamless

And whose lines are never ending. I can almost

See the contours of your face, and sense the

Presence of the trees, and reimagine all of us

Together in a deep, abiding happiness, as if the

Three of us inhabited a fragile, made-up world

That seemed to be so permanent, so real.

I have this fantasy: It's early in the evening.

You and I are sitting in the backyard, talking.

Friends arrive, then drinks and dinner, conversation . . .

The lovely summer twilight lasts forever . . .

What's the use?

What purpose do these speculations serve? What

Mild enchantments do these meditations leave?

They're just the murmurs of an age, of middle age,

That help to pass the time that they retrieve

Before subsiding, leaving everything unchanged.

Each of us at times has felt the future fade,

Or seen the compass of his life diminished,

Or realized some tangible illusion was unreal.

Driving down to Evanston last week, I suddenly

Remembered driving down that road eight years ago,

So caught up in some story I'd just finished

That I'd missed the way the countryside was changing—

How in place of trees there now were office towers

And theme parks, parts of a confusing panoply of

Barns and discount malls transfiguring a landscape

Filled with high, receding clouds, and rows of flimsy

Houses in what used to be a field. I thought of

Other people's lives, and how impossible it seemed

To grasp them on the model of my own—as little

Mirrors of infinity—or sense their forms of

Happiness, or in their minor personal upheavals

Feel the sweep of time reduced to human scale

And see its abstract argument made visible.

I thought of overarching dreams of plenitude—

How life lacks shape until it's given one by love,

And how each soul is both a kingdom in itself

And part of some incorporating whole that

Feels and has a face and lets it live forever.

All of these seemed true, and cancelled one another,

Leaving just the feeling of an unseen presence

Tracing out the contours of a world erased,

Like music tracing out the contours of the mind—

For life has the form of a winding curve in space

And in its wake the human figure disappears.

Look at our surroundings—where a previous age

Could visualize a landscape we see borders,

Yet I think the underlying vision is the same:

A person positing a world that he can see

And can't contain, and vexed by other people.

Everything is possible; some of it seemed real

Or nearly real, yet in the end it spoke to me alone,

In phrases echoing the isolation of a meager

Ledge above a waterfall, or rolling across a vast,

Expanding plain on which there's always room,

But only room for one. It starts and ends

Inside an ordinary room, while in the interim

Brimming with illusions, filled with commonplace

Delights that make the days go by, with simple

Arguments and fears, and with the nervous

Inkling of some vague, utopian conceit

Transforming both the landscape and our lives,

Until we look around and find ourselves at home,

But in a wholly different world. And even those

Catastrophes that seemed to alter everything

Seem fleeting, grounded in a natural order

All of us are subject to, and ought to celebrate.

—Yet why? That things are temporary doesn't

Render them unreal, unworthy of regretting.

It's not as though the past had never happened:

All those years were real, and their loss was real,

And it is sad—I don't know what else to call it.

I'm glad that both of us seem happy. Yet what

Troubles me is just the way what used to be a world

Turned out, in retrospect, to be a state of mind,

And no more tangible than that. And now it's gone,

And in its place I find the image of a process

Of inexorable decay, or of some great unraveling

That drags the houses forward into emptiness

And backwards into pictures of the intervening days

Love pieced together out of nothing. And I'm

Certain that this austere vision finally is true,

And yet it strikes me as too meager to believe.

It comes from much too high above the world

And seems to me too hopeless, too extreme—

But then I found myself one winter afternoon

Remembering a quiet morning in a classroom

And inventing everything again, in ordinary

Terms that seemed to comprehend a childish

Dream of love, and then the loss of love,

And all the intricate years between.


from The Constructor:



—This is my complaint: that

Humiliation in the snow. I've carried it

This far, made hate so much a part of me

The past seems riddled with despair, and my life hurts,

And the words that find me curl up at the edges.

You keep asking me where, and yet I see it everywhere,

I see it here at home: in the arguments after dinner

And the tense confinement of the living room; the sudden

Ringing of the telephone; the anger that wells up in me each morning.

I feel it in my bones. This secret life

Whose language is the melancholy sound the heart makes

Beating against its cage—why can't you feel the

Emptiness I see reflected in your face, why can't you

Sense this overwhelming thing I have no name for?

The present is a dull, persistent ache, the future an impersonal expanse

In which I'm tentative and old, and my life has come to nothing.

I want to keep the emptiness away, to realize the

Sense of what it's like to be alive—instead of just existing

In a frozen atmosphere of rage, where the thoughts go

Swirling through my mind like snowflakes.

—Yes. And yet some days seemed different.

I remember the enchantment and the peaceful light

That used to settle on the yard on summer evenings.

Couldn't some of that return? My world feels broken,

And the world that you describe is one that I can't see,

In which there isn't any happiness, and where the sky became

Opaque and lost its tenderness, and what had seemed like

Poetry became two separate monologues, imprisoning each of us in a name.

Why can't the truth be like a dream from which two people can wake up and


Why can't our separate lives share this illusion:

Rounded by contentment and well-being, infinite and free

And yet at peace within the boundaries of our life

Together, in a language that contains us like a shell?

I don't know—perhaps there isn't any peace

And everything I say is futile. Maybe we're alone

And what you say is merely confirmation, further proof

That all that lies between the poles of solitude and death

Is the rhetoric of loss, of feeling cheated by a world

That whispered quietly of love and left us with this incoherent

Thing that love has brought us to despise.


—The truth is smaller. What you mean by love

Isn't anything I recognize. You mean a style of contemplation,

Or a monument encapsulating everything you cling to

Like a first certainty—things which to me are merely

Emblems of obscurity and death: the hurt bewilderment;

Your maddening inability to see; your breathless concentration

And these rambling explanations filled with a grandiose

Self-pity and a sadness on the scale of the universe.

What's missing is the dailiness, the commonplace

Engagements that could make this formal universe a home.

I had the thought that what was called a "normal" life

Was really a form of cruelty, and that the people who could stand it lived in hell.

One time I even thought you might agree with me,

And come to me in my head, and start to understand me.

It doesn't matter now. What matters are these syllables

That shape the endless argument in which we live.

Is this the peace you bring me? I hover between two minds

As in an endless space, I feel my body drift through

All-consuming layers of anxiety, still harboring a wish

That you might cling to me, and then let me go.

—I know that I can bring you nothing but my own

Uneasy mix of insight and illusion, and a voice that

Beckons like a distant singing in the trees, and no delight.

I think that what might free you is the effortless

Forbearance which I haven't the capacity to give. To

Rest in peace, inspired by the simple breath of happiness;

To remain indifferent to the frame of one's existence—

These aren't compelling ways to live. Life has to hold the consciousness of


Or it isn't life, but something featureless. This

Thing you call your soul is just the music of a solitary quest

Inexorably approaching, through layers of frustrated magic,

The dead core. It sings more clearly in the air, more

Urgently in the darkness, floating through the bare trees,

Coursing with the thrill of anger through the veins . . .

My song is simpler: disappointment, and the pain of isolation,

And the hope that something in its underlying tenderness

Might still appease you, might approach you in a calm and

Restless voice that sings more sweetly as the summer wanes;

And still more silently in autumn, as the grave opens

And the earth makes ready to receive its guest.

—And sets me free. For did you think that all the

Force of my conviction, all the strength of my prolonged dissatisfaction,

Might amount to nothing? That what started as a way of

Fighting back the emptiness I felt encroaching on my heart

Might be simply in vain? I can't go back to that romantic

Wilderness again, in which my passions felt like questions

And my dreams were private motions in a universe of one.

This impasse may be lasting. It may ultimately heal.

What matters is that something in my soul began to breathe

As I began to see your words as merely part of my experience,

And to feel that almost none of what they said to me was true.

What freedom means to me is not depending on the world,

Or on you, or on some fantasy to tell me how to live. It's

Not enough to mirror my despair, and give it back to me.

I want to see myself as what I am, and look at you the way you are—

Is that a form of hatred? Or an intricate form of care

That lets another person be? Or a form of self-deception

Leaving both of us alone, but with our disparate lives

Uneasily together at the end, within a blank and

Intimate expanse? Maybe now you see.


On a backwards-running clock in Lisbon,

By the marble statue of Pessoa·,

On an antique astrolabe in London

Tracing out the sky above Samoa,

Thousands of miles away—in time, in place,

Each night conspires to create a myth

That stands for nothing real, yet leaves you with

The vague impression of a human face.

The fragments fly apart and shift, trembling

On the threshold of a kind of fullness:

The minor wonder of remembering;

The greater wonders of forgetfulness.

For one looks back as someone else might yearn

For a new life, and set his course upon

The polestar, bid his adieus, and move on.

The journey takes a solipsistic turn,

Forsaking starlight for an inner glow,

And reducing all human history,

All human culture—highbrow, middle-, low- —

To one reflecting surface, one story.

What fills the heaven of a single mind?

The things that used to fill Kant's mind with awe

—"The starry heavens and the moral law"—

Seem distant now, and difficult to find

Amid the message of satiety

Issuing from the corners of the sky,

Filled with monotonous variety:

Game shows, an interview with Princess Di,

And happy talk, and sitcoms and the news,

The shit that floats across your 1iving room

Each weekday evening. Waiting in the pews,

Out in the desert where the cacti bloom,

Something else was forming, something stranger

Gathering in the gulf below the stairs—

As though the mystery of the manger

Were written in the day-to-day affairs

Of a world consecrated to Mammon,

Yet governed by those sacred absences

That make the spirit soar, and presences

At one remove, like the sound of Cuban

Drumbeats issuing from the Ricardos'

Love nest on the television station

Like distant thunder; or Leonardo's

"Wave that flees the site of its creation."

In the desert far beyond the city,

One hears the cadences for which one longs,

The lyrics of those half-forgotten songs,

—Some of them poignant, some of them witty—

Brimming with the melody of passage;

One feels the wind that blows the soul about,

Repeating its inscrutable message;

And as night falls, one sees the stars come out.

I found myself beneath a canopy

Of scenes left out of someone else's life

—The dog that didn't bark, Rosebud, Cain's wife—

Arrayed above me in a panoply

Of glittering debris, gigantic swirls

Of stars, and slowly moving caravans

Of stars like tiny Christmas lights or pearls

Of tapioca, floating in a danse

Macabre across the heavens as I stood,

Watching the pageant in the sky unfold.

I felt the chill of something much too old

To comprehend—not the Form of the Good,

But something inchoate and violent,

A Form of Darkness. Suddenly the songs

Floating through the revelry fell silent,

As in The Masque of the Red Death, as throngs

Of the dead twinkled at me from above.

The intimate domain of memory

Became an endless field of entropy

Transfigured, inking in the outlines of

Eurydice entombed, Orpheus immured,

And, in the center of their universe,

That subtler diadem of stars obscured

By the brighter constellations, the Hearse.

Standing off to one side, as though bereft,

There was a figure with averted eyes,

Gesturing in a language of surprise

That took possession of my heart, yet left

The question of her meaning unresolved.

I looked at her. It was time to begin.

The apparitions in the sky dissolved,

Leaving me alone, and growing old. In

The wide, unstructured heavens overhead

The stars were still shining. When I got home,

The message light was blinking on the phone.

I don't remember what the message said.



They strike me less as actual persons than as abstract

Ghosts of an idea: that life is the external part of

Its emotions, of the small, evaporating sentiments; but

That in isolation there might be a place where you could

Live eternally behind the high, intimidating walls of art.

They knew that in the end the parts were unimportant—that

Even as the world receded language fell away until the body

Shook with feeling and became intangible; that eventually

One's soul would be absorbed by its surroundings, breath by

Simplifying breath, advancing towards that moment when its

Work would be completed and its past restored; as though

Swept forward on a quiet, undulating wave of meaning, and

As in a trance. And so they floated through their lives,

Protected by the great, exhausted themes of the romantics:

That understanding lay in childhood; that in emancipated

Language one possessed a real way of merging opposites, of

Joining the discursive tone of reason with the weight of the

Emotions to create a finite, earthly music; that any person,

By a simple act of will, could meld the substance of his life

And the seclusion of the mind together in a single testament

Suffused with light and feeling and reverberating with the

Fundamental rhythms of the heart, and never break the spell.

But those ideas are shells now, empty as those stories of the

Soul inhabiting its lost utopia—that bright, fictitious era

When a glance could take it in, a word could start it, and

The merest touch could lead it backwards through the narrow

Ways of the imagination to a paradise of innocence and peace.

Sometimes I feel this hollow sense of satisfaction at their

Disappearance, at the loss of that seductive power to make

A world seem real and bring one's individual fantasies to

Life; but other times I feel like someone living in a fable

Of his own construction, waiting in some bleak, completely

Isolated country with no hope or history, where the minutes

Come and go and memories displace each other, leaving nothing

For the soul to do but feel them as they flow, and flow away.

I know the forms of care, and understand the grammar of desire.

I understand that life is an affair of words, and that the

Hope of duplicating it is a delusion. There is a mood that

Drains it of significance, reducing all its aspirations to

A single state of mind, and all its tenderest emotions to

An empty sense of self-importance fostered by the primitive

Confusions of some distant place and time. Is this how life

Was meant to feel? For this is how, increasingly, it does.

You want there to be something more than just these tedious

Realities of disillusionment and anxiousness and care, and

Then you see them rising in the distance, luminescent forms

Ascending from these categorical expressions of unmeaning

In a curve that sweeps up like the graph of an obsession.

More and more their presence comes to dominate your dreams

At night, or linger in the corner of your mind by day. You

Close your eyes and something filters into consciousness;

You try to read, but with a sense of someone watching you.

One time I'd thought they'd gone away, but gradually they

Reappeared, permeating the surrounding atmosphere with

Music swirling in and all around me like a deep refrain.

And for a while they almost seem about to welcome you, to

Show you into their imaginary garden and to tell you how

Life felt, and how the world appeared before it started:

Everything melts away, until in place of the familiar

Inessential background you begin to see the image, slowly

Coming in and out of focus, of a face you never saw before

As though behind this wall of words there were a solitary

Presence with an unfamiliar name and with the abstract,

Heightened features of a ghost. And then the noise stops

And the language disappears, and the semblance on the page

Stares blindly back at you until it almost starts to seem

That there might be a vision of yourself that real too—

A vision of the soul, or God, or something merely human

That could live forever with the strength of an illusion.

But when I turn away and look I see myself, by contrast,

As a purely local person, temporal, not quite complete,

Unequal to the numinous desires that brought them back to

Earth and made their world seem new again, and beautiful.

I want to feel things burst again, to read life as it was

Before its truth became apparent and its youth had faded

And the doors closed on the future. I wait here in the

Narrow dispensations of the moments, mired in a state of

Vague anticipation, working through the days as through

The pages of a schoolbook, drifting through these subtly

Recursive grammars of the heart by rate, in fragments,

As though suspended in the first, uncertain stages

of some distant happiness; in private terms and notes

That show myself to me, but which create a personality

Half-Ariel, half-real, that lives in phrases, and whose

Animus is word association, mingling those things it

Might have been with those that one can't see or even

Consciously imagine. One gets resigned to them, but

In the way the blind become resigned to the invisible,

Or the mind to finitude. One becomes sufficient. One

Even finally attains—though only at the level of the

Personal—an empty kind of freedom, mired in disbelief,

Beset by contradictory feelings, looking back at them

Sometimes in awe, and with a sense of the impossible,

Sometimes in anger; now and then in gratitude. Yet

Now and then I find myself methodically rehearsing

One or two stock narratives, and one or two ideas,

In unadorned, discursive terms and cadences that

Seem to be inspired by the breath of God, by waves

Of silent, urgent sound proliferating through and

All around me, as the past, like some mysterious

Ventriloquist, announces them in enigmatic ways.

And then I feel a part of their confusion, and at

One with them in aspiration, sharing those desires

That fostered their illusion of a poetry of stark,

Unmediated passion that revealed the soul directly;

And their faith in its redemption through a reckless,

Youthful art, begun in gladness as a kind of refuge

From the never-ending disappointments of the ordinary,

And as solace for its fall from grace into the human.

Was that all unreal? Another obsolescent exercise in

Self-delusion, nurtured in the heart and now exhausted?

Life is what you call it, but I find no words for it

In what it has become, a language emptied of its vanity

And echoing a truer rhetoric, but a despondent one:

That the burden of a poem is to recall it to itself;

That what was said and done is all there is, and that

There are no further heavens—not even earthly ones—

Beyond the ambiguities of what actually existed; that

The notion of the soul, and reaching out in desperation

For another one, are merely versions of the beautiful;

And that the present is a prison and the past a wall.

Yet once I thought I sensed a different way of feeling,

One of bare simplicity, a respite from these solitary,

Powerful abstractions and these melodramas of the mind.

I thought I felt a moment opening like an unseen flower

Only to close again, as though something else had called it,

Or as though, beneath the disaffected surface, something

Limpid and benevolent were moving at a level of awareness

I could not yet find; and so I let the moment slide away.

One reaches back in eagerness, but in an empty exercise,

For what one might have done. One reads the histories

Of art and solitude for what they say about tomorrow,

And deciphers the illusions of the past for what they

Might illuminate about today, for they were once alive.

One tries to penetrate the different dreams of reason

Buried in their tablatures, to translate the universal

Language of their faces and the outward aspects of a

Finite, inner universe. Why is it that as one gets

Closer their incredible diversity reduces to a smooth,

Impregnable facade? Whatever else their codes might

Show or say—a mood, a moment, or a whole cosmology—

Their private meaning is a person, and it fades away

As page by page or note by note one comes to hear the

Novel's ending, not the soul that wrote it, or to hear

The music of a dead composer, not a living one; and

Then to see them as emotions that in time, or someplace

After time, might gradually give way to something real.

Why must there be so many ways to disillusionment, of

Coming to believe that no one else can feel and that

One really is alone? Sometimes I feel like nothing in

This world or any other one, now like an exile,

Now a subject of the kingdom of the inconceivable.

I wanted to look past them into what their world was

Like before they finally called it home, before there

Was a state of nature to ascend from, or a pretext for

These differences I feel. I tried to kid myself that

I could talk to them directly, mixing their traditions

With the vague one of my own to conjure the imaginary

Figure of these songs without a context; carefully

Constructing one in long, erotic sentences expressing

An unfocused state of sadness, one whose proof remained

Inviting and unknown; phrasing their encouragements

Too reasonably; fashioning their reassurances that

Someday soon my time was going to come, but meanwhile

Rearranging things to make them more believable, and

Going through the sweet, hypnotic motions of a life.

There was this chorus of strange vapors, with a name

Something like mine, and someone trying to get free.

You start to see things almost mythically, in tropes

And figurations taken from the languages of art—to

See your soul as sliding out of chaos, changeable,

Twice blessed with vagueness and a heart, the feelings

Cumbersome and unrefined, the mood a truly human one

Of absolute bewilderment; and floating up from that

To an inanimate sublime, as though some angel said

Come with me, and you woke into a featureless and

Foolish paradise your life had gradually become; or

From a dense, discordant memory into a perfect world

As empty as an afterthought, and level as a line.

One day a distant cloud appears on the horizon, and

You think your life might change. These artifacts,

Whose temper mirrors mine, still argue with the same

Impersonal intensity that nothing personal can change;

And yet one waits. Where did the stark emotions go,

Where are the flowers? Mustn't there be something to

This tenderness I feel encroaching on my mind, these

Quiet intimations of a generous, calm hour insensibly

Approaching day by day through outwardly constricted

Passages confused by light and air? It starts to seem

So effortless, and something slides away into the artless

Afterlife where dreams go, or a part that all along had

Been too close to feel begins to breathe as it becomes

Increasingly transparent, and then suddenly alive.

I think I can at last almost see through them into

Everyday unhappiness, my clear, unhampered gaze

No longer troubled by their opaque atmosphere of

Rational irrationality, their reasonable facade

An ordinary attitude, their sense of consequence

Merely illusory. Why should it matter whether

One or two of them survive? They calm the days

With undirected passion and the nights with music,

Hiding them at first, then gradually revealing them

So differently—these things I'd thought I'd never

Have—simply by vanishing together one by one, like

Breaths, like intermittent glimpses of some incomplete,

Imperfect gratitude. How could this quiet feeling

Actually exist? Why do I feel so happy?



            from North Point North:



It starts in sadness and bewilderment,

The self-reflexive iconography

Of late adolescence, and a moment

When the world dissolves into a fable

Of an alternative geography

Beyond the threshold of the visible.

And the heart is a kind of mute witness,

Abandoning everything for the sake

Of an unimaginable goodness

Making its way across the crowded stage

Of what might have been, leaving in its wake

The anxiety of an empty page.

Thought abhors a vacuum. Out of it came

A partially recognizable shape

Stumbling across a wilderness, whose name,

Obscure at first, was sooner or later

Sure to be revealed, and a landscape

Of imaginary rocks and water

And the dull pastels of the dimly lit

Interior of a gymnasium.

Is art the mirror of its opposite,

Or is the world itself a mimesis?

This afternoon at the symposium

Someone tried to resurrect the thesis

That a poem is a deflected sigh.

And I remembered a day on a beach

Thirty-five years ago, in mid-July,

The summer before I left for college,

With the future hanging just out of reach

And constantly receding, like the edge

Of the water floating across the sand.

Poems are the fruit of the evasions

Of a life spent trying to understand

The vacuum at the center of the heart,

And for all the intricate persuasions

They enlist in the service of their art,

Are finally small, disappointing things.

Yet from them there materializes

A way of life, a way of life that brings

The fleeting pleasures of a vocation

Made up of these constant exercises

In what still passes for celebration,

That began in a mood of hopelessness

On an evening in a dormitory

Years and years ago, and seemed to promise

A respite from disquietude and care,

But that left only the lovely story

Of a bright presence hanging in the air.




I don't like poems about philosophy,

But then, what is it? Someone

Sees the world dissolving in a well,

Another sees the moving image of eternity

In a shard of time, in what we call a moment.

Are they philosophers? I guess so,

But does it matter? G.E. Moore

Maintained we dream up theories

Incompatible with things we really know, a

Paradox which hardly seems peculiar to our breed.

Poets are worse, or alternately, better

At inhabiting the obviously untrue and

Hoisting flags of speculation in defiance of the real--

In a way that's the point, isn't it?

Whatever holds, whatever occupies the mind

And lingers, and takes flight?

Then from deep within the house

I heard the sound of something I'd forgotten:

Raindrops on the window and the thrashing

Noise the wind makes as it pulses through the trees.

It brought me back to what I meant to say

As time ran out, a mind inside an eggshell boat,

The elements arrayed against it:

Reason as a song, a specious

Music played between the movements of two dreams,

Both dark. I hear the rain.

The silence in the study is complete.

The sentence holds me in its song

Each time I utter it or mentally conceive it,

Calling from a primitive domain

Where time is like a moment

And the clocks stand silent in the chambers,

And it's raining, and I don't believe it.



For now the kingdom feels sufficient and complete,

And summer seems to flow through everything:

A girl slides by on roller blades,

The flags flap on the flagpoles, and across the street

The afternoon holds court at Gil's Cafe.

There is this sense of plenitude and peace

And of the presence of the world —

Wasps on the driveway, and purple flowers on the trees,

And a bicycle goes rolling down the hill;

And at length it starts to deepen and increase.

And even as it deepens something turns away,

As though the day were the reflection of a purer day

In which the summer's measures never ended.

The eye that seeks it fills the universe with shapes,

A fabulist, an inquisitor of space

Removed from life by dreams of something other than this life,

Distracted by the bare idea of heaven,

Suspended in the earthly heaven of this afternoon

As off the lake a light breeze blows

And all there is to see lies dormant in the sun.


The sun shines on the houses and the churches and the schools,

On restaurants and parks, on marriages and love affairs,

The playground with its monkey bars and slides,

The bench where someone sits and thinks about the future,

The accident in which a person's life abruptly ends.

The world is like the fiction of a face,

Which tries to hide the emptiness behind a smile

Yet seems so beautiful—insignificant,

And like everything on which the sunlight falls

Impermanent, but enough for a while.





In these I find my calling:

In the shower, in the mirror, in unconscious

Hours spent staring at a screen

At artifacts complete unto themselves.

I think of them as self-sufficient worlds

Where I can sojourn for a while,

Then wake to find the clouds dispersing

And the sidewalks steaming with the

Rain that must have fallen while I stayed inside.

The sun is shining, and the quiet

Doubts are answered with more doubts,

For as the years begin to mirror one another

And the diary in the brain implodes,

What filters through the theories on the page

Is a kind of settledness, an equilibrium

Between the life I have and what time seemed to hold—

These rooms, these poems, these ordinary streets

That spring to life each summer in an intricate construction

Blending failed hopes and present happiness—

Which from the outside seems like self-deception.


There is no end to these reflections,

To their measured music with its dying fall

Wherein the heart and what it seeks are reconciled.

I live them, and as though in gratitude

They shape my days, from morning with its sweetest smile

Until the hour when sleep blows out the candle.

Between, the present falls away,

And for a while the old romance resumes,

Familiar but unrecognized, an undiscovered place

Concealed within the confines of this room,

That seems at once a form of feeling and a state of grace

Prepared for me, written in my name

Against the time when time has finally merged

These commonplace surroundings with what lies behind the veil—

Leaving behind at least a version of the truth

Composed of what I felt and what I saw outside my window

On a summer morning; melding sound and sense,

A music and a mood, together in a hesitant embrace

That makes them equal at the end.


There may be nothing for a poem to change

But an atmosphere: conventional or strange,

Its meaning is enclosed by the perception

—Better, by the misperception—

Of what time held and what the future knew;

Which is to say this very moment.

And yet the promise of a distant

Purpose is what makes each moment new.

There may be nothing for the soul to say

In its defense, except to describe the way

It came to find itself at the impasse

Morning reveals in the glass—

The road that led away from home to here,

That began in wonderment and hope,

But that ended in the long slope

Down to loneliness and the fear of fear.

The casuistry is all in the event,

Contingent on what someone might have meant

Or might still mean. What feels most frightening

Is the thought that when the lightning

Has subsided, and the clearing sky

Appears at last above the stage

To mark the only end of age,

That God, that distant and unseeing eye,

Would see that none of this had ever been:

That none of it, apparent or unseen,

Was ever real, and all the private words,

Which seemed to fill the air like birds

Exploding from the brush, were merely sounds

Without significance or sense,

Inert and dead beneath the dense

Expanse of the earth in its impassive rounds.

There may be no rejoinder to that thought.

There may be nothing that one could have sought

That might have lent the search significance,

Or even a kind of coherence.

Perhaps. Yet closer to me than the grandeur

Of the vast and the uncreated

Is the calm of this belated

Moment in its transitory splendor.


Someone asked about the aura of regret

And disappointment that surrounds these poems,

About the private facts those feelings might conceal,

And what their source was in my life.

I said that none of it was personal,

That as lives go my own life was a settled one,

Comprising both successes and misfortunes, the successes

Not especially striking, the misfortunes small.

And yet the question is a real one,

And not for me alone, though certainly for me.

For even if, as Wittgenstein once claimed,

That while the facts may stay the same

And what is true of one is true of both,

The happy and unhappy man inhabit different worlds,

One still would want to know which world this is,

And how that other one could seem so close.

So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,

In the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself

Until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.

Perhaps the sadness is a way of seeming free,

Of denying what can change or disappear,

Of tearing free from circumstance,

As though the soul could only speak out from the

Safety of some private chamber in the air.

Let me try once more. I think the saddest moments

Are the ones that also seem most beautiful,

For the nature of a moment is to fade,

Leaving everything unaltered, and the landscape

Where the light fell as it was before.

And time makes poetry from what it takes away,

And the measure of experience

Is not that it be real, but that it last,

And what one knows is simply what one knew,

And what I want is simply what I had.

These are the premises that structure what I feel,

The axioms that govern my imagination,

And beneath them lies the fear—

Not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of growing old

Unchanged, of looking in the mirror

At a future that repeats itself ad infinitum.

It could be otherwise so easily.

The transience that lectures so insistently of loss

Could speak as clearly of an openness renewed,

A life made sweeter by its changing;

And the shadows of the past

Could seem a shade where one could linger for a while

Before returning to the world, and moving on.

The way would be the same in either case,

Extending for an unknown span of years

Experienced from two perspectives, a familiar course

Accessible to all, yet narrowing,

As the journey nears its end, to one.

The difference isn't in the details

Or the destination, but in how things feel along the road:

The secret of the quest lies all around me,

While what lurks below the surface is another story,

One of no more consequence or import than the last.

What matters isn't what one chances to believe,

But the force of one's attachments,

And instead of looking for an answer in a dream

Set aside the question, let the songs continue

Going through the motions of the days

And waking every morning to this single world,

Whether in regret, or in celebration.



Each day begins as yesterday began:

A cat in silhouette in the dim light

Of what the morning holds—

Breakfast and The New York Times, a man

Taking a shower, a poem taking flight

As a state of mind unfolds

So unpredictably.

Through the hot summer air

I walk to a building where

I give a lecture on philosophy

In the strict sense; then go home to the cat.

A narrow life; or put another way,

A life whose facts can all

Be written on a page, the narrow format

Of this tiny novel of a day,

Ulysses written small,

A diary so deep

Its rhythms seem unreal:

A solitary meal.

Some records or a movie. And then sleep.


At the ending of the remake of The Thing

Kurt Russell and one other guy

Are all that's left of what had been the crew

Of an Antarctic outpost. Some horrifying presence

—Some protean thing—establishes itself

Inside the person of an ordinary man

And then, without a warning, erupts in devastation.

The two survivors eye each other slowly,

Neither knowing whether one of them

Still holds the horror. "What do we do now?"

The second asks, and Russell says,

"Let's see what happens," and the movie ends.

"Horror" is too strong, but substitute the fear

I spoke about before, and the scene is apt.

I don't know, as no one really knows,

What might lie waiting in the years to come,

But sometimes when the question touches me I feel afraid—

Not of age, but an age that seems a prolongation of this afternoon,

That looks ahead, and looks instead into itself.

This is the fear that draws me back inside:

That this is all there is, that what I hold so easily

Will vanish soon, and nothing like it will be given me again.

The days will linger and the nights rehearse themselves

Until the secret of my life has finally emerged—

Not in devastation, but in a long decline

That leads at least as surely to a single end.

And then I turn away and see the sky

That soars above the streets of North Point North,

Reducing everyone to anonymity, an anonymity

In which I find a kind of possibility, a kind of freedom

As the world—the only world—rolls on its way,

Oblivious to anything I might say, or that might happen in a poem.

A poem can seize and hold a moment fast, yet it can

Limit what there is to feel, and stake a distance from the world.

The neighborhood around me wakes each day to lives

No different than my own, lives harboring the same ambitions

And regrets, but living on the humbler stuff of happiness.

The disappointments come and go; what stays

Is part of an abiding presence, human and serene.

The houses wait unquestioning in the light

Of an approaching summer evening, while a vast

Contentment answers from the air.

I think I know where this is going to end,

But still my pleasure is to wait—

Not wait, perhaps, for anything within,

But for what lies outside. Let's see what happens.


from Sally's Hair:



I have a perfect life. It isn't much,

But it's enough for me. It keeps me alive

And happy in a vague way: no disappointments

On the near horizon, no pangs of doubt;

Looking forward in anticipation, looking back

In satisfaction at the conclusion of each day.

I heed the promptings of my inner voice,

And what I hear is comforting, full of reassurance

For my own powers and innate superiority—the fake

Security of someone in the grip of a delusion,

In denial, climbing ever taller towers

Like a tiny tyrant looking on his little kingdom

With a secret smile, while all the while

Time lies in wait. And what feels ample now

Turns colorless and cold, and what seems beautiful

And strong becomes an object of indifference

Reaching out to no one, as later middle age

Turns old, and the strength is gone.

Right now the moments yield to me sweet

Feelings of contentment, but the human

Dies, and what I take for granted bears a name

To be forgotten soon, as the things I know

Turn into unfamiliar faces

In a strange room, leaving merely

A blank space, like a hole left in the wake

Of a perfect life, which closes over.



The apartment on Francis Avenue

We lived in for three years in graduate school

In the nicest—or maybe second nicest—part of Cambridge,

On the third floor of Joe and Annie's house

Just up the street from the Divinity School.

John Kenneth Galbraith lived next door;

Julia Child's Kitchen was across a backyard fence

I'd hang around trying to look hungry,

And emulating her we rented a meat locker at Savanor's,

Where I'd stop to pick up a pot roast or a steak

Before coming home to Jeepers waiting for me in the window.

Everything happened then, in two or three years

That seemed a lifetime at the time:

The War and SDS and music; the confusion in the streets

And Nixon; poetry and art and science, philosophy and immunology,

The dinners at Bill and Willy's loft in Soho—

Yet what still stays with me is the summer of 1973,

The summer before we moved to Milwaukee, with my dissertation done

And time to kill, suspended on the brink of real life.

I would read the first draft of ''Self-Portrait''

John had let me copy, and Gravity's Rainbow,

And every afternoon I'd ride my bike to Bob's house

Where I'd watch the hearings on TV. And on a Saturday in June,

With the living room awash in the late yellow light

That filtered through the western dormer window,

We watched, just out of curiosity, this horse I'd read about

—And what I knew about the Sport of Kings was nil—

Turn what till then had been an ordinary day

Into one as permanent as anything in sports or art or life,

As Secretariat came flying through the turn with the announcer crying

''He's all alone—he's moving like a tremendous machine,''

And Susan shouting ''Look at that horse! Look at that horse!''

The summer sort of dribbled away. We took a last trip to New York,

John and Rebecca stopped over on their way to somewhere,

James and Lisa too, whom I hadn't seen in years,

And then we packed our stuff and took the cat and drove away.

Nixon hung on for a while, and then—but that's history,

Real history, not this private kind that monitors the unimportant

For what changes, for what doesn't change. Here I am,

Living in Milwaukee twenty-nine years later.

Susan lives about a mile away, and just last Saturday

The latest wonder horse, War Emblem, stumbled in the Belmont Stakes.

What makes a life, if not the places and the things that make it up?

I know that I exist, but what about that place we lived? Is it still real?

—Of course it is. It just gets harder to see

As time goes by, but it's still all there. Last month in Rome

The first thing Lisa said was that I looked just like myself, but with white hair.

And there it is: look at the tiny strawberries and the

Flowers blooming in the garden of the house next door.

Look at John Dean, still testifying on that little screen, and Rogers,

Who died in May, still talking in our small blue dining room.

Look at Savanor's, the unkempt lawn, the mailbox by the back porch,

Jeepers waiting for me in the window. Look at that horse!




What I remember are the cinders and the starter's gun,

The lunging forward from a crouch, the power of acceleration

And the lengthening strides, the sense of isolation

And exhilaration as you pulled away, the glory at the tape.

I never really got it back after I pulled my thigh my sophomore year.

I still won races, lettered and was captain of the team,

But instead of breaking free there was a feeling of constraint,

Of being pretty good, but basically second-rate—

Which Vernus Ragsdale definitely was not. When he was eligible

(He was ineligible a lot) no one in the city could come close—

No one in the country pretty much, for this was California. We had our

Meet with Lincoln early in the spring, and he was cleared to run.

I was running the 220 (which I seldom ran) and in the outside lane,

With Ragsdale in lane one. The stretch, the set, the gun

And suddenly the speed came flowing back as I was flying through the turn

And all alone before I hit the tape with no one else in sight.

Friends said he looked as though he'd seen a ghost (a fleet white one).

The atmosphere of puzzlement and disbelief gave way to

Chaos and delirium when they announced the national record time

Of 21.1 and I stood stunned and silent in a short-lived daze—

Short-lived because the explanation rapidly emerged:

They'd put us in the quarter-mile staggers by mistake, to be made up

Around two turns, not one. I'd had a huge head start on

Everyone, on Ragsdale on the inside most of all. By the meet's end

Lincoln was so far ahead they didn't even bother to rerun the race,

And so we ran the relay, lost, and everyone went home—

Leaving me wistful and amused and brooding on the memory

Of my moment in what was now a slowly setting sun.

There's a story that I read my freshman year in college

Called ''The Eighty Yard Run,'' by Irwin Shaw. It's about a football player

Who makes a perfect run one afternoon and feels a heightened sense of

Possibility and life: the warmth of flannel on his skin, the three cold drinks of


The first kiss of the woman who is going to be his wife. All lies before him,

Only it never measures up: gradually at first, and then more steeply,

It's a long decline from there, until he finds himself years later on that

Football field again, a traveling salesman selling cut-rate suits.

I'm not immune to sentimental cautionary tales: the opening door

That turns out to have long been shut; the promissory moment,

Savored at the time, with which the present only pales by comparison,

That tinctures what comes later with regret. I'm safe from that—

Track wasn't everything, but even minor triumphs

Take on mythical proportions in our lives. Yet since my heightened moment

Was a bogus one, I can't look back on it with disappointment

At the way my life has gone since then. Perhaps all public victories

Are in some sense undeserved, constructed out of luck

Or friends or how you happened to feel that day. But mine took off its mask

Almost as soon as it was over, long before it had the chance

To seem to settle into fact. I'm human though: sometimes I like to

Fantasize that it had all been true, or had been taken to be true—

The first of an unbroken string of triumphs stretching through to college,

Real life, and right down to today. I ran that race in 1962,

The year ''The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'' was released,

A film about a man whose whole career was built upon a lie.

James Stewart thinks he killed—and everyone believes he killed—

Lee Marvin, the eponymous bad guy, although he never actually killed anyone

at all:

John Wayne had shadowed him and fired the fatal shot,

Yet governor, senator, ambassador, and senator again

All followed on his reputation. He tries at last to set the record straight

—The movie's mostly one long flashback of what happened—

But the editor to whom he tells the real story throws away his notes:

''When the legend becomes fact,'' he orders, ''print the legend,''

As the music soars and draws the veil upon the myth of the Old West.

Print the legend: I'd like to think that's what my story was,

Since for a moment everyone believed that it was true—

But then it wasn't anymore. Yet it's my pleasure to pretend

It could have been: when Willis Bouchey at the end affirms the fairy tale

With ''Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,''

I hear in my imagination ''who beat Vernus Ragsdale.''



. . . a divinity that shapes our ends.

It was math and physics all the way,

The subjects of the life that I'd designed

In high school, that carried me away,

A callow California youth with Eastern dreams,

From home. The thought of something abstract

And aloof, penetrating to the heart of the unknown

And consigning everything else to the realm of unreality—

I didn't believe it then and don't believe it now,

Yet something in the fantasy felt so complete,

So like the lyrics of a song that spoke to me alone,

I bought it. How quaint that vision seems now

And mundane the truth: instead of paradox and mystery

And heroic flights of speculation that came true,

You had to start with classical mechanics and a lab;

Instead of number theory and the satisfactions

Of the private proof, a class of prodigies manqué

Made jokes in mathematics that I didn't get.

And there were problems with the style,

The attitudes, the clothes, for this was 1963,

The future waiting in the wings and practically on stage—

The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Ali, Cassius Clay,

Who from the distance of today look like cliches of history,

But at the time seemed more like strangers in the

Opening pages of a story I was learning how to write.

The new year brought Ed Sullivan and track,

But what with winter and the little indoor track

My times were never close to what I'd run in high school.

I started hanging out across the hall—they seemed, I guess,

More ''Eastern'' than my roommates, closer to the picture of myself

That called me in the first place: Norwich, Vermont,

The Main Line and St. George's, and (I guess it figured)

A prospective civil engineer. And then there was New York:

I'd been in once or twice, though not for dinner,

So when James suggested Richard Burton's Hamlet

At the Lunt-Fontanne I fell right in. We went to dinner

At a place on Forty-sixth Street called Del Pezzo,

Up some steps and with bay windows and a chandelier.

We ordered saltimbocca and drank Soave Bolla

As I listened, Ripley-like, to recollections of three hour

Lunches at a restaurant on a beach somewhere near Rome.

And then the lights went down, and when at last

The ghost had vanished Burton strode upon the stage.

It was, I think, the first ''bare'' Hamlet—Hamlet

In a turtleneck, the rest in street clothes, virtually no scenery—

Leaving nothing but the structure of the play, and voices,

Burton's resonant and strong yet trembling on the brink of

Breaking, as for hours, from the first I know not seems until

The rest is silence, he compelled the stage. And then,

The bodies everywhere, the theater went black and we went

Somewhere for a drink and took the last bus home—

For by then I'd come to think of it as home.

By next fall everything had changed. My roommates

Were the former guys across the hall, sans engineer.

In San Diego Mr. Weisbrod from the science fair

Was appalled, as math and physics disappeared,

Supplanted by philosophy. A letter from the track coach

Lay unanswered by an ashtray, and I took a course

From Carlos Baker, Hemingway's biographer, in which I

First read modern poetry—''The Waste Land,'' Moore, The Cantos,

Frost and Yeats—and dreamed that I might do that too.

I wish I knew what happened. Was the change

The outward resolution of some inner struggle

Going on since childhood, or just a symptom of the times?

So much of what we're pleased to call our lives

Is random, yet we take them at face value,

Linking up the dots. Feeling out of it one evening,

Staring at our Trenton junk store chandelier,

I started a pastiche of Frost (''In the mists of the fall . . .'')

And even tried to write a play about a deadly clock

Styled on Edward Albee's now (alas) forgotten Tiny Alice,

The object of another Broadway interlude, this time a matinee.

Hamlet was forgotten. Pound and Eliot gave way

To Charles Olson and the dogmas of projective verse,

To Robert Duncan and the egotistical sublime,

And finally to ''the Poets of the New York School,''

Whose easy freedom and deflationary seriousness combined

To generate what seemed to me a tangible and abstract beauty

As meanwhile, in parallel, my picture of myself evolved

From California science whiz into impeccable habitué

Of a Fitzgerald fantasy. It became a kind of hobby:

Self-invention, the attempt to realize some juvenile ideal

I cringe to think of now, playing back and forth

Between the guise of the artiste and of the silly little snob,

A pose I like to think of as redeemed (just barely) by a

Certain underlying earnestness. Perhaps I'm being too harsh—

I was serious about the path I'd chosen, one I've

Followed now for forty years. What life worth living

Isn't shaky at the outset, given to exaggerations and false starts

Before it finds its way? Those ludicrous personae were

A passing phase, and by my senior year whatever they'd concealed

Had finally settled into second nature. I'd go on,

But let me leave it there for now. My life after college

(Cf. ''16A'' and ''Falling Water'') more or less continued on the

Course I'd set there, mixing poetry and philosophy

In roughly equal parts, vocation and career. My days

Are all about the same: some language, thought and feeling

And the boredom of the nearly empty day, calling on my

Memory and imagination to compel the hours, from morning

Through the doldrums of the afternoon and into early

Evening, sitting here alone and staring at a page.

You're probably wondering what provoked all this.

For years I'd heard they'd filmed a performance of the play,

To be shown just once and then (supposedly) destroyed.

Browsing on the web about a month ago I entered,

Out of curiosity, ''Richard Burton's Hamlet'' into Google.

Up it came, available from Amazon on DVD (apparently

Two copies had survived). I ordered it immediately,

Went out and bought a player (plus a new TV) and watched it

Friday evening, calling up the ghosts of forty years ago.

I'd misremembered one or two details—it was a V-neck,

Not a turtleneck, at least that night—but Burton was

As I'd remembered him, incredible, his powers at their peak,

Just after Antony and Arthur and before the roles

Of Beckett, Reverend Shannon, Alec Lemas, George;

Before the dissolution and decline and early death.

Some nights I feel haunted by the ghost of mathematics,

Wondering what killed it off. I think my life began to change

Just after that performance in New York. Could that have been the

Catalyst—a life of words created by a play about a character

Whose whole reality is words? It's nice to speculate,

And yet it's just too facile, for the truth was much more

Gradual and difficult to see, if there to see at all.

We like to think they're up to us, our lives, but by the time we

Glimpse the possibility of changing it's already happened,

Governed by, in Larkin's phrase, what something hidden from us chose

And which, for all we know, might just as well have been the stars.

That adolescent image of myself dissolved, to be replaced by—

By what? I doubt those pictures we create are ever true—

Isn't that the moral to be drawn from this most human of the plays?

It isn't merely the ability to choose, but agency itself—

The thought that we're in charge, and that tomorrow mirrors our

Designs—that lies in ruins on the stage. It isn't just the

Life of a particular young man, but something like the very

Image of the human that dissolves into a mindless anonymity,

Dick Diver disappearing at the end of Tender Is the Night

Into the little towns of upper New York State.

I know of course I'm overacting. Burton did it too,

Yet left a residue of truth, and watching him last Friday

I began to realize there'd been no real change,

But just a surface alteration. Sometimes I wonder if this

Isn't just my high school vision in disguise, a naive

Fantasy of knowledge that survived instead as art—

Aloof, couched in the language of abstraction, flirting

Now and then with the unknown, pushing everything else aside.

This place that I've created has the weight and feel of home,

And yet there's nothing tangible to see. And so I

Bide my time, living in a poem whose backdrop

Is the wilderness of science, an impersonal universe

Where no one's waiting and our aspirations end.

Take up the bodies, for the rest is silence.



It's like living in a light bulb, with the leaves

Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass

Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy

Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.

I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York

And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,

She asked, "Is this the bus to Princeton?"—which it was.

"Do you know Geoffrey Love?" I said I did. She had the blondest hair,

Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.

She liked Ayn Rand. We went down to the Village for a drink,

Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we

Walked around and found a cheap hotel I hadn't enough money for

And fooled around on its dilapidated couch. An early morning bus

(She'd come to see her brother), dinner plans and missed connections

And a message on his door about the Jersey shore. Next day

A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: "Are you," she asked,


"A hedonist?" I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.

Sally—Sally Roche. She called that night from Florida,

And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now,

Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago

And I'm too old to be surprised again. The days are open,

Life conceals no depths, no mysteries, the sky is everywhere,


The leaves are all ablaze with light, the blond light

Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally's hair.


            from Ninety-fifth Street:



Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming, he is so strange; it is as if he had a

morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose . . .


—Marianne Moore to William Carlos Williams


Another day, which is usually how they come:

A cat at the foot of the bed, noncommittal

In its blankness of mind, with the morning light

Slowly filling the room, and fragmentary

Memories of last night's video and phone calls.

It is a feeling of sufficiency, one menaced

By the fear of some vague lack, of a simplicity

Of self, a self without a soul, the nagging fear

Of being someone to whom nothing ever happens.

Thus the fantasy of the narrative behind the story,

Of the half-concealed life that lies beneath

The ordinary one, made up of ordinary mornings

More alike in how they feel than what they say.

They seem like luxuries of consciousness,

Like second thoughts that complicate the time

One simply wastes. And why not? Mere being

Is supposed to be enough, without the intricate

Evasions of a mystery or off-stage tragedy.

Evenings follow on the afternoons, lingering in

The living room and listening to the stereo

While Peggy Lee sings ''Is That All There Is?''

Amid the morning papers and the usual

Ghosts keeping you company, but just for a while.

The true soul is the one that flickers in the eyes

Of an animal, like a cat that lifts its head and yawns

And stares at you, and then goes back to sleep.



It's a simple question, and I even know what it is

Until you ask me, as Augustine said of time.

It's either too commonplace or too rare, an esoteric condition

You could spend your life attaining, or a waste of time.

Plato thought of it as a kind of balance in the soul

Between its three parts (though he called it something else),

And Freud thought along the same lines, in his role

As the first happiness therapist, only called it unhappiness

Of the ordinary kind. Wittgenstein said the happy

And unhappy man inhabit two completely different worlds,

While Mill equated it with pleasures of all kinds,

From high to low, from the pleasure mirrored in a young girl's

Smile to the consolations of the scholar in his cave.

I'd go on, but you can see the problem: a question posed

A long time ago, to which different people gave

Such different answers, answers concerning different things.

''What is X anyway?'' I know the sensible course

Would be to drop those kinds of questions, and just stumble along

Whatever road you'd taken, taking the moments as they come.

Yet some of them have been a part of me for so long—

That race, the picnic at the Institute, the night of the science fair.

Were all those moments the fulfillment of some plan

Or deep attachment, however trivial, or of some abiding care?

Is that what it is—the feeling of a life brought to fruition

On its own terms, whatever terms it chose?

It sounds free, and yet it's rife with opportunities for self-delusion

And bad faith, like the pool of water out of sunlight in the rose-garden,

An epiphany that seems, in retrospect, like a studied illusion.

Was Ariel happy that he'd written all those poems?

He said so, yet beneath them you can almost sense the fear

Of having lived a skeleton's life, in a world of bones.

Perhaps it's best to stay at home and read,

Instead of risking everything for what in the end

Might be of no more significance than a fascinating hobby,

Like collecting bottle-caps, or building ships in bottles.

There are smaller choices to be made: hanging about the lobby

Of a W Hotel vs. watching the Great Downer Avenue Bike Race

From Dave's front porch. Why do we feel the need to create ourselves

Through what we choose, instead of simply sinking without a trace

Into the slow stream of time? The evening light is lovely

On the living room wall, with a gentle touch of green

Reflected from the trees outside. I realize it feels like a letdown

To be told that this is all it comes to—a pleasant apartment

On a shady street a few miles north of downtown,

And yet it isn't all that bad: it offers concrete satisfactions

In lieu of whatever happiness might be; and though I worry that it's

Something I've backed into, at least it's free from the distractions

Of the future, and seems fine for now. As for a deeper kind

Of happiness, if there is such a thing, I'll take a rain check.

We could go shopping for those dishes, try out the new

Pancake House around the corner, or grill something on the deck

And watch a movie. I guess that's what we should do.



. . . hope would be hope for the wrong thing

—T.S. Eliot

Instead of the usual welcoming sign to greet you

There's the brute statement: This is Lagos.

If you make it to the island—if you make your way

Across the bridge and past the floating slums

And sawmills and the steaming garbage dumps, the auto yards

Still burning with spilled fuel and to your final destination

At the end of a long tracking shot, all of it on fire—

You come face to face with hell: the pandemonium

Of history's ultimate bazaar, a breathing mass

Whose cells are stalls crammed full of spare parts,

Chains, detergents, DVDs; where a continuous cacophony

Of yells and radios and motorcycles clogs the air.

They arrive from everywhere, attracted by the promise

Of mere possibility, by the longing for a different kind of day

Here in the city of scams, by a hope that quickly comes to nothing.

To some it's a new paradigm, ''an announcement of the future''

Where disorder leads to unexpected patterns, unimagined opportunities

That mutate, blossom and evolve. To others it's the face of despair.

These are the parameters of life, a life doled out in quarters,

In the new, postmodern state of nature: garbage and ground plastic

And no place to shit or sleep; machetes, guns and e-mails

Sent around the world from internet cafes; violence and chaos

And a self-effacing sprawl that simply makes no sense

When seen from ground zero, yet exhibits an abstract beauty

When seen from the air— which is to say, not seen at all.

Across the ocean and a century away a culture died.

The facts behind the Crow's whole way of life—the sense

Of who and what they were, their forms of excellence and bravery

And honor—all dissolved, and their hearts ''fell to the ground,

And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened''

(Plenty Coups), meaning nothing they could do made any sense,

Beyond the fact of biological survival. It's easy to forget

How much of ordinary life, of what we value, long for and recall—

Ambition, admiration, even poetry—rests on things we take for granted,

And how fragile those things are. ''I am trying to live a life I do not understand,''

A woman said, when the buffalo and the coups they underwrote were gone.

They could have tried to cope. Instead, they found their solace

In an indeterminate hope, a hope for a future they couldn't yet imagine,

Where their ways of life might somehow reemerge in forms

Of which they couldn't yet conceive, or even begin to understand.

It was a dream of a different life, a life beyond the reservation

Without any tangible location, predicated on a new idea of the good

With no idea of what it was, or what achieving it might mean—

Like listening to a song with no sound, or drawing an imaginary line

In the imaginary sand in an imaginary world without boundaries.

It feels compelling, and I even think it's true. But these are things

I've only read about in magazines and book reviews, and not experienced,

Which was Plato's point—that poets don't know what they talk about.

It doesn't matter though, for most of what we think of as our lives

Is lived in the imagination, like the Crow's inchoate hope, or the fantasies

Of those who leave a village in the country for the city in the smoke.

And when I look in my imagination for the future, it isn't hope and restoration

That I find but smouldering tires and con men in a world of megacities

And oil fields, where too much has been annexed to be restored.

I have the luxury of an individual life that has its own trajectory and scope

When taken on its terms—the terms I chose—however unimportant it might


From the vantage point of history or the future. What scares me is the thought

That in a world that isn't far away this quaint ideal of the personal

Is going to disappear, dissolving in those vast, impersonal calculations

Through which money, the ultimate abstraction, renders each life meaningless,

By rendering the forms of life that make it seem significant impossible.

Face me I face you: packed into rooms with concrete beds

And not a trace of privacy, subsisting on contaminated water, luck

And palm-wine gin, with lungs scarred from the burning air,

These are the urban destitute, the victims of a gospel of prosperity

Untouched by irony or nostalgia—for how can you discover

What you haven't felt, or feel the loss of things you've never known?

I write because I can: talking to myself, composing poems

And wondering what you'll make of them; shoring them

Against the day our minor ways of life have finally disappeared

And we're not even ghosts. Meanwhile life regresses

Towards the future, death by death. You to whom I write,

Or wish that I could write long after my own death,

When it's too late to talk to you about the world you live in,

This is the world you live in: this is Lagos.



Words can bang around in your head

Forever, if you let them and you give them room.

I used to love poetry, and mostly I still do,

Though sometimes ''I, too, dislike it.'' There must be

Something real beyond the fiddle and perfunctory

Consolations and the quarrels—as of course

There is, though what it is is difficult to say.

The salt is on the briar rose, the fog is in the fir trees.

I didn't know what it was, and I don't know now,

But it was what I started out to do, and now, a lifetime later,

All I've really done. The Opening of the Field,

Roots and Branches, Rivers and Mountains: I sat in my room

Alone, their fragments shored against the ruin or revelation

That was sure to come, breathing in their secret atmosphere,

Repeating them until they almost seemed my own.

We like to think our lives are what they study to become,

And yet so much of life is waiting, waiting on a whim.

So much of what we are is sheer coincidence,

Like a sentence whose significance is retrospective,

Made up out of elementary particles that are in some sense

Simply sounds, like syllables that finally settle into place.

You probably think that this is a poem about poetry

(And obviously it is), yet its real subject is time,

For that's what poetry is—a way to live through time

And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back.


A paneled dining room in Holder Hall. Stage right, enter twit:

''Mr. Ashbery, I'm your biggest campus fan.'' We hit it off

And talked about ''The Skaters'' and my preference for ''Clepsydra''

Vs. ''Fragment.'' Later on that night John asked me to a party in New York,

And Saturday, after dinner and a panel on the artist's role as something

(And a party), driving Lewis's Austin-Healey through the rain

I sealed our friendship with an accident. The party was on Broadway,

An apartment (white of course, with paintings) just downstairs

From Frank O'Hara's, who finally wandered down. I talked to him

A little about Love Poems (Tentative Title), which pleased him,

And quoted a line from ''Poem'' about the rain, which seemed to please him too.

The party ended, John and I went off to Max's, ordered steaks

And talked about our mothers. All that talking!—poems and paintings,

Parents, all those parties, and the age of manifestos still to come!

I started coming to New York for lunch. We'd meet at Art News,

Walk to Fifty-sixth street to Larré's, a restaurant filled with French expatriates,

Have martinis and the pre-fixe for $2.50 (!), drink rosé de provence

And talk (of course) about Genet and James and words like ''Coca-Cola.''

It was an afternoon in May when John brought up a play

That he and Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara—Holy Trinity!

(Batman was in vogue)—had started years ago and never finished.

There was a dictator named Edgar and some penicillin,

But that's all I remember. They hadn't actually been together

In years, but planned to finish it that night at John's new apartment

On Ninety-fifth street, and he said to come by for a drink

Before they ate and got to work. It was a New York dream

Come true: a brownstone floor-through, white and full of paintings

(Naturally), ''with a good library and record collection.''

John had procured a huge steak, and as I helped him set the table

The doorbell rang and Frank O'Hara, fresh from the museum

And svelte in a hound's tooth sports coat entered, followed shortly

By ''excitement-prone Kenneth Koch'' in somber gray,

And I was one with my immortals. In the small mythologies

We make up out of memories and the flow of time

A few moments remain frozen, though the feel of them is lost,

The feel of talk. It ranged from puns to gossip, always coming back

To poems and poets. Frank was fiercely loyal to young poets

(Joe Ceravolo's name came up I think), and when I mentioned Lewis

In a way that must have sounded catty, he leapt to his defense,

Leaving me to backtrack in embarrassment and have another drink,

Which is what everyone had. I think you see where it was going:

Conversation drifting into dinner, then I stayed for dinner

And everyone forgot about the play, which was never finished

(Though I think I've seen a fragment of it somewhere). I see a table

In a cone of light, but there's no sound except for Kenneth's

Deadpan ''Love to see a boy eat'' as I speared a piece of steak;

And then the only voice I'm sure I hear is mine,

As those moments that had once seemed singular and clear

Dissolve into a ''general mess of imprecision of feeling''

And images, augmented by line breaks. There were phone calls,

Other people arrived, the narrative of the night dissolved

And finally everyone went home. School and spring wound down.

The semester ended, then the weekend that I wrote about in ''Sally's Hair''

Arrived and went, and then a late-night cruise around Manhattan for a rich


Parents' anniversary bash, followed by an upper east-side preppie bar

That left me looking for a place to crash, and so I rang John's bell at 2 a.m.

And failed (thank God) to rouse him, caught a plane to San Diego

The next day, worked at my summer job and worked on poems

And started reading Proust, and got a card one afternoon

From Peter Schjeldahl telling me that Frank O'Hara had been killed.

Ninety-fifth street soldiered on for several years.

I remember a cocktail party (the symposium of those days),

Followed by dinner just around the corner at Elaine's,

Pre-Woody Allen. It was there I learned of RFK's assassination

When I woke up on the daybed in the living room, and where

John told me getting married would ruin me as a poet

(I don't know why—most of his friends were married), a judgement

He revised when he met Susan and inscribed The Double Dream of Spring

''If this is all we need fear from spinach, then I don't mind so much''

(Which was probably premature—watering his plants one day

She soaked his landlord, Giorgio Cavallon, dozing in the garden below).

It was where Peter Delacorte late one night recited an entire side

Of a Firesign Theatre album from memory, and set John on that path,

To his friends' subsequent dismay, and where he blessed me with his extra copy

Of The Poems, and next day had second thoughts (though I kept it anyway).

Sometimes a vague, amorphous stretch of years assumes a shape,

And then becomes an age, and then a golden age alive with possibilities,

When change was in the air and you could wander through its streets

As though through Florence and the Renaissance. I know it sounds ridiculous,

But that's the way life flows: in stages that take form in retrospect,

When all the momentary things that occupy the mind from day to day

Have vanished into time, and something takes their place that wasn't there,

A sense of freedom—one which gradually slipped away. The center

Of the conversation moved downtown, the Renaissance gave way to mannerism

As the junior faculty took charge, leaving the emeriti alone and out of it

Of course, lying on the fringes, happily awake; but for the rest

The laws proscribing what you couldn't do were clear. I got so tired

Of writing all those New York poems (though by then I'd moved to Boston—

To Siena, you might say) that led to nowhere but the next one,

So I started writing poems about whatever moved me: what it's like

To be alive within a world that holds no place for you, yet seems so beautiful;

The feeling of the future, and its disappointments; the trajectory of a life,

That always brought me back to time and memory (I'd finished Proust by then),

And brings me back to this. John finally moved downtown himself,

Into a two-story apartment at Twenty-fifth and Tenth, with a spiral staircase

Leading to a library, the locus of the incident of Susan, Alydar and John

And the pitcher of water (I'll draw a veil over it), and Jimmy Schuyler sighing

''It's so beautiful,'' as Bernadette Peters sang ''Raining in My Heart'' from Dames

at Sea.

The poetry still continued—mine and everyone's. I'd added Jimmy

To my pantheon (as you've probably noticed), but the night in nineteen sixty-six

Seemed more and more remote: I never saw Kenneth anymore,

And there were new epicenters, with new casts of characters, like Madoo,

Bob Dash's garden in Sagaponack, and Bill and Willy's loft in Soho.

John moved again, to Twenty-second street, and Susan and I moved to


Where our son was born. I stopped coming to New York, and writing poems,

For several years, while I tried to dream enough philosophy for tenure.

One afternoon in May I found myself at Ninth and Twenty-second,

And as though on cue two people whom I hadn't seen in years—David Kalstone,

Darragh Park—just happened by, and then I took a taxi down to Soho

To the loft, and then a gallery to hear Joe Brainard read from ''I Remember,''

Back to John's and out to dinner—as though I'd never been away,

Though it was all too clear I had. Poems were in the air, but theory too,

And members of the thought police department (who must have also gotten


Turned up everywhere, with arguments that poetry was called upon to prove.

It mattered, but in a different way, as though it floated free from poems

And wasn't quite the point. I kept on coming back, as I still do.

Half my life was still to come, and yet the rest was mostly personal:

I got divorced, and Willy killed himself, and here I am now, ready to retire.

There was an obituary in the Times last week for Michael Goldberg,

A painter you'll recall from Frank O'Hara's poems (''Why I Am Not a Painter,''

''Ode to Michael Goldberg ('s Birth and Other Births)''). I didn't know him,

But a few months after the soiree on Ninety-fifth street I was at a party

In his studio on the Bowery, which was still his studio when he died.

The New York art world demimonde was there, including nearly everyone

Who's turned up in this poem. I remember staring at a guy who

Looked like something from the Black Lagoon, dancing with a gorgeous

Woman half his age. That's my New York: an island dream

Of personalities and evenings, nights where poetry was second nature

And their lives flowed through it and around it as it gave them life.

O brave new world (now old) that had such people in't!


''The tiresome old man is telling us his life story.''

I guess I am, but that's what poets do—not always

Quite as obviously as this, and usually more by indirection

And omission, but beneath the poetry lies the singular reality

And unreality of an individual life. I see it as a long,

Illuminated tunnel, lined with windows giving on the scenes outside—

A city and a countryside, some dormitory rooms, that night

On Ninety-fifth street forty years ago. As life goes on

You start to get increasingly distracted by your own reflection

And the darkness gradually becoming visible at the end.

I try not to look too far ahead, but just to stay here—

Quick now, here, now, always—only something pulls me

Back (as they say) to the day, when poems were more like secrets,

With their own vernacular, and you could tell your friends

By who and what they read. And now John's practically become

A national treasure, and whenever I look up I think I see him

Floating in the sky like the Cheshire Cat. I don't know

What to make of it, but it makes me happy—like seeing Kenneth

Just before he died (''I'm going west John, I'm going west'')

In his apartment on a side street near Columbia, or remembering

Once again that warm spring night in nineteen sixty-six.

I like to think of them together once again, at the cocktail party

At the end of the mind, where I could blunder in and ruin it one last time.

Meanwhile, on a hillside in the driftless region to the west,

A few miles from the small town where The Straight Story ends,

I'm building a house on a meadow, if I'm permitted to return,

Behind a screen of trees above a lower meadow, with some apple trees

In which the fog collects on autumn afternoons, and a vista

Of an upland pasture without heaviness. I see myself

Sitting on the deck and sipping a martini, as I used to at Larré's,

In a future that feels almost like a past I'm positive is there—

But where? I think my life is still all conversation,

Only now it's with myself. I can see it continuing forever,

Even in my absence, as I close the windows and turn off the lights

And it begins to rain. And then we're there together

In the house on the meadow, waiting for whatever's left to come

In what's become the near future—two versions of myself

And of the people that we knew, each one an other

To the other, yet both indelibly there: the twit of twenty

And the aging child of sixty-two, still separate

And searching in the night, listening through the night

To the noise of the rain and memories of rain

And evenings when we'd wander out into the Renaissance,

When I could see you and talk to you and it could still change;

And still there in the morning when the rain has stopped,

And the apples are all getting tinted in the cool light.




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Contributors' Notes

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John Koethe generously shares 24 poems from seven books with the readers of Innisfree:

(Columbia University Press, 1973)
winner of the Frank O'Hara Award for Poetry

Tiny Figures in Snow



The Late Wisconsin Spring (Princeton University Press, 1984)

The Late Wisconsin Spring

Partial Clearance

In the Park


Falling Water (HarperCollins, 1997) winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

The Secret Amplitude

Songs My Mother Taught Me

Falling Water

The Constructor
(HarperCollins, 1999)

Threnody for Two Voices

What the Stars Meant

The Constructor

North Point North (HarperCollins, 2002)

The Proximate Shore

Moore’s Paradox

Gil’s Café

North Point North


Sally’s Hair (HarperCollins, 2006)

The Perfect Life


Sally’s Hair




Ninety-fifth Street (HarperCollins, 2009)


On Happiness

This is Lagos

Ninety-fifth Street














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