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MIDLIFE

Poetry Collections from the 1970s and 1980s

THE POURING OF BRONZE

The children have come, the cats and dog and I,
and Maiesta, wiping compost from her hands—moving
as through the ancient patterns of an awkward dance
to another casting of bronze.
And he, laughing
through that grimace of contorted scars, throws salt
into the crucible of fire and almost shouts the fire
is hot enough, the wax all lost.
I find
a crouching place in the corner and conjure words
for the empty form his damaged eye has seen.

Beyond the glass the sun has slipped away
behind gray pines and a stone mill; it fades
and his laughter fades as fire and crucible of light
prepare to give shape to midnight-fingered wax.

We, not knowing what form that wax had been given,
what hollow has been left in the mold, are waiting to see
what life the fire will take, what birth, what pain
will be cut from the rigid womb.
The cats are restless,
exploring random piles of iron, and the dog
pushes his nose at my thigh.

Maiesta holds the tongs,
and children wait, as they seldom do, in silence: 
it is time for the pouring of bronze. His face, streaked
with its skin of fire, leers like some obscene priest
over his unearthly chalice, and his hands, encased
like flappers in their gloves, lift the raging crucible
from blue flame. He holds it a moment glowing
as a bell of fire.
Even my silent words
are at last dispelled and the curious cats are still.

Small flames dance from the volcanic heart,
and fire, like a white light, is tipped to the mold,
sparks hiss upward and cool in air,
bronze settles with the clarity of crimson glass
to stillness.

Slowly my words return from their deep
solitude beyond the protected woods of this foundry
to the dark smell of hot metal.
The cats
have disappeared, the dog scratches at the door,
the children have returned to their ordinary mysteries,
and I rise awkwardly to stretch the exhausted muscles
of back and legs.

As metal reaches toward hardness
with more sureness than ever spirit gave form to body,
we will drink her coffee and speak of other things
though our minds will hover over the mold, will sear
an imaginary finger with a touch of the sprue,
will experience again the founding of a shape we have not
yet seen.

What absurdity, I think, as he wipes the sweat
from his face, what rite have we lived here again,
what high ceremony of the damned has almost saved
these last fragments of our nerves?

In May, when trumpets
were cleansed for worship, on a raised hearth, in another
time, outside the walls of another city,
when heat from foundries was not separate from growth
of gardens, families and priests gathered together
in the ritual of spring: violence of time and violence
of the unredeemed flesh resolved in the cadence of a dance.

PLAYTHING OF THE PRIESTS

This being a god has become a tiresome joke.
The annual ritual was repeated again last week,
and for several days while priests and old women
shook dust from curtains and scrubbed the floors
I hid in the cellar, trying to read by a sputtering candle,
eating surreptitious cheese and stale bread
brought hastily by Maiesta beneath her apron.
When the ceremonies were over and that lot had cleared out,
I came up to find they had left soot on the steps
and another basket of stinking fish in the pantry.

There've been a number of houses
outside the walls of different cities,
great estates, a house of columns or polished squares of stone,
plenty of room for gardens, and a forge,
with a great huge stone hollow roaring with fire,
when I could bother to keep it lit.
But outside the walls of the city.

Except at the beginning. You may remember the place,
a high brave town, facing the sea.
At night you could hear angry waves quarreling with stones
at the foot of the cliff, and watchers at the seawall
could look down and see the moon in a thousand pieces.
It was as if the battlements had grown
as a natural outcropping of the land.

I had returned with them from an eastern expedition;
they needed metal for guns and fire to displace the fog.
They were young and I thought it a good place to settle.
There was no field outside the walls for a house;
they found me quarters down a narrow alley, within the gates;
all evening I heard soldiers on duty cursing their luck
or plotting interminable revenges upon the officer in charge.
At first the rituals were simple. They needed my skills
and repaid the lessons, quickly, without fuss,
beyond a casual bow and a few odd words for a countersign.

The city prospered in silk and enmity,
the wars came, as they always do, overland, through the desert,
and through the plunging waves at the bottom of the cliff.
The furnace fires became hotter as emissaries from the army
fed them with the furnishables of the town.

The ending is the usual one: the city consumed itself in fire
as the enemy perished on the boulders of sea and sand.

The next post I accepted contained a clause
that stipulated a house beyond the walls. Another time
I insisted only bare-foot priests and pretty virgins
enter at the driveway gates.
And so the little things were built into a habit,
with song and dancing and the ceremonial feast
that kept us in supplies from season to season.

And now that I'm old and slightly lame,
my face begrimed from years of fire,
I find it unpropitious to appear
before the priests or lovely girls.

Pardon the doggerel, but the vaudeville scene becomes
a cage to house the yapping dogs of an emperor.

Do you remember that spring festival
when you arrived out of breath, exhausted by the extension
of your own strength, when you sat in the corner
and watched the choreography of creation
and listened to the blowing of trumpets?
Afterwards we were silent over coffee,
and I heard you typing in your room all night.
For there were good times when the hand
would move with absolute assurance over a head of bronze
or the eye would blink in astonishment
when we stood back to see what had come from the mold.
Even the ritual mumbling had its place, though made of words,
and the quiet times were richer by memory of the dance.

And then the dance became a big production,
and then a chore.

I've chanted myself hoarse.

But in the night,
when the city is almost quiet and a wind blows in from the sea,
and here, within the shadow of the wall, I see
the last flickering from the furnace
and hear the falling hiss of embers,
then sometimes I begin to feel again the rising land,
the outcroppings of stone in the mountains of my youth,
the great fire in the pit of the earth.

Perhaps it is time to move on, with another name,
another dream of building and pleasure,
along another path among men on islands
where the rhythm of the sun and dance are not forgotten.

I sometimes dream of that, alone or with my son,
a casual tinker on the vagrant trail,
accepting the small commissions of the great,
small castings of bronze or a new barn for the cows,
removed from all this ceremonial exhaustion of time.

Except as I am made, I shall not move,
except as you repeat the words and rhythms of these lines,
I shall remain a piece of restless statuary
for all those empty mouthings of the town.

FOREVER BECOMING A TREE

I know that I must touch you with these words
across the curved boundaries of space,
only I do not know what it is I would say.
Sounds in the air or scratchings across a clay tablet,
the letters or syllables of speech
have spilled across the scarred surface of our lives
like the scattering drops from a burst bubble.

I know that somewhere, there, through time
and across a space we can no longer measure
either in miles or the silences between friends,
you are wandering quietly among the geraniums,
pushing at the thyme, waiting, always waiting.

Your ears are listening for music to repeat again,
there, as the cello echoes in twisted leaves of a willow
or a flute trembles high among the firs.

I shall be forever sitting here
as I am forever becoming a tree,
roots settling into earth,
arms reaching across these stones.
And memory will be the memory of rain and summer.
And hope will be for red leaves on dogwoods
as the year twists again into shadows.

In the days when we were young,
when Perseus received the rule of power,
there across the stretching sand
we saw the purple cliffs,
we listened to a voice that said
'You must make the mountains disappear.'

I know what voices rise with the wind
across your rocky cliffs and through bristlecones
like the persistent memory of a dream
that will not step out of the dark into light.
They whisper at the ear from behind that row of books,
out of dusty curtains that cannot close the rising sun,
out of the very earth that breaks warm through your fingers,
out of these words that form a different pattern for every ear.

What can I say
except that I have seen a star fall through time,
that I have seen an early crocus
cast its yellow across the snow,
that I have heard a child laugh and cry,
that I have seen a man's face freeze into emptiness.

And shall I be forever becoming a tree?
I shall be forever dying,
I shall be forever watching sunfall through autumn leaves,
I shall be forever beside this desert
dreaming of the sea and sails full of wind;
I shall ride with the tides as the sun dies
and wind blows cold across these rocks.

FRANK'S POEM

His face thrust at the sea like a hatchet,
dared the wind.  He could have been a model
for a Mayan frieze.  He smoothed his mustache
with a hooked finger and started to speak.

But a sudden shout of laughter, a call
from the surf, a passing blonde barely dressed
in a black brief and oiled flanks, distracted.
His eyes were glazed with the glare of the sun.

I lay back and waited for him to speak.
The clouds were rolling high; there would be rain
before night.  He was far too elegant
to have been a patriarch.  It's crazy.

He could have lead the charge at Entebbe,
or played the role.  But now he sat beside
his wife and stared at the sea.  Overhead,
large birds with thin black wings were hovering.

Each day at dawn I had seen him running
on the sand, tall, thin as a skeleton.
He moved as if he might shatter, strewing
his bones along the beach like blanched driftwood.

I had seen his wife reach out to touch him
as if there were something that she would say,
some moment of tenderness, some comfort
before she withdrew to her own silence.

Or once, when the clouds had come suddenly
and dark from the east, he had turned to her
and spread his towel about her shoulders
and lead her quickly away to shelter.

Nothing, I thought, nothing in such gestures
but what might pass between old companions
who have seen much of the world and, with time,
have found that there is nothing more to say.

I sat up as with another question
of banality.  But something kept me
silent — some fear of the reality
that might lie behind that refined facade.

Somewhere out there, where my eyes saw only
a fading horizon, he must have seen
something else, some vanished frigate, a raft
of survivors once again on the move.

OUR GUIDE ON A FIELD OF STONE

He stood before a dome of crumbling stone
and drew, with crooked stick, a map in dust:
"East and west," he said; "where it all began
and where it ends."  He had a warrior's face
carved in stone, the gnarled body of a gnome;
when he looked at us, his eyes were agates,
glittering and folded in soft leather.
"I'll wait," he said, and slowly we dispersed
across the sun-blanched field.
I climbed some steps,
wandered corridors, touched the long noses
of their gods, and felt as if I were lost.
Two ladies from the club, agile and old,
compared the notes they'd taken from their books.
I followed, admired their dispensation,
and finally returned to where our guide,
sitting on the head of a stone serpent,
enjoyed a thin shade and harmless questions.
Finding my own stone fragment from the past,
lying half-hidden, crumbling in the grass,
I settled to listen.
Surely, I thought,
in all the creases of that face, in eyes
so intense, there's wisdom, and something else,
some strength and hardness, a fine endurance.
My followed ladies asked, with their blue smiles,
about the restoration of the steps;
a redhead in a gingham dress wanted
to know about the carvings on the wall;
a little man in shorts demanded lunch.

No, I said to myself, no, that's not it.
Those are not the questions to probe at truth;
whatever it may be, it can't be found
in just this restoration of the past.
I hoped to catch his eye, to call aloud,
to strike some fire from the flint of his heart.
"It is time," he said, "that you returned.  Lunch
will be served in an hour."  And that was all
he said.
As we left the fragmented field,
dust whirled across the silent stones, settled;
no shadow softened the rampant temples.
Do I imagine, now in retrospect,
that, as he leaned against his tree, alone,
he laughed, and that the drowsy birds flew up,
circled the field and landed at his feet?

A LASCIVIOUS RABBIT AT THE BAR

1

At seven they gather about the bar,
fresh from sex, sleep, and shower, faces flushed
from a day in the sun, hair damp, a trace
of perfume holding in the air.  Music
blares too loud to identify; voices
rise in hopeless competition, raw edged
and trivial; bodies sway together
and apart, thigh on thigh, weaving red silk
and yellow linen on a ground of white.
And I...?  From an alcove behind the bar,
shapeless in gray robes, a heavy dreamer
with no other vision but this array
of oiled flesh, I tallied the body's pride.

2

Almond eyed and delicate, black hair
resisting a wind that blows always
through open arches, moving in time
to music only she could have heard,
she wove, irremissibly, a net,
soft as silk, about her tall German.
One morning, just as the sun pushed up
the edge of the sea, and gulls flew high
to catch light and call a new warning,
we met on a parapet and talked
of resigned fathers from old China,
of the insatiable hunger
of men.  Dry eyed and indifferent,
"I can but move as my body moves,"
she said and left me to find her bed.

3

"Do I," he whispered through music,
"look all right?"  He turned on his toes
that we might admire the tight fit.
"I had them specially tailored
for me in New York."  His girls were
always older, as thin as he;
and when they lay upon the beach,
their bodies stretched to receive sun,
and turned that our eyes might admire
the taut skin, I had to look to
my own vulnerability.

4

There's a beat to this music
that stirred the air at the bar,
a beat the body answers,
no melody, harmony
I can never imagine.
My alcove gave me distance,
a dark stage from which to watch,
a cage for self protection.
And from this isolation,
self-imposed, insisted on,
I remembered the deep curve
of an urn that once held ash,
the body's dry residue,
and, in colors of the earth,
a lascivious rabbit
with open books at his feet.
I imagine a potter
at the edge of a king's court
that glitters with sheets of gold
and the sheen of tall feathers;
how he must have envied them,
those warriors in the green plumes
of their deadly games.  Even
in their victory and death
he must have, from time to time,
in quickly recorded deeds,
sniffed his own fragility.

5

"Mind rot," he called it, laughing; "it is what
happens in sun."  And he called together
the Degenerate Sand-Surfers to hold
to the end of the bar, to strut and watch,
to wait for another call to dinner—
Malinkov, fresh and fat from Montreal
by way of Paris, and perhaps Kiev,
on the sleek jet of a grateful client.
He ordered drinks for which he would not pay.
"It's true," he said, "I must fly to Mustique.
All you girls will be so disappointed."
I saw him once, all alone at midnight,
stroking the cool sand at the water's edge.

6

That night she was escorted again
by the tennis coach, a third her age,
whose burnt body moved like a dancer's,
in control of its own grace.  But she
was graceless though firm in her layers
of white lace, her hair an illusion,
a smile brittle on the weathered face.
"Ahhh," she sighed, shuffling to the music,
"I shall dance again upon the stage
and sing sad songs of this lonely age."

7

The beat of the music stopped, and trumpets
carried a clear fanfare for late dinner,
a lifting of tall glasses and laughter.
There was a new order in the movement,
a gathering together for purpose,
a direction, a slow drifting away.
"We'll save a place," someone called as I stayed
to enjoy the unaccustomed silence.

The tables were deserted, chairs awry,
the ice slowly melted to pale liquid.
The gods had moved on, their bodies held high
in rich defiance.  And I was left with
the remnants, a trace of perfume, the oil
from bodies lingering on thick cushions,
a catch of laughter drifting back to this
solitary table where I still sat.

I knew that I would, before photographs
were mounted in their album, remember
in unkind phrases and aching envy
those bodies that moved on so easily.
Would I, if I could, be the dark warrior
at whom the lascivious rabbit stares?
Would I be the maiden dressed in feathers
teetering again at the sacred well?

It's a long time between visits, I thought;
too much time for snow, for the summer's heat,
too much time to read, think, and be alone.
Gathering my robes about me to rise,
I paused for a brief moment to look out
at the dark:  the moon broke free from a cloud
and dropped a thousand lights upon the sea.
While my place waited for me at table.

EPILOGUE

There's another odyssey that takes place
at my typewriter after I've returned
when I'm faced with the empty page, when left
with memories and the lingering scars
on the body; and ignobility
would be in not knowing, in not caring,
what it all was I had experienced,
or in a refusal to play again
the flickering, badly lit tape, to sort
tired but infinite possibilities.

Surely Ulysses himself, the suitors
slain, Penelope tamed, would have wondered
and faced with renewed joy his empty page.
But that's too romantic, an illusion
of my own disaffected craft.  It was
another lascivious rabbit, blind
and too tired to follow him to the west
on the last adventure, who put it down
in tracings of his own despair or hope.
For Ulysses, the sun and endless sea
provided just another shitty day
in paradise with only dissolving
memories of all those vague goddesses
with whom he'd slept.  Even Penelope,
as Tennyson implied, grew fat and shrill;
and all that was left was a weak body,
an old ship full of rot, and a hot wind
that might take him on toward the Blessed Isles.

But I'm abashed by envy, for I know
that Homer had more than his own despair,
more than lonely watchings of the battle.
Despite the brawling in the open court,                                              
the drunken cries, the whimpering of dogs,
he had his slides to throw upon a wall
of men and gods; and when his boy brought out
the scuffed and worn lyre, when he stood before
the lingering fire, tuned his strings, and sang
in a low voice, harsh and crumbling with age,
even the drunken sailors hushed their dogs.