It might have been May, it might have been April
When I knocked on their door. Days still capable
Of coolness, no mosquitoes yet. It was afternoon.
He was napping, Lois said, and would I care
To wait? A cup of tea? water? In a few minutes
He came forth, button-down shirt tucked into slacks,
Big shoes shuffling through kitchen sunlight
Announcing off his cranium. A few last seagull-hairs
Lancing out from the back of his head.
His eyes were buttons, fierce and warm.
His voice was civility itself, this man who described
Kansas as “a region rich in wind.” Who had
Written that he “wanted to be just ‘Bob,’
Not an academic.” Called himself a “dissenter.”
He gave me his news, I gave mine.
Lois humored us, brought out cookies,
Helped translate and amplify anything that I
Muttered. Esteem—and I felt it in that moment
For both of them—makes me sometimes mutter.
I muttered about a eulogy of his I’d come across
In which he’d said, of my great grandfather,
“By his metaphors one knew him.”
After awhile he went to a tall shelf by his desk
And nudged a book down, an anthology
That murmured with pencil notes and bits of paper.
He read the names Wordsworth, Mary Shelley—
But this isn’t my field, he said,
And slid the volume across the table.
Panicking a little, I flipped through pages,
Stopped at a poem Coleridge later qualified
As “domestic & meditative,” conversational:
After a snowstorm some long-ago February,
He stays up writing into the night
While his tiny child sleeps nearby, an owl croodling
As “the frost performs its secret ministry.”
I read the lines aloud. Afternoon ordinary, beautiful.
“Gentle breathings” at the “trances of the blast.”
A car went by outside. A vireo was loud,
Then very silent, maybe gone. We left it
That I’d come back later in the year.
A few weeks later I was back in California.
By email he asked did I have any “simple, lay definitions for
Structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-modernism?”
(My first thought, a wild thought, was to say that they are fears.
Or that they are Furies, these terms, or that they are freedoms.)
He didn’t like, his email went on, how these words get bandied about
And no one seeming to know what they mean.
What did I think they meant? “Yesterday,” he added,
“We drove to Coronado Heights, and surveyed the beginning
Of the wheat harvest. A view that draws forth
The poetic.” Sent regards. Two months later I wrote
With a metaphor for each term. A red brick, I said,
Could stand for structuralism. Our songs are houses.
A tether, I said, for post-structuralism, a post on a tether.
An onion could figure for deconstruction,
Or at least its method, for at the center of the onion
There’s nothing but onion. For postmodernity I proposed
The figure of the ironic footnote.
I didn’t hear back.
He was gone before the year’s first real snow.
Couldn’t find my way to words,
Couldn’t find my way to song
This morning. This morning you were not.
So the heart keeps on, the heart cries on,
A fountain in a park I know whose waters
Entwine a sabertooth who’s biting,
Embracing the serpent poised to strike it.
But only the seagull who rides
The serpent’s striking shape can lift away.
You? You were song, and you were gone.
Your face historical, form bent but graceful,
Speaker of slow precise words like snow, and peace
Released now to the invisible splendors.
Illusions sometimes go with time.
That, for instance, there will be enough time,
That any poetry can be good as the breeze
When it comes up under the living ears,
Studies the face, plays at the eyes.
This evening, this evening you weren’t in the world,
And I couldn’t find my way to song,
Couldn’t find my way to music.