It might have been May, it might have been April
When I knocked on their door. Air still capable
Of coolness, no mosquitoes yet. I know it was afternoon.
He was napping, Lois said, and would I care
To wait? A cup of tea, or water? In minutes
He came forth, button-down shirt tucked
In slacks, huge shoes shuffling through kitchen sunlight
Announcing off his cranium. A few last seagull-hairs
Lanced out from the back of his head.
His eyes were buttons, fierce and tender.
His voice was—I know it sounds cliché—
Civility itself, timbre of a thousand learnéd grandfathers.
He gave me his news, I gave him mine.
We remembered other times, other faces,
Lois humored us, brought out cookies, sat beside him
To help translate and amplify anything that I
Muttered. Esteem sometimes makes me mutter.
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 began reading Coleridge, Blake.
But this isn’t my field, he said,
And he slid the volume across the table.
His eyes had youth, had a glittering kindness,
This man I knew had lived a world, man of travel,
Prairie, church, story, who’d known my ancestors.
So I took the sighing book,
And I flipped through the pages, panicking a little,
Stopping at one the poet later called “domestic & meditative”:
After a snowstorm some forgotten February,
Coleridge stays up writing into the night
While his tiny child sleeps nearby, while an owl hoo-hoots
“The frost performs its secret ministry”—
I took the lines aloud into the ordinary afternoon,
And his calm, his attention, her calm, her attention
Were like a magnificent velvet field, flowing and pure.
“Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme stillness”—and I could hear their
“Gentle breathings” at the “trances of the blast.”
A car went by outside. A starling was loud,
Then very silent, maybe gone.
We left it I would come back later in the year for more.
A few weeks after that, I was back in California.
He sent an email, did I have any “simple, lay definitions for
Structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and post-modernism?”
(Terrified, elated, amused, I was in love all over again—
They are furies, I wanted to say, they are fears and freedoms.)
He didn’t like, he went on, how these words get bandied about, how no one
Seemed to know what they mean. Could I help? “Yesterday
We drove to Coronado Heights, and surveyed the beginning
Of the wheat harvest. A view that draws forth
The poetic.” He sent regards. Two months later I wrote.
The brick, the tether, the onion, the question mark
Were what I joked these terms came down to. I didn’t hear back.
Autumn came, went. On December 27, he was dead.
I couldn’t quite find my way to words,
I couldn’t find my way to song
This morning. This morning you were not in it.
The heart says whatever, the heart cries whatever.
I know a fountain in a park, and the water rises
Around a sabertooth who, biting,
Embraces the serpent poised to strike it.
But only the seagull who rides
The serpent’s striking shape can leave.
You? You were like a song, and you were gone.
Your face historical, form bent but graced,
Slow precise words like snow, and peace
Released now to the invisible splendors.
Illusions seem to go with time.
That 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,
I couldn’t find my way to music.