This is the fourth collection of poems I’ve recently posted. All poems surely come from experience, but usually not in any obvious way. Each of these has a connection with a specific moment or time. Once again, the dates are those of original composition.
1. September 17, 1971
I used to think my father’s name, Harold, old-fashioned until I finally connected it with England’s last Anglo-Saxon king, a historical figure I admired then and still do. I’m touched to find I wrote the original on Dad’s birthday, his forty-third.
Still, this was a momentous, sad day in English history. After Anglo-Saxon England fended off the Vikings for two centuries, they came again in the guise of Frenchmen from Normandy, a region the Vikings had long occupied. Now, on October 14, 1066, the Normans (“North Men”) were to take control over England to the extent that English didn’t return as a national language until Chaucer’s time in the second half of the fourteenth century. Put more positively, both the language and the spirit endured in the background for more than three centuries before reasserting themselves.
The chain-mailed knights had splashed and slashed ashore
And driven his army to its spiked stockade.
The battle was all but over.
There, he must have heard the counsel
That quivers every twilight
Like a membrane of infinity
Before the arrow struck.
The arc of grieving wings
Shadows the twilight sky;
The wind, left behind
By straggling light
Straddles the waves.
2. October 5, 1974
A false equivalence exists between blindness and darkness. Often, light perception lingers. Sometimes brain activity in the area that processed sight goes on, creating a light show that never ends.
Uncountable leaves tumble and fall.
No limb, no branch to break the flood
Of leaves suspended in the sky.
Borne of specks of blood in vitreous humor
The green leaves are the unsuspected cure
For forgetfulness of distance,
The reach of arms to symmetry,
The evening stretch to infinity.
3. October 17, 1974
Organizing my poems for this and other recent posts reveals I was in poet mode during my four months, September through December 1974, at Sheffield University.
We were alone in a classroom,
Two strangers fearing to intrude.
I turned my head to the empty desks,
Where ghosts sat back to watch us,
Then opened a book.
She jumped down from her desk
Then back up again.
I stopped reading, not having begun,
And wondered what, if anything,
Had passed between us,
If we shared a thought, or if
The animal inside had stirred.
I felt gray and unenriched,
Ignorant of life since ignorant of her,
And felt that she, too, felt nothing had passed,
That our thoughts could not be shared,
That the animal lay unmoved.
Then we talked.
4. November 7, 1974
At the age of eight or nine, I’d look out to the houses at our back and yearn for the flashes of sunlight on windows to be someone sending coded messages. It seems I was an espionage fanatic even at that age. The poem then turns to night-time. I must have thought that fairytale characters lived in the very far north, where there is no night at midsummer nor light at midwinter.
From my bedroom window as a boy,
I coaxed glints of sunlight
Into secret coded messages.
Later, in a forest, pointed creatures
Peered around and through the trees,
Trod on snow but left no footprint:
Shades of beings
Whispering in the night of three nights
And scurrying to the rubbed‑out stars
In the day of three days.
Only when boredom turned into storm
And ruffled the bedclothes,
Only when sounds outside had brought
Mysteries safely to my locked window
Could I feel a hero’s fine exhaustion
And fall asleep.
5. October 29, 1975
In the fall of my Amherst College senior year, I volunteered at Northampton’s Veterans Administration psychiatric hospital. In terms of time commitment, it was hardly onerous. One evening a week, I talked for a while to a patient who had been assigned to me, all that was required of each volunteer. Yet the experience made an indelible impression.
Ends of Halls
Subduing lights and patients
Blur at ends of halls,
While pop songs fill the spaces
Where bearable thinking fails
For men who can expect
No cure for their ills.
The summer day of joy
When she smiled beside the stream
Or moody, taunted days
Of pacing in the rain
Are now immobile faces
And a routine nightmare scream.
For all their lives they swore
That we misapprehended,
But docilely complied
With electric shocks and bars
For minds that hope eluded.
Curious to confront
The seamier quirks of nature,
When visitors come
The men deflect all hopeful gestures,
And our brisk retreat confirms
We have no answers.
The shuffling of slippers
Over polished floors
Dies down as you near
The guarded exit doors
But returns to haunt my sureness
Through catacombs of endless halls.
6. Fall 1979
I didn’t make it to France, the country I most romanticized, until the summer after I obtained my law degree. (See my memoir essay “Longing.”) I met my good friend, David Sirkin, in Paris, and we took a trip to the southwest. I desperately wanted to experience something of France on my own, and the opportunity arose when David said he wanted to spend a night in a certain monastery. I stayed in town, called Agen, pronounced “a jhan.” Part of the adventure for me was handling this foreign city with just me and my white cane. If readers know it’s how I get around, they might appreciate this aspect of the poem. I doubt that those who don’t will feel they’re missing anything.
How did I know about the visual features? Well, people talk.
Agen was a detour:
A shuttered town of colored stone
Known only for its prunes.
Searching for croissants,
I wove through fruit and nightgown racks
Spilled out to the curb.
I practiced French at dinner
With a lonely civil servant
Over sturdy silverware.
A squeaky boy
Who thought me deaf
To mocking laughter, scorned
My choice of Armagnac,
While dragsters braked to scan us patrons
For a pretty girl.
In the night a candle church
Beaconed from the silent hill
A spell of solitude.
I woke in a skimpy cover
Beside an oddly‑shallow sink
And a chair without an owner.
7. September 21, 1979
The date of original composition tells me I wrote this poem during my first month as a criminal defense lawyer with New York’s Legal Aid Society. Notions of responsibility, culpability and justice were very much on my mind, where they remain. So does our cat’s memory.
Yesterday, our once‑wild cat,
Her white cheeks puffy like a blouse,
Honored us with a slaughtered mouse.
Repelled, we thanked her
For it was her nature,
8. November 22, 1980
A sad song doesn’t necessarily make us sad. It might make us feel quietly contented, at peace with life’s vicissitudes. Autumnal air has a similar quality.
You pause in the field, your frailty
In half‑light radiance,
And, with no one to hear, say,
I don’t know, I just don’t know.
No answer comes.
Neither spirit nor elf‑kings
Who have shape in your ideas
Could be the wind’s whisperers
In the stillness
And in the scurry in the stillness
Of dead leaves and a passing car.
Trees first flaunt, then shed, their color,
Street lights turn on early,
Mobile birds go south,
And the loved and the lonely seek their hearth.
9. December 18, 1981
The date suggests to me which married couple inspired the poem. Does the last line hold out a glimmer of hope? If so, it wasn’t misplaced. Love was to return for that couple until the end of their magnanimous lives.
When I return, it is midnight
And the house feels empty.
I turn on a show
To put out the silence.
I tiptoe upstairs.
Pillowed on a clove of hair,
Your agonizing face
Lies absorbed in sleep
In the shadowy cold of a room
I no longer call mine.
I walk alone
Down a country lane
With trails in the distance.
I look up, expectant,
On the bedroom wall,
Is fading paper.
Perhaps, as you sleep,
You too see landscapes
You’ve never described to me.
I’m hoping for a thunderstorm
Or for a photo to come alive,
Or is it just your kiss,
In a tree‑lined lane?
10. December 3, 1988
During his 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush rhapsodized about a “thousand points of light,” symbolizing for him the superiority of private charity over government assistance.
Thanksgiving in New York, 1988
In the light pools of 23rd Street
The old man walking slowly
Long white hair evoking Village prime
Shivers in a thin coat.
With the sliver of warmth still left him
He bores despair through our backs.
The woman in the movie theater lobby
Sits on a bicycle.
Light sparkling from her hair,
Talking to friends,
She faces the exit
All set to escape the escape.
A thousand points of light glow
With the calculation of a meter.
Its roots in darkness
Love gets lost in the luster.
11. August 16, 1989
I wrote these lines while staying with a college friend in, as New Englanders will recognize, Maine.
Flowers with five petals,
Flowers like trumpets,
Flowers fragile to a breath of air,
Flowers mauve with yellow centers,
Flowers regal red on stems of complex green,
Flowers guarded by thorns,
Flowers guarded only by trust,
Flowers brief as a week,
Flowers long as the summer,
Flowers all along an Ogunquit street,
Defining it, prettifying, distinguishing, refining,
Flowers drooping in the rain,
Flowers soft in the late afternoon.
Flowers alone, flowers communal,
Flowers saying the gardener’s here to stay.
12. April 2015
I can’t resist closing this little collection with a copy of a note I sent to that same friend in Maine, along with the lines it refers to. One of us had written them twenty-six years earlier.
In my project of transcribing old braille papers, poems, etc., to my computer, I’ve just come across notes I took when [a fondly remembered former girlfriend] and I stayed with you in August, 1989. They include random lines of verse that might be mine or might just as easily be quotations from your work, which is referred to elsewhere in these notes. Would you recall if the following lines are yours or mine? [He wrote back to say the lines had to be mine because they weren’t his!]
The girl in the night, innocent of defenses,
Needs to be seen to be lost again,
Lost again to be regained.