—"Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?"
Flannery O'Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"
Mr. Hardenberry bears a twisted,
withered arm and, as though
to balance it, a leg on the other
side shorter than its mate;
his left foot pegs an orthopedic platform:
brown, sole-cupping polyvinyl;
and he spits brown-flecked tobacco
juice on Mrs. Hennessey's
rosebush every morning at ten.
Three boil-red wriggling fingers jut from
a wrist and forearm foreshortened
like some counter-Reformation sinner
writhing in the pigments of hell.
Mrs. Hennessey comes out at quarter
past ten, watering can in
hand to bathe and purify her
roses, to cleanse them of the thick
brown spittle shining there, to
cluck indignant at their spoliation
by the crooked limping man who
watches with red eyes from the
diner's window down the street
as he washes a mouthful of egg
with black coffee, lukewarm and bitter.
His breakfast done, Mr. Hardenberry
angles back his course,
as he does each day at eleven,
to his peeling papered boarding-room
up the north side of Church Street,
tracing back his shearing, limping
route with the perfect regularity
of a Swiss clock puppet that marks the hour.
Mrs. Hennessey has made her
morning pilgrimage to post
and market; she slots her daily
letter at the corner mailbox
to her pregnant daughter in Mobile.
She does not see him spit again,
smiling at this daily rite
the smile of utter self-satisfaction,
browning anew her crimson-throated roses as
the sun climbs wearily
into a smoke-white sky.
Reading the News I Had Expected
You had, you told me once,
nothing pretty to look at,
no scenes outside you, nor lover or friend,
to match the music in your head,
the colors shifting, flowing
like the rainbow of oil curling
on the pool at the street-corner.
You spoke with passion, when I first knew you,
but disjointed, fingers trembling
not with animation but from withdrawal going awry,
with the struggle to be free
from what gripped you,
from what rose and fell, dark, within.
We might talk of music or of art,
of what sustained you on the streets;
you already knew them all,
knew them well it seemed,
though you labored to name
what swelled and swirled inside you.
Your eyes seemed to clear in those months;
your voice grew steady, you combed hair and beard
and bought a chambray shirt
that you washed and pressed yourself.
You didn't make it;
I grieve for you as I read the news.
Where you are, I want to believe,
is much to look at, all lovely,
smooth harmonious gradations
like the colors of the rainbow.
To believe else is to deny what bolsters,
what lends some small hope, some sense of design.
I pray you have reached what eluded you here;
could I imagine a heaven that levels and forgives,
that heals and absorbs, I would see you there.
I would see you
like one of Blake's curly-haired artists,
laboring in energy and salutary fire,
and not as we last knew you,
hanging by the neck, discolored, gasping,
tough enough to linger for hours, fighting
as you always did to be in both worlds at once,
heaven and hell, beauty and torment.
You were more like us than you knew,
more of our world than we understood,
and we more of yours than we dared admit.
Perhaps you made it after all.
For us left behind, recalling, questioning,
rises the cold and fearful dread,
the terror of that dark territory,
silent and colorless,
toward which your single light
beams us now, unwavering.
To the Young Man from the East Coast Who Has
Inquired about Graduate Study in English
I found your letter in the mail today
and I've no idea what to tell you.
You say you want to study, but you don't say why
or even what.
A good job, you say, and the Challenge
Of Ideas, and a chance to read
Faulkner and Sidney and Derrida
"and writers like those."
English is easy because there are no answers
like there are in science or math
Shall I encourage you, say "come,"
tell you we have much to offer
that would suit your needs and interests?
And what then? Will you study Melville
and Wordsworth, Bradstreet and Bellow,
and leave, stuffed full of facts
like the straw-man? Or will you resist,
falter, fail, flunk, grow disenchanted
and send out new letters,
cast new lines on still waters?
We feed upon each other,
neither filled nor fulfilled,
each walking away disenchanted
from the mixed feast.
You crave sanction, benediction,
paperwork, seals, degrees, credentials.
So you will come here or go elsewhere,
eat at the table, belch, bake
something yeasty of your own and share it,
and go away to teach others like yourself
about Foucault and Fitzgerald and Farquhar
and other writers just like them.
Your letter is here, waiting for my reply.
Probably it drowses somewhere else, too,
on another desk. Perhaps
someone else will reply immediately
instead of dismissing you
into a poem where you will wait
Mt. Moriah Dawn
He listens to the dying bird-song drawn down the burnished channel
of a nightingale's clear voice into the cool and soothing moonlight
that lights the windless silence, the pool of perfect
self-awareness there, deep, where the channel of mysterious music ends
in the cedar-scented temple of the heart.
With dark-lashed eyelids pressed together like palms in prayer,
but lightly, softly, in the pre-dawn cool of spring
he wraps his fears about him as the sand-dove folds his wings
and reads in the tracery of light inscribed
on the inner linings of his perfumed lids
the perfect mysteries of sacrifice and endless night.
His fear retreats like dark at dawn; he cannot say when it is gone,
but only feels the lightness of his frame, the airy texture of his limbs,
his bones white and hollow as the skylark's, sinews fine as fil
ments in dusk-blue pinions, heart like thin, transparent glass.
He smells the incense of the yellow flame now, sees it
from a distance through violet-irised eyes but half his own,
as Abraham draws his sun-keen edge, while from a distance
the wind begins to cry with the voice of an eagle.