Motherhood works against that consummation
as it has done forever and forever
will. In the end nature must have its way.
Sun on the snowy spread of a single bed
glistens and moves me, startles like the flesh
beneath that thrust of arm and sweep of leg
not yet turned by the sun, as it would be,
which moved me through that summer where you lay
close to the sun, still closer to the sea,
hearing the words, not yet what words could say:
whales in the Gulf of Baja California
making the sudden turn and fanning out
between the headlands from which all one saw
was water, sun, the thrashing of their bodies
in the turn north to spawn, that coast ablaze,
such tidal sweep, heat shimmer where we lay,
Mexico at our backs racked with great fires,
whales in their season, certain of the way.
John Berryman went to Atlantic City,
sent by his doctor for (to recover) his health,
walked the cold boardwalk, shared the hotel bar
a city block-long with one other drinker
at the opposite end, delighting in
the out-of-season surf and knowing no one.
(Near to him, north, others that day were filling
the parking lot at Holy Spirit High
and smoking marijuana in the men’s room.
Priests would invite some boys to Puerto Rico
for winter recess, Christmas in the surf
and in the beds of Jersey’s teaching clergy).
I could have offered the address of one
had he the will (or courage) to confront
beauty in all its imminence and presence
(not: how did it come to this, but what have we done
to warrant visitations in our lives
so clearly signed, such wild dark head, such limbs?).
_ _ 3
Dear John Berryman: I could have offered.
Had you met in the bar, she would have entered
skeptical, tall, tanned in- or out-of-season,
fierce in her bones and infinitely moving
in some long progress toward the one direction
subsisting all, the void to which she moved
and, moving, moved us moving in her wake.
Had you met on the beach, the hooves of horses
silvery on the morning, shod with rime,
their sweat like crystal hanging in the mist,
she would have worn the thinnest riding jacket
against the frost, advancing in the surf
with her hair wet and flying, full and wild,
fog’s brine and spume beading her lips, trembling
in cotton gabardine of riding habit,
leaning shyly to one side as she spoke
as if already swayed in that direction
earlier indicated: her destruction.
_ _ 4
So that words would have turned vapor between you,
mingled with breath and sweat of chestnut horses
cantering for that length of winter beach
where you would stand together but quite separate,
touched by that early darkness, such lean wrists,
the way those bones splayed music on the wind.
In my room I had placed the sheet of paper
into a letter envelope and sealed it.
Read this after we’ve left, I said that Sunday,
driving for several blocks, parking to talk.
(It was I who would speak when we would ‘talk’;
she had small faith in words, and feeling frightened).
There is something I need to leave with you,
words in an envelope, something to live with,
should there ever be need for them, or use.
She smiled and turned, thanked me, later would read:
“Chris, did you know that you were loved this summer?”
(Dear Mr. Berryman: deeply I offered).
_ _ 5
Sick in the light with longing, faint with heat,
I gripped at last my life and lectured thus:
those lashings of blind music make you temble,
dizzy with the whole vision of those shoulders,
the suicides that light those darkling ankles.
Dear Mr. B: what more is there to offer?
Faint in the heat with fright, I turned away,
came indoors to be stricken with my life,
stunned by one’s words sealed in white envelopes
left at the end of summer in those villas
preparing to be shuttered for the season,
making ready to die beneath soft rains
blowing through long September afternoons
where the sea darkens and the boards begin
descents, headlong and final, to decay,
salt rising in the locks, the rooms abandoned,
the silk of Belgian sheets assailed with rot.
I came indoors, assaulted by my life.
_ _ 6
This morning, from The Times, you look out at me
clear-eyed, incisive, opulent of shoulders,
as though you knew at last who you might be
or woke this morning fresh from dreams and storms
which all night raged above you while you slept
to choose from all those lives one life as yours.
The others in the picture do not see you,
do not or can not, though each one is touching
the nearest player on the hand or shoulder,
so that, this morning, the effect is joined,
momentum gathered, links and circles forged:
touching and being touched, some human complex.
What touches is your hand on X’s shoulder
more tentative and fearful that you know,
all of you dressed as if for rounds and games
about to start, but under burdened skies
and, oddly, in that stance and silence caught,
unsmiling, as though your life were beginning.
_ _ 7
Those last few minutes, speaking in the street
(and yet not speaking: being silent together),
out of sight of the others, out of hearing.
Give yourself, Chris: not to me, but to someone.
Over our heads, immense across your shoulders,
the night poured what we knew the night would pour.
Within the terminal a line was forming.
Through the loudspeaker came the names of cities,
purposes, destinations, choice of lives.
Who we shall be is who we choose to be.
Chris, did you know that you were loved this summer?
Dear Mr. B, what more is there to offer?
What touches is your hand taking my hand
saying, of all things, deepest: understand;
if I could choose, it would be now to stand here
in the dark having yes ready within me,
even if you should never ask the question.
Off-shore the waves broke, spoke of salt and thunder.
_ _ 8
Trying for music, once more under way,
in the grip of unreasonable forces
which reason whispers are the ones most worthy
of being called by when it seems too late
for gestures short of final acquiescence,
I walked out on the evening, stripped and late.
Trying for music, coming to that state
where to risk anything is to risk all,
available to hazard, under siege,
I swam the inky breakers where the pier
let down long plumblines of reflected light
to fish all night those currents and the wind.
Trying for meaning, depth to net my life,
my mind a thousand times having rehearsed
the bones that bind your shoulders, that lost face,
I swam beyond the pier to test endurance,
to shape my strokes as gifts, to offer breath,
suffer chill, fever, distance, try for music.
_ _ 9
Simply to stand here in the dark beside you,
what might I learn, what would the night instruct?
From this day’s losses to tomorrow’s grief,
having come deeply from those tries for music,
having had music and an end to music
both in my life, having survived that passage
in a summer night’s crossing for you only,
short of breath, aching, I stepped from the sea
bearing its wounds as trophies to present,
carrying in my palm, shining with water,
bits of a star-burst which had fallen out there,
fragments of light and fire with which to warm you.
I mount stairs in that beach-house, find you sleeping,
find even moonlight touching with great care
your young life on the sheet. One foot lies dangling
over the bed, dreaming some warm Pacific,
and those slight arms, so deftly, move to clasp
the body of the dark deeply between them.
_ _ 10
Sleep on a rainy summer Sunday morning
Sleep, so that when you wake one can discover
not who you are but how far you have traveled
to be here, breathing, beautiful among us.
Sleep, for what life awaits you shall await you.
Grow in that sleep for someone, deepen, darken.
I shall not be the one. I shall not wake
with you beside me early in that beach-house,
tasting the salt of morning on your lips,
holding your hand to take you to the day.
There shall be others; there shall be a man
who sleeps late, seldom dreams, swims with small strokes,
someone who can not love but makes the time pass.
Everywhere through the villas in September
you will search for the notes he will not write
and, when the rains begin that blind descent,
setting loose plumblines cast to catch the wind,
press you face to the silk of Belgian sheets.
_ _ 11
Nor will he undertake the night-routes for you,
swimming astride what tide ran out those nights
to make it back in time to offer stars
where all night they went under as you slept.
Dear Chris, the dark came down while I was in it,
my breath gave out, and one night, past the pier,
I thought I saw your arms outstretched in welcome,
your hands, perhaps your life, held to receive me.
Nor shall there be endurance to be tested,
disciplines to submit to while you sleep:
pieties to be met, devotions mastered,
rigors whose joy is difficult but sweet.
Drowning, I dreamt your body was the water,
the flow of night your hair, our life the test.
Nor shall he know that light-lines from the pier
reach down to comb the wind and fish for depth,
flicker, fall back, fall slack, somewhere lie gutted.
Chris, when my life went down we two were in it.
_ _ 12
To Austria his love went flying, flying,
with her their little blue-eyed three year-old,
Marcus by name. He was the local baker,
poet of wedding cakes and petit-fours,
quiet and gentle, handsome in dark ways.
What happened happened deeply, without malice.
Dusks heaped gold leaf that summer, cleared his sight.
By air-mail went the letters to Vienna
after canned suppers of cold soup and meat.
Master of fine effects, each night, quite late,
he took to walk those streets, one night met someone
beautiful, lean, was altered, seemed transcendent.
From Austria, that fall, his wife came flying,
concocted omelettes, stews, decanted wine,
gave all where all no longer seemed enough.
Husband and father, shaken, but still quiet,
he strangled nights of summer in him, sobbing,
lay winter in her arms, lay lying, lying.
_ _ 13
What did I mean by music but your life?
Tear-gassed that spring at Berkeley, planning now
to spend the summer “bumming around,” you touch me,
sprawled at the rim of a fountain on another campus.
July sets fire to southern California.
Michigan taught us well but not enough.
The picture shows you barefoot, shirtless, dazed,
glints of the sun blinding you on the water.
L.A. might just as well stand as the short-cut
for the quick and the easy, though the day
is long and arid and our desolation
anything, lost ones, but abbreviated.
What did I mean by music but your life?
Look for the life. Light on the curve of your back
lashes the line of her back, too, Mark Gregg,
who you have planned to have no plan but wait here
at the rim of my life, afflicted, blinded.
June Meyer Jordan: “Irony can kill.”
_ _ 14
To the bell-tower of the Hotel Shelburne,
the safety exits locked, the fire door bolted,
wind in his face and sweat clenched in his teeth,
he climbed those summer afternoons, turned on.
July on the Atlantic, too, Mark Gregg,
shimmers and blinds, with salt for consolation.
All afternoon he roared from that sorched perch,
trapped by the ooze of roof tar, fumes of pitch,
shouted and railed, went limp, began to weep,
was stunned by wings that whipped the flailing water.
South Jersey, too, comes lightless and comes late,
domestic triumphs howling in the void.
Eighteen, like you, he sat cross-legged, too,
stared like a holy street-seer in Lahore,
tore at his shirt, hurled curses to the sea,
battered his head, seduced the bolted door.
Look for the life. They found him after midnight,
drinking the rain. The rest is education.
_ _ 15
You were those pure dark colts of Assateague
cantering with the spume glazing your hair
at the first smell of human habitation
or the first indication of a presence
carried on a south wind, across the island.
You were the wildness which could not be spoken.
Men from the mainland crossed each spring in crude boats
slapped together of two-by-fours with hinges,
lassoed the smallest ponies from old jeeps
and Army surplus half-tracks where they faltered
out of exhaustion, blind fright, hopelessness.
Yours was the darkness which could not be taken.
Young one, running from me, fleeing you life,
intuiting each day the look and smell
of things across the bay ready to break you,
ready to burn its rope across your neck,
haul you by raft to serve their purposes,
you were the strain that never would be tamed.
_ _ 16
Sleep at the bottom of the rain this morning.
At the underside of your slumber, sprawler,
opens a chamber where you will have wakened
dry and still bearing warmth from what dream held you,
your hair in disarray, your breathing constant.
Intensities were falling while you slept.
In the sweet summer green depth of your life
where you lie late this morning, late and pale,
give the intensest nourishments their way,
permit their most extravagant incursions,
even the unexpected, least imagined.
Sprawler, receive them all, refuse them nothing.
You in the nineteenth summer of your life,
everything dark in you yields something darker;
your legs grown long, your arms reach out, grow stronger.
Some emphasis flows sweeter than before
and all that was most beautiful profounder.
Intensities were falling. Do you tremble?
_ _ 17
If you would be so good, then, please allow me
liberty to address, and not tomorrow,
all things impending in you, embarkations
you can not even yet suspect receive you,
nor how, nor down what sweep of night pursue,
assault, assuage, announce themselves, astonish.
Granted, the night is brief and bones are frail,
that we slept through persuasions wholly crucial.
Granted that what the surf insisted saying
seemed not the dream we wanted most to hear.
But there are voices speaking through the voices
and music breaking out beneath that music.
Choices, come evening, deepen choir on choir,
enter here, open, just by breathing offer.
Subtleties, ride the wind that whips those shoulders,
follow into the last streets of the dream.
Let conflagrations rage within those fires
and fire exceed the flame that feeds the fires.
_ _ 18
Using their bodies far into the night
and for such consummations unimagined
in the half-light where much of us exists,
forms in the dark made music of their motions,
labored all night to wrest within their lives
perfections wholly moving and impassioned.
I saw this morning, in such mottled light,
men at the task of moving with their bodies
but not yet moved beyond them or within them,
practiced responses, arms raised, bends and turns
removed from what they said, who they might be,
living in half-light lives defying function.
But others: in the dark they fashion nights
intimate and resplendent, structure lives
consonant with their breathing, come to choices
in which their bodies yield them to their lives,
alive to hands, turns from the waist, the darkness,
using their bodies far into the night.
_ _ 19
Letters that will not come: I dream of letters.
“I have your note but do not understand.
Perhaps it is the sun here; drunk on light,
more than a little blinded, as you say,
no longer can I hope to know which words
will say what I want said and which will not.
No longer can I hope. I feel quite old
(perhaps you know), like a man who has traveled
very far, at great cost, in a dark time,
who with much difficulty has arrived here
not remembering most of what he saw,
wanting to see no more, travel no farther.
Come to L.A. and meet me at the fountain:
people talk, come and go, and by late evening
dusk cools the air enough to chill the naked
and the night falls accomplice to our blindness.
Perhaps you’d like it, too. Perhaps. Perhaps.
Love (as they say) to you, to Chris. Mark Gregg.”
_ _ 20
I dream of letters which will not be written:
“I have your verse, your verses, which too well
I understand, I grope to understand.
Atlantic City, yes: but I remember
nothing that could evoke in me such pangs,
unleash such forces, which may be the point.
Amazing that what I thought restful, dull,
should have touched life in you, rooted your cause
to those same streets. (Look for the life, indeed).
Isn’t that what style comes to in the end?
(I do avoid the high schools: at this age,
beauty exacts what I can least afford).
The problem, then, seems to be fixed in courage:
to live one’s life, one’s choices, and not flinch
from suffering those things which must be suffered;
to court them, even, throw one’s self upon them
groping for outcomes, at some farther side,
where little seems in doubt except survival.”
_ _ 21
From the bell-tower of the Hotel Splendor:
“H.M., your note is here. Who the hell are you?
Please tell me what to do with it, with you.
This afternoon the wind dropped; in still air
wings beat atrocious signs above the water.
Things will be better when my mother dies.
I don’t know why you wrote me. Go away.
Have you tried LSD? amphetamines?
Who told you rain, and who said after midnight?
Those who carry such stories to you lie.
Dear H (I’ve never written ‘Dear’ before
and fear I can’t quite manage it again):
I don’t know why you love me. Stay away.
Who said eighteen, and who the hell’s Mark Gregg?
I hate this town. Write me where you have traveled.
What do you do, send poetry to strangers?
When you turn for the bridge, watch the approaches.
Don’t come, I won’t be here. Say who you are.”
_ _ 22
Third-story-window tenants whose lights late
are burning, who have purpose with the night
I shall not quite have brought myself to question
and who, this late, have lives to live by lamplight,
letters to write, some presence to address
across from them, beside them, summer stars
ride out above those depths of wild dark hedges
bordering your footpaths and shadowed walkways
where rose and honeysuckle break in waves.
You in the attics of three-story houses,
you with the lamps turned up, those little lamps
enough to blind me with illumination,
exiles, night-wakers, lovers, you still fleeing,
anointed with the salts of some pure madness,
tonight one lies among you, under lamplight
beautiful, drenched, still anguished, from a window
combing the dark for something (Dear J.B.,
I think life can be offered) of the sea.