Iowa City, 1973
Above a half pizza and double gin,
his proffered hand trembled in the dark
as if, polished and slapped with cologne,
he had ridden a jackhammer from New York
that broke up everything inside
but politesse, which dangled like a hook:
informed you had just won a prize,
he said, “Ah yes, I loved your book.”
And you, inconsolable bell-bottomed cliché
of wounded-by-the-world angry young poet
who became me as strangely as years become today,
replied, “The book’s not published yet.”
In a booth for four were mashed five
whose egos would have cramped the Astrodome.
One thriving now, who still tries
to disguise his voice answering the phone
from decades of throwing bill collectors off,
whose wife told everyone her life was hell,
whose children had it rough,
was living by the week in a seedy motel.
He had killed a quart by noon
with a mountainous hard-boiled novelist
who thought Chandler “could write circles around anyone
with a piece of chalk in his ass.”
Ungoaded, Cheever smiled at the figure
and said he’d love to see that manuscript.
Pinned between them, ankle to shoulder,
he looked like a sandwiched Siamese triplet
twice their age and half their size
but sharing one bloodstream—alcohol—
and one passion beyond themselves: stories
wild, precise, and beautiful.
My counterpart in the art of verse
was burbling his soda through a straw,
“Consciousness is a curse”
and “Coke-farts evoke sacred awe”
were his night’s remarks, not addressed to us.
His poems were tiny nests of pain.
That Christmas he went to Panama in a VW bus
and no one ever saw him again.
And the hard-boiled novelist’s new baby and wife,
then unconceived and not-yet-met,
that were said to have filled his life
with happiness and made him considerate,
died together in a crash.
Where was this future with its bloody claws?
Brilliant John Cheever is a handful of ash.
I would be finished with what I was.
It’s not them that make me crazy
but they seem the essence of madness,
ramming the window headfirst
yet clicking like fingernails on the glass.
In this disproportionate quiet,
with old newspapers rolled in my fist,
I wait one by one when they light
for their hairspring legs to relax,
which means their insect attention
has shifted wrongly
from the danger of death,
and they are probably lucky
they don’t get a chance to reflect
on how they acquired bad instinct
before my bludgeon of published disasters
turns them each to a pinch of smash.
But they must have a nest in the woodwork.
When the sun makes my window hot
they are always there pressing on it,
the same eight thick black knots.
What I’m living with is my father
striking my mother in the face. He
was enraged. My mother was stunned,
holding her hand to her face, unbelieving.
That is the scene I remember,
as if it will set me straight
on a path to truth.
I know I do not forgive him.
I sit here thinking about it,
unable to get it out of mind,
not wanting to—that I wonder at,
but it is what I know
to have to take in stride
and be the person to myself
founded on this episode.
Was it the life between them?
How would I have known,
seated as a youth
in the living room in sight
of the kitchen and thinking
my thoughts of sex, ambition,
and friendships, awakened,
hearing from the kitchen
a slap upon my mother’s face.
It was she I turned to to confide in.
Was she vulnerable to humiliation?
I was humiliated.
My father too I loved
but now filled with horror for him
and myself, he with whom I would walk
to visit relatives, taking pride
at being at his side as equals
in companionship in the silence
between us as we walked as one.
I am bent over my typewriter,
recalling that months later
to ease my sense of grief
I reminded them of the episode
for an explanation and both
simultaneously denied the slap.
When I was young, I thought that I
would live forever, that I could kill
whatever I pleased, that I was all
that mattered. I didn’t think it
then, at age ten, but how else
can one explain the firecrackers
stuffed down throats of frogs and lit:
hop, hop, boom. A lot of laughs.
Once we found a plump snake
sunning itself beside the creek.
Sluggish in the early morning
chill, it only raised its head
and turned two diamond-black eyes
to see four small boys with sticks.
It didn’t understand until we
started beating on its flanks
that we were dangerous
and it was trapped.
Our sticks were too light
and we too timid to inflict
anything but fury, so we
started throwing stones.
Small gashes ripped that snake’s
fat thrashing sides until it
finally tired, though it couldn’t
run and wouldn’t die. It only
lay there heaving as the stones
fell faster—till a miracle
of birth began so strangely even
we were brought up short and stood
there for a moment dumbly watching:
out of those gashes crawled a dozen
baby watersnakes, a dozen more,
small wriggling slivers of their
mother’s flesh; some were bleeding,
some had broken backs and dragged
limp tails sideways through the dust.
Premature, even the ones uninjured
that we carried home and put in jars
all died. But it didn’t matter.
We had frogs and painted turtles,
salamanders, and a praying mantis.
Years later, I volunteered for war,
still oblivious to what I’d done,
or what I was about to do, or why.
W. D. Ehrhart
The ambush lasted only seconds:
caught in the open mid-thought,
they fell like ducks, wings
useless, feathers fluttering.
Dead, the four men sprawled
beneath a squinting moon.
All of them were armed
for once: bodies with weapons—
a rare thing where women
carried rice for soldiers, children
threw grenades in jeeps, and even
elephants were strafed and counted.
I was elated, blood pumping
through my temples, nostrils flared:
one of those rifles was mine.
A custom ancient as the art of war.
Proof. What men need
to substitute for strength.
I kept that rifle just
long enough to understand
I hope to God I never
have to find myself
in need of one again,
and one too close at hand.
W. D. Ehrhart
It is not my own life
that interests me, but
those few I have
grown close to.
Take Richard for instance.
The year I lived with him
in a double-wide trailer
got pregnant and aborted.
Richard ate great
quantities of ice cream,
grew fat, dabbled in heroin,
and did poorly in school.
In the egg-shaped depressions
inside our refrigerator door
you could usually find
psyllocibin or acid.
He told me his father
was a spy, one of
America’s best in WW II,
then an executive with
a large pharmaceutical company.
Richard had gone to
a great Eastern prep school,
and coasted through
the first year of college.
He was one of those
who wrote a play
or a poem for his final
in Western Civ. ,
the kind of heroic drama
(short on women)
where Socrates meets
Nietzsche and talks about
the nature of man.
Partly under the influence
of drugs, and greatly under
the influence of necessity—
I had to be something—
I thought of myself as a writer.
But it was Richard
who wrote every day,
and I hated him
for telling me:
“If you want to be a writer,
get off your ass
and write every day.
Work at it.”
He bullied me
until I pulled
a butcher knife on him.
Then we became best friends.
He would disappear
for days at a time.
Later I learned of the syndicate
he had joined, and his
buying trips to Mexico
married the girl he lived with
in the trailer, but their first night
together he had asked her,
“Do you think you might ever
love me?” Martha said,
“No. We’re too incompatible.”
I write this fourteen years later,
after visiting them
in Washington where Martha
is about to have their
has joined the military
and sees himself as a warrior,
along the lines of a soldier
in the Ghita, or one of
He is in great shape,
moving up the ranks
a little like his father.
He says he feels
a bit of fortune,
in the old sense of the word,
in his new occupation.
In Washington he read to me
a portion of the Ghita
where the gods tell Krishna
it would be wrong
for him not to fight,
though Krishna cannot stand
the thought of killing men
he knows to be his brothers,
same flesh and consciousness
as his own. The gods
assure Krishna that what exists
will always exist.
Somewhere in the Ghita
it says, through other lives
we find our own.
Richard works in counter-intelligence.
I write every day.
In late afternoon light the hemlocks shine like old silver;
a woodpecker drills its tattoos on a dying ash.
My father walks ahead in the woods by the river
where the marbled water rolls off the mountain’s back.
A warm wind softens the past, like the snow,
making him lighter, quicker, to every taker, the giver
explaining, “One must possess one’s ignorance
like knowledge.” He sweeps like a hawk along the river.
I shout to him through the speckled air, “Wait!
When you came to the end of your life, did you measure
from failure down or up from success?”
Silence. The wind in the hemlocks. A kingfisher’s cry.
“My father was a scholar and knew Greek. . . .”
That Browning line comes back to me whenever
I touch an old book of his. He left me
his books, and little else, or all he had.
And he knew Latin, loved it better even
than Greek. By his bed, when he died, a volume
of Livy lay open at the story about the geese. . . .
The Empire has fallen. Augustus’ friend, my father’s
dear fellow historian, is nothing but old
books now. My father is nothing but old books now.
(The story is they saw the enemy troops,
and woke Rome, squawking, and saved the city.)
“The barbarians are at the gates,” my father used to say,
here in America, not long ago.
the light out, put Livy face-down on the table
by his bed. The dark is about to explode
in his dear, sleepy heart. I like to think of him there,
dreaming of geese in good Latin.
Leaving the Rexall in Wayne, Nebraska,
I held the door for a woman coming in.
Just a little older, I was thinking,
than I am . . . and I have never seen that dark,
bloody-red shade of hair before. . . .
in the doorway.
”Vhere,” she said, “did you get dat?”
“Excuse me, miss?”
”A military jacket
yust like dat I do not zee a lonk dime. . . .”
“Oh,” I said, “I bought it in New York.
A copy of Afrika Korps fatigues. . . .”
”Ja. . . .”
”. . . Field-Marshall Rommel’s troops, y’know?”
she said (and her pretty face was rivered with tears),
“Mein Vater. . . .”
Once in awhile, we know. So, “Ah,”
I said, “he died in the desert, nicht wahr?”
she said, still crying, “Ja. . . .”
”May he rest in peace,”
I said, And she said, “Danke,” and went in at the door
I was holding open. And I went out,
letting it go.
He is running in Duke Forest,
secure in his air of separate
thought. The trees to his left are cut,
where a roadbed gleams its rails
and seals the houses beyond, like a town
he has known and lost. The sound
from there is banging on an anvil, dogs
in their pens chase him with their baying—
as if the dust wanted voice. One hand
huge enough to close him in its fist
follows like a ghostly uncle, finger out
to touch. Other lives pursue, like wasps
swarming after. Dust devil energies spin, potencies
in crockery bits wait near his feet, tiger
lilies crouch ahead, waiting for their spring—
now that the house is gone, with only
his steps in a yard that once was swept.
Where low sun in its long, underwater
gloom washes about columns of pines,
he smells resin that reminds him of an earlier
life. He feels forgotten speech flooding behind
his lips, feels wishes and memories, chemises
and masonry, iron spikes driven in by hand.
From the roadbed he inhales spilled oil,
the creosoted ties, vacuum after the locomotive’s
passage like the odor of a rifle shot.
The backyard farmer is still banging upon
an axle, as if he shod a whole cavalry;
the spader of spring earth is turning up
earthworms and earlier. The unsatisfied
lost lives swarm in their particles, like gnats
in summer air. They sting him and soothe him.
His emotions stream from their pressure like
a banner. Like a flag he is carrying, running.
Mary might be one year shy of puberty.
The boy her Joseph had not yet the hoarse voice
And pimples. The altar crackled with holly, purity
Gleaming in candle flames and in Venus’
Silver point in mother-of-pearl twilight.
A flashlight made Jesus the doll look white.
Wise men in silken bathrobes of purple were
Royal enough, walking and singing “We Three Kings”
With mothers’ bracelets and perfume. But what was myrrh?
Higher than Mary’s aureole, angel wings
Of foil reflected the flames, while tinsel halos
On sticks down tender necks made cameos
Of children’s familiar faces—now unrecognizable,
Almost, in their sudden glory. The story
Being read likewise misted our eyes with sweet trouble.
That desert was cameled, not humid, ancient and Holy,
Held palms beyond conception—though donkeys and mules
Were akin, and seeing these girls, one believed in souls.
The organ settled our quandary. Free to wander
A landscape where swamps and tobacco met streams siding
The hill Golgotha, at a manger both earlier and later,
We filled our lungs with alleluias, with angel tidings.
Once a wise man, kneeling on cedar in secret pain,
I saw a neighbor’s daughter as nothing I could explain.
Afterward we drove eastward, to a dirt road point
From which lights were like ornaments and the crown
Of colored bulbs on the water tank seemed to anoint
All under with blessing. News had reached our town
Once more, under a pearl-shell sky now deepened
As far as the stars. Humbly, we’d tried to understand.