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The Uses of Nostalgia

ISSUE:  Winter 1994


Twenty years ago there was a life for each of us
to turn away from
or embrace. A song returns to remind me
of what I must have felt,
and when it’s over, I play it back again.
Each time it’s true.
Don’t we look beautiful in the picture
no one ever took,
the clear sky unfurled above us, the wind
ruffling our hair,
everybody’s real life just about to begin?


I know nostalgia
wants to make the present
feel bereft: a way of pretending,
neither the truth, nor invention.
as a disease; sentimental
yearning for the past.

First love. Second love. All that brilliance
the years have blurred, if not disproved.
Making the big play and winning the game.
Season after season, someone does it.


Above us the fan was slowly circling.
It was a room in which others
must have made love often, and sometimes
both of them felt good about it.
As we did just then, our bodies
allowing us the aftermath
that’s sweeter than desire—
and a whole day to follow
in which every small gesture
had already been explained.


Sometimes I can hear
the teacher in me speaking so passionately
about the world inside a book I’m sure
no one will leave the room
unchanged. Until I notice

who isn’t paying attention, disappointed
when it’s the prettiest girl
fiddling with her notes, no reader
for the poem so exact
it could make her fall in love.

And I haven’t forgotten nights
when desire was an instruction
my body refused to believe.
Then we had nothing that was right
to say to each other.


Then it’s not the past
I yearn for, but the idea
of a time when everything important

has not yet happened:
love, fame, happiness—
unrealized, yet certain,

like the moment when we take our places
in a theater:
that slow falling of the lights,

that hush
as the unseen curtain rises.


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