Poems December 1984
From what I remember of the light’s angle,
of the sun, mornings, hammering our backs,
slamming our shoulders, playing on our faces,
surf on one side, horizon on the other,
we must be walking back to the hotel,
four of us, having, midway, made the turn
marking the farthest south we would advance.
Now we head north once more, the four of us,
Mother and Father at the center, I
next to Mother, my brother flanking Father,
I (even then) the one nearest the sea,
my brother, on the landward side, the farthest.
Mother holds my gloved hand in her gloved hand,
very gently, it seems, encourages me
to smile for the roving photographer
(clusters of whom, from seven on each morning,
patrol the boardwalk, one end to the other,
springing from nowhere when a family group
or a honeymoon couple has been sighted)
who has just now, just now, appeared before us,
materializing, it seems, from the sea,
promising a family portrait not merely
true-to-life but, should that be possible,
what might prove infinitely better: truer.
Mother and Father are, in time, persuaded;
they smile, my brother smiles, and I, encouraged
(though perhaps I would have done so regardless),
smile, too, that same half-squint, half-grin I wear now
when the sun slams too hard, or the light’s glare
sets much too fierce a blaze, and light pours, pours,
blinding me a little (though it is blindness
I sought, and blindness, even now, I seek).
Father has slipped his arm beneath my brother’s,
shyly, perhaps, yet not self-consciously,
a tenderness quite nearly inadvertent,
almost precisely counterbalancing
Mother’s gesture in taking my gloved hand,
though Father’s movement may be in response
to the sudden appearance of this young man
aiming his black machine at us, promising
something truer than the mere true-to-life:
fidelity, the real made much more so,
life, or four lives, made large as life, or larger,
because of what the lens would have us see—
an idea quite irresistible,
he thinks, to family groups (the four of us),
to young couples spending their honeymoons
watching the moon rise, hearing thewaves break,
walking the boardwalk, back, and forth, and back,
until, at last, they turn to their hotels
(turn back, or turn again, or for the first time;
what shall matter is that they make the turn)
at some point farthest south from here, advancing,
and, in the dark, dream splendor in the turn.
Mother’s coat, long and black, with a fox collar
from whose recesses her face now looks out,
pale flower framed by rings of jet-black petals,
is fastened with one button at the waist.
With the gloved hand not holding mine, she clutches
a small purse, also black, close to her chest.
Her cloche, black, too, has scallops of thin half-moons
cut delicately to ride on her forehead,
her dark hair visible at the right temple
where the brim of the cloche, seen slowly rising,
has been designed, one gathers, to reveal it.
Her shoes seem somehow splendid, though they seem
wholly unremarkable, too, at first glance,
at second glance, as well: thin, pointed tips
catching the light that showers us that day,
their balance, their proportion, sane and just,
undecorated, plain, above all quiet,
holding beautifully, it seems, to their ground,
Mother’s ground, holding neither tentatively
nor tenaciously, leaving room between
for where she stands, or may decide to stand,
the secret lodged within them, should there be one,
Mother’s secret, as well: simplicity
(disputably, we are the shoes we wear).
Father, beside her, grey on grey on grey,
wears a grey felt hat, grey trousers, grey spats,
and a form-fitting coat of darker grey.
The hat’s brim throws deep shade across his eyes.
He wears a freshly starched shirt collar, white,
and a dark necktie in the center of which
two or three tiny diamonds of a stickpin
snare the light with each step that Father takes.
The hand closer to Mother (Father’s right)
holds itself in check where the coat cuff ends,
the thumb gripped by the other fingers, hidden,
secreted in the palm, none of the fingers
extended, pointed down (some vast restraint
seems locked within that small gesture, some sense
of instinctive reserve), almost as though
Father does not yet quite know what to do
with that hand, with the fingers of that hand,
the one I have described as nearest Mother.
Dapper, stylish, meticulously groomed,
light lapping his dark grey, form-fitting coat,
his felt hat tipped at just the proper angle,
spats preserving the high shine on his shoes,
strolling with wife, with two sons, back and forth,
from one end of the boardwalk to the other,
diamonds lighting small fires in his necktie,
nests of shadows clustering in the folds
where, at mid-calf, mid-shin, his trousers break,
Father has the look of someone substantial.
My brother, the most difficult to fathom
(though I by no means claim ease with the others),
is, that winter, past ten, not yet eleven.
What can one say about a boy of ten?
I might describe apparel: his blue coat,
the scarf tucked in the collar, leather gloves.
I might mention his cap, his argyle socks,
the knickers showing from beneath his coat.
What, in any case, would you know of him
you would not know of any boy past ten
brought by his parents to the beach one Friday
for Father’s birthday weekend late in winter?
I think my guess is that he would be elsewhere,
given the choice—I cannot say just where
(even strolling the boardwalk that day, he seems
in the process of drifting off, like smoke),
though I should add that nothing in the picture,
nothing I can quite specify, says that.
(If the picture were faded, streaked, showed age marks,
edges blistered, deformed, sections bleached out,
some faces (and lives with them) turning yellow,
too late to be retrieved, to be pulled back,
it is my brother I would have expected
to fade, to disappear before the eyes,
to bear whatever loss or devastation
the photograph had visited upon it,
my brother in whom damage would have spread,
in whom the most destruction would occur,
his figure, his, first, foremost, lashed, effaced).
Yet the feeling persists: that smile he smiles,
that look his eyes bear, even that half-shadow
cast by his cap across his brows, his forehead,
are all (and it lies in nothing apparent,
nothing the photographer caught that morning,
salt on the air, the wind up, the surf breaking,
search as I may, pursuing, lead by lead,
each likely (or unlikely) lead, all fruitless,
nothing, nothing whatever, one can hold to,
point to, identify, articulate,
hope to articulate) quite temporary,
wavering, failing, falling, giving way.
The pocket of my brother’s coat we see,
the one so sharply outlined by the sun,
bulges with something it it (games?, a book?),
lending distortion to his silhouette;
with Father anchoring him to the boardwalk,
with all of us (I could not know it then)
somehow, each in his way, engaged, in secret, in some last, futile, desperate attempt
to keep him here with us, here in the Thirties,
here on these pine-wood planks skirting the sea,
under light of a morning in late winter
assailing us all day, on all sides, full force,
making us squint, casting shadows, half-shadows,
across our living, not-yet-ravaged faces,
lighting our shoes, our lovely, Thirties’ shoes,
our spats in flame, our stickpins raging, raging,
our boys’ caps, our black cloches, our fedoras,
one wonders what it was stored in that pocket,
what he might have kept in it, chose to keep,
what seemed to him worthy enough for saving,
what (perhaps more than anything) he held to,
however tenuous and brief the holding.
In the photo his shoes seem new, unscathed,
looking as though they had not yet been walked in,
the light that issues from them so contained,
so manageable, it appears, his smile
so compliant, his breathing, like his presence,
so unobtrusive, I am almost certain
(definitiveness quite eludes me here:
freedom from doubt, pertaining to my brother,
is arrogance, mistaken, self-deluding)
the way he holds himself may have to do
with having come to learn—how can I say this?—
what it will be to die, and to die young.
The woolen cap and leather gloves I wear
match the cap and the gloves my brother wears.
A white silk scarf is knotted at my throat.
I am dressed for a cold day: collar turned,
scarf tucked about my neck, brown leather leggings
shielding my legs from the high coastal wind.
I am smiling, of course, and, as reported,
of the four I am closest to the sea,
so that, as we walk north, light strikes me first.
I reach only to Mother’s waist, am blond.
I squint beneath the sun. My cap is set
at what one wants to call a jaunty angle.
I take short steps that winter; I am four.
The waves assault the coast; I hear the gulls cry.
My breath, turned smoke, is rising on the air.
In the background, not completely in focus,
lies the resort itself (the sea unseen),
a mise-en-scène of small shops, baths, hotels,
lining the boardwalk; a few scattered figures,
fading to haze, to blur, loom in the distance,
early walkers like us, although it seems
we have the boardwalk largely to ourselves.
Something about me seems so wholly present,
so here-and-nowhere-else (the way my face
takes light?, the confidence I seem to walk with?,
how I grip Mother’s hand?), it is a struggle
to imagine Father, arm slipped in mine,
taking care to hold me before I drift off,
having to anchor me, needing to root me
here in the Thirties, where one finds oneself,
beneath this clamor February sends up
from one end of the boardwalk to the other,
not fifty paces from where we are strolling
this tumult of grey-blue-green sea, momentous,
unrelenting, asking, over and over,
one question, one, offering just one answer
(neither of which, it seems, has been disclosed,
not that year nor in any season since),
spray on the air beading our lips, our faces.
(Scrutinizing this photograph with me,
decades later, tracking down lost details
until, one by one, each has been recovered,
restored to its incomparable luster,
the past freed from the dust which settles on it,
freed from the past, made whole, retrieved intact—
Those were drop earrings I wore, see them?, pearls;
that vast collar was fox, black-as-night fox,
and your leggings had buttons down the side
which I would fasten with a button-hook,
slowly, quite slowly, Mother turns to me
(the turn as lovely as the need to turn),
tears filling her eyes, spilling to her cheeks,
whispers these words: You two were dazzling, dazzling.)
We must be walking back to the hotel,
having gone as far south as we intended.
There is an Oriental curio shop
in the lobby, beside the elevator,
where, each day, I linger, peer through the glass.
In a window showcase framed with bamboo,
slivers of sun caught among painted fan spokes,
teak elephants, necklaces, cloisonné
butterflies, daggers, jardinieres, blue inkpots,
I spy a small, square box of jade and ivory,
its latch whittled of ebony and pearl,
as beautiful as anything, at four,
I have seen, hope to see, remember seeing.
I study butterflies, blue inkpots, daggers,
elephants, but it is this, this small, square box,
I pause at, point to, dream of; I say nothing.
Father and I enter the shop; a bell chimes,
and the proprietor comes from the rear,
partitioned by a screen of sleeping dragons.
The man wears sandals and a silk kimono.
Father says he has the extreme good fortune,
this man, of having on display a box
it would give his son, me, pleasure to hold,
much pleasure, in fact. Is this possible?
The man unlocks the showcase, lifts the box
, places it, gently, gently, in my hand.
There are carvings of nightingales and pine-boughs
spilling across its surface, down its sides,
a latticework of intricate cross-weavings
depicting some lost, mythic underbrush
in China (or in paradise)—black loam
(as black as Mother’s fox, perhaps), a stream,
a forest floor so dense, so rich, so tangled,
anything, one suspects, will grow here, flourish,
a grove of chinaberry trees to one side,
to the other a stand of one of each:
lime, weeping cherry, almond, plum, quince, peach,
a great, fat, plume-tailed goldfish, in the foreground,
spouting water from jade-encrusted lips.
It is a puzzle as well as a box
(he is addressing me as much as Father):
first the spring which frees the latch must be found
before you can know what may lie inside.
And, should you find it (he now presses something,
and the lid opens), this is the reward
for your perseverance, your cleverness:
a second box, exactly like the first,
nightingales, pine-boughs, goldfish, fruit trees, stream,
is nestled in the first, fitting precisely.
But your confidence should not be excessive,
the man says, smiling, showing two gold teeth:
there is a latch to be sought out here, too,
but placed not where the first latch has been placed.
It is altogether another search,
another quest, you might say, to embark on.
His fingers glide across the second box,
smaller than the first; its lid now springs back.
Within it lies a box, quite small, a third box,
nightingales, pine-boughs, goldfish clinging to it,
crowding the glossy jade and ivory surface,
not a space left unfilled, undecorated.
Perhaps the third box should remain unopened,
at least for now, he says; when you have left here,
you can take with you dreams of what it holds,
what it may hold, even perhaps imagine
what, as well, it may not hold, for which one must
leave in the mind as much room as one can.
The box may do just that, no more than that:
keep us, for perhaps just a little longer,
open to astonishment, to surprise,
accessible to what one understands
dimly, imperfectly, or not at all,
just awhile longer, no more, just awhile.
We must be walking back to the hotel.
We will ride the elevator to rooms
streaked all day with the sun, fronting the sea.
(Even here, rising, I will hear the waves break.)
Father’s gift to me will lie on my bed
nestled in Chinese-red rice paper spattered
with dragonflies and willows in goldleaf.
I will hold it, run my thumb on the inlay,
turn it, glimpse views of paradise (or China),
ivory nightingales perched on jade pine-boughs,
a fish standing in midstream spouting silver,
pure silver, from two semi-precious lips,
content, for now, to let the latches wait,
postpone the search, delay that quest of quests
to which the man in sandals had alluded,
at least until some principle is mastered
(vague, though no less substantial for its vagueness)
of where the puzzle ends and box begins,
where the border between them, evenings, lies
why paradise cannot be China, too,
discrepancies of which I have no inkling.
Father will order cocktails from room service
as the sky darkens; after naps and baths,
we will descend once more to the first level
(Palm Terrace, the old operator sings out,
as he slides the door back and we debark).
From our window table we see the first stars,
winter stars, brilliant, distant, ringed with ice.
(I know the phases of the moon, the planets,
names for the constellations, thanks to Father.)
Mother wears a green frock tiered with black fringe
and a choker of beads about her throat
whose stones I ask the name for: opal, opal.
(Each night I ask, loving the music words make;
in the mind the sound seems one with the stone.)
Dinner is served; night falls; the moon appears,
a half-moon, like those circling Mother’s cloche.
To one side of the potted palms, a trio
plays, has in fact been playing since we entered.
(I seem not unaware of what it plays,
of what, even then, lights dimmed, candles lit,
couples, one by one, finding their way slowly
to the dance floor, stars rising, music “means.”)
My brother kicks me underneath the table;
I may begin to cry; I kick him back.
(Beneath the linen cloth, I glimpse his shoes;
so polished, so well-cared for, so robust,
so durable, their soles so permanent,
so—what word suits them best?—impenetrable,
shoes that seem not quite his, or not yet worn,
but lent him, lent him briefly, perhaps rented.
I know my brother’s shoes by heart, by heart.)
A cake is brought for Father from the kitchen;
the musicians, on cue, play Happy Birthday.
Mother and Father rise to dance; we giggle.
Through the main course I hear the surf, now muffled,
repeat, over and over the same question,
offer, over and over, the same answer,
neither of which a child of four deciphers
though, in time, with such mastery as promised,
such gifts of understanding, of control,
such fluency, such vision, such command,
I may be able to have pieced together
some underlying principle pertaining
to questions and to answers, objects, words,
to one thing and another, separating
my brother from his shoes, dreaming from dying,
box from pure puzzle, puzzle from pure box,
nightingale from pine-bough, goldfish from stream,
the border between paradise and China
(or provinces of each which lie between),
that faint line (tide?, waves?, salt?, horizon?, boardwalk?),
indistinct in the dark from window tables
facing the night sea, rumored to divide them.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 4, on page 37
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