V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




          —for Charles Wright


My dearest Anne, How kind of you to take
The time to write and catch me up on things. 
I miss so much our lunches after class, our talks,
Our walks along the river with your dogs. 
And though I hold you dear in different ways, 
You've become what I had hoped my daughter 
Would become, were she alive today, 
A companion with whom what narrow insight
Old-age affords might be exchanged 
For that wide and mirrory outlook which now 
Crowns your youth. But she is not alive,
Nor is my darling husband, and so it is
From time to time I think of you 
As one of them. I hope you don't mind,
Or mind too much, for it's in that spirit
That I'll ask you, after I return, to tell me more
About your plans to take up writing 
Now that you have finished school.  
You are, you know, the brightest student 
I have ever had, and I'd think you could do 
Anything you want. Which makes me wonder
If you really want a life that's so...so what?
So self-inflicted as this one. Looking back 
On fifty-odd years of it, I feel the kind of
Resigned acceptance one might feel for 
A small deformity, or a slight impediment 
Of speech which, however politely it's received, 
Nonetheless makes one think there's less 
To lose from saying nothing. Be that as it may,
It's certainly true that writing may provide
A "portal of escape" (the phrase, I believe, 
Is Ruskin's) into some less tiresome 
Version of ourselves.

       Speaking of which, 
You'll be amused to learn the foundation
Has finally settled me into my very own
Ruined cottage, a stone, two room
Fisherman's hut complete with a sway-backed
Roof that leaks, a rough wood floor,
And holes in the masonry large enough 
To fire a sizeable cannonball through. 
Creature comforts notwithstanding, I wake 
Each morning perched atop a freshly wind-swept
Promontory three hundred feet above
The Irish Sea, a shelving aerie from which,
Whenever the weather breaks, I can see 
All the way to the Isle of Man and across
To Galloway. On certain days it feels as if
I viewed the world from the highest terrace
Of human consciousness, a view 
Like that which Wordsworth claimed, 
Looking down on Chamouny from the Alps, 
Made "rich amends" (though amends for what
I can't recall). Other days, I've found such
Pleasant consolations elude me altogether,
And this prospect settles upon my heart 
A dull unshakeable sorrow, as though 
I'd viewed the world from the raw perspective 
Of the newly, prematurely dead. 

The weather hardly ever breaks, for beyond 
All that there's not much here but sheep 
And us. Which prompts me to say, it didn't 
Take long to fall back into the sheepish habits
Of our little flock. I write all day, then pass
The evenings in that guarded amity common,
I suppose, to writers' retreats all over the globe: 
The dinners are served up "family style"—
Roasted chickens, legs of lamb, heaping bowls 
Of boiled spuds laid out by six in the dining hall
Of a renovated fifteenth century castle
We've nicknamed "Fortress Hunger."  
The way we eat you'd think we'd actually 
Spent our days plodding behind a horse 
And plow; and afterwards, a turf fire banked 
Against the rising chill, we're invited to gather
In the sitting room for some pinochle
And inchoate chat. 
   Lately, however, I find
I'm more inclined to watch, from an overstuffed
Armchair beside the fire, the presqu'ile city 
Of an outgoing ferry crossing the horizon
Toward Scotland. It departs from Larne 
Each night at nine, the final passage of the day,
I'm told, and it takes about three-quarters
Of an hour to slide across the windowpane
And disappear from sight. A great birthday cake
Of a ship with SEA-LINK blazoned in huge
Blue letters along its side, it moves so slowly
It's hard to tell it moves at all; and yet, 
While it first sets off so brightly prinked
With running lights and cabin shine it casts
A green-gold shadow on the sea, it soon
Burns down to a smoldering glow, snuffed-out
Like a candle flame. One curious thing 
About it is, no matter how hard I try, 
No matter how fully I focus my attention, 
I can never actually see it fade, I can never
Make out even one of those thousand
Fine gradations, even one of those
Incremental shifts by which it finally 
           This will, I fear, sound strange 
To you, but it's as though throughout 
That brief excursion, that all-too-fleeting 
Sleight of hand, I'd watched from afar 
My own life pass across the windowpane: 
How it set out glamored in the burnished hope 
Of what they used to call "my gift," 
A sort of promissory note the Certitudes 
Launched toward a future where, 
At journey's end, it would be redeemed 
In a light like that which falls across 
The bees-waxed transoms of Vermeer.
But the journey, it happens, is not toward 
Such fulfillments, nor have I ever (as I recall)
Been touched by any such light as that. 
It's more as though, little by little,
In a slow declension imperceptible to sense,
The mind's eclipsed, the promise dims, 
And the light goes out altogether. 
And then one day you find yourself
Alone and a little embarrassed 
That you've dared outlive your gift.          
But knowing your tendency to give 
Such things your full consideration, 
I suspect you've already made your list, 
The pros and cons of the writer's life, 
And held them in the balance. And lest
My letter settles too easily on one side,
I'll confess that if I had it to do over,
If I knew in advance what I know now, 
I'd make the same choices I did then,
Though I hope you'll simply entertain 
The fact (or call it my strong impression)
That the supreme art is a happy life,
And a happy life anathema to art.

© by Sherod Santos


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