This is one of my earliest poems, also one of the longest. There is excess and error; but, when I happened on it in a yellowing journal last month, I couldn’t help feeling some affection for it, as one does the blunders of youth. It brought back memories of what I was feeling when I wrote it, and why. Something Neil Creighton said last month about his early poem, “Earth Music,” prompted me to send it to Verse-Virtual: “. . . it is important to me,” wrote Neil, “so I offer it with this little sidestep: I redefine ‘best’ to mean “most important”. Certainly not the best but, still, important.
In the Days of the Kalda Railroad
In the days of the Kalda railroad I
would sit beside the window of my room
that gave out toward the empty white expanse.
In those deep noons my brain and eyes would strain
in hopes to see the palest thread of smoke,
betokening my duty with the lamps,
and that phantom come so slow and smooth
across the city’s steppes, from far away.
A sighing cold would pierce the caulking while
a pricking wind danced tumults in white dust;
the sun, white as ice, rolled faint-hearted in
a brittle metal bowl.
From time to time
some visitor would come: a merchant in
a sleigh with bells; a student google-faced
and deferential to my blinking eyes;
twice the inspector, bundled and harassed,
come to check my books. But they were few,
and soon I lost the art to talk or to
belong. These were, at times, only my dreams.
Not quite, not quite my only dreams, only
the least disputable in face of such
immense distance, in point of that flat world.
Quite other dreams would stop without any
benefit of bells or compassionate leers,
of tight-fisted or suspicious glance:
furry beasts circumspectly stalking around
my walls, peering sidelong through the glass;
some nosed so boldly that they breached my door.
One tunneled underneath the floor and spent
three days in moaning and lament. Another
took the form of an enormous rat and
challenged me to duel him for my bread.
The way in which one treats of sacred texts—
respectful, recondite and bent—will serve
to illustrate the quality of work
brought to perform like circus beasts by you,
scraping ringmaster in make-up of a clown.
There lacked the bareback rider in her
tutu, making as to dance on some
great black stallion’s back: instead
there were your books, your rats, and all your dreams.
All such you would direct of habitude,
marshalling your wit to propound the stuff
of empty exorcisms, plain’s center.
Thus you’d sit and see the figures sit,
heart clutched by long forgotten threads that
tended over infinite steppes without
once knotting; these rank dreams were mere child’s
bogus loops—unsure, potential, and false.
So would one sit to crack a nut, or to
be pinioned in between the raw infin-
itude of a double-mirror, vain of
mirrors—mercurial, but dry and halt.
Even here, turned to this belated pas-
ture, we circumnavigate the vortex
in the humus; on this greenish ocean
too we euphemize our course, anxious of
the maelstrom; prudent though at a loss and
Certainly it came in time, in time
yet not in time. Can we see a thing too soon
and not feel it too late? Here, we touch our
tissues to our eyes, but our sorrow, that
was not in time—too late, quite monthless.
The perfect sphere is just a bubble which,
bursting, sticks to our wrestling limbs, scourging
two angels with its film and soothing two
demons with its glue. So, holds last do
not last: the perfect bubble bursts in time.
I made my garden in Kalda days
and planted seven seeds:
and all around I built a maze
to confound avid weeds.
For so I had been told to do
by the instruction book
tossed by the stoker as he flew
by without even a look.
My seven seeds had been a gift
from one who’d spent the night
after I’d found him in a drift
and warmed him at my light.
My spade was from the engineer,
who said he’d a new one;
my hoe was from an old muleteer,
said I’d been kind to his son.
The garden I made in Kalda days
grew very well at first;
the hardy sprouts stuck through my maze
watered with my thirst.
Two of the seeds grew into trees,
a cypress and a yew;
the one all black against the breeze,
the other thick and blue.
Two were bushes, lush and green;
they made a pleasant mound—
sweetest of hedges ever seen
growing in the ground.
Two bloomed into flower-heads,
pale violets that wither,
remembrances in common beds,
But the last seed never grew at all,
though I took especial care;
not in the spring, summer, or fall—
yet the other six were fair.
One dry hot day a wind arose,
the worst day of the year;
no cunning maze can wind oppose
and it left my garden sere.
The trees were torn up by the root;
my bushes lay in shreds;
the flower snapped beneath my boot
beside their deranged beds.
Now when I think of Kalda days
I recall there were seven:
the six I did my best to raise,
one relegate to heaven.
The winters came: look and see their marks;
acid-white they were, just regard your face.
What might you care, you, such seasons to recall,
so in the end your wintry accounts
should tally, satisfactory to all?
Those late frigid hours, when so gently mounts
the moon, you wrote to please some bright city
on a rock; you summed and judged it witty.
Farewell to splayed black ink and speckled snow,
the cold light enchased in the window-frost:
more desolation in that paper’s row
of ciphers, where you totaled what you lost,
than in all the degrees of silver rime
picked out on the glass pane, marking time.
And yet you add and yet, the season trims
its spell the time subsists, and even now
can lap you where you sit, circling your limbs
in those old purblind vistas of wind and snow.
Yourself taught me that charm’s a thing antique;
and charm, you know, outlasts a fit of pique.
And what’s the sense of angst among these stones?
Do we all conjure up one fleshless face
that by profound approval in our bones
ridicules each little tear, each embrace?
Every season steals into our eye
with its sincerity; the last we must
obscure with pious phrase, with eulogy,
blow words into the wind that chills this dust.
Autumn outstrips the summer; summer spring,
then winter’s snow the fall’s jeweled leaves;
successive is the fate of everything
that roots, rots, that greens, grows, grieves.
It’s cold. I shiver, tremble for an hour,
see a marble angel, a frozen flower.
This poem first appeared in Hawai’i Review
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