Poverty of the Age
A few coins surprised me, there on the street,
And as I paused, from the opposing house I saw a lamp lit
In an empty front room, blue inlaid dishes laid out,
A setting for two, cabinetry gleaming on the far sidewall,
Curtains half-drawn, a place in waiting.
The road before me seemed pock-marked, and bare.
A late snow had begun to fall, and a small wind rose,
Scuttling leaves and old papers, obscuring the streetlight.
I glanced at the street again, fearful, then hurried on.
Later, I saw that the coins were gone,
And joined the waiting others, making slow turns
Around the block, silence growing around us each,
A chrysalis of sorts, though nothing emerged.
We told ourselves that it was not the coins we sought,
But the disappearance that they represented.
It was a lie, and though not a big one, and only the first,
It was still a way of forging truth into something useful.
It was early spring when I had the dream: so many postcards.
Pedestrians. That frog-smell, from the lake.
I spent my days inside, avoiding people, reading, thinking how
Foreign capitals might appear, countries in red, ranked by interest,
But I never got past listing the first 80 from memory;
In those gloomy days I dreamed of them all dancing together,
Imperfectly, as if this was their moment.
They danced badly, without definable style,
But if they knew it, it did not stop them.
They had momentum, and seemed not to care
If they danced together. War seemed the only imminent.
A confirmation came later that fall,
In one morning’s failing light, when we saw
A man on the curb with a crushed orchid in his hand.
His car door was open, not 20 feet away,
And the keys lay on the pavement next to him.
He was weeping, and could not speak.
He looked, we thought, foolish in his white tails and tears—
Like an ambassador without a country, one said,
Or a bouncer to a closed heaven, said another.
But it was his moment. We did not reach out to help him.
We looked at one other, but could not maintain our stares.
We were fearful, thinking we knew what it all meant:
Doves. Mud. An endless story of a lost ark and a mad captain.
Our days went badly after that. It was winter—
A full coursing of the mathematics of death, algebra of apocalypse....
News from everywhere. History more terrible
With each passing month. 300 days of darkness,
The analgesic light showing perhaps an hour a day,
Then failing into daily snow and biting cold. War everywhere then.
Poverty everywhere. Absence, sudden and merciless,
As the only constant. The dream of the countries
And the weeping man on the street appeared in retrospect
Clear omens to us all. Our world seemed to fill
With lives without presence, with a massive childish
Failure to thrive, with terrible negligence in the heartland.
In the harrowing parlance of that imperfect time,
What we needed we could never find. We became zealots,
And now, with no other reason to do so, barely spoke.
Countries and causes disappeared like coins, one by one. We didn’t care.
Once in awhile the relatives cracked their knuckles,
Though it was the absence of particular feeling that hurt.
In the worst of those months of willful systemic erasures
I remembered some of the newly contestable things
That once had made me happy, and that had seemed for a time
Almost enough—a glancing kiss in rain,
That was almost an accident (but it was not),
The secret grail, the lover’s code
Of sighs and fingertips, like the silences
Of libraries in after-hours, or cars
Parked for days on streets
Where only the old live.
The Love and Death Boy
Let me tell you a story about a man named John,
An old friend dead 50 years now—think of him with his cat and guitar
And his beautiful poems scattered all around.
We’d miss him more, except for our stories;
For memory is a way of touching, like food, and song.
He called one rainy night, this was in the Iowa days,
2 am, a drunk man in a phone booth, holding a No Parking sign:
Woman trouble, he said. Six weeks of dating and she asking
Constantly if he loved her, and when finally he said that yes,
Yes he did, that being what he thought she wanted,
She said no, no, she couldn’t deal with so heavy a commitment.
What was he to do? About his life, his love, the No Parking sign?
We talked for two hours; at least, I thought, you got the sign out of it.
He did better in his next affair. The woman stayed. The career burgeoned.
He was a wonderful writer. I loved him very much.
When he died, near 30-ish, too young, just as his life had finally settled
(Another perhaps of God’s bad jokes), the rest of us wondered
About him, of course, and young as we were then, about ourselves also:
What will any of us really have to trade with death when it comes
But our own poorly-used names, maybe a cheap suit, crappy jewelry,
Some bad cosmetics at the wake, to hide age and sorrow?
Well, says Death to us in this made-up story, what did you expect?
Did you think I had so much to give?
O friends, do not be deceived:
This story of love, death, and memory
Was always about complicity, not communion.
The Three Season Room
“I don’t listen to the news any more, only to Mozart.”
He spoke beautifully, and had beautiful hands, and as he spoke
He touched them together and touched the things around him
As a blind man might, for reassurance or support.
Around us his dogs fought over a string and ball toy;
It made them happy, and it made him happy to watch.
He spoke of his loneliness, not casually, but not hiding it.
“Fear is natural,” he said. “But to surrender to cowardice—
Some failures you never escape.” He spoke of his past,
But without bitterness; so many had forgotten him.
Did it matter anymore? The morning was so gray that even
The sun seemed gray, and our words seemed sometimes gray;
We spoke of other poets and their poetry, questioning equally
Those who wrote too little and those who wrote too much:
Who can we trust? “Perhaps It doesn’t matter, perhaps
The only important poem is the one to come.”
Later, touring his house, he pointed out failures of
The builders or prior owners. “I’ll repair these, some day
When the cost is less, or when it doesn’t matter.”
He quoted John Ford on French movies: “‘All they do is
Get in and out of cars.’ But so much of life is like that!”
And then Wordsworth: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness...”
Does that apply to Ford? No, he said, maybe to John Wayne.
Or maybe to the country, if you can think of the country as a person.
I wanted to say to him, I dream of happiness continually
And it is always the same: A dream without an object.
But I said nothing; why add to his disappointment? By then
It was late morning, time to leave. The dogs were hungry.
What is this room, I asked. “The three-season room.
We don’t use it the whole year.” What do you do then?
He shuddered and said, “We close it off for the bad season.”
Moments of Winter Memory
The winter mind sees everything as like itself,
A desperate granularity, a spectral refraction.
Those chairs that sat on the porch all summer,
The moments of entwined love and laughter
That surrounded and filled them so many days
Will have their time again, but it is not today.
Today everything you touch is cold, a season’s
Cold pastoral whose message is that this
Is a day for disappearance, for blurred outlines
Of things held at distance, the movement of ghosts
Of old loves and of old moments that drift down
Like snow into furtive landscapes of memory.
Bob Herz is founder and, with Steve Kuusisto and Andrea Scarpino, editor of
Nine Mile Books and Nine Mile Magazine. He is is an MFA graduate of the
University of Iowa Writers Workshop, author of two books of poetry, former
editor of Seneca Review and the Hobart & William Smith College Press, and
various business and general publications. He worked for some years for the
State Legislature, where he authored the Arts & Cultural Affairs Law, the NYS
Poet and NYS Fiction awards, the Elderlaw, the Albany Writers Institute, and
many others. He is married and lives in LaFayette, NY