Last time I posted a poem by this guy it was after having heard his voice for the first time in a while. Below, now, is the moment when, instead of traveling on a poetry fellowship, he shipped out for Vietnam. I’m not sure it’s the best way to start writing about that fact, but it seems only fair to him to keep his work shimmering in the back and front of my mind.
Curled in a window seat, level with wind-swayed oak,
aching on a green vinyl pad,
I think of the fortunes spent on the hardwood, wainscot
study, and the slates fitted
for the arbor walkways, the labor it took to lug bricks out
to each overly articulated
corner, in which nook a child of fortune, cushion- tassel
between his fingers, might
look up from his reading to see in heat waves rising
over the pale, shimmering
delphinium, a plot miracle perhaps, the sudden death
by spontaneous combustion
and the child wondering how, why, and could it have been?
My childhood bedroom, summer night, one hand marking
the book, the others palm
and fingers printing moist, disappearing shadows on the wall.
Then the college library,
Harkness Hall, and aged, white-cowled Father Benilde
smelling of coffee, muscatel,
and Old Spice as he opened the doors at 7:30. First in line
I was all business, heading
straight to my end of a long, immovable table, to my first
reading of Dante, a paperback
copy of Ciardi, with its cover of red, grinning, cartoon
Devils, which I in a fit
of verisimilitude (which word I had just learned)
add chard with a lighter.
My first lines that year: “Butt, butt, bale beast.
I fear your horns not
in the least! My intended tone was courtly love
but the words were
apostrophe to a buffalo in Roger Williams Park,
one that had leaned
hard into a sagging hurricane fence near my date.
The lines came to me
as I woke after a nap in the library. I still love
to sleep in libraries
whenever I can. I fix my head sideways over
my folded hands
and make room for the little puddle of drool
I’ll quickly wipe away.
I wake into a barely believable clarity
throughout my body.
I’m ready to grapple with fate, love, sex,
the stirrings within.
Over readers and sleepers alike hovers a mist
or a pollen, and in it
I see words shuttling back and forth like birds.
In the darkness or dream
something hugely important had been freed,
to roam. Grateful,
I say to myself, “Elephants have been walking.”
“Son, we must give this country great poetry!”
decreed the older poet
to my nodding head, as he shook my hand after
the Crystal Room reading.
Later, as I walked back to my dormitory, sleet
failed to cool me,
I turned his pronoun over and over, thinking,
yes, we do, we do.
On the news there was familiar footage:
a Phantom run
ending in a hypnotic burst of a lift yellow napalm.
I knew the war
was wrong, but that was why, I claimed, I should go,
to sing the song
of high lament, to get it into the books. Like Ishmael
I would sign on
for a three-year voyage under a madman captain.
Frissons to be had
instantly, a pity-the-youth-soon-dying look in the eyes.
“Are you crazy?”
said my girlfriend. But I was filled with vibrant life
and felt neither suicidal
nor confused when I dialed the Marine recruiter: “Yes,
I look forward to reporting.”
Phone in my lap, I sat sideways, my legs dangling
over the arms of my red
leather reading chair. A warm spring wind was
melting the snow
down to bright medallions of ice. I felt clear-headed
I just hoped the war would last until I got there.
Elephants were walking.
I do think I forgot the crucial question of the interview, after Marchant quoted this poem. As he packed for boot camp, did he bring a moleskin notebook? And in his heart was he following Homer, Hemingway or just Randall Jarrell?