By David Gullette

Featured Art: Reading by James McNeill Whistler

Half asleep he saw clearly his own failures

and by the light of that hideous clarity

made a poem hard sleek and simple.

As he strung the words out from the bobbin

of his waking mind still half dreaming

he knew what he had seen, saw what he had felt

and each word rang a new bell

or bruised an old wound to bleeding

but he pushed on to finish it all the same.

When it was done he held it up and read

the triumphant chronicle of defeat

at his own hands: the craven appeasements

the months of capitulations

the years of friend after friend dying away

and vices equal to his sorrows.

He sent it off, within days came word

they would be glad to print it,

the season shifted and he slept late.

Then he was greeted by warm hands

and bright eyes, beautiful women saying

how much they loved his voice,

ready to mother his scars with kisses

and he joined the rank of heroes for a spell.

Time slipped below and away

and new poets bloomed in his stead.

Deanthologized, calcified,

half remembered less than half the time

his waking nightmare lost its edge

caked with shelfdust in a hundred homes

or lost among Geographics in a yard sale box

until one bright Sunday sixty

or eighty or forty years later

a woman’s fingers spread these pages

and pause for a moment, her idle eyes

skimming the words like a bird

with its mouth half open in the surf.

She says to her friend hey, look at this

and they hunch over the brittle rag

the faded pulp and linen the old ink.

The sun comes in the window or down the block

or through the new leaves on the beech

uncurling like money.

The poem is almost falling apart in their hands

but he dreams them there

frozen in distant time in a room

or a street or a driveway littered with books:

he sees them standing still for a minute, or two,

their eyes running over the lines, reading.

David Gullette was a founding editor of Ploughshares, and for many years Literary Director of the Poets’ Theatre. He has written two books about revolutionary poetry in Nicaragua, and he teaches English at Simmons College in Boston.

Originally published in NOR 6

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