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.
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