The night came quickly
tonight, and we’re only a few weeks from
the longest day of the year.
Time isn’t time but our experience of it.
So work today was followed by commuting
then by purchasing and finally
by planting: a blueberry into the stony earth,
mulch everywhere to fight
the drying sun, and my hands deep in the dirt.
Even showering didn’t remove
the soil beneath and beside my fingernails.
I carry the moist scent of earth
everywhere I don’t go.
I showered out the dirt and sweat.
Still, grit remained in my eyes. Some dirt
won’t wash away. Blood stains forever.
Leaving the shower, I was glistening, water
replacing sweat. Naked before the mirror
I saw what I was, and the air surrounded me again,
the heat closed in
Descending the stairs in the dark of early evening,
I found Nancy’s old friend Alexis unexpectedly in our house,
missing from our life for at least ten years.
Sometimes, interruptions take over a life,
so Alexis sat down and talked to us as he always had.
The man could hardly find us, after all
these years, and in the dark, but here he was,
and was who he was, maybe a little
greyer, but otherwise unchanged.
From this long silence, our conversation grew
as it always had: tales of Alexis’ girlfriends (never
had a wife), his translations from the Portuguese
(my mother written tongue), and literature. Maybe
I had forgotten that Auden had been a friend
of his family’s (many of his papers left with Alexis’ mother
before his death) or that Alexis had met Salinger
a few times (after Salinger’s divorced wife
had taken up with Alexis), or that he had traveled
South America with a beautiful woman
he didn’t love. A life lived but not found,
something like yearning had befallen him,
but deeper and permanent, something
irretrievable. We never live
the lives we mean to. We never are
the people we plan to be. (You
Lives interrupted by
the intersection of other lives, or abandoned
which guides us all.
If this were a real account of an evening’s words,
you would not have this sense that it was
an evening of sorrow. I spent the night making
wisecracks, and Nancy tried to remember
the teachers she’d had at Alexis’ college. We spoke
of writers who moved us. I tried to convince him
to add Flannery O’Connor to his course
on the short story. “If I were teaching
the short story,” I said, “I would start with
Flannery O’Connor, then add anyone
else. Only O’Connor is essential.” He said
that she was too difficult, that she made him
uncomfortable, though he understood her
genius, little crazed devout southern Catholic
girl. (But don’t say “girl.”)
That, I told him, was the reason for teaching her.
We need to be uncomfortable and confused.
How else can we be human?
Alexis is a man of deep insights,
and he suggested that O’Connor tricks her readers,
because those bourgeois readers always believe,
deep where their souls might have been stored,
that they are better than the semi-literate characters
occupying O’Connor’s imagination. “Whom is better than who;
I is better than me,” he said, suggesting the symptomatic
blindness of hypercorrection.
And he proposed that J.D. Salinger,
Bobby Fischer, and Glenn Gould were afflicted by
a sense that their work was too good
for this pale world. That Salinger believed
his work ruined by the paucity of his readers’
intellect. That Fischer didn’t want to play against
mere humans but wanted a match against God.
That Gould could not imagine people
capable of appreciating his talent.
And maybe Alexis was right,
or maybe these three people were
men, and believed too deeply
what they shouldn’t have
believed at all.
Alexis reminded me that I had
disapproved of some relationship of his, but
I’ve forgotten the details. Maybe
he abandoned a woman or let a woman he didn’t love
care for him. (I remember one of them
crushing his pills for him.) We have all abandoned
people. We all have discarded lives we had once
held carefully in our hands.
It seems that maybe I have pushed you
when you weren’t ready for pushing,
seems that I’ve wanted you so much
to be the poet you are that I forgot the man
you are and the man you want to be, maybe
even forgot that I can’t even write a poem,
just break prose into lines, just
fall into the trap of the cute linebreak, not
a poet but a player with words. Just remember
that my forcefulness and my disregard for
the norms of human interaction come from
a passion for your work, for words so carefully wrought
and painful in their revelations. (I stood
naked in front of my mirror, this evening, but
I couldn’t see myself. Water covered everything
there was.) I am a loiterer among the words
where you toil.
Last week, I tracked down four of your books,
and bought each so that they arrived on my fiftieth
birthday (yesterday), and I would have read
these books tonight, but Alexis arrived, and I talked instead
about writers I rarely focus on now.
Talk is the converse of everything we say.
When this evening ended (with the grilled salmon
and the steamed broccoli, and Nancy’s delicious bean salad
with chopped red onions and two kinds of olives
eaten and the conversation paused), I walked Alexis
out into the warm darkness and directed him east
so that he could eventually drive the dark and dangerous
Taconic south to New York City, where he will dismantle
the remains of his mother’s life. A woman dead
for five years. He seems to have kept her alive for
this fingers’ grasp of years. Maybe for love.
I didn’t wear a shirt in tonight’s heat,
so Alexis saw the scar in my chest, that persistent
evidence of surgery on my heart. As he left,
he looked again at the scar, asking me
if I’d be okay.
“I’m fine for now,” I said, “but everyone’s only
fine for now. That’ll end sometime for all of us.”
It occurs to me that some of these stories
are secrets, that I shouldn’t send them
to you, or let others see them, but
it’s too late to start over.