POETRY: Impromptu Novena In September by William Wenthe
Understand the light, then, and recognize it. (Corpus Hermeticum)
Memory is a kind of accomplishment. (William Carlos Williams)
Birdsong on the book page, birdsong on the brown rug;
fanfare of birdsong above the radio orchestra;
birdsong in shafted light of the wooden blinds.
In one moment I heard them—by which I mean
they’d all along been singing, building in my ear,
but only just then, my brain embraced what it heard—
all the neighborhood birds, a seamless textile of song.
Ordinary song, but not the ordinary time for singing—
was it something to do with sunlight, returning this afternoon
after days’ long cloud-dregs of a distant hurricane?
Maybe there’s a cause; but cause belongs to time.
What I heard was other than time.
A vow I made this year, lost with the book of butterflies.
Or mislaid. I’d vowed to learn their names.
But now the backyard flickers with the strobe of their wings,
lavender, cream, and butter, orange, black and gold,
nosing about the shrubs, or with a single wingbeat rising over the fence—
a dozen or so of the same kind, preoccupied with our oak tree
(Is it the “sweets,” as the tree man calls the sap from the broken limb?)
And in my head a flurry of names I like—
sulfurs, cabbage whites, fritillaries, checkerspots—
but cannot link with the actual butterflies around me.
Funny, but I feel
as if I’m trying, from this attention
to insects’ small motions, to piece together
evidence, to make an argument:
for what I know—that I am moved to these creatures
because they assuage some ache I cannot name;
against what I also know—that much of our knowing
is also the source of pain.
The rebuttal of butterflies….
But the angled hands of my wristwatch interrupt—
it’s time to fetch my daughter home
from nursery school; to stake a modest claim
on the future tense: a flowering plant we recently bought,
still bucketed on the porch.
We’ll dig a hole—or I’ll dig, she’ll watch
and poke with a pink toy shovel—
and we’ll plant the flowering lantana, more commonly known
as butterfly bush.
This afternoon, light spills on the trees;
The trees spill shadows beneath them. Just enough mist
for air to be liminal, silvery. Leaves steeped in light.
And that soil-leaf smell—the just-mowed lawn in the arboretum,
the rain stored within, released to the sun—a scent that spells me
from my comfortable exile here in the southern plains, and summons back
the autumn leafmold and grassy scent of earlier places—
mountain trails, or wooded lots not yet gutted for houses or parking.
Memory, they say, is most vividly triggered by scent;
and why not? The molecules are exactly the same. Descending the steps
to the cellar of a London bookshop—it’s the basement of my childhood,
bluegray light from the window wells, my father’s workbench.
Not nostalgia—but elemental remembrance. How this late season,
summer dismantling itself, writing its own elegy in gorgeous lightfall,
presses me with that mingled moral of presence and loss: ashes
of my mother, my wife away for a week, my daughter an afternoon,
and shimmer of wavelight on a duck’s breast, sheer electric streak
of blue damselflies in the lily pads—all these—crystallize, and cut.
I follow motions of a migrant warbler
feathered in drabs of olive and gray, disguised
as the underside of trees it probes in mid-September.
the way the needle beak extracts
gnats, beetles, tiny flies
from underleaf and crease of bark—an effect
I’ve always likened to embroidery;
though, watched for long, it’s not so exact
a match, for this flitting so indirectly
from limb to limb, or between the trees
suggests another analogy:
I think of Socrates,
how his questions crept from casual
pleasantries, to overarching verities—
as sleep, he’d say, compares to being full
awake; or as the soul, scrambled
with body, compares to the soul eternal.
So what sort of a sampler
(to follow my earlier line
of thought), would the needling beak of this warbler
have stitched, if its movement through time
could remain visibly evident
like a bright thread carried behind
the bird as it goes, obliquely intent,
from twig to twig, tree to tree, backyard, park, mountains, and further—
the whole downward slope of continent—
as if time were its own rememberer?
Hardly the norm, the enlargement of these afternoons,
this charmed light. More to be expected
is more like yesterday: the mail as usual,
the white and blue van parked before my house,
as usual. Only this time, an SUV pulled up behind—
four men emerged, with nametags and clipboards,
and followed our letter carrier on her rounds.
Experts, no doubt, here to time
the footsteps, to reduce to a ratio of seconds
per house, the real-weather work of Sherri,
our mailman (so to speak)—who knows our names.
And most of what gets mailed is forgettable—
bills and advertisements, throwaways and junk.
Still, I thrill at the mail’s arrival, remembering
writing letters by hand, receiving them
from others: thoughts written in the past, calling
at my door. Anamnesis, an un-forgetting,
the return of someone held dear…. “Dear,”
that salutation of past to present;
but maybe I’m pushing it—the metaphor,
the memory—were it not for the presence,
this memory pressing upon me all day,
of a friend I once knew, and could have known better.
A letter that came, decades back, with a newspaper clipping.
Not from him, but about him: murdered in Prospect Park.
Dear Fenton from Brooklyn—Fenton,
with tombstone teeth and half-hunched shoulders
and glasses mended with a Band-Aid—that bodily frailty
that bespeaks an inner magnitude, as though strained
by the freight of soul. Fenton who came shyly
to our habit of clowning, but then came to joy in it,
cracking up our friend Mike and me as we’d wait
for rock concerts beneath the faded remains
of painted vaudeville signs on the high brick façade
of the old Academy of Music…. He went on
to study theology at Fordham; and we fell
out of touch…until the letter I received from Mike,
with a small item from the Daily News,
which as I read opened up like subway doors:
Fenton, stabbed to death, bloody, and wearing
a red dress, stockings, heels, lipstick and liner.
Carefully he must have prepared, that Saturday night,
and sauntered to the darkest part of the park—which is to say,
he walked into the garden, knowing he’ll be killed.
Asking, somehow it feels to me now, to return.
Even the evenings won’t leave me alone: dreaming, I rise
to this weather, its bluegold light, the sun angled
like an artist’s brush, burnishing the glint of leaves, deepening
the shades, even to the blades of grass we walk on:
a crowd of us wearing dark suits and dresses, in a band of meadow, wild
with lilac and tiger lily, that somehow lies beneath
the Palisades on the Jersey side of the Hudson.
Greengray water silvers downriver in steady breeze,
and I can see wharves and ferries of Hoboken, high-rises of Manhattan—
each one distinct in the special handling of the light.
I mean to say, it’s the rural past folded into the past
of the industrial port, folded again into the slick
co-ops and office towers of today: time refracted in itself
like waves of sunlight in river waves, seen underwater.
Whatever one thinks of dream logic, those occult convolutions,
its rhetoric is redundancy: the feeling
of being here persuades me I’m here. And the feeling
of recognition, as if this grassy level along the river,
where a crowd of us are walking toward a chapel,
has come to seek me out, has returned to me.
And my father hurrying there, black suit and tie, starched white shirt,
steps toward the riverbank, and I see
he is walking barefoot—and so I discover
it’s his own funeral we assemble for. Is that why
he hurries? He seems to know more than anyone
why we’re here, this old man hauling nine decades behind him.
The haul has frailed him. I want to help him cross
the rougher grass by river’s edge, so I push through the crowd;
but as I reach him he is already falling, straight
as a hammerstroke; but slowly—the moment exploded
by my own adrenaline surge. No splash—
then underwater, a swift sliding deeper, like flight.
The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned
can I not read those words, when I sit down this evening
under a tent of lamplight in the living room,
with borrowed iPod and ear buds, to record
poems for a colleague in the hospital?
I used to pass him in the supermarket,
among vegetables or fish counter, and we’d pause
to admire our two-year-old daughters, one red, one blond,
each like a lotus blossom sitting in the cart.
We both love William Carlos Williams—Spring and All
his favorite book, and mine. Now, the hidden growth
growing inside him, pressing against
his brain, leaves him medicated and bedridden,
unable to read but hoping for news
that, if not better, may stop getting worse.
So I’m leafing through a book of poems,
looking for words that might cover the stellar distance
between my ordinary expectations
(reading and waiting for the mail,
and later to stroll my daughter to the playground)
and the unsuspected place where he’s arrived.
I imagine I can draw the whale’s belly as well as anyone—
no moralized, gothic vault of ribs, no place,
but a cramped surround of muscle, acid, and brine,
utterly lightless. But what makes me think
I could address my colleague’s need? Only this, maybe:
that Jonah found room there for prayer. I remember
in the dream, when my father’s white feet,
the last of him, slid beneath the chill water, I did not hesitate at all
to dive in after him, to that polluted river the dream
would not let me, even in full dive, reach.
Seed pods of the locust tree,
leather-brown question marks in the grass.
In shadow, the grackles
seem like black holes; in sun,
small pavilions of iridescence. I am trying to understand
another afternoon of manic light—
affecting light, connecting somehow to affection.
But does it mean? Or is it only
my damn feelings flattering me again?
Would I feel this way if I’d gone a day without food?
Would I feel this way if I were the man waking in a hospital bed?
Would I feel this way….
—Except that the sun
rebukes the subjunctive: it is the strident voice of the present tense,
raging on the blades of grass, amid the leaves, against the clouds:
this is the present, so full it cannot be contained. Touch it
and it spills over into the past—not escape from the present,
but the past emerging, where it has always been,
bearing upon us—and by us I mean myself and the loves I call forth;
this is remembrance raised up
to sacrament; this is the ancient word, anamnesis:
calling forth the past, and the past in its willingness
to come forth, to ask of us: Do this
in remembrance of me. And circled at a table,
my family at suppertime, father and mother who are gone now, sisters and
who are older now, widowed, divorced and remarried, grandparents now—
but all that yet unhappened, hidden in the future invisible
at this table set in the past, and waiting:
heart’s blood, and the leaves in the windwaves,
green at rest, glittering in the surge;
the beat of wings above flowers, blue Russian sage,
wings in the ribwork of limbs, or to and from the lawn:
these are the ways we are given to see, our secular anamnesis,
immensity pressing on us, with a particular face;
these are the details that focus this present
that brims into past, the past passing back to me now.
This afternoon a cold front crowded in, sky overtaken
by hulks of clouds, deep-bellied and dull-sheened,
unpolished armor in a museum hall.
And isolate drops of rain, little ice-kisses.
Leaves taken, letting go. Equinoctial
September, passing. Sun the same angle as March,
striking not bare limbs, but the full flourish
of leaves. Heart’s blood, and the leaves in the windwaves.
Passing, as I knew it would….
Night outside my window, barely opened
the width of a mail slot; the chill song
of a single cricket, slow.
What had come unbidden, or as if they willed it—
the dead walking again, anamnesis—now held
at a distance, only touchable by thought, flawed instrument.
I was looking up Jonah the other day,
and the thin pages of the Bible slipped
from my fingers, to a psalm, where I saw:
This knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain to it.
So these days were—what?—should I say, heightened?
They came like that psalm: without my looking for them,
and bearing the thrill that what’s revealed
is revealed by something further hidden, and greater.
Thought, flawed instrument, pokes at this pearl:
Wonder conceals. Thinking and going nowhere, I fall back
to gratitude, wonder’s residue.
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