April 8, 2020
The vodka bottle, blue as buried sapphire,
Has lain near empty on its side, a year
Or more, forgotten at the freezer’s back,
Beneath the bags of strawberries, fries, and nuggets,
And thickening with a glaze of permafrost.
The state stores being closed, and suddenly
Without the means of buying more, I dig
It out. This is no era for martinis,
All briny and medicinal, but sweetness,
Compensatory, generous, and concealing;
And so, I watch it flow like syrup, down
Into the crevices of ice, then top
The highball off with juice. This hour of night,
In normal times, I’d take my drink and sit,
A book in hand, to catch the baseball game.
I’d alternate between the back-and-forth
Of lines of verse that volley down the page,
And glances up to see the Cubbies’ struggles.
There, on the screen, encircled by the crowd
(Who turn their backs upon the world, and yet
Provide a noisy solitude), the pitcher
Shakes off a signal, nods, winds up, and throws.
At such remove does art find concentration:
The thing made stiffens toward integrity,
Nine doubtful innings fumble to a whole,
And thus take on a kind of permanence.
The season, like the liquor stores, suspended,
I feel myself fall back on younger ways;
I’d sit up reading till the early morning,
A sleepless, lonesome undergraduate,
And switch, as hours passed and I grew weary,
From book to book, with each one lighter, easier,
In sequence, till my eyes at last dropped shut.
As I did then, I find myself once more:
Alone, a crop of titles at my side.
I open up Milosz. It’s like a phone book,
And not more interesting, at first, it seems:
The listing, hazy images of dreams
Mistaken by their source for prophecy.
But, when the Nazi tanks roll into Warsaw,
The spine at once grows straight, the ruined street
And what lies buried in its sudden wreckage
Become too serious and lost for playing.
A pile of books, stacked in a roofless building;
The lambent face of Giordano Bruno
Surrounded by the busy market stalls,
The chatter as the tourists spoon gelato;
The poet staring on his father reading,
On broken statues, churches, emptied ghettos.
His voice cries out in heavy lamentation,
To see the art that he had meant for freedom—
A flight of butterflies, a taste of vodka
Burning, then disappearing, on the tongue—
Should come to something far more serious.
His natural love would have preferred affairs
With all the European capitals,
To savor brilliance without consequence
And traipse from place to place and settle nowhere.
But now, he’s rudely forced to take dictation,
To make a record of what’s been destroyed,
Preserving too in ink the names of those
Who laughed, so pleased, to be the ones destroying.
He’s had to root his love and hatred down
In one foundation lest it be forgotten,
Resigned himself to play the mournful witness
Who digs in deeper as he heads to exile.
The minutes creeping on toward somnolence,
I pull out my collected Betjeman.
His boisterous, thumping ballads make me think
Of Kipling, or what Eliot said of him:
It may not come to poetry, but verse
Contains its own perfections and, he adds
(Perhaps a little envious), it’s verse
That people memorize and say and sing.
They’ll clap to lines on Exeter and Croydon
While sighing above their pints, and with a curse,
Summon the friendly bombs to fall on Slough.
To which there’s no replying, but with “cheers.”
It’s such an easy, accidental contrast.
The serious poet, witness, visionary,
As formless as a ghost, but weighed with lead,
In confrontation, first, with Nazi troops,
And later, with a whole regime of lies,
As Russians came to be a second master;
And Betjeman, who failed at math, but could
Stomp out a rhythm with his drunken hoof
To set the patrons rocking on their stools
And let them know their island’s not so bad.
But I’m not done. I find upon my stack
The Story of a Soul. And there she is,
Thérèse, that round face floating in her habit,
Who tells us not all flowers can be roses,
That we must take such grace as we are given.
I’m not the first to see her infant freedom,
That liveliness which tumbles into trouble
And teeters high upon a kitchen chair,
That flighty glee to play at kings and queens,
Will carry her just where she’s meant to go.
All freedom seeks its fullness in a cloister;
All laughter merges with the prayer of Carmel;
In solitude we find our company,
And speak most frankly in a form commanded.
So much we can discern within that portrait
Of her dressed up to play Saint Joan of Arc,
That wild mane, parted, draped behind her armor.
One hand upholds the flag of fleur de lis,
The other lightly rests upon a sword.
How freely she would give herself away,
To burn within the fire of Christ’s love.
O, lady of Lisieux, I think, you found
The form where depths reveal their splendid glory;
You are the living image of perfection.
But then, the mind adrift, the hour late,
I think as well how perfect form appears
Within the pitcher working from the stretch.
His spine upright, his rear foot on the rubber,
His eyes indifferent to the facing batter,
And conscious of the runner just behind him,
He holds his glove raised up to hide his face.
And, in the leather darkness of its womb,
Mysterious and patient, he will form
An arc of flight to catch the outside corner—
Chosen for just this moment and that man,
But also in response to what has come
Before, and what will follow down the count.
Each pitch contains, within its narrow compass,
The splendid, sprawling thoughts of past and future,
And yet remains a thing of concentration,
Whose name proclaims itself in what it does.
-James Matthew Wilson