April 30, 2020
Last weekend, summer came to California,
So, all the cooped-up, sheltering-in-place
And withering-to-paleness citizens
Invaded beaches up and down the coast.
A girl in her bikini ran through spray,
Its iridescence veiling soft, lithe legs
That stretched and leapt above the silvered sand—
Her hair slicked back and trailing in dark cords,
Her body given to the wind’s caress.
News cameras beamed her form around the world
To show us freedom is voluptuous.
(This morning, though, she’s locked indoors again.)
We saw her, briefly, on TV, before
The winds here, raging through our towering oaks
And sloshing maples like drenched, heavy mopheads,
Knocked down a powerline and cut her out.
I look up at the clouds, their ominous convoy
That blots out all the sky, and know the world
Is angry and has other plans for us,
Though like a houseless Lear, I may not name them.
Cecilia overheard some other news.
A company has turned our firemen,
Our doctors, cops, and nurses into dolls—
Or, anyway, that’s how the broadcast phrased it.
She sees them staring right out from the screen,
Those plastic eyes and smiles fixed for good.
“How did they turn them into that?” she asked.
“Magic,” I said, and magic I say now,
Writing this in the glare of glowering sky.
But Thomas steps right in. “There’s no such thing,”
He says, with all the urgency of one
For whom the question’s very much alive.
“I’m sorry,” I reply, “then how would you
Explain how people were transformed to dolls?”
It’s as I thought: he has no better theory.
But his round, freckled face is firmly set,
The dimples deepening with doubting dogma,
And stubborn for a fact he thinks he knows.
Just yesterday, I had a conversation
About the place of meaning in a book.
Not what the meaning was, but where it is.
The young man I was talking with insisted,
A bit like Thomas, that it’s in our heads,
Not in the book at all. He mentioned Gödel
And after that I couldn’t really follow;
It seemed so much a thick and shaggy nonsense.
We raised the question of the waterfall.
The same old problem Kant and Goethe mulled,
When men still looked with patience at the world
And saw its urgent metamorphoses,
And wondered was it stranger or a friend,
A womb of symbols or a canvas for them.
“The waterfall is beautiful,” we say,
But are we speaking of the waterfall,
Or what the waterfall has made us feel?
Such nonsense, as the young will sometimes speak
To make themselves feel hardened into age.
But, I stare up at clouds like great gray hosts,
Abroad to conquer everything they see.
I hear the wind set strong, broad shoulders low
And ram against our helpless house’s side,
And do not speak, but wait within its powers.
I wait, and live again in thought just how,
The other day, I bent with naked chest
And leaned my lowered head above the sink.
My wife stood over, with a pair of clippers.
She touched the shagging gray about my sides,
The stiff hairs curling over ear and nape,
And razed them—slowly, patiently; her hand
Gentle and firm to keep the head in place—
That locus given too much weight by others,
But humble and receptive to her palm.
And down and down into the silver drain,
The dull hairs sheered in squads of iron tuft,
And lay, absorbing droplets from the nozzle,
Until my crown was light and clear again,
And rose, that my still-lively face could turn
Its eyes upon the symbols of the world.
-James Matthew Wilson