Sunday, January 16, 2011
Born Eighty-Eight Years Ago Today
GREEN: AN EPISTLE
I write at last of the one forbidden topic
We, by a truce, have never touched upon:
Resentment, malice, hatred so inwrought
With moral inhibitions, so at odds with
The home-movie of yourself as patience, kindness
And Charlton Heston playing Socrates,
That almost all of us were taken in,
Yourself not least, as to a giant Roxy,
Where the lights dimmed and the famous allegory
Of Good and Evil, clearly identified
By the unshaven surliness of the Bad Guys,
The virginal meekness of the ingenue,
Seduced us straight into that perfect world
Of Justice under God. Art for the sake
Of money, glamour, ego, self-deceit.
When we emerged into the assaulting sunlight,
We had a yen, like bad philosophers,
To go back and stay forever, there in the dark
With the trumpets, horses, and ancient Certitudes
On which, as we know, this great nation was founded,
Washington crossing the Delaware, and so forth.
And all of us, for an hour or so after,
Were Humphrey Bogart dating Ingrid Bergman,
Walking together but incommunicado
Till subway and homework knocked us out of it.
Yet even then, whatever we returned to
Was not, although we thought it was, the world.
I write at last on the topic because I am safe
Here in the grubby border town
With its one cheap hotel. No one has my address.
The food is bad, the wine too expensive,
And the local cathedral marred by restorations.
But from my balcony I view the east
For miles and, if I lean, the local sunsets
That bathe a marble duke with what must be
Surely the saddest light I have ever seen.
The air is thin and cool at this elevation,
And my desk wobbles unless propped with matchbooks.
It began, I suppose, as a color, yellow-green,
The tincture of spring willows, not so much color
As the sensation of color, haze that took shape
As a light scum, a doily of minutiae
On the smooth pool and surfaces of your mind.
A founding colony, Pilgrim amoebas
Descended from the gaseous flux when Zeus
Tossed down his great original thunderbolt
That flashed in darkness like an electric tree
Or the lit-up veins in an old arthritic hand.
Here is the microscope one had as a child,
The Christmas gift of some forgotten uncle.
Here is the slide with a drop of cider vinegar
As clear as gin, clear as your early mind.
Look down, being most careful not to see
Your own eye in the mirror underneath,
Which will appear, unless your view is right,
As a darkness on the face of the first waters.
When all is silvery and brilliant, look:
The long, thin, darting shapes, the flagellates,
Rat-tailed, ambitious, lash themselves along -
Those humble, floating ones, those simple cells
Content to be borne on whatever tide,
Trustful, the very image of consent -
These are the frail, unlikely origins,
Scarcely perceived, of all your shall become.
Scarcely perceived? But at this early age
(What are you, one or two?) you have no knowledge
Nor do your folks, not could the gravest doctors
Suspect that anything was really wrong.
Nor see the pale beginnings, lace endeavors
That with advancing ages shall mature
Into sea lettuce, beard the rocky shore
With a light green of soft and tidal hair.
Whole eras, seemingly without event,
Now scud the glassy pool processionally
Until one day, misty, uncalendared,
As mild and unemphatic as a schwa,
Vascular tissue, conduit filaments
Learn how to feel the outposts of that small
Emerald principate. Now there are roots,
The filmy gills of toadstools, crested fern,
Quillworts, and foxtail mosses, and at last
Snapweed, loment, trillium, grass, herb Robert.
How soundlessly, shyly this came about,
One thinks today. But that is not the truth.
It was, from the first, an everlasting war
conducted, as always, at gigantic cost.
Think of the droughts, the shifts of wind and weather,
The many seeds washed to some salt conclusion
Or brought to rest at last on barren ground.
Think of some inching tendrils worming down
In hope of water, blind and white as death.
Think of the strange mutations life requires.
Only the toughest endured, themselves much altered,
Trained in the cripple's careful sciences
Of mute accommodation. The survivors
Were all, one way or another, amputees
Who learned to live with their stumps, like Brueghel's beggars.
Yet, for all that, it clearly was a triumph,
Considering, as one must, what was to come
And, even by themselves, those fields of clover,
Cattails, marsh bracken, water-lily pads
Stirred by the lightest airs, pliant, submissive -
Who could have called their slow creation rage?
Consider, as one must, what was to come.
Great towering conifers, deciduous,
Rib-vaulted elms, the banyan, oak, and palm,
Sequoia forests of vindictiveness
That also would go down on the death list
And, buried deep beneath the alluvial shifts,
Would slowly darken into lakes of coal
And then under exquisite pressure turn
Into the tiny diamonds of pure hate.
The delicate fingers of the clematis
Feeling their way along a face of shale
With all the ingenuity of spite.
The indigestible thistle of revenge.
And your most late accomplishment, the rose.
Until at last, what we might designate
As your Third Day, behold a world of green:
Color of hope, of the Church's springtide vestments,
The primal wash, heraldic hue of envy.
But in what pre-lapsarian disguise!
Strangers and those who do not know you well
(Yourself not least) are quickly taken in
By a summary prospect, shades of innocence.
Like that young girl, a sort of chance acquaintance,
Seven or eight she was, on the New York Central,
Who, with a blue-eyed, beatific smile,
Shouted with joy, "Look, Mommy, quick, Look. Daisies!"
These days, with most of us at a safe distance,
You scarcely know yourself. Whole weeks go by
Without your remembering that enormous effort,
Ages of disappointment, the long ache
Of motives twisted out of recognition,
The doubt and hesitation all submerged
In those first clear waters, that untroubled pool.
Who could have hope for this eventual peace?
Moreover, there are moments almost of bliss,
A sort of recompense, in which your mood
Sorts with the peach endowments of late sunlight
On a snowfield or on the breaker's froth
Or the white steeple of the local church.
Or, like a sunbather, whose lids retain
A greenish, gemmed impression of the sun
In lively, fluctuant geometries,
You sometimes contemplate a single image,
Utterly silent, utterly at rest.
It is of someone, a stranger, quite unknown,
Sitting alone in a foreign-looking room,
Gravely intent at a table propped with matchbooks,
Writing this poem - about me.