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The Collected Poems

The Collected Poems

by Reynolds Price

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The definitive anthology of Reynolds Price's accomplishments in poetry over four decades, The Collected Poems opens with a preface that discusses his beginnings, guides, and methods; it then includes his first three collections in their entirety -- Vital Provisions, The Laws of Ice, and The Use of Fire -- and adds a new volume, The Unaccountable Worth of the World,


The definitive anthology of Reynolds Price's accomplishments in poetry over four decades, The Collected Poems opens with a preface that discusses his beginnings, guides, and methods; it then includes his first three collections in their entirety -- Vital Provisions, The Laws of Ice, and The Use of Fire -- and adds a new volume, The Unaccountable Worth of the World, eighty-five more recent poems that offer striking departures as they continue to embody Price's close attention to the exterior and the interior worlds of a lengthening and unexpectedly complex life.

The Collected Poems reveals, throughout, the accumulated variety of Reynolds Price's years as a poet -- the thematic breadth, formal steadiness, narrative vitality, and intense lyricism that have marked his work from the start. It is a landmark in a creative life that now includes more than thirty books -- poems, novels, plays, essays, translations -- and in the span of contemporary American verse.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Except for some mythic-religious echoes struck in this career collection (the volumes range from Vital Provisions, 1982, through The Use of Fire, 1990, and include 85 new poems), Price finds all the profundity he needs in the circumstances of daily life. The power of many poems is in the picture painted of Price the man. While subjects are often more commanding than poetics, there remain many stanzas and lines of great beauty. Price often writes of or for friends, fellow authors, students, people long known and those lost to death, many recently to AIDS. "This fallow field behind me here/ Stretches for nearly fifty years," he writes, likening his life and the deaths of friends to Civil War battlefields. Many poems are literal transcriptions of his or others' dreams. Poets must dream poetically, for among these are the more powerful works in the collection. In others, Price, who is wheelchair bound and in chronic pain, faces with little self-pity or glorification his human fragility and his spiritual and physical dependence: "Regards,/ Old logs; if we hang on long enoughtoo mean/ To diethey may yet learn to reconnect/ Us./ Meanwhile, dance." (May)
Library Journal
Some readers may not know that novelist Price (Promise of Rest, LJ 4/1/95) is also a verse craftsman. Some of the poems in this substantial volume recall friends and relations dead, many lost in recent years to AIDS; a considerable portion of the volume is given to a continuing verse diary, "Days and Nights," which unflinchingly records Price's long struggle with spinal cancer and consequent paraplegia, as well as the dreams, memories, and fantasies that accompanied his illness. Notable also are his graceful imitations of poetry by Goethe, Holderlin, Stefan George, and others. Price has always stood apart from contemporary movements in poetry, and although it is true that he is not a technical innovator, it would be perilous to ignore him: he has a rare facility for making the strange familiar, and the familiar fresh. Compassionate and candid, Price seems likely to reach an audience unusually wide for contemporary poetry with this generous collection. Highly recommended.Graham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, Mass.
From the Publisher
Mary Oliver [Price] is as erotic as Auden, as life-loving as Keats, as religious as Hopkins....The reader senses that here is the true country of poetry — not merely poignant, but ecstatic, unbearable, and revelatory.

Anthony Hecht The populous no-man's-land between dream and waking, the human and the divine, the living and the dead, constitutes the uncanny yet strangely familiar locale of Reynolds Price's extraordinary poems which are by turns lovely and frightening, tender and troubled, but always eloquent and moving....The Collected Poems is an astonishing and singular achievement.

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


There seems no question the house is mine.

I'm told it first at the start of the tour —

"This is yours, understand. Meant for you.

Permanent." I nod gratitude,

Containing the flower of joy in my mouth —

I knew it would come if I waited, in time.

It's now all round me — and I catalog blessings

Tangible as babies: the floors wide teak

Boards perfectly joined, the walls dove plaster.

At either end a single picture,

Neither a copy — Piero's Nativity

With angel glee-club, Vermeer's pregnant girl

In blue with her letter. Ranks of books

On the sides — old Miltons, Tolstoys, Wuthering

Heights, Ackermann's Oxford. A holograph

Copy of Keats's "To Autumn." All roles

Of Flagstad, Leontyne Price in order

On tape, with photographs. Marian Anderson

At Lincoln Memorial, Easter 1939.

A sense of much more, patiently humming.

My guide gives me that long moment,

Then says "You've got your life to learn

This. I'll show you the rest."

I follow and the rest is normal house.

Necessary living quarters — clean,

With a ship's scraped-bone economy. Bedroom

Cool as a cave, green bath,

Steel kitchen. We end in a long

Bright hall, quarry-tiled —

Long window at the far end

On thick woods in sunlight.

The guide gives a wave of consignment —

"Yours" — though he still hasn't smiled.

I ask the only question I know —

"Alone?" He waits, puzzled maybe

(For the first time I study him — a lean man,

Ten years my junior, neat tan clothes:

A uniform?). So I say again

"Alone? — will I be here alone?"

Then he smiles with a breadth that justifies his wait.

"Not from here on," he says. "That's ended too."

But he doesn't move to guide me farther.

I stand, thinking someone will burst in on us

Like a blond from a cake; and I reel through

Twenty-six years of candidates,

Backsliders till now. Silence stretches

Till he points to a closed door three steps

Beyond us.

I cannot go. After so much time —

Begging and vigils. He takes my elbow

And pulls me with him to an ordinary door,

Black iron knob. I only stand.

He opens for me — an ordinary hall

Closet: shelf lined with new hats,

Coats racked in corners. In the midst

Of tweeds and seersuckers, a man is

Nailed to a T-shaped rig —

Full-grown, his face eyelevel with mine,

Eyes clamped. He has borne on a body

No stronger than mine every

Offense a sane man would dread —

Flailed, pierced, gouged, crushed —

But he has the still bearable sweet

Salt smell of blood from my own finger,

Not yet brown, though his long

Hair is stiff with clots, flesh blue.

The guide has never released my arm.

Now he takes it to the face. I don't resist.

The right eyelid is cool and moist.

I draw back slowly and turn to the guide.

Smile more dazzling than the day outside,

He says "Yours. Always."

I nod my thanks, accept the key.

From my lips, enormous, a blossom spreads

At last — white, smell strong as

New iron chain: gorgeous,

Lasting, fills the house.


I'm driving from Durham, North Carolina

To Lexington, Virginia to get General Lee.

He'll be spending two days at Duke University,

Meeting with students and giving one formal

Evening lecture. Time is the present —

Dull end of the seventies, unaccustomed

Relative peace in a world where

Danger is individual again:

Mad or malevolent single bodies

Of human beings no stronger than we,

Hurtling in dark (or broad daylight)

Through the final membrane that has kept us ourselves —

But nothing seems strange in the General's lasting

Well over a century past Appomattox.

The strangeness inheres in the land I speed through —

Hills hid in pines big as old redwoods,

No soul in sight for the whole four hours:

Vacuum containing just me and this quiet,

Though round every bend I expect some

Glittering messenger to hail me with urgent

News of grace, extinction or company.

None volunteers, today anyhow;

And at three o'clock I pull up behind

The President's House at Washington College,

And the General emerges from a stable to greet me.

Meet would describe the moment more nearly —

He is dressed in a deep-blue suit,

Wide lapels, gold chain cross the vest;

And he offers his hand and says "Mr. Price"

With a still grave beauty as rare as the land

I've approached him through and as fevered with promise

Or threat to help. But he says no more

Then. He motions toward the house

And I follow him there. He seats me

In a rocker on the wide porch, facing

The chapel where his white tomb will be.

He says a good deal in the next

Quarter-hour, inside in the hall

(I've angled to see through the open door) —

It takes him that long to extricate himself

From the famously hypochondriac Mrs. Lee,

Who seems in her wheelchair the statue

Of Obstinate Triumph I'd rather expected

Him to be. From her I can hear

Only "Robert, Robert." From him only "Mary,

I'm pledged to return." When he comes out finally

With his small black country-doctor's satchel,

He's shed one or two of the skins of calm

And shows round his eyes those crevices helplessly

Opened on appall, the toothless mouth

Of utter loss, abandonment

That make Michael Miley's last photographs

Of him such satisfactory likenesses of Lear.

But he smiles slightly and says "Lead on."

I lead him back down through the same

Dazed country — vacancy parting

Silent as water to accept our journey,

Shutting silent behind us. But he never mentions

The emptiness; and I only speak

When spoken to, which — after an hour

Of decorous grooming, more small

Talk than I'd guessed him good for —

Is a level question poured straight

At my profile in the tone of courteous command:

"We know my story. I would like to know yours."

I don't imagine he means a curriculum

Of places, dates; but no story

Comes — none that seems mine.

So I drive us, not speaking, to the Carolina

Line when he faces me again. I try

Not to look, pretend the wide

Vacant road requires my total

Attention (he knows it doesn't).

He says "I would be grateful to hear."

Still not facing him, I say "Tell

Me" and smile at the road. I mean

My story and I think he's

Answered when he gives a slow rub,

With his palm in the air, over half the visible

Arc of our view and says "Something

Very much like this here."

I know he means the view, the element

That's borne our journey till now — patient

Broadbacked unworked beast —

And dodging his eyes, I know he's right

Though I don't think "Why?" or ask

Him to paraphrase his gesture or the land.

I say "Yes sir" and the one

Other thing he asks awhile later is

The size of my family. I say "It's here

On the seat beside you. I bivouac light,

Vanish at will." I rub my chest

And smile again. He says "Mrs. Lee's

Life stopped years ago," but by then

We're there. The next two days

I stand as his aide through duties he's agreed to —

Several history classes with excellent

Questions on the details of campaigns,

Struggles with Jeff Davis, agonies

Of choice. He wears his perfect blue

Suit and answers perfectly, perfectly

Consistently — seamless as a river rock,

As shut to entrance; yet tall in impotence

As old Chief Joseph or a captive pope.

We fall back on pleasantry in what few minutes

He has between stints; he eats alone

In a hotel coffee-shop. He's ready

At the curb when I call to take him

To his formal lecture; and as I approach

Down the evening street, it seems the strangest

Thing of all that no single

Passer on a crowded pavement gives any

Sign of seeing, much less

Recognizing a face as beautiful

As any human feasible vision

Of any god in charge of Fate

And Mercy — serene now, omniscient,

The flare of wildness quenched or banked.

I introduce him to the crowded hall

And, reaching my conclusion, know I've forgot

dTo ask him his subject; so I end by telling

The audience I'm sure it awaits

The lecture as eagerly as I.

When oceanic welcome subsides,

The General rises, steps to the lectern,

Slowly unties a black leather case,

Then looks back to me and says "I regret

Not telling you. I hope my changed

Plan will cause you no pain." I smile.

He doesn't. He faces his crowd and says

"I shall read from my poems tonight."

Slightly chilled, I think "The Poems of Lee —

Is there any such book?" Before I decide,

The great voice starts — "First a poem I composed

Two days ago for my friend Mr. Price."

He waits, puts a fist to his lips and coughs,

Then reads a poem one line long —

A country emptied by the fear of war."

I turn translucent with discovery,

Story told; then transparent as a glass

Anatomical man, a lesson for children —

All organs (less genitals) blasted

By white magnesium glare as every

Eye in the hall scans me, smiles.


The room is dark and is all your body.

In the single buttress of late light strained

Through the porous roof, I see you are all —

You constitute space, the walls of space,

Air (I breathe clean safety) — yet

You're plainly yourself, recumbent below me:

Irregular glory of bone and rind,

Bronze island of hair. I wait in the door —

Not quite afraid, hoarding a dim

Astonishment, unsure of having

Or wanting permission. You stir your left

Arm, the entrance wall; it oars me

In. Fluid, I lie on the floor-your

Breast (you're larger than I by maybe

Half and warmer by maybe a full

Degree, this side fever).

I pause incredulous, crouched on the tide

Of respiration; then accept your will

And stretch my legs down yours. My thighs

Discover a yielding terrain in your fork —

Mounds, channels. I calmly know you

Are utterly strange — not father, mother,

Girl or boy, though your skin is the standard

Pliant leather I recall as human.

I doubt my purpose but lighten my weight

For your next requirement. You cup the crown

Of my head and press. It descends in an arc,

Hours or days; is stopped on the field

Between your sternum and the dark past your

Belly. Total night. My mouth
Rests precisely in a bowl of flesh off-center

In your side. My dry lips scout — perfect

Rim, scar-slick; scooped

Sides, in the pit a complicated

Knot. I test it with my teeth — apparently

Flesh, apparently plaited in three

Equal strands round a denser

Core. It silently feeds me.

My tongue is bathed in more than spit.

I draw back. Your hand presses

Firmly again. I submit and am given

A thread of what I decide is nourishment —

Thinner than milk and mildly bitter

With occasional grains I grind to paste.

In maybe a year I rise enough to thank you.

You press then with mammoth urgency, saying

"Never leave." I don't but endlessly

Consume your gift, growing at a glacial

Rate of my own and seeing each dawn

That the nearest wall is all your eyes,

All lashed like horsetails and flicking in random

Harmonies I scan for news

Of a world beyond us, if any



I can make one true song about myself —

Sing voyages, how I worked through Hell,

Tunneled my grief in bowels of ships

(Deep waves sucking) or above

When I drew dark watch at prow:

We sheering loud cliffs, feet locked in frost,

Heart scalded in grief, hunger ravening

Sea-wild soul.

No man who draws land-luck can guess

How, crazed, I plowed desperate winter

Through rimey sea on exile road.

Stripped of kin, swathed in ice,

I'd strain to hear past crashing wave

And sometime catch swan call for solace,

Gannet, curlew for company,

Gull's caw for drink.

Storm pounded stone, cold tern answered,

Tattered horn-beaked eagle screamed,

But no kind kin warmed harassed heart.

So he who tastes in guarded towns

Glee of wine, homebound pride,

Who never treks bitter trails —

How can he guess how hard I rode

When forced to take sea's long path

Through night, north snow, all shore ice-barred

In stinging hail, coldest seed?

Yet now my heart drums out thought

To taste again steep salt waves.

Famished heart yearns to fare

Forward toward homes of strangers,

Stranger lands — though can there be

Man so grand (free with gifts,

Flushed with youth, brave in deed,

Loved by his lord) that will not

Always dread his sail toward

What God dooms? For him can be

No thought of harp, winning of rings,

Joy in woman, joy in world —

Only waves. He who's sailed

Will long to sail.

Trees burst with bloom, towns with beaut,

Fields freshen, life hastens —

All things drive eager soul

To wander, him who dreams of flood.

So cuckoo moans, summer's scout;

Sings harsh sorrow into hearts.

Men lapped in ease never know

What wretches know on exile road.

Still my mind roams past my heart.

My dreaming now on ocean flood

Roams wide — whale haunts,

Earth's skin — comes back

Unfed. Lone flier cries,

Whets heart for whale's way,

Ocean's breast, because God's joys

Weigh more with me than this dead loan

Of life on land.

I here deny earth's riches last.

One thief of three will seize all men —

Plague, old age, hate — and only praise

From them who stay is fame past death,

Fame won in deeds from foes on earth,

Fiend in dark: fame among hosts of God,

Bright angels.

Days are done now, all earth's glories.

Kings are gone now, Caesar's gone —

Great gold-givers cloaked in splendor,

Fallen, gone: old joys gone.

Weaklings last and swarm the world,

Win it with sweat. Pride is shamed.

Lords of life age and parch

Like other men in middle earth —

Ambush of age, face pales,

Hair grizzles, dim eyes watch

Sons of princes rendered to dark:

Flesh numb to sweets, hands still, mind still.

And though a brother long to sow
His brother's grave with gold — death-hoard

Guarded by him while he drew breath —

To go with him and his sinful soul

For help against God's awfulness,

He cannot now.

Great is the Judge's awfulness —

World turns from it though he founded firm

Earth's skin and sky. Fool is he

Who does not dread his Lord.

Death will teach him.

after the Anglo-Saxon


Nine months after I published a novel called

Love and Work, you woke me at 1 a.m. by phone

From Charlottesville; and we talked twenty minutes —

You talked; I held in groggy misery,

Unable to ask why, for this first favor,

You couldn't keep human time or what you wanted.

(I'd heard two years before when you were my student

That you'd been the youngest recipient
Of electroshock in Tarheel manic-depressive

Annals — a spunky file that holds its own —

But all I noticed as you talked a straight path

Through my thorny genre-course in the novel

Was the nails on your stub fingers,

Wolfed to the quick). And all I remember your saying

That night is "Do you really mean

What you say in the book?" I said I did —

True enough for the hour, I must have thought,

Though in my stupor I failed to ask

What you thought I said or why that mattered.

Three days later in afternoon light, you phoned

Your estranged wife; begged her to come back and —

When she refused for the umpteenth time — blew your brains out

With her on the line, a pause in your plea.

Even I don't assume the burden of that;

But ten years on, from a deep of my own

(Maybe no match for your Mindanao

But an honorable trench that sinks as I move),

May I ask these questions, awake at least?

Did I say Death and Silence?

If so was I wrong? If — as older books than mine

Predict — your agony lasts, can it help any way

If I offer here (late to be sure but in a safer genre)

This peace to your ruins, your bloody nails?


Laughing, the chemist set the hot alembic

Where it could cool, fuming at his grin.

Now he knew what — simply — he would need

To force the thing he coveted to come:

Mind as girdling as the zodiac,

Free and sovereign but fiercely ruled,

Glomerate with power, a private sea;

Eons for seething down this crystal crib

— In which the monster of his yearning lay

(Got now, blind, by him on this blind night),

Prima Materia: rose past him to God

While, babbling like a drunk, he lay among

His magic-set, his priceless brittle gear,

And craved the crumb of gold he'd just now had.

after Rilke


The night I arrived you fed me grandly

At the new French restaurant — a hippie chef

Four thousand miles from Avignon (home),

The image of Courbet and as good at his work:

Champignons à la grecque, veal cordon bleu.

Then led me through alleys empty at ten —

Steaming palms, bananas, reek of shrimp —

To a pier from which you said we'd swim

Tomorrow (I'd flown since dawn to be here).

A strip of boardwalk ten yards long,

Not even a jetty, land itself roofed

In lazy confidence, well-placed apparently —

Six feet beneath us the hot brown Gulf

(The day had hit ninety, was only now dying)

Hunched impotent at pilings, force discharged

On reefs I'd seen from the plane, bone

Shield, gorget five miles out:

Making us the gorge.

Alone, grogged, we bulged round dinner

And — however dark and dead, too early to sleep —

Looked down dumb at the grateful sea,

Tamed shallow flank of the Mother, decrepit,

Whispering denials of her history.

Yet when I spoke first (to speak at all,

More than airport chatter, tabletalk),

I said "Not tomorrow. Forgot my armor."

You laughed — "It's safe, roped for swimmers —"

Then pointed outward. I strained to see,

Seine safety from night. None. Night.

The sounds — our breaths, water's helpless thanks

That we stood here for stroking. I said "Rope or nets?"

— "One rope." I laughed. "And a sign saying

SHARKS KEEP OUT?" You nodded.

"They can read. They know. Old enough to know.

— "Know what?" "What's meat, what's bone." You faced me.

—"Which am I?" Your turn to work; you smiled —

I was darker than you, you faced the light —

"Can't read," you said. "Not old enough."

— "You or I?" I thought but didn't ask.

We looked down again as though water were legible,

Engaged in clear signals, high-noon and help.

There was light — amber, the one you faced,

Bare bulb high on a shed behind me —

Invading the water till a thin layer phosphored,

Membrane the depth of muscles at work,

Achieving nothing, massage for plankton.

So you said "Ready?" to the water not me.

It had stroked me to a calm so anesthetic

That I never thought "For what?" but had stepped

To say "Yes" — to movement, reunion,

Repair, forgiveness, sleep — when you said

"No" and pointed with your turned face,

Dark, down. Below, a shape

Parallel to us in the burning water,

Slow and writhing without clear bounds,

Black, refusing light and name,

Condensation of crowded night.

Or — I knew at your left, one hand away —

A messenger sent with my answer to your "Ready?",

Coming since dawn (dawn of what?),

Arriving now. Five feet long, clearer

Since it rode higher toward us, undulant,

Still refusing, anonymous, black.

"What is it?" I said, also to the water,

And hoped "A saving dolphin in the wiggle-dance

Of bees" (saving who from what?).

When you knew, you turned again, bore the light,

Smiled — "One too young to read." "You're sure?"
I needed phylum, species, order.

— "A nurse shark prowling, a hungry baby."

It sounded — gone, message offloaded,

Return begun — and was instantly followed

By a second, leaner, priest to the oracle,

Interpreter, scourer.

He also writhed. Redundant — I'd learned,

Knew, looked up to ask "Do we swim?"

— "In the morning, after breakfast." You smiled.

— "Then there's time," I said to the water. "Grow."

You laughed. Our growing baby sank, offended.

You watched its mute plunge. Had you watched me,

Strained to see me (I was half to the light

For that one purpose, that you take the joke),

I was smiling in response, exhaustion, relief.

Idiot relief. For when we turned

(You took the first step, the lead toward home),

We turned again apart. Not at once —

One room, one struggle to join, stay joined,

But separate sleep where (drowned, in no light)

Smiles are less defense than a child's left hand,

Where we are no longer feeders but food

(Your cries woke me twice, your seizing hand),

Where meat and bone are nightly assaulted,

Rent past healing, abandoned diminished

In morning light.


Even the coral reeks of us.

Alleys furred with rot burn our light.

We have done that kindness to several places —

Some of them common beds stripped quickly

Of visible spoor (invisibly salved, precious

With joy), actual cells cast off our juncture,

Fossil markers (to what? for whom?):

One block of a street, a shack on stilts,

An airport lobby where we passed like strangers,

A post-office table across which we spoke

(Spontaneous, hopeless) perfect words of total pardon —

Grand in memory as any in Genesis, Cymbeline.

The places are speechless with gratitude,

Heard by me.


Three years ago this week,

You found an egg

Beside a hot crossroad,

Pierced, drained but spared;

Intact — and no known hen

For four, five miles.

How? Who? and Why? I took it

As you gave it —

Silent gift-and propped it

In a window.

Those years pass. Its eyeless

Muddy gaze

Survives and says this much —

"Function can change,

Form persevere,

Fragile wholes

Be ruined yet outlast lives."


Borne over high seas in swift ship

To Phrygia, Attis urgent on hungry feet

Fled to black-shagged home of Goddess,

Rabid with need, mind choked on need.

There with flint unloaded his sex;

Then borne on lightness of her new freed body —

Fresh blood blotching earth, feet —

Seized light tambor (your tambor,

Cybele, Your mystery, Mother), struck it, rung it

In tense hand of snow, howled tight-throated

Song to sisters. "Up. Go. Scale

Crags of Cybele, clamber beside me —

Queen's prize herds hunting exile home,

Flock at my heels who've taken my lead

Through boiling surf on cruel sands,

Gouged Venus from thighs in excess loathing:

Feed Queen's heart with laughter of flight!

Now. To Cybele's piney home

Where cymbals crash, hard tambors answer,

Phrygian flutist blows curved calamus,

Maenads in ivy fling hot in ring,

Keen as they brandish sacred signs,

Where tramps of the Queen crowd to dance.

With me, beside me-run to join!"

When Attis — forged woman — summoned sisters,

Quivering tongues hissed Yes from dance,

Pocked cymbals crashed, tambors rang glad.

Ida's green sides bore clutching climb

After Attis — quickest, gasping, lost —

Still leader howling through thickening pines,

Unplowed heifer scared, lurching in harness.

There — spent — they dropped at Cybele's door,

Slept hungry blinding sleep that smoothed

Clenched minds, locked limbs.

But — dawn: gold Sun, His scalding eye

Struck air, packed ground, ferocious sea,

And Attis' sleep. Calmed, sealed eyes

Slit, Attis saw act and losses, saw

Puckering scars, raced in mind

To empty shores, wailed lost home.

"Home that made me, bore me, that I fled,

Hateful slave, to roam waste Ida — snow-choked,

Ice-ribbed caves of beasts, my own mind beast.

How? — where? — to reclaim you?

For this instant soul is sane, let eyes

See you once. Not again? — home,

Goods, parents, friends, market, ring,

Wrestling pit? Agony. Groan grinds groan.

What have I not been, what form not filled? —

I woman, cocked boy, boy-child, baby,

Crown of the track, oiled glory of the pit,

Warm doorsills ganged with friendly feet,

Garlands round me to deck my house

At dawn when I stood from my own wide bed:

Now priestess to gods, slavegirl to Cybele, maenad,

Scrap of myself, gored man, dry girl,

Chained — no hope — to green frigid Ida

With deer grove-haunting, rooting boar,

Each thin breath poisoned by memory."

Noise of her pink lips — news to gods.

Cybele, bending to lion at Her left, terror of herds,

Said "Now. Go. Hunt Attis

Toward Me. Drive him through woods till, mad, he heels;

Goes down appalled, lashed by your tail

To My ring where pines stagger at your voice."

Wild, She unharnessed yoke, lion crouched,

Roused rage, charged woods toward Attis, tender

By marble sea — slave, girlslave all his life.

Strong Goddess, Goddess Cybele, Goddess Lady of Dindymus —

Spare my house, Queen, from total fury.

Hunt others. Seize others. Others appall.

after Catullus


The air of this cave

Is actual substance,

Nearly transparent but grained

Like an oak wall or

Braided like water in a weir

Though still.

The blade of rust

That scores your tongue

Is atoms of iron —

Girl's blood on that rock

Where she spread,

Subliming at a constant rate

Two thousand years

Though tossed by flame

Of adoring lamps.

Taste slowly,



Beyond this aromatic Greek monk

With the roll of toilet paper by his foot

(You must pay him to stand here) —

An altar on legs, beneath it a disc,

In the disc a hole. If you've paid enough

(He names no sum), he'll say as you crouch

"Reach in. Golgotha.

Hole for cross." Beware.

Eight empty inches, then live rock —

Cooling mouth, still raw

At the lip. One whole arm inserted

Would reach dead center.


Pure boys and girls,

Diana's wards,

We praise her thus — Best seed of Jove,

Latona's child,

Cradled by her

Near Delian grove

(So You be Queen of Mountains,

Woods, Deep Glades,

Queen of Rivers crashing in their course),

Mothers in birth-groan

Call you Queen of Light,

Others Dark Lady,

Moon of Stolen Gleam.

Goddess, by months

You measure out our year,

Filling the honest farmer's house with store.

Holy — whatever name

You please to wear —

Save as you once saved

Romulus' big brood.

after Catullus


In ten years of this

The most you've said

Is the odd "I'm glad"

To my declarations.

The rest is silence and

Its works —

Your silence, open as

Our window toward the sea

And above it your whole

Face charged

Again with my

Visitation: raft

Combusting in the night,

Moored to me.


1. Petroleum dark.

I pierce maybe you.

Cries maybe your voice.

2. Greek cross —

Equal arms, legs,

Dense crown at the joint —

Your thatch, my thorn.

3. You

Through glaze

Of maybe transport.

Repeatable saint,

Fugitive text.

4. Grinder.

Who will eat this bread?


Something I never told you — I watched, hardly blinking,

Each moment of the morning you were nearly drowned

Or taken by moray, shark, barracuda

As you tested yourself in the half-mile channel

Between our room and Advent Island.

You know this much — that you walked down that morning

(A Monday in March) after breakfast on the beach,

Calm as a sleeper, to the hot smooth sea;

Fell forward on the water and dug your way

With no visible effort to a coral bone

Two hundred yards long: scene of nocturnal

Drinking parties and home to a huddle

Of scrub evergreens raided at Christmas

By natives of the larger bone, where we stayed.

You swam twenty minutes — past the odd flotilla

Of junk boats, sleek yachts — then walked up

Out of the sea as rested as a child at dawn,

Your back straight and steady, or like one of a number

Of maritime gods with grace to bestow

If they turn and look. You stood a few seconds,

Made two deep bows which were either obeisance

To what I could not see or simple stretches;

Then ran up the white beach, rounded the far end,

And vanished in cedars. I said to myself

Something very much like "The perfect soul" —

You, I meant, and perfect for me;

A statement untouched by the five years since —

Then turned to my reading, an hour of watching

Imagined souls secrete real lives

On my hands: peaceful joy. When I looked again

You were vanished still, no sight of you

On land or water. I think I felt

A quick chill in the morning,

Viscid bubble blown by a corpse.

I say I think when what I recall

Is I stood to wash and was clean again

Of the traces of you and well into dressing

When a workman knocked and entered to fix

The glass-door lock (we'd been open to passers).

I finished; he tinkered in admirable silence

Till he said — over some twenty feet between us —

"That child's a goner less he's stronger than he looks"

And aimed at the Gulf a finger cold

As the first hump of fear I'd ignored

Awhile back. I braced and came forward. You were midway

Between the island and me, stroking

Slowly. I could not see your face but you seemed

Safe enough. I asked the man "Why?"

He was back at his work and did not look again —

"Tide's turned against him and that's a shark channel."

In a minute's wait I confirmed the tide.

You were steadily draining-off to my left,

Nothing between you and Mexico but

Three hundred miles of thick green Gulf;

The sharks were a guess, though a native's guess

(Roughly half the American shark-attacks

Of the twentieth century occurred hereabouts).

I said "Who could help him?" He said "God Above

Or the U.S. Coast Guard if they're not at lunch"

And left, door fixed. The options were plain —

One, walk eight feet and phone the Coast Guard;

Ask them to rescue a single swimmer

In the tidal rush (it was sliding now

Toward some wide mouth in its hidden floor)

And risk your refusal, embarrassment.

Or Two, stand still. You were not advising —

No sign of distress, no pause or look,

Just a constant slap at the gorgeous face

Consuming you. Two safe yachts passed

In practical reach; you asked them nothing.

So for once myself I stood and offered

Nothing, having offered my life the night

Before and for some years past. You held

Your own through the next few minutes.

I could gauge you against the one visible buoy,

Knobbed with the standard pelican dozing

Near the spot you'd seized in the silent flux —

Expensive, I knew. I held mine.

By then I was on our midget porch —

A squad of poolside lunchers behind;

Palms to left, coral boulders to right

(To form which, billions of sentient lives

Had volunteered bodies less fragile than yours).

You were only a hundred yards away.

Did you see me at all? I waved one time —

A modified Indian-greeting, palm-out,

Inviting an answer. Nothing, I thought.

Did I miss some plea? I waited two minutes,

Monstrous gap. Then you vanished;

Were swept down left past the pelican,

Still afloat but not stroking, arms abandoned.

The next pier hid you. I must have prayed.

But what I remember is combing my hair

And walking at a sane brisk clip out the door

Into sun — past the pool and a girl mock-drowning

A boy who'd seemed all week her brother;

Then into the street past the First Shell Shop

And its grimy display of the Giant Clam,

Threat to Pearl Divers; then on to the pier

Behind which you'd vanished two minutes before.

I thought you were dead. I was calm with the thought.

It filled my skull like a plug of gelid fat,

Room for nothing else. At the pier there was

One boat, a forty-foot ancient — Proud Mari

And on it a middle-aged woman in a 1940s

Tank suit, coiling rope. I stopped.

She looked and awarded my wait a grin

Bleak as her timbers. Helpless, I smiled —

The hulk had blanked my view of the water —

And gathered to ask if she'd seen a swimmer

In trouble just now. You rose at the far side —

Her port rail, soaked: your hands, head, face.

You didn't see me. You said to the woman

"Can I land here please? I'm a little bushed."

You were ivory, translucent in the final seconds

Of total exhaustion. She said "Help yourself"

And went on coiling. You managed to haul

Your legs aboard (there were still two, intact).

They bore you the moments you shuddered in glare,

Lovely as anything borne by the earth

That noon — any noon — and seen

By me in lucid perfection of love

That moment, though I'd watched you drown. Then you strode

Forward, frail as a calf on your pins,

And were over the near side and six feet away

Before you saw me, your disyllabic "Hi"

Preserved in its brightness and plunging distance.

You might well have asked "What are you here for?" —

I needed proof you were really alive —

But you said "Lunch time" And I said "True."

It was true; we ate it by the pool — shrimp

Salad and a butterscotch pie so rich

I expected a carbohydrate fit any instant.

It never struck and when (over coffee)

You lightly sketched your recent dilemma,

I concealed my witness, listened rapt,

And expressed post-facto restrained delight

At your narrow luck. My full delight

Poured freely after dark when, stronger, you rose

On cool sheets above me and rode through

Twelve long minutes of danger toward another

Wordless rescue, borne by me

(The next word was Thanks, conceded by both).

I was also asking pardon in every cell,

And I felt you give it from an endless horde.

But I never spoke my offer again —

Simply my life — and never confessed

That paralyzed witness of your capture by the sea,

Its release or abandonment of what it had left you.

What had it left you? Tell me

That please. What have we left you?

Telling you now, I find what's left

In my own swept head — my silent knowledge

As you vanished in cedars years ago:

I required your life. The offer stands.

Copyright © 1997 by Reynolds Price

Meet the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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