The Collected Poemsby Reynolds Price
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.
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.
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Read an Excerpt
THE DREAM OF A HOUSE
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
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.
THE DREAM OF LEE
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 DREAM OF FOOD
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
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,
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
QUESTIONS FOR A STUDENT
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.
AT THE GULF
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,
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.
LEAVING THE ISLAND
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
Survives and says this much
"Function can change,
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.
BETHLEHEM CAVE OF THE NATIVITY
The air of this cave
Is actual substance,
Nearly transparent but grained
Like an oak wall or
Braided like water in a weir
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.
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
Pure boys and girls,
We praise her thus Best seed of Jove,
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.
In ten years of this
The most you've said
Is the odd "I'm glad"
To my declarations.
The rest is silence and
Your silence, open as
Our window toward the sea
And above it your whole
Again with my
Combusting in the night,
Moored to me.
TEN YEARS, FOUR DAYS
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.
Of maybe transport.
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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