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Good Morning and Good Night
By David Wagoner
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2005 David Wagoner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Good Night and Good Morning of Federico Garcia Lorca He knew he was asleep and was dreaming Of a beautiful poem. It seemed to be singing Itself in the night, and he woke In a bed in a room in an old hotel And lay there, hearing the song go on Though he could see the shape Of his empty shirt on the straight chair And his empty shoes on the patch of carpet Made light, half by the moon And half by the gray beginning Of dawn. He could see the silhouette Of his own hand against the window shade Like a flower, open and waiting. He smiled At the foolishness of loving his own poem In his own dream, of accepting praise From his own shadow. But his mind's eye Kept seeing that poem and his real ear Kept hearing that same song. It came from the street Under his window, and before he knew why, He was out of bed and shivering his way Clumsily into some of his old clothes And one of his shoes and stumbling Into the hall and down the unlighted stairs And through the lobby (where the clerk was dreaming Something else), through the stubbornly locked door And along thesidewalk to the curb where the singer Was sweeping trash and leaves along the gutter With his slow broom, who now stopped, his mouth Open to gape at an apparition Holding a scrap of paper up to his face And begging him to read aloud. The sweeper Whispered he couldn't read. And Lorca took him Into his arms and kissed him and kissed The morning air, now stirring what was left Of the leaves overhead, and went limping back Through a door that stood wide open And a grand lobby and up the stairs into bed To lie there stark awake as sleeplessly As a poet who'd been told he was immortal.
Evening Song on Our Street
It was almost bedtime, and something was wrong On our street. We heard the sirens And saw the lights, and my mother and father Took me by my hands and walked with me
Over the tilted slabs of the slate sidewalk, Under the branches of horse chestnut trees To the wide lawn where people were being carried Or half-carried in the near-darkness
Out of cars and flat-bed trucks and helped to lie down On their own shadows, on folding cots or blankets Or on bare grass because there were too many To fit inside the rooms of the hospital.
The people were black and had eaten the wrong supper While celebrating something, a man told us. They were moaning and groaning to themselves, and some Were humming out loud together, to each other,
And some were crying, and men in white coats And women in white dresses and white hats Were looking after them. They sounded like People who had to sing, but were trying not to.
They sounded like they couldn't remember the words But were singing anyway because they couldn't Help it and because it made them feel better. They had something inside they had to get rid of
Before it was too late, and they didn't care If it was ugly or hard to listen to, they were going To do it, and when the policeman told us To keep out of the way because there was nothing
Practical we could do and that everything Would be all right before long if we let nature Take its course, my mother and father held me By both my hands again, and we walked home.
Visiting the Lady with the Plant
It was almost going to be too late for me To go along because there were shadows Under the buckeye trees along our street, But the lady with the plant had called my mother And father to come and see it blooming, So we walked and walked to that gray house And up the steps and through the half-open door Where the lady in gray was sitting in a chair With wheels. It was darker than the beginning Of the night outside. We moved our feet And our wheels on a soft carpet across a room Where the furniture was huddling under sheets To another room. The walls and even the ceiling Were square pieces of window. I could see trees And other people's houses through them In what was left of sunset. Then we all gathered Around the plant coming up out of real dirt. It was taller than my father. It was almost Reaching the underside of the glass. Its leaves Had little jaggers along the edges and needles At the ends and long spikes of flowers, Yellow-green and glowing. The lady said nobody Could tell ahead of time. You had to wait And maybe you couldn't Wait long enough. You might die And never see it. And there it was Right in front of us, doing it just this once In a hundred years. It would die now. My mother said It was beautiful, and my father and I Kept quiet, and all of us Stood there a while, keeping quiet And behaving ourselves, not fidgeting, And then we said goodnight and went walking Slowly and carefully home on slate and bricks And cobblestones, holding each other's hands Under the dim streetlights And up more stairs into bed where we were all Supposed to be and going to be Good and think about it.
The Cold Doctor
In the first heavy winter of the Depression His wife died, and the old doctor next door Turned cold. He began gathering firewood In his tall quiet house. A delivery truck Would bring him cord after cord. And week after week He carried it by the armload up his back steps And through his kitchen door and out of sight All spring and summer. Gradually the windows Of the upstairs bedrooms filled with the seasoned ends Of quartered cottonwood. By late September He'd run out of rooms up there and began stacking The dining room and the parlor and the pantry And maybe the halls and closets we couldn't see Because there was nowhere left on the outside Where kids could stand on somebody else's back And peek. We wondered: had his hair turned white And his shoulders round inside his overcoat Because he slept in the bathtub? There was no bed In his tiny office, only a roll-top desk And chair and an empty fireplace and a stool Where my mother made me sit so I wouldn't die Covered with spots. He scratched my shivery arm With a needle that shook in his cold fingertips While he smiled at me and told me to bundle up. The Message
Something was in the sky. It was even bigger Than our house and painted gray, and people were running Along our alley to see it and pointing at it, And all our neighbors were in their yards like me, And the firemen had all come running out of their station, And all the teachers and children at the school Were out as if for recess, and it was frying Lower and lower over the hospital, And the sick people and nurses with white hats Were standing out on the lawn. It was so big, I couldn't understand how it could float And turn and come still lower and closer, And there was a man in a cabin under it Who was leaning out of a window, waving at me, And my father was beside me, waving back, And knew the man's name. He hadn't always been Up there. He'd gone to work where my father went Almost every morning. Suddenly something Was falling and glittering like pieces of tinfoil, And one was white and quicker. It fell on our grass. I picked it up and opened the crumpled paper From around a stone. My father could read it And even I could read it. It said my name.
Grandpa took me along to the hospital To help him hang new curtains in room after room Where sick people in bed were going to be Much better before long. He had to measure
How high and wide the windows were with a tape. I got to climb a ladder and hold one end And tell him the right numbers and sometimes I was the one who wrote them down on a pad.
Some of the people wanted to know my name And would ask how old I was and say Oh my! Or Imagine that! or Aren't you proud of him? To Grandpa, who said nothing but numbers
Because we still had so many rooms to go. He was tall and gray and bent. His eyes, between eyelids And eyelashes through his horn-rimmed spectacles From under his dark eyebrows, measured me.
He was in dry goods. His Ideal Company Was three floors high with little cars on wires That ran through floors and ceilings from registers Toward Grandpa behind glass. I tried to smile
At all the sick people, even the ones who said They didn't want new curtains or anything else But peace and quiet. And one man didn't want Grandpa Covering his windows. He wanted to go on
Seeing God's Outdoors. And he didn't want me Touching his magazines and looking at him. Grandpa said he was going to put up curtains Like it or not because it was his job
And the man should keep a civil tongue in his head And use it to mind his manners with God indoors And I should act my age and wait outside In the corridor where somebody passed by
Under a sheet, who wasn't going to get better. He was lying on a narrow table with wheels Behind a blue-and-white nurse who smiled my way And asked if I'd like to come along for a ride.
In the Penny Arcade, 1931
At the top of that machine When I let my pennies go Through a slot they went falling Of their own weight along A vertical maze this way And that through a thicket Of brass nails past my nose Against the blurry glass By the numbers that showed how Fast they might multiply If only they took the right Crooked paths to the end Where I would have nothing left To show for them or to show My father how little I'd made of them after He'd let them drop Reluctantly one by one Into my cupped hands Almost as carefully As they'd been dropped into his From somewhere above us both In those hard times and now Were neither his nor mine.
The Bean Sprouts
First we put dirt into the skinny box The way the teacher said. That part was easy. I knew all about dirt Already. And then we planted our beans, Three of them, here and here and here, And poked them an inch deep and watered them And waited so many days, I could hardly remember What was under there. When crackly humps Appeared above two pale green things Hunching themselves up and out between One Friday and one Monday, I watched closely All that week as the sprouts straightened And the soaked and puckery skins of two of them Split, and the green gates of the cotyledons And the smaller, greener wings of the embryos The teacher made us spell in our notebooks Opened as if to fly, but all the next week They didn't. The gates shrank, and the other wings Spread wider, and one of them wider and wider Till it grew a shoot that pointed out of its middle Straight up, then curved and branched with a pair of sheaths That looked like bean pods. Both the wings of the other Turned yellow and fell off, and the sprout curled And shrank back to the dirt. The third place, Where the third bean was, didn't do anything. The one that was still alive climbed to the sill Of the middle window, with a little help From string and thumbtacks, almost into the light Before our school was over and out. We were graded On spelling and organization And neatness when we wrote about what had happened And what we'd done, but no one told us What to do about death and death and death.
Where I grew up, the soil Was sand, cinders, and slag Dumped by refineries And mills and open hearths And foundries, spread around And floated on a swamp Till on good days and nights It was almost real estate.
Plants grew as cautiously And slowly as I did Playing in vacant lots, Sometimes digging holes For treasure, but two feet down, Finding the other side Of the world ended in water From the marsh across the road.
Once as I sat there thinking As little as I could, I saw a toad in the sedge Beside me, near enough To touch. In his wide mouth The end of his hidden tongue Waited for sundown. Meanwhile, he was the shade Of everything around him.
He had no jewel stuck In his head. He wouldn't change Overnight to something grand. But he knew how to wait (Long after wrens and herons And mallards and mudhens And the last of the muskrats Had gone) for his mosquitoes,
The only others left Alive to feed each other. He watched as I caved in The sides of my test hole And muddled the crude oil, Sulfuric acid, and rust, And filled it and tamped it down As hard as a founding father.
Excerpted from Good Morning and Good Night by David Wagoner Copyright © 2005 by David Wagoner. Excerpted by permission.
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