History of My Heart, winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize, first appeared in 1984. In The New Republic, J.D. McClatchy called it "one of the best books of the past decade." It is Pinsky's third volume of poemsand an ideal introduction to the work of a vital and original contemporary American poet.
About the Author
A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. In addition to his books of poetry and The Inferno of Dante, he has written prose works, including The Life of David and The Sounds of Poetry.
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History of My Heart
By Robert Pinsky
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1984 Robert Pinsky
All rights reserved.
THE FIGURED WHEEL
The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons,
Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns.
Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds
The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans.
Sluiced by salt water and fresh, by pure and contaminated rivers,
By snow and sand, it separates and recombines all droplets and grains,
Even the infinite sub-atomic particles crushed under the illustrated,
Varying treads of its wide circumferential track.
Spraying flecks of tar and molten rock it rumbles
Through the Antarctic station of American sailors and technicians,
And shakes the floors and windows of whorehouses for diggers and smelters
From Bethany, Pennsylvania to a practically nameless, semi-penal New Town
In the mineral-rich tundra of the Soviet northernmost settlements.
Artists illuminate it with pictures and incised mottoes
Taken from the Ten-Thousand Stories and the Register of True Dramas.
They hang it with colored ribbons and with bells of many pitches.
With paints and chisels and moving lights they record
On its rotating surface the elegant and terrifying doings
Of the inhabitants of the Hundred Pantheons of major Gods
Disposed in iconographic stations at hub, spoke and concentric bands,
And also the grotesque demi-Gods, Hopi gargoyles and Ibo dryads.
They cover it with wind-chimes and electronic instruments
That vibrate as it rolls to make an all-but-unthinkable music,
So that the wheel hums and rings as it turns through the births of stars
And through the dead-world of bomb, fireblast and fallout
Where only a few doomed races of insects fumble in the smoking grasses.
It is Jesus oblivious to hurt turning to give words to the unrighteous,
And is also Gogol's feeding pig that without knowing it eats a baby chick
And goes on feeding. It is the empty armor of My Cid, clattering
Into the arrows of the credulous unbelievers, a metal suit
Like the lost astronaut revolving with his useless umbilicus
Through the cold streams, neither energy nor matter, that agitate
The cold, cyclical dark, turning and returning.
Even in the scorched and frozen world of the dead after the holocaust
The wheel as it turns goes on accreting ornaments.
Scientists and artists festoon it from the grave with brilliant
Toys and messages, jokes and zodiacs, tragedies conceived
From among the dreams of the unemployed and the pampered,
The listless and the tortured. It is hung with devices
By dead masters who have survived by reducing themselves magically
To tiny organisms, to wisps of matter, crumbs of soil,
Bits of dry skin, microscopic flakes, which is why they are called "great,"
In their humility that goes on celebrating the turning
Of the wheel as it rolls unrelentingly over
A cow plodding through car-traffic on a street in Iasi,
And over the haunts of Robert Pinsky's mother and father
And wife and children and his sweet self
Which he hereby unwillingly and inexpertly gives up, because it is
There, figured and pre-figured in the nothing-transfiguring wheel.
In Krakow it rained, the stone arcades and cobbles
And the smoky air all soaked one penetrating color
While in an Art Nouveau cafe, on harp-shaped chairs,
We sat making up our minds to tour the death camp.
As we drove there the next morning past farms
And steaming wooden villages, the rain had stopped
Though the sky was still gray. A young guide explained
Everything we saw in her tender, hectoring English:
The low brick barracks; the heaped-up meticulous
Mountains of shoes, toothbrushes, hair; one cell
Where the Pope had prayed and placed flowers; logbooks,
Photographs, latrines — the whole unswallowable
Menu of immensities. It began drizzling again,
And the way we paused to open or close the umbrellas,
Hers and ours, as we went from one building to the next,
Had a formal, dwindled feeling. We felt bored
And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases:
I am poured out like water; Thine is the day and
Thine also the night; I cannot look to see
My own right hand ... I remembered a sleep-time game,
A willed dream I had never thought of by day before:
I am there; and granted the single power of invisibility,
Roaming the camp at will. At first I savor my mastery
Slowly by creating small phantom diversions,
Then kill kill kill kill, a detailed and strangely
Passionless inward movie: I push the man holding
The crystals down from the gas chamber roof, bludgeon
The pet collie of the Commandant's children
And in the end flush everything with a vague flood
Of fire and blood as I drift on toward sleep
In a blurred finale, like our tour's — eddying
In a downpour past the preserved gallows where
The Allies hung the Commandant, in 1947.
I don't feel changed, or even informed — in that,
It's like any other historical monument; although
It is true that I don't ever at night any more
Prowl rows of red buildings unseen, doing
Justice like an angry god to escape insomnia. And so,
O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes
Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most
Capable of all your former creatures — we have
No shape, we are poured out like water, but still
We try to take in what won't be turned from in despair:
As if, just as we turned toward the fumbled drama
Of the religious art shop window to accuse you
Yet again, you were to slit open your red heart
To show us at last the secret of your day and also,
Because it also is yours, of your night.
Or a crippled sloop falters, about to go under
In sight of huge ritual fires along the beach
With people eating and dancing, the older children
Cantering horses parallel to the ghostlike surf.
But instead the crew nurse her home somehow,
And they make her fast and stand still shivering
In the warm circle, preserved, and they may think
Or else I have drowned, and this is the last dream.
They try never to think about the whole range and weight
Of ocean. To try to picture it is like looking down
From an immense height, the oblivious black volume.
To drown in that calamitous belly would be dying twice.
When I was small, someone might say about a delicate
Uncorroded piece of equipment, that's a sweetwater reel —
And from the sound sweetwater, a sense of the coarse,
Kelp-colored, chill sucking of the other,
Sour and vital: governed by the moon, or in the picture
Of the blind minotaur led by the little girl,
Walking together on the beach under the partial moon,
Past amazed fishermen furled in their hoodlike sail.
Last Easter, when the branch broke under Caroline
And the jagged stub, digging itself into her thigh as she fell,
Tore her leg open to the bone, she said she didn't want to die.
And now the scar like a streak of glare on her tan leg
Flashes when she swims. Otherwise, it might be a dream.
The sad, brutal bullhead with its milky eye tilts upward
Toward the stars painted as large as moths as the helpless
Monster strides by, his hand resting on the child's shoulder,
All only a dream, painted, like the corpse's long hair
That streams back from the dory toward the shark
Scavenging in Brook Watson and the Shark,
The gray-green paint mysterious as water,
The wave, the boat-hook, the white faces of the living,
The hair that shows the corpse has dreamed the picture,
It is so calm; the boat and the shark and the flowing hair
All held and preserved in the green volume of water.
I can't remember what I was thinking ... the cold
Outside numbs purposes to a blur, and people
Seem to be more explicitly animal —
Stamping the snow, our visible patient breath
Around our faces. When we come inside
An air of mortal health steams up from our coats,
Blood throbbing richer in the whitest faces.
When I stop working, I feel it in a draft
Leaking in somewhere. In the hardware store —
I think because it was a time of day
When people mostly are at work — it seemed
All of the other customers were old,
A group I think of five or six ... a vague
Memory of white hair or of elder voices,
Their heavy protective coats and gloves and boots
Holding the creature warmth around their bodies.
I think that someone talked about the weather;
It was gray, then; then brighter after noon
For an hour or two. As if half-senile already,
In a winter blank, I had the stupid thought
About old age as cozy — drugged convalescence;
A forgetful hardihood of naps and drinks;
Peaceful, without the fears, pains, operations
That make life bitterest, one hears, near the end ...
The needle Work unthreaded — not misplaced.
Bitterest at its own close, the short harsh day
Does lead us to hover an extra minute or two
Inside our lighted offices and stores
With our coats buttoned, holding the keys perhaps;
Or like me, working in a room, alone,
Watching out from a window, where the wind
Lifts up the snow from loaded roofs and branches,
A cold pale smoke against the sky's darkening gray —
Watching it now, not having been out in hours,
I come up closer idly, to feel the cold,
Forgetting for a minute what I was doing.
Thin snow, and the first small pools of dusk
Start to swell from the low places of the park,
The swathe of walks, rises and plantings seeming
As it turns gray to enlarge — as if tidal,
A turbulent inlet or canal that reaches to divide
Slow dual processionals of carlights on the street,
The rare vague beacon of a bar or a store.
Shapes of brick, soiled and wet, yaw in the blur.
Elder, sullen, the small mythical folk
Gather in the scraps of dark like emigrants on a deck,
Immobile in their fur boots and absurd court finery.
They are old, old; though they stand with a straight elegance,
Their hair flutters dead-white, they have withered skin.
Between a high collar and an antic brim
The face is collapsed, or beaked like a baby bird's.
To them, our most ancient decayed hopes
Are a gross, infantile greed. The city itself,
Shoreline muffled in forgotten need and grief,
To us cold as a stone Venus in the snow, for them
Shows the ham-fisted persistence of the new-born,
Hemming them to the crossed shadows of cornice and porch,
Small darknesses of fence-weeds and streetside brush:
We make them feel mean, it has worn them out,
Watching us; they stir only randomly to mete
Some petty stroke of revenge — arbitrary, unjust,
Striking our old, ailing or oppressed
Oftener than not. An old woman in galoshes
Plods from the bus, head bent in the snow, and falls,
Bruising her hip, her bags spilled in the wet.
The Old Ones watch with small grave faces, nearly polite:
As if one of them had willed a dry sour joke, a kind of pun —
A small cruel fall, lost in a greater one.
It means nothing, no more than as if to tease her
They had soured her cow's milk, or the cat spilled a pitcher,
Costing her an hour's pleasure weeding in the heat,
Grunting among the neat furrows and mounds. Tonight,
In the cold, she moans with pursed face, stoops to the street
To collect her things. Less likely, they might
Put the fritz on the complex machines in the tower
Of offices where she works — jam an elevator
Between floors, giving stranded bosses and workers a break,
Panicking some of them, an insignificant leak
Or let in some exquisite operation bobbing
In the vast, childlike play of movement
That sends cars hissing by them in the night:
The dim city whose heedless, clouded heart
Tries them, and apes them, the filmy-looking harbor
Hard in a cold pale storm that falls all over.
THREE ON LUCK
"Does anybody listen to advice?
I'll soothe myself by listening to my own:
Don't squander the success of your first book;
Now that you have a little reputation,
Be patient until you've written one as good,
Instead of rushing back to print as I did —
Too soon, with an inferior second book
That all the jackals will bite and tear to pieces.
The poet-friends I loved had better sense,
Or better luck — and harder lives, I think.
But Berryman said he wanted the good luck
To be nearly crucified. The lucky artist,
He said, gets to experience the worst —
The worst conceivable ordeal or pain
That doesn't outright kill you. Poor man, poor John.
And he didn't knock on wood. It gives me gooseflesh. ...
One of these days, we'll have a longer visit;
I think of you and Ellen as guest-starlets,
Well-paid to cross the lobbies of life, smiling,
But never beaten up or sold or raped
Like us the real characters in the movie.
I'm sure that image would yield to something solid
Given a meal together, and time to talk."
"I never minded having such old parents
Until now; now I'm forty, and they live
And keep on living. Seneca was right —
The greatest blessing is to be hit by lightning
Before the doctors get you. Dim, not numb,
My father has seen it all get taken away
By slow degrees — his house, then his apartment,
His furniture and gadgets and his books,
And now his wife, and everything but a room
And a half-crippled brain. If I was God,
I hope I'd have the will to use the lightning —
Instead of making extra fetuses
That keep on coming down, and live, and die.
My sisters look so old, it makes me feel
As if my own life might be over, and yet
He planted me when he was older than I am.
And when the doctor told her she was pregnant,
They celebrated; in their shoes, I wouldn't.
It wouldn't be nice to have to wield the scissors,
And say when any one life was at its peak
And ripe for striking. But if God was God,
His finger would be quicker on the trigger."
"In all those years at work I must have seen
A thousand secretaries, mostly young;
And I'm the kind of man who's popular
Around an office — though that's a different thing,
Of course, from getting them to bed. But still,
I never cheated on her: now, I can't.
I don't regret them, exactly, but I do
Find myself thinking of it as a waste.
What would I feel now, if I'd had them all?
Blaming them, maybe, for helping to wear it out?
One thing's for sure, I wouldn't still have her —
Not her. I guess I'd have to say that, no,
I don't regret them; but if we do come back,
I think I'd like to try life as a pimp
Or California lover-boy; just to see ...
Though I suppose that if we do come back
I may have been a randy King already,
With plenty of Maids and Ladies, keeping the Queen
Quiet with extra castles, or the axe.
But that's enough of that. I'll be Goddammed
If I become another impotent lecher,
One of these old boys talking and talking and talking
What he can't do — it's one life at a time."
Excerpted from History of My Heart by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 1984 Robert Pinsky. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Figured Wheel,
Three on Luck,
The New Saddhus,
History of My Heart,
A Long Branch Song,
Song of Reasons,
By Robert Pinsky,