p o e m s j o h n h a i n e s
It would have to be something dark,
glazed as in a painting. A corridor
leading back to a forgotten neighborhood
where a ball is bounced from street
to street, and we hear from a far corner
the vendor’s cry in a city light.
It would have to be dusk, long after
sunlight has failed. A shrouded figure
at the prow of a ship, staring
and pointing—as if one might see
into that new land still unventured,
and beyond it, coal dust and gaslight,
vapors of an impenetrable distance.
Too many heroes, perhaps: a MacArthur
striding the Philippine shallows; a sports
celebrity smeared with a period color.
A voice in the air: a Roman orator
declaiming to an absentee Forum
the mood of their falling republic.
It would have to be night. No theater
lights, a dated performance shut down.
And in one’s fretful mind a ghost
in a rented toga pacing the stage,
reciting to himself a history:
“Here were the elected Elders, chaired
and bewigged. And placed before them
the Charter: they read it aloud,
pass it with reverence from hand to hand.
“Back there in the curtained shadows
the people’s chorus waited, shifting
and uncertain; but sometimes among them
a gesture, a murmur of unrest.
“And somewhere here, mislaid, almost
forgotten, the meaning of our play,
its theme and blunted purpose . . .”
How strange to think of those streets
and vacant lots, the sandhills
where we played and dug our trenches;
the forts we built, the enemies
we conjured to aim our stick-guns at,
and then went home at evening,
to victory, to safety and sleep.
And now the vast acres of rubble,
the pitched and roofless houses,
upended stonework and sunken bridges.
The dog-packs roaming, digging,
for the one still-unclaimed victim;
the stray sniper aiming at dusk,
and in the roadside fields,
flowers that explode when picked.
The children wandering from one
burned suburb to another,
seeking that which no longer exists:
a neighborhood, a playing field,
a wading pool or a standing swing;
for a kite to fly, a ball to throw,
or just one pigeon to stone.
And through all this haunted vacancy,
from cellars and pits of sand,
come and go as on a fitful wind
such whispers, taunts and pleadings:
the scolding voices of dead parents,
the lessons of teachers no longer
standing, whose classrooms
are blown to ash and smoky air.
And far-off, unheard beyond the drone
of a single hovering aircraft –
in Paris, Zurich, Prague, or London,
the murmur of convening statesmen.
Premonitory, her outstretched arms
as she kneels in the spring sunlight,
the cry on her lips that will not
raise the boy lying dead before her.
How often has that image returned,
to fade and reappear, then fade again?
In Rwanda, in Grozny, Oklahoma . . .
Kabul, city of rubble and orphans.
And now the Capitol streets are closing,
an aroused militia at the gates –
the fences scaled by a stray gunman
for an enemy poised ever within.
We are asleep in the blurred ink
of our own newsprint, in the flicker
of our nightline images; in the fraying
voices of distracted candidates.
How long before that prone form rises,
to stand, confused and blinking
on the sunlit campus field; then fall
again in the blood we cannot see . . .
And that long-held cry of hers awakens,
to be heard at last over the stutter
of gunfire – in the grassy echo of a town,
a street, a house no longer there?
“Everything is connected to everything . . .”
So runs the executive saw,
cutting both ways
on the theme of all improvement:
Your string is my string
when I pull it my way.
In my detachment is your dependency.
In your small and backward nation
some minor wealth still beckons –
was it lumber, gas, or only sugar?
Thus by its imperial logic,
with carefully aimed negotiation,
my increase is your poverty.
When the mortgage payments falter,
then in fair market exchange
your account is my account,
your savings become my bonus,
your home my house to sell.
In my approval is your dispossession.
Often in distress all social bonds
are broken. Your wife may then
be my wife, your children
my dependents – if I want them.
So, too, our intellectual custom:
Your ideas are my ideas
when I choose to take them.
Your book is my book,
your title mine to steal,
your poem mine to publish.
In my acclaim is your remaindering.
Suppose I sit in an oval office:
the public polls are sliding,
and to prove I am still in command
I begin a distant war. Then,
in obedience to reciprocal fate,
by which everything is connected,
my war is your war,
my adventure your misfortune.
As when the dead come home,
and we are still connected,
my truce is your surrender,
my triumph your despair.
Who calls from the paper columns?
Whose voice there in the paragraphs,
in the handbills and leaflets?
Why are you standing so still
in the shadows, unable to speak
your name? Or was it you I saw,
a drifter shrouded in the street,
you lying cold in the doorway.
Your vote cannot be counted now.
Party, affiliation – what are these
to someone for whom the precincts
are deleted, all entries cancelled?
Yet there you are, compromised,
betrayed, hardly a whisper
in the wind of the corridors,
there where the laws are unmade.
Neither citizen nor ancestor.
A rumor of something no longer
required – unwanted stranger
to your own renumbered house.
Tell me if you see it now,
under your foot, by the roadside –
a pool beneath the public phone,
a stain on the voting-booth curtain.
Someone was here, and someone now
is missing – distracted voices
astray in the thrumming wires.
Tell me if that which reddens
the wind and colors the evening
makes you think of a book –
if the news you read draws blood,
if you feel the wound in your hand.
Turn the pages with that wounded
hand: count the episodes, the raw
displacements gummed together . . .
It is history, now and tomorrow.
A cry that breaks from the crowd
as the speaker slumps and falls;
an image in the theater, a rope,
a sudden flash from the shadows . . .
Something that swells the awnings
like a summer downpour, but it
is not summer, and it is not rain.
after August Sander
He stands alone at the city corner,
an old hat crushed in his hands.
There is no hope in those eyes,
fixed on a scarred and empty street.
On a facing page two blind children
are holding hands. What they are saying
to each other we are not told,
but that they are disabled and insane.
It is 1929. We are waiting for what
we cannot see and have no name for:
a booted stride on a street of glass,
the triumph of a murderous will.
Seventy tormented years have passed.
The refugees are camped at the end
of another road to cross the border
into that same still-haunted age.
The children there are not yet blind;
they are old enough to see
where this solitary man is looking at,
here at the center of an unturned page.
In memoriam: Hilda Morley
We met in Provincetown two years ago
this summer, companions in the art
we shared, and in our separate lives.
I remember that brief friendship,
and the bond that grew between us.
We walked to the waterfront at evening,
you limping on an injured foot.
And then by the fireside at supper,
in the quiet of that place we liked,
and never once did you stop talking.
I listened: Your life with Stefan,
in the Europe you knew and left behind.
And how you planned to move to London,
to a house you owned in Hampstead,
and finsh your life there alone.
And then you paused, on the one subject
difficult to speak of, so much a part
of what you are and were in our wounded,
distracted world – of refugees and cattle
trains, the forced dispersal of a people.
And you said, quietly but firmly,
in the thoughtful voice of someone who
has known too well what others merely
read, the voice of a gentle seer:
“It could happen again. It could happen here.”
Suppose there are no returns,
and the candidates, one
by one, drop off in the polls,
as the voters turn away,
each to his inner persuasion.
The front-runners, the dark horses,
begin to look elsewhere,
and even the President admits
he has nothing new to say;
it is best to be silent now.
No more conventions, no donors,
no more hats in the ring;
no ghost-written speeches,
no promises we always knew
were never meant to be kept.
And something like the truth,
or what we knew by that name –
that for which no corporate
sponsor was ever offered –
takes hold of the public mind.
Each subdued and thoughtful
citizen closes his door, turns
off the news. He opens a book,
speaks quietly to his children,
begins to live once more.
These poems appear in
FOR THE CENTURY’S END
by John Haines
Seattle and London:
of Washington Press.
Published with permission.