American Diptych, 1974
i. Alberta King, In Memoriam
Alberta you tried to brush a bee from your face
Last Sunday, but Bunch it was a
Bullet, before you
Even knew what hurt you sprang
Right out, away from Earth
That hurt you to death.
A world that wants to know nothing ugly
Knows nothing, always gives power over
Itself only to its maniacs. To begin to improve we
Need to know that the only good we do that works
Goads the maniacs – when they notice
Finally, they kill, seldom each other. You knew but did not
Rest from working good till you were stopped. Rest
Evening child, do not watch over us. Your
Eyes know too much for us to see and sleep.
ii. Helen Gahagan DouglasHer eyes, one notices, cut through to the possible.
‘Go on, Helen, fight back!’ –
All because she knew that the only way to deal with
Hate is to leave it alone, walk away from it, walk
Around it, probing the boil. One cannot lance it without
Getting covered with pus, proving what? She knew; one
Alerts the people and walks away. This is
Not the same as hiding – the boil hides. This is living. This is
Deciding that one’s life is
Once. The boil hides in the boil, later is choked by the boil.
Until then, one continues living. After, among the new boils, one
Goes on living, still practicing the courage of noticing everything –
Looking, alerting, probing, not lancing, knowing that the world is given
Always to infection. Always she notices. But in her own responding,
She deals only with the good: in her friends, enemies, society, planet; in
Vestiges, wherever she can train herself to see them.
In this way one wins the
Contest. In this way, one uses the only means for improving the planet
That work – since whatever the planet’s response, one is
Oneself an improvement,
Rejecting infection until one’s eyes close.
Henry James Returns to New York
He could no longer
Be Harry because there was nothing left
To call out to him ‘Harry!’ and the new things
Didn’t know his name. On the ferry
To Staten Island, wind took his hat off,
His name already off, the tears rolling down
His cheeks – mother, father, Eleventh Street,
His sisters clamouring for ice cream,
Delmonico’s, all knocked off and maybe
Their names hadn’t been the real ones anyway.
It is good to try to grab one’s name as it
Blows out to sea, it is good to know
In the midst of chaos that beautiful manners –
He had written about those – are luminous chaos,
That love – he had written about that –
Is luminous chaos. No other home to come
Woman in a Chair, in Silver Spring, Maryland
For Lee and Lillian
She thinks. She reads.
She feels terrible.
Life turned out this way.
She is toward the end of hers
And knows it.
The feeling terrible all the time
Has become familiar.
There are breaks in that.
Her chair. A book. A
Somewhere else, also
One of her daughters, over weeks,
Paints her portrait.
She. Chair. Window.
Curtains, long, luminous scarlet,
Falling straight down from the high ceiling.
Sunlight pouring through the window
Onto the many-coloured patterned interior
The woman does not need a lamp.
Where is she in? Marquand?
James T. Farrell? Mann?
I am glad that the portrait
Is not in the Art Institute of Chicago
Or the Metropolitan Museum
Where I think it belongs.
It is in my flat,
As To the Lighthouse
Is in my flat,
As Jennie Tourel singing Mahler under Bernstein
Is in my flat.
Brush. Palette. Oils. Discretion. Canvas.
In the heritage of Matisse,
But farther along
And in Maryland.
Horses are as beautiful
As Beauty is said to be.
They shine when they move.
Their eyes shine.
But they cannot write.
They cannot paint.
They cannot depict
The dignity of context.
Poems copyright © Richard W. Halperin.