Signs of the Times
For a mind full of disquiet
A trembling roadside weed is Cassandra,
And so is the right
Of a boarded up public library,
The rows of books beyond its windows
Unopened for years,
The sickly old dog on its steps,
And a man slumped next to him,
His mouth working mutely
Like an actor unable to recall his lines
At the end of some tragic farce.
That Elusive Something
Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
From the cleaners with her eyes half closed?
The sight of a building blackened by fire
Where once I went to look for work?
The toothless old man passing out leaflets
For a clothing store going out of business?
Or was it the woman pushing a baby carriage
About to turn the corner? I ran after,
As if the little one lying in it was known to me,
And found myself alone on a busy street
I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness,
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.
These rags the spirit borrows
To clothe itself
Against the chill of mortality.
O barbed wire of crossed-out words,
Crown of thorns,
Camp meeting of dead wall reveries,
Spilled worry beads,
Fortune-teller’s coffee dregs,
My footholds in the abyss.
Melville had the sea and Poe his nightmares,
To thrill them and haunt them,
And you have the faces of strangers,
Glimpsed once and never again.
Like that woman whose eye you caught
On a crowded street in New York
Who spun around after she went by
As if she had just seen a ghost.
Leaving you with a memory of her hand
Rising to touch her flustered face
And muffle what might’ve been something
She was saying as she was swept away.
You’re shivering my memory.
You went out early and coatless
To visit your old schoolmasters,
The cruel schoolmasters
And their pet monkeys.
You took a wrong turn somewhere.
You met an army of gray days,
A ghost army of years on the march.
It must have been the slop they ladled you,
The ditch-water they made you drink.
You found yourself again on that street,
Inside that narrow room
With a single dusty window.
Outside it was snowing as in a dream.
You were ill and in bed.
The whole world was absent at work.
The blind old woman next door
Whose sighs and shuffles you’d welcome
Had died mysteriously in the summer.
You had your own breath to listen to.
You were perfectly alone and anonymous.
It would have taken months for anyone
To begin to miss you. The chill
Made you pull the covers up to the chin.
You remembered the lost arctic voyagers,
The snow erasing their footprints.
You had no money and no prospects in sight.
Both of your lungs were hurting.
You had no intention of lifting a finger
To help yourself. You were immortal.
Outside the same darkening snowflake
Seemed to be falling over and over again.
You studied the cracked walls,
The many water-stains on the ceiling
Trying to fix in your mind each detail.
Time had stopped at dusk.
You were shivering at the thought
Of such great happiness.