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By Robert Klein Engler
"Most souls, 'tis true, but peep out once an age,
Dull sullen pris'ners in the body's cage."
(Early morning in a Park Ridge backyard)
It's the music and the booze, Wayne,
I can't deal with it anymore, the pain
between my eyes is killing me, besides
I gotta sober up to give those guys rides.
Ah come-on Bruce, it's my last night in town,
we just wanted to have a good time, goof aroun'.
I mean, tomorrow and it's on the jet to Nam,
eighteen months without seeing you or Tom.
I know, I'm sorry, it's that, well, you know,
I never wanted you to do this. Never--don't go,
you could have gone to college with me,
by then the war'll be over, you're free.
I'm tired of school, man, besides my grades,
well, you know, with track and all, my grades
aren't good enough where you're goin'--anyway,
we have a debt to our country I wanna pay.
But the war's wrong, Johnson and Nixon lie,
you'd go off thousands of miles to fight or die
for what, for rubber, some oil, false honor,
your youth and health wasted for nothing more.
Come-on, don't gimme that shit; you're talkin'
like a Commie now, what's the matter man, chicken,
afraid of a little adventure, too many books--
who cares if we waste a few slant-eyed Gooks?
It's more than that Wayne, it's like, well,
I was hopin' we'd room together at Cornell,
you know, like when we went to camp that summer,
and you fell off the cliff, man what a bummer....
And I broke my arm and you looked after
me for a week before mom and dad could charter
an ambulance to come and take me back home--
took care of me till they returned from Rome.
Yeah, that's what I mean, with you
gone, who will I have to talk to, not Sue,
I'm not gonna date her anymore after tonight,
I'm just not interested, it's just not right.
Jeeze, man I just don't dig that, here it's
almost dawn, a nice night, everything fits,
the other guys curling up with their dates,
and we're out here in the yard, way too late.
I know, I've been thinkin' about all that
and maybe girls and cars is not where it's at,
I mean, at least for me, and besides, with you,
well, with you I feel things I don't feel with Sue.
What are you talkin' about, is this a gag,
if I didn't know you better I'd say you're a fag.
You've had too much to drink--need some sleep,
don't say anymore, OK? just let it keep.
Wayne, tomorrow you're gonna leave and I,
well, I wanna tell you something, I wanna try
to get across that I'll miss you, really…we,
well, we're more than friends, can’t you see…
I love you and if you go off to that fuckin' war
we'll never see one another again anymore.
I'm sorry, I had to say it, OK, I know
you're mad, it's OK...go be a hero.
Yeah, man, you're crazy, I knew it,
always lookin' at me, all that invitation shit
about spending the night at my place.
Well, fuck off, you're a goddamn disgrace.
OK…forget it, it's almost dawn,
I bet we really look hung over, let's go,
my pants are damp from sittin' on the lawn,
just forget it, OK, come on, let's go.
(Midday at the Golf Country Club Pool)
I would float away on my thoughts,
float as if I were rocked upon the water,
as if I were a boat upon a shoreless sea.
The sun is hammering on the pool,
light is breaking up, obscuring
the bathers stretched out like lizards.
I remember seeing light on the sea
from an airplane, a flight over water,
suspended in a weightless element,
I remember the light making the waves
look like leather, stretched and polished,
on the cover of a book, the cover of a photo
album, the album with our graduation photos,
Wayne and I standing in the hall, dressed
in robes, a wicked grin on his face,
our arms around each other's shoulders,
the cameras exploding with a flash,
like bombs, like the trail of phosphorous
he wrote about, skirting the night,
tracing a target, the flash of flares,
the last white light he saw when his boot
tripped the wire, the iodine wire,
stretched across the undergrowth,
the long grass, with silver light
on its watery edges shining like knives,
the gleam of oil and shrapnel,
the wire, snapping piano,
and then the flash, then the white
sear of summer metal and a man folds,
his pale flesh shredded, then
the flash and the whole sky is white
beneath an open world of blood,
and after the blood, the great, wide
space of death, after the flash,
lumps of flesh slap the leaves,
the mass of a man and his dreams
thump into the silence of a jungle rain.
Wayne...why, why did it happen, just
two weeks and the telegram is sent home.
Your mother calling me before breakfast,
me not saying much, just listening,
listening as if I heard again across
the wide ocean a roar of jets,
the shock of wind in your face, tearing
away your words, the last breath
of a man whose bravery was wasted
on a green slope under a gray sky,
across a blue ocean, pacific in its
grandeur, an ocean sparkling as it rolls
to California shores, an ocean
heard in the shells we took as boys
from the beach, an ocean I hear rushing
from the phone as your mother's words
roll like the waves through the wires,
the silence I return with my breath,
the pitiful, “Thank you, yes, I will,
thank you, goodbye,” I manage to say.
And then the click of a broken line
the hum of a broken wire, like the wire
that broke off a life, the wire humming
of death in a sweaty jungle, Oh Wayne,
I say to myself and slam the screen door
behind me, My God, you can't be dead,
no it's a mistake, a mistake, all the way
past the manicured greens to the clean
water of this country club hidden in the hills,
where men made rich from guns and war,
golf and make light of long hair and
the struggle growing in the streets,
all the way wondering how what's left
of your body will be taken from the field,
how it will be flown across the wide ocean,
in a arc of sun, how we will all gather
next week under the cemetery elms,
how under a flag, the coffin will slide
down the dark mouth of the earth,
Wayne... I work in the bright sun,
it is as summer as it will ever be,
light is hammering the water,
the sky is wide without clouds,
there is light on the fingers of the fence,
the hair on my arms is bending gold,
Wayne, can it be, can it be that we
two may now only float in the light,
float in memory as if it were water,
the wide water of the ocean,
the sea over which you fly,
the sea as vast as the night
in which you sleep, the sleep
of youth without summer,
the summer closed off by light,
the light come with a flash,
and the flash bright with blood,
blood scattered like rain
on the dark, oriental earth
thirsty for the drink of war,
the long brooding earth,
circling in relentless light.
(Late Afternoon at a Washington, D. C., Barbecue)
Well, we two make a pair, don't we Sue,
meeting here after all these years,
at a Washington, D. C., barbecue, while the sun
goes down over the Potomac, over America.
I can't believe you're for McGovern, too,
let me see, how long has it been...
why it's almost eight years since...
since I saw you last at Wayne's party.
How much our world has put on weight
since then, how much the seasons change.
What was it that Pound wrote: “This month
is the reign of autumn, this is the month
of ramparts, September, the end of thunder.”
Yet the thunder of that night still
haunts us, the war is still whistling
in our ears. Somehow we've managed
to live with both butter and bullets,
go to the moon and rain sulfur
on the children of Asia, somehow the cities
burn but I made it to law school,
somehow after that loss so many summers
past I have lived off borrowed blood.
I guess I should apologize for never calling,
but when I left for Cornell, I left for good,
and made another life as best I could.
Oh, Bruce, not to worry, why, I'm as surprised
as you to see one another here on a late
September afternoon, golden as sherry,
the clouds gathering color like raw cotton,
why it's perfect for a reunion.
I too have been remiss in making calls,
but when I heard of Wayne's death days after
it happened, when his mother never even
asked me to the funeral, well, I couldn't
face that whole gang again--you never knew,
but Wayne and I were, well, we were more than
friends, we were secret lovers, after graduation.
After going with you--you were so shy then--
he and I carried on, especially after he
came home from basic training.
He told me nothing could come of it because
no way would his folks let him marry
a plumber's daughter. No way.
We never wrote after that.
I hear he stepped on a mine, the bastard,
and now we meet like nomads at a water hole,
our faces and hands glowing like polished
brass in descending light, dusting from
four heavy robes the sand of dry years,
having separate thirsts but common tears.
Geez, Sue, I really missed him. Shit!
But I shouldn't be talking like that
at this capital affair, in the Iron Age
of America, where we attempt to make peace
with plastic flags and songs from Hollywood.
I'm surprised you recognized me with my long
hair and granny glasses, and you, why
look at you, just like a hippie, no bra I bet,
beads--say, I hear you married
a couple of years ago--to some minister.
That's why you're here. He's in the peace
movement, organizing the March on Washington.
Yeah, ever since I left law school I've
been volunteering my time to campaigns, too.
To tell the truth it was bad for a long
time after Wayne was killed, like those stretches
of summer, when for days the hot air
collects over the city and hangs with humidity
that seemed to grow with intensity each day,
to where it becomes difficult to breathe,
it's like I was waiting for rain for a long time,
waiting for the slow passage of a cold front,
waiting for a lengthening of shadows, for autumn,
when it is crisp with the snap of cool days,
like an apple, ripe and polished to a glaze.
I know, my husband is fond of autumn, too.
He's from New England and the colors up there
are breathtaking, especially, like ,now,
when it's just right in the flow of seasons--
warm with the afterglow of summer.
You know, Bruce, I thought you'd be married
by now--a good-looking guy like you--
and a lawyer, why how come one of those
Washington gold diggers hasn't grabbed you up?
You know, honey, you can't marry your work.
Say, I have an idea, why don't you
leave me your number, Jeremy and I are
staying with some friends in Georgetown,
I’ll call and we all will get together for dinner--
you'll like Linda--she's a Virgo--
and besides we'd better get back, it's late
and I've got to make sure everyone has
enough arm bands for the parade marshals.
Imagine, meeting here after all these years,
from the heartland to the Capitol, and look,
how nice, the stars are just now faint points
of light in the darkness behind us; funny,
for a flash it felt like high school again, a sea
of infinite days flickering with every possibility.
(Night in the Forest Preserve by Axehead Lake)
The woods close at sun down.
Already it's snowing.
I can't tell the cigarette smoke
from my exhaling in the cold.
Smoke like mother's milk, or semen,
my nourishment against nervousness,
the truth that can only be know by sucking,
a dot of fire on a frozen field.
Jesus, it's just too risky waiting
for him in a place like this.
What if they spot my BMW?
I'm going to have to plan something else.
But is there an alternative, a new thing,
a manner besides the consuming seasons?
Can I, the master of arguments, the mover
of juries, find the precedent sufficient
to melt the ice that grows with age,
that separates each man from another
like icebergs in a frozen sea of salt?
Do words call forth the warmth
of all Arabia, breathing from a box?
Why, I can't even say for sure what
the past twenty years have taught me.
I know all the same memories,
still pursue the same illusions.
I tell myself the body has its needs
while love is got with another currency.
Perhaps the best hope is silence.
There happens an incomparable silence
on a winter night as snow falls.
The tracks of our business go obscure,
the mind sees itself looking out
from the liquid curve of its own eyes--
we incline, then, to disembodied thoughts.
Waiting, as our very atoms vibrate less,
breathing with the soft pulse of pillows,
wondering as the dark, blue night
assembles its ghostly sheets.
I am devastated by how much that kid
looks like Wayne, by his willingness,
by how much my money will buy.
“Gay is good if you can afford it,” he says.
See what I could have been saved from
Wayne, if you had just said, “Yes.”
At a time when the moons of Mars
are breached for photographs,
when the average man cannot read
the chemicals added to his soup,
when Auden's fear of motorcars
is realized, and cameras pry open
our most intimate gestures, display
our last secrets, when seasons disappear
by jet and air conditioning, when Freud
and Marx expose the myth of a Golden Age
where shepherds sing of poetry to sheep,
what pastoral posturing makes sense?
Snowmen might as well learn to speak
about the clots of ice that form their fat
as we modern men raise a song to ages gone
and gods with Grecian names.
I endure winter, Wayne, because clients
are slipping on the ice, crashing
their cars against the snow.
Like everyone, I want more,
maybe it is near to the pastoral peace
we often claim the dead endure.
For now, I hear a proof in the whispers
of love making, caught between the warm
shadows of flesh come close, come close,
and soft as my memory of you,
as near to Grecian gods as I may know.
Could I ever fall into your arms,
fall into time past and complete myself?
Yet this desire is only my animal hope,
like Zen emptiness or acute awareness,
it is a specialty of heart, none are saved by it--
in spite of Buddha or Mallarmé,
ordinary lives stumble on.
So stumbles too my work of words.
Unable to spell out our specific rhyme,
I attempt to affirm the form of a pastoral
for a new age, a time of radio and war,
in a new world where just now we are
beginning to learn how to live.
Christ, it's late, is he coming?
Or must I have it out again with you Wayne?
The dead are cold company on a winter night
when snow piles up on the fields
and the eye rises to a row of trees
sloping to a gentle hedge, trees
lifting their branches like sacred bowls
to gather up pieces of the sky.
If I take anything from this Wayne, it is
that my love was good by what it supposed,
and only human by being incomplete.
I took remarkable pains with your memory,
Wayne, to find in pain the germ of prayer.
By that prayer I turn now to edit my desire
and look for signs above the midnight air
that love returns with all that we require.
The inspiration for this work comes primarily from an essay on the pastoral form by Alexander Pope. In that essay, Pope deals with the elements of a traditional pastoral. The four seasons, the times of day, a dialogue between friends taking place by a body of water, these are all elements of a pastoral that I tried to incorporate into my poem.
I also wanted a contemporary theme and to emphasize the point that for us, the real pastoral setting just might be suburbia. It is into this suburban setting that the death of love comes as a rude awakening. My poem has three hundred and sixty-five lines, one for each day of the year.
After writing this pastoral, I came across Leo Marx's book, The Machine in the Garden. In that book he writes, Most literary works called pastorals--at least those substantial enough to retain our interest--do not finally permit us to come away with anything like the simple, affirmative attitude we adopt toward pleasing rural scenery. In one way or another, if only by virtue of the unmistakable sophistication with which they are composed, these works manage to qualify, or call into question, or bring irony to bear on the illusion of peace and harmony in a green pasture.”
Add to this quote by Marx, the comment by Thomas J. Travisano that, “As far back as Virgil, the pastoral has been a genre that calls for moral understanding of things overlooked and undervalued,” and you have some of the motives for my poem The Gold Diggers.