The Obsession



But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
                                                W. B. Yeats, “When You Are Old”

Of love, I have left the best unspoken.
Hundreds of pages I might have filled,
thousands the images comparing you
to every icon of classical beauty.
Instead I wait for the calm reflection,
beamed back from the pool of the mind.
Night cannot know the sun will follow,
     nor the road, the conquering weed,
     nor the truth of love, the worm inside it.

I have a sole thought
in the sombre purity of detached years —
a gold and lapus scarab
untarnished in the pyramid of time —
it moves my pen, my haunted eye,
defies my age’s forgetfulness,
a swan’s lament suspended, held.

If it be not said, this
perennial song,
which I would say in full but that
you and the sun take it away from me
and one of you comes not back —
if it be not sung at last,
     my soul, it dies with me,
nor I nor the world larger for it,
nor you, moved neither to hear
     nor answer it.

You sat at the perfect center
     of grace and beauty:
around you the songs of divas
cast a protective veil. We hovered,
we, your nightly guests and admirers,
in breathless empathy, like courtiers
around your darkened room, cowed
before a pair of expensive speakers,
a turntable no hands but yours
were allowed to touch,
as Streisand twisted
from comedy to bluesy darkness —
as Piaf chansoned herself to death for love
of the boxer, the convict, the forlorn
and nameless man qui me suive
dans la rue, for the cruel one,
Milord Death who sat at her café table —
Inca Yma soaring four-octaves high
in wind song of Andean lament.
And then suddenly, a dash of Horowitz,
or the shriek-scrape of Edgard Varese,
all this so different from my world
of Beethoven, Mahler, and opera.
Your magic was in making it seem
that every love song had you
as its only object, and that we,
each moth and mite of us,
were doomed to circle you
as that last arc on a long playing record
when the needle leaves the fade out
to final orbit, imprisons us
in heart-thump going-nowhere.

Then came the palpable silence
of no more music, our talk exhausted;
our clumsy withdrawal, as one by one
we are not chosen, each home
to a single bed and a shared despair.
If this had been the Renaissance,
dirks might have been drawn
in the darkened alley outside your door,
or poisons purchased from crones
to eliminate all rivals; love poems hurled
into and through your window casements.

Your tribute comes in dark-shadowed eyes,
mumbled confessions or silent hatred,
the red ribbon of a slit wrist.

I did not play the game, I thought.
I watched the moth-dance as from
an amused distance, and told you so.
“I know you know,” you told me,
“and that is why I respect and fear you.”
I never told you that every sight
of you threw me vertiginous
as though we clung to the near apex
of Mount Everest, as though
to leave you were a slide downward
to the bottom-most dark valley.

It was madness. I knew it was madness.
It has never left me:
I have loved you again and again
     in different faces,
weathered your variable storms,
     the deceitful clouds
     that hid you from me
     and from self-judgment.

I asked too much,
you said — my journey was too long and arduous.
So I stood alone in my passion’s temple,
hymning to gods who could not love themselves.
We could storm the citadels of art together,
I said (visions of a Duncan dance in the Parthenon).
All you said, vaguely, was
I don’t want to be thought of
     as part of a couple.

You thought you had no place in these poems,
the making of word-art a mystery to you,
as the making of your sculptures was to me:
the poem a thing inside too many words
reduced to a few; the sculpted figure
a thing inside a block of stone awaiting
the removal of all that was inessential.
I shuddered each time I touched
    a thing you had made;
perhaps my poems were like fire to you,
a thing too fierce to be endured,
a light you did not wish
to have shined upon you.

I learned from you that I do not write alone:
there is always one reader, and one written of.
That my soul, ensnared in the web of yours
takes without cost and enlarges thereby.
In the moment I confessed to myself
I loved you, I saw in full light
what Beatrice was to Dante, Lara to Zhivago,
the loved boy to Hafiz the madman.

Full many nights we courted, flirted,
     word-circled one another.
One night our talk outlasted
     the guttering candle.
That night, you came to my bed —
    O summer night of which I cannot speak —
almost to curse me by a single giving
you never intended to give again,
as though one touch would cure me
     of my madness.

Years I dreamt of you,
     knowing only the where and how of you,
     not writing, not calling.
I refined, from shattered bits of you,
     the man you might have become
     the words you might have spoken
     the art that might have poured from your hands
         in answer to my words’ urgings.
You had no inkling what children we birthed!
Here in my wordy palace your regency’s intact—
     back on drear earth,
discarded lovers conspired against you,
moths in your aurora,
graying the New England autumn
or bleaching to graveyard white
the coral reef beyond your final place of hiding.

Did you fear me to the end? My harmless love-lie
trapped you only in the realm of angels
where immaterial ghosts of me
came to call, masked, and offered dangerous prizes.
Or perhaps you didn’t think of me at all,
the dark fete poem of my yearning filed away
with diplomas and yearbooks and bric-a-brac.

I waited for seven years, then seven more.
We met, collided, repelled like angry magnets.
Once in a great while I received
     a polite letter;
once in a great while I sent
imprudent poems, my pride and solace.
I said, You are in here somewhere, in some
of these poems
. I did not say, You are in them all.

I have, somewhere in a drawer of sad things
two presents you gave me: a beaded Indian
sunwheel, like a captive star,
and a necklace you fashioned
     from a pyrite shard, fool’s gold
I refuse to submit to metaphor,
just as I refuse to wear it.

Now they have told me of your death,
which culminates the silence between us.
On my autumnal journey homeward,
I come to the place of our meeting,
back to the silent, pebbled lakeshore.
I wait beneath a gibbous moon,
chilled as the damp fog enfolds me.
I have no promise of ghosts, or of Heaven,
no cause to hope that some thread, tenuous
as thought in the ether, might draw
you here, touch to my touch, companioning.
So much unfinished business between us,
too few the decades of life in which to do it.
All the wrong people keep dying, I tell myself.

I touch the limestone with its fossil memories.
I taste the water, breathe in
the hovering mist, the bat and maple aura
of the pioneer graveyard. Some blossom,
complex and curled upon itself
like a tropical orchid,
drifts silently toward me in the black water.

Know this as the place of my waiting,
a waiting that will outlive me,
repeated as some other stands here
and reads aloud these words, the vow
I made some thirty years ago:

Know I will wait,
          that I am bound,
               that no other has ever been awaited
                    or will be.

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