when elephants walk

Last time I posted a poem by this guy it was after having heard his voice for the first time in a while. Below, now, is the moment when, instead of traveling on a poetry fellowship, he shipped out for Vietnam. I’m not sure it’s the best way to start writing about that fact, but it seems only fair to him to keep his work shimmering in the back and front of my mind.

Elephants Walking

I.

Curled in a window seat, level with wind-swayed oak,

aching on a green vinyl pad,

I think of the fortunes spent on the hardwood, wainscot

study, and the slates fitted

for the arbor walkways, the labor it took to lug bricks out

to each overly articulated

corner, in which nook a child of fortune, cushion- tassel

between his fingers, might

look up from his reading to see in heat waves rising

over the pale, shimmering

delphinium, a plot miracle perhaps, the sudden death

by spontaneous combustion

and the child wondering how, why, and could it have been?

II.

My childhood bedroom, summer night, one hand marking

the book, the others palm

and fingers printing moist, disappearing shadows on the wall.

brownuniversity-harknesshouseThen the college library,

Harkness Hall, and aged, white-cowled Father Benilde

smelling of coffee, muscatel,

and Old Spice as he opened the doors at 7:30. First in line

I was all business, heading

straight to my end of a long, immovable table, to my first

reading of Dante, a paperback

infernociardicopy of Ciardi, with its cover of red, grinning, cartoon

Devils, which I in a fit

of verisimilitude (which word I had just learned)

add chard with a lighter.

III

My first lines that year: “Butt, butt, bale beast.

I fear your horns not

in the least! My intended tone was courtly love

but the words were

apostrophe to a buffalo in Roger Williams Park,

one that had leaned

hard into a sagging hurricane fence near my date.

The lines came to me

as I woke after a nap in the library. I still love

to sleep in libraries

whenever I can. I fix my head sideways over

my folded hands

and make room for the little puddle of drool

I’ll quickly wipe away.

I wake into a barely believable clarity

throughout my body.

I’m ready to grapple with fate, love, sex,

the stirrings within.

Over readers and sleepers alike hovers a mist

or a pollen, and in it

I see words shuttling back and forth like birds.

In the darkness or dream

something hugely important had been freed,

to roam. Grateful,

I say to myself, “Elephants have been walking.”

IV.

“Son, we must give this country great poetry!”

decreed the older poet

to my nodding head, as he shook my hand after

the Crystal Room reading.

Later, as I walked back to my dormitory, sleet

failed to cool me,

I turned his pronoun over and over, thinking,

yes, we do, we do.

On the news there was familiar footage:

a Phantom run

ending in a hypnotic burst of a lift yellow napalm.

I knew the war

was wrong, but that was why, I claimed, I should go,

to sing the song

of high lament, to get it into the books. Like Ishmael

I would sign on

for a three-year voyage under a madman captain.

Frissons to be had

instantly, a pity-the-youth-soon-dying look in the eyes.

“Are you crazy?”

said my girlfriend. But I was filled with vibrant life

and felt neither suicidal

nor confused when I dialed the Marine recruiter: “Yes,

I look forward to reporting.”

Phone in my lap, I sat sideways, my legs dangling

over the arms of my red

leather reading chair. A warm spring wind was

melting the snow

down to bright medallions of ice. I felt clear-headed

and refreshed.

I just hoped the war would last until I got there.

Elephants were walking.

I do think I forgot the crucial question of the interview, after Marchant quoted this poem. As he packed for boot camp, did he bring a moleskin notebook? And in his heart was he following Homer, Hemingway or just Randall Jarrell?

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