i.m. Walter E. Maple, 1899-1968, my grandfather
The pleated paper cups in Walter’s office Caught the saliva of the 1920s, Four decades’ worth of blood from gum disease, The spittle of a hobo with a cough. His Old furniture, since reupholstered, is Scattered among descendants. Somehow these Long-yellowed, brittle vessels must appease Some need of mine to own relics like this. Corroded dental mirrors no mouth has known Since the Depression, gold crowns forged by hand, A hunting knife of crevassed antler bone, Black silver wire, red umbrella stand— All bear mute witness to a life long gone, A fragile kingdom once his to command.
“Elle est retrouvée. Quoi? — L’Éternité.” — Arthur Rimbaud
Starr’s Oriental Rugs in Englewood, New Jersey, shimmers in my memory— A fact that borders on absurdity Since there’s no earthly reason why it should. The moment I’d return to, if I could, And choose to cherish through eternity, Shines all the more for being so ordinary: A bus stop bench rough slats of peeling wood, A warm spring night with all the trees in leaf, Dark windows, ornate carpets spread like wings. I was nineteen, ignited by belief That every fiber of awareness sings; Sure living would be glorious, and brief; Sure, in that instant, of so many things.
The grip, not “mother of,” but truly pearl, Houses the honed edge of a century— A luminescence that conceals the whorl Of fingerprints, dreams of a silvered sea. The blunted blade is black with age, and we Shrink from imagining its touch on flesh; Cold steel navigates instinctively A throat no scented lather can refresh. Magi who kneel before an ancient crèche Sport unkempt beards perfumed with frankincense; Unearthly light enfolds them like soft mesh (A painted miniature rich in portents) While some Victorian cheek, pale, and shaved clean As a ripe moon, illuminates the scene.
This land was pure ten thousand years ago; The unspanned waters of the Golden Gate— Turgid and seething—yearned and surged below The Marin Headlands’ balding granite pate; Sun-stunted grass shone amber in the late Eocene sunlight. Long before soft tar— Like sluggish blood that will not circulate— Defaced the wounded world, an angry scar, Before the age of train or motorcar, There was no language here, no need to name. These hills were lit by many a dead star Burning in silence: an unyielding flame. Beneath our frenzied towns that silence grows, Encroaching unobserved—still, the land knows.
A truck arrayed with angels, gaudy stars, Struggles through traffic in the Civic Center, Emblazoned with grim quotes from scripture verse Admonishing the End is surely near. (“The Bible guarantees it!”) Weather’s clear, The morning warm, fragrant with budding spring. How can the heart be yoked to senseless fear On such a glorious day? No reckoning Seems in the offing while such songbirds sing So sweetly to the old procreant urge; The spreading sky presents a dazzling Blue slate on which creation is writ large. Will Armageddon show May twenty-first? We’ve got another year or two, at worst!
Robert Lavett Smith lives in San Francisco where he works as a Special Education Paraprofessional for the San Francisco Unified School District. He is the author of four small-press chapbooks and, most recently, of a full-length collection, Everything Moves With A Disfigured Grace (Alsop Review Press, 2006). A collection of his sonnets, Smoke In Cold Weather, will be published by the Full Court Press sometime this summer, 2012.