Friends of his youth, friends of his prime: they had been the audience for the stories of his ambition. But as he grew older his listeners became fewer and his triumphs never materialized. Then, when he spoke with the more fortunate, it was to describe what had stood in his path, why he had never joined them—he had put his family first, he had offended certain critics. Without these obstacles, surely, there would have been no limit to his success. But even these listeners fell away; a new generation was hurrying down a road not his own, and behind that still another was preparing itself and no one knew or had any interest in his gifts. Soon he realized that he was receding into his own shadow. Indeed, in his final isolation the many versions of his story composed his tombstone: not one of marble but of living vapor, which his death—his ultimate listener—would, with a sympathetic whistle, casually disperse.
for Peter Parrish
Each morning the man rises from bed because the invisible
cord leading from his neck to someplace in the dark,
the cord that makes him always dissatisfied,
has been wound tighter and tighter until he wakes.
He greets his family, looking for himself in their eyes,
but instead he sees shorter or taller men, men with
different degrees of anger or love, the kind of men
that people who hardly know him often mistake
for him, leaving a movie or running to catch a bus.
He has a job that he goes to. It could be at a bank
or a library or turning a piece of flat land
into a ditch. All day something that refuses to
show itself hovers at the corner of his eye,
like a name he is trying to remember, like
expecting a touch on the shoulder, as if someone
were about to embrace him, a woman in a blue dress
whom he has never met, would never meet again.
And it seems the purpose of each day’s labor
is simply to bring this mystery to focus. He can
almost describe it, as if it were a figure at the edge
of a burning field with smoke swirling around it
like white curtains shot full of wind and light.
When he returns home, he studies the eyes of his family to see
what person he should be that evening. He wants to say:
All day I have been listening, all day I have felt
I stood on the brink of something amazing.
But he says nothing, and his family walks around him
as if he were a stick leaning against a wall.
Late in the evening the cord around his neck draws him to bed.
He is consoled by the coolness of sheets, pressure
of blankets. He turns to the wall, and as water
drains from a sink so his daily mind slips from him.
Then sleep rises before him like a woman in a blue dress,
and darkness puts its arms around him, embracing him.
Be true to me, it says, each night you belong to me more,
until at last I lift you up and wrap you within me.
Over here he made a pile of what he had had and lost. Over there a pile of what he was owed. Then a pile of what he possessed and a pile of what he desired. After measuring them, he added a pile of what he deserved and put it beside the others. Then came the pile of what was his by rights, the pile of what he had failed to achieve, the pile of what he had been cheated out of, the pile of what had been stolen. His calculations took years. In the beginning he had had many gifts, different roads his life could take, now his calculations took all his attention—what he had, what others had, what he should have—all the oughts and might-have-beens. It made its own pile.
At the edge of a golf course, a man watches
geese land on a pond, the bottom of which
is spotted with white golf balls. It is October
and the geese pause in their long flight.
Honking and flapping at one another, they seem
to discuss their travels and the man thinks
how the world must look when viewed from above:
villages and cornfields, the autumn trees.
The man wonders how his own house must look
seen from the sky: the grass he has cut
a thousand times, the border of white flowers,
the house where he walks from room to room,
his children gone, his wife with her own life.
Although he knows the geese’s honkings are only
crude warnings and greetings, the man also
imagines they tell the histories of the people
they travel over, their loneliness, the lives
of those who can’t change their places, who
each year grow more isolated and desperate.
Is this what quickens his breathing when at night
the distant honking seems mixed with the light
of distant stars? Follow us, follow us, they call,
as if life could be made better by departure,
or if he were still young enough to think it so.
A man owns a green parrot with a yellow beak
that he carries on his shoulder each day to work.
He runs a pet shop and the parrot is his trademark.
Each morning the man winds his way from his bus
through the square, four or five blocks. There goes
the parrot, people say. Then at night, he comes back.
The man himself is nondescript—a little overweight,
thinning hair of no color at all. It’s like the parrot owns
the man, not the reverse. Then one day the man dies.
He was old. It was bound to happen. At first people
feel mildly upset. The butcher thinks he has forgotten
a customer who owes him money. The baker thinks
he’s catching a cold. Soon they get it right—the parrot
is gone. Time seems out of sorts, but sets itself straight
as people forget. Then years later the fellow who ran
the diner wakes from a dream where he saw the parrot
flying along all by itself, flapping by in the morning
and cruising back home at night. Those were the years
of the man’s marriage, the start of his family, the years
when the muddle of his life began to work itself out;
and it’s as if the parrot were at the root of it all, linking
the days like pearls on a string. Foolish of course, but
do you see how it might happen? We wake at night
and recall an event that seems to define a fixed period
of time, perhaps the memory of a beat-up bike we had
as a kid, or a particular chair where we sat and laughed
with friends; a house, a book, a piece of music, even
a green parrot winding its way through city streets.
And do you see that bubble of air balanced at the tip
of its yellow beak? That’s the time in which we lived.
Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter’s
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
In early autumn, there’s a concerto
possible when there’s a guest in the house
and the guest is taking a shower and the host
is washing up from the night before.
With each turn of the tap in the kitchen,
the water temperature increases or drops
upstairs and the guest responds with little groans—
cold water for the low notes, hot water for high.
His hair is soapy, the tub slippery
and with his groaning he becomes the concerto’s
primary instrument. Then let’s say the night
was particularly frosty and now the radiators
are knocking, filling the house with warmth,
and the children are rushing around outside
in the leaves before breakfast, calling after
their Irish setter whose name is Cleveland.
And still asleep, the host’s wife is making
those little sighs one makes before waking,
as she turns and resettles and the bed creaks.
Standing at the sink, the host hums to himself
as he thinks of the eggs he’ll soon fry up,
while already there’s the crackle of bacon
from the stove and the smell of coffee. The mild groans
of the guest, the radiator’s percussion,
children’s high voices, the barking of a dog,
even the wife’s small sighs and resettlings
combine into this autumn concerto of which
not one of the musicians is aware as they drift
toward breakfast and then a leisurely walk
through the fields near the house – two friends
who haven’t seen each other for over a year,
Much later they will remember only a color,
a golden yellow, and the sound of their feet
scuffling the leaves. A day without rancor
or angry words, the sort of day that builds a life,
becoming a soft place to look back on,
and geese, geese flying south out of winter.