It’s a wide, wide sea.
Forty-odd years of cold surf between now
and the cumulo-nimbus of ‘44.
Twenty-one, hunched over a Mercator,
the Bay of Biscay spanned
by a pair of dividers, you broke
out of undercast over a convoy,
fired the flare, hedge-hopped
through snow-squalls into St. Mawgan,
ETA three minutes off.
You were lucky.
Unlike Harry Dickos and Blalock.
What woman knows she’s not Harry’s wife,
what boy he’s not Ben’s grandson?
If you were a child you’d daydream of them,
twenty-two, twenty-three, maybe,
sacked out on a cloud over K’un-ming,
smoking and swigging.
But you’re over sixty, sweating it out,
a smear on a peak, a lump in the jungle.
Or the cabin tanks blew at Ascension
and burned you to cinders.
The first warm day,
when the colors of redbud
drift through the library window,
and the eyes, those aging mechanics,
take you methodically, line after line,
down the page of Shakespeare, the verse
more powerful than a Pratt and Whitney,
electrons the same in the ink
and the gasoline, hunger the same
in the rhymes and the pistons-
you are groping for sequences, shapes,
spring, sunrise, Easter.
Or over the fresh grass
color floats from the forsythia
golden as Mozart, and the dust
of ten thousand books scintillates
in the mind at the window.
Gentleness, joy, a passionate wonder
play through the eyes, the fingertips
turning a page
the spinsters and the knitters in the sun
and the free maids that weave their thread with bones
do use to chant it
or, in the carrel
the hands of your watch
measuring lectures, lunch, a letter delivered,
at last, after forty years, a skull
flushed down a mountainside out of a jungle,
white gleam under thunder, bounced
in the torrent from boulder to boulder,
sunk again into Asia, the Irriwaddy.
Midmorning. Coffee. The book closes.
The names: Ben. Harry. Your own.
At slack tide, in waders, you rake
the bottom of Parker’s River.
The tines sink into sand,
clink against pebbles. Here and there,
now and then, they scrape living shell,
and you pry, and lift, and the quahog
shines in the wind, dripping sand.
Out of a morning rippling silver,
tonight, in a scarlet bowl, a chowder,
creamy, steaming, fragrant with onion.
The shells, iridescent, purple,
mother-of-pearl, will border the phlox.
The river will swell with the moon.
You put on your paradox, ask:
What measures the knowledge of shell from stone?
Gulls wheel and cry at the river’s mouth.
How much truth lies in a bowl of chowder?
Blue crabs are mating under the peat.
Clear, simple, and true.