A visit to the poet in the poet's house
(for Howard Nemerov)
I called on you-Saturday at your home
in St Louis-talked with you in that big house
with the grand piano, in the room you took me to,
huge with its spread of carpet, brown wood floor & the blue,
I think it was the carpet that was blue.
You were slight, lean, confident, at ease with yourself
but puzzled I was there (it showed although you tried to conceal it)
that I'd come from so far away & had stopped by
when I wasn't a professor or a student
& you'd never heard of me.
And now in this book I found in the library
there are two of your poems-one of them referring
to the house I visited you in, which you say
was 'so quiet with the vacuum cleaner silent, sulking
in a corner of the closet'.
And the other about the painter (Paul Klee)
'Dreaming' as you put it, 'in the Scholar's House'.
It (this particular poem) was longer than the other, covering
more than three pages, & while I read it
I thought of you & the time we spent together
waiting (patiently) for the tea to come in,
sitting opposite each other in that oh, so very formal room
in which supposedly at the end of every semester
your fellow faculty members sipped sherry
while your wife or daughter played the piano.
I could almost hear the music (Mozart of course)
coming towards us as we sat there talking to each other,
you so stiffly, politely courteous & me trying to understand
what it was like to be famous-
& a well-paid poet in America.
Waiting for the cabbages to grow
& keeping them safe
after looking at the paper
to see what (if anything)
is happening in the world
I go outside & check the cabbages.
It's not just the cabbages though-
there's the potatoes as well
& I'm not certain which of them
concerns me most.
They're there in the garden
peacefully minding their business
unaware even (well, I think
that's the way it is) that they're
unaware I'm interested in them
but then, who's to know
about cabbages, what they think
or whether they think at all?
Then again, my interest
in them is personal-I care
what happens to them
have an empathy for them
the way (in the case of cabbages)
their leaves crinkle & fold
& the potatoes-in their flowering,
whether it says anything
about tubers & what's happening
in the earth below.
What they make me think of
is people & of everything
that goes wrong . . .
that might go wrong
that usually does & especially
when nobody's thinking
about it because there's so much
- more than anyone can manage-
so much more to think about
that fills in the days, weeks, years
& seems so important
except when the worst happens
as it does so often -
& then it's too late
to do anything about it . . .
© Alistair Paterson