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HORACE, ODE II. 14

HORACE, ODE II. 14

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UBI SUNT, ETC.



Where are they now (as if yesterday’s rain

Now dried up along the driveway had gone

Somewhere instead of everywhere)? Quiet Sybil

Of the eternity jammed into each

Instant of noticing, small Dickinson

(“And dark, like the wren”); the large Walt with too much

Whitman on his plate; Melville’s prophetic

Weirdness and Trumbull Stickney’s resonant

Brevity, all these sounding in my ears?

Where their centuries are, of course, and where

Mine is finally about to go. Timor

Mortis conturbat me, but not for cause

Of their long going hence. And where Hart Crane?

The pontifex maximus of ways between

The fractured wholes and whole parts, months of space

And wide rivers of days will ever guide

The weary wonderer to their abode.

Ubi sunt? sunt hic: here they are and part

Of what we are, and while in older days

It seemed some kind of wholesome play to query

The whereabouts of the dead (as if you hadn’t

Decided, long before asking, the only answer

It had been given you to give), and listing

Their singing and particular names in rhymes

That gave you an excuse to sound them out

Yet once more; and it was as well some kind

Of mortal work to deny the unendingness

Of anything at all but the transitory

That we inherit and ever will bequeath.



34



TO DONALD HALL



Gleaming in Monday-evening candlelight,

Glass, and plate, and conversation, and good

Fortune then unacknowledged even by

Recognition that it dwelt among us . . .

We were unencumbered then by the likes

Of hope—a childish thing yet put away

Childishly, or standing in some closet

Shadow like a deceased grandfather’s crutch—

Or by the likes of an appraiser’s eye

Or hand that might take the measure of all

The wealth of fragilities shadowing

Our years of shining moments then, as if

Someone’s hard-edged gold had been laundered and

Smelted, sublimated into golden

Soft light reflected in the faces, the

Wide-eyed minds of such a jeunesse dorée

—George Kateb Stanley Cavell Geoffrey Bush

Noam Chomsky Ed Wilson Marvin Minsky

Marshall Cohen Burt Dreben Ken Keniston

Paul de Man Jaakko Hintikka George Field

Abe Klein Henry Rosovsky Jaan Puhvel

Cal Watkins Steele Commager Frank Pipkin

Jim Kritzeck—and, giving higher light than

Candles, the peculiar lux veritas

Emanates when puzzled at, Renato

Poggioli Harry Levin Crane Brinton

Arthur Darby Nock Van Quine Ed Purcell

Ubi sunt quae ante nos—ubi sumus?



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Well, here—wherever that is. And now. Still

Remembering how clueless we were then,

All our tomorrows in the candlelight

Hidden (although the hints in rhymed jingle

About how distant thens would reinvent

Our several shining nows lay all about)

We wonder on about the as-we-were

And as-we-are, and who owes what to whom,

And why the matter of indebtedness

Should seem so much to matter here at all.

Garlands—laurel ivy myrtle olive

Cypress—lurked like shadows of promises . . .

Promises unbroken? Never quite made

Or kept, because our eyes were too bright with

Tears of excitement and privilege to

Read aright and understand all its terms;

But—and you showed me this—behind us lay,

Hiding beneath his or her malign stretch

Of no longer picturesque landscape, the

Sleeping giant of what will come to be.



36



ON A STANZA OF H. LEYVICK



“Like careworn cats who schlep all their umpteen

Kittens around on agitated feet,

We go schlepping our poems by the neck, between

Our teeth, through every New York City street.”

—Those were the Yiddish poets (ubi sunt

Leyvick and Halpern, Leyeles, Mani Leib,

Glatshteyn and Teller, Yehoash—who, by dint

Of innocence, wove a Hiawatha, babe

In the Yiddish woods, into another tongue?).

And so with us, decades later, hopeful boys

Moving with grimy manuscripts among

Earlier Villagers, through milder noise

And scenes more reticent in that earlier time,

Our poems typed in telltale pica fonts, too large

And pale to be elite, and with sublime

Chutzpah felt the new life was in our charge.

Sadly uncool cats, madly unknowing, bold

In some things, timid in others, we would see

Toothless Max Bodenheim, haunting the old

San Remo (God have mercy on such as we!);

In a corner, Chester Kallman, years before

We ever met him, and Isaac Rosenfeld

Walking on Bleecker Street . . . how many more?

The sage and serious Milton we beheld

Once (Klonsky, that is) lurching through the rain,

And Alan Ansen with us still, alone

Among the pale allusive ghosts I strain

To see back down the decades’ alley grown



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Longer and narrower than the one that stretched

From the midcentury Village back to the New

York of the Yiddish poets, they who kvetched,

Muttered, and kvelled and made their sad ado.

But we were kids, assimilated, they

As sadly adult as we would ever get

And writing in a language that today

Is sentenced to an early death. And yet

Isn’t it that our English—with its deep

And echoing caverns of the KJV

And roller-coaster rides twisting and steep,

Sublimely high and dense syntactically,

Fast down to low and dirty, and then back

To middle flight again—was just a dying

Yiddish, and whether in its yak-yak-yak

Quotidian palaver, or high-flying

Lyric ironies, now already in need

Of too much glossing? And yet after all,

Our memories themselves can only read

Coherently these days amid a sprawl

Of marginal glosses (like the pica and

Elite: the larger and the smaller fonts

On typewiters of almost any brand

In those days that this very text now wants)

Vse poety zhidi—all are Yids,

The poets—said Tsvetayeva: if true,

At least the old guys, we de-Yiddished kids

And, at most, a son or daughter or two

(The native speakers of our dialect

Are few and dying, the philologists

To puzzle it out, at best a tiny sect)

Will fade like pale inscriptions in a mist



38



That burns off in no sun we’d ever know,

Or sightings of that phantom, the Sublime,

Or noon’s last traces of an April snow,

Or voices lost in the loud flames of Time.



39



COMMEMORATIVE STANZAS

—Yale University, 1701–2001



At any such commemorative event

For person, institution, state or nation

What can be said or sung should represent

Gratitude (and not self-congratulation)

For having been preserved, sustained, allowed

To grow until we’ve reached this season; so,

Respectful yet not trivially proud,

We mark the day with all we’ve come to know:

The old songs must be sung, but with a grain

Of deconstructive salt, historical

Pepper, and irony with which we keep sane:

We might commence by quoting, after all,

“For God, for country, and (of course) for Yale”

Well, it was just “for” God at first, before

There was no more a country than a pale

Colony on this cisatalantic shore,

Not yet a deepened nation—let alone

The institution that would come to be,

Conceived in Calvinism, which had sown

The small hard seeds of possibility,

And later light, flung westward—like the course

Of empire—moving down Long Island Sound.

From Saybrook, then, still in a wholly horseDrawn world down to New Haven’s early ground.

College, then university, as what “Yale”

Began to mean was something both more dense

And more elusive than what old songs hail,

Old icons making changing kinds of sense



40



In changing kinds of “now”: diversity

Of Deity, including its ambiguous state;

That other state called “country,” equally

Complex when criticism means not hate,

But what we teach ourselves to do: reread

Critically, with both puzzlement and pain,

Previous chapters of their lives (we need

Not take the name of history in vain).

Our local images of Nathan Hale

And others cast in rhyming bronze propound

This paradox: though statues can grow stale,

Iconoclastic thinking will resound

With living music for a while, until,

Standing in later light and subsequent air,

The genius of Iconoclasm will

Itself be cast in bronze and set somewhere—

To be ignored. The measured name of Yale,

That would, like “country” and like “God,” invent

New meanings over time, rings with the tale

Of what indeed it variously has meant.

Thus questions only to become germane

In the last fifty years or so—e.g.,

How semipermeable a membrane

Should walls of the most serious classrooms be?

(A metaphor mixed from biology)—

Would not subvert its origins but lay

Like dreams implicit in the certainty

Of early Yale’s dogmatic half repose.

Urim v’thummim on our seal (the lux

Et veritas half misread as truth and light)

Survive as targets of our thought in books

And out of them—although it’s only right



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That we acknowledge now how truth throughout

The twentieth century could seem most clear

When it was darkest, how in wintry doubt

Hope would be hibernating year on year.

And though our innocent hopes still lie in heaps,

Reminding us how it is far from odd

That, ignorance having sown what terror reaps,

There’s always blood shed in the names of God

And country, we may be hopeful that the name

Of Yale will frame no murderous pieties,

And celebrate today, with little shame

Amid our national solemnities,

A yet bright moment in Yale’s history.

Not then for the mere added decibels

But for three centuries, let there be three

Cheers with which this festive autumn swells.



42



FOUR TIMEPIECES



I



Epitaph for the Sundial’s Gnomon

I cast the shortest line at highest noon

Along the dial when life was longest; soon

The line extended in the tedium

Of postmeridian attenuations,

Absorbing darkness, pointing out, in sum,

How lengthenings are somber adumbrations.

As I stood there, cold, silent, unafraid,

My shadow vanished in the deepening shade.



II



To Karl Kirchwey, on Receiving His Gift

of a Stopwatch

In place of an appropriate quid pro—splendid—

Quo, I send herewith this little rhyme,

Reminded that the overly extended,

Or langweilich, was never the sublime,

That the time comes when anything has ended,

That everything we do is done in time.



III



Another Sundial



Coniugium Caeli Terraéque haec machina praestat

—George Herbert



Heaven and earth are joined together here

by this machine of sound

bronze above fragile grass; it owes its light

to heaven and, to the ground,

its shadow: so with the heart of what we are,

fed from above us and



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below, from far within and deep beyond

us, which we understand

as a sun-shadow problem of our own

ghost-and-machine-like kind:

how frightened the ground would be without the light,

the body without the mind.



IV



The Figure in the Face

Six twenty-seven, and I’m at my best

By ten past ten, I’m plunged into despair

Up to my waist—it quite hides all the rest

Of me—my helpless arms raised in the air;

Quarter to three (or quarter after nine)

One arm is lowered, as if short of breath

Itself; four-twenty: I become the sign

Of clocks stopped at the hour of Lincoln’s death;

One-armed at midnight and again at noon

(I see no difference), I keep pointing high

Toward no hawk, no star, no escaped balloon—

But at the clock’s confining arc of sky;

With wisdom that no gesture can impeach,

I know my grasp of things exceeds my reach.



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