Monday, May 16, 2011

Yesterday's reading was a treat, in more ways than one. To begin with, reading with Baron Wormser is always a pleasure and an honor. He is my teacher, my colleague, and my friend. And more recently, in a peculiar twist, I have become his copyeditor, which is a whole new way to learn from his work. In addition to the happiness of getting to read together, we had an audience of poets and old friends. So I decided to read poems that I don't usually venture to air out at readings--poems that aren't funny or necessarily easy to follow on a casual hearing. One of them was "Peter Walsh," a poem that borrows a name and a narrative and linguistic strategy from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway but that otherwise has nothing to do with her novel. I kept thinking I was making a terrible mistake in reading this dense poem, but at the same time I wanted to hear it in my mouth. In a very real sense, it's a long poem about nothing . . . the way in which a life is composed of unremembered moments. Narrative, too, can be composed of those moments; yet, unlike life, it must frame them, accrue them, in ways that create their own version of drama. So I read this poem. Who knows?--I may never read it in public again, but I'm glad to have had the chance and, especially, to have had this listening audience . . . the kind of audience that reminds me of how grateful I am for the patience that is so crucial to poetic conversation.

Here's "Peter Walsh," if you'd like to take a look at it. The poem is long and dense, for which, on Monday morning, I should apologize. (It's also archived here, at the Beloit Poetry Journal, if you prefer a typeset version to this cranky blog formatting.)

Peter Walsh

Dawn Potter


One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.

For a life must begin somewhere. Peter Walsh was his name;

and someone had written that name in thick white ink

beneath the image of a child in short pants who looked down

at his cupped hands, and in his hands sat an egg;

a goose egg, was it? or perhaps the egg of a large duck,

or perhaps simply a hen’s egg in a small boy’s hands?

And behind him, was the sea rolling? or was it a field of ripe

hay? And why had someone dropped a spotted scarf at his feet?

In the doorway, his mother tormented herself with dust and disarray:

yes, look at these photographs, waxy with dirt; piano filthy

as coal. And yet there was Peter. And yet there was herself.

A mother brings forth a child and calls him by name;

but what, in the story of his life, does her travail signify?

Merely nothing, perhaps. A signpost to wander away from.

Curtains spoke to wind; a fly complained. The parlor was empty

now but not silent. The kitchen intruded: click of china, rattle of steel.

Voices. On the pianoforte the snapshots smiled, or did not,

each fenced in its solitary room: once he was this age; then

he was that tall. His mother had scattered them with no particular intent.

She rarely saw them, for she saw her child every day as he was.

He rarely saw them, for as documents they had no meaning.

They were objects only, settled on the piano as dust also

settled there. Sometimes they shivered, gently, when Peter

struck the keys. But he did not watch them tremble.


One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.

For a life must begin somewhere, birth or otherwise,

and Peter’s life (as much as he thought of it) might thus far

have never begun at all, except as explained by its regalia

of framed smiles and comic punch lines, the shabby

trousers and terse adventures trapped in the snapshots

lining the dusty pianoforte (the soft-loud, he named it in his mind,

and sometimes he struck out the words, soft-loud-soft-loud

on the stained keys, like a password or an incantation,

for no one else seemed to notice them at all, these sounds

distracting him, sucking him away from the nothingness

of childhood: of chewing rhubarb and running haywire

across a stubbled field, of pissing against a tree and watching

his own hot stain leak down the bark runnels, quenching the dirt).

One might call life a tale of noticing: a span of intensities,

moments when we suddenly attend to eye or hand or ear;

more, they exact our attention, like an internal command:

Now you are alive. On the pianoforte Peter struck out the words

soft-loud-soft-loud in a sort of dream idleness,

fingertips against keys, muscles contracting, each pitch,

each duration, a subtle, unintended chant, and all the while

bees shimmered in the bright air outside the pocked

window, motes danced in the streaks of sunlight resting

like calm hands on the chairs and carpets, and Peter

lived it all, lived everything: in the parlor, in the unseen

rooms beyond, in the long, low gardens stretching

toward field and forest; and yet he lived none of it:

for life, the richness of earth, sought him out,

claimed his open eye, his voluntary ear, as he lingered

at the piano, striking soft-loud-soft-loud on the stained keys,

idle and untutored, shirttail thrust into his frayed

belt, a smear of green willow on the seat of his shorts.

In the kitchen his mother half-heard his plink-plonk-

plink-plonk; more, she felt it, like a tremor, an emanation,

safe and dull as a drip down a drainpipe:

a comfort, in truth; for now and then she faced

the facts of tedium with a sort of satisfaction,

a release from this ever-lasting hunt for bliss

that seemed, to her surprise, to have been her task

all these years of her life: chasing down the next

thing and the next, and was it squalor or success,

her plans for dinner and the garden and the fruits

of her own mind? She half-heard Peter’s plink-plonk

and half-felt the chimes of her own future clang

in step, then out of step with his idle fingers, uneven

as a ticking clock on a crooked shelf. On the porch

rail two jays sparred; new potatoes bubbled on the stove;

she was making salad, her hands tore lettuce; her hands

were red and worn; they were her grandmother’s hands.

How strange! She watched her grandmother’s hands tear

lettuce, the jays quarreled on the railing; a sparrow

cried, Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody; Peter played

two notes on the piano, and would he ever stop, would

they ride on and on forever, two notes clanging in the summer

air? It was unbearable, and she cried out, Stop it! If you’re

going to play the piano, play a song, for God’s sake!

and at the sound of her voice, the notes crumpled up

on themselves and vanished, as if they had never lived at all,

as if there were no such notes in the history of the world.

Somewhere a screen door snapped open, and shut.


Peter never thought to love his mother less because she

interrupted these small commas, these accidental

obsessions, which were not knowledge but merely time

stopped in its tracks, no more vital than sleep. His bicycle lay

on its flank in the dooryard, dead as a shot horse; he scooped it up,

he shook it back to life; he mounted and cantered down

the ragged lawn: sedate robins burst into flight, horrified;

he drove the bicycle harder, grinding into mole-holes, through humps

of weed; wind snatched at his hair; the bicycle lurched and galloped

under his hands and the forest rose up from the distance

and became tangles and trunks and shadow, and with a flourish

of tire, Peter pulled up his horse and threw it to the ground

and threw himself onto his back beside it and stared at the clouds,

which leapt in the air like starlings and swallows, until his eyes

shut of their own accord and he stared at the magic swirls

behind his eyelids that also leapt like birds, and it was not sleep,

not at all like sleep, but like gangster movies, in a way; and also

like getting sick on the merry-go-round; but it didn’t matter,

nothing mattered: there was not one thing more important

in this world than another, unless it was his knife, which had

three dull blades and a fold-out spoon. One might make a start

today, this day, to tell the story of a life; yet a life is the story

of nothing, the story of Peter on his back in the grass,

squirming a hand into the right hip pocket of his shorts,

curling his hand around the hidden lump of knife

that his mother had given him for his tenth birthday;

and nothing ever happened because of it: he never

killed anything with this knife; he never even cut himself;

and when he was sixteen, riding a wooden roller coaster

with his cousin, it fell out of his pocket, vanished into the salty

mud, and he never missed it, not once, for the rest of his life;

but a life is also the story of noticing just now, just at this moment,

what we never notice again: and just now the knife lay curled

in Peter’s palm and he caressed it blindly, with thumb and palm

and fingertip; he lay with his eyes closed and leaf-speckled sunlight

stippling his cheeks. A life is the story of nothing, yet once a watcher

believed a moment meant something more than nothing,

believed in the story of a child named Peter Walsh. It began,

that story, and ended, and no one ever knew what became of him,

the child who carried an egg in his hands, beside the sea.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

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