for John Hollander
A last tercet reworked like a last will,
he’d told me he was writing, feeling well,
but I found his body turned to face the wall,
no bigger than a child’s. Eight years ill,
he slept with his legs drawn up, a letter L.
I saw three cards beside his bed and all
his meds, hope’s aspirin, the spirit’s pill,
the withered fig tree of his IV pole,
his white skin withered too, beyond the pale.
I saw how age can leave the skull a hill
and the breath a white wind whistling in a hole.
He awoke when a gurney squealed down the hall.
We spoke. He told me how a poem ticks:
a clock, a bomb, a heart that’s been attacked.
It felt like medicine to hear him talk,
heart medicine because my heart was sick
to see another Alexandria sacked,
Goethe burning, Lowell, Job, Balzac,
and though I told myself that death begins
the work of stocking all the shelves again,
I knew this rare edition would be gone.
His room’s barbaric, biometric din
was full of screens that lit up and trilled like dawn
whenever a heart lead came undone.
For all our neat rhymes, John said, death’s a mess.
A juice cup tipped, bed pans, a bleeding mass.
It doesn’t lack for the lachrymose:
I guess sophistication must regress
to speech as rusticated as the grass
where rumination bows its head to graze.
We write, we die, and what we’ve written dies,
he said, but damn it those were blessed days
deciding if a given rhyme would do.
His cuff inflated, and gave out with a sigh
the same old numbers, nothing more to say.
To think the heartsblood could be measured so:
systolic, diastolic; waking, dream.
What use defining rhythms for the drama
if soul won’t put her bare fist through the drum?
Back when I was young, he said, it seemed
the art and the artful were one and the same,
no sweeter labor than to do my sums,
to jump the fence and grin around the bit.
Listen, Amit—that’s not what it’s about.
It isn’t worth it if it isn’t bought
with suffering. The best of us have written
maybe a dozen lines that tap the root.
The rest? Bout-rimes with dead men, overwrought.
I sensed the disappointment in him, the fear.
But John, I told him, beauty is a fire
those who burn hardest labor coldly for
and I for one will hold your labors dear,
the music of meaning, the artistry that dares
to conjure walls that it might conjure doors.