I’ll be walking the dog and, around a corner,
hear him again, just as clearly as I did sitting
that one night in some Athens bar, ouzo light
falling on his blond head as he, almost sober,
talked about his only memory of his mother:
She’d put him to bed and then turned around
to say something, something he clearly heard
but can’t remember now, now irretrievably lost:
The next morning his father woke smelling gas.
Watching him, I’d grown silent. Then, clumsily,
we stumbled outside and pissed against a wall,
the bar owner yelled, probably Greek curses,
and we laughed all the way back to our hotel.
That summer was our last together. An aneurysm.
Now his voice comes when I’ve most forgotten it.
Instead of sharing years of stories, there’s—hear it?—
just the one and, afterward, that answer given,
as again I’m forced to listen to what I never said.
Facing the Future but Seeing the Past
That summer spent in thrall to Aristotle,
Long hours in the Belle-Arts reading room
Of a near-silent New York Public Library,
Sun sloping along polished oak tables,
Serious figures rehearsing scholarship,
Each before monographs and tomes,
Each nodding off and then awakening
With a start— that July spent before
I knew it gone: I researched endlessly,
Pages and more pages of intense debate
On the Law of the Excluded Middle—
With some holding that propositions
About future events were existing
In some nebulous region neither true
Nor false (yet), and others holding such
Were true or false (now), if unknown.
Such the torque of philosophy’s allure.
All day I would read and take my requests
To the librarian who, without words,
Would send a slip through a pneumatic tube.
Minutes later, a green number would glow
Overhead, and my journals would appear.
How comfortable the future looked to me,
From where I regarded it from deep within
Antiquity’s sublime—how apathy, despair
Or heartsickness grew distant the further
I snail-paced ahead: how small the present
Looked in tomorrow’s dry, clairvoyant light!
One afternoon, amid a sprawl of notes,
I made a discovery that changed all
Perspective, painting in different colors
The truth-value of some future event:
Issues of Mind in my hand dated from 1943!
So there they were, robed dons, arguing
Over Hellenic philosophy as Nazi raids
With whistling bombs made Londoners
Conjure the next moment as something
On loan, to be true or false (now), to be
What no axioms reflect: lived through
Or not. This realization came fraught
With its attendant self-understanding:
How I needed there to be a life apart
From the inexorable tide of daily events,
And that the call of logic was a call
To a life spent at a beautiful oak table,
Certain my scholarship truly mattered.
Much later I learned my beloved Greeks
Saw the future as liminally behind them,
And they spent their lives backing into it,
Which makes sense, as mortals can see
What events are before us—our pasts—
But only awkwardly shuffle backwards,
Blind to what’s to come. So, fifty years on,
I look ahead to that summer spent reading,
Spent thinking about truth tables, spent
Troubled about my future—and here I am.
The future was the mystery to be solved,
I then thought, yet I know now it’s not.
Instead, the past is the mystery we face,
(Even if, like Gatsby, we try to invent it),
Telling true and false tales, only to find
It says, I am what you never once had in mind.
Remembering James Wright
I play And I Love Her, late tonight,
trying to summon the girl I loved
when the Beatles first recorded it,
yet easily picturing my fevered self
bent over the turntable, adjusting
knobs and wires, trying to get it right,
just another burning adolescent
with what Wright calls the pain of
aching stones in twelve-year-old
groins, a line that knocked me out
at the 92nd St. Y., as he hunched
over the mike in a swirl of smoke
—a triumphant evening that ended
when the audience later trickled out
as Eberhart read “The Groundhog.”
Even then I could hear how extinct
his syntax sounded after Wright’s,
whose survey of poetry I’d taken
that autumn at Hunter College.
Once, he called up from the stairs,
after I’d finished scribbling an exam
(Bentham said poetry is no better than pushpin.
Explain)—a serious square-faced man
in an ill-fitting boxy grey serge suit.
“Coolhane, if you don’t learn to spell,
no one will ever take you seriously.”
I froze, spellbound by that voice.
One memorable class he recited by heart
To His Coy Mistress. He closed his eyes—
Then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity
—only to slyly pause, poker-faced—
“Who’d ever get to first base like that?”
Ten years later, I read his obituary.
Cancer of the tongue. Once he told
the class about Hardy and Larkin,
as if Ohioan kin, and just maybe
they might have been. I hear him
begin Rilke’s first Elegy in German,
his battered, coffee-ringed volume
kept from student days at Kenyon.
So, is And I Love Her our Coy Mistress?
The grave a fine and private place
for cancer’s breathless long embrace?
If poems can’t save us from the worms,
his words remain at hand. I love how
slang and Shakespearean rub shoulders,
how the Ohio shares the Arno’s banks,
how no Donatello bronze inspires him
as deeply as a pony’s delicate nuzzle.
I see him on stage, wreathed in smoke,
his Collected opened but not needed.
He looked above our heads and spoke.
At the very end, quite unable to speak,
he scrawled on an unfinished poem,
as friends bent down, “I can do no more.”
I began drafting “Recollections” as a sonnet, but I couldn’t manage to work in the story I wanted to tell within just fourteen lines; perhaps, though, some of the sonnet’s formal compression may still be evident in the longer poem which this eventually became. The Wright poem comes out of my reading of the excellent new biography by Jonathan Blunk, which set off a series of memories of my own experience as a college student in Wright’s “Techniques of Poetry” at Hunter College. Finally, “Facing the Future but Seeing the Past” recounts my summer, also as a college student, researching Aristotle’s “Law of the Excluded Middle,” found in his On Interpretation, and how intellectually seductive that research was—up until the day I discovered the debate in the scholarly journal Mind occurred during WW2. The idea of the future being behind us comes from my reading of Bernard Knox’s Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal. There, he describes the basic idea, in his “Introduction,” thus: “The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us – we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them; some of these men, like the blind prophet Tiresias, have been given this privilege by the gods. The rest of us, though we have our eyes, are walking blind, backwards into the future.” This seems to me to be an intriguing and profound image, reversing our own (unexamined) modern notion that the future symbolically exists somewhere out there ahead of us, to which we are ineluctable traveling toward during our lives. But really, aren’t we walking, blindly, backward into our futures?
Brian Culhane’s poetry has been widely published in such journals as PN Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and Parnassus. Recent work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Blackbird, Literary Matters, and Plume; poems are forthcoming in The Hudson Review. He has written two collections: The King’s Question (Graywolf Press), which won the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson Award, and Remembering Lethe (Able Muse Press). Retired from teaching, he now divides his time between Seattle and the Catskills.