Brian Culhane


                                             for Michael Ito Edmonson

It was the winter I taught Solzhenitsyn to young people
Who wrote due dates on colorful calendars, who
Moodily drew geometrical proofs, conjugated to be
In various languages and ate lunch, while I would watch
Snow fall on the Quad, snow that did not in any way
Resemble the snow Ivan Denisovich stood stiffly in,
At attention, waiting for his squad to be let into camp,
The men standing in either summer or winter boots
(They had to choose only a single pair on arrival), all
This in a landmass called Siberia, which my students
Had looked up on the first day of our discussion.
Solzhenitsyn wrote his book in 1962, fifty years ago,
I tell them, and they say, The story’s boring, and I say
But what does it say about the human spirit? and what
Does it say about the need for storytelling? Even there,
Even as they starve or get sent to the isolation cells,
The prisoners nonetheless crave stories about home,
Two girls met in a railway carriage, an afternoon swim
On an estate’s pond, a huge carp caught after great battle,
A father forgiving his errant son who had gone off
Until the one evening when he returned, but too late.

Well, a boy answers, leaning back in his chair, the book
Isn’t a page turner and it was practically impossible
To keep eyes open and that’s why I didn’t do the reading,
But I’ll make it up by reading twice as much tonight.
No, another says, I don’t think the book’s so boring.
It wasn’t exciting, but it was interesting how they worked
Harder than they had to, building that wall, how work
Gave men some pride. We talked about the masonry,
And then the period was over before I could tell them
Solzhenitsyn was himself imprisoned for a letter
Making fun of Stalin, how he watched through his bars
The fireworks marking the end of the world war, how
He and the other prisoners, having nothing to celebrate,
Looked on as all Moscow cheered. Or that his was a time
When a joke could mean eight years in a work camp.

Perhaps Shakespearean tragedy’s more foreign than purges,
The divine right of kings more baffling than mass murder,
Yet as I prepare the questions for their exam tomorrow,
I consider: What yarns do we tell ourselves to escape
The slagheaps of the present, as a new century unfurls?
How will future readers view our own attempts at justice,
Our same compulsions to philosophize, our same
Sorry excuses? Milosz writes of old age,
                                                                        That it befell others,
This I can understand, but why me?
                                                            But why me, why
Must I, creature of uncertain worth, get up each morning,
Blinking and greyer, to find myself no closer to knowledge
Than I was when Solzhenitsyn first published his Day?
How is it that we’ve plumbed black holes and dark matter,
And yet the crudest human motive resists scrutiny,
As we hunker down over a weak flame to tell our tales?
That each new decade advances another ramrod dictator,
As we write our songs of defiance and loss, as we stand
In the snow, swaying in felt boots, counting the days?


“The King and Cordelia ought by no means to have dy’d, and therefore Mr Tate has very justly alter’d that particular, which must disgust the Reader and Audience to have Vertue and Piety meet so unjust a Reward..”

–Charles Gildon on Tate’s expurgated King Lear (“Remarks on the Plays of Shakespeare,” 1710)

To hear the actor declaim it, to hear those words
In the grip of hurt pride, old father upended,
Spoken coldly, judgment grim, lines the actor
Speaks with finality, with anger and courtly gravity,
Then, turning away from one child’s ingratitude,
The King glows with benevolence, for he knows
He is wise and just, his words, his sentence, wise,
And indeed his other daughters nod meekly,
While their estranged sister will find her end
Soon enough in a prison cell—poor Fool hang’d—
Curtain ready to come down, but look! she steps
Past entanglements, lightly steps off stage,
Unbowed by pain, while the audience, hushed,
Bent over knees, awaits a further spurt of blood,
As Goneril’s poisoned Regan, then killed herself:
Cordelia’s murder must be now—yet she walks
Boldly right into their midst, radiating health,
Called to life by one Nahum Tate who’s blotted
The Fool out of his manuscript, let Cordelia
And Edgar fall in love and a blessedly sane Lear
Retire in peace at the welcome end of Act V,
Ceding to Cordelia his throne, who even now exits,
In all her finery, out onto the streets of London,
Happy that she gets to live out her reign in an era
Where fools can be expunged from nature’s mirror
And where even a Cornwall can resist gall and knife
Charmed by the discovery that a harmonious family
Is worth more than any butchery, that a blasted oak
On the world’s heath need not be a criticism of life,
However much a dramaturge may demand love swing
From the rafters, however much we daily watch good
Daughters floating face down in the sea, and fathers
Gripping gunwales, and mothers wailing, maddened—
All the outcast damned floundering in storms, fleeing
Civil war, malice, some helped up by unwilling hands,
Only to linger in a camp’s air, in shanties and breadlines,
Under tarps and corrugated tin, behind barbed wire,
Where dispossessed wake the dawn with blank verse cries.


In a late hour, thoughts of death—well, yours—
Come with the territory, with the good scotch,
Held up to the standing lamp, golden amber, so
Beautiful it begs not to be drunk—well, not begs,
But you understand, don’t you, you not there
To raise a glass or offer up a fitting toast,
You who should be in that chair, facing me,
Who would honor you with this raised glass
And tell of fevers dreamt, broken—and you?
You might look as if to say, Go ahead and drink,
Drink to the living and to the dead, drink to me
And to the memory of who I was, drink peaty
Whiskey and remember my sitting here like this
In the nights that will come no more, quietly
Listening in the dark, one of us murmuring,
“Satie is beautiful this time of day, the Gnossiennes;”
Ah the solo piano, yes, so reminiscent of autumn
— “the woods decay,” you say in the gloaming,
“The woods decay and fall,” and I answer, yes,
“The vapors weep their burthen to the ground,”
And you nod, and drink your drink in my mind,
And smile as though our antiphonal chiming
Struck just the right note, so that when you say
“I always made an awkward bow,” I hear Keats
Ending his last letter, who just before had written
“I can scarcely bid you good bye, even in a letter,”
But I don’t need to tell you that, do I? for you nod
As if speaking to yourself, and swirl your whiskey,
And look at me, even now, even at this late hour,
Long ago borne on a winter wind, your wool coat
Flapping, hat at a jaunty angle, already gone before
I can call out, before the wind slams shut the door.

Author’s Note

The three poems in this issue were written, one after the other, in my first week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My assigned studio had a very loud air conditioner; a long bare desk on which I unpacked a bag of books; a view of a clump of unidentifiable shrubbery; and a large cork board, on which I tacked up each poem as I drafted it. After writing in the mornings, I would go get lunch, walk back to the studio through the moist July heat, and then stand in front of the tacked-up draft, reading aloud to myself, again and again, the work of the morning. I had no idea what I was going to write about from day to day; I was basically taking dictation in the morning, and then trying to clarify the draft. In the late afternoons, I would head out with some of the others in residency there—painters, sculptors, photographers, and other writers—to spend a delicious couple of hours swimming in a nearby pond before dinner and a return to solitude.

Marianne Moore in an essay on Pound writes: “And as those who love books know, the place where one reads a book…partakes of its virtue in recollection.” I believe much the same is true about where and under what conditions one has written, and I feel no small measure of joy in recalling that Virginia studio where I wrote that July.

Brian Culhane’s first book, The King’s Question (Graywolf), won The Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Foundation and Remembering Lethe is forthcoming from Able Muse Press in 2021. His poems have appeared widely, most recently in Plume and The Hudson Review. Recently retired from teaching, he divides his time between Seattle and New York’s Catskills.