One failure on
Top of another
Archie Randolph Ammons
Now, when he and I meet, after all these years,
I say to the bitch inside me, don’t start growling.
He isn’t a trespasser anymore,
Just an old acquaintance tipping his hat.
My voice says, “Nice to see you,”
As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.
He isn’t an enemy now,
Where are your manners, I say, as I say,
“How are the children? They must be growing up.”
At a kind word from him, a look like the old days,
The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper.
She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.
Down, girl! Keep your distance
Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain.
“Fine, I’m just fine,” I tell him.
She slobbers and grovels.
After all, I am her mistress. She is basically loyal.
It’s just that she remembers how she came running
Each evening, when she heard his step;
How she lay at his feet and looked up adoringly
Though he was absorbed in his paper;
Or, bored with her devotion, ordered her to the kitchen
Until he was ready to play.
But the small careless kindnesses
When he’d had a good day, or a couple of drinks,
Come back to her now, seem more important
Than the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal.
“It’s nice to know you are doing so well,” I say.
He couldn’t have taken you with him;
You were too demonstrative, too clumsy,
Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends.
“Give my regards to your wife,” I say. You gag
As I drag you off by the scruff,
Saying, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.”
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.
And deep in mirrors
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,
And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.
When Hitler was the Devil
He did as he had sworn
With such enthusiasm
That even, donnerwetter,
The Germans say, “Far better
Had he been never born!”
It was my generation
That put the Devil down
With great enthusiasm.
But now our occupation
Is gone. Our education
Is wasted on the town.
We lack enthusiasm.
Life seems a mystery;
It’s like the play a lady
Told me about: “It’s not…
It doesn’t have a plot,”
She said, “It’s history.”
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
As difference blends into identity
Or blurs into obliteration, we give
To zero our position at the centre,
Withdraw our belief and baggage.
As rhyme at the walls lapses, at frontiers
Customs scatter like a flight of snow,
And boundaries moonlike draw us out, our opponents
Join us, we are their refuge.
As barriers between us melt, I may treat you
Unkindly as myself, I may forget
Your name as my own. Then enters
Our anonymous assailant.
As assonance by impulse burgeons
And that quaver shakes us by which we are spent,
We may move to consume another with us,
Stir into parity another’s cyphers.
Then when our sniper steps to a window
In the brain, starts shooting, and we fall surprised,
Of what we know not do we seek forgiveness
From ourselves, for ourselves?
Three silent things:
The falling snow…the hour
Before the dawn…the mouth of one