Volume 3, Number 3, Summer 2002
In the dark we disappear, pure being.
Our mirror images, impure being.
Being and becoming (Heidegger), being and
nothingness (Sartre)–which is purer being?
Being alone is no way to be: thus
loneliness is the test of pure being.
Nights in love I fell too far or not quite
far enough–one pure, one impure being.
Clouds, snow, mist, the dragon’s breath on water,
smoke from fire–a metaphor’s pure being.
Stillness and more stillness and the light locked
deep inside–both pure and impure being.
Is is the verb of being, I the noun–
or pronoun for the purists of being.
I was, I am, I looked within and saw
nothing very clearly: purest being.
Reading with the Poets
Whitman among the wounded, at the bedside,
kissing the blood off boys’ faces, sometimes stilled
faces, writing their letters, writing the letters
home, saying, sometimes, the white prayers, helping,
sometimes, with the bodies or holding the bodies
down. The boy with the scar that cuts through his speech,
who’s followed us here to the Elizabeth
Zane Memorial and Cemetery, wants
to speak nevertheless on the Civil War’s
stone-scarred rows of dead and the battle here
just outside of Wheeling equal in death to
Gettysburg because no doctor between the war
and Pittsburgh was possible. Boys dressed like men
and men would gangrene first before the shock of
the saw and scalpel. Three days between this part
of the Ohio River and Pittsburgh. He
knows, he is here since then a child of history
and knows Elizabeth Zane saved all she could.
Keats all his wounded life wanted to be a healer,
which he was, once at his mother’s bedside, failed,
once at his brother’s, failed. Whitman in Washington
failed: how many nights on the watch and it broke
him, all those broken boys, all those bodies blessed
into the abyss. Now the poem for Lincoln,
now the boy with the scar almost singing, now
the oldest surviving poet of the war
reading one good line, then another, then
the song of the hermit thrush from the ground cover.
Lincoln’s long black brooding body sailed in a train,
a train at the speed of the wind blossoming,
filling and unfilling the trees, a man’s slow
running. Whitman had nowhere to go, so I
leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves, he says at
last, and went to the other side with the corpses,
myriads of them, soldiers’ white skeletons,
far enough into the heart of the flower
that none of them suffered, none of them grieved, though
the living had built whole cities around them.
Keats at his medical lectures drew flowers.
Not from indifference, not from his elegance:
his interest couldn’t bear the remarkable
screams of the demonstrations. He sat there, still
a boy, already broken, looking into the living
body, listening to the arias of the spirit
climbing. So the boy at the graves of the Union
singing, saying his vision, seeing the bodies
broken into the ground. Now the poem for Lincoln.
Now the oldest surviving poet still alive
weaving with the audience that gossamer,
that thread of the thing we find in the voice again.
Now in the night our faces kissed by the healer.
Keats in Burns Country
It isn’t so much that Burns, like the best,
dies young, nor that he’s buried among
Lowlanders, at the Borders, nor that in
eighteen-eighteen, Scotland, in spite of its
beauty, is black granite country, nor that
the Kirk is presbyterian stone
over the soul, nor that the poverty
of the dirt farmer, which Burns was and was
poorly, is medieval, nor even that
his widow survives and haunts the churchyard–
it isn’t these hostilities nor those
you can imagine so much as the fact
of Burns alive in failure, with only
words on paper to compensate his death.
Tom is alive in Hampstead hanging on,
younger than both of you will ever be
again. Scotland’s your epic journey
to the clouds and to the pillars under
them, yet mostly it’s been a ragtag walk
between the towns’ consumptive rain and chil-
blain wind, summer but an hour’s paly gleam.
You think that Burns’s white marble tomb’s on scale
though nothing of the spirit of the man
nor the half perfect heartbreak of the poems.
You write two cottage sonnets on the spot,
the first for Tom, the second for yourself,
one at the grave, the other at the house
Burns was born in–you can’t make your mind up
how you feel and what is true. All is cold
Beauty, pain is never done: then you toast
to Burns your own frail mortal body and
the thousand days you say you still have left.
This is your first warm taste of whiskey, your
first real taste of the barley-bree of fame.
Outside the birthplace windows the bright fields
run to yellow then to shade then open
north to the bedrock-covering of mountains.
Burns worked and walked here, you are thinking,
and talked with Bitches and drank with Blackguards,
the intimate sublime of what he wrote.
You’re failing too and by the time you climb
the snow cloud of Ben Nevis you’ll be dead.
Constable’s Clouds for Keats
They come in off the sea peaceable masters
and hold the sea in the sky as long as they can.
And you write them down in oils because of their
brilliance, and to remember, in its turn, each one.
It’s eighteen twenty-two after the Regency,
and it would be right in the year after his death
to think of these–domed above the Heath
in their isolated chronicle–as elegies
of the spirit; right to see these forms
as melancholy hosts, even at this distance.
Yet dead Keats is amorphous, a shapelessness
re-forming in the ground, and no one you know enough
to remember. He lies in the artist’s paradise
in Rome, among the pagan souls of sheep at pasture.
You’ll lie in Hampstead where he should have stayed
to meet you on your walks up Lower Terrace
or along the crowning High Street heading home.
Your clouds grow whiter, darker, more abstract
from one elaborate study to the next,
correlatives, or close, to the real sentiment
that lives, you say, in clouds…subjects to counter-
weigh the airy gravity of trees and leaping horses.
Keats could have met you–you must have seen him once
against the light, at least. He could be
crossing on Christchurch Hill Road now, then
over to the Elm Row and down Old Admiral’s Walk.
He could be looking at the clouds blooming between
buildings, watching the phantoms levitating stone.
He was there your first Heath summer writing odes,
feeling the weather change from warm to chill,
focused, no less than you, on daylight’s last detail,
wondering what are feelings are without us.
The road is so rough Severn is walking,
and every once in a while, since the season is
beautiful and there are flowers on both sides,
as if this path had just been plowed,
he picks by the handful what he can
and still keep up. Keats is in the carriage
swallowing blood and the best of the bad food.
It is early November, like summer,
honey and wheat in the last of the
daylight, and above the mountains a clear
carnelian heart line. Rome is a week
away. And Severn has started to fill
the carriage with wildflowers–rust, magenta,
marigold, and the china white of cups.
Keats is floating, his whole face luminous.
The biographer sees no glory in this,
how the living, in increments, are dead,
how they celebrate their passing half in love.
Keats, like his young companion, is alone,
among color and a long memory.
In his head he is writing a letter
about failure and money and the ten-
thousand lines that could not save his brother.
But he might as well be back at Gravesend
with the smell of the sea and cold sea rain,
waiting out the weather and the tide–
he might as well be lying in a room,
in Rome, staring at a ceiling stylized
with roses or watching outside right now
a cardinal with two footmen shooting birds.
He can still remember the meadows near
St. Cross, the taste in the air of apples,
the tower and alms-square, and the River
Itchen, all within the walk of a mile.
In the poem it is Sunday, the middle
of September, the light a gold conglomerate
of detail–“in the same way that some pictures
look warm.” He has closed his eyes.
And he is going to let the day close down.
He is thinking he must learn Italian.
By the time they reach the Campagna the wind
will be blowing, the kind that begins at sea.
Severn will have climbed back in, finally a
passenger, with one more handful to add
to what is already overwhelming.
Stanley Plumly was born in Barnesville, Ohio, in 1939, and grew up in the lumber and farming regions of Virginia and Ohio. He is the author of eight books of poems, most recently Orphan Hours (W.W. Norton, 2013) and Old Heart (Norton, 2007). Plumly is also author of two nonfiction books: Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (Norton, 2008) and Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry (Other Press, 2003). His honors include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. He is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland and the Poet Laureate of Maryland.