Prudent Advice

Life Lessons for My Daughter

Category Archives: Poetry

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

W. H. Auden

One Perfect Rose

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet—
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
“My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.”
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Dorothy Parker

Choices

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

Tess Gallagher

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden

Love Like Salt

It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.

Lisel Mueller

About My Mother

I could never say anything about my mother:
how she repeated, you’ll regret it someday,
when I’m not around anymore, and how I didn’t believe
in either “I’m not” or “anymore,”
how I liked to watch as she read bestsellers,
always turning to the last chapter first,
how in the kitchen, convinced it’s not
her proper place, she made Sunday coffee,
or, even worse, filet of cod,
how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,
making the face that best kept her
from seeing herself as she was (I take
after her here and in a few other weaknesses),
how she went on at length about things
that weren’t her strong suit and how I stupidly
teased her, for example, when she
compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,
and I said, cruelly, but you know he
had talent, and how she forgave everything
and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston
to her funeral and couldn’t say anything
and still can’t.

Adam Zagajewski
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Hydrangea

From the bottom of the garden, enthroned in his earthenware pot,
the hydrangea god surveys his minions—
lavender agapanthuses bowing starburst heads,
red bignonia calyxes trumpeting his fame,
oleander leaves whispering of his misdeeds.
The central path leads straight to him. Behind,
a stained mirror and mossy wall back up his power.
Thousands of crinkled, tiny, white ideas occur to him
with frilled and overlapping edges. No one else
deploys such Byzantine metaphysics. No one
can read his mind. Only he remembers
the children’s secret fort by the cypress tree
among fraught weeds, rusted buckets, and dumped ash,
and how lost the grown-ups sounded, calling, as night came.

Rosanna Warren

Generic

The little boy who snuggles next to me
while I read him Millions of Cats,
and we meow together
“No, I am the prettiest!” “I am!” “I am!”
is five. I’m sixty. The book is eighty-one.
I have read it before.

Durable, evocative, stale, weary;
renewable, exhaustible, and placid;
benign or neutral, shifty as the moon;
obedient to undeciphered laws:
What we take for granted
vanishes, reconfigures, disappears.

Samos, Squirrel Island, Spetses,
Cherry Tree Walk down by the Hudson River:
The massive stones on which I love to perch
and gaze into the changed, unchanging water
don’t tell me their age, and I don’t ask.
I have been here before.

Rachel Hadas

Laments for A Dying Language

Coin brassy words at will, debase the coinage;
We are in an if-you-cannot-lick-them-join age,
A slovenliness provides its own excuse age,
Where usage overnight condones misusage.
Farewell, farewell to my beloved language,
Once English, now a vile orangutanguage

1962. Ogden Nash

Sea Level

So this is what the ocean has been pushing across the table at us
all these years—

the dry, white spot that opens like a moon at the back of the throat
the quieted tongue, the last of all words.

Our ever-faithful dinner guest—who kept her wet fingers lined up at the edge
of the world, who politely folded and refolded her napkin—stops
passing the peas, leans back quietly into her chair to watch

what we’ll do now. She’s done, the sea quits, stands without comment on the shore, is
just another dumb, beautiful animal considering the cliff, the final leap
back into itself.

At least say we were among those who kept the conversation up for so long—
you and I handed always and never back and forth again and again

while our arms distressed the surface.
Let’s just say the table was too large, that we lifted the heaviest dish
and got tired—

that only the ocean knows how to spoon salt over a great distance
under any kind of light.

Kim Van Voorhees