Collected Poems of John Holmes
Holmes, John A., Jr.
Store-windows reflect the big head on a neck bent forward
On the tall too-heavy body. It shuffles past, not strides.
Water and sky watch him, nameless, no one, the tolerant sun
Browns him fortunately. He is lazy and coward about cold.
Among many twisted, many scarred, this one is at least whole.
Look at him. He is all parts trying to know one another,
The thinking undisciplined, the heart hurried. He means well.
Unfinished business haunts him, and all the words he never said
Suddenly. He wears a thin skin over forty years of memory.
It goes on, and goes on. The only way to get out of doing
A thing is to do it. Catch up, keep up, if not now, next month.
Growing older is not being better or worse, not the White House
Or the poorhouse, it is simply becoming more like yourself.
Do what you want to do, and then pay for it, he said.
Green aisles of fern under pine heard him plodding through,
And went on about their growing. The Atlantic surf falls
All night all winter, though he counted its cold waves an hour.
The seagulls go over, fifty or more, the seaweed stirs in tide.
He knows nothing about flowers; gardens nothing about him.
You're the poet! a summer someone says, as of last year.
Tagged. And why not? But what counts is who says poet.
Atom in the mass, he is recognized in theaters, he hopes,
And trains move him, ships take him, clerks serve his wish
As if, he thinks, this luck might possibly be deserved.
Clocks madden him. He is hungry for love; the world starves.
The ridiculous camera does him too handsome or too shapeless.
He sulks, or worse, stuffs himself with sleep, sleeps, eats,
Writes letters to busy time away and not work. Praise pleases
The child he is, ten years old under the slow-graying hair.
The tribe draws him into the circle, brothers, cousins, dead
Aunts and Grandfather Murdock, where are they now, who now
Lights the fire in the center, who now addresses the meeting?
It was too long ago the last time they picnicked together.
The generations know not one another, and the elders die.
He likes to show family albums, he likes chairs, tools, rings
That he can say his grandfather used or loved or wore or made.
His letters speak across the campfire circle to the past.
What is he, clothed? He is happy, well-dressed, comfortable
In too-expensive dark colors. What are these long bones? but
Cover them for now, he says, for the best, be cool, be clean.
How does he sleep? On his right side, and he had bad dreams,
Crying out in the dead hour before dawn, but no more now.
Politically simple-minded, his hero is the Good Samaritan.
Ritual and rank and the robings of office, church, or state,
He loves, this Unitarian who stays at home all day on Sundays.
Doctors frustrate him, but they have his natural faith.
Banks, too, and utilities, and colleges, and the magazines,
He trusts. They plan almost immediate final perfect plans.
Musically, geographically, architecturally, he is ignorant.
Mechanically, financially, medically, he knows he is ignorant.
It is not enough to read the books. God is not in the books.
Bach, Osler, Connick, Pericles, names names unless you know them.
Or know what they know. Kings, painters, astronomers, poets.
He has read God in the books, and he writes poems, sometimes
He hears the phrasing of the sound of what it was God meant
When Bach heard it, an echo maybe. Something, anyway some-thing.
How can you go to church honestly if you believe in religion?
See him in company. He knows how to be shy, a boy, mysterious
At first. Talks to one at a time, tries to finish anecdotes.
Warms gradually, aware of byplay; at midnight loves everyone.
When he is host, thinks of himself as host, acts the part
Thoughtfully, shows off his books modestly, acts and means it.
Good night, come again soon, good luck, good night, means it all.
All guests, he says, should leave one hour earlier than they do.
See him as professor, smiling Out of a pipesmoke cloud at students.
Should I become a writer? Should I marry this man? A listener.
Others he saves, himself he cannot save. Too kind to first novels.
Patient. Eager, and easily hurt, faithful to favorite students
From graduation to marriage to career, and in competition.
He visits his classrooms, observes faculty meetings, yet cares,
Curses, works overtime. Reads student poetry, not student themes.
Rookie cops and the taller chorus girls get a better week's pay.
Laureate with the smaller leaves, he sings alma mater, but why?
Years later a human being says, I'll never forget you said once -
But what? and marvels at an apparent wisdom. It seemed to help.
A good life, under the trees, getting them ready to get ready.
Minus degrees, his freshmen and the janitors call him Doctor.
In the world of his own mind, he stares at boundaries, he hears
In the blood news of change, of future, he puts down civil wars
Patiently, as if he were his own army and would obey orders.
Hedonist and hypochondriac, he feels well when he has good luck.
Ill of demands, people, people, deadlines, and interruptions,
His heart could run a battleship, but he feels it failing.
What pang is that? Why should there be a pressure in the neck?
Obituaries draw his eye. Today no one he knows. But if he died
Untimely so young so gifted etc. how would his death-notice read?
The stars when street lights are out silver the arches of sky.
Fliers chart their hours under stars. On coasts where the sun
Is not yet risen, lovers and animals, grass, wind, old sleepers
Turn. Here he pins pictures on his wall. Should he give blood?
Is there enough money? In cavernous railroad stations the weary
Wait, ache, waiting to go somewhere desperately important to them.
Somewhere. Somewhere else, toward someone needing, and needed.
Loyal to patterns long after the patterns have modulated.
Skeptical of honors, a word whelming him often more than prizes.
Nothing he wants to show shows, or a secret shows too much.
Unwordable fears shrink him into a day of sullen awkwardness,
But his bravery others must bring home to his innocence.
Paterfamilias whose checkbook does not balance, manager
Of deep-cluttered desks, kind hoper living in a coming year,
He turns from the mirror, writes, looks again, and writes.