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World Poetry Portfolio #42: Anthony S. Abbott

Anthony S. Abbott is the author of two novels and six books of poetry, including the Pulitzer-nominated The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat. His awards include the Novello Literary Award for his novel Leaving Maggie Hope (2003), and the Oscar Arnold Young Award for his poetry collection The Man Who (2005). A native of San Francisco, Abbott was educated at the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts and Kent School in Kent, Connecticut. He received his A.B. from Princeton University, and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University and is the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College. He lives in Davidson, North Carolina with his wife, Susan.

THE HAT

When I close my eyes I see the pond
and all of us skating—it must have been
December, Christmas vacation, me home

and all of us skating on the Hewitts’
pond. Ah Jenny! Do you remember?
You whizzed by, plucked my hat away

and tucked it in your red sweater.
I followed you, caught you, thrust
my hand inside the sweater, and wham!

My face stung long afterwards. I was
so young I didn’t know. I was only
reaching for my hat, stupid me. Now

I wish I had known, known how to make
a game of the stealing, the reaching,
the recovery. Had I known, I might

have kissed you in the barn, deep
in the bales of hay, where we played
our innocent games of hide-and-seek.

THIS INNOCENT SKY

On a beautiful summer morning, sky clear,
Phillipe Petit steps into the air between the towers.
On a beautiful autumn morning, sky clear, bodies hurtle through the air between the towers.

Philippe Petit steps into the air between the towers
he tests his line as if stepping into an icy pond—
bodies hurtle through the air between the towers strewn by the monstrous force that drove the planes..

He tests his line as if stepping into an icy pond
he walks to the center and gazes at the streets below
Strewn by the monstrous force that drove the planes survivors cling to the narrow windows with gasping breaths.

He walks to the center and gazes at the streets below
then lies down on his line and watches passing gulls.
Survivors cling to the narrow windows with gasping breaths. Cell phones carry burning words of love.

He lies down on his line and watches passing gulls,
police on either side attempt to call him home.
Cell phones carry burning words of love Sirens scream from Brooklyn and beyond.

Police on either side attempt to call him home.
He smiles at them, happier than he has ever been.
Sirens scream from Brooklyn and beyond Masses huddle on the streets their mouths agape.

He smiles at them, happier than he has ever been,
he floats beyond time, here in this innocent sky.
Masses huddle on the streets, their mouths agape as the flames pour out, the buildings start to shake.

He floats beyond time, here in this innocent sky,
floats for thirty-seven years, his dream preserved
until the flames pour out, the buildings start to shake the floors implode, dissolve into a cloud noxious dust.

He floats for thirty-seven years, his dream preserved
until, on this autumn morning, sky so clear
the floors implode, dissolve into a cloud of noxious dust where Philippe Petit, on a summer morning, once stepped into the air.

IF WORDS COULD SAVE US

if words could save us (and they can, my darling)
I would whisper in the chambers of your ears
every wistful sound (like the warblings
of the wood thrush) until (my wren) even
the small boys whose voices are like angels
would cry for more, and you (my swan) would sigh
like the sun setting behind the ocean floor.

if touch could save us (and it does, my dove)
i would take the wounds of time and touch them all
until the soul (my sweetness) shines with all the light
of God in the newness of now.  Healing is
the only language of love (my lamb) for
wherever I have touched, the tree that grows
will be blessed (my bliss) and the fruit of that tree
will be life (my love) the fruit of that tree will be life.

COMING OF AGE

On the morning of my twenty-first birthday
my sister left for California.
Suitcases, boxes, tied to the roof,
she waved goodbye and vanished.

My sister left for California
taking with her the only home I’d known.
She waved goodbye and vanished.
In the back seat the children read comics.

She took away the only home I’d known.
In my city, snow graying on the dirty streets.
In the back seat the children read comics,
in their old apartment dust and the flicker of grease.

In my city, snow graying on the dirty streets
nowhere to go now, nothing to be done
in their old apartment dust and the flicker of grease.
Where do you live, my friends at college ask?

Nowhere to sleep now, nothing to be done
except take the train back to school.
Where do you live, my friends at college ask?
In the regions of the mind, in my shuttered heart.

I take the train back to school,
closing my old coat around my neck.
In the regions of my mind, in my shuttered heart
I watch for the star that played at Bethlehem.

I close my old coat around my neck
and walk the sixty stairs to my tower room.
I watch for the star that played at Bethlehem
and kneel in silence by my narrow bed.

Nothing comes but the spinning of wheels.
She waved goodbye and vanished
tossed her cigarette out the window
on the morning of my twenty-first birthday.

THE GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING

the mouth, I think,
is the first thing
the way

the lips open
the lower so lovely
sensuous

the tongue just
showing
between as if

she would speak
her thoughts no
her feelings

that is really what
the painting says
Jesus, look at

the eyes, which
tell us all, tell us
of something private

she cannot speak
or will not
but the artist

knows. God, those
eyes, looking
as the critics say

into our
space and the
lovely high cheek

bones and all
the hair
hidden under the blue

turban and the exquisite
extra drip of paint
on the earring.

MODERN ART

Sliced oranges, pink
sea shells

a woman’s face, crescent
moon with stars

black on black on
black.

A touch on my
shoulder.

It’s all right, you say,
move on.

IN GRAND CENTRAL STATION

The boy looks up at the stars in the Upper Concourse.
Usually he is entranced by the way they make
the shapes of creatures and mythic heroes—
hunters and bears and flying horses. But today

he has no heart for them. He has waited on the bench
by Gate 32 for half an hour. he has watched
for his mother’s blue coat with the torn hem
and the white scarf she wears on rainy days.

He is starting to cry and he does not like
to cry at all. It scares him here among
these strangers. He has called her hotel.
The woman at the desk said she was out.

Perhaps she is on her way, caught in a mad
swirl of late afternoon traffic, a crush
of trucks and multi-colored cabs, yellow
and green and checkered. Perhaps she

is on the subway, trapped by a red light
between stations. He wipes his eyes
with his handkerchief, and then he feels
for the first time  the icy touch of death.

She will not come at all. She will never
come, and he might sit on this wooden
bench until he grows old, and still
She will not come. She will never know

how he has counted on this small good
time between then, this time that will
never be. He stands, puts his tears away
in the pocket with his used handkerchief.

At the glass booth he will request a schedule.
He will go back to school, he will collect
his A’s and spread them on the smooth
palm of his heart. He will live.

HOUSE OF CARDS

Then the master in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel the people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’

LUKE 14: 21-24

Once there was a man who gave
a party. He invited the top of the deck.
The Kings and Queens,
Jacks and Tens, and, of course,
the Aces, those powers behind
even the Kings themselves, though
we all know it’s the Queens who run
the show. The point is none of them
came. That’s right, none of them

The Kings were busy in the walled
city, in the compound, deconstructing
their missiles, and the Queens,
the Queens were always moaning
about how overcommitted they were.
The Queens were sad, but busy or sad, it was
still a no, and the Jacks, the Jacks were cooking
up stuff, making plans, hatching the eggs
of desire and circumlocution. They were,
you might say, moving. 

And the tens were so insecure, they just
sat there polishing their little hearts or
spades. They wanted to look good for
the Queens. They wanted to move up,
get a face, one of those cool one-eyed
Jack poses. So who was this guy anyway?
A nine at best.

But the guy, as I understand the story, was—
well, I know this comes as some surprise—
God. He just looked like a nine. And he was
really mad, and he told his servants, the eights,
to go out in the town, where all the new
subdivisions were, and find some sevens
and sixes, and then go down to Affordable Housing
and the bus station and the Wal-Mart
for some threes and fours, and most of all,
God said, invite the twos. By God, God laughed,
those twos are the best. And don’t forget the fives.
The fives might need a little extra persuading,
those skeptical fives.

			And there it was, all those
beautiful low numbers crowding around the pool out back
drinking beer and eating chips and salsa, some of the threes
and sixes mixing it up, the sevens and fours
playing drums and guitars, the fives singing chorus.
And the twos, God bless the twos, they were
if you haven’t guessed it, the lovers. The twos
always came in sets. God liked the hearts
and diamonds best, but he loved them all.
And then, at the witching hour, or whatever
hour you like, God told some stories, and started
crying and wiping his eyes because he was so
happy to have them all there,

and as for the royalty, and as for the royalty,
and those slick behind the scenes Aces, well
there would be some wailing and gnashing
of teeth, just like the good book says. That’s
what I heard from those who were there..
Two two’s told me so.

AT THE LAKE, SUMMER EVENING

A full moon
	luminous, large
		rises

over the eastern trees.
	In the west, thunder-heads.
		The sky darkens.

I turn the boat
	toward home,
		lightning behind me.

On the lift
	the boat sits steady.
		I snap the cover into place.

She is dry now,
	snug against the weather.
		The rain begins to fall.

Another crash of thunder.
	I raise my head to the angry sky.
		The moon is gone.

In my house the lights flicker

AT THE CHRISTMAS PARTY

of the book club that doesn’t read
books, the ladies introduce their men
who with the ladies consume much
wine and enjoy staccato bursts
of conversation. The poet is baffled.

He cannot make words in this festive
scene. He moves from room to room
spinning in his mind like a dervish.
Living room, dining room, kitchen,
den, guest bedroom, and back again.

He listens to the break neck talk,
the roars of laughter at what must
be something he has completely
missed once more. He can make words
from the turning leaves of the soul

but this he cannot fathom. What
can they think of to say that brings
such smirks, such grins, such open
mouthed chewing? What news
from Bethlehem? Where do the kings

lodge tonight? Will they tell all
to Herod? Who will there be to warn
the children, to cry to the nursing
mothers—pluck up your babes
and leave before the soldiers rattle

in with their copper armor and their
thick heads. The poet wants to shout
“Fire!” and watch them all disperse
into the tumbling rain and fog out there.
But he keeps his peace. Instead he

knocks on God’s door three times
to give thanks for the strange child
who must have hammered nails himself
before the nails hammered him
and sent the world reeling into darkness.

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