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.
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.
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.