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Draft of a Letter

by James Longenbach

Paperback, 69 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $17.50 |


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Excerpt: Draft Of A Letter

Draft of a Letter


Copyright © 2007 the University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-49268-1


Acknowledgments.......................xiIIce Men...............................3Death and Reason......................5Draft of a Letter.....................7The Gift..............................9Canzone...............................12Joy and Reason........................14Buried Life...........................16O Tourist.............................18Self and Soul.........................24The Gods in Exile.....................26Ghost Pond............................28Swallowtail...........................31IIReason and Sorrow.....................37Complaint.............................39Second Draft..........................41Abacus................................43Tenzone...............................47Yard Work.............................49Sparrow...............................51Second Life...........................53A Different Route.....................54Self and Soul.........................60Testament.............................63After Petrarch........................65Note..................................69

Chapter One

Ice Men

One cuts blocks From the abundant river, Hauls them house to house.

One falls, unseen, The heart Inoculated cold

Against a sky still moving. Moving even now Above the river, The canal. Willows shimmering

Across the water, Muskrats diving out of reach. The river whispers Till it freezes-

A body Twirling sluggishly Beneath the surface as again

One stacks, then Spreads the straw.

Another falters, Slips, or Puts a sliver on your tongue to feel it melting there- the ice-lit

Underworld Of someone else.

Death and Reason

Path shifting in the woods With sunlight, darkness, and at dusk The little voices Returning to their nests.

First rule: there is Someone else.

Towee, towee Repeated in the trees Behind the shopping mall, Tiny breaths escaping from the larynx- Follow me, follow me- A knothole: two eyes Glistening, Smaller than yours. They vanish when a cloud slips past.

Second rule: the presence Of other people Proves you're alive.

Beyond the arbor, Scent of the lilacs, footprints Leading from the kitchen over the dry grass, silver, moonlit-

Before the light turns Indigo, nothing between Your face and finitude, the long Time you will live a place You don't live now-

First rule.

They sing, their black Eyes flickering.

Draft of a Letter

As a young man I was blessed with a body Not of great strength But very agile.

My torso, Thin from the start, Grew wiry as I ran. The pleasure

I derived from straightening My room I never Learned to will. I feel it now.

In time, Without trying, I found a rhythm Of thought ineffably Hesitant, serene. Clouds

From the invisible Mountain top, Then mist. Rain soaked the ground Until it swelled, Lifting My body

Flat on its back. Delicate fingers, Voice fair. In the end

I found myself drawn To what was neither very large

Nor very small. If you say the word death In heaven, Nobody understands.

The Gift

Sparrows at the feeder. Rain in the leaves.

From deepest darkness to The lesser I emerged with the words

I don't believe

Immediately in my mouth. I didn't speak.

* * *

Yellow leaves, Red berries. Berries

Of my childhood strung On a slender branch. From what immensity did they

Emerge, what context, What scene?

I tried To read me. Propped myself

Against the pillow. Moved my lips.

* * *

If you bring it forth, What is within you

Will save you. What is not within you-

* * *

Hair on the pillow. Voices in the leaves.

I asked in what-

They said in you in you in you in you-

I was capable Of speaking truth. I had

The truth but Nothing to put it in.

Rain in the leaves. A company Passing invisible.

Don't ask why.

* * *

For twenty years I lived in the present. Then, in a single night, I became a shade.

Books, paintings On the wall, Words in my mouth but no

Memory, no need. I listened

To the sparrows. Happiness without reason. Yellow leaves.


Each day, when sunlight Flees to other people, A woman rests Her load of bracken on the road. When shadows descend

From the tallest mountain, Darkening the fields, A farmer collects his tools. A shepherd reaches for his staff. He lays green branches In a cave while out at sea

The mariner reclines On hard wood, Ropes loosening, The sails calm. Oxen return Unharnessed From the fields-

Why is my yoke never lifted? If being mine from morning to night Has earned me sympathy, poem, Don't show yourself. Move from hill to hill

Remembering How the living stone On which I lean Outlasts me, Reduces me to ash.

Joy and Reason

I am sailing happily.

Bait for shipwreck. People who dash about on Battlements, yardarms of ships, Are betrayed by level roads. The first age has spurs, The last a bridle.

The surface is calm. My swiftness is unheard of.

Your throat will wrinkle. Lines will furrow your soft cheeks And the brightness of your eyes Will be covered by a cloud. With the man who said virtue Is more pleasing in fine Forms, I can't agree.

Right now, at least, my body is exceptional. It is admired by everyone.

Whence this avalanche of water, These billowing waves? When what remains

Of your hair has fallen out, Your shoulders bent, Hands withered And the radiant ivory Of your teeth turned black, You will recognize yourself.

I have sailed prosperously. I am already on shore.

Buried Life

Imagine cities you've Inhabited, streets Paved in lava stone. You never intended to pray

In the temples, had Nothing to sell. Now imagine yourself

Returning to those same cities. Hunt for people you knew, Knock on their doors. Ask yourself

Where are the vases, animals Etched in gold? Where are the wines

From distant places, Banquets ferreted From the bowels of the earth? While you were missing

Other people wore Your garments, Slept in your bed.

How frightening The man who said In his affliction

Wood has hope. Cut down It will flourish.

If the root grows old And the trunk withers In dust, at the scent of water It will germinate.

O Tourist

for Kenneth Gross


Once having built His house, little door No higher than his head, He found himself

Floating in the bay. Boats rocked back and forth In the marina and the water grew

A deeper, lustier green. He remembers

His sneakers, The way they poked From the bottom of his jeans As if he were sleeping, Ready to get up.


He left himself behind. Two children rolled a ball Along the quay-they moved

Their fingers expertly And he stood still. Mind ordering itself as it wills The body; mind refusing what it wills. A wall, and through the keyhole

Rows of cypress Though there weren't two Sides, there were millions: flock

Of blackbirds rising from the branches, Children chasing one another, Clambering Against the wall

But he couldn't see them. They were on the other side.

Whether it was the voice of a boy Or a girl he couldn't say. It shouted open it.


Couples eating breakfast, Speaking softly Though with nothing to hide. My mother died last year.

Juniper, rosemary so fragrant He snipped a piece and laid it on his plate.

After driving through the mountains It was hard to breathe.

Around the tables Lemon trees in pots, the garden Parched around the edges, irrigated. Tiny insects hovering

Above the sugar bowls, The different juices. I was never alone.


He put down roots. He bought a dictionary-then, Because it was on sale, underwear.

Wounded. Arrive. He wandered

Freely among women in velvet dresses, Men in cutaways: the movement Of their bodies Vivid, spindly thighs.

One bowed. One lifted Fingers to his lips.

Until he left for his own country By a different route He'd never worn These boxers, slightly

Elastic, little legs. I am wounded, I want to leave this place-


When Jonah fled to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord

The Lord sent out a tempest. The mariners were afraid. Arise, go. they threw the contents of the ship into the sea

While Jonah slept.


When he came back He found a cup of instant on the counter. Laundry glistening with rain.

The sunken harbor, Boats lined Belly-up along the quay-

A black Mercedes Squeezed him to the railing But he didn't flinch; he chewed An apple to the core, then

Dropped it, Watched it fall.

The silver branches, Burning vines. White core floating in the bay

Half eaten, Half expelled.

Self and Soul

Do you see that field Beyond the tennis court, Poppies floating in a golden cloud? Unbutton your shirt. Bask in the sun.

Grass withers, Flowers fade.

A fountain trickles To a shell, then fills a pool. Goats are sporting In the clover while in heaven Objects never cease To be themselves.

In heaven you Wouldn't exist.

Imagine water rising From the ground, Then falling back again, each drop A pendant, then a stain. If the kingdom is in the sky Birds will get there before you.

Split open a piece of wood. Lift up a stone.

You grimace When you serve.

What drew the shepherd of Etna From his cave but Sunlight on a day like this, Poppies in front of him, Bones behind?

The Gods in Exile

One grew into a pear tree, Bearing fruit. another, dissatisfied

With created things, Withdrew: chameleon Blending with the branch. Climbing

Their stairs, I saw complete What they'd seen Rising: a dome, An intelligence Hovering above the streets

To cover us all. Highways, strip malls. Hercules lifting Antaeus

Pelvis to pelvis, Earth to earth.

One became a sparrow, Joined the flock. When his singing aroused Suspicion, he exchanged his voice

For a peacock's, The solitary Darkness of God.

One became a river. One raised sheep.

Ghost Pond

A sack with a hole. A tree without roots.

Desert of sand. Dust that blinds.

Lake beside the graveyard. White swan frozen in the lake-

I skated past it, Circled back.

* * *

No color, all brushwork. Room full of smoke.

There was a hand before my face and I took it, I lived after dark. When it withdrew

I lay down in the snow. The will to touch,

To feel, answering The deepest human wish.

Not blankness; Richness of texture.

* * *

Two rules about thin ice. You can skate so long as you move

Quickly, never stop. If you fall in

Look up. Circle of light.

* * *

It passes like the moon. It turns like a wheel.

Field of stones. City of blood.

An ocean without a harbor. Bait without a hook.

* * *

One hand pressed Against my spine,

One to my chest, she tilted me Back until the water lapped my head.

Willows dangling, Oaks retreating-

Why do souls rise from here? How could they crave daylight?

I reached up to embrace her Three times. Nothing but air.

The root of need Is plenitude, she said.

Then she embraced My head and pulled me under.



Leaves, a pattern Of stars between overlapping Locust and pine-

I woke up on a gurney Covered with wires. I was breathing

But my chest was burned: seconds Creeping past me in a row. Organs, arteries, thousands of intersecting parts.

Your hair was cut shorter then. In time, I liked my second Body better Than the first.


When an insect assumes A different shape, A form,

It doesn't deceive; It becomes a different Version of itself. Swallowtail

Lilting through a field Of Queen anne's lace, light Reflecting up from earth, returning

Through the veined Transparence Of wings-

When I opened my eyes at first I saw nothing. I heard footsteps ta tum ta tum My heartbeat running back to me-your

Arms around me, Tangle of wires. I watched you

Watch me Taking shape.


At first there were many of them. They slept in hammocks Dangling from the trees. Their bodies grew

But couldn't change, Then changed But couldn't exist-they were

Already missing: Canvas hanging stiff, A split cocoon.

In time, a few returned. Light between the branches Flickering, but sure.

Who am I, moving towards you? Who are you?

Chapter Two

Reason and Sorrow

Now that you're here, Happy with the sprig of mint In your aperitif, I'm happy too. Remember How I rubbed your feet with oil?

My house is too big.

Although I led you across Verdant meadows, Undulant seas, It couldn't have been more difficult. I wanted to get us lost.

My stomach is full. I never left home.

Walking together Side by side, the mind more stilled than ever In its little nest-

How can I be happy if The one who suffers isn't me?

Already the grapes are harvested, The lavender bundled in rows. I've made a savarin, White sugar Dusted with gold.


The newborn bear has no shape. The mule rarely gives birth, The viper only once. Alone among all things

The crocodile moves its upper jaw. Moles are deaf, bees blind, The elephant dies standing, The phoenix is consumed by fire.

If a bat goes hungry it feeds From the mouths of other bats. If tigers are stunned with a mirror They drop their prey.

Whales may lie on their backs for days, Deceiving ships. With twenty arms the cuttlefish Clasps a drowning man

Like highwaymen for whom The final gasp of air Becomes the one Possession worth stealing

From the peddler who has Nothing but thoughts. What came to his mind Sprang first from his mouth.

Friends, whoever reads this, Know that I am sitting on a bench Beside the lower paddock, Rowing against the current.

Second Draft

As an older man, Graying, not stooped, I saw the future: Extremities

Cold, tongue Sluggish, Foam at the lips. Excessive hope

Seemed more Indulgent than despair. I ran great distances. I stood in sunlight

Just to see my shadow, Show it off. For the first time I remember

My soul looked back. What other people learn From birth, Betrayal, I learned late.

My soul perched On an olive branch Combing itself, Waving its plumes. I said

Being mortal, I aspire to Mortal things.

I need you, Said my soul, If you're telling the truth.


1. forty-nine, forty-eight- our daughters won't be

Children forever. What do I see?

Black dog bounding through the grass, then gone. the yellow house. Palm trees bent with snow. The sea

Below Mohegan Bluffs- Cold sand on my knees beside You as the sun rose Blind, aloof-

One was born frowning. The other screamed.


Look down Through winter branches to the roof, The attic room where I reclaimed This lamp, this desk

My father made, Muttering Beneath my breath

Pentameters-she has Green eyes but Wears a hood that hides them-

Six apartments, Five cities, Two continents: the red

We rented and the blue we Borrowed but The yellow house

We built.

Taller than a sycamore, Taller than the place I came from. Look up.


My second lifetime, When did it begin? Each year a bell.

I stood beside a yucca plant: White spike Of blossoms bending From its weight, Cells dying By the million, Sloughed, replaced-by listening

I was changed forever, Forever the same. The flower didn't speak to me but I spoke back, I heard

My name. I was Our second daughter's age.

Locust shells. Petals. Number of times I've

Told this story, Trochee, dactyl- Stresses in her name.


Spirit of the river, Spirit of the sea.

Because we want to be children forever I ran the stoplights whispering To myself Alone in the dark car.

Nineteen, eighteen- Skills we practice for a lifetime Disappearing In a single turn: fingers

On the keyboard self-delighting. House in which I write this. Pebbles in the sea.

At thirteen she is Taller than her mother.

Spirit of the sand beneath us. Spirit of the tree.