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Moonlight, Winslow Homer, 1894
Moonlight by Winslow Homer, 1894. Oil on canvas. Photo credit: Winslow Homer / WikiArt (Public domain)

But reading this will make you feel very much alive.

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Gerald Jonas is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and a writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, as well as other journals large and small.  Below, we feature an exclusive — and intimate — look at excerpts from his ongoing book, Anthologies, dedicated to his late wife, Barbara. It is a monument to love, built of poems, poetic prose, and sighs.

WhoWhatWhy introduction by Milicent Cranor.

***                                            

July 14, 1979 

I remember our first meeting on the grassy banks of the manmade pond in Hillsdale, NY.

           Sunny day, the bright sounds of children playing, a slight breeze blowing my overlong hair into my eyes. I had just brought my daughters — 10 and 9 —  down for a swim when I saw you sitting on a blanket with friend Judy, your head bent over a paperback bestseller of the day, The World According To Garp. You had on a modest one-piece bathing suit — modest in cut but its color was a startling beige; I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but the color was so close a match to your early summer tan that at first glance you might have been wearing nothing at all. 

          A second glance undid that impression, but not before I experienced the first real double-take of my life: That antique staple of slapstick comedy never fails to get a laugh on stage and screen. But to me it felt more like psychic whiplash, as if I had lost control for a moment. To shake off this disagreeable feeling, I took a deep breath, and the next moment I heard myself saying, “Oh, I see you’re reading Garp.” Not the wittiest pickup line, but while I was rummaging about in my head for something sharper, you looked up and spoke, in that beautiful voice I later heard sing Mozart arias and Schubert lieder and Ella Fitzgerald standards. 

          I have tried but can’t remember exactly what you said, because, at the same moment, you smiled. Now I don’t want to give the false impression that I was calmly noting everything you said and did. Far from it. But from my first glimpse of you, reading on the sunwashed grass, I thought you looked very thin — you later told me you were “not eating,” from the excitement and anxiety of your newly “separated” state — yet for someone so thin, your body, even in the repose of reading, seemed unshakably grounded, like the naked model in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). One word that seemed to fit your pose was “voluptuous.” But again, that came later.

           All I saw, when you looked at me that first time, was your smile. White, of course, the teeth blazing in the sunlight — a demanding smile, insistent on sharing its overflow of dazzle. Yet no gesture could have been less self-conscious — there was no holding back, nothing coy or cautious, guarded or wary. You dared to be exposed, you reveled in it, you dared me, your friend Judy, the kids running around the pond, their parents, the world at large, to second-guess your total immersion in what you were feeling. Hello, your smile said, join me in the joy of being alive, here, now, maybe forever, who knows?  

          In time I did.

* * *

                                                    I – TRIALS (in which the poet seeks some answers)

Inspiration

I sing the Muse who
like a lynx in moonlight
stalks her unsuspecting prey
and drops a tell of hunger sated
in the bloody brush

                                     until
the silence that completes
this little death incites
complicit poets to a spate
of unpremeditated Song.

Grief

A lost-and-found for mourners
who refute the remainder
subtraction left

A ritual gleaning from memory’s hoard

A debt discharged by time alone

An RSVP with no address

A hollow that echoes in answer
to the question that begs for a lie:
Why?

.  .  .

                    II –  EXHORTATIONS (in which the poet vents some rage)

          1.

Flee the Preacher in search of a choir
who sells his soul for a shard
of glass that mirrors his longing —
Beware the sharp edges!

          2.

Fly from the dignified
hawkers of homilies
who litter the Wordscape
with second-hand verities 

.  .  .

          5.

Rest easy, Voyager! Now the rigging is stowed
the shore remembers a scrape of outbound keel
on sandy verge and smooths your last lap home…
Rejoice, rejoice in the welcoming hush

* * *

            III – CRUX (in which the poet rails against fate)

1.

IMAGINE
the willful plunge
of stockbroker X
bereft of sense yet
inwardly tuned to
the drone and flicker
of a mundane past
recast in an epochal
FLASH!
with X in the title role
of “Gravity’s Child”
fatefully drawn
to the stone
bosom of
ground
zero
.

          2.

Caught out bare headed
by a sudden downpour
in the chill of early dusk
facing this forced choice:
Retreat to a shop front overhang
to wait it out or break for home
through puddle-bedizened streets

Choose, the raindrops’ unrelenting
patter keeps repeating: Choose…

.  .  .

          4.

Becalmed in night’s eye —
waiting for the hurricane
to blink and move on —

my friends tell me age
is only a number but
I know its name: Loss.

* * *

                     IV – CONFRONTATIONS (in which the poet surrenders hope)

          1.

Astride my blue roan
I dare the bleak borderlands —
Pain’s conquistador 

          2.

There once was a well-favored man.
Pent in a barrow of bones
his heart kept faithful duple time
until the day it missed a beat
”Strike one,” the arbiter intoned.
He took the verdict like a pro
and life went on arrhythmically
until the next miss, and the next

.  .  .

          MRI

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Are you comfortable? Do you want music?

Yes.

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: What kind?

Um, jazz… Wait, classical. Chopin?
SOUNDS IN HEADPHONE: CHOPIN OP. 28. NO. 15

VOICE IN HEADPHONE (OVER CHOPIN): If you need anything else,
press the little ball. No? OK… 

MACHINE SOUNDS:
A POLICE SIREN MATING WITH A GIANT COFFEE GRINDER. 

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Breathe in, a-a-n-nd — hold your breath!
MACHINE SOUNDS:
A DRUM KIT MADDENED BY SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (15 seconds) 

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Please resume breathing.

MACHINE SOUNDS:
A CUTTING CONTEST BETWEEN A TUNELESS TUBA PLAYER AND A TONE-DEAF BASSIST WITH OCD.

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Breathe in, a-a-n-nd — hold your breath!
MACHINE SOUNDS:
A DRUM KIT MADDENED BY SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (15 SECONDS

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Please resume breathing.

MACHINE SOUNDS:
PINGING, FOLLOWED BY SOFT SIGHING — MACHINE JERKS FORWARD, BACK 

□ mechanical peeping tom    more than naked     open to prying eyes     the hunter in the machine     the prey      the nodule    the crab    the mass findit/don’t/findit/don’t/findit/don’t  

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Breathe in, a-a-n-nd  — hold your breath!
□    one two three four stuck stripped seven eight bared bored eleven cored torn seen fifteen

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Please resume breathing. 

MACHINE SOUNDS:
AN IRON-KEYED MARIMBA PLAYING “CHOPSTICKS” BACKWARDS ON REPEAT

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Breathe in, a-a-n-nd — hold your breath!

□ spread    splayed    flayed    beached    breached    spitted    undraped    unveiled    exposed    defiled

VOICE IN HEADPHONE: Please resume breathing.

□  findit/don’t/findit/don’t/findit/don’t       find it        

  *         *         *

V — MEMORIAL (in which the poet finds a way)

              Youth

Barbadian night
Nameless girl skinny-dipping
with barracudas

.  .  .

                          Memorial 2023

On the Twenty-third of March, in the City of New York,
you returned to silence, all signs of struggle stilled
to a last wisp of spent air. Parents in high-rise homes
whisper “Good Night” to tucked-in children, and
the classics we were fed at school teem with Goodbyes
and Farewells, yet nothing comes to mind to ease this passage
save the press of pursed lips on cooling forehead. The moment
touch quits its grip on the slippery bootstraps of Time 

your afterlife begins: the prayers, the songs, the chatter,
the death-defying paeans to your efflorescent smile. But
while our tributes shape your leaving to our need
this death is yours alone: a shedding of the body’s
ills and obligations, a legacy beyond the squall of tears,
a singleness unending, destined to be borne by all.

* * *

              VI — DIRGE for scattering ashes 

 il pleure dans mon coeur comme il pleut sur la ville — Paul Verlaine

                  

Today tears blurred the sunburnt Park 

When I walked here hand in hand with my other
before the geese came back, we found our likeness
in the mirrored pond. Now its green-scummed surface
turns a vacant eye to lowering clouds and
overhanging branches creak in a rank breeze.
Veiled in shade, one late-spring warbler trills his need
for mate unseen — soundandsense so interleaved
not even her absence could silence their song.

Delayed rain slakes the deepest roots.                                                 

* * *

Silence 

…I have tried but can’t forget the black-and-white 16mm film our professor screened in that stifling lecture hall, where the windows stayed stubbornly shut no matter what the weather. All he had was the choppy final reel, rescued from a battered film can in a Moscow rubbish heap and restored by the professor himself. But that was enough…

          On a barren beach in a once fashionable Black Sea resort a traveling circus has put up a one-ring tent and somehow attracted an audience, who sit expectantly on benches that circle the sandy stage. In the center a mustachioed Ringmaster, in high leather boots and an officer’s greatcoat with shiny buttons down the front, lifts a stubby baton.
          Beside him a huge Asian Bear stands upright, its front paws extended straight out as if in supplication. In front of the Bear a young Acrobat in glittery tights adjusts a kind of see-saw — a low plank laid across what looks like a fulcrum of rusty pipes. On the grounded end of the plank the Acrobat sets a small white Dog with a tiny fur cap held between its pointy ears by a chin strap.
          Quick cut to the Ringmaster’s uplifted baton, then to a pair of drumsticks pounding what must have been a thunderous fanfare on a large snare drum. (The effect of this silent image, in that overheated room where the only sound came from the professor’s wheezy projector, was eerily unnerving.)
          The drumsticks keep miming a fanfare as the image dissolves into a wide shot of the Acrobat, who takes three running steps, twists her body into a somersault and lands feet first on the raised end of the see-saw. The other end rebounds and the Dog launches into the air and sails over the head of the Acrobat into the outstretched arms of the Bear, who stands stock still like some prehistoric priest in a cave painting, bringing a live sacrifice to his nameless god.
          Cut to a blurry montage of gaping mouths and frenziedly clapping hands. When the shot goes wide again, we see the Bear and the Dog and the Ringmaster and the Acrobat frozen in place, like stone effigies in a mausoleum, as the camera tracks through an open flap in the tent to the beach outside, where foam-topped breakers soundlessly rake the gray sand, and the last rays of a setting sun slowly, slowly, fade to black.

No footage of title cards was recovered from the battered film can, the professor said. But from letters and other papers of the time he determined that the film was made in the late 1920s by a Ukrainian poet named Josef Wolf, who fell out of favor with Stalin’s censors and disappeared in the early 1950s. According to a letter from Yekaterina Akhmatova, believed to be Wolf’s companion and collaborator, the Russian title of the film was ПРОТИВ НАСТУПЛЕНИЯ НОЧИ [Protiv Nastuplenya Nohchi], which the professor translated, with unexpected poetic flair, as Against the Fall of Night.

      – Gerald Jonas

* * * * * * * * * * *


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