Authors: Edward Hirsch
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 by Edward Hirsch
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House Company, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Distributed by Random House LLC.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Owing to limitations of space, all acknowledgments for permission to reprint previously published material can be found on
eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-76198-9
Print ISBN: 978-0-375-71012-4
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
5 1986 811’.54 85-40348
First Edition, hardcover and paperback, published January 23, 1986
Reissued, with new cover, March 2003
Reprinted One Time
Third Printing, September 2010
For my parents, Irma and Kurt Hirsch,
and my sisters, Arlene and Nancy Hirsch—
and for Janet Landay
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
For all the insomniacs in the world
I want to build a new kind of machine
For flying out of the body at night.
This will win peace prizes, I know it,
But I can’t do it myself; I’m exhausted,
I need help from the inventors.
I admit I’m desperate, I know
That the legs in my legs are trembling
And the skeleton wants out of my body
Because the night of the rock has fallen.
I want someone to lower a huge pulley
And hoist it back over the mountain
Because I can’t do it alone. It is
So dark out here that I’m staggering
Down the street like a drunk or a cripple;
I’m almost a hunchback from trying to hold up
The sky by myself. The clouds are enormous
And I need strength from the weight lifters.
How many nights can I go on like this
Without a single light from the sky: no moon,
No stars, not even one dingy street lamp?
I want to hold a rummage sale for the clouds
And send up flashlights, matchbooks, kerosene,
And old lanterns. I need bright, fiery donations.
And how many nights can I go on walking
Through the garden like a ghost listening
To flowers gasping in the dirt—small mouths
Gulping for air like tiny black asthmatics
Fighting their bodies, eating the wind?
I need the green thumbs of a gardener.
And I need help from the judges. Tonight
I want to court-martial the dark faces
That flare up under the heavy grasses—
So many blank moons, so many dead mouths
Holding their breath in the shallow ground,
Almost breathing. I have no idea why
My own face is never among them, but
I want to stop blaming myself for this,
I want to hear the hard gavel in my chest
Pounding the verdict, “Not guilty as charged,”
But I can’t do this alone, I need help
From the serious men in black robes.
And because I can’t lift the enormous weight
Of this enormous night from my shoulders
I need help from the six pallbearers of sleep
Who rise out of the slow, vacant shadows
To hoist the body into an empty coffin.
I need their help to fly out of myself.
Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s
Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.
I lie down on my side in the moist grass
And drift into a fitful half-sleep, listening
To the hushed sound of wind in the trees.
The moon comes out to stare—glassy, one-eyed—
But then turns away from the ground, smudged.
It’s October, and the nights are getting cold:
The sky is tinged with purple, speckled red.
The clouds gather like an omen above the house
And I can’t stop thinking about my closest friend
Suffering from cancer in a small, airless ward
In a hospital downtown. At 37 he looks
Boyish and hunted, fingered by illness, scared.
When I was a boy the summer nights were immense—
Clear as a country lake, pure, bottomless.
The stars were like giant kites, casting loose.…
The fall nights were different—schoolbound, close—
With too many stormy clouds, too many rules.
The rain was a hammer banging against the house,
Beating against my head. Sometimes I’d wake up
In the middle of a cruel dream, coughing
And lost, unable to breathe in my sleep.
My friend says the pain is like a mule
Kicking him in the chest, again and again,
Until nothing else but the pain seems real.
Tonight the wind whispers a secret to the trees,
Something stark and unsettling, something terrible
Since the yard begins to tremble, shedding leaves.
I know that my closest friend is going to die
And I can feel the dark sky tilting on one wing,
Shuddering with rain, coming down around me.
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946–1984
A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,
and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump
perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession
and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling
an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender
who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight
of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him
in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard,
both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out
and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball
between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood
until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man
while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air
by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,
but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor
with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country
and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net.
Chinese painting of the Yüan Dynasty
It was as if I had stumbled alone
into another world, someone else’s dream
of floating jade mountains, a stone cliff
dropping to a moonlit blue lake
surrounded by willows, one village
winking through the distant clouds,
another puckering in the gray mist
like a paper orchid wrinkling in water.
It was as if I had somehow stumbled
into someone else’s mind: in one painting
I knelt beside a small, middle-aged
woman on a muddy riverbank,
gossiping, wringing out laundry;
in another I stood on a steep ridge
staring into the forehead of heaven,
shoulder to shoulder with the lightning.