Wallace Stevens, late in life, evoking the ghost
of Coleridge, another poet-philosopher, then
in his twenties, starting out on a packet bound
for Germany, invited by some Danes to share a drink.
He was dressed in black, with large shoes and worsted
stockings, so that they mistook him for some Methodist
on a mission, though the fact was he was on his way
to Göttingen to learn what language has to teach us.
“Doctor Teology?” they joked, half drunk and having
one hell of a time up on the deck. No, he said, no,
he wasn’t that. Then what? “Un philosophe, perhaps?”
No, he said. That was the last thing he thought of himself
as being, though that, in fact, was what he was.
Well, they laughed, weren’t we all philosophers?
And with that he joined them for a song until all rose
“as one and danced on the deck a set of dances.”
O happy day, when the philosopher and the poet
could sing and dance together, a cup of wine held high
in your hand, as angelheaded hipster Danes danced on
and the river flowed on and on beneath your feet
and evening descended gently with each passing moment…
Each night now, as this plague keeps descending on us,
refusing to let go, my dreams turn strange and stranger,
as if I were some blind Orion searching for the rising sun.
Like you, I’m on a journey, though where I’m going
changes with each moment. Sometimes I’m in a car
driving with my wife beside me, who’s there until she isn’t.
Or I’m on a plane, every last seat empty now,
my destination unknown even to the pilot.
Or I’m on a boat, watching peasants dance
their madcap turns like the ones you see in Breughel’s
Kermess, as some unheard music goes reeling on.
Mostly, though, I’m just walking, one step followed
by another. Sometimes there’s a stranger walking
there beside me, but who never says a word.
And then—like that—there’s no one there but me,
and I’m thinking to myself that if I just keep
moving on, I’ll get to where I’m going.
The trouble is I don’t seem to know where it is
I’m going, or even if there’s any place to get to…
When I was four, I remember walking with my father,
taking one giant step and then another to keep up.
We went walking up First Avenue ten blocks to Sixty-First,
one row of tenements after the other, till we came
to where he’d lived, though the building itself
had disappeared to make room for an exit off the bridge.
Old men he’d known with toothless grins sat on stools,
greeting us with that Val di Taro patois of theirs.
It was the spring of ’44, and the army
had finally called him up. And though some who’d
grown up with him would not survive the war,
he made it through, walking draftees through
the intricacies of carburetors and air-fuel induction.
And now here we were, my father come this one
last time for a glass of wine and to say his ave
atque vale. Hello, compaesani. And now goodbye.
Fifty years before, his parents sailed here to America,
where the streets, they’d heard, were paved with gold,
though the only paving my grandfather ever knew
was the tar he laid, until the asbestos pulled him under.
Compiano was the town they hailed from. Giuseppe first,
then Giulia, who brought their firstborn with her. Primo,
run over at the entrance to this very bridge the day after
Christmas, nineteen hundred and seven. He was just twelve.
In time others in the family sank from history too, infants
mostly, what with cholera, pneumonia, and the rest.
Mary, with that large bow in her hair, made it to fifteen,
almost surviving the Spanish flu before they lost her.
My father was three then, and told me how he’d sat there
on her coffin, weeping, in the back of a horse-drawn
wagon, as they readied her for her final trip
across the river that is east, then trudging on to Calvary.
I have walked the streets of Compiano twice now, once
with my own son, Paul, and once with Allen, poet-
philosopher, who spoke in his polished Italian with the local
priest to learn what little could be gleaned of those belovèd
ghosts I know now only through a few inscriptions in the local
registry, much of the story, like so many others, burned
by German soldiers as they left the town behind them
in the spring of ’45 and headed back across the mountains.
Still, what would I say to them, these beloved ghosts
of Compiano, if I should meet them? Or those others
who lie muffled somewhere in my blood? What words,
poet-philosophe, would suffice? And still the river runs on
beneath my feet as they sing on and on in dreams.
Is it that in the end there are no words? That there are
only ghosts now, calling to us, beckoning us to rise
and dance along beside them while there’s still time?
Paul Mariani is University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. His books include biographies of William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens; Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius (Penguin); and a new poetry collection, Ordinary Time (Slant).