I. My bed, my father’s bell
First my bed, then his, now mine again—
just for a week.
He died in it, my father, where for years
I’d lie beside my pretty love,
alive and indiscreet.
He moved in here so she, my mother,
might sleep undisturbed while he gazed darkly
all night long into the dark.
In need, he’d ring a small brass bell
molded in the shape
of a hoop-skirted lady
sweeping with a broom and looking grim.
I see it now,
lying sideways on a row of books.
He’d ring it and she’d come to him.
II. My father’s bell, my grandfather’s books
The books are remnants of a city gardener’s
life: the works of Emerson,
a Tennyson collected, Paradise Lost.
He’s written in his Milton
42years.And on the title page:
Begun in January,1893,and never finished.
In another hand:Happy new year to you,1892.
He’s figured that J.M. was 42 in 1650
when he wrote his answer to Salmasius
and lost his sight.
Defensio pro Populo Anglicano.
At the Presbyterian funeral a cousin
asked: are you religious? and I said
in callow family disaffection:
Gnostic. Bogomil. Albigensian for heaven’s sake.
On the Ex Libris plate:
Poetry. This book will not be loaned.
And underneath: couldn’t dig this month.
Ground as cold as hell.
I replace the book. I pick up the bell.
III. My mother’s broom, my father’s bell
My mother stashed these books in here
for me to find. My father
would have seen them, reaching for his bell,
but they were not for him.
She left them here, her father’s only legacy,
as she began to sweep.
She swept the hearth, the porch and drive,
she even swept the street.
(She swept my father once
entirely off his feet.)
While he lay dying & while I sat reading books,
she swept his mortal breath away,
When she heard the ringing here …
And then swept circles round & round the bier
as I said Gnostic, Bogomil.
Although the ground was cold as hell
they dug the grave & dug it deep.
Sweet sleep. Sweep sweep.
There’s no one here to listen or to care,
and so I ring the bell—
creating great commotion there.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 5, on page 34
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