Wally Swist ~ Blue Evening & Five Other Poems

Saturday Afternoon, Ansonia

Sixty years ago this winter
I am still eight years old, grieving
the death of my mother.

The mêlée of children
teem­ing around me could be
a tableau from a paint­ing by Brueghel.

We are await­ing our turns
on a tobog­gan run in the open field
across the street from the rail­road flats.

The chil­dren are mostly
Catholic school chums, intoxicated
with the free­dom of Saturday afternoon,

and they have a ten­den­cy of run­ning wild,
not unlike Gorky’s ragamuffins
descend­ing upon the streets of Petersburg;

but this is Ansonia, a Connecticut milltown,
where my grand­moth­er prepares
gwump­ki that she will serve for dinner

by rolling ham­burg­er and cooked rice
into cab­bage leaves, then stack­ing each one
into an oval bak­ing pan,

and sub­merg­ing them with crushed tomatoes.
My father is work­ing overtime
and will return after I do, if I am lucky,

since he doesn’t want me out with the boys
because he believes I will hurt myself,
as I do, on the last run down the icy slope

by bat­ter­ing my right ankle against a stone
stick­ing above the snow crust, the one I sprain
and on which I will need to limp back home

where my father will take off his belt
to my grandmother’s protes­ta­tions in Polish
and beat me like he is whip­ping a dog,

the fra­grance of ground beef and cabbage
per­me­at­ing the air in the flat’s warmth,
the glow of lamp­light fil­ter­ing through

a slit beneath the bed­room door,
the clock’s loud tick­ing count­ing out
the lash­es spoil­ing each sec­ond of oblivion.


Blue Evening: for Doug Brown

blue stream flow­ing gen­tly over our heads
—an unat­trib­uted quote from Novalis,
from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novel, The Beginning of Spring

You stood out
like the flute solo in Mendelsohn’s
Reformation Symphony, which
was actu­al­ly his sec­ond and not
his fifth. You stood out:
bright yel­low hair, sen­si­tive lips,

your eyes an intense blue.
I was hon­ored when
you chose to room with me,
share the third floor flat
on Lake Place behind
the Payne Whitney Gym.

I will always be grate­ful that
you did so because you trust­ed me.
People raised their eyebrows
and spoke in whis­pers when they
learned about your I.Q.
As a phi­los­o­phy major,

in your fresh­man year, one
of your instruc­tors thought so highly
of a paper you had written
they had it pub­lished in an academic
jour­nal, despite it not being typed
but writ­ten in your illeg­i­ble hand.

You nev­er made it past
sec­ond semes­ter, and there were
scars that marked each attempt
like per­ma­nent welts on each
of your wrists. I will always be
appre­cia­tive of your recommending

Novalis, the German poet-philosopher,
his Hymns to the Night, which
inspired Penelope Fitzgerald’s
mas­ter­piece, The Blue Flower,
but we still drift­ed away: my going on
to take a job in anoth­er bookstore,

you stay­ing on to take fur­ther comfort
in what was rote. Our bond
was one of qui­etude, our appreciation
of the sub­lime. The last meeting
was by serendip­i­ty, as was our first,
when we were both about to leave

New Haven, walk­ing into each other
on Trumbull Street, in front
of the rows of brown­stones, you relaying
that you were giv­ing up trying
for a degree, to play it safe by taking
an admin­is­tra­tive job your father had

arranged back in West Virginia.
I shared that my plans were to try
to make a new home in Massachusetts.
You assuaged me that what­ev­er it was
I did that I would make it, but you
were much more uncertain

about how you might do, twilight
back­light­ing the dome of Woolsey Hall
in the near dis­tance, into which
we turned to walk beneath a sky of high
clouds, and under which we departed
through a win­ter evening’s ear­ly blue.


Rose of Sharon
Hibiscus syr­i­a­cas
—a kind of cro­cus grow­ing as a lily among the brambles

                 Harper’s Bible Dictionary

The dis­tinc­tive mauve of your petals
is rem­i­nis­cent of the color
of a courtesan’s lipstick,
the shade of which makes a tawdry
drunk­ard stum­ble, five petals

of dark pink, almost pur­ple, forming
around an enlarged pistil
in the very cen­ter of your flower.
Your bloom is prolific
from May through September.

You are lav­ish, even lovely,
your col­or appears to sug­gest beauty
must go astray to proliferate
so much so as you do
since you usu­al­ly bloom at night,

to think of you doing so
in the sheer­ness of moonlight
is to inti­mate you are a product
of a tryst with the best
of your­self and your shadow

that is not unlike ourselves
on our bet­ter days. By morning
you are only more promiscuous
by day­light, your preponderant
blos­soms tipped cups brimming

with dew, reinvigorating
our imag­i­na­tion of your sustained
rose flush implies that your shade
is not only a col­or to savor but
also by drink­ing it in we come

to know the headi­ness of the taste
of your uncom­mon wine that
comes of age in our fields, and
whose branch­es announce you
by bend­ing halfway to the ground,

mak­ing you appear to be
the tree of lan­guish­ing kisses
and pure sen­su­al­i­ty, whose
flow­ers resem­ble puck­ered lips
await­ing to be kissed.


I Went Back for My Father

I went back for my father
after call­ing him from a pay phone
in Chinatown on Christmas eve.
The call threw him into a muddle,

mak­ing me aware that being
on the phone con­fused him,
that he didn’t know where I was
which made it dif­fi­cult to know

where he was and what he was doing.
I went back for my father,
after hitch­hik­ing to Stinson Beach,
after read­ing at a jazz club in San Anselmo,

after going to a fes­ti­val on top
of Mount Tamalpais and being exposed
to all that naked­ness in the California sun.
I went back for my father

who taught him­self to read and write
using a Polish-English dictionary,
who immi­grat­ed from Eastern Europe
just before Hitler invad­ed Poland,

who was wound­ed in France when he batted
away a grenade a German sol­dier threw
and saved his squad, who car­ried shrapnel
in his right shoul­der for the rest of his life,

his pur­ple heart laid away in a drawer.
I went back for my father
and saw him sur­round­ed by men­tal patients
in a locked ward of the soldier’s home,

some patients rock­ing back and forth
in restraints, some stared stolid­ly into
noth­ing­ness, one wore a worn straw hat.
My father sat silent­ly in a wheel­chair in the sun.

I could nei­ther weep nor speak because he was
beyond help and no longer rec­og­nized me.
I went back for my father
and after he died six years lat­er when I received

the phone call I final­ly wept
not so much that he had died but for how he had
spent his last years, seclud­ed in a nether world,
one I couldn’t enter, one he couldn’t leave.


Finding the River Within
         For Duane Whitehead


English colonists called the town Great Falls
but the trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal Abenaki name

for water­fall is Kitchee pon­tegu. The first bridge
over the Connecticut River, built in 1785,

the Arch Bridge, was replaced by
the New Arch Bridge, in 1903, and the factories

there pro­duced iron cast­ings, car­riages, shoe pegs,
and organs, hence the name, Bellows Falls.


You quote Carl Sagan, “inquir­ing minds need to know,”
exem­plary of your being proprietor

of Arch Bridge Bookshop on Village Square,
con­nect­ing prospec­tive read­ers with per­ti­nent books

to fit their inter­ests. As one brows­er says, “Like walking
into a time warp.” Another com­pares the bookshop

to The Strand, in New York City, but stress­es that it is
“less orga­nized” but “has a sim­i­lar vibe,” that they “loved it.”


You are not only a man of ideas, but you also have a passion
for dis­cussing beliefs and plumb­ing infor­ma­tion for facts,

espous­ing ancient his­to­ry and the Battle of Thermopylae,
recount­ing what the Persian Xerxes sought to accomplish,

how the Spartan Leonidas won out in the sea battle
at Salamis, how you inflect in telling the sto­ry that

it is an exam­ple of a small­er force defeat­ing a larg­er one,
that what was saved was all of west­ern civilization.


When you ask me about what it means for me
in find­ing the riv­er I sum­mon the jour­ney of discovering

the heart, what draws us up into the cen­ter of our lives,
what moves us for­ward, what cur­rents flow deeply below,

and I see you nod your head in agree­ment, hav­ing already
been a seek­er of wis­dom, exem­pli­fy­ing the way Thoreau

impart­ed the one mile climb to Table Rock on Fall Mountain
was a des­ti­na­tion where one could con­sid­er the flow of the river.


An Offering of Grace
        In mem­o­ry of Linda Gregg

She appeared to me in the dream,
white frock flowing,
her hair shin­ing, as if she had just
brushed it a hun­dred times,
as she often said she did;

and it was the sweetness
in which she could offer kindness
that could lev­el most hardships
in an abate­ment, an assuagement,
which was an offer­ing of grace,

until she mor­phed, as she
explained to me in the dream,
into all of these oth­er selves,
younger ver­sions of her, until
in the youngest I could only

last see her lumi­nous eyes before
she dis­ap­peared when I awoke.
Her tone remind­ed me
of when we were at the gathering
after her talk on Dickinson,

and we were with Jack beside
the catered table when she mentioned
to us to wait there while
she would fill our plates for us,
and lat­er she would fill her own plate

upon which she would return
to the con­ver­sa­tion. Linda, always
intu­itive­ly in touch with the depths
of the pow­er of her femininity,
resilient in her­self and reach­ing out

to nur­ture oth­ers for whom she cared,
not unlike when she appeared to me
in the dream, rejoin­ing me
to not only the best route but also
even the only route, despite

dis­ap­point­ments and distractions
to har­vest the hon­ey from the combs,
which, as she enumerated
by rev­e­la­tion, if you only remain
open to sus­te­nance and nurture,

just con­tin­ue to flow and flow.


Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), select­ed by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2011 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Competition. Recent poems and trans­la­tions have or will appear in Asymptote, Chicago Quarterly Review, Commonweal, The Comstock Review, and Poetry London.