2002 Frost Medalist
Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight
You scream, waking from a nightmare.
When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
as if clinging could save us. I think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
my broken arms heal themselves around you.
I have heard you tell
the sun, don't go down, I have stood by
as you told the flower, don't grow old,
don't die. Little Maud,
I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
I would let nothing of you go, ever,
feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands,
and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades,
and rats walk away from the culture of the plague,
and iron twists weapons toward truth north,
and grease refuse to slide in the machinery of progress,
and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men,
and the widow still whispers to the presence no longer beside her
in the dark.
And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
this the nightmare you wake screaming from:
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.
In a restaurant once, everyone
quietly eating, you clambered up
on my lap: to all
the mouthfuls rising toward
all the mouths, at the top of your voice
your one word, caca! caca! caca!
and each spoonful
stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering
you cling because
I, like you, only sooner
than you, will go down
the path of vanished alphabets,
to the other side of the darkness,
like the shoes left behind,
like the adjectives in the halting speech
of old folk,
which once could call up the lost nouns.
And you yourself,
some impossible Tuesday
in the year Two Thousand and Nine, will walk out
among the black stones
of the field, in the rain,
and the stones saying
over their one word, ci-gît, ci-gît, ci-gît,
and the raindrops
hitting you on the fontanel
over and over, and you standing there
unable to let them in.
If one day it happens
you find yourself with someone you love
in a café at one end
of the Pont Mirabeau, at the zinc bar
where wine takes the shapes of upward opening glasses,
and if you commit then, as we did, the error
one day all this will only be memory,
learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come—to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
that tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.
The still undanced cadence of vanishing.
In the light the moon
sends back, I can see in your eyes
the hand that waved once
in my father's eyes, a tiny kite
wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look:
and the angel
of all mortal things lets go the string.
Back you go, into your crib.
The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.
Your eyes close inside your head,
in sleep. Already
in your dreams the hours begin to sing.
Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched in time with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
I think that being a poet is hard to achieve and being a great poet sits on the furthest edge of possibility. But being a great poet who writes free verse is as daunting a task as exists. Frost said that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Even if we allow Frost his wisdom, the remarkable thing about Galway Kinnell's free verse is that it plays just as if the net were up and all the balls hit within the invisible in and out lines. Kinnell's free verse convinces us that what has been stated has been said in the only perfect way possible, as if, until the poet had written, nothing so memorable, precise, perfectly chosen, and resonating had ever so revealed the subject.
Poetry perhaps differs most consistently from prose in the way it sits in the ear, sound keeping its perfect dance with meaning in a union where each calls on each to propel their existence. And when free verse achieves that memorable harmony we know we are in the presence of artistic excellence.