The Light Keeper
A night without ships. Foghorns called into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea-wrack, through heather and torn wool
you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life:
the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost,
there since the era of fire, era of candles and hollow wick lamps,
whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide,
the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook.
You say to me stay awake, be like the lens maker who died with his
lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when bees swarm, be
their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond,
seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out
for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines,
and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this.
That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing
to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes.Go toward the light always, be without ships.
“The Light Keeper” was first published in The New Yorker.
The city of your childhood rises between steppe and sea, wheat and light,
white with the dust of cockleshells, stargazers, and bones of pipefish,
city of limestone soft enough to cut with a hatchet, where the sea
unfurls and acacias brought by Greeks on their ships
turn white in summer. So yes, you remember, this is the city you lost,
city of smugglers and violinists, chess-players and monkeys,
an opera house, a madhouse, a ghost church with wind for its choir
where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry and the sea.
If it happened once, it happened in Odessa. If you return now,
it will not be as a being visible to others, and when you walk past,
it will not be as if a man had passed, but rather as if someone had
remembered something long forgotten and wondered why.
If you return, your father will be alive to prepare for you
his mint-cucumber soup or give you the little sweet called bird’s milk,
and after hours of looking with him for his sandals lost near the sea,
you visit again together the amusement park where
your ancestors are buried, and then go home to the apartment house
built by German prisoners of war, to whom your father gave bread
which you remember surprised you. You take the tram to a stop
where it is no longer possible to get off, and he walks
with you until he vanishes, still holding in his own your invisible hand.
“Exile” was first published in Salmagundi.
The Light Keeper and Exile
04/18/2023: Civitellians at 2023 PEN World Voices Festival
02/27/2023: In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine
02/03/2023: The Blue Hour: When A Poem Sings Back