Pass on a Poem

The Bench by August Kleinzahler (American, born 1949)

What passed through your mind, old man,
what passed through your mind back then,
staring out beyond the shingle and sea wrack,
the islets and rocks,
to the Olympics on the far shore,
snowy peaks poking through cloud?I would spot you often on this bench,
smoking your unfiltered Players, gazing into the distance,
reading the grain of the sea,
the currents and wind,
as if parsing the whorls of Eadfrith’s Gospels.
What can a young man – a boy, really –
know of what runs through an old man’s mind?
But I wondered then, and wonder still,
no longer young, sitting here,
gazing as you once gazed at this patch of sea,
ever the same, ever changing,
the gulls and crows busily at work, hovering.This sky would have been foreign to you,
the light, as well,
but not unpleasing, no, not at all – how could it be? –
swift-moving, full of drama,
weather and clouds rushing east overhead
until caught up in the coastal range,

unburdening themselves of their cargo of rain.
It’s fine light, at its best days like this,
almost pearly, a light mist.
I remember now, after so many years away,
how well it suits the place and suited me then, as now.
I stayed on for years.

But you moved along, taking the long way back,
by ship. You enjoyed the water,
watching it from this vantage or under you at sea.
You were the sort accustomed to moving on.
I spotted that about you straightaway.
You travelled light, the one book,

Njal’s Saga, always in your left coat pocket.
Copper-wire moustache,
sea-reflecting eyes …
You’d long ago been a sailor yourself,
knowing what to take along, what leave behind.
There was more than a bit of the wanderer to you,
the exile, and in your carriage and gait:
no nonsense, erect, never inviting attention
but clearly not of this place.
I watched you carefully that year,
and listened.
It was good to be around a man like that.

One learns, takes on a great deal,
not even half-aware of it, not for many years later.
And not just how words join up,
made to fit properly together like the drystone walls
of a Yorkshire dale, sturdy, serviceable, lasting.
I watched you carefully that year.

That bungalow we’d meet at, those few of us,
rain pouring down outside,
listening to Scarlatti, Dowland, Byrd,
or you reading aloud to us, Wordsworth, Wyatt –
just back there across the road,
torn down, a gruesome condo complex now.

You poured those sounds into our heads.
Who knew what might come of it?
Surely, nothing bad.
I would walk past you many times that year,
sitting here, gazing out at the sea, the rocks.
Who can say what thoughts …?

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