This poem originally appeared at The New Republic on August 3, 1992.
Out here, dwarfed by mountains and a sky of fires
And round rocks, in the academy of revelations
Which gets smaller every year, we have come
To see ourselves as less and do not like
Shows of abundance, descriptions we cannot believe,
When a simple still life—roses in an azure bowl—does fine.
The idea of our being large is inconceivable,
Even after lunch with Harry at Lutece, even after
Finishing "The Death of Virgil." The image of a god,
A platonic person, who does not breathe or bleed,
But brings whole rooms, whole continents to light,
Like the sun, is not for us. We have a growing appetite
For littleness, a piece of ourselves, a bit of the world,
An understanding that remains unfinished, unentire,
Largely imperfect so long as it lasts.
Is it you standing among the olive trees
Beyond the courtyard? You in the sunlight
Waving me closer with one hand while the other
Shields your eyes from the brightness that turns
All that is not you dead white? Is it you
Around whom the leaves scatter like foam?
You in the murmuring night that is scented
With mint and lit by the distant wilderness
Of stars? is it you? Is it really you
Rising from the script of waves, the length
Of your body casting a sudden shadow over my hand
So that I feel how cold it is as it moves
Over the page? You leaning down and putting
Your mouth against mine so I should know
That a kiss is only the beginning
Of what until now we could only imagine?
Is it you or the long compassionate wind
That whispers in my ear: alas, alas?
I recall that I stood before the breaking waves,
Afraid not of the water so much as the noise,
That I covered my ears and ran to my mother
And waited to be taken away to the house in town
Where it was quiet, with no sound of the sea anywhere near.
Yet the sea itself, the sight of it, the way it spread
As far as we could see, was thrilling.
Only its roar was frightening. And now years later
It is the sound as well as its size that I love
And miss in my inland exile among the mountains
That do not change except for the light
That colors them or the snows that make them remote
Or the clouds that lift them, so they appear much higher
Than they are. They are acted upon and have none
Of the mystery of the sea that generates its own changes.
Encounters with each are bound to differ,
Yet if I had to choose I would look at the sea
And lose myself in its sounds which so frightened me once,
But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss,
Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses
And storms, a great watery animal breaking itself on the rocks,
Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume.