American Portrait at the New Year

On this New Year’s Eve morning I just happened to open a book of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry to a poem appropriate to the day, with theme of time, life passing. I liked it so much that I will copy it here. It is from a group of poems, Now and Then, written 1976-1978, and included in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985, 1985, Random House: New York.

American Portrait: Old Style


Beyond the last house, where home was,
Past the marsh we found the old skull in, all nameless
And cracked in star-shape from a stone-smack,
Up the hill where the grass was tangled waist-high and wind-tousled,
To the single great oak that, in leaf-season, hung like
A thunderhead black against whatever blue the sky had,

And here, at the widest circumference of shade, when shade was,
Ran the trench, six feet long,
And wide enough for a man to lie down in,
In comfort, if comfort was still any object. No sign there
Of any ruined cabin or well, so Pap must have died of camp fever,
And others pushed on, God knows where.


The Dark and Bloody Ground, so the teacher romantically said,
But one look out the window, and woods and ruined cornfields we saw:
A careless-flung corner of country, no hope and no history here.
No hope but the Pullman lights that swept
Night-fields—glass-glint from some farmhouse and flicker of ditches—
Or the night freight’s moan on the rise where
You might catch a ride on the rods,
Just for hell, or if need had arisen.
No history either—no Harrod or Finley or Boone,
No tale how the Bluebellies broke at the Rebel yell and cold steel.

So we had to invent it all, our Bloody Ground, K and I,
And him the best shot in ten counties and could call any bird-note back,
But school out, not big enough for the ballgame,
And in the full tide of summer, not ready
For the twelve-gauge yet, or even a job, so what
Can you do but pick up your BBs and Benjamin,
Stick corn pone in pocket and head out
“To Rally in the Cane-Brake and Shoot the Buffalo” —
As my grandfather’s cracked old voice would sing it
From days of his own grandfather—and often enough
It was only a Plymouth Rock or maybe a fat Dominecker
That fell to the crack of the unerring Decherd.


Yes, imagination is strong. But not strong enough in the face of
The sticky feathers and BBs a mother’s hand held out.
But no liberal concern was evinced for a Redskin,
As we trailed and out-tricked the sly Shawnees
In a thicket of ironweed, and I wrestled one naked
And slick with his bear grease, till my hunting knife
Bit home, and the tomahawk
Slipped from his hand. And what mother cared about Bluebellies
Who came charging our trench? But we held
To pour the last volley at face-gape before
The tangle and clangor of bayonet.

Yes, a day is merely forever
In memory’s shiningness,
And a year but a gust or a gasp
In the summer’s heat of Time, and in that last summer
I was almost ready to learn
What imagination is—it is only
The lie we must learn to live by, if ever
We mean to live at all. Times change,
Things change. And K up and gone, and the summer
Gone, and I longed to know the world’s name.


Well, what I remember most
In a world long Time-pale and powdered
Like a vision still clinging to plaster
Set by Piero della Francesca
Is how K, through lane-dust or meadow,
Seemed never to walk, but float
With a singular joy and silence,
In his cloud of bird-dogs, like angels,
With their eyes on his eyes like God,
And the sun on his uncut hair bright
As he passed through the ramshackle town and odd folks there
With coats on and vests and always soft gabble of money—
Polite in his smiling, but never much to say.


To pass through to what? No, not
To some wild white peak dreamed westward,
And each sunrise a promise to keep. No, only
The Big Leagues, not even a bird dog,
And girls that popped gum while they screwed.

Yes, this was his path, and no batter
Could do what booze finally did:
Just blow him off the mound—but anyway,
He had always called it a fool game, just something
For children who hadn’t yet dreamed what
A man is, or barked a squirrel, or raised
A single dog from a pup.


And I, too, went on my way, the winning and losing, or what
Is sometimes of all things the worst, the not knowing
One thing from the other, nor knowing
How the teeth in Time’s jaw all snag backward
And whatever enters therein
Has less hope of remission than shark-meat,

And on Sunday afternoon, in the idleness of summer,
I found his farm, and him home there,
With the bird dogs crouched round in the grass
And their eyes on his eyes as he whispered
Whatever to bird dogs it was.
Then yelled: “Well, for Christ’s sake—it’s you!”

Yes, me, for Christ’s sake, and some sixty
Years blown like a hurricane past! But what can you say—
Can you say—when all-to-be-said is the done?
So our talk ran to buffalo-hunting, and the look on his mother’s face
When she held the BBs out.

And the sun sank slow as he stood there,
All Indian-brown from waist up, who never liked tops to his pants,
And standing nigh straight, but the arms and the pitcher’s
Great shoulders, they were thinning to old-man thin.
Sun low, all silence, then sudden:
“But, Jesus,” he cried, “what makes a man do what he does—
Him living until he dies!”

Sure, all of us live till we die, but bingo!
Like young David at brookside, he swooped down,
Snatched a stone, wound up, and let fly,
And high on a pole over yonder the big brown insulator
Simply exploded. “See—I still got control!” he said.


Late, late, toward sunset, I wandered
Where old dreams had once been Life’s truth, and where
I saw the trench of our valor, now nothing
But a ditch full of late-season weed-growth,
Beyond the rim of shade.

There was nobody there, hence no shame to be saved from, so I
Just lie in the trench on my back and see high,
Beyond the tall ironweed stalks, or oak leaves
If I happened to look that way,
How the late summer’s thinned-out sky moves,
Drifting on, drifting on, like forever,
From where on to where, and I wonder
What it would be like to die,
Like the nameless old skull in the swamp, lost,
And know yourself dead lying under
The infinite motion of sky.


But why should I lie here longer?
I am not dead yet, though in years,
And the world’s way is yet long to go,
And I love the world even in my anger,
And that’s a hard thing to outgrow.

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