Paul Mariani


A winter’s tale. I was teaching up at Hunter,

a night class, nineteen sixty-six or seven.

Mostly stenographers and clerks, with nine-

to-five jobs somewhere in Manhattan

or the boroughs. Introduction to Poetry & Prose,

the one oh one variety.

That evening it was

Thomas Hardy. Hap, The Darkling Thrush,

The Convergence of the Twain, the appointed

iceberg peeling the skin off the Titanic

like some sardine can. Bleak and heady stuff

for a bleak and heady time. Nam, napalm,

race riots, Agent Orange, the whole shebang.

And I was on that night, my best imitation

orphic voice, rhapsodizing on Blind Necessity

and Fate, the marriage of a massive ship—state

of the art—with some far more massive iceberg.

Hardy’s Hope seemed a hollow thing in the face

of so much suffering, as I suppose he wanted it

to pale for the poem he was writing.

No one to blame:

no grand design, no God or gods, no anything

but a rolling of blind dice. I preened myself.

After all, I was twenty-six, and understood

the mossy myths, dark and cold, that have told us

since before the Greeks how the world really works.

And then the time was up and the students

gathered up their things and headed out.

I was packing my books and the papers

I would have to grade back in our small

apartment out in Flushing, where I lived

with my wife and two small sons, trying

to finish my degree against the odds.

It was late,

past ten, and the wind blowing down the cold

corridors of New York. I meant to head straight

for the subway round the corner to begin

the long ride home on the IRT which, along

with other huddled masses, would take me there.

I looked up to see a woman standing by my desk,

Neither young nor old, one of my students,

as nameless as the rest. She seemed shaken

and her face was pale. You’re a good man,

she was saying. Tell me you don’t believe

the things you said tonight. Tell me you believe

there is a God.

Understand, this was outré and

unprofessional on her part, almost comic, except

she looked as if I’d robbed her. And for what

it matters, I did subscribe to something like a creed.

Or thought I did. But we were talking Poetry here,

and this was New York City, not some Podunkville.

I assured her my own beliefs had nothing

to do with it. These were Hardy’s gifts to us,

the poems, written out of a world he had suffered.

True, he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—a brilliant

use of language, I warmed myself by thinking—

and the skeptic’s view was something she might

sip on, a way of adding to the available stock

of reality we are heir to.

I turned towards the elevator

and bowed goodnight, then walked quickly down

the long cold corridors and past the guard out

on to Lexington, then down into the subway,

repeating Hardy’s lines about how the Immanent Will

that stirs and urges everything / Prepared a sinister mate/

For her. The place was almost empty at that hour,

and I already at the turnstile when I saw her

following at a distance, her lips moving

with the cold.

I’m hard of hearing, and the train

was already entering the station, so I tried to read

her lips. Please, her eyes were saying above the racket

of the place, You’re a good man. Tell me you believe.

Eurydice, I thought, drowning in a hell of her own

making, pallid and accusing, and I some unwitting

Orpheus. For Christ’s sake (this to myself . . . and then

to her) I do believe. O.K? I do. I do, even if just then

I felt nothing but annoyance, and to tell

the truth, a touch of icy terror. Please, go home,

it’s late. Everything’s O.K.

A gesture only,

comforting someone who needed to be comforted.

She smiled weakly, a nervous smile, as if she’d

just avoided a collision with something

looming out there, immense and cold,

and backed upstairs to greet the vast and open

void as the doors closed after me.

What in hell

had I just done? I thought, hanging from a strap,

the weary, deadened faces all about me.

What was this, some operatic scene by Gluck?

How badly had I just compromised myself,

I wondered, then turned to catch two amber lights

and a skull dangling from a strap across the aisle,

as the train went hurling down the sullen rails, lugging

each of us, as it happens, to our appointed destination.

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