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.