It wasn’t snowing, but it should have been.
You were an old man, nine months from the grave.
Your hand was very dry and very hot
And large, as I recall (I was a boy,
Fourteen years at most, I led you round
Part of the school, your guide; you seemed to listen)
That night you read in a slow, dismissive voice
That left the words like notes on staves hung in the air,
No longer yours, but part of memory -
You talked about Miss Dickinson of Amherst
And said aloud the eight lines of her poem
‘The heart asks pleasure first’. And from that night
I’ve known the poem word-perfect, part of me.
I think you let more lines free into language
And memory with your rusty, lonely voice
Than any other poet of our age.
It must have been like freeing doves
And watching them go off to neighbouring cotes
Or into the low clouds of your New Hampshire
Knowing they’ll meet no harm, that they’ll survive
Long after the hand that freed them has decayed.
Those lines are wise in rhythm and they lead
Into a clapboard dwelling, or a field,
Or lives that prey upon the land and one another,
Or the big country where we both were children.
From The North No 1 (1986)