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'It Wasn't Snowing'

Michael Schmidt

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)