Nicole Callihan

Hymn to Life
After Schuyler, Robins, Winter

Note: every 14th or so line corresponds to
that line in James Schuyler’s poem of the same title.

The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp
And here, so early as to still be dark, the windows gray, my robe,
Half my head, some portion of my heart. But a hymn beside a hymn,
Blue beside blue, blow by blow. There’s been no weather to speak
Of. No snow. Yesterday, a few flakes, sleet. But nothing sticks
Save a flash of memory or three. I took the train to the east village,
And walking up the stairs, the sun had come. Sometime between
Brooklyn and Second Avenue everything softened. Somewhere?
It was like leaving the matinee and finding day. Buckets of roses.
Purple tulips. When I moved to New York that’s all I saw: the fruits
And flowers. Mangos in winter. Delis and deli-men. You could
Put a dime on the counter and take a lime. Then June, when
Everyone peels off their clothes. Layers. August, they disappear.
Then so their thing: to live! To live! So natural and so hard
So hard and so natural. A cultured pearl to bite to see if it is real.
No, the shell is the hard, natural thing. But the pearl. What’s inside.
I spoke too soon, then yesterday became the day before. When
The dark gave way, and the windows brightened, I found snow.
Snow on the red car, the blue, snow on the silver, on the blades
Of what’s left of the grass, on the blades of the wipers. Blades
Of the few brown leaves still left on the sycamore. For months
There’d been a mylar balloon in the branches. Do you remember
And if you do. If you do. Is that the string still? The golden
String tied to a child’s wrist. Ella lost hold of one once in the wind.
I waited for her devastation, but she was unmoved, watched it get
Smaller, up and up, until it was the size of the moon, a thumbnail.
Freedoms at twenty, a relief not to be a teenager anymore. One of us
Imagining the other’s devastation. One of us not so devastated
After all. The candy cigarette that was only a candy cigarette. Plume
Of smoke. Someone’s chimney up the street. A match in a cupped
Hand in a city south. I let myself sleep until the vault of sky shifted
To day. Or didn’t, but let myself sleep so long that when I woke
I needed to fill this or that thermos with this or that food. Hunger
Assuaged. Or, anticipated hunger assuaged. Went to the Whitney
Yesterday. There’d been a green comet the night before. Did you
See it? Haven’t read if it could be seen, only read that it would be
Able to be seen. Hopper in the city. Squares of light. Women looking
Young and out windows. Men drowning in highballs. I liked best
His letters to his mother and the sketches which were to become
The thing, or become the thing which best represented the thing
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
A sketch of a sketch. A photograph of a body once inhabited sent
By a body briefly inhabited. “There you are.” Or once were. There
You once were. Tranströmer: “All sketches wish to be real.” But
Do they? Is there a box beneath your bed? Around what
Have you tied a ribbon? Hopper’s wife shall forever gaze down
At Washington Square. I keep thinking I should water the plants
But know the only way to keep them alive is to wait until they’re
Almost dead. No fuss. No finger in the soil. It’s gotten so cold
As to make a liar of me. The space heater, dripping faucet. Leaving
The museum I looked for a postbox, got so hungry I ducked
Into a diner, ate tacos, asked a man reading a book with a yellow
Jacket (haiku, tr: Bly) if I could take his portrait, and did. What now
To do with this image of a stranger? Coins on the countertop.
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
More of the same, yes, but more of the more, of the fires burning
And not only the controlled burn, but yes the controlled burn,
The sacrificial letters in the campfire. My uncle who used to light
His bills on fire and throw them into an old oil drum. That hill on
Which I was raised, on which I stood. Funny to imagine our child
Selves walking along railroad tracks, our child selves staring up
At the sky. Open field. Heads resting on a skateboard. The moon
Full the way it was full back then. Felt like I’d never seen a moon
So full before. Not funny funny, but. Now full again almost fifty
Years later, and it feels like it’s been hardly a week since the last.
The accumulation. Waxing and waning. I don’t even say, “Look,
Look at the moon.” Or if I do, who hears. “Look, look.” 4 am.
Couldn’t sleep. Or can’t. Hot cinnamon tea. I left the dog in bed.
Another day for each day is subjective and there is a totality of days
And for each I mouth the words, for Sunday, Monday, and each
Comes and each goes, comes again, from my lips to god’s ears,
Tuesday, god’s soft ears, the magnificent lobes, the starry canal,
Wednesday. I needn’t list them for you. The days within the
Days. In that what is within is at least equal to and perhaps greater
Than what is without. The way between each number is all
The numbers. The interior and exterior, you once called it. It was
Fall. No, early winter, but it might as well have been fall. A Thursday.
Not this early winter, or last, but some early winter. The tender
Leaf cells in danger of rupturing. Unproductive appendages. Each
Posing a threat to the integrity of the tree. The weight of snow. And
So, abscission. The pushing away. “It didn’t fall, it was pushed!”
A child laughs. The rake. That final V of geese in the heavens
It would seem, of the dead, so often where they congregate. A
Gathering of angels, of matter. A mattering of angles. The head tilts
Towards the window, more light, and who is this dancing
On the head of my pin? And what of truth, what of consequence,
What of missing the last train to the sea? Of Schuyler quoting
Aeschylus: I forget. Who has the gall to remember? And if remembering
So depends on the rememberer what gaslit stove do I warily
Stoke? Stroke of genius and/ or stroke of a beard and/ or/ or
Not a beard but the way men wore their facial hair back then. Back
When? The street is dry and gray. Fathers sleep in the hills. If
February were May, then what I see now would be leafier. The
Girl says, “After Christmas, should come summer.” We should open
Presents then have the ocean. Rifle through stockings then have
Dogdays of reading in hammocks. A palmful of nuts for the
Squirrel. The snowdrops and hailstorms backburnered, and thus
A lid lifted briefly on the spring. Then the moon burns through
And the shadows fall long. The order of things. The long
O of sorrow, sorrowful O of longing. After blood work I took
Sunrise Highway to the ocean, walked out past the dunes, stared
Hard at the eye of the sky, wondered, too, what happens when we
Close our eyes for good. West, you count to sixteen. Lest I’ve been
Unclear. Lest tested. My winter boots stomped through the snowy
Sand. As though through sandy snow. The wind, a mild hangover. I’ll
Tell you everything. The gulls ate the peanut butter sandwich you’d
Packed me. Such beasts, the gulls. Wax paper and all. Foucalt: “The
Great horizontal network forms words from other words and
Propagates them ad infinitum.” In such, I drove back to the city in
The slow lane until the slow lane became the only lane. Another
Gull coasts by, unexpected as a kiss on the nape of the neck. These
Birds, these shifts of tense. It flew, and so flies. It is flying and so will
Fly. An ever-presence. The ordinary act made extraordinary by shifting
Lanes. A blinker to signal. The thought of flying, thus flying. I ask
Eva on the way to school if she thinks we carry the memories of
Our ancestors in our cells. She tells me she wants a donut. I ask Ella
On the way home if she knows what an erection is. She says she wants
Mozzarella sticks. So hunger? Distraction? Hamburger thawing in the
Fridge. My flagless, empty mailbox. The morning not even gray yet. Still
Dark ink so that when I look out it’s not the trees I see but some version
Of me reflected. Hopper painted A Woman in the Sun when his model,
His wife, Josephine was seventy-eight years old. She looks maybe 40.
A very good 40. Was he seeing her, or not seeing her? Having been seen,
Having had been seen. Having had. Nighthawks. Early Sunday Morning.
Coasting among the masterpieces, of what use are they? Angel with a
Tortoise-shell Comb. Angel in Repose, in Tampa, in Shadow.
The blue-gold lilies
To frame. The plush mouth. Triptych of angels. Psyche being woken by
That kiss. To interlock and rotate creating an ascending triangle. The ride
To the bus. Dishes done (they are never done). Time being the canary
In the cul de sac. So many words written and forgotten. The cloud. The
Cold hollow of a spoon. Miles dissolve in a whole valley of green. Angel
In a field, a city. Angel with Bowler Hat.
I was a child at a strip mall when
I saw her: the trapeze artist with her suntanned-colored tights, her
Wings. If from your garden, you gather firewood, what becomes of the
Apples? Angel with an Axe. Angel with a Sword. Angel with the s-word
Hanging slack from his mouth. Silence. The silence after. After what?
After the after. The sizzle and crush of a cigarette under the sky under
An awning under a boot. Incessant daydream. The First Angel and The
. The impermanence of permanence, is that all there is? To look
From one room into the next, the light spilling all over the kitchen
Floor, an open book in a glass case, last year’s candles zipped inside
A plastic baggie. What will you wish for? What will you wish you had
Wished for? So hard to find a match these days. Keys, cigarettes, cash.
How you used to stand at the door checking to make sure you had
It all. Now, it’s phone, children, dog. Or most days. Most leavings.
A mug filled with pencils. A pair of scissors. I love that they are a
Pair. Like shoes, earrings. A pair of goggles. Of lungs. Eyes. Wings
And chopsticks. Kidneys. Such symmetry between the tape deck
And the moonlight. But then memory and grief. What are the chances
This warm spell will last? It’s all a spell, yes? The days sounded
Out. The primary diphthongs, as in, pay, ray, lay. Sky, cry, tie. Come
Lie with me, (that old Ferlinghetti poem). But what I want to say
Is how the light becomes entrapped in a dusty screen, masking out
The view from the porch, from the porch where I snapped beans and
Shucked long ears of tender corn, the silk of which I rubbed on my
Face. The trees. I’d hoped to get to the line of stroking the cat, of
Stroking you as if a cat, but there is a math and an order of things. You
Wake, and it’s your birthday again. You read a little while the coffee
Drips from its cone. The long blink, and it’s your birthday (again
Again.). Is it luck? Two children come down the stairs. The yellows
And browns of Linder Ave. You slip on a feather, recline on a brown
Leather sofa, your socks still on. I look around my desk for objects I
Might send. “This is something he might like.” It was summer. It was
Christmas. It was ice cream dripping from the cone. I was a child. You
Were. Someone had forgotten my birthday, and so from then on, I
Always said, “It’s my birthday. This is the day I was born.” Mother.
The price of admission to the horrors of civilization. Let’s make a list.
A mother forgetting a birthday. A mother not making it to the party. A
Mother not making it to her birthday. The long-stemmed roses. Most
Things are disappearing. That balloon Ella watched float away. That
Any given point in time is not a point. Is that the point? At the
Museum, the guards may only ask you not to touch a painting
again, they cannot ask you not to touch it. The intent itself cannot
Be reprimanded. When I was still in school, Jean would run her hand
Across the page and say, “Here, here is where I feel the heat.” One
Big light through the window this morning (I slept in if it can be
Called sleeping in), but such long shadows of my fingers at the
Keyboard. I make a bunny, a horse, maybe more like a dog, though
With intention to make a bird. To fly you the bird. A bit of rage to
Jolt you. The sparrows shake the tree. The third siren of morning
But, too, the silence in which out of the muck arise violet leaves,
And golden, pink tulips, buds tight and how bright they are in this
Light. The nouns. “I’m getting closer to knowing them.” This ink
Pen with its little clicker, clickety click, how absently I tell myself
Not to chew it absently, then click click filling the absence in the
Room. “Your absence is a felt presence,” I tell my students. Pismo
Beach. Creek and source. The clothespin in your mouth. A line
Stretched from tree to tree. A string with two cans. “Can you
Talk?” And the verbs too. Intransitive. To run to, run from, run
Ragged, runs in the family, a run in my stocking, the train runs from
New York to D.C., the play runs through the weekend, the child
Through the field, fingers through hair, water in the tub. “I always
Knew we’d run out of time:” a woman on the avenue. “I knew
It, knew it, knew it.” A brown leaf lets go; a truck beeps in reverse.
To know: what have these years of living and being lived taught us?
A handful of things. How to choose a ripe avocado, how to not
Let bananas go to waste, where to place the star tattoo, and what
Color to make it. “How are you really?” The leaves were falling and
My heart was hurting, or my head, too much gin, but one sleeps
It off, one sleeps and sleeps, if one is lucky, which I rarely am in
That regard. Are you still reading? Have you even begun? My brother
And I were out in the creek. He was getting baptized, or divorced, or
Was drying the dishes with a fresh towel, had thrown the sour one
In the pile to carry to the basement, the fresh towel had lemons, was
Frayed. I want to ask what there is to be scared of, but I know this
Is only one question, and filtered through language, through this
Language, clear as day. It’s a little gray. Morning gray. Yellow star
On your forearm. How to sit with uncertainty. Milky sky, a bit of grace
Before waking tremulous hands undo buttons. Another day, the sun
Searching for some bit of equipoise with night; the gardener with his
Shears; those two blades moving on a pin. The purpose of clipping a
Bird’s wings is not to render it incapable of flight; flight still comes
To the bird; but lower, in spurts; the clipping ensures it won’t fly
Away. Does this difference matter to you? Would it matter if I hadn’t
Made it a metaphor? Had I made it a metaphor? That the fire was
First a fire; the blanket a blanket. In the beginning, the pull of the
Tide was only the pull of the tide. A moon’s phase. The sky faded
As blue jeans hung on the back of a chair. The air. Hair pinned at
The nape of the neck of a woman you once loved. A mother, a first
Wife, a second. The minutes give way to violins, violets, violence, and
Of harsh reality I would like to interpose: interpose is not the
Word. To place between. To interpose an opaque body between the
Light and the eye. In the midst of conversation, discourse, or the
Like. So, yes, perhaps interpose is the word. And rain. The way it
Collects on the window’s screen. The green is coming, at least
Outside. Inside, the plant is nearly dead, and I tell myself to water
It, to water it, then pass it twenty times, thirty. I keep meaning
To ask after the children. To interpose. And of harsh reality (the
Gray) it seems to come anyway. Men came and poured wet
Cement on the block. I thought to write my name, yours, press
My palm, but by the time I got out the door it had hardened, a
Heart, and the clouds came. “Looks like rain:” I’ve no talent
For tomatoes. Hankerings, yes. A sandwich. I wish I had friends
In California, and they’d box up lemons and send them my way—
Old views and surges of energy or the pure pleasure of
Remembering, the flash across a face, sunlight through the train’s
Window and onto the face, then gone again as the tracks bend
Back towards the avenues of Chicago. But before they are gone,
They are there. There. Running one’s hands along the fishnet,
Fresh grass. The surface of water. Viscosity. How my brother
Used to slide his socked feet across the carpet then reach his
Fingers to my face to shock me. That jolt. And this winter that
Has been spring all along. February crocuses. I keep thinking it
Will end, and it will end. Change anyway. Those coins on the
Counter. And, too, the honey dripping down the jar. I doubt the
Stars will do much tonight. Sequins in the fog. Is repetition
Boring? Or only those who repeat and repeat themselves? Or not
Boring at all? A comfort. A tisket, a tasket. And how words give
Way to words give way to words give way to other things. It’s
The just rightness that counts. And how have you come to know just
What is right? A cool washrag pressed to a warm head. The laundry
Piles up again. Endless. I walk to the river. “How many boys have
Swum in you?!” I who have never put in a toe. Tombstones on the
Shoreline. One, a tome, its very shape. “Book of Life,” it
Reads. And what is the book of life? Deadheaded the hydrangeas
Too late maybe to matter, but one tries. Anything for hope. Was
Born, lived, lived well or lived poorly, and likely lived both
Poorly and well, was forgiven, or forgave, went to the source, slipped
Fingers into gloves, filled empty things, emptied full things, slept
In or woke early, rubbed the stain from the shirt until it was
A lighter, larger stain. A basketful of bucket lists. A houseful
Of guests. I had two requests. Do you recall? And then. Then.
Called back. Which is one way of saying it. Shuffled off
The mortal coil. Went home. Went the way of all the earth.
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that, “When I
Was little,” we say, or, “When you were but a glimmer in
Your mother’s eye,” or, “That was lifetimes ago,” when it was
Only a month or so. The ink still wet. A dark beer, and “What
Brings you here?” Here. What does bring me here. A train had
Brought me there, which then brings me here. But a cab to
Catch the train, my willing legs, a heart, a hand to wave down
The cab. Then, too, a little one-lane road surrounded by
Trees. A woman on her knees on a bed. A woman standing
Near the bed. A woman in the sun. A woman in moonlight
Removing her earrings, her watch, hooking her thumb on the
Necklace’s latch. All to go in the shallow bedside dish. What phase
Was that night’s moon? I’m sure you know. Still, no snow, not
Even much of a chill. Long weekend so no mail. And did I do
The laundry? Must I now again? The tulips drooping prettily,
The rosy violets. Life in action, life in repose, life in
Between the other lifetimes. Calamity and light. Do I think
Each morning when I wake I’ll be different? But much the
Same. This robe still. The blow of the steamboat. The sky
Different from yesterday, yes, or I think it will be once the
Sun makes its way around. Different but recognizable, still what
We call sky. They say some are never tested. To which I can
Merely recommend filling all the ovals, a hundred C’s filled
With graphite. I think everyone I know must be sleeping in
A bed they’ll get up and make or not make. Of things I make,
Weak alfredo and strong coffee included, this is among my
Favorites. This. Also, making do. “You got to dance with
Them what brung you.” Sometimes I try to tap into my friends’
Dreams. “Are you sleeping?” I whisper into a sleeping ear.
Ahead, a roadway lined by roses and thunder. “It will be here
Soon, the morning.” It will be morning soon, and in your
Father’s blue room you will sit drinking what you’ve poured
From his pot. It will be like a memory. “This is like a memory.”
But it will be in accord with time and space. Not a memory
Yet. The pile of bills, his eyeglasses, his handwriting. Had you
Forgotten your father’s handwriting? The stars. It was there
All along. The loops of S’s and J’s, what once was a practiced
Script, now old hat. It was spring when I woke. Magnolias
Melting out front. Thumbnail of a moon. “Where am I?” Not yet
A memory. But the trophies, the large print crossword, three
Cats eating their breakfast from three dishes on the kitchen
Floor. The pattern on china, tiny green leaves. And now your
Father is farther away. Collecting what is his in the back room.
Greenest grass. A funny tree, of many moons, gold in autumn, naked
Come winter. His keys. He puts socks on his wife’s feet. It’s gotten
Cold again. A rooster. Skylight. It seems I’ve woken in someone else’s
Home. What felt like it would become a memory has become a
Memory. Sharpened colored pencils in a glass coffee mug. A cat on my
Chest at dawn. “Guten morgen, Katze.” All the things to know and
Not know, to say and not say. I write a note to myself on a bright
Yellow square. “Remember this.” Tiny glass rabbits and loose
Tea leaves. Someone else’s thirst, their delight, the sound of rain on
Their windowpane. So much to follow, and so little. What will happen
Next. The order. The ordering. Someone else’s book. Their dog
Eared chapter. As if one could actually choose one’s adventure. Bubble
Gum in the hair, Jesus Saves in the parking lot. And then, we do it
All again. Light the candle. Blow it out. Light the candle. And middle
Age like a borrowed shirt with a missing button. Or a half dozen
Buttons in a blue bowl, origin unknown. The rooster again, after a
Dreamless sleep, to be mindless and at one with all that grows,
Mindless, the knowing without knowing, what the bones feel when
Wind comes through the valley. What did you wish for? For what
Did you wish? What did you wish? Did you? What do I and did
I and what is it to wish? The tulips open. For now, the music of
The ceiling fan. On the mountain, we ran out of beer so wake with
No hangover, no regret, no particular place to point, to say, “This
Is what I did wrong. This is where I went wrong.” Take a right
At the three dilapidated crosses, the directions read, and they
Stood gasping at the edge of the ditch. Silver-white, more stone than
Wood, but wood. Cold water in a Ball jar. I’ll leave this place soon
Enough, take the left, get elsewhere, leave there. The permanence
Of impermanence. A thumbtack on a map. How are your thumbs,
Throat, the insides of your wrists. Are you still in winter. Are you
Down. Unhibernate. Let the rain soak your hair, run down your
Face, swim in your jugular notch, drip down your sternum, flatten
The pelt of your belly. This morning, windchimes and thrushes,
The happy trail down to the river where my grandmother caught
Crawdads, was baptized, cleaned her dishes and herself, necked
With a boy she loved. The stitching on blue jeans and the dog
Mouth pink of the cherry trees. All things being equal, though
None of them are. A bucket banging on the side of a shin, the
Sunburned shoulders, a textbook example. The cirrus composed
Entirely of ice crystals. Feather and wisp. The first sign of a
Warm front. Also, what I see from the porch this morning, or
Some morning, as this morning will soon be. I send ardor and
Sympathy. Thank you, May, for these warm stirrings. Life
With its uncountable nouns, its patterns and pattering, March
Coming as March comes. How many Marches? And the Marches
Within each March. Februaries within Februaries. If we are
Quiet. If we find quietness. Another mountain. “The highway
Runs both ways.” Soon enough, August in the East. But May, M,
May I call you, M, May, may I call you, M? “Behave yourself.” The
Children on the pallet lined up like fish sticks. Being eleven and
Far from museums. Far from that light, but in this light. How the
Light travels. “You brought the spring.” Now, shake the petals
From your hair, and get on with it. It was the day after I turned
Ten, and the boy said, “Your birthday is the farthest away,” and I
Said, “No, it was yesterday,” and he said, “But yesterday is
Gone.” How we wait and wait, until we are no longer waiting. In
A dishpan the soap powder dissolves under a turned-on faucet and
Another wedding is emptied of its California light. The buzz of
Champagne, flies. The bowl left sticky with melon. Hopper’s
Wife, her nipples and her fortitude. Best to throw out the old
Blue sponge. Start again. Hot water from the spigot. To transpose
Is its own sort of imposition. But the tulips, the plant I finally
Remember, carry water from last night’s pot, deliver from the
Brink, turn a quarter to catch sun. Life, I do not understand. The
Days tick by, each so unique, each so alike: what is that chatter
Beneath the window? The scrape of shovels. A neighbor with a
Box of pears. And the panes of glass. Blue beside blue, what I
Might send you, what you might receive. A piece of mail arrives
On a Sunday before sunrise. It is the unexpected, the tangle, and
Tuesday again. Blow by blow, until we are so solidly in the middle
Of our lives we may as well be near the end. O improbable
Yellow, speck of lint on a sweater in a photograph. The particulars
Of this living in this body. What I haven’t said I haven’t said. What
I’ll say I’ll say. The nouns and verbs disappear, water under the
Bridge. Under the breath. Thick as stone this panic and enchantment,
This blood. The order of things shaking, shook. What I mistook,
And all which was not mistaken. “Forsake me not.” O Air. “Why
Ask questions?” and, “What are the questions you wish to ask?”



The Shelling

After May was early June turned late June turned
later June, nearly July which would be August, soon
enough fall, at least up north fall, where the leaves
yellowed, or fall everywhere, but only what you and I
would call fall up north, further south still heat, but
now, nearly July, thick July, sweltering July, gulp of
July on the gulf, on the gulf, still June, no need for
me to turn the pages when the pages don’t yet need
turning, to churn the air when it’s already churned,
or not churned really, resting, settling, might have
to get myself a fan, send you a fan, fan myself with
these sheaths of paper, these sheathes, what slips into
the sleeve of the window, still, I’d meant to say some-
thing about shelling, how, like sorrow, it starts with an s.



Nicole Callihan’s books include This Strange Garment (Terrapin 2023) and the 2019 novella, The Couples. Winner of the 2023 Tenth Gate Prize and a 2023 Alma Award, she has two forthcoming poetry collections: chigger ridge (The Word Works 2024) and SLIP (Saturnalia 2025). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Find out more at