James Harms

Auden in Winter

In 1960, W.H. Auden was still
in love with Chester Kallman,
still living part-time in his mind
and the rest of the year
on St. Mark’s Place with Chester,
who’d broken it off in 1941.
What I have learned from this
is how hard it is to love
from a beachhead dug in air.
What I have learned from this
is not to love or live with your betrayer.
Still, it seems reasonable to do
something with the betrayal.

In 1960, in Avedon’s photograph,
the snow surrounded Auden
like pale apostrophes
or quote marks enclosing silence.
And silence isn’t nothing
or nothingness, just as nobody believes
poetry makes nothing happen,
unless it’s the nothing that is.
When I was betrayed
over and over—my wife with
her rolled up newspaper
teaching me to mind—
each lie was a sort of silence,
since the noise of words led
to static, a sound in my mind
of dust swirling and footsteps
over ground glass,
as if a veldt or salt flat
had unrolled within me
filling all my empty spaces
with nothing. In 1960,

on St. Mark’s Place, Auden
stood ankle-deep in drifts
to let Avedon play with time.

Of course the stillness is a fiction,
however fixed in silver and silence:
In a few months, I will be born
at the other edge of the continent,
and in 13 years, Auden will die
in Vienna, with Chester in sight.
Clocks are like invaded countries—
they stop and then, in time,
start up again, new borders
like missing hours, enclosures
best left to the imagination.

In 1960, Auden was 53
and I was waiting to be born.
What was I waiting for in 1973?
The day he died was invisible
to time, or at least to
the instruments we use
to bottle seconds in amber
before storing them away.
I was 13 in ’73, in love with
no one and nothing,
and, Oh, how I loved to hold
that nothing in my arms,
aware of Auden the way a boy
falls in love first with the look
of a light creeping across
a classroom, and then with
the way the light haloes a face,
and then with a face
that time will wreck and ruin
though what that has to do
with love we’re all waiting to learn.



Like Light

Where are you now
when what I have instead
is the slow percussion
of raindrops on rhododendron
leaves, the slip
of sunlight from sky
as evening solders
the soft metal
of light into night?
I love you like light.
Like the taste
of air between blue
and blue: the blue
of sky and the blue
of memory, which is
a blue bird made of
glass, a thrush through
which fields and trees
are as visible as a tiny
trembling heart, blue
bird building with
scraps of tin foil
a nest of mirrors.
For two years I turned
my mirrors to the walls.
Today I wrote
I love you. Today
I turned the mirrors
around and found
a face I recognized
instead of remembered.


James Harms' new book, Rowing with Wings, will be published later this year by Carnegie Mellon University Press.  Recent work appears in The Missouri Review, Hamden-Sydney Poetry Review, Shenandoah and elsewhere.