David Kirby

The Highwayman

                                        I say “Good morning, fellows” to the twenty-nine—wait, thirty—
                    Canada geese in the park, even though some of them are surely
                                        girl geese, though it’s hard to tell with a goose if you’re not
a goose expert, and just then my phone rings, and it’s Charlotte,
                    whose husband Bob died six months ago, and we go back and forth

                                        for a while, and then Charlotte says she wishes she could talk
                    to Bob one more time. What’d that be like? Jimmy Webb wrote
                                        this beautiful song called “The Highwayman” that has four verses,
each about a man who died but didn’t: a highwayman, of course,
                    but also a sailor, a dam builder, and an astronaut, and a different

                                        singer sings each verse, with Willie Nelson as the highwayman,
                    then Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and so on. The thing
                                        about each dead man is that every one of them comes back:
“I am still alive,” they say, “I am living still” and “I’ll always
                    be around.” Okay, now it’s thirty-four geese: four fly in from

                                        the west in military formation, the leader honking his head off
                    as the other three make a triangle behind him, but as they approach
                                        the pond, he drops back into line, and they dip toward the water
wing to wing before extending their feet and landing with
                    a great splash and then a little head shake and tail wag that says there,

                                        did it again, no big deal. How seamless some transitions are.
                    Ever been to Paris? When you leave a Paris métro station,
                                        the person in front of you holds the door to the outside as you
rush forward saying Merci, madame, then you hold it for
                    the person coming along behind you, who rushes forward saying

                                        Merci, monsieur and so on in an endless chain of gratitude.
                    Otherwise, life’s a mess, also a muss, a muddle, a mash, a hash,
                                        and a hodgepodge. Other than that, it’s beautiful. Speaking
of beauty, there’s also a poem called “The Highwayman”
                    by Alfred Noyes that was many a child’s introduction to poetry

                                        back in the day or at least it was mine. Its hero has a cocked hat
                    and a fistful of lace at his chin and a velvet coat and doe-skin
                                        breeches, not to mention the pistol and rapier that are the tools
of his trade, and he’s riding up to the old inn door, which is
                    locked and barred, but he taps on the window with his whip,

                                        and who should appear but Bess the landlord’s daughter,
                    “plaiting a dark red love knot into her long black hair,”
                                        which action does not go unnoticed by Tim the ostler,
he whose face is “white and peaked,” his eyes “hollows
                    of madness, his hair like mouldy hay.” In legend, all villains

                                        are pale and sickly. Tim the ostler is no exception. It’s as
                    though God made him ugly so that we’d know to hate him,
                                        which is not exactly a problem since, after the highwayman
steals a quick kiss from Bess and rides off westward to rob
                    the hell out of somebody who probably deserves to have

                                        the hell robbed out of them, Tim the ostler alerts His Majesty’s
                    troops, who assemble and lie in wait for the highwayman
                                        to return. The soldiers are not nice to Bess. They tie her up
and say ugly things to her and “snigger,” as the poem, says,
                    though I bet they did other things that a Victorian poet might not

                                        feel comfortable saying to a Victorian audience. But Bess
                    wriggles free, and when the highwayman canters up to the old
                                        inn door again, jingling with his new booty and more than ready
for another of Bess’s excellent kisses, she manages to wiggle
                    a finger through the trigger guard of a conveniently neglected

                                        musket and kills herself, which brave and self-sacrificial action
                    has nothing like the intended effect, since the highwayman
                                        takes off like a toupee in a fan factory but the redcoats pursue
him anyway and cut him down like a dog. Yet he, too, manages
                    a ghostly return: still of a winter’s night, the poem says,

                                        when the wind is in the trees and the moon is a ghostly galleon
                    tossed upon cloudy seas and the road is a ribbon of moonlight
                                        over the purple moor, a highwayman comes riding, riding,
riding, a highwayman comes riding up to the old inn-door.
                    And who do you think’s waiting for him? That’s right,

                                        it’s Bess, the landlord’s daughter, plaiting a dark red love-knot
                    into her long black hair. I do not believe in ghostly returns.
                                        I believe that once you cross that bourne from which no traveler
has yet returned, you stay forever in the abode of the blessed,
                    the Elysian fields, the bower of bliss, sweet hereafter,

                                        great beyond. Still, this don’t-worry-I’ll-see-you-later kind
                    of thing happens to a lot of star-crossed lovers: Romeo
                                        and Juliet, for example, or the Marlon Brando character
in One-Eyed Jacks who, just before he has to skeddaddle
                    at the end of that movie because he had to kill the Karl

                                        Malden character, tells the Katie Jurado character not to cry
                    because he has to be gone for a while, but he’ll be back
                                        when the peach trees begin to bloom and the birds start chattering
and the butterflies sweep across the sky in flocks so thick
                    you can’t see the mountains across the way, and when that

                                        happens, says Brando, “you’ll look up one evening and see
                    a jackass looking in your window, and it’ll be me.”
                                        The singer who performs the last verse of Jimmy Webb’s
“Highwayman” song is Johnny Cash, which makes him
                    the astronaut, and when he reaches the other side of

                                        the universe, he says he’ll rest his spirit if he can or come
                    back as a highwayman again or maybe just a simple drop
                                        of rain. Years after the song came out and not only went
to number one on the country chart but also won Jimmy
                    Webb a Grammy, Jimmy Webb said, “I don’t know how

                                        they decided who would take which verse, but having Johnny
                    Cash sing last was like having God sing your song.” I don’t
                                        know about that, either, but I do know that a woman whose
husband died after the terrorists flew planes into those World
                    Trade Center towers said that for weeks after the attacks, she called

                                        her husband’s cell phone just to hear his voice, even though she
                    knew he’d never answer. From time to time, though, she visits
                                        the memorial to him and the other victims on Greenwich Street
in Lower Manhattan. “There’s never closure,” she says, “but when
                    I come here, and when the wind blows, it’s like he’s kissing me.”



David Kirby's collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His latest poetry collection is More Than This. He teaches English at Florida State University.