If Hemingway would write his real childhood,
Gertrude Stein said that would be his best book.
As it was, he preferred to box, write in cafes,
seek literature’s fourth, even fifth, dimension.
On his way to Paris he read Hawthorne
observing his friend Melville could neither believe
nor be certain of a reason not to believe,
and so lost himself among the deserts of days
and wrote nights and put what he wrote away
to be found, if ever, after his death.
Hemingway knew memory got things wrong,
but no matter if what found its place on the page
felt the way it was–fishing in rivers in Spain
and Michigan, learning from Turgenev
before sleep, writing by dawn light Huck Finn
in Africa–leaving out what you knew
to write what could never be forgotten.
To live so you could write as well as the Russians,
you had to wait for what you were about to learn
to put together the way it all made you feel.
But that haunting voice: this is how we lived.
You could live there again if you could make
the house that stood by the flowing river of dreams
and wake there with the only love you knew,
and when the war arrived there was noplace
to go where war would not ruin our lives,
and we had no time to feel sad, crossed the water
and on the other side she lay in hospital
with child, all you would have to remember her by
before the rain brought the dead back to life.
Maybe Stein wanted to know how it was
when his mother dressed her son like a girl,
his father died alone with a gun in one hand,
and all it was good for was to forget
and only then could you remember how it was
when you would go so far into yourself
to find nothing but the beautiful truth–
how beginning was always the best part,
because after that you could smell the dust
where only nada was true when you lost
your nerve. An hour is forever, pages
dogeared, the words disappearing, the light
eating the ink . . . This far north is too bright
not to stay up late and sleep after dawn.
I don’t know why I go back to his house
when we have nothing in common but what
you want to get right to make it alive
like it was. In books this time. All you have
is the past, the way you can make it true
if you leave out what the living know already.
Clamor in the streets is the same in rooms
in cities, towns. This din is the real war
now. You don’t drink: you were always a fool,
smoked endlessly, and would have died that way
without having done your work. Even now
you like to remember how it was there,
and know what it is here in the river
fish love as much as you in the forest
where before dying you must learn to sing
without waiting for sun to melt the ice.
(2 May 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander