Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
Pianissimo
By Alfred Kreymborg
 
Henry:
An Intermezzo          
For Bee Knudsen

Two elderly gentlemen, in clothes even older than themselves, are just sitting down—with the outward aid of crooked canes and the inward support of sighs—on what is presumably a park bench, shaded by mountain laurels, with a swan-pond for a background. The men also carry the venerable pipes of tradition: in this case, heavily crusted corn-cobs. Their speech, very slow and gentle, gives them the sound of impersonal instruments improvising a harmless duo: prosaic music blown into the air at the end of smoke spirals, the re-lighting of pipes necessarily frequent. The only apparent difference between them, traceable perhaps to the unconscious bias of habitual meditation and perpetual comparison of ideas, has reduced itself to a slight wagging of the head on the part of the one as opposed to a slight nodding on the part of the other. Speech and movement coincide almost as caressingly as the effect produced by lips brushing wood-instruments.

  NAY, but I insist
  that the quick sharp touches the rain
  and slower titillation the sun
  put upon those flowers we saw
  have in them the same heedless passion,        5
  heedless of all save the self,
  which envelops unconscious adolescence.
  That isn’t the type of caress I’m seeking.
Hodge:  Those flowers were pale indeed
  with a suggestion of pink and beginning of blue!        10
Henry:  Early degrees of coloration
  solely indicative of the mood
  of self-interest of rain and of sun;
  alternately shaping something,
  like a left hand and right        15
  of one and the same conjurer
  reproducing his own vague image:
  the flower somehow a captive,
  clay just as we are,
  subject to the next modulation        20
  towards the next helpless state of being.
  I’ve had my share and enough
  of such no longer magical passes.
Hodge:  Nearer to red and closer to purple!
Henry:  That is the type of caress        25
  which has made of what I was
  the droning instrument I am,
  played upon in the one tonality
  of a careless self-love so long
  that the grave itself        30
  will simply be the final effort
  of the same somebody using me
  to express himself in a minor cadence—
  his little alas but a sigh
  that his composition closed so shabbily.        35
Hodge:  And still you cannot recall,
  stubborn lad that you are,
  a single variation, a dissonance, a brève?
Henry:  Neither can you, Hodge,
  with your eye pointing forward!        40
Hodge:  Let us try just once more again—
Henry:  Folk-song of the hopeful!—
Hodge:  And perhaps—
Henry:  Da capo of the hopeless!
Hodge:  Possibly the shade of this laurel,        45
  itself the design of accident,
  angle of sun and of tree
  meeting, rounding, spreading,
  will quiet your melancholy,
  and some quaint caress have room to stir,        50
  your memory mislaid?
Henry:  Memory is a cupboard
  I have gone to myriad times
  and have returned the one time always
  with relics so tedious        55
  I find them heavier than boulders.
  Since you who persist must try once again,
  pray, take down the future if you can.
Hodge:  Let us then sit here and wait,
  and the strange, the new, may yet transpire.        60
Henry:  You nod your head and I wag mine,
  that is the difference between us:
  you have verticals left in you,
  I am all horizontal.
Hodge:  But we are breathed into moving        65
  in accordance with the odd,
  delicately reciprocal nuance
  of our one and the same—
Henry:  Bassoonist!—
Hodge:  You dub him lugubriously!—        70
Henry:  Accurately!—
Hodge:  Henry!
  [Henry looks at Hodge. Hodge smiles. They smoke in silence. Hodge points with his pipe-stem.]
Hodge:  That swan,
  a white interrogation
  embracing the water,        75
  and being embraced in response—
Henry:  Their eyes reflecting each other,
  their bodies displacing—
Hodge:  That swallow cleaving the air,
  trusting his wings to the waves of ether—        80
Henry:  And the air trusting him
  with room in her body,
  relinquishing just enough space
  for him to fit himself into—
Hodge:  Or the worm underground,        85
  digging cylinder channels—
Henry:  And the earth undulating
  to the pressure of excavation—
Hodge:  Caresses like these, simple Henry—
Henry:  Caresses like those, simpler Hodge,        90
  have been clapped in my ear
  by your credulous tongue
  with such affectionate fortitude,
  I’m a bell attacked by echoes
  each time the sea moves.

  [Hodge looks at Henry and wags his head. Henry nods, and smiles. Hodge turns away.]
        95
 
Henry:  You also remind me of evergreens
  refusing to acknowledge the seasons,
  or unable to distinguish
  between white flowers and snow.
  You’re as old and as young as romance.        100
Hodge:  It’s you who fall redundant,
  you who fondle the rondo—
  why not have done and call me senile?
Henry:  Senility is a sling
  invented by cynical youths        105
  who envy and would rob
  the old of their possessions.
Hodge:  You admit possessions?—
  you contradict yourself?—
Henry:  My property        110
  comprises the realization,
  stripped bare of hope or hypothesis,
  that I own neither things nor persons;
  least of all these, myself.
  Nor am I longer deluded        115
  with even the thought of touching
  a body that pirate youth would filch,
  who cannot rid his blood of desire.
Hodge:  Then you must be that youth,
  since you crave—        120
Henry:  A type of caress?
Hodge:  How do you wriggle out of that?

  [Hodge and Henry re-light their pipes.]
 
Henry:  The type of caress I crave
  must have in it
  no desire to make of me        125
  aught of what it would make of itself.
  It must not say to me,
  “I would make of you
  more of me and less of you—”
Hodge:  Nor must it lure me,        130
  by virtue of the bounty
  of its body or the beauty
  of its mind, to sigh,
  “I would make of myself
  more of you and less of me—”        135
Henry:  I have had enough
  of such juxtaposition—
Hodge:  The immortal dialogue
  of life and of death—
Henry:  The recurrent symbol        140
  of being and reflection—
Hodge:  Of Narcissus
  in love with himself—
Henry:  Of God chanting a solo
  to comfort His loneliness,        145
  like an aged woman
  knitting things for her children to wear
  in her own image,
  singing: “This is I,
  and you are mine;        150
  so wear my love as I love you.”

  [Pause. Henry lowers his head; so does Hodge.]
 
Henry:  If it is
  God who fashioned me,
  is it He
  who asks, is He pleased?        155
Hodge:  Does my prayer,
  which is His
  if I’m His,
  move or leave Him unmoved?
Henry:  It is He        160
  who lifts these questions,
  or am I
  to blame for thinking?
Hodge:  If He,
  noticing me        165
  at last, notices Himself—
  what’s wrong with Him?
Henry:  Really,
  I’m not regretting
  what I am,        170
  nor begging, make me better.
Hodge:  If I
  have a sense of the droll,
  surely
  He has one too.        175
Henry:  Asking Himself
  to pray to Himself—
  that is,
  if He fashioned me?

  [Pause.]
 
Hodge:  Does it comfort you?        180
Henry:  A little—for a moment.
Hodge:  Farther than last time?
Henry:  A tiny stretch beyond.

  [They raise their heads.]
 
Hodge:  It’s still a wee mad melody—
Henry:  Innocent blasphemy        185
  of the inner
  frantic to grow to the outer,
  to the more than itself—
  the molecule a star,
  the instant universal—        190
  the me a trifle closer
  to the you that gave it life.
Hodge:  You recall how you composed it
  years before we came to this?
Henry:  As clearly as a brook,        195
  and you sitting in its midst
  like a pebble nodding assent
  to the foolish reckless sound—
Hodge:  Strange that we return to it!
Henry:  Stranger still, we do naught but return!

  [They continue smoking, Henry wagging, Hodge nodding.]
        200
 
Hodge:  Did you feel something stir?
Henry:  Only another breeze—
Hodge:  But didn’t you see that cloud alter?—
Henry:  The cause of the breeze—
Hodge:  Caressing us?—        205
Henry:  Leaving me colder—
Hodge:  Me warmer.
Henry:  When the temperature in a room
  is higher or lower than normal,
  it is needful to open        210
  or to shut a window—
Hodge:  Which?
Henry:  A west wind
  urges me to shut a west window,
  an east an east—that is all.        215
  And I have known the same touch
  to thrill and leave me cold,
  and this monotonous heart of mine
  to open and close in childish acquiescence—
Hodge:  Button your coat about you—        220
Henry:  We have no business
  gadding around in the spring—
  it was you who suggested it,
  you with your nodding.
Hodge:  It was the look of the world outdoors—        225
  let us try another place,
  or wander back home again.
Henry:  And try just once more?
Hodge:  Perhaps, providing—
Henry:  We are like twin philosophers,        230
  phrase-practitioners
  who argue with slender
  tapering sensitive beards
  which each lays persuasive hold of,
  pulling first the one the other        235
  and the other the one in turn,
  till their heads collide and rebound
  back to the starting-point,
  with if or suppose or providing or but
Hodge:  But you have more wisdom?—        240
Henry:  And you more happiness!
  And thus the moon pursues the sun!

  [Hodge touches Henry.]
 
Hodge:  Are you angry?
Henry:  Angry with you?

  [They eye each other, smile faintly, and turn away.]
 
Henry:  Your talk comes to me from afar,        245
  though you are only an elbow away;
  like rain making an arid soil
  intimate with better things.
  They, perhaps, are what are left me.
Hodge:  If I say, I love thee,        250
  in some guise or other—
  this is more than talk?
Henry:  The gesture of a lonely spirit
  reaching out to a lonelier.

  [They methodically shake out their pipes and stuff them away. Hodge nudges Henry ever so gently. Henry tries to rise. Hodge has to aid him. They move away haltingly, Hodge’s stick tapping a little in advance of Henry’s, and Hodge’s arm through Henry’s. Henry tries to shake off Hodge, but the latter persists. They move slightly faster.]
 
Henry:  Was it yesterday I said—        255
Hodge:  What, Henry?
Henry:  I love thee?
Hodge:  In actual words, nay—
  but the day before—
Henry:  Then let them have been said        260
  yesterday as well,
  for if words ever fail me—
Hodge:  They never fail you.
Henry:  Nor you, Hodge.

  [They nod together.]
 
Henry:  Let us go silently        265
  the next pace or two—
Hodge:  As you will—
Henry:  And let other things speak—
Hodge:  For us?
Henry:  For themselves.

  [They disappear, Hodge’s stick still sounding in advance of Henry’s.]
        270
 
 
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