CCT: Poet Laureate John Hollander's Poems

A Sample of Works by John Hollander

An Old-Fashioned Song             

No more walks in the wood:
The trees have all been cut
Down, and where once they stood
Not even a wagon rut
Appears along the path
Low brush is taking over.

No more walks in the wood;
This is the aftermath
Of afternoons in the clover
Fields where we once made love
Then wandered home together
Where the trees arched above,
Where we made our own weather
When branches were the sky.

Now they are gone for good,
And you, for ill, and I
Am only a passer-by.

We and the trees and the way
Back from the fields of play
Lasted as long as we could.
No more walks in the wood.

      From Tesserae 
      1995, Alfred A. Knopf
      Reprinted by permission of the publisher


River Remembered 

The rhododendrons’ darkened leaves are curled
Into tight scrolls, whose dry, hermetic books
Will stay unread now, till the whitened world
Unlocks its warmth; the frozen local brooks 

Muttering sotto voce at their own
Ice remind us of a general notion:
Some vast and abstract river’s monotone
Running through land to an eventual ocean --- 

Not the one Wallace Stevens called “the river
Of rivers in Connecticut,” inspired
Taker of water from the sea, and giver
Of meaning to the name the land acquired 

(Algonquian: “long [or, tidal]-river-at”)
Yet meditations on a name demand
Pulling new meanings out of an old hat:
Remembering this stream, I understand… 

Connect… and Cut – those things all rivers do,
Like any kind of boundary anywhere
Linking along its length; dividing two
Banks, like the slashes in then/now, here/there. 

And, ultimately, bridging numberless
Moments of time, those archipelagoes
That rise and fall beneath its slow caress.
All we recall is what some river knows. 

One river over forty miles away
From where I gaze out at this frozen ground
I used to watch run into all the gray
And misty water of the distant Sound. 

That stream, its surface flashes varying
Fragments of light like mental gems unset,
Its deeper knowledge, as from a dark spring,
Harder to grasp and harder to forget,  

My memory floats over now, to stay
With scraps of past reflection from along
Its banks I knew well in a distant day
To fall into old rhythms of its song.

Gathering tidal force beyond the land,
An estuary runs up from the shore, which
Begins to narrow at New London and
Runs out of breadth at the old port of Norwich 

(How the New World undoes good English names!
I know two lovely sisters: one of them’s
A daughter of New London on the Thames,
The other born in England by the Thames) 

-- But always flowing to the ancient theme
Of time in motion and of memory –
Which, with its tidal changes, runs upstream
Carrying bits and pieces of the sea. 

Her lofty ensign carrying the dread
Horst Wessel’s leaky and repulsive name,
The Eagle’s wide topgallant wings were spread
Abroad when thirty years ago I came 

For the first time to live along its bank.
Hopeful, I looked across it to the east,
The sun behind me flared up, as it sank,
In distant windows suddenly released 

From ordinariness. And afterward,
Returning from a sail, we’d see the night
Awaken, as the kicker engine purred,
And look back toward the sweep of Race Rock light.  

Some days, from the east bank, goblets of floating
Gunk, that looked quite nasty, yellow, rotten,
Defaced the river’s countenance, denoting
That pharmaceuticals were made at Groton. 

So mirrored on the bosom of the stream
At a bad moment in our history
Lurk emblems of what happened to our dream
Of progress, health and wide prosperity: 

Pollution by the fruits of our success –
The drugs that killed bacteria before
And made us fear contagion somewhat less
Now let in cancers by the cellar door.  

To keep jobs open in Connecticut
(Our ends still founder in the tide of means)
We take in one another’s washing. But
Groton builds missile-launching submarines, 

Increasing every probability
That something, somewhere, will go wrong and – (dashes
Here are hardly needed). Who then will see
Us, and our washing, blown to dust and ashes? 

-- Oh see these chilling shades of foresight cast
Across memory’s warm places now engage
Daylight in their transactions with the past,
And scrawl their warnings on this dimming page 

Itself compounded of the ghosts of some
Forest, cut, pulped, that filled the silent land
Once, long before homo scribens had come,
His pens and axes held in the same hand.  

And now the afternoon of early March
Gives way to dusk and splashed of a cold
Pink low in the west that overarch
The fragment of horizon I behold, 

Unpromising of any warmer weather,
Between two darkened evergreens. Tonight
Too many distant rivers run together
In these last lines I’ve finally come to write. 

      From Tesserae 
      1995, Alfred A. Knopf
      Reprinted by permission of the publisher


Another Firefly

In a turning instant, my head
Catches light of a leaping star
Over my left shoulder in a
Green region of space darkened,
Into distance beyond distance,
A cold, green star, not rising like
Sons and empires, slow as breath,
In the way of stars, but as no
Darkened water could have mirrored
The partly glimpsed meteor in
Surging reversal of falling ---
That sort of rising. They return
Bright rightings of our sinisters,
The mirrors; but this rise of light ---
As if in summer nights at still
Moments a death could yet retract,
Or a dim candle gutter on ---
Freshens the held air; far away,
Somewhere a breath has been taken.

      From The Night Mirror
      Copyright 1971 by John Hollander


As the Sparks Fly Upward

As of an ungrounded grief,
Bluish sparks fly upward from
Under the shadow-thickened,
Tree-covered, part of night toward
What can yet be construed as
Dimmed azure, while the summer
Glow of soft streetlamp light hums
Along the wide sidewalk through
Listening leaves: fireflies
Far from the sea rise in an
Untroubled-looking midland,
Soundless, their gaps in the dark
Soundless, and the thunder soon
Coming with a crash across
Glistening eaves will be no
Answer, echo, or noisy
Amplifying of echo.
I will await what the ground,
The great, grass-skinned ground, will say.

      From The Night Mirror
      Copyright 1971 by John Hollander


Sent on a Sheet of Paper with a Heart Shape Cut Out of the Middle of It

Empty, or broken-hearted? Where
A full heart spoke once, now a strong
Outline is the most I dare:
A window opening onto fair
Meadows of hopefulness, or long
Silence where there once was song,
Waves of remembrance in the darkening air.

      From The Night Mirror
      Copyright 1971 by John Hollander