Letter in July -- 16 Poems of Elizabeth Spires

Letter in July

By Elizabeth Spires

My life slows and deepens.
I am thirty-eight, neither here nor there.
It is a morning in July, hot and clear.
Out in the field, a bird repeats its quaternary call,
four notes insisting, I'm here, I'm here.
The field is unmowed, summer's wreckage everywhere.
Even this early, all is expectancy.

It is as if I float on a still pond,
drowsing in the bottom of a rowboat,
curled like a leaf into myself.
The water laps at its old wooden sides
as the sun beats down on my body,
a wand, an enchantment, shaping it
into something languid and new.

A year ago, two, I dreamed I held
a mirror to your unborn face and saw you,
in the warped watery glass, not as a child
but as you will be twenty years from now.
I woke, a light breeze lifting the curtain,
as if touched by a ghost's thin hand,
light filling the room, coming from nowhere.

I know the time, the place of our meeting.
It will be January, the coldest night
of the year. You will be carrying a lantern
as you enter the world crying,
and I cry to hear you cry.
A moment that, even now,
I carry in my body.


Fabergé's Egg

By Elizabeth Spires

Switzerland, 1920

Dear Friend, "called away" from my country,
I square the egg and put it in a letter
that all may read, gilding each word a little
so that touched, it yields to a secret
stirring, a small gold bird on a spring
suddenly appearing to sing a small song
of regret, elation, that overspills all private
bounds, although you ask, as I do, what now
do we sing to, sing for? Before the Great War,
I made a diamond-studded coach three inches high
with rock crystal windows and platinum wheels
to ceremoniously convey a speechless egg to Court.
All for a bored Czarina! My version of history
fantastic and revolutionary as I reduced the scale
to the hand-held dimensions of a fairy tale,
hiding tiny Imperial portraits and cameos
in eggs of pearl and bone. Little bonbons, caskets!

The old riddle of the chicken and the egg
is answered thus: in the Belle Epoque
of the imagination, the egg came first, containing,
as it does, both history and uncertainty, my excesses
inducing unrest among those too hungry to see
the bitter joke of an egg one cannot eat.
Oblique oddity, and egg is the most beautiful of all
beautiful forms, a box without corners
in which anything can be contained, anything
except Time, that old jeweller who laughed
when he set me ticking. Here, among the clocks
and watches of a country precisely ordered
and dying, I am not sorry, I do not apologize.
Three times I kiss you in memory

of that first Easter, that first white rising,
and send this message as if it could save you:
Even the present is dead. We must live now
in the future. Yours, Fabergé.


Sims: The Game

By Elizabeth Spires

A popular computer game explained by a child

In some ways it's Life Real Life
in some ways Yes in some ways No

You design the people they can be
outgoing nice playful active neat
but you can't make them be everything
if they are neat they will clean up after themselves
(Charisma is when they talk to themselves
in front of a mirror)

Adults never get older & old people can do
anything young people can do
Adults don't have to have jobs they can cheat:
push the rose bud & money appears

Job objects like pizza ovens earn you money
or you can be an extra in a movie a soldier
a doctor an astronaut a human guinea pig

Children get older slowly every day they get a report card
children can live in the house without adults
(a family is anyone who lives in the house with you)

Everyone gets skill points:
for chess painting playing the piano
gardening cooking swimming mechanics
(when you get points a circle above your head
fills up with blue)

& there are goals: not to run out of money not to die
& to buy more stuff for the house
(like a pool table or an Easy Double Sleeper Bed)

Adults can get married but it's hard to get married
You tell them to propose but they can't make the decision
on an empty stomach or they've just eaten
& are too tired

To have a Baby click Yes or No & a baby carriage
rolls up

Everyone has to eat sleep go to the bathroom etc.
if they live alone & don't have friends
they get depressed & begin waving their arms

If you give them Free Will you don't have to
keep track of them
but it's strange what they'll do:
once a player fell asleep under the stairs standing up

& sometimes they go into a bedroom that isn't theirs
& sleep in the wrong bed then you have to tell them:
Wake up! That is not your bed!

If they are mad they stomp on each other or put each other
in wrestling holds but no one gets hurt

There are different ways to die:
you can drown in the pool if you swim laps for 24 hours
(the Disaster Family all drowned in the pool
except the little girl who kept going
to school after they died she was perfect)

& the stove or fireplace or grill
can set the house on fire:
once there was a fire in the kitchen
eight people rushed in
yelling Fire! Fire! & blocked the door
so the firemen couldn't get through
(after that everyone had to study cooking
now there are less accidents)

If you have Free Will you can starve or drown yourself
then you wander around as a ghost
until another player agrees to resurrect you

In some ways it's Life Real Life
in some ways Yes in some ways No



By Elizabeth Spires

A featherweight letter drops through the mailslot
addressed to me. Pale blue, it has followed me
from city to city, travelling oceans and continents,
to arrive thirty years late. The writing is illegible.

And then the doorbell rings and there you are,
boyish as ever, in your Beatle haircut and olive drab
turtleneck sweater, holding a dog-eared copy
of Being and Nothingness, sure I'll invite you in.

Late night I dreamed all this. Affectionate strangers,
we kissed, as we never had, and I was thirteen again.
Then I had to pull away or lose myself completely
in the Proustian shock of your aftershave.

I can still remember, if I try, what I felt then.
A girl in love for the first time is the purest creature!
So that now, old ghost, believing nothing is coincidence,
I must write to you on onionskin, closing the circle.

I hold in my hand sheets that the slightest breath
would scatter: words without weight, my unsent letter.


"In Heaven It Is Always Autumn"

—John Donne

By Elizabeth Spires

In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's path no longer feel the weight of hears upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down, the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?

Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must be heaven.



By Elizabeth Spires

I found a white stone on the beach
inlaid with a blue-green road I could not follow.
All night I'd slept in fits and starts,
my only memory the in-out, in-out, of the tide.
And then morning. And then a walk,
the white stone beckoning, glinting in the sun.
I felt its calm power as I held it
and wished a wish I cannot tell.
It fit in my hand like a hand gently
holding my hand through a sleepless night.
A stone, so like, so unlike,
all the others it could only be mine.

The wordless white stone of my life!



By Elizabeth Spires

In a world of souls, I set out to find them.
They who first must find each other,
be each other's fate.
There, on the open road,
I gazed into each traveler's face.
Is it you? I would ask.
Are you the ones?
No, no, they said, or nothing at all.

How many cottages did I pass,
each with a mother, a father,
a firstborn, newly swaddled, crying;
or sitting in its little chair,
dipping a fat wooden spoon
into a steaming bowl,
its mother singing it a foolish song,
One, one, a lily's my care . . .

Through seasons I searched,
through years I can't remember,
reading the lichens and stones
as if one were marked
with my name, my face, my form.
By night and day I searched,
never sleeping, not wanting to fail,
not wanting to simply be a star.

Finally in a town like any other town,
in a house foursquare and shining,
its door wide open to the moon,
did I find them.

There, at the top of the winding stairs,
asleep in the big bed,
the sheets thrown off, curled
like question marks into each other's arms.

Past memory, I beheld them,
naked, their bodies without flaw.
It is I, I whispered.
I, the nameless one.
And my parents, spent by the dream
of creation, slept on.


Celia Dreaming

By Elizabeth Spires

Bright sphere, I have watched you dreaming,
your face a wordless whorl, an inward-folding flower
whose petals spiral round a dream of milk and hunger,
a fear of falling farther than outstretched arms
can catch you, while I stand beyond the circle
of your dreaming joy and fear, amazed
that you have been here half a year. Half a year!

Yesterday in the garden as you slept on my shoulder,
I watched a bee tunnel into the Rose of Sharon,
summer's late-blooming flower, watched its head,
then furred legs, disappear completely
into the heart of the flower, back beyond
the body's origin, as if it could be unborn.
Sphere, before you were with me, where were you?

Waking, you reached to touch the white face
of the flower, then another, and another, faces
quickly flowing past us, or held and stared into,
as if between two hands, the way a countenance
that lies in rippling water finally comes clear,
making me wonder how all of the million millions
it is you, you who are with me, you and not another.



By Elizabeth Spires

My name in the black air, called out in the early morning.
A premonition dreamed: waking, I beheld a future of mourning.

Our partings were rehearsals for the final scene: you and I
in a desert, saying goodbye on a white September morning.

The call came. West, I flew west again. Impossible, but the sun
didn’t move. I stepped off the plane and it was still morning.

I’ve always worn black. Now a blank whiteness outlines
everything. What shall I put on this loneliest of mornings?

You’ve left an envelope. Inside, your black pearl earrings
and a note: Your grandmother’s. Good. In ink the color of mourning.

I remember the songs you used to sing. Blue morning glories on the vine.
An owl in the tree of heaven. All of my childhood’s sacred mornings.

Your mother before you. Her mother before her. I, before my daughter.
It’s simple, I hear you explain. We are all daughters in mourning.

I was your namesake, a firstborn Elizabeth entering
the world on a May morning. I cannot go back to that morning.


Infant Joy

By Elizabeth Spires

I hear your infant voice again,
unspooling on a tape made years ago—
No, though it was paradise, I can’t,

can’t go back to that room, filled
with your rounded vowels, the sighs
and crooning of a newborn child,

bright syllables strung, like beads
on a string, into meaningless meaning.
One night, as you slept,

I read Blake’s song:
I have no name:
I am but two days old.

By a circle of light, I read,
exhausted, stunned:
What shall I call thee?

And you, in a dream
beyond me, cried out:
I happy am, Joy is my name.

You laughed the laugh of creation.
Beyond the darkened room,
a framing radiance, beyond

the framing radiance, the world.
But for an everlasting moment,
we were there, together,

in a place such as Blake knew,
your infant syllables dissolving terror,
fear, all that could befall me, you.

Meaningless meaning made new!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee . . .

And I was laughing, too,
to read Blake’s song.


The Falling

By Elizabeth Spires

It rains and it keeps
raining, and there is
no sound except the sound
of the rain falling,
a sound with small
silences in between,
like music we can't
understand, expecting
each moment to be
filled with something.

The sound does not
explain the trees,
the yellow trees,
whose leaves are falling
like the rain, so
silently, leaving me
at a loss, completely
at a loss, leaving me here
and you there and so much
unspoken between us.

Soon it will cease,
the endless falling,
so that the silence
will come to be a sound,
and the sound of falling
will recede, no longer
enclosing the trees,
each in their posture
of grief, whispering,
teach me how to live.


April: First Movement

By Elizabeth Spires

Intelligence moves me, I am
moved by first movement

as a soul is moved
to enter body, as a star,

possessed of mind, burns
passionless for many lifetimes,

as a tree does meditate
continually, branches

driven upward unceasingly
by first movement,

leaves driven to sing
with fluent urgency

of water, wind, and light,
as I mediate my end

and my beginning,
made, like a thought,

out of nothing, no thing
like me, my cause,

my first responsibility,
to see, emotion

driven inward to the source,
flinging me backward

on myself in ignorance:
Cause of the World.


Blue Nude

By Elizabeth Spires

It is not true
what they say about the body:
that it must be loved, that it cannot
sleep through its nights alone
without injury.

Look at me. Look
at the way the artist lies
about his loneliness, painting a room
where walls, floor, and ceiling
converge on a door too small

for me to leave or enter.
Leaving my face featureless as snow,
my body bruised like the pears
he buys only to paint.
They should have been eaten weeks ago.

Swollen and isolate, they sit
on a bone-white plate, their shadows
distortions of their true shape,
ellipses of blue and darker
blue the eye falls into.

I know
how the snow fell for days
outside his studio, how he painted
in his coat and gloves,
rising each morning

to break the ice
in the washbowl and light
the stove, the heart of the flame
blue against his chest.
The heart, he thinks, the heart

is blue and solitary.
It knows what it knows.
And so he paints a room
with one of everything:
one bed with one pillow,

one window overlooking
shadowed figures walking
two by two, one book whose pages
turn as days do, each page only
a part of the larger story.



By Elizabeth Spires

I do not believe the ancients—
the constellations look like nothing at all.

See how their light scatters itself
across the sky, not bright

enough to guide us anywhere?
And the avenue of trees, leaking

their dark inks, are shapes I can't identify.
The night is too inconstant, a constant

injury, alchemical moonlight
changing my body from lead to silver,

silver to lead. I lie
uncovered on the bed, unmoved

by the love you left, bad dreams,
bad night ahead. All summer

you held me to your chest:
It's the heat, you said, accounting

for our sleeplessness, so that
touch became metaphor for what kept us

separate. Our lives construct
themselves out of the lie of pain.

I lied when I sent you away.
To call your name would be another lie.


The Faces of Children

By Elizabeth Spires

Meeting old friends after a long time, we see
with surprise how they have changed, and must imagine,
despite the mirror's lies, that change is upon us, too.

Once, in our twenties, we thought we would never die.
Now, as one thoughtlessly shuffles a deck of cards,
we have run through half our lives.

The afternoon has vanished, the evening changing
us into four shadows mildly talking on a porch.
And as we talk, we listen to the children play

the games that we played once. In joy and terror,
they cry out in surprise as the seeker finds the one in hiding,
or, in fairytale tableau, each one is tapped and turned

to stone. The lawn is full of breathing statues who wait
to be changed back again, and we can do nothing but stand
to one side of our children's games, our children's lives.

We are the conjurors who take away all pain,
and we are the ones who cannot take away the pain at all.
They do not ask, as lately we have asked ourselves

Who was I then? And what must I become?
Like newly minted coins, their faces catch what light
there is. They are so sure of us, more sure

than we are of ourselves. Our children: who gently
push us toward the end of our own lives. The future
beckons brightly. They trust us to lead them there.


A Star Through the Trees

By Elizabeth Spires

I lay on my back in the grass
under a black overarching canopy
and saw, through a tiny opening,
one star through branching leaves.

Pale and small, as stars go,
its light could not illuminate
the night, but even so,
I fixed on it and made a wish.

It blinked, as if considering,
and then began to fall toward
the I that I was to land, soft
as a living hand, on my shirt front.

I dared not move as, coolly,
the star went to work, its light
a probing scalpel that touched
and prodded all around it

until my heart beat hot and rapid,
alive once more. “Now rise,”
the star commanded, and when I did,
there, in the grass, lay

the singed shape of my old self,
curled and shrunken like a leaf.
Far off, a light still burned
in a window. To call me back?

The star discerned my hope.
Again it spoke, answering
what I had not asked:
“I am your second chance.”

A Brief Profile of the Poet

Elizabeth Spires

Professor Spires (b. 1952) is the author of five collections of poetry: Globe (Wesleyan, 1981), Swan's Island (Holt, 1985), Annonciade (Viking Penguin, 1989), Worldling (Norton, 1995), and Now the Green Blade Rises (Norton, 2002). She has also published five books for children: The Mouse of Amherst (a Publishers' Weekly "Best Book of 1999"), I Am Arachne, Riddle Road, With One White Wing, and The Big Meow. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, The New Criterion, and in many other magazines, and in five volumes of the annual anthology The Best American Poetry. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer's Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, the Maryland Library Association Author Award, and the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize from the Academy of Arts and Letters. She also edited and introduced The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism and Occasional Prose of Josephine Jacobsen (Michigan, 1997). Professor Spires has taught Modern Poetry, Contemporary American Poetry, and Children's Literature, and is currently teaching Introductory and Advanced Poetry Workshops, and the Advanced Creative Writing Seminar, as well as supervising independent studies in poetry. (Source: http://www.goucher.edu/academics/template.cfm?page_id=55&dep_id=11&view=faculty&fac_ID=299)

Commenting about her work, she has remarked, "I find myself...interested in writing about childhood experiences related to growing up Catholic." (Source: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/poetry/spires.htm)