Monday, January 7, 2013


Alden Nowlan

Fair Warning

I keep a lunatic chained
to a beam in the attic. He
is my twin brother whom
I'm trying to cheat
out of his inheritance.
It's all right for me
to tell you this because
you won't believe it.
Nobody believes anything
that's put in a poem.
I could confess to
murder and as long as
I did it in a verse
there's not a court
that would convict me.
So if you're ever
a guest overnight
in my house, don't
go looking for
the source of any
unusual sounds.

Mistaken Identity

It's good sometimes
to be mistaken for
someone else, although
it usually ends
          Getting down from
a bus in Boston
in 1951, when I was
seventeen, I stepped
into the arms of
a fat woman whose
breath smelled of
beer, and she kissed
me on the mouth and
said, Walter, Walter,
and I was so lonesome
that for a second I
was almost tempted
to pass myself
off as whoever she
thought I was; but
what I did was
mumble something
about there being
a mistake, and even
before I spoke she
had realized that
and was pushing
me away.
                Another time
a beautiful young girl
blew a kiss at me
from the open window
of a cab in New Haven,
Connecticut, and
shouted, Hi, Davie!
She wore a red scarf,
I remember. And I waved.
Then because I wanted
her to keep smiling
at me, lovingly, I
very quickly
turned away.

In the Operating Room

The anesthetist is singing
"Michael, row the boat ashore,
And I am astonished
that his arms
are so hairy —
thick, red, curly hair
like little coppery ferns
growing out of
his flesh
from wrist
to shoulder.
I would like
to reach up
and touch
the hairy arm
of the anesthetist
because it may be
the last living thing
I will ever see
and I am glad
it is not
white and hairless
— but if I reached up
and wound
a few wisps
of his hair
around my forefinger
as I would like to do
they would think
their drugs
had made me silly
and might remember
and laugh
if I live,
so I concentrate
very hard
on the song
the anesthetist
is singing —
"The River Jordan
is muddy and cold,
And soon
is dark
and nothing
and when I try
to reach up
and touch
the hair
which I think of
now as
little jets
of fire,
I discover
they've strapped
my arms
to the table.

He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded 

I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man's body
who asked them, "Are you the surprise they promised us?"

It's Ryan's Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they're everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I've been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favourite detective
hadn't come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn't think he'd mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
"Nobody will ever get this away from me,"
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I'll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I'll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is signing,
"Old MacDonald had a farm," and I don't know what to do

about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she's twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.

It's nine o'clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I'm uncomfortable
in situations where I'm ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it's one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They're all busy elsewhere. "Hold me", she whispers. "Hold me."

I put my arm around her. "Hold me tighter."
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
"Hold me," she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children
real children, and of how they say it, "Hold me,"
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, "I'm frightened! Hold me!"
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy's arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence's ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.

It's what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it's what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.          

My Father's Body Was Found by Children

My father's body was
found by children.
Boys from the neighbourhood
who thought
he was asleep
in his chair until
they came back next day
and saw he hadn't moved.
Children often visited him,
I'm told. He'd wrestle
with them if he was drunk,
converse with them soberly
at other times. His shack
was the sort of dwelling
a twelve-year-old would
build for himself,
in his last years he lived
the way a small boy would
if allowed to live alone.
Huck Finn at seventy.

To think he might have been
a child all his life
if less had been asked
of him and more been given.

To think I'm afraid
of him, even now,
half-expecting to look out
some night and see him
standing there:
I fear that most.


Selected Poems
(Anansi 2003)