Mar. 19, 2005

Letter in Autumn

by Donald Hall

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Poem: "Letter in Autumn" by Donald Hall, from Without. © Houghton Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

Letter in Autumn

This first October of your death
I sit in my blue chair
looking out at late afternoon's
western light suffusing
its goldenrod yellow over
the barn's unpainted boards—
here where I sat each fall
watching you pull your summer's
garden up.

I cleaned out your Saab
to sell it. The dozen tapes
I mailed to Caroline.
I collected hairpins and hair ties.
In the Hill's Balsam tin
Where you kept silver for tolls
I found your collection
of slips from fortune cookies:

As I slept last night:
You leap from our compartment
in an underground railroad yard
and I follow; behind us the train
clatters and sways; I turn
and turn again to see you tugging
at a gold bugle welded
to a freight car; then you vanish
into the pitchy clanking dark.

Here I sit in my blue chair
not exactly watching Seattle
beat Denver in the Kingdome.
Last autumn above Pill Hill
we looked from the eleventh floor
down at Puget Sound,
at Seattle's skyline,
and at the Kingdome scaffolded
for repair. From your armature
of tubes, you asked, "Perkins,
am I going to live?"

     When you died
in April, baseball took up
its cadences again
under the indoor ballpark's
patched and recovered ceiling.
You would have admired
the Mariners, still hanging on
in October, like blue asters
surviving frost.

when I start to cry,
I wave it off: "I just
did that." When Andrew
wearing a dark suit and necktie
telephones from his desk,
he cannot keep from crying.
When Philippa weeps,
Allison at seven announces,
"The river is flowing."
Gus no longer searches for you,
but when Alice or Joyce comes calling
he dances and sings. He brings us
one of your white slippers
from the bedroom.

     I cannot discard
your jeans or lotions or T-shirts.
I cannot disturb your tumbles
of scarves and floppy hats.
Lost unfinished things remain
on your desk, in your purse
or Shaker basket. Under a cushion
I discover your silver thimble.
Today when the telephone rang
I thought it was you.

At night when I go to bed
Gus drowses on the floor beside me.
I sleep where we lived and died
in the painted Victorian bed
under the tiny lights
you strung on the headboard
when you brought me home
from the hospital four years ago.
The lights still burned last April
early on a Saturday morning
while you died.

     At your grave
I find tribute: chrysanthemums,
cosmos, a pumpkin, and a poem
by a woman who "never knew you"
who asks, "Can you hear me Jane?"
there is an apple and a heart—
shaped pebble.

     Looking south
from your stone, I gaze at the file
of eight enormous sugar maples
that rage and flare in dark noon,
the air grainy with mist
like the rain of Seattle's winter.
The trees go on burning
Without ravage of loss or disorder.
I wish you were that birch
rising from the clump behind you,
and I the gray oak alongside.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina (1894). She was known for coming on stage in baggy clothes, over-sized shoes, and a crushed hat. She had a gravely voice and a toothless grin. She got the nickname "Moms" from one of her old boyfriends, who gave it to her because it described the mothering attitude she had towards other performers and her audiences.

Mabley was one of twelve children in a family of mixed African, Cherokee and Irish descent. She eventually toured in every state, except for Mississippi. She said, "I won't go there. They ain't ready." She was widely known after recording her album, Moms Mabley, the Funniest Woman in the World (1960). It sold over a million copies and became a Gold Record.

She refused the chance to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show once because he had only offered her five minutes of time. She said, "Honey, it takes Moms four minutes just to get on the stage."

It's the birthday of explorer, translator, and scholar Sir Richard Burton, born in Devonshire, England (1821). He's known for his translations of The Arabian Nights (1885-88), The Kama Sutra (1883), and The Perfumed Garden (1886).

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