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A poem by Nicholas Laughlin

Published in The Strange Years of My Life
and previously in Poetry Review, Winter 2012

Reading History

The time was a page on which too much had been written,
in the racing hands of too many months and years.
Names of correspondents, station names,
dates of conversations, book reviews,
fragments of memoirs, directions to new hotels.
Mais que suis-je venu faire sur cette Terre?
And lives of pianists and architects and saints.
And the page was creased with too many hurried unfoldings.

And the houses grumbled with the weight of lists and pages.
The scent of lilies, the drawl of lazy études.
It took longer to read about those months than to live them.
“It astonished me that my friends could be so forgiving.”
“I was certain those meetings in April could never be repeated;
November proved me wrong.” “I was surely lucky,
for S——— had told no one else about my discovery.”
“I was right.” “It was there.” “It had gone.” “I was barely mistaken.”

“We never read so much as we did on that visit.
We can have done nothing but read the entire week.
We walked in the afternoons, but even then
all we talked about was what we were reading.”
A generation decided together in silence
to have done with fiction and to renounce the stage.
Nothing seemed lost. Everyone kept a diary.
Every remark or detail was preserved in their letters.
Three piano notes came drifting through the house
like yellow leaves, then the curtain swept them away.
No, they came like footsteps that hesitate,
or three pages that slowly turn in the evening draught.
He watched the pages turn and history begin.
Already many hands were crossing and tracing
in the steelpoint light of many jars of ink.
Three leaves fell, and already too much had been written.

“Mais que suis-je venu faire sur cette Terre?”: from Recoins de ma vie, by Erik Satie.
I can no longer remember exactly which of Satie’s piano compositions I had in mind in the last stanza, but his first Gymnopédie is close enough.

We can have done nothing but read the entire week”: this line more or less deliberately echoes Virginia Woolf’s essay “Hours in a Library”:

“... it would not be hard to prove by an assembly of facts that the great season for reading is the season between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. The bare list of what is read then fills the heart of older people with despair. It is not only that we read so many books, but that we had such books to read.... if we follow the reader through his months it is clear that he can have done practically nothing but read.”


Read more poems by Nicholas Laughlin