Hymn to Life

By James Schuyler 1923–1991 James Schuyler
The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp   
And lifts its head with twigs and small dead blades of grass   
Pressed into it as you might at the beach rise up and brush away   
The sand. The day is cool and says, “I’m just staying overnight.”   
The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence   
And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made:   
There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk and, not here, but   
Not so far away, a scream so rending that to hear it is to be
Never again the same. “Why, this is hell.” Out of the death breeding   
Soil, here, rise emblems of innocence, snowdrops that struggle   
Easily into life and hang their white enamel heads toward the dirt   
And in the yellow grass are small wild crocuses from hills goats   
Have cropped to barrenness. The corms come by mail, are planted.   
Then do their thing: to live! To live! So natural and so hard   
Hard as it seems it must be for green spears to pierce the all but   
Frozen mold and insist that they too, like mouse-eared chickweed,
Will live. The spears lengthen, the bud appears and spreads, its   
Seed capsule fattens and falls, the green turns yellowish and withers   
Stretched upon the ground. In Washington, magnolias were in bud. In   
Charlottesville early bulbs were up, brightening the muck. Tomorrow   
Will begin another spring. No one gets many, one at a time, like a long   
Awaited letter that one day comes. But it may not say what you hoped   
Or distraction robs it of what it once would have meant. Spring comes   
And the winter weather, here, may hold. It is arbitrary, like the plan   
Of Washington, D.C. Avenues and circles in asphalt web and no   
One gets younger: which is not, for the young, true, discovering new   
Freedoms at twenty, a relief not to be a teen-ager anymore. One of us   
Had piles, another water on the knee, a third a hernia—a strangulated   
Hernia is one of life’s less pleasant bits of news—and only   
One, at twenty, moved easily through all the galleries to pill   
Free sleep. Oh, it’s not all that bad. The sun shines on my hand   
And the myriad lines that criss-cross tell the story of nearly fifty
Years. Sorry, it’s too long to relate. Once, when I was young, I   
Awoke at first light and sitting in a rocking chair watched the sun   
Come up beyond the houses across the street. Another time I stood   
At the cables of a liner and watched the wake turning and   
Turning upon itself. Another time I woke up and in a bottle   
On a chest of drawers the thoughtful doctor had left my tonsils. I   
Didn’t keep them. The turning of the globe is not so real to us   
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray   
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down   
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. “I   
Need you,” tree, that dominates this yard, thick-waisted, tall   
And crook branched. Its bark scales off like that which we forget:   
Pain, an introduction at a party, what precisely happened umpteen   
Years or days or hours ago. And that same blue jay returns, or perhaps   
It is another. All jays are one to me. But not the sun which seems at   
Each rising new, as though in the night it enacted death and rebirth,   
As flowers seem to. The roses this June will be different roses   
Even though you cut an armful and come in saying, “Here are the roses,”   
As though the same blooms had come back, white freaked with red   
And heavily scented. Or a cut branch of pear blooms before its time,   
“Forced.” Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait   
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams   
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more   
Daily life. The cat has a ripped ear. He fights, he fights all   
The tom cats all the time. There are blood gouts on a velvet seat.   
Easily sponged off: but these red drops on a book of Stifter’s, will   
I remember and say at some future time, “Oh, yes, that was the day   
Hodge had a torn ear and bled on the card table?” Poor
Hodge, battered like an old car. Silence flows into my mind. It   
Is spring. It is also still really winter. Not a day when you say,   
“What a beautiful spring day.” A day like twilight or evening when   
You think, “I meant to watch the sun set.” And then comes on
To rain. “You’ve got to take,” says the man at the store, “the rough   
With the smooth.” A window to the south is rough with raindrops   
That, caught in the screen, spell out untranslatable glyphs. A story   
Not told: so much not understood, a sight, an insight, and you pass on,   
Another day for each day is subjective and there is a totality of days   
As there are as many to live it. The day lives us and in exchange   
We it: after snowball time, a month, March, of fits and starts, winds,   
Rain, spring hints and wintry arrears. The weather pays its check,   
Like quarreling in a D.C. hotel, “I won’t quarrel about it, but I made
No local calls.” Strange city, broad and desolating, monuments   
Rearing up and offices like monuments and crowds lined up to see
The White House inside. “We went to see the White House.   It was lovely.”
Not so strange though as the cemetery with guttering flame and   
Admirals and generals with bigger gravestones than the lesser fry   
Below Lee’s house, false marble pillars and inside all so
Everyday, in every room a shawl tossed untidily upon a chair or bed   
Created no illusion of lived-in-ness. But the periwinkles do, in beds   
That flatten and are starred blue-violet, a retiring flower loved,   
It would seem, of the dead, so often found where they congregate. A   
Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and
One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?
An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth   
Become an idle thought. like, “Shall we plant some periwinkles there
By that bush? They’re so to be depended on.” The wind shakes the screen
And all the raindrops on it streak and run in stems. It’s colder.
The crocuses close up. The snowdrops are brushed with mud. The sky   
Colors itself rosily behind gray-black and the rain falls through   
The basketball hoop on a garage, streaking its backboard with further   
Trails of rust, a lovely color to set with periwinkle violet-blue.   
And the trees shiver and shudder in the light rain blasts from off   
The ocean. The street wet reflects the breakup of the clouds   
On its face, driving over sky with a hissing sound. The car   
Slides slightly and in the west appear streaks of different green:   
A lid lifted briefly on the spring. Then the moon burns through   
Racing clouds, its aureole that of rings of oil on water in a harbor   
Bubbling up from an exhaust. Clear the sky. Beside a rim of moon.   
Three stars and only three and one planet. So under lilacs unleaved   
Lie a clump of snowdrops and one purple crocus. Purple. A polka-dotted   
Color little girls are fond of: “See my new dess!” and she twirls   
On one foot. Then, crossed, bursts into tears. Smiles and rain, like   
These passing days in which buds swell, unseen as yet, waiting   
For the elms to color their further out most twigs, only the willow   
Gleams yellow. Life is hard. Some are strong, some weak, most   
Untested. These useless truths blow about the yard the day after   
Rain the soft sunlight making softer shadows on the faded lawn.   
The world looks so old in the spring, laid out under the sky. One   
Gull coasts by, unexpected as a kiss on the nape of the neck. These
Days need birds and so they come, a flock of ducks, and a bunch of   
Small fluffy unnamed balls that hide in hedges and make a racket.   
“The gift of life,” as though, existing in expectancy and then   
Someone came up and said, “Here,” or, “Happy Birthday.” It is more   
Mysterious than that, pierced by blue or running in the rain
Or simply lying down to read. Writing a postponed letter which may   
Bring no pleasure: arduous truths to tell. And if you thought March was bad
Consider April, early April, wet snow falling into blue squills   
That underneath a beech make an illusory lake, a haze of blue   
With depth to it. That is like pain, ordinary household pain,
Like piles, or bumping against a hernia. All the signs are set for A OK
A day to visit the National Gallery—Velázquez, Degas—but, and   
What a but, with water on the knee “You’ll need a wheelchair, Mummy.”
Coasting among the masterpieces, of what use are they? Angel with a   
Hurdy-Gurdy or this young man in dun clothes who holds his hat so that   
The red lining shows and glows. And in the sitting room people sit   
And rest their feet and talk of where they’ve been, motels and Monticello,   
Dinner in the Fiji Room. Someone forgets a camera. Each day forgetting:   
What is there so striking to remember? The rain stops. April shines   
A little, stormily, the ocean off there makes its freight car noise   
Or rattles with catarrh and asks to have its nose wiped. Gray descends.   
An illuminous penetration of unbright light that seeps and coats   
The ragged lawn and spells out bare spots and winter fallen branches.   
Yardwork. And now the yardwork is over (it is never over), today’s   
Stint anyway. Odd jobs, that stretch ahead, wide and mindless as   
Pennsylvania Avenue or the bridge to Arlington, crossed and recrossed   
And there the Lincoln Memorial crumbles. It looks so solid: it won’t   
Last. The impermanence of permanence, is that all there is? To look   
And see the plane tree. Its crooked branches brush the ground, rear   
In its age, older than any of us, destined, if all goes well with it,   
To outlast us all. Does one then resent the plane tree, host   
To cardinals? I hear them call. Plaintively, in the mating season.
Why should a white city dog my thoughts? Vast, arid, a home to many,   
So strange in its unamiability. Stony city laid out on an heroic plan,   
Why are you there? Various answers present themselves, likely   
As squills. It doesn’t really matter, for instance, to miss the spring.   
For this is spring, this mud and swelling fruit tree buds, furred   
On the apple trees. And yet it still might snow: it’s been known   
Falling like cherry blossom petals around the Reflecting Pool, a sight   
To see. And there are sights to hear, music from a phonograph, pop
Or classical, please choose one or both. It doesn’t matter. What matters   
Is how the light becomes entrapped in a dusty screen, masking out
The view into the depths of the garage where the cars are stalled like oxen.
Day, suddenly sunny and warming up for more, I would like to stroke you
As one strokes a cat and feels the ridgy skull beneath the fur and tickles
It behind its ears. The cat twists its head and moves it toward your fingers
Like the lifting thighs of someone fucked, moving up to meet the stroke.
The sun strokes all now in this zone, reaching in through windows to jell
Glue in jars (that takes time)—may I send you a warmed bottle of Pliobond?
It is on this desk and—here’s the laugh—I don’t know who put it there.   
“This is something he will like, or use.” Meantime, those branches go
Ungathered up. I hate fussing with nature and would like the world to be
All weeds. I see it from the train, citybound, how the yuccas and chicory   
Thrive. So much messing about, why not leave the world alone? Then
There would be no books, which is not to be borne. Willa Cather alone is worth
The price of admission to the horrors of civilization. Let’s make a list.
The greatest paintings. Preferred orchestral conductors. Nostalgia singers.
The best, the very best, roses. After learning all their names—Rose   
de Rescht, Cornelia, Pax—it is important to forget them. All these   
Lists are so much dirty laundry. Sort it out fast and send to laundry   
Or hurl into washing machine, add soap and let’er spin. The truth is   
That all these household tasks and daily work—up the street two men
Install an air conditioner—are beautiful. Flowers and machines that people
Love: the boy who opts for trade school while white collar kids
Call him a ‘greaser.’ I wish I could take an engine apart and reassemble it.
I also wish I sincerely wanted to. I don’t. “Love is everything that it’s
Cracked up to be.” There’s a song for you. Another is in the silence   
Of a windless day. Hear it? Motors, yes, and the scrabbling of the surf   
But, too, the silence in which out of the muck arise violet leaves   
(Leaves of violets, that is). The days slide by and we feel we must   
Stamp an impression on them. It is quite other. They stamp us, both
Time and season so that looking back there are wide unpeopled avenues   
Blue-gray with cars on them, parked either side, and a small bridge that   
Crosses Rock Creek has four bison at its corners, out of scale   
Yet so mysterious to childhood, friendly, ominous, pattable because   
Of bronze. The rain comes back, this spring, like a thirsty dog   
Who goes back and back to his dish. “Fill it up, please,” wag wag.   
Gray depression and purple shadows, the daffodils feigning sunlight   
That came yesterday. One day rain, one day sun, the weather is stuck   
Like a record. Through it all the forsythia begins to bloom, brown   
And yellow and warm as lit gas jets, clinging like bees to
The arching canes where starlings take cover from foraging cats. Not   
To know: what have these years of living and being lived taught us?   
Not to quarrel? Scarcely. You want to shoot pool, I want to go home:   
And just before the snap of temper one had sensed so
Strongly the pleasure of watching a game well played: the cue ball   
Carom and the struck ball pocketed. Skill. And still the untutored   
Rain comes down. Open the laundry door. Press your face into the   
Wet April chill: a life mask. Attune yourself to what is happening   
Now, the little wet things, like washing up the lunch dishes. Bubbles   
Rise, rinse and it is done. Let the dishes air dry, the way
You let your hair after a shampoo. All evaporates, water, time, the   
Happy moment and—harder to believe—the unhappy. Time on a bus,
That passes, and the night with its burthen and gift of dreams. That   
Other life we live and need, filled with joys and terrors, threaded   
By dailiness: where the wished for sometimes happens, or, just   
Before waking tremulous hands undo buttons. Another day, the sun   
Comes out from behind unbuttoned cloud underclothes—gray with use—
And bud scales litter the sidewalks. A new shop is being built,
An old one refurbished. What was a white interior will now be brown   
Behind men’s clothes, there are these changes in taste. Fashion   
It anew. Change in everything yet none so great as the changes in   
Oneself, which, short of sickness, go unobserved. Why watch   
Yourself? You know you’re here, and where tomorrow you will probably   
Be. In the delicatessen a woman made a fumbling gesture then   
Slowly folded toward the floor. “Get a doctor,” someone said. “She’s   
Having a fit.” Not knowing how to help I left, taking with me   
The look of appeal in faded blue eyes. Between these sharp attacks   
Of harsh reality I would like to interpose: interpose is not the   
Word. One wants them not to happen, that’s all, but, like slammed   
On brakes—the cab skids, you are thrown forward, ouch—they
Come. Times when religion would help: “Be merciful” “Intercede”   
“That which I should have done ...” Fear and superstition and some-
Thing more. But without the conviction of a truth, best leave   
It alone. Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself. In the   
Garden now daffodils stand full unfolded and to see them is enough.   
They seem no more passing than when they weren’t there: perhaps   
The promise when first the blades pierced the wintry soil   
Was better? You see, you invent choices where none exist. Perhaps   
It is not a choice but a preference? No, take it all, it’s free,   
Help yourself. The sap rises. The trees leaf out and bloom. You   
Suddenly sense: you don’t know what. An exhilaration that revives   
Old views and surges of energy or the pure pleasure of
Simply looking. A car goes over a rise and there are birches snow   
Twisted into cabalistic shapes: The Devil’s Notch; or Smuggler’s   
Gap. At the time you could not have imagined the time when you   
Would forget the name, as apparent and there as your own. Rivers   
Reflecting silver skies, how many boys have swum in you? A rope   
Tied to a tree caught between my thighs and I was yanked headfirst   
And fell into the muddy creek. What a long time it seemed, rising   
To the surface, how lucky it didn’t catch me in the groin. That   
Won’t happen twice, I imagine. That summer sun was the same   
As this April one: is repetition boring? Or only inactivity? Quite   
A few things are boring, like the broad avenues of Washington   
D.C. that seem to go from nowhere and back again. Civil servants   
Wait at the crossing to cross to lunch at the Waffle House. In   
This twilight Degas a woman sits and holds a fan, it’s
The just rightness that counts. And how have you come to know just   
Rightness when you see it and what is the deep stirring that it   
Brings? Art is as mysterious as nature, as life, of which it is   
A flower. Under the hedges now the weedy strips grow bright   
With dandelions, just as good a flower as any other. Unfortunately,   
You can’t pick them: they wilt. But these burgeoning days are   
Not like any others. Promise is a part of it, promise of warmth   
And vegetative growth. “Wheel me out into the sun, Sonny,   
These old bones that creak need it.” And the gardener does not   
Come back: over the winter he had a heart attack, has to take it   
Easy. You see death shadowed out in another’s life. The threat   
Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in? Stopping in the city while the light   
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and   
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that. “When I
was born, death kissed me. I kissed it back.” Meantime, there
Is bridge, and solitaire, and phone calls and a door slams, someone   
Goes out into the April sun to take a spin as far as the   
Grocer’s, to shop, and then come back. In the fullness of time,
Let me hand you an empty cup, coffee stained. Or a small glass   
Of spirits: “Here’s your ounce of whisky for today.” Next door   
The boys dribble a basketball and practice shots. Two boys   
Run by: high spirits. The postman comes. No mail of interest.   
Another day, there is. A postcard of the Washington Monument,   
A friend waving from a small window at the needle top. “Hoo
Hoo” he calls. Another day, and still the sun shines down, warming   
Tulips into bloom, a redder red than blood. The dandelions   
Cringe before them. In the evening there will be time enough   
To drive from here to there, study the vegetable patch, admire   
The rosy violets. Life in action, life in repose, life in
Contemplation, which is hard to tell from day dreaming, on a day   
When the sky woolgathers clouds and sets their semblance on a   
Glassy ocean. Only its edge goes lisp. On no two days the same.   
Is it the ocean’s mindlessness that troubles? At times it seems   
Calculatedly malevolent, tearing the dunes asunder, tumbling   
Summer houses into itself, a terror to see. They say there are   
Those who have never felt terror. A slight creeping of the scalp,   
Merely. How fine. Finer than sand, that, on a day like this.   
Trickles through my fingers, ensconced in a dune cleft, sun   
Warmed and breeze cooled. This peace is full of sounds and   
Movement. A couple passes, jogging. A dog passes, barking   
And running. My nose runs, a little. Just a drip. Left over
From winter. How long ago it seems! All spring and summer stretch   
Ahead, a roadway lined by roses and thunder. “It will be here   
Before you know it.” These twigs will then have leafed and   
Shower down a harvest of yellow-brown. So far away, so   
Near at hand. The sand runs through my fingers. The yellow   
Daffodils have white corollas (sepals?). The crocuses are gone,
I didn’t see them go. They were here, now they’re not. Instead
The forsythia ensnarls its flames, cool fire, pendent above the smoke   
Of its brown branches. Beaches are near. It rains again: the screen
And window glass are pebbled by it. It soaks through a rain coat that
Has had its water repellency dry cleaned out of it. Most modern
Inventions don’t work so well, or not for long. A breakdown occurs,
Or something simple, like the dishwasher detergent eating off
The pattern on china, even the etched florets on wine glasses.
Strong stuff. From the train, a stand of larch is greener than
Greenest grass. A funny tree, of many moods, gold in autumn, naked
In winter: an evergreen (it looks) that isn’t. What kind of a tree
Is that? I love to see it resurrect itself, the enfolded buttons
Of needles studding the branches, then opening into little bursts.
And that Washington flower, the pink magnolia tree, blooms now
In little yards, its trunk a smoky gray. And soon the hybrid azaleas,
So much too much, will follow, and the tender lilac. Persia, we
Have much to thank you for, besides the word lapis lazuli. And someone   
You know well is suffering, sees it all but not the way before   
Him, hating his job and not knowing what to change it for. Have   
You any advice to give? Have you learned nothing in all these   
Years? “Take it as it comes.” Sit still and listen: each so alone.   
Someone driving decides not to take that curve, to pile it up   
In smithereens, the anxious and unsatisfying years: goodbye, life.   
Others keep on living so as not to wound their friends: the suicide   
Fantasy, to awaken rested and fresh, to plunge into a deep and   
Dreamless sleep, to be mindless and at one with all that grows,
Dies and revives each April, here, crying, “Stir your stumps!”   
In the mental hospital a patient is ready to be discharged. “I’m   
So glad to be going home!” Where the same old problems wait;   
Still, to feel more equal to them, that’s something. “Time heals   
All wounds”: now what’s that supposed to mean? Wounds can   
Kill, like that horse chestnut tree with the rotting place will surely   
Die unless the tree doctor comes. Cut out the rot, fill with tree   
Cement, score and leave to heal. The rain comes down in buckets:   
I’ve never seen that, though you often speak of it. The rain   
Comes down and brings depression, too much and too often. And there   
Is the fog off the cold Atlantic. No one is at his best with   
A sinus headache. It will pass. Stopped passages unblock: why   
Let the lovely spring, its muck and scarlet emperors, get you   
Down. Unhibernate. Let the rain soak your hair, run down your   
Face, hang in drops from facial protuberances. Face into   
It, then towel dry. Then another day brings back the sun and   
Violets in the grass. The pear tree thickens all its boughs and   
Twigs into silver-white, a dimmed brilliance, and already at   
Its base a circle of petals on the unmowed grass. Far away   
In Washington, at the Reflecting Pool, the Japanese cherries   
Bust out into their dog mouth pink. Visitors gasp. The sun   
Drips, coats and smears, all that spring yellow under unending   
Blue. Only the oaks hold back their leaf buds, reticent.
Reticence is not a bad quality, though it may lead to misunderstandings.   
I misunderstood silence for disapproval, see now it was
Sympathy. Thank you, May, for these warm stirrings. Life
Goes on, it seems, though in all sorts of places—nursing
Homes—it is drawing to a close. Abstractions and generalities:   
Grass and blue depths into which the evening star seems set.
As windows are set in walls in whited Washington. City, begone
From my thoughts: childhood was not all that gay. Nor all that gray,
For the matter of that. May leans in my window, offering hornets.   
To them too I give leave to go about their business, which is not   
Nesting in my books. The fresh mown lawn is a rug underneath   
Which is swept the dirt, the living dirt out of which our nurture   
Comes, to which we go, not knowing if we hasten or we tarry. May   
Opens wide her bluest eyes and speaks in bird tongues and a   
Chain saw. The blighted elms come down. Already maple saplings,   
Where other elms once grew and whelmed, count as young trees. In   
A dishpan the soap powder dissolves under a turned on faucet and   
Makes foam, just like the waves that crash ashore at the foot   
Of the street. A restless surface. Chewing, and spitting sand and   
Small white pebbles, clam shells with a sheen or chalky white.   
A horseshoe crab: primeval. And all this without thought, this   
Churning energy. Energy! The sun sucks up the dew; the day is   
Clear; a bird shits on my window ledge. Rain will wash it off   
Or a storm will chip it loose. Life, I do not understand. The   
Days tick by, each so unique, each so alike: what is that chatter   
In the grass? May is not a flowering month so much as shades   
Of green, yellow-green, blue-green, or emerald or dusted like   
The lilac leaves. The lilac trusses stand in bud. A cardinal   
Passes like a flying tulip, alights and nails the green day   
Down. One flame in a fire of sea-soaked, copper-fed wood:   
A red that leaps from green and holds it there. Reluctantly   
The plane tree, always late, as though from age, opens up and   
Hangs its seed balls out. The apples flower. The pear is past.   
Winter is suddenly so far away, behind, ahead. From the train   
A stand of coarse grass in fuzzy flower. Is it for miracles   
We live? I like it when the morning sun lights up my room   
Like a yellow jelly bean, an inner glow. May mutters, “Why
Ask questions?” or, “What are the questions you wish to ask?”

James Schuyler, “Hymn to Life” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1993 by James Schuyler. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Poetry (April 1973).

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Poet James Schuyler 1923–1991

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Subjects Nature, Time & Brevity, Spring, Living, Cities & Urban Life, Trees & Flowers, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Free Verse