West Topsham

By John Engels 1931–2007 John Engels
1

In prologue let me plainly say
I shall not ever come to that discretion where
I do not rage to think I grow decrepit,
bursten-bellied, bald and toothless,
thick of hearing, tremulous of leg, dry
and rough-barked as a hemlock slab, the soft rot
setting in and all my wheezy dreams the tunnelling   
of beetles in a raspy bark. For now
I am fleshed at smaller sports, and grow in time
into the mineral thick fell of earth; Vermont
hairy with violets, roses, lilies and like
minions and darlings of the spring, meantime
working wonders, rousing astonishments. And
being a humble man, I at the same time acknowledge   
my miscreate: the nightshades, cabbages and fleaworts
of my plot, though always I try to turn my back and scorn   
upon the inkhorn term and speak as is most commonly   
received with smile and wink and approbative nod,   
not overfine nor at the same time reckless
of the phrase, nor ever ugly, turdy, tut-mouthed,
but always joyous at the goosey brain,
the woolpack of the solid cloud, a crowd, a heap,
a troop, a plume of trees, grass, gulls and rabbits,
in the end, no doubt, a vulgar prattle: but the planet
swells and bulges and protrudes beyond my eyes’ aversions,   
and tottery, fuddled, always I give up, I am not understood,   
or wrongly, out of some general assumption of my innocence.


2

This much I wish to say, my nonesuch, nosegay
native sweet, in someway plainer, this is my letter to you,   
and out of most severe purpose: the bee,
the honey stalk, the whole keep of the house
endanger me: the perspectives of the clapboard, the steep   
falls of the lawn, the razory apices of ridges,
and the abdominous curves of the meadow into the far   
trees. There are ponds below the house, and water runs.   
The road crosses the water, and the road
diminishes to the reach of the next farm, and the farm   
beyond that, and two miles bearing right or left   
somewhere runs Highway 25. I have found my way   
with difficulty, I am confused, halfway I have suffered   
a failure of vital powers, a swoon, have been
smirked at by the natives, and misdirected. Fitting,
for I always dream of the painless redemption, the return   
from fiasco and tumultuous journey to the transcendentally   
serene lawns of a transcendentally white house
with columns of oak trees and iron deer and the   
affectionate greeting of One who has these many years   
waited in full patience, without complaint,
for me to come in bleeding, dusty and deliquescent   
from the fields, the blade in my thigh, or blinded,   
the victim of fire or ravenous birds, the lovely blood   
on my cheek like tears, one-limbed, a bullet
in my heart, my hands, my head cut off and the dark   
pulses of my blood diminishing. Yet never a reproach   
for my criminal self-negligence, my careless japeries
and clumsy flounderings: instead, my brow is wiped, my   
wounds attended to, blood let, leeches applied: I heal,   
I grow strong, I can set forth again renewed, valiant,   
sturdy, full of high spirits, lively, gay, spruce
in looks, a reveler, a merry prankster, dimpled
in the cheek from smiling, perfect Pilgrim, fit   
for the chemistry of the Resurrection. Yet

I am of wild and changeful moods. I am perhaps worthy   
of being stoned, sometimes. I lie hid and lurk in wait   
for the giggling girleries and leap out and shout   
and scatter them like chickens from the boot to the safe   
and flying four winds. I am easy and fluent   
in the telling of lies, and let it be said that I roar
and sing scurrilous songs in base places, and shall no doubt   
for this little vain merriment find a sorrowful reckoning   
in the end. Still, my noises please me, and what   
this wretched poet overmuch desires, he easily believes.   
It is his conventional cowardice, it makes him   
immortally glad. But then he always grows morose   
(that is in his favor), he repents, lances his soul, thinks   
of the willows and the columned porch and the wind   
melliloquent about the chimneys, and you   
from where he sits now at the far end
of this small porch of a Federal farmhouse   
in this very and summery Vermont.


3

I look down the pitches of the lawn:
fireflies make small explosions among the grass stems,   
and I think that to walk down that slant of lawn   
to the black waters of the brook at the dark join   
of the cleft would be like dying, and that if I die   
I will never pardon time. I think my words
will echo only in my own mind forever, to what purpose   
I do not know I see a firefly trapped inside the screen.   
I have no name for any of this; I know it clearly   
in the same way I know the dead cry of the starlings   
in the eaves, the smell of after rain, the warm
air holding in the hollows of the roads. For this   
there is no name. The holding mind is likewise   
without name. That is the final thought,
it is the disorder, the reason
for all this. The clouds
begin to reach up Blood Mountain,
and I am sitting on a farmhouse porch,
and there are trees, and it is late and I am dreaming   
that I dream I stare down into a fouled well and see   
the white legbones of a deer and the water’s surface   
matte with loose hair, the green stink welling
and bellying from the fertile sump up and flowing   
outwards in a fountaining current of vines and melons   
and leaves and the knotgrass lawns blossoming with gilliflowers,
shoulder-high, cloud-high, the sun finally smothering   
in grass, and then in the entire silence of this
growth the grasses thickening, darkening, becoming clouds,   
reaching up from the ridges. And all night

there is rain. I dream that when I awaken   
it is a shining milky day, four roosters   
are crowing in the yard and geese
dabble in the green soft muds of the ditches.
This is the literal surface, and for all
the extravagance of what has gone before   
I now repent, and make an image:   
All of Vermont each night blazes   
with fireflies, the comet is a faint
green phosphorescence to the North, the catalpas
blossom and each noon the sunlight hardens, and the sky
is a clear ground, and I can look from my open doorway
into dry and fiery yards. You see, I draw back always,
I cannot be understood. O I wud slepe all the swete
darkemans, nor ever speke! It was as if I had forgotten
to see the steep lawns suddenly erupt in tiny lights,
it was as if my fingers burned green and blazed
with crushed fireflies; and, as usual, no deer appeared.   
The strict edges of the meadow held nothing.   
When I drive home, my carlights sweep   
the road before me. I override
the long shadows of the pebbles and grasses, and the sky   
grows long clouds. I drive into the soft explosions
of lightning far to the West, at the end of the confusing road   
where I will sleep and awaken and sleep again. My hands
in the dashboard lights are glowing softly green. This whole   
journey is before me. I know
I am touched with the phosphors
of self-love. The light
knows it is light. A great
red moon rides wedged in a crevice of clouds,   
and I come up the widening road
as if it is the driveway to your house.

John Engels, “West Topsham” from Weather-Fear: New and Selected Poems (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by John Engels. Used with the permission of the author.

Source: Weather-Fear: New and Selected Poems 1958-1982 (1983)

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Poet John Engels 1931–2007

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Midlife, Living, Landscapes & Pastorals, Nature, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 John  Engels

Biography

John Engels grew up in South Bend, Indiana. He earned an AB in English from the University of Notre Dame, served in the US Navy for three years, attended University College, Dublin, and received an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1957. Engels published over 10 collections of poetry, among them The Homer Mitchell Place (1968), Weather-Fear: New and Selected Poems 1958–1982 (1983), Walking to Cootehill: New and Selected Poems, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Midlife, Living, Landscapes & Pastorals, Nature, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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