A Letter to Wallace Stevens

By Peter Balakian b. 1951 Peter Balakian

After the Reformation had settled the loamy soil
and the lettuce-green fields of dollars,
the clouds drifted away, and light fell everywhere.
Even the snow bloomed and New Hampshire was a big peony.

A red barn shone on a hill
with scattered hemlocks and white pines
and the gates of all the picket fences were big shut-eyes.


Sometime after the Civil War, the bronze wing of liberty   
took off like the ribboning smoke of a Frick factory,
and all the citizens in towns from Stockbridge to Willamette   
ran wild on the 4th. The sound of piccolos lingered,   
and the shiny nickel of the sun stood still before it
fizzed in the windshield of a Ford.
By then you were a lawyer.


Charles Ives was a bandmaster in Danbury, and you didn’t   
give him the time of day. He played shortstop on the piano.   
He never made it to his tonic home base, and his half-tones   
were like oak leaves slapping clapboard.


How Miltonic are we anyway?   


In that red glass of the imagination,
in that tingling crystal of the chandelier   
where light freezes in its own prism

and the apogee of the green lawns of New Haven   
wane like Persian carpets in twilight,
there you saw a pitcher, perhaps from Delft,   
next to a plate of mangoes.


But still, history is a boomerang,
and the aborigines never threw one without a shield.


Beyond the porches of Key West, beyond the bougainvillea,   
your speech skipped on tepid waves,
was lapped and lapped by lovers and friends,
by scholars who loved romantic nights of the sun.

But the fruits and pendants, the colorful cloth,
the dry palm fronds, and the fake voodoo wood   
Cortes brought back as souvenirs
were just souvenirs. And the shacks and the cane and the   
hacked plantain were tableaux,
and who saw them from your dark shore?


The Protestant dinner plate is a segregated place,   
where the steak hardens, and the peas
sit frightened in their corner while mashed potatoes ossify.   
Some gin and ice cream, and the terror of loneliness   
goes for a while.


As they say in the sunny climes,   
un abrazo.

Peter Balakian, "A Letter to Wallace Stevens" from Dyer’s Thistle. Copyright © 1996 by Peter Balakian.  Reprinted by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.

Source: June-tree: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2001)

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Poet Peter Balakian b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Peter  Balakian


Peter Balakian is the author of several collections of poetry, including June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000. His recent book, Ziggurat (2010), wrestles with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11. His poems have been widely anthologized, including in the 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and have been translated into several languages. He has published essays on poetry, culture, and art in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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