City Elegies

By Robert Pinsky b. 1940 Robert Pinsky
I. The Day Dreamers

All day all over the city every person
Wanders a different city, sealed intact
And haunted as the abandoned subway stations   
Under the city. Where is my alley doorway?

Stone gable, brick escarpment, cliffs of crystal.   
Where is my terraced street above the harbor,   
Café and hidden workshop, house of love?
Webbed vault, tiled blackness. Where is my park, the path

Through conifers, my iron bench, a shiver   
Of ivy and margin birch above the traffic?   
A voice. There is a mountain and a wood
Between us—one wrote, lovesick—Where the late

Hunter and the bird have seen us. Aimless at dusk,   
Heart muttering like any derelict,
Or working all morning, violent with will,
Where is my garland of lights? My silver rail?

II. “Everywhere I Go, There I Am”

Hot days of errands and badges, paper, shrill rage   
Of sparrows morning and evening. At sunset   
A clearing stroll around the square and down
A steep street twisting to the edge of the narrows,

The brick embankment path and the iron rail
The same as always. The water. All through your body   
A steady twinkling of ceasing and being, the cells   
That die by millions and replicate themselves

So every seven years your substance is new,
But the same score, the same scar making a faint   
Crescent along your temple, always fading,   
The blood all different but the same from day

To day, the city birds along the harbor
Working the cracks and hedges, the titan moan   
Of a tanker blasting and receding, the range   
Of noises a fretwork of the bay, the night.

III. House Hour

Now the pale honey of a kitchen light
Burns at an upstairs window, the sash a cross.   
Milky daylight moon,
Sky scored by phone lines. Houses in rows   
Patient as cows.

Dormers and gables of an immigrant street   
In a small city, the wind-worn afternoon   
Shading into night.

Hundreds of times before
I have felt it in some district
Of shingle and downspout at just this hour.   
The renter walking home from the bus   
Carrying a crisp bag. Maybe a store
Visible at the corner, neon at dusk.
Macaroni mist fogging the glass.

Unwilled, seductive as music, brief   
As dusk itself, the forgotten mirror   
Brushed for dozens of years
By the same gray light, the same shadows   
Of soffit and beam end, a reef   
Of old snow glowing along the walk.

If I am hollow, or if I am heavy with longing, the same:   
The ponderous houses of siding,
Fir framing, horsehair plaster, fired bricks
In a certain light, changing nothing, but touching   
Those separate hours of the past
And now at this one time
Of day touching this one, last spokes
Of light silvering the attic dust.

IV. Street Music

Sweet Babylon, headphones. Song bones.
At a slate stairway’s base, alone and unready,   
Not far from the taxis and bars   
Around the old stone station,   
In the bronze, ordinary afternoon light—
To find yourself back behind that real   
City and inside this other city   
Where you slept in the street.   
Your bare feet, gray tunic of a child,   
Coarse sugar of memory.

Salt Nineveh of barrows and stalls,
The barber with his copper bowl,   
Beggars and grain-sellers,   
The alley of writers of letters   
In different dialects, stands   
Of the ear-cleaner, tailor,   
Spicer. Reign of Asur-Banipal.   
Hemp woman, whore merchant,   
Hand porter, errand boy,   
Child sold from a doorway.

Candy Memphis of exile and hungers.   
Honey kalends and drays,
Syrup-sellers and sicknesses,
Runes, donkeys, yams, tunes
On the mouth-harp, shuffles
And rags. Healer, dealer, drunkard.   
Fresh water, sewage—wherever   
You died in the market sometimes   
Your soul flows a-hunting buried   
Cakes here in the city.

V. Soot

Archaic, the trains mated with our human blood.   
Stone trestle, abutment wall. Above the tracks   
A rakish exile Santa lashed to a pole.
Black cinders, burdock, sumac, Pepsi, cellophane,   
Each syllable a filament in the cord
Of a word-net knotted in the passionate shadows   
Of skeletal vine and beanpole in one back yard   
Along the embankment. Here with dirty thunder   
Deliberate heavy creatures before the light
Of morning made the bedroom windows tremble   
With lordly music, and their exhalations
Tingled our nostrils. Railbed tavern and church   
Of former slaves, synagogue of the low,
Sicilian grocery, Polish crèche. A seed
Of particles that Zeuslike penetrated
The bread and carboned the garden tomatoes—even   
Our sheets that bucked and capered in the wind   
Flashed whiter than others, tempered by iron black   
Bleaching to armor in silver winter sun.

VI. The Tuning

Soon in this plaza high above the harbor   
Under the statue of St. Magnus Martyr   
The gypsy orchestra will begin to play.

Down on the borders of the immigrant ghetto   
Couples are gathering at the Montenegro
And the Club République, but at the close of day

These strings of lights and early summer weather   
Bring us here: smell of traffic, tentative laughter   
From café tables, a trickle of television

Leaking from the open window of an apartment   
Above us. Clean cotton, perfume, garlic, the sunset   
Making the pavement red with expectation:

And now we are the city—the mighty avenues   
Named for historic dates, the alleyways,
The brands of car and liquor, the souk, the stone

Obelisk in the old slave market. Now the nervous   
Tangle of tones and scales is suspended, the players   
All schooling their single root to the raised baton.

Robert Pinsky, “City Elegies” from The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. Copyright © 1996 by Robert Pinsky. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, 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: The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996)

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Poet Robert Pinsky b. 1940

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Money & Economics, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Class

 Robert  Pinsky


Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry—not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a . . .

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SUBJECT Money & Economics, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Class

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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