The Crystal Lithium

By James Schuyler 1923–1991 James Schuyler
The smell of snow, stinging in nostrils as the wind lifts it from a beach
Eve-shuttering, mixed with sand, or when snow lies under the street lamps and on all
And the air is emptied to an uplifting gassiness
That turns lungs to winter waterwings, buoying, and the bright white night
Freezes in sight a lapse of waves, balsamic, salty, unexpected:   
Hours after swimming, sitting thinking biting at a hangnail
And the taste of the—to your eyes—invisible crystals irradiates the world
“The sea is salt”   
“And so am I”
“Don’t bite your nails”
                              and the metal flavor of a nail—are these brads?—
Taken with a slight spitting motion from between teeth and whanged into place
(Boards and sawdust) and the nail set is ridged with cold
Permanently as marble, always degrees cooler than the rooms of air it lies in
Felt as you lay your cheek upon the counter on which sits a blue-banded cup
A counter of condensed wintry exhalations glittering infinitesimally   
A promise, late on a broiling day in late September, of the cold kiss   
Of marble sheets to one who goes barefoot quickly in the snow and early   
Only so far as the ash can—bang, dump—and back and slams the door:
Too cold to get up though at the edges of the blinds the sky   
Shows blue as flames that break on a red sea in which black coals float:   
Pebbles in a pocket embed the seam with grains of sand
Which, as they will, have found their way into a pattern between foot and bedfoot
“A place for everything and everything in its place” how wasteful, how wrong
It seems when snow in fat, hand-stuffed flakes falls slow and steady in the sea
“Now you see it, now you don’t” the waves growl as they grind ashore and roll out
At your feet (in boots) a Christmas tree naked of needles
Still wound with swags of tarnishing tinsel, faintly alarming as the thought
Of damp electricity or sluggish lightning and for your health desiring pains
The wind awards: Chapped Lips: on which to rub Time’s latest acquisition
Tinned, dowel shaped and inappropriately flavored sheep wool fat   
A greasy sense-eclipsing fog “I can’t see
Without my glasses” “You certainly can’t see with them all steamed up   
Like that. Pull over, park and wipe them off.” The thunder of a summer’s day
Rolls down the shimmering blacktop and mowed grass juice thickens the air
Like “Stir until it coats the spoon, remove from heat, let cool and chill”   
Like this, graying up for more snow, maybe, in which a small flock   
Of—sparrows?—small, anyway, dust-kitty-colored birds fly up   
On a dotted diagonal and there, ah, is the answer:
Starlings, bullies of birdland, lousing up
The pecking order, respecters of no rights (what bird is) unloved (oh?)   
Not so likeable as some: that’s temperate enough and the temperature   
Drops to rise to snowability of a softness even in its scent of roses   
Made of untinted butter frosting: Happy Name Day, Blue Jay, staggering   
On slow-up wings into the shrunk into itself from cold forsythia snarl   
And above these thoughts there waves another tangle but one parched with heat
And not with cold although the heat is on because of cold settled all   
About as though, swimming under water, in clearly fishy water, you   
Inhaled and found one could and live and also found you altogether   
Did not like it, January, laid out on a bed of ice, disgorging
February, shaped like a flounder, and March with her steel head pocketbook,
And April, goofy and under-dressed and with a loud laugh, and May   
Who will of course be voted Miss Best Liked (she expects it),
And June, with a toothpaste smile, fresh from her flea bath, and gross July,
Flexing itself, and steamy August, with thighs and eyes to match, and September
Diving into blue October, dour November, and deadly dull December which now
And then with a surprised blank look produces from its hand the ace of trumps
Or sets within the ice white hairline of a new moon the gibbous rest:   
Global, blue, Columbian, a blue dull definite and thin as the first day
Of February when, in the steamed and freezing capital cash built   
Without a plan to be its own best monument its skyline set in stacks
Like poker chips (signed “Autodidact”), at the crux of a view there crosses
A flatcar-trailer piled with five of the cheaper sort of yachts, tarpaulined,
Plus one youth in purple pants, a maid in her uniform and an “It’s not real
Anything” Cossack hat and coat, a bus one-quarter full of strangers and   
The other familiar fixings of lengthening short days: “He’s outgrown them
Before you can turn around” and see behind you the landscape of the past
Where beached boats bask and terraced cliffs are hung with oranges
Among dark star-gleaming leaves, and, descending the dizzying rough stairs
Littered with goat turd beads—such packaging—you—he—she—
One—someone—stops to break off a bit of myrtle and recite all the lines
Of Goethe that come back, and those in French, “Connais-tu ... ?” the air
Fills with chalk dust from banged erasers, behind the February dunes   
Ice boats speed and among the reeds there winds a little frozen stream   
Where kids in kapok ice-skate and play at Secret City as the sun
Sets before dinner, the snow on fields turns pink and under the hatched ice
The water slides darkly and over it a never before seen liquefaction of the sun
In a chemical yellow greener than sulphur a flash of petroleum by-product
Unbelievable, unwanted and as lovely as though someone you knew all your life
Said the one inconceivable thing and then went on washing dishes: the sky
Flows with impersonal passion and loosening jet trails (eyes tearing from the cold)
And on the beach, between foam frozen in a thick scalloped edging so like
Weird cheek-mottling pillowcase embroidery, on the water-darkened sand the waves
Keep free of frost, a gull strangles on a length of nylon fishline and the dog
Trots proudly off, tail held high, to bury a future dinner among cut grass on a dune:
The ice boats furl their sails and all pile into cars and go off to the super market
Its inviting foods and cleansers sold under tunes with sealed in memory-flavor
“Hot House Rhubarb” “White Rock Girl” “Citrus Futures” “Cheap Bitter Beans” and
In its parking lot vast as the kiss to which is made the most complete surrender
In a setting of leaves, backs of stores, a house on a rise admired for being
Somewhat older than some others (prettier, too?) a man in a white apron embraces a car
Briefly in the cold with his eyes as one might hug oneself for warmth for love
—What a paint job, smooth as an eggplant; what a meaty chest, smooth as an eggplant
—Is it too much to ask your car to understand you? the converse isn’t and the sky
Maps out new roads so that, driving at right angles to the wind, clouds in ranks
Contrive in diminishing perspective a part of a picture postcard of a painting
Over oak scrub where a filling station has: gas, a locked toilet (to keep dirt in)
A busted soda pop machine, no maps and “I couldn’t tell you thet” so   
The sky empties itself to a color, there, where yesterday’s puddle   
Offers its hospitality to people-trash and nature-trash in tans and silvers   
And black grit like that in corners of a room in this or that cheap dump   
Where the ceiling light burns night and day and we stare at or into each   
Other’s eyes in hope the other reads there what he reads: snow, wind   
Lifted; black water, slashed with white; and that which is, which is beyond
Happiness or love or mixed with them or more than they or less, unchanging change,
“Look,” the ocean said (it was tumbled, like our sheets), “look in my eyes”

James Schuyler, “The Crystal Lithium” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1993 by James Schuyler. 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: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1993)

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Poet James Schuyler 1923–1991

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Subjects Health & Illness, Living

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Schuyler was a central member of the New York School.  He was born in Chicago, Illinois and spent his teen years in East Aurora, New York, before attending Bethany College in West Virginia. During World War II, Schuyler served on a destroyer in the North Atlantic and remained in the US Navy until 1947. Before moving to New York in 1950, Schuyler lived for two years on the Isle of Ischia in Italy . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Health & Illness, Living

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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