By Howard Moss 1922–1987 Howard Moss
We have the whole evening ahead of us,
We think, our eyesight starting to weaken,
We must have missed the houselights growing dim,
But how could that moment have escaped us when
The roots of the paper trees struck water
And transformed themselves into the real thing—
This nervous wood at the edge of a small,
Provincial town whose still lifes waken
To find that they’re portraits after all
And subject to the risk of animation?

Tonight we may discuss—after the Chopin
Nocturnes, after the I-don’t-know-how-many
Performances of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata—
The gradual reduction of Roman columns,
The disease of too many lakes and clouds.
Do cobblestones have a future? Is rain
Removable? Depressing mornings find
Characters in bed who have no reason
To get up, the light a yellowish half-light
Mirroring the mind, its sad affections.

At the lake, a flat of faultless summer
Is being taken down, the view abandoned;
The puzzled players change their places. Once
You might have found them walking in an orchard,
The blossoms opening their mouths to speak
And song occurring as if it were natural;
Now that trees uproot themselves and bankrupt
Agriculture wanes in its drying furrows,
Property and battlefields turn out to share
A fate in common—they exchange hands.

Shrines “fallen out of the perpendicular,”
Stones “that have apparently once been tombstones”—
We are on someone’s estate not far from Moscow.
How simply the sun goes out like a match!
How deeply the wounds stay on the surface!
He said the best that can be said for property:
It lets an old man fall in love with landscape,
Lets so many trees have a chance to be noticed,
Allows the self-interested birds to preen,
Until the property is lost again.

To an upstart creditor who sells the trees
For lumber, then, to the sounds of saws,
Tramps through the hallway in his dirty boots
To explain, in tears, the dreary motivation:
His mother’s dying, his young wife’s in love
With a boor . . . The Babel of trouble starts;
Among all the hells that go on talking,
Only one is real, though it is silent,
And everything leads up to it—to lose
The land, to lose the very ground you stand on.

If the temporary brilliancies gather once more
In the middle distance, and the modal lark
Persuades the summer evening to reveal
One private little splendor not for sale,
Still, a gunshot, onstage or off,
Tells us what no one is prepared to know:
Love is a tourniquet tightening its bands
Around the slowly dying wrist of freedom,
Futility’s a spinster bending over
A book of household accounts forever.

Bathed in the acid of truth, all things
Become possible: to be a cold snake
At an interview, to live on scraps of soap
To keep oneself warm, to resemble a cat
Constantly stalking the shadow of nothing,
To the horse’s clop-clop outside the window,
Or the sound of a guitar from a neighboring room,
The doctor, with a smile, asks, What is man?
A hero about to be done-in for good?
A villain about to be rescued by pain?

The governess is wearing her old forage cap.
That’s Epihodov playing his guitar.
Astrov is talking about trees. We could be
Racing the wolves at thirty below
In a ravine whiplashed by snow, or slowly
Succumbing to boredom in a seaside town,
Waiting for a future that will never be,
The heat getting worse, far off the waves
Pounding faintly late in the moonlight,
At a low moment in our lives.

Howard Moss, “Chekhov” from New Selected Poems, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1985 by Howard Moss. Reprinted by permission of Estate of Howard Moss.

Source: New Selected Poems (Atheneum Publishers, 1985)

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Poet Howard Moss 1922–1987

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Money & Economics

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 Howard  Moss


Howard Moss was the poetry editor of the New Yorker for almost forty years. In that influential capacity, this quiet, unassuming man was one of the key figures in American letters in the late twentieth century, boosting the careers of many young poets by publishing their work in one of the few mass circulation magazines which bought poetry and paid well for it. Writing in World Literature Today, Ashley Brown observed that "it . . .

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SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Money & Economics

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