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Not Quite Ithaka

 read by the author

The roaring wind is my Wife, and the Stars through
my window-pane are my Children.
   John Keats

Home by myself in my draughty house
November snow splatting down:
Wet stuff that slides off the apple-boughs.
Two nights ago I stopped a fat raccoon
In the headlights as
He toppled a trash-can: black
Ears of a fox, and jewel eyes
White-circled like a clown’s.
Then he melted back
Into the sleeve of darkness. Today I look
For a hairy smudge on the white
Page of the paddock.
Nothing — only the snow-plain
Spreading all around. This quiet —
Save for the squeak of my wet finger
Against the window-pane —
Is ten miles thick.

And so I welcome myself to my house again.
I built this bed —
Great yawning thing
Too vast for any couple, three times too wide
For a bachelor’s narrow sleep;
Built it of pitch-pine and cheap
Plywood, bought
At a country auction, years ago.
The bolts don’t match. I’ve knocked it
Apart too often — once in Toronto,
Twice for garrets in this town.

Now it’s grown
Into the conscience of the house — not
Grafted, though, to any olive-root, nor
Decked with damasks of Indian-tooth design. 

Oddly, the sherbet-bearers who used to float
At evening through the door
To lay me down and soothe my limbs with oils
From Nineveh and Samarkand
Don’t come by any more.
Being too idle to unbolt the thing again
I shall maybe die in it,
But maybe not today.
                Above it, a great
Painting by Pieter de Hooch:
A woman and a snivelling kid
In a courtyard, 1658.
Deftly placed, every flag and brick
Burns clear in the moist light. The broom,
Obedient to the painter’s fabulating eye,
Leans correctly on the wall.

The courtyard door frames
A second woman. White
Paper surrounds them all.
The print’s buckled, it curls from the masonite.
The whole thing’s wrongly
                 Beside it
The window frames the golf-hut
From where all summerlong they putt
On the opulent green. Summer’s gone underground;
The workmen keep indoors today, honing
Purple hands.
            Here I am, in my
Fiftieth year, in the wastes of white
America. Something has slid away.
I wait for the voices of my daughters — who might
Flounce in, snow in their hair,
Any week now. Meanwhile, it’s me
And the raccoon — he’s out there somewhere, surely.

Home, but not quite Ithaka, where the waves
Churn shingle up the yellow shore —
Not quite, not quite. But since —
Pace the story of your
Perpetually renewable Ulysses, who,
After the thrumming of the harp had stopped
And all the color drained from the day, propped
Himself against that olive-root
And fought the queer taste
That thickened in his throat
And died unsinging, a prince
Of absences — since
I have chosen
To arrange things in this way,
I am the husband of these frozen
Fruit-trees, these minutes
That drip from the eaves
And it seems, quiet mister,
That it must do, it must
Exactly do.