Carl Dennis

Country: United States
Language(s): English

From My Unknown Friend 

If you want to close the canyon between your notion
Of your accomplishments and notions more objective,
You’ll want to read this letter slowly, with an open mind,
Sent as it is by an unknown friend, whose name isn’t important,
Just my concern prompting me to step forward
When it would be far easier to keep silent
And watch with others in the audience while you,
Playing the role of fool, dig your own grave.

I hope you don’t attribute to me ungenerous motives
When I say it grieved me to glimpse you last week
Emerging from Kaufmann’s Department Store in a coat
Suitable for a potentate, smiling in your confidence
It was made for you, a symbol of your achievements.
So much for your bad debuts and broken promises.
For you they’re gossip only, the buzz of the rabble
Who couldn’t recognize true greatness of spirit
If they came upon it, true wisdom and generosity.

For a minute there on the street I assumed
You were merely bluffing, pretending to self-satisfaction
In order to hide from the world an underlying self-doubt.
But your swagger seemed too casual to be studied
Before a mirror, too free and easy.
Self-love is a virtue, I don’t deny it,
But are you committed to wasting your love on a self
No more worth of love than yours? If not,
Isn’t it time to get serious about self-amendment?

Perhaps you suspect this letter is part of a plot,
To afflict you with bad conscience and bad digestion,
The work of someone unhappy by nature
Who demands that everyone else suffer like him.
Perhaps if you knew my name you’d pin my opinion
On the bias of class or race, gender or nation,
Or on the usual spite of a failed competitor,
Some envious poetaster who specializes in screeds,
Too proud to admit to himself his admiration
For verses as grand as yours in diction and theme.

That’s why this letter’s not signed, to keep you guessing,
Through uneasiness you might move to doubt,

From doubt to confusion, from confusion to reassessment.
In any case, I know you’ll begin far from the gratitude
That you ought to feel for my taking the trouble
To pen a letter addressed not to the world
But to you alone, to your thick-walled fortress
That you’re convinced is a garden
Isn’t it time to ask why nobody
Rambles the paths beside you
In the cool of the evening
And pauses with you to sniff the flowers?


A city not on the list that Burton and I drew up
Thirty years ago though it would have been,
I’m certain now, as I sit in this bright piazza,
If, among the art books piled on his table,
One hand listed beautiful central squares
With houses meant to be festive, not imposing.
Even the two earnest young men in suits
Buttonholing strollers don’t dull my pleasure,
Two Mormons from Utah, assigned to this outpost
For their stint as apostles among the gentiles.

A winter of weekend planning in Burton’s kitchen
Didn’t seem too much for a summer
That his doctor predicted would be the last
His eyes would show him. After that, the corneas
Would grow too scarred from the stress of diabetes
To let the light in. It’s a shame he faced that future
So honestly that he felt too gloomy to go.
If he were alive now, and sighted, we’d agree
These two young Mormons have a tough assignment,
Making the gospel revealed to Joseph Smith
Near Palmyra, New York, irresistible
To church-going Veronese whose kin
Have sung in the local choirs for centuries.

As for lifting the spirits of nonbelievers,
I’ve only to pause on a bridge spanning the Adige
and gaze back on the fillet of walls and towers
The river looks pleased to wear.
Even Burton, always less likely than I to be mollified
By the Grace of the world, might have been inspired
To judge the townscape nearly as peacetul
As townscape in oil, though its Sunday quiet,
He might have cautioned, shouldn’t make us forget
The broils often stirred up on weekdays,
By the likes of the Montagues and the Capulets.

If the Mormons regard these streets as in need
Of instruction merely, not of appreciation,
They may be charged with a sin in the church of the beautiful
That burton tried to visit in his cheerful moods.
Of course he’d have imagined Verona’s skyline
Serving a painter of landscape as a starting point
For a city even more beautiful, a place for Poussin
To begin his efforts to move the viewer to rise
For at least a moment form a mood that’s passing
To one more permanent, however uncommon.

If the two apostles suppose the actual landscape
Will surpass Poussin’s tranquility of the spirit
Once their gospel is acknowledged by everyone,
They join a crowd of prophets whose promises
Would have angered Burton even before his blindness.
Better not wait around, he would have told them,
For slugs to change into butterflies. Better work
On making the stubbornly untransformed
Civic-minded enough to inform themselves
Which candidates claiming to serve the city
Are tools of the few and which are honest

As for Poussin’s improvements, in my favorite painting of his
The City is only a line on the far horizon.
The human figures set in the foreground
Are thumb-sized blues and yellows in a field of green.
it’s harvest time, and among the harvesters
I can imagine the Capulets and the Montagues
Swinging their scythes together. Also the Mormon boys,
No longer in summer suits but garbed like peasants,
Steadily working besides them while Pan and Flora
Look on approvingly from a stand of willows.

And Burton is there with his sight restores,
Pointing to a hill where the weary workers
May rest in the shade and look about them
And admire the beauty their eyes are blessed with.
And then he shows the new arrivals
How to bale the hay and load the wagons.