The facts cited in this poem weren’t invented. After three decades of living in New York, in May of 2003, I moved to a house in the town of Wakefield, Rhode Island. That prompted me to read Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (and nowadays we aren’t many!). I had in fact inherited china once belonging to my mother and did unpack and display it in a glass-fronted cabinet, thinking it suited the 19th-century flavour of the house. Goldsmith’s narrator does recommend putting cracked teacups in a window so that at least they can be used for that much. My mother did read and enjoy Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and she had something of the humility and self-sacrifice associated with the character Melanie in that novel.
I did see the children’s game described here, but was too shy ever to introduce myself, thinking that doing so might be misunderstood. A friend gave me a rosebush as a housewarming present, and I did make the joke about calling my house “Knew Place” as a comic variation on Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford. A joke is the only way of dealing with the disparity between the world’s greatest poet and his desperate, latter-day admirer. I reasoned that Horace had been wise to retire from Rome to his beloved Sabine Hills, and the same with Shakespeare’s retirement from London – a counterpart to Prospero’s relinquishment of his magical powers.
World news and the regrettable role that the Unites States has played in recent history were factors influencing me not, after all, to withdraw from an active life and slip into a pleasant, provincial slumber. It seems there is something in me that won’t let me retire. This poem records some of the facts and reflections leading to that decision, in particular, a colonial history that still has tragic repercussions today. These will continue reverberating so long as the profit motive is what most controls international relations between stronger and weaker states. This poem takes mere fact and tries by arrangement and juxtaposition to let it embody feeling and the process of decision-making. The blank verse format is of course a nod to Shakespeare. I have left Rhode lsland and currently live in London.
Wakefield: Did some romantic alderman
Settle that name on our recycled mill-town?
I know Rhode Island is Red Island, or
Island of Roses… And, look, buds on Mother’s
Haviland china, fifty years of attic
Storage ended, are pink, flushed with excitement
At being propped in ranks along the plate-rail
Of cabinets a shipwright made for this
Centenarian house I signed the deed on
Nine days ago. No way would I have served
Dinner on old porcelain in designer
Manhattan, my home turf for more than half
A prodigal life-span once I’d waved goodbye
To the South. But here it fits, a tasteful, gold-rimmed
Victorian replacement for the showy
Chinese export bowls and plates how many
Prosperous New England tables boasted
Back in the bullish age of clipper ships.
Those clashing pinks and reds epitomized
Spice roses of the Indies gunboats opened
To enrich our Union, sea to shining sea.
Following the Vicar of Wakefield’s homely
Advice, I’ve put a “Rose Medallion” teacup
(Bought for two dollars at a thrift shop) here
In this eastern window so its damasked pattern
Can go translucent as light rejuvenates
A naïvely rendered pride of mandarins
Hard at their silken round of tea and gossip
And poetry. The Vicar’s older daughter
Olivia, the more romantic one,
Might have been charmed to join their circle, even
If her graver sister, Sophia, wouldn’t want to.
Goldsmith, Mother most likely never read,
But Gone with the Wind she surely did and like
White Southern women of her day (except
The ambitious few who idolized Miss Scarlett)
Modeled herself on Melanie – for instance,
She never told black friends and workers they
Should “know their place” and stay in it. Her son,
If he works up his nerve, can copy her
(And risk a snub) by taking lemon pie
To the family next door, whose ancestry
Is African; and probably Narragansett,
Too, or else Pequot. Out beyond the teacup
I see their children, the older climbing up
On the garbage bin while holding an umbrella,
A taut silk octagon of alternating
Ebony and ivory pie-wedge panels
That read as either a black Maltese cross
Against a cream-white background, or a white
Against a black. She’s poised to make her skydive
But seems to doubt the parachute; and none
Of her younger sister’s urging turns the tide.
A pause, a balance; but she doesn’t leap –
The Sophia of this family circle, just
As her wilder sibling’s the Olivia.
Now their mother’s called them to lunch, their game
Shelved with no decisions made, no plunge
Into the aerial realm of weightless pleasure.
I’ll have my solitary codfish on
These resurrected roses – a chance to ponder
The leap I leapt in settling here and calling
The Ocean State, at last, the Golden Decades’
Ultimate Cathay. So, veteran frigate,
You, unlike the Pequod, may now dock
And prove that not all sexagenarians
Are skippers hot to tap-dance round the deck
Like Ahab, thirst for blood a scorching trade wind
That gives them forward thrust. The middle ground!
Vicarious pastimes, watching children’s games
Or tending post-colonial and post-
Postmodern gardens, should amount to a sound
Retirement plan, Sophia, calm, deific
Wisdom, serving as hand-hewn figurehead
When our vessel comes to port. If goods we heft
Down the gangplank are only earthenware,
So be it, Yankees also favor those,
Judging from shards of broken plates and cups
I dug up planting the hybrid tea a friend
Gave me, the spot selected not haphazard,
Instead, exactly where a rose should go.
He laughed when told I’d named the house Knew Place –
A tribute to comedy’s most tragic playwright.
But try to name or know a place you never
Lived in: Beijing. Nablus. Kabul. Baghdad…
Imagination’s olive branch stops short,
Absorbing the news that soldier and civilian
Sprawl face down in crimson pools enlarged
With all they owned, one clotting upshot of
Capitalism’s abstract cannibalism.
Prosperity. Ours, but insubstantial,
Like all dream-castles based on greed, up there
Above the law. Who’d listen if I called
Our captains by their real names? They won’t,
Conceded, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Out of the deeps, a voice: Permission denied.
No port for the tempest-tossed, you haven’t yet
Begun to fight. Weigh anchor and make ready
For the clash. While you breathe, you won’t retire.