For John Kennedy of Harvard
(An Occasional Poem Written on the Weekend of That Occasion)
A tumult of images insist,
Repeat, repeat, traverse, and re-traverse,
Until the dreadful Sunday's counterpoint—
She with your children pacing to the drum,
While here the prisoner comes, and dies
Under the blind resurge of violent Dallas—
Is on the night screen one more time rehearsed
And we believe at last
What on the Friday we so feared to know.
That Friday night St. Patrick's bells
Came to me in an old Maine house
The while against them spoke—spoke
The banal words each of us finds when moved
And when a public voice exacts reply—
Spoke the various accents of the city.
Some nuance unmanned me yet again
(Or was it the passing of my youth that struck?)
So, lest the children see my tears,
I walked awhile between the arbor and the barn
And thought of you passing once in 'thirty-seven
In the spring of freshman year and of your life
On the Yard walk past Widener's steps and
Up the slope towards Palmer House that was:
There stood a Norway maple on that hill
Which every spring spread out a cope
Of greeny gold upon the ground, and there we passed,
Treading the bright minuscule blossom down,
In the slant light of morning and of our lives.
Your smile held then—how shall I say?—a thought
Too much assurance, and your walk a pride
To daunt a green and envious boy who'd wrought
A manner but no ease for all he tried
To be at home: you seemed to own the place
I loved but did not yet possess. But stay,
There comes to mind the man of forty-five:
A man who wore that humor in his face
Did not let youth or wealth or rank betray
Him to forget this truth: when we arrive
Who come here late, the place we meant to find
And win and love is altered out of mind.
So, much of worth in what we take is lost—
That Harvard gone of Eliot and of James,
That land of Arcady before the host
Of yours and mine sailed here to stake their claims.
Provincial places though (your smile confides)
And not perhaps as open to the world
As we with myriad ties of blood and faith
Have made them in your time; and this abides,
For all the poise that's vanished with your wraith,
For all that Camelot's banners need be furled:
They changed to take us in, but we
Transformed them out of all they could foresee.
The tree is gone that once bestrewed the ground
Each springtime with a green-gold grace:
Now buildings flank that place,
While, moved and turned around,
Cropped Palmer House looks strange—
So all things shift and change—
But though your life is gone and my youth
I see you now in truth
Transfigured, resplendent in our ruth.
They say you were still half symbol,
Being given so little time;
Come, let us take you so, but in this sense:
In that region of possibility you fill
There, still, your bright incontinent essence
Inclines to its own completion, still
Shapes almost its own actuality, still contrives
Some reason, measure, humor in our lives.
For John Kennedy of Harvard is reprinted from the late Edward Pols's collection Remembrance of Things to Come (Bowdoin College, 2007). To order a copy of the collection call the Bowdoin Bookstore at 800-524-2225 or
visit the Bookstore online.