Paul Lake is an American poet and a professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech
University. He has published three volumes of
poetry: Another Kind of Travel,
Walking Backward and The Republic of Virtue. His poems and essays have appeared in Poetry,
The New Republic, The American Scholar, Yale Review, Southern Review, Paris
Review, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review. He lives in
Russellville, Arkansas with his wife, the artist Tina Lake, and their two
children. The first two poems below are from his latest book,
Republic of Virtue, which won the 2013 Richard Wilbur Award and was
published by the University of Evansville, the sponsor of the award.
You can learn more about the book, or order it, by clicking the hyperlinked
The Ballroom of Heaven
As a Boy Scout, Dad decoded
The dit-dit-dahs of Morse, the swashed flags
Of semaphore, bugled “Taps.”
At war’s end, trumpeted jazz,
Sported a dashing Errol Flynn mustache,
Drove a Mercury coupe, led a brass swing band.
Growing gray, he bought a Mustang,
Captained boats down the Chesapeake,
Tracked game, and bow-hunted bear
In the snow-packed Appalachians.
A snappy salesman with the gift of gab,
He spoke loquaciously, and loved to boast
Of his singular prowess—how he closed a sale,
Bagged a buck, or sang a tenor solo.
Rising late, he rode his route,
Carrying customers’ cash, lugged
A black debit book, big as the Baltimore directory
Bound in crocodile hide, holstered a Colt
Semiautomatic, and often flashed
The gold badge bestowed by the Sheriff
When he ran the county’s Democrats.
Then cause and effect was suddenly
Suspended. He got lost in a crossword
As in a cul-de-sac. Was flummoxed by phones
As if after Babel. His tongue got
All tangled, his words turned to blab.
Now housed in a hospice, he greets his grown children
“Good guy, good guy,” misplacing their names.
Seeing the woman he once swept off the dance floor
And the daughter named after the music they made,
He draws blanks—while a bunch of balloons,
Like a gaggle of gossips who gibber behind him,
Distract his attention, till he’s almost unglued.
Pliant as clay, he grows softer and kinder,
More rarefied—as if refined by affliction.
As we quietly mourn his premature absence
And mortified pride, our prayers turn to Please,
Let wings take him up now to the ballroom of heaven
As a brassy young boy he took up the horn.
Let him trumpet the tunes that wooed his young wife.
Make melody again. Dance the jitterbug of joy.
A dolphin, like a bat or sonar dish,
Turns sonic blips to solid information
Till, bored with his one-sided conversation
With ocean floors and passing schools of fish,
He turns to higher forms of mimicry
And imitates his own returning wave
With cunningly cast measures that behave
To dolphin ears like carvings by Bernini,
Transforming shoal and branching coral reef
To frozen arias of sculpted sound
So artfully that others might confound
Its delicately etched patterns in relief
With star or angelfish, or, hearing, feel
The shock of truth like an electric eel.
Hush, child, invisible
As thought or silent prayer
Around a supper table,
Restless and fugitive,
Dear ghost, if you are able,
Consider the young pair
Whose adolescent love
Had not grown full enough
To grant you a small share,
And, for love's sake, forgive
Those suffered now to live
In love beneath one roof,
By absence made your heirs.
The queen moves with unbounded liberty.
Slant-eyed, a bishop offers up a prayer.
A horse-faced gallant full of chivalry
Enters the family trade, an officer.
A rook, high as a silo, lets fire fall,
Then ends its run behind a remnant pawn.
The king strolls past his garden's rose-grown wall
To issue statements from the castle lawn.
Only the pawns, bald-domed as army ants,
Urged to the common good by stripes and prayers,
Regard the board, cursed with their consciousness
Of all the horror of those empty squares.
We're playing Simon Says. Remember how?
(Simon says remember how, so it's okay.)
It's not enough to do what Simon says,
It's what he says he says that you obey.
The rules are Simon's. All right, let's begin.
Simon says, Don't read this sentence or you're out.
You did? That's it, game's over, Simon wins,
However much you plead, protest, or pout.
Bound by the iron chain of such curved sense,
Simon himself must discontinue play.
There's no appeal to gray omnipotence.
What Simon says he says he can't unsay.
Martyr of Modernity
Christ had his cross. Antoine Lavoisier,
Discoverer of matter's conservation,
When sentenced by the frenzied Paris mob
For crimes against the state, used the occasion
To make a last experiment. To see
How long a brain could live deprived of blood,
He asked a friend to mount the guillotine
And lift his severed head and count his blinks
Before all thought devolved to chemistry,
Then bravely gazed until the last: thirteen.
Remembering his father's last campaign
To purge the south of Saracen and Moor
And how Grandfather stopped the tide from Spain,
Driving the Muslims from the fields of Tours,
King Charlemagne surveyed the scattered dead
At Roncesvalles, where Roland's ivory horn
Lay shattered on the ground beneath his head,
Then left his slaughtered Paladins, to mourn,
And saw, in troubled sleep, a second Rome
En-coiled by hydra heads—a living net
Encircling London, Paris, Amsterdam,
Each serpent-head poised like a minaret
Above the drowsy heart of Christendom—
Loud cries, bright shafts, red flames, a streaking jet,
Then bodies bowed down in a vast salaam.
You storm out late at night
And walk the streets alone
In adolescent pique —
A tried and true technique
To give your folks a fright,
Imagining you half-grown,
A girl not quite fourteen,
Caught in a passing light
On some deserted lane
Or leafy cul-de-sac,
Where danger lurks unseen,
Crouched like a maniac.
At first, I spurn the bait
And watch the clock and phone
With feigned indifference,
Refusing to succumb
To scenes imagination
Plays on its lurid screen,
Till out of patience and
Heart climbing in my throat,
I grab my keys, cell phone,
And hit the empty street
To track your shadow down
Among the leafy shades
And mildly spreading lawns
Of our small southern town.
At twice the posted speed,
I double back and scan
Each dark unpeopled scene
Still as a Christmas garden,
Where houses sleep, serene,
At quarter past eleven. . . .
Until, not far ahead,
In pools where shadows spread
Beyond the streetlamps' glow,
I spy a silhouette
And awkward loping gait
That makes my engine slow.
I pull along beside
And start the old debate,
While you walk on, eyes straight,
In unreasoning pride
Refusing to get in,
However much I chide,
Or threaten and cajole.
Then with a quick U-Turn,
You duck away and hide
Across a neighbor's lawn
Beyond my headlights' sweep—
Until the truth strikes home—
That you're not mine to keep—
And rounding one last block,
I leave you to the dark
Paths you must tread alone
And slowly circle back
To end our hide-and-seek,
Till love calls us back home
By separate paths, to sleep.