~This poem previously appeared in Pacific Review (1994).
She knew, she tried to hold me, she said—
If you go from this place as you are,
breaking our walls and windows
with your hard, dangling heart,
an undone mobile hung awkwardly close
to that corner you've turned to take,
then, no—a child,
you will tighten quick with life
and we will cry for you long,
long after you leave here,
a broken ornament the years glue down.
~This poem previously appeared in Prairie Schooner (1996).
You are the last man I might ever know.
I remember once I saw you young,
making angels in the snow; when
your fingertips fell across my eyes
I felt deep to the frozen ground,
where trembling angels lie.
I have come to take this wild old mountain
where you last touched your life; through
gathering shadows and cold dew I see
the cedar shade across your eyes,
as when unpardoned men ask at last of God
and God looks down, and cries.
Yet he stays with you, inside.
Nowadays I search for younger folk,
for old folks, for the wise, less
often recalling right where you lay
unquietly warm in an April snow. Still
I hear your proud voice climb
the faces of angels, and earth, then
I stay with you, outside.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
Both of these poems were inspired by lost friends. Fred Pierce and I were in our mid twenties when we met, and he took me to the wild mountains of his childhood, places he remembered with joy but a particular loss of innocence too. He had this slow way of blinking, and when he told me he had AIDS, his eyes were looking somewhere I knew I didn’t know anything about. I can’t see the mountains today without wishing Fred could rise from the snow.
Connor was fifteen when he and I were in Highlands Hospital in Asheville, a mental hospital. We called ourselves wing nuts. To be honest, the words of this poem were never spoken by a nurse, but I always wish they had been—to me or to Connor. I don’t know what was wrong with him, or why he killed himself a few days after he was released, but in all the madness of that place, he was a just quietly broken kid. It would have been wrong, I guess, for someone there to let him know that they would cry for him, but I’ve always thought too it would have helped him to know that someone there cared about his heart, not just his head.
ABOUT PAUL SHEPHERD
Paul Shepherd’s novel, More Like Not Running Away, won the 2004 Mary McCarthy Award and was published in 2005. He is a former writer in residence in Florida State University's creative writing program. He currently directs the tennis instruction programs at the University of Virginia, and is a ski patroller, two things he always wanted to do.