Please read this letter when you are alone.
Don't be afraid of what may change you,
I am urging on you only what I myself have done.

In the first place, I respect the office, although one night
last spring, when you had committed (in my eyes)
criminal folly, and there was a toast to you, I wouldn't rise.

A man's mistakes (if I may lecture you), his worst acts,
aren't out of character, as he's like to think,
are not put on him by power or stress or too much to drink,

but are simply a worse self he consents to be. Thus
there is no mistaking you. I marvel that there's
so much disrespect for a man just being himself, being his errors.

"I never met a worse man than myself,"
Thoreau said. When we're our best selves, we can all
afford to say that. Self-respect is best when marginal.

And when the office of the presidency will again
accommodate that remark (Did you see? Fidel Castro
said almost that recently), it may be held by better men

than you or me. Meantime, I hear there is music in your house,
your women wear queens' wear, though winds howl outside,
and I say, that's all right, the man should have some ease,

but does anyone say to your face who you really are?
No, they say Mr. President, while any young person
feels free to call me voter, believer, even causer.

And if I were also a pray-er, a man given to praying,
(I'm often in fact careless about great things, like you)
and I wanted to pray for your office, as in fact I do,

the words that would come to me would more likely be
god change you than god bless the presidency.
I would pray, God cause the president to change.

As I myself have been changed, first my head, then my heart,
so that I no longer pretend that I don't swindle or kill
when there is swindling or killing on my nation's part.

Well. Go out into your upstairs hall tonight with this letter.
Generous ghosts must walk that house at night,
carrying draughts of the republic like cold water

to a man parched after too much talk and wine and smoke.
Hear them. They are elected ghosts, though some will be radicals
and all may want to tell you things you will not like.

It will seem dark in the carpeted hall, despite the night-lights
in the dull sconces. Make the guard let you pass.
"If you are the president," a shade with a water-glass

will ask you (and this is all I ask), calling you by name,
himself perhaps a famous name, "if you are the President,
and things in the land have come to all this shame,

why don't you try doing something new? This building rose,
laborious as a dream, to house one's character:
man trusting man anew. That's who each tenant is

-or an imposter, as some of us have been."

1969


The message you brought back again and again
from the dark brink had the glitter of truth.
From the beginning, you told it as memoir:
even though you didn't cause it,
the memoirs said of the trouble they recounted,
it was always your familiar when it came.

Your language moved slowly towards our language
until we saw that we were all immigrants-
had perhaps been shipped as convicts-
from the land of your reluctant indictment,
a land of our consent, if not our doing.

It was your jokes and stories, when you were alive,
the wry imitations and the bad boy's laugh,
that roped us from the brink you led us to.
We will miss that laughter, left to the glittering poems,
the raw gist of things.

To punish the bearer of evil tidings
it is our custom to ask his blessing.
This you gave. It dawns on each of us separately now
what this entails.


William Meredith, far left, arranged for John Berryman, at the fireplace, to speak at a meeting of the Connecticut College Poetry Club.

Friends making off ahead of time
on their own, I call that willful, John,
but that's not judgment, only argument
such as we've had before.
I watch a shaky man climb
a cast-iron railing in my head, on
a Mississippi bluff, though I had meant
to dissuade him. I call out, and he doesn't hear.

"Fantastic! Fantastic! Thank thee, dear Lord"
is what you said we were to write on your stone,
but you go down without so much as a note.
Did you wave jauntily, like the German ace
in a silent film, to a passer-by, as the paper said?
We have to understand how you got
From here to there, a hundred feet straight down.
Though you had told us and told us,
and how it would be underground
and how it would be for us left here,
who could have plotted that swift chute
from the late height of you prizes?
For all your indignation, your voice
was part howl only, part of it was caress.
Adorable was a word you threw around,
fastidious John of the gross disguises,
and despair was another: "this work of almost despair."

Morale is what I think about all the time
Now, what hopeful men and women can say and do.
But having to speak for you, I can't
Lie. "Let his giant faults appear, as sent
together with his virtues down," the song says.
It says suicide is a crime
And that wives and children deserve better than this.
None of us deserved, of course, you.

Do we wave back now, or what do we do?
You were never reluctant to instruct.
I do what's in character, I look for things
to praise on the river banks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
but this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don't let us contract your dead recidivism
and start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from that fat book again, and make us wave back.


i. the stars

We look at them on clear nights, thrilled
rather than discomforted-brilliance and
distance put us in mind of our
own burnings and losses. And then who
flung them there, in a sowing motion
suggesting that random is beautiful?

ii. archipelagoes

Or again, the islands that the old
cartographers, triangulating
their first glimpses of bays and peaks, set
down, and which the rich traveller, from
a high winter chair, chooses among
today-chains of jade thrown across the
torso of the sea-mother, herself
casually composed.

iii. work camps and prisons

The homeless
Solzhenitsyn, looking at Russia,
saw a configuration of camps
spotting his homeland, "ports" where men
and women were forced to act out
the birth-throes of volcanic islands
the coral patience of reefs, before
a "ship," a prison train, bore them down
that terrible archipelago
conceived and made by men like ourselves.

iv. those we love

Incorrigibly (it is our nature)
when we look at a map we look for
the towns and valleys and waterways
where loved people constellate, some of
them from our blood, some from our own loins.
This fair scattering of matter is
all we will know of creation, at
first hand. We flung it there, in a learned
gesture of sowing-random, lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"A Mild Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House," "Remembering Robert Lowell," "In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs," "Examples of Created Systems" reprinted from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems by William Meredith, published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 1997. Copyright © 1997 by William Meredith. All rights reserved; used by permission of Northwestern University Press and the author.

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