I wish I could get your advice
on how to write this second book. I give myself directives
to stay on the subject, to expand,
but the words clot into jelly, or just will not be
whistled up at my command.
Translator, astronomer, courtier, diplomat,
you were a renaissance man
before the Renaissance was a thing. I teach creative writing
and am a monoglot.
All the books that I should’ve read in college and did not
beam out to me from my bookshelves
their chorus of reproach.
Reading you, however,
was fun from the start, overhearing your pilgrims
trading stories to pass the time, at a decasyllabic canter
in your trademark riding rhyme.
Even if those first pages of Middle English
each took an hour to decode,
your big book, like a wise, old, wicked lover, devoured me
in my dorm room,
cover to cover. You saw pretension everywhere
and liked people more for it, not only nonetheless.
You taught me that underneath the fig leaf, there is a place in art
for pubic hair, for sweat,
for twelve greedy friars dividing up a fart.
Today, instead of selling fake indulgences, the pardoner might be
a life coach or a psychiatrist.
I like to think the wife of Bath would be tenured somewhere,
teaching English Lit.
Is your gracious knight, for all his handsome speech,
meant to be a bore?
Is the prioress
an anti-Semite who feels compassion only for her dogs? Your ironies
hide inside other ironies,
making you difficult to pin down;
you gave yourself a place among the pilgrims, and made yourself
a chump, who believes whatever he is told
and wants above all to be liked.
I wish you’d come visit me in one of those dream visions
that were always happening
to poets of your time, and guide me through the grey neighborhoods
of the underworld
or to the feast of St. Valentine, and teach me to bring life’s largeness
to the page.
And I wish I knew exactly what you meant
by that note
that’s tacked like a kick-me sign onto the back end
of your book,
the coda where you take back half the stories that you’ve told,
retracting many a song
and many a leccherous lay because you’re sorry, you say,
for mixing up the godly
and the sexy, the naughty and the good. Is this remorseful one
Chaucer the pilgrim,
full of religious feeling at his long journey’s end?
Or is it you
yourself, on your own deathbed, afraid of Hell,
because you could not spin your gold
back into straw, or de-alchemize it into lead?
It’s cold this morning in Rodgers Forge.
A new gas line going in
has brought men, jackhammers, heavy trucks. The lead man
whistles on and off
throughout the day, while unperturbed, a few dry leaves
turn and whirl, tornado-style,
as though inside the rim of a bowl of air. Love life more;
love life more―
I string and restring
my one phrase, trying to build a home inside it,
whereas you are a great river, bringing news
from countless towns
and jurisdictions, places that are familiar
Also by James Arthur (see all)
- To Geoffrey Chaucer - June 21, 2018