by X. J. Kennedy

“These people are . . . quenched. I mean the natives,” — D. H. Lawrence, letter of August 14, 1923, from Dover, New Jersey.

Le vierge, le vivace, et le bel aujourd’hui . . .
What were they like as schoolboys? Long on themes
And short of wind, perpetually outclassed,
Breaking their glasses, always chosen last
When everyone was sorted out in teams,
Moody, a little dull, the kind that squirmed
At hurt cats, shrank from touching cracked-up birds,
With all but plain girls at a loss for words,
Having to ask to have their fishhooks wormed,
Snuffers of candles every priest thought nice,
Quenching their own wicks nightly, eyes put down
And smoldering. In Dover, my home town,
No winter passed but we had swans in ice,
Birds of their quill: so beautiful, so dumb,
They’d let a window glaze about their feet,
Not seeing through their dreams till time to eat.
A fireman with a blowtorch had to come
Thaw the dopes loose. Sun-silvered, plumes aflap,
Weren’t they grand, though? — not that you’d notice it,
Crawling along a ladder, getting bit,
Numb to the bone, enduring all their crap.