Charles Martin
June 2002



To the Blackboard


Unyielding surface of preconscious mind
And childhood presence, present ever since,
Your monolithic slab still represents
Whatever I can never get behind.
Unyielding? Yes, but never unforgiving!
—Go back a bit: for thirty years and more,
I've found you waiting for me by the door
Of all the rooms in which I've earned my living,

A tabula rasa, whose right-angled frame
Urges inclusion while defying sprawl,
And always as a form fixed on a wall;
So in my childhood, you were just the same,
The presence I could always count upon;
And though my sums were often incorrect,
My words misspelled, you never did object
To being jabbed at with a piece of bone.

Nor did we notice your indifference
To whether we remembered or forgot
The third person singular (amat)
Of the verb amare, in the present tense
Indicative: amare meant 'to love'
In the real world that floated by outside,
Its endless possibilities denied
By your mere presence: what were you thinking of?

Swans mirrored on their pond? Foals beside mare?
The lovers, who have gone inside, undressing?
Light upon darkness, darkness repossessing
The red leaves spinning dryly through the air?
—All this, a film that passed you by completely,
Leaving no mark, unlike the ones we traced
So carefully they'd never be erased,
Scratching our little hearts out on you, neatly.

As though the weightlessness of our thought
Could outlast time! Not so: those marks of ours
Were brushed off lightly, unremarked, in showers
Of dust as the erasers clapped and coughed,
Surrounding you in clouds of gilded haze;
For if (as then and now) it seemed and seems
You figured rather largely in our dreams,
We were no part of yours, back then. These days,

If sense emerges out of sign on sign
At random, when responsibility
For what goes on and off you falls on me,
I've sense enough to credit it as mine:
For you write nothing, and were never heard
—Apart from that nerve-devastating shriek
You make when chalk is dragged across your cheek—
To utter phoneme, syllable or word.

What's to be done then is all mine to do,
And likewise mine, the reward, the glory,
Since, after all, it's me telling your story
And not you telling mine; I'm happy to,
I really am, and happy in my role
As residential existentialist,
To stand before your thought-stained palimpsest
And swipe occasionally at your soul.

But you'll live on in rooms I'll leave forever,
Confronting with your reservoir of patience
The rise of provosts and the fall of nations,
Equally present to the dull, the clever,
The hopeful, the hapless, and the bored, bored, bored;
Yet even for you, deaf oracle and dumb,
Milky-eyed seer, a time will surely come
When you will have passed on to your reward:

Tell us before you leave, before the earth
Possesses you again in shards and orts,
Whether you know an answer that supports
This whethering of mine, for what it's worth:
Whether, beyond us, there is aught to wonder
At what the meaningful was meant to mean,
At what can happen to us here, between
The momentary lightning and the thunder.


From Starting From Sleep: New and Selected Poems, Sewanee Writers’ Series/ The Overlook Press, 2002