New London

 

The bob-white calling from a spacious tree

Before he slept;

The lawns, the soft green moss, the cedar quills;

And raked and swept,

The drive pale blue with granite chips.

 

For me

No other vision quite fulfils

The safety of that scene,

Which lapped about those summer trips.

 

In black and white

Aunt Leita kept

Her gently sovereign state,

Who walked,

Her arm on mine, along the faded wood piazza,

As once along the decks of ancient ships

There in the past to Europe;

 

Or sat indoors, the sheen

Of pearls and diamonds bright

Under the silk-enveloped reading light;

And all the while mosquitoes sang

While Mother sewed or talked.

 

Sometimes I wandered to the kitchen, played

At being priest

In paper vestments Margaret made

And preached to Florence and Annette.

Sometimes I went around and rang

The bell, all dressed

In rugs and shawls:

‘A missionary calls!’

And I was gravely given alms.

 

This was the world where no debt

Was, no letters with alarms;

Where money never mattered.

Aunt Leita gave and gave,

Made sure her wealth was scattered

On those who had no wealth to save;

Each act

Made generous by her tact,

Her Christlike charity.

I saw no fault from day to day.

She seems a saint to me.

 

Most mornings we would drive to town

So slowly that the breeze

No more than ruffled Fee-Fee’s ears:

Aunt Leita’s tawny Pekinese

Sat up beside the chauffeur,

Who softly, softly changed the gears

Before we parked in State Street.

 

At Geaghor Crawford’s, Peterson’s and Star’s,

The other shops I can’t remember,

The smiles were out like flags

Above the unimportant small price-tags,

And I was given crackers

By merchants who would smilingly concur

With what I said.

 

And thus I grew up thinking all men were

Kind and pleasant - as so many are

If you have money.

 

Sometimes I would be driven back

Just by myself to go in bathing,

And sat in front with Charles,

Or later with Anselmo,

Who then made good that held back speed

And raced the Cadillac

Down Pequot Avenue.

For them it was a kind of need

To prove the car could go.

 

The beach before the hurricane

Was smooth and soft and shelving.

From time to time I had to blow

The water-wings up once again

To keep afloat.

The raft was too far out

But in between the ropes I drifted,

Happy to be

Upon the sea,

Or went collecting mussel shells

From pools among the rocks,

Or in the shallows sailed

The Then What? round and round -

The boat I had been given by

Someone amused because he failed

To answer all my questions.

At one o'clock

The car would come

And take me home.

Along the bowered streets we drove

To Ocean Avenue and Glenwood Road;

And then the wheels would crunch above

That blue and shining gravel,

While through an open window soared

The music of ‘Ramona’

Played on Aunt Mary’s small victrola.

 

At lunch the pale pink cantaloup,

Each on a single leaf,

Would match the salmon-coloured gladioli.

And I would eat too many nuts, then glance

At Margaret as she poured

The giner ale and grape juice out -

A make-believe delicious wine

In that strange prohibition state

The Puritans had brought about,

which seemed much nicer than the stuff

I had with Mother on the train de luxe in France.

The meal went on and on

And at the end I had to wait

Above a Sèvres or Dresden plate

While others talked and talked.

But finally grace was said,

And I went off to bed,

Once I had had my lump of sugar dipped

In coffee.

 

Some afternoons we drove to Lyme

To see the chocolates made,

Or went to Narragansett, watched

The surf roll thundering in.

Some afternoons I stayed

Around the house,

While in the drawing-room the games

Of bridge were played.

‘Why, Mother, don’t you ever win

The prize?’ I’d ask.

‘Because it's never done.

The guests must always win. Now run

Away and play. Be good

And don't get into trouble.’

At times, it’s true, the fog would come

In from the sea,

And everything be grey;

And the fog-horn mourn

Far off, forlorn.

But the sun would shine next day.

 

I fed the goat, admired the cows,

And wandered through the roses.

I heard the bob-white call,

Returned at sunset to the house,

Kissed Mother and Aunt Leita,

And found a book to read -

A small boy, safe, at peace.

 

I came back later as a youth,

Tall, and proud, and seventeen.

Very shy, and much in need,

And stayed with Mrs Carr.

The admiral’s widow.

One of whose rooms was full of chairs

Bought from the Kaiser’s yacht.

Beyond the creaking stairs

I trod so lightly late at night

I had my poet’s attic,

And kept for swank.

But out of sight,

The quart of gin

I’m pretty sure I rarely drank.

For I was almost never in.

Gosh. it was hot

Up in that room!

I spent my time elsewhere

Especially as

The poet was

Someone who did not write.

 

The boys and girls I knew

Those summers there,

And all the fun

They gave to one

Who came to them

Almost unknown -

The friendliness which means

So much when you are young

And on your own.

The drives at night

To Ocean Beach;

Then wandering among

The shooting galleries and

The orange-drink and pop-corn stands,

Or going on

The merry-go-round,

Each

With an ice-cream cone;

The birthday parties; and the grown

Up dinners which we gave in turn.

The movies and the moon;

And talking on the sand for hours.

How innocent that time of trust

With boys and girls whose lives were just

About to open on the war.

 

And there was one

I met, as she was coming from the sea,

And to whose house I went that night

In thunder and in lightning.

I still can see the brilliant green

Flash that flung me on the grass

Before her door.

Then I ran, dripping, in.

what welcome to compare

With the welcome I had there?

The charm and manners of the South

Surrounded me - alas,

Too quick to take such kindness as my due.

She taught me ping-pong, billiards, chess,

With chocolates all the way.

Night after night I went, and each time knew

The next night I would be expected too.

Before I left I always had

A glass of sarsaparilla and a piece of cake,

Then walked along the empty streets

Back to my attic.

We laughed and talked and, half in play,

Decided we would make

America a monarchy,

And got a jeweller to design

Two pins of gold

With crossed swords and a crown.

And somewhere still I must have mine.

How it would please me now to write

A perfect line.

Which told

About her looks, her gaiety, her charm.

The kindness, which so many years away,

Is still as vivid as a lightning flash.

 

I’ve not been back since then.

Never return where you were happy.

No doubt the hurricane

Blew over more than just the boats.

No doubt the boys and girls I knew have gone.

 

This was the town where I was born,

Came back to as a child, and then

When I was almost grown.

In memory I have been

Often along those streets,

Often have seen Aunt Leita’s house

Again.

The gravel is as blue, as bright.

The bob-white

Calls beyond the green

Unchanging summer scene.

I wander in a childhood light.

 

All gone,

That world of safety, peace;

Mother, Aunt Leita, gone.

My father, who had sailed his submarine

So close to where I swam -

My father, gone.

 

And now I am

Almost as old as he.