Kay Boyle (1902-1992) lived an exciting life in Paris in the yeasty 1920’s and 30’s, mingling with Beckett and Joyce and Djuna Barnes and serving there as foreign correspondent for The New Yorker. She married three times, and in her later years taught college in San Francisco.
Though her poetic output was slight compared to her 24 books of fiction and several works of nonfiction, it is significant nonetheless, notable for its hardy lyricism and passionate tone. Kay’s political activism is grist for much of her poetry and she kept this work lively with imagery and ringing language, avoiding the pitfall of harangue. I confess a preference for her less political work, which seems more punchy and economical.
HuntThe buckhounds went on under the rain
with the wet fern swinging lace over their eyes
and their skins hanging like crumpled velvet
the bucks shod with leaves like silk sandals
danced on chopsticks over the suey of red lizards
the gentlemen slapped with their crop-butts at their clean leather
Now the gentlemen turn back out of the high dripping world
to fires that repeat themselves in the copper
of andirons and whiskey glasses
with the throats of the buckhounds sunk over their insteps
and the hound teats bruised blue on the fine floor
Dreams DreamedSpring birds wing to the feeding tray
As Bowery bums wing to a bar. Their wings
Are slick as worn-out sleeves. They sing,
Both birds and bums, melodiously and grievously.
Their feet are thin. Both species wing
To seed and drink with lidless eyes.
Could I but strew in with the sunflower seeds
That wild beaks seek, the dreams
Contained within the eggshell skulls of bums,
Would I not be both bird and bum, and seed and drink,
And grief and melody? Would I not see
With equal clarity the morning star,
And the glass left empty at the corner bar?
Advice to the Old (Including Myself)Do not speak of yourself (for God’s sake) even when asked.
Do not dwell on other times as different from the time
Whose air we breathe; or recall books with broken spines
Whose titles died with the old dreams. Do not resort to
An alphabet of gnarled pain, but speak of the lark’s wing
Unbroken, still fluent as the tongue. Call out the names of stars
Until their metal clangs in the enormous dark. Yodel your way
Through fields where the dew weeps, but not you, not you.
Have no communion with despair; and, at the end,
Take the old fury in your empty arms, sever its veins,
And bear it fiercely, fiercely to the wild beast’s lair.
Ode to a Maintenance Man and his FamilyRenato O. Jones, you maintain my beliefs
And service my thoughts when they cease to function.
You repair the ailing equipage of the present, transform
The past into flowers around the shuffle-board court
Where there were none before. You speak
The melodious languages of countries that bask
In the sun, employ vacuum respirator as though
It were a rod or staff from the garden of Paradise.
You anoint windowpanes with Windex and kneel
In concern for stains on the carpeting,
As men knelt in ancient cathedrals where their voices
Murmured in prayer. You restore me with dance-steps
From harbors you knew: Shanghai, Marseilles, Trinidad,
And how many others. The songs that you sing
(As you unclog drains or retrieve lights when bulbs
Flicker and fail, or weave copper patches into the webs
Of damaged screen doors) are magical with the music
Of names of your family: Carmelita, Christopher, Dissere,
Alex and Mark, and Kevin and Kenneth and Kerwin.
Each day you say to me—not in words but in the eloquence
Of your presence—that infinite patience with mankind is everything.
October 1954Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning.
October, and the month fills me with grief
For the girl who used to run with the black dogs through them,
Singing, before they burned. Light as a leaf
Her heart, and her mouth red as the sumac turning.
Oh, girl, come back to tell them with your bell-like singing
That you are this figure who stands alone, watching the dead leaves burn.
(The wind is high in the trees, and the clang of bluejay voices ringing
Turns the air to metal. This is not a month for anyone who grieves.)
For they would say that a witch had passed in fury if I should turn,
Gray-haired and brooding, and run now as I once ran through the leaves.
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