On School Street

To be aware of your mortality is to be aware not only that your life will end, but also that your world will end, and indeed that it is ending all the time, forever turning into the past. “The person I once was,” James Longenbach writes, “found himself / In the present, which was the only place he could be.” Everything else was gone.

Longenbach recently bought a house by the sea on School Street, as is implied by the poem here with that address for its title. Like the boy in “Notre-Dame,” he has had to learn to live with a threatening cancer diagnosis. As you might guess from the walks traced in “Venice,” he has visited that city often enough to have memorized its maze of houses and canals, water and stone.

With the vivid dailiness of domestic life evoked in “School Street,” and the specificity and poignance of what feel like actual memories in “Notre-Dame” and “Venice,” these lyrics are intimately personal, achingly autobiographical. But they are also like dreams in which the real is symbolic, and the self’s history mixes and merges with the history of whole societies. The “I” of these poems speaks from a place alternately (or simultaneously?) in the past, present, and future.

In “Venice” and “Notre-Dame,” Longenbach writes about ancient cities that represent the height of European civilization’s refinement and power. “The lagoon is the crux of Venetian hegemony: in what other medieval city does the center of government, the home of its ruler, stand completely unprotected, meters from the sea, flaunting its delicate opulence?” Now the rising sea and sinking city declare the end of that and more. Just so, the fire in the rafters of the beloved French cathedral, a forest of “oaks and chestnuts almost a thousand years old,” is an image of the fires sweeping the globe today, from the Arctic Circle to Australia. Our Lady of Paris is burning. So is Mother Earth.

Meanwhile, way back in the past, “We’re ignorant, we’re unprepared” for the moment that has now arrived—and keeps arriving. “Doesn’t anyone / Hear the sirens, see the black smoke / Billowing against the sky?” Like the boy in “Notre-Dame,” people marry, have children, and light candles, saying their prayers, hardly looking past their own lives, while a disaster gathers.

But the mood of “School Street” is not at all apocalyptic. The poem is calmly attentive to the ordinary pleasures of particular flowers, local places such as the “paddock,” and neighbors (“Will Penny be there, too?”). The very name of this new home says that it is possible to go on living, changing, and learning. Life is a street. The world is a school.

Thus the poet and his family climb the stairs to the “crow’s nest” in the new house (“one by one,” because, even in a family, we live as separate individuals). They want to see the stars. “Hold the railing! Don’t fall!” the poet says, with anxiety about his loved ones and their future. But no one falls. Nothing falls. Not least of all the stars. They are “still shining” high above, still a source of wonder, still fit for praise.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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