BACK TO SCHOOL
Poem for Today - August 16, 2014
A LESSON IN HANDWRITING
Try first this figure 2,
how, from the point of the pen,
clockwise it unwinds itself
downward to the line,
making itself a pedestal to stand on.
Watch now. Before your eyes it becomes a swan
drifting across the page, its neck so carefully
poised, its inky eye
lowered in modesty.
As you continue, soon,
between the thin blue lines,
swan after swan sails beautifully past you,
margin to margin, 2 by 2 by 2—
a handwritten swirl of swans.
Under them now unroll
the soft, curled pillows of the 6's,
the acrobatic 3's, the angular 7's,
the hourglass 8's, and the neat tadpole 9's,
each passing in review
on stilts or wheels or platforms
in copybook order.
Turn the page, for now
comes the alphabet, an eccentric
parade of odd characters. If at first you tangle,
now and again, in a loop or a twirl,
no matter. Each in time will dawn
as faces and animals do, familiar,
laughable, crooked, quirky.
Begin with the letter S. Already
it twists away from the pen like a snake or a watch spring,
coiled up and back to strike. SSSS, it says,
hissing and slithering off into the ferns of the F’s.
Follows a line of stately Q's floating
just off the ground, tethered by their tails,
over the folded arms of the W's
and the akimbo M's. Open-eyed, the O's
roll after them like bubbles blown away.
Feel how the point curls round them lovingly
after the serious three-tongued E's.
See now how the page fills up
with all the furniture of writing—the armchair H’s,
the ladders and trestles of A's and Y's and X's,
the T-shaped tables and the upholstered B's.
The pen abandons a whole scaffolding
of struts and braces, springs and balances,
on which will rest eventually
the weight of a written world, storey on storey
of words and vows, all the long-drawn-out telling
that pens become repositories of.
These are now your care, and you may give them
whatever slant or human twist you wish
if it should please you. But you will not alter
their scrawled authority, durable
as stone, silent, grave, oblivious
of all you make them tell.
Tomorrow, words begin.
© Alastair Reid
In The New Yorker
Book of Poems,
Selected by the Editors
Of the New Yorker,
Morrow Quill Paperbacks,
New York, 1974