James Seay 

Nine poems by James Seay, selected by Billy Reynolds:

The Fire of Both the Old Year and the New   •In Residence   •When Once Friends   •Tiffany & Co.   •Faith as an Arm of Culture, Culture as an Arm of Narration   •Inside, Outside, the Dialectics Once More   •Not Something in a Magazine   •Mountains by Moonlight   •An Ideal of Itself

"From the Understory: A View of James Seay’s Poetry," Commentary by Billy Reynolds


At year’s end my wife and I build a small fire
of whim that began one year when all the corks
we were saving for we knew not what (compost
or some other conserving gesture) came to mind.

From the couch we lob into the flames what remains
of our year’s decanting, and the fire increases
cork by chosen cork until the room is soft glow
with what we imagine is pure residuum

of the wine itself, flame of first vapor respired
into the moist cork and now held desiccate there
in the one sailing across the coffee table
toward the fire of both the old year and the new.

One of the many pleasures here is the calling
again of the vintner’s name and what we remember
of his sanguine gift, though that is not to suggest
It was all vin rouge, for there were the little whites

too, and blushes, whatever labels caught our eye
or won us to their cause by their truth in the mouth,
the cup of kindness, taken yet for auld lang syne,
but taken too for the small fire of the moment.


If the old Slav is sad,
walking stooped and slow
to the end of the chateau’s jetty,
is it because I found him
away from his desk
of translations, watching game shows
on the channel from Cannes,
or that the remote control
he is enthralled to
has in some way failed or confounded him?
Or is it because he breaks line at buffet
and suffers stares of wonder,
or that he eats
as through a hood,
and hoards wine at his plate?
Or is it the grayness of today’s Mediterranean
following yesterday’s azure
in the brief window of plenty
he has been awarded
for these three months of winter,
or the grayness of all his sweaters,
or his hair that was once bold?
Though they talked—with understanding,
it seemed—I do not think he saw himself
in the village drunk, who died last week
on the bench outside our gate.
And so it may be the weight
of one moment, the way the day began,
the bad dream carried over,
or something his father said too many times.
Or it may be that the skeleton of fence
and bunker at the jetty’s end
has opened the album of far-off Sachsenhausen,
his barbed-wire house in 1941,
labor that almost set him free from breath.
It may be the hormonal tide falling slack
or simply the friendly note we all got,
reminding us in two days our residencies are done.
How he danced last night
in front of the big fire at our farewell dinner
and now is sad.
The picture he had made me take—
him at his desk, manuscript in hand,
the fine room and windowed sea as background—
I couldn’t be sure if it was a keepsake
or a flash of the cynical, saving Slavic wit,
something he’d share with cronies back home,
his photo joke of luxury on loan.
When I was sick from shellfish toxin,
he wrote a funny poem for me in French,
rhyming comique with la bombe atomique.
He wrote that the mussel is a little beast,
but soft, savory, and choice.




I can tell this fairly quick,
the two narrative lines sharing a common angle
and there being mist in both instances.
As for why my friend and I
were running a rented fishing boat
through morning fog on dead reckoning,
it was a matter of wanting to arrive early and alone
at the shrimp farm where sea trout
were working along the fence for strays.
More than anything I remember the angle,
something sure and strict in my reading,
of the cabin cruiser that came out of the fog
and crossed our bow close enough for us
to know again it was not our special selves
or anything our wives knew about greyhounds
that had paid us eleven-to-one on two-dollar bets
at the dog track the night before.
A name on the racing form more lyric than the next,
a combination of favored colors in the silks,
the worn luck of the draw,
were what bought us beer in green bottles
instead of cans for the weekend.
The cruiser never looked back
at my friend and me and our luck
rolling in their wake.
The other angle was of a plane in the clouds,
the only time I’ve ever been ferried by private charter.
Going up through cloud cover
the young pilot said he didn’t have radar
and had never been to where I was going,
so we’d have to come back down through the clouds
in a calculated while and look around for a landmark.
His co-pilot pointed to a symbol
for a checkered water tower on the chart.
All I could add to the basic rhopalic of clock,
compass, and radio was another eye,
the one pointing my finger toward the Cessna
that had just slipped through the gauze
of our future like a cruiser
and laid down for the second time in my life
the providential angle.
Those twin incidents were long
ago and whatever has made
my friend remote and finally silent
as he goes about his days
is as hidden to me as the way two such moments
could conform so in texture and geometric circumstance.
One other thing:
after we found the water tower
and were parked on the runway,
the pilot walked around the nose of the plane
to where I was standing with my bags.
He reached up and broke a sleeve of ice
from the leading edge of the wing
and offered half to me.
His co-pilot had forgotten to fill the water jug.
After a few minutes of small talk
he taxied up the runway,
lifting into the overcast winter.
I stood there beside the one road leading in,
waiting for my ride and thinking of how the morning
cleared on the wide sound
and we caught the speckled trout
our wives broiled with pimiento and Parmesan,
lemon and parsley.
we drank the beer in green bottles,
saying the wonderful names of the winning hounds
all through the evening.
That was what I remembered that winter day
and what I remember now is both that and the angle—
and standing there on the small runway,
eating the ice of unknowing alone,
its cloud, where we had been.




For Elizabeth Spencer

Leafing through a friend’s catalogue—
the Fall Selection 1987—
I linger on something the blue of a robin’s egg
and wonder why I’ve never bought any of these objets,
never felt the specific fetish-force
of the commodity behind the revolution
of their brass doors or 800 number.
There’s possibly history to explain:
we could go back, say, seventy years
to when my mother and JFK were born
and take a look around:
Freud’s new Intro to Psychoanalysis on one hand,
Lenin entering the Winter Palace on the other,
but mainly there’s the paradigmatic news
every winter day in Tyro, Mississippi,
of no indoor plumbing and a dead aunt’s
five children extra to feed,
which lasted right on through my kindergarten
of visits to Granny’s.
                        So why on Bolshaya Morskaya
would I go looking for Fabergé’s old Saint Petersburg shop
when where Lenin had breakfast
with smoldering Bolsheviks was just around the corner?
Well, maybe to have pissed into both figurative
wind and a hole in the ground
is to be drawn to the abstract gloss
of privilege as though it might incorporate
and invite us to its private Mardi Gras—
such parades in life, for instance, as lunch
with the woman in Georgetown
whose every emblem was Camelot,
right down to the sterling frame for the presidential scrawl
on a scrap of teletype
thanking her for the intro to Ian Fleming
and 007.
But it didn’t seem, on Bolshaya Morskaya, the same dream
of Fat Tuesday’s carnival and masquerade.
I thought of old Fabergé, Russian to the bone and in Swiss exile
while Bolsheviks, quit with eating fable-cake,
were already breaking rank and bellying up
to the tsar’s bar, the monkey
of power settling on their backs,
jeweled eggs glittering in their words.
Power’s not like Bond’s regimental gin;
it wants to be stirred never shaken:
sooner or later there’s the commissioned aria,
the room of shoes worn once or never,
cinema’s kitten purr.
Or the threadbare velvet glove
on the stainless steel hand
the cautious in any century recognize.
                                                She didn’t smile—
my Intourist guide in Moscow—
but I meant it only as a joke
when I asked her if there was a tunnel
between the headquarters of the KGB
and the country’s largest store for children’s toys,
just across the street.
One imperial egg in the Kremlin nearby
still has as it surprise the miniature
Tran-Siberian Railway train.
Another opens to reveal Nicholas’ yacht
scaled down in gold.
We have to imagine the crossties & rails, the constant steppes,
in all seasons, to the sea,
imagine the sea as well, and the globe
we want to shape and shape again.



All those miles, the dark water beneath us
as we slept in the wide rows.
From Heathrow, jet-lagging and hugging the left
eight hours into the moors
to walk through the open gate
beside the flower garden and find it—
right where she said on the transatlantic telephone,
my friend Bonnie from Georgia,
away for the weekend with her fiancé in France:
the back door key
up under the mop bucket,
her grandmother’s language and habit.


            for my son Josh


How could we have known or cared with our tourist cameras
whether it was Sterno or Campbell’s Soup?
The hook was how he had disconnected
the lights on the Christmas tree
outside the Church of the Heavenly Rest
and plugged his hot plate into the only extension cord
he could find in the east Eighties.
That, and maybe the fact that our heads were so full of van Gogh.
The cipher, that is, of the same hand holding and letting go:

we had wondered for hours at the nearly ninety canvases
of the final year and a summer,
seventy of them done in as many days, the numbers alone
a closure we couldn’t shake off.
Like the others in the museum line
we looked for signs of ultimate intent,
the suppressio veri he had surely coded for detection
so that we would overtake him on the road outside Auvers
before he reached the suicide field.

But except for a crow over a wheat field
we were left with olive trees and cypresses,
the great starry night, irises, two views of Daubigny’s garden.
If most of that seems to spiral from cyclotrons
or strain toward fission like a vision of nuclear day,
consider its valency also in the way of life
coming back around to life in the constant cosmic charities.
So what was our evidence finally
but a further calculus of alternatives?

Another portrait of how we might be lifted and turned
was the Oriental woman high in the bell tower
on Christmas Day. I raised my camera once,
then let it drop unshuttered, the way her eyes were shut
and taking in the sun glancing off the river,
the way her hands rested
on the railing around the carillonneur’s booth
as French and Dutch carols pealed from the tons of bells
and shook even the stones that held us there.

If the portrait seems a Zen cliché almost,
consider that I mean also the way Rockefeller millions
had put Handel finally in the air around us
nearly four hundred feet over Riverside, the way her coat
was crimson against her black hair, her butterfly blow
whimsical and silver in the winter light.
Consider that later as my son and I ate the sushi & sashimi
combination on Christmas afternoon, something
we had planned days before, we talked as much of the double-

square canvasses van Gogh had turned to at the very end
or of photographs we might have had
as of anything Eastern or otherworldly.
One final turn, though: if our talk seems remote
from the events and unrelated to the chemistry of warm saki
or how we walked out onto Broadway near sunset
the light was the light of boulevards and fields held
in the pledge of return, consider that we knew containment was not
those formal things alone, the way the world everywhere we found it

seemed something other than other.




It was intelligent enough, what the photographer had been saying
as I drifted out the door. Something about Susanne Langer on
That there was as much for me in the moon and stars
tilting in the oval mirror I held at angles to the summer sky
is a measure of nights and days with so little glamour
I’d just as soon forget how I tried first to find my face
in the mirror mounted on the stranger’s dresser,
left for some reason overnight in the yard across from the party I’d
Yard sale, fresh paint, bad memories, I don’t know why.
What I remember, after the cliché of self seen in shadow and silhouette,
is turning the mirror on its hinges heavenward
and standing there shifting from one oval of night to another.
Readings have come to take the place of genuine witness,
she said in her book, referring to the reflectors and signals of science
and how the finality of sense-data was the cue of a former epoch.
The week before I’d watched the clerk at the hardware store
hammer out my name a letter at a time on a brass tag for my dog
and as he neared the end I realized I was following his hand
letter by letter with the notion that he was pulling the alphabet
that would spell me in a different way to the dream I had of myself.
But the final die, Y, came from between the X and Z I’d always
I didn’t mean by glamour something in a magazine.
At its roots it draws on knowing and mystery circling within desire
like a system almost, but constant only in its moment,
a grammar of signs transformed and transforming.
I know the dreamer over the pool was not a genuine witness
or scientist of the first water, reading himself alone in the mediate
And I know you weren’t out there, pilgrim, with the mirror
horizontal in your hands, panning the oval waters like a fool,
but you understand: maybe something renewable in the skittering
maybe a likeness we could carry back across the street and call our




The postcard Harry Martin
could have gone to Mars
and not found a better full moon
for his Mountains by Moonlight.
It looks like a photograph
that’s been hand-tinted and stars added.
When they were young
our grandparents sent it home
wishing everyone was there in the space
for writing messages.
The matte finish softens the moonlight
to where it’s almost melancholy.
We don’t know whether to lie down
and embrace our aloneness together on Earth
or fly to the moon.
It’s pure nature,
not a model T or AAA sign in sight,
but we know that outside the frame
the technology’s in place for flight,
organ transplants, just about anything
you could imagine.
We know that beyond the mountains by moonlight
there is an architecture
our grandparents had leave finally
in the same way they left these mountains.
We know that when we draw arrows,
as they did, to hotel windows
it’s both to separate ourselves
from the sheer sameness of things my room was
here and yet double the evidence
we were part of that sameness
my room was there.
Once for a magazine article
I located Scott Fitzgerald’s room
at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville
by standing in the parking lot
and counting up to the window
he had x’d on a postcard.
From the terrace he could see
the lights of Highland Hospital
where Zelda thought she was talking
to Christ and William the Conqueror and Mary Stuart.
Not even the mountains by moonlight
could put him to sleep,
so he took Luminal and Amytal
and a young married woman from Memphis.
Two years later he was in Hollywood.
We don’t know if it was silliness
or loneliness that prompted the postcard
he sent to himself at the Garden of Allah
where he had rooms.
When they came home they brought us honey
in small jars shaped like bears,
assembly-line tom-toms with rubber heads,
cities we could shake into blizzards.
They asked if we got the cards.
Next year it would be palm trees
and a crescent moon.
We couldn’t imagine them under those moons
with anything other than hearts
lifting to the broadened horizon.
We couldn’t imagine them as having ever doubted
the light as they found it.



Sometimes laughter moved through the field
of feeling between us
in a way that made any notion but happiness
seem impossible. Not that we were stoned

or careless—just that we had been circled
from the start by a shared medium
the craziness and goodness
of the world could be filtered through.

We could ride with the top down
and the manic outpatients
trying to stroll
as a community of believers

along the sidewalk in their prescribed happy plaids
and fresh lithium couldn’t have been funnier
for all the heartache in Alabama.
Say what you want to, we didn’t laugh out loud

at them or the Greek restaurant
owner’s oversized painting of the Acropolis in purples
and blues with philosophers lopsided
under clouds bearing their famous names like thought—

nor give anything less than his smile in kind
when he sent wine to the table
on our last night in his small town on the Chesapeake.
“For the young lovers,” he said.

It’s not that one way of reading
the world made up the tenor of our days and nights;
it all curves
in various arcs with the ongoing seasonal light.

Any mode of receiving the news of the moment alters
and is altered. Keats heard in the nightingale’s voice
a full-throated ease transformed to plaintive anthem
within the course of a single song.

Even years later, though, when so little appeared
to be shared, there was still the middle-aged widow
from across the street , lost in time
and grief, asking on our doorstep to borrow

a birth control pill for a vacation with her new boyfriend.
And so always there’s the sad thing with its tiny window
of negotiable hope. The noseless three-fingered politician
on local TV who was burned in the war:

When he jumped extempore
into a four-point speech with a finger for each point,
there wasn’t a doubt about how to face the moment together.
Some of what Santayana says of the beautiful

comes to mind, a passage about its fulfilling a condition
in which there is no inward standard at odds
with the outward fact. In the way, say, light might rhyme
with an ideal of itself,

for good or ill, how Yeats cried and trembled
and rocked to and fro/Riddled with light
from the cold heaven that curved him unreasonably one day
into the blame of years past and aloneness,

its quantum his being
for the moment. I know there’s a question
of what kind of witness to bear, what calls
on the past to make, what rhyming;

and I know that in sounding the memory we’ve made of feeling,
not everything is told in these extremes.
More and more often all I remember
is this or that landscape we passed through on our way somewhere.


©1997 James Seay, from Open Field, Understory, New and Selected Poems (LSU Press), reprinted by permission of the author

James Seay was born in Panola County, Mississippi, in 1939. His publications include four collections of poetry (most recently, Open Field, Understory), two limited editions of poetry, and a documentary film about big-game hunting in East Africa, In the Blood (1990), co-written with the film’s director George Butler. His poetry has been selected for inclusion in some thirty anthologies. He has also published essays in general-interest magazines such as Esquire and in literary journals such as Antaeus. From 1987-1997 he served as director of the Creative Writing Program at UNC-CH. His honors include an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Bowman and Gordon Gray Professorship (1996-1999) for excellence in undergraduate teaching.