An Ideal of Itself

by James Seay

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.

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.