Joshua Lavender



You go suddenly wide awake, and the gate shuts. 

—Stanley Plumly, “Horse in the Cage” 


His pencil floated over the page,

jabbed at the praiseworthy, struck the clichéd,

intolerant of bullshit—the errant word

seldom a matter of style, rather self-deception,

the poet’s overweening wish to be a poet.

“If you can’t see it,” he said, “it doesn’t exist.”

Then he went on, snorting a bit as he corrected,

a single word sufficing for marginalia

as he spoke aloud his immediate reactions,

seeming not to have read the poem beforehand—

and perhaps he hadn’t. From where I sat,

opposite the desk, I learned to read

the rise of his eyebrows, flicker of his smile,

his disarming directness—every praise

proportionate to the praised, earned.

Every damnation, too. “Here”—an X

graffitied my bleeding heart—“you’re writing

past the point.” The pencil drew a line:

“The poem ends there. Find your way out of it.”

On to the next try, then to the revisions,

no respite, hardly even a glance at me

melting in my chair. Like a stationmaster

keeping schedule, obligated to it, the next train

half an hour away—or already waiting

outside the office door. A failed metaphor,

he’d have called that. The last poem marked,

he perused shelves for a book, this time Dickey,

passed my drafts back with it. “Next month,

we’ll talk about it.” Which, I knew by then,

meant we wouldn’t say much. Still, he expected

I’d read and take the lesson he had in mind.

“How goes the teaching, kiddo?” And with that—

a few pleasantries but no more questions—

we were done. Leaving, my ears aflame, I nodded

to the next-in-line, ducked out for a smoke,

then went home and bent to the Super Sterling,

one object only before me: I’ll show him.


Six years passed. He died. I hadn’t shown him

one worthy thing. Sitting in a university library

between meetings with students, I thumbed

a magazine, reading his final poems

as writ in water as my own, as any.

And then it sank in, the ache went deep:

I couldn’t write one word more to him,

not of love or apology or thanks.

It was like losing a father. “The gate shuts,”

he wrote. The gate shuts and here I am

on the other side, writing past the last line.