John Harris

(This poem first appeared in The Caledonian, IV, 3, March 1976.  Copyright John Harris)

In this monody, the author bewails a learned friend, who suffered an unfortunate heart attack in the faculty washroom while on his way to a freshman English class.

This is a poem about the man who died with his pants down
in the washroom, at the end of the hall
You knew him, and recall
how, two on a side, we carried him out of there
laid him in his office across two chairs
went back to our work

Who were the friends of the man who died with his pants down?
We knew him only as a quiet man
who, if he talked to devils or to angels
did it in the washroom at the end of the hall
with his pants around his ankles
Oh he was witty, and he wrote
poems on his blotters, doodles on the minutes
of departmental meetings, and perhaps
(we all suspected, though we never spoke)
those gnomic lines of elegaic note
cosmic taunts and jokes
that multiplied like paradisal fruit
or hothouse plants, until
their leafy tendrils filled
the anemic seedbed of the washroom wall

What were the thoughts of the man who died with his pants down?
Did he worry that his legs were bare
his turds unflushed, was he amazed that death should scent him there
where he had felt so certain, so secure
or did he inly grin to know
that popes and generals in all their pride
never knew him, yet all had been there, all
familiars in the place where he did fall?

What prayers shall we say for the man who died with his pants down?
what tribute, what flower lay on one who knew
only the frail touch of the sun through glass
the breath of wind in city streets, who saw
the sun, moon, stars, and seasons pass
like wasted ghosts?  Shall we transport
from its cracked saucer near the window pane
the gray geranium that he nursed in vain
with chemicals and love
to flower, or lay some humble weed on him
tufted in sidewalk cracks, abandoned lots
or let some pensioned neighbor cut for him
the hard-won harvest of a window box?

Let none wish for him
saintly intercession, heavenly grace
Eden or Arcady
for what have these to do with such as he
who only knew and could admit
touches, words, light, a loving face
bewitching dark, the children's charms
that fix death's inexorable hand
and the brave indifference of wit
rumors of angels, powers that won for him
more than the venerable quackery
of politics, religion, poetry
by windy terms with death, whose grinning scythe
fears the earth-bound root
can ever get

What monument provide, what words inscribe
memorial to the man who died with his pants down?
Let some unblemished, grassy spot be his
where leaves are free to fall, and let no stone
commemorate his name and date
and be the last of his estate
which never was substantial.  Let him fade
from memory as fast
as earth distills his body into dust
and let him be, as once he was with us

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