Saltpetre and
Robert Frost
At the boys' school I attended
we all believed the legend
of saltpetre in the mashed potatoes.
The salt was said --- as when grease fires
flare in kitchens --- to deaden the unruly
flames of forbidden sexuality.
But if saltpetre was there truly,
it was notable for ineffectuality.
This was the same school where
they brought in some big names ---
Oppenheimer, Robert Frost,
legends in their own lifetime
to spend a week on campus in
the "Visiting Fireman" program.
They'd sit with us in class
and meet with small groups

of hand-picked students ---
myself included --- who,
with all roads open, asked
only the most general questions,
the vaguest of directions.
Frost was old, gentle,
white-haired, ever respectful
of us, but had an air as though

always holding back a laugh
at some constant running joke
as if his intercourse with us
was just a playful fragment
of an ongoing dialogue
between two lovers, the way
you'd sit a three-year-old
on your knee and tell her

in her mother's hearing she
would be even more beautiful
than her mother, if only such
perfection were possible, and the words
are heartfelt appreciation,
the hyperbole is slight;
the lovers' joke is in
the indirection.

Some people ask me today,
"Why do you write poetry?"
Sometimes I say to them
that it's my Irish blood;
other times I tell them how I shook
the feathery, parchment hand of
Robert Frost when I was seventeen,
maybe something took.

But if I say that, they ask
why I lost so many years
before I started writing.
Sometimes I answer that I counted cost;
other times I tell the legend
of saltpetre past, highlighting
the fact that it and Frost
kicked in at last

about the same time.

--- From Say Goodnight, Grace Notes:
New and Corrected Poems

©2003 Em Press
709 Marion St.
Joliet, Illinois

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