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NIGHT AIR

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sometimes the ability to convey information compactly and quickly has moral grace. Economy in writing can put garrulous narration or evasive speechifying to shame. Here is the first poem in a new book by C. Dale Young:

NIGHT AIR

"If God is Art, then what do we make

of Jasper Johns?" One never knows

what sort of question a patient will pose,

or how exactly one should answer.

Outside the window, snow on snow

began to answer the ground below

with nothing more than foolish questions.

We were no different. I asked again:

"Professor, have we eased the pain?"

Eventually, he'd answer me with:

"Tell me, young man, whom do you love?"

"E," I'd say, "None of the Above,"

and laugh for lack of something more

to add. For days he had played that game,

and day after day I avoided your name

by instinct. I never told him how

we often wear each other's clothes --

we aren't what many presuppose.

Call it an act of omission, my love.

Tonight, while walking to the car,

I said your name to the evening star,

clearly pronouncing the syllables

to see your name dissipate

in the air, evaporate.

Only the night air carries your words

up to the dead (the ancients wrote):

I watched them rise, become remote.

Rapidly, yet without any sense of hurry, information about three people is conveyed in passing: not only profession (in the third line) , sexual orientation and educational level but also subtler matters of personality and humor.

"In passing" -- well, not exactly: In a work of art, it may be that every moment is part of the destination. The end-rhyming of the second and third lines of each stanza and the banter of patient and doctor are part of the rich, ambiguous conclusion, where the intimacy of a spoken name rises toward the dead in the night air. The "foolish," solicitous and respectful question the doctor asks the patient becomes part of the implicit question of the final lines: In relation to the particular dead people in anyone's life, or in relation to mortality itself, have art and intimacy eased the pain?

(C. Dale Young's poem "Night Air" can be found in his new book, "The Second Person." Four Way Books. Copyright 2007 by C. Dale Young.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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