Henry went inside, first to the kitchen where he put on a kettle of water for tea. He took down from the cupboard a teacup and saucer of the plain white hardier china that Molly had liked to call her everyday dishes. He removed from the drawer the silver tea thimble and filled it with aromatic and smoothly cut brown leaves. He closed the tiny lid and draped it inside the empty cup, dangling its dainty chain outside the rim.
While he waited for the water to boil and whistle, Henry went into his study, and looked within a section of mahogany bookshelves behind his desk, to the right of where hung his degree from Mount Union College, class of 1888. He read his name upon the framed certificate and felt a flush of brief nostalgia. He wondered what of his things Harvey would put into the attic, and how soon. Presently Henry was reminded what he'd come looking for, and he spied it then, one shelf up, a book bound in jade green cloth with gilt typography on the spine. It was a new volume of poetry, 1923, out not quite two years, Sonnets to Orpheus, from the German, Rainer Maria Rilke. He took it down and turned to the table of contents.
He closed the book on his index finger and walked over into the light beaming downward through the tall curtainless window. Standing there, Henry opened the book and pointed to the titles of the poems and traced his finger down the page until he came to XIII, and beside it the poem's first line: "Be ahead of all parting ". He opened the book to page 43, the entire brief poem laid out there, then moved his eyes to the top line and, when his breathing had moved deep into this chest, and seemed calm and steady, began reading aloud:
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.
Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days, be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.
Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums, joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
The teakettle whistled into the quiet of the house, and Henry took the small book into the kitchen with him and put it on the table while he prepared his cup of tea. While he stirred in a teaspoon of sugar, and considered Rilke's line "to all that is used-up", there came a knock on the back door. Henry looked up and saw through the door's window glass Will Webb standing there.
He sat down his cup, distracted from his visitor for a moment by the heady steam rising and curling upward like tendrils from the tiny cup. They seemed to rise in slow motion, almost as if they would at any moment gather themselves into--into what? A script, some revelation in ghost writing? Some elucidation of how one might serenely add, as the poet suggested, one's own name to the roll call of the soon-dead? Before he could invite him in, Preacher Webb opened the back door and came in.
"Got another one of those?" he asked, gesturing toward the cup on the table.
"It'll just take a minute. Have a seat, Will."
Will drew into the room, and Henry noticed the wind-fixed scent of earth and stone, grass and trees, attending his friend, swirling in upon the chilled air as he sat down and removed his hat.
While Henry busied himself making another cup of tea Will took the volume of poetry from the table and began leafing through it, too rapidly, Henry noted, to be taking notice of any lines.
Excerpted from The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer Copyright © 2005 by Sonny Brewer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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