"In the Cafe"
Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Louise Glück read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
It's natural to be tired of earth. When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven. You do what you can do in a place but after awhile you exhaust that place, so you long for rescue.
My friend falls in love a little too easily.
Every year or so a new girl—
If they have children he doesn't mind—
he can fall in love with children also.
So the rest of us get sour and he stays the same,
full of adventure, always making new discoveries.
But he hates moving, so the women have to come from here, or near here.
Every month or so, we meet for coffee.
In summer, we'll walk around the meadow, sometimes as far as the mountain.
Even when he suffers, he's thriving, happy in his body.
It's partly the women, of course, but not that only.
He moves into their houses, learns to like the movies they like.
It's not an act—he really does learn,
the way someone goes to cooking school and learns to cook.
He sees everything with their eyes.
He becomes not what they are but what they could be
if they weren't trapped in their characters.
For him, this new self of his is liberating because it's invented—
he absorbs the fundamental needs in which their souls are rooted,
he experiences as his own the rituals and preferences these give rise to—
but as he lives with each woman, he inhabits each version of himself
fully, because it isn't compromised by the normal shame and anxiety.
When he leaves, the women are devastated.
Finally they met a man who answered all their needs—
there was nothing they couldn't tell him.
When they meet him now, he's a cipher—
the person they knew didn't exist anymore.
He came into existence when they met,
he vanished when it ended, when he walked away.
After a few years, they get over him.
They tell their new boyfriends how amazing it was,
like living with another woman, but without the spite, the envy,
and with a man's strength, a man's clarity of mind.
And the men tolerate this, they even smile.
They stroke the woman's hair—
they know this man doesn't exist; it's hard for them to feel competitive.
You couldn't ask, though, for a better friend,
a more subtle observer. When we talk, he's candid and open,
he's kept the intensity we all had when we were young.
He talks openly of fear, of the qualities he detests in himself.
And he's generous—he knows how I am just by looking.
If I'm frustrated or angry, he'll listen for hours,
not because he's forcing himself, because he's interested.
I guess that's how he is with the women.
But the friends he never leaves—
With them, he's trying to stand outside his life, to see it clearly—
Today he wants to sit; there's a lot to say,
too much for the meadow. He wants to be face to face,
talking to someone he's known forever.
He's on the verge of a new life.
His eyes glow, he isn't interested in the coffee.
Even though it's sunset, for him
the sun is rising again, and the fields are flushed with dawn light,
rose colored and tentative.
He's himself in these moments, not pieces of the women
he's slept with. He enters their lives as you enter a dream,
without volition, and he lives there as you live in a dream,
however long it lasts. And in the morning, you remember
nothing of the dream at all, nothing at all.
Louise Glück's new book, A Village Life, will appear this September.
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