"The Fate of Pleasure"*

A weekly poem, read by the author.
June 23 2009 6:42 AM

"The Fate of Pleasure"*

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Peg Boyers read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
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Hardly native and far from naked, these dignified
loungers by the Hudson stroll in their Sunday best,
white as the lilies in the foreground, white
as the sails on the little boats below
navigating the river, white as the scentless smoke
pluming up from the passing steamboat. In this Sunday idyll

the mill's emissions across the way seem to our idle
onlookers harmless, improbably elegant, dignified.
Such feathery streams of benign smoke
are sure signs of a singular prosperity. All the best
families know this. No need to consider what below
the smoke burns, what beneath the river's crisp white

crests gathers and congeals. Above, the white
surface and the complacent sense of an afternoon idyll
in the park where leisure reigns are all that matter. Below
the presiding sycamore a boy crouches, rather undignified
but engaged in addressing a cat trying her best
to look like a dog. Why notice the forbidden smoke

from his Southern cousin facing the tree? Discreet with his smoke,
he turns away so it dissolves without a trace into the white
clouds above. His father is fresh from Havana with cigars and sugar, the best
available. New cargo will replace the old: runaways enjoying their newfound idyll
make easy marks. He lures them with lies, promises of protection, a dignified
life. He'll keep a few, chain the rest. The catch of the day he'll stash below—

necessarily confined to reside below
in the dank, unlit hull, their skin darker than smoke,
dark as their master's satin top hat, upright and dignified
on his proud Southern head, dark even as his patent boots. His white
masterly jaw under a full, black mustache stays clenched against all idle-
ness, though today he'll spend with his Yankee wife the best

afternoon hours, strolling without purpose among the best
families of the faultless town. His mind strays to the cargo below,
the price it will fetch in Charleston; he smiles at the way his idle
son hides his new habit, blowing into the sycamore the smoke
from the puro he stole from the Havana cache, his white
shirt immaculate, his wiles instinctual, integral as his gloves to his dignified

Sunday best. Though it is the Sabbath and the mill across the river below is idle,
its spindles still, our languorous strollers ignore the anomalous smoke
spreading—relentless, white—across the sky on this dignified day of rest.

*After Outing on the Hudson, c. 1850, by anonymous, 19 x 24 inches, oil on cardboard, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, Williamsburg, N.Y.

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Peg Boyers is executive editor of Salmagundi magazine and author of Hard Breadand Honey With Tobacco. She teaches creative writing at Skidmore College.

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