From Recounting the Seasons: Poems, 1958–2005

Author: John Engels ’52


“Poems are by definition lively creatures,” writes John Engels ’52, and through the years his many creatures have enlivened the pages of The New Yorker, Harper’s, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Sewanee Review and many other magazines of note. Recounting the Seasons: Poems, 1958–2005 (University of Notre Dame Press) offers the collected work of the award-winning author, along with new and previously unpublished poetry.

Here are three poems from his collection:

Turtle Hunter

Fingers and forearms terrified and chill,
I grabbled blind in the murky water
for the sawtooth edges of carapace,

caught desperate hold, tussled and flung
into the boat the raging snapper I’d trod up
from the cobbled bottom, scabrous,

spraddled and pissing, stony jaws
agape, plastron a fringe of leeches,
the one stone that of all

the dark-enclosing others had humped
under my foot, in the dangerous throb
of startlement thrust back.

In the Palais Royale Ballroom in 1948

Just at the end of the first set I step out
in my white tux, my white shoes
onto the sequined dais at center,
into a golden spot, another focused overhead

onto the spinning, mirrored ball,
spills and whirls of gold light everywhere,
like stars, like comets hurtling across
the blue cloth ceiling of the Palais Royale Ballroom

in South Bend. And I wait,
Kenton and the boys riffing quietly behind me,
Milt Bernhart disconsolate among the trombones,
June Christie waiting, even June, for this

is mine to do alone, and everyone
knows it; and everyone
is waiting. And then
I see out there beyond the light

the dancers begin to take notice, to turn,
to gather themselves into a circle around me,
arms linked, swaying, others, little
eager knots of them, hurrying to get back,

the word having spread, even
unto the streets. And they gather around me and wait,
knowing what is to come, the air growing dense
with fragrances of gardenias, carnations,

the light that is like stars and comets
careening over the ceiling of the Palais Royale Ballroom.
They wait, and suddenly I raise to my lips
the red-gold Olds trombone,

and hit high G so clean, so sweet, so un-
endurably sustained, that the girls
I am remembering myself to have loved beyond desire
go faint with desire,

and the song is “Summertime,” and I am alone with it,
and play it out, drive through
to the last sweet resolution of the last phrase.
And then, my solo finished, the great band

riding it out behind me, the song diminishing
forever into the sky beyond the starry sky
which was the ceiling of the Palais Royale Ballroom in 1948,
my lips still numb from the embouchure, I think of it

as if in fact it might have been,
as if those dancers to whom too late and far too late
I have thought to offer this as a memory
might truly have gathered themselves around

and have remembered such a thing: the song
in its starry, high, unlikely register,
the surging of their bodies to that song:
the fragrance of light again.

Family Photographs

Who are these quaint people
who do not feel themselves perceived
and are therefore needless of glance
or touch or love, and stand

motionless, wholly contained,
behind them perhaps a fine shrubbery
or fading distances of field or lawn,
all of this under skies aglare with light

that blinded the cheap lens
in that instant of an instant which belonged
to us, to us, to us, to those among us
who opened the shutter to them

and they entered so that now they appear
to need neither to eat nor breathe air nor sleep
nor to be concerned for pain
or death or love or whatever changes

in whatever may be the world
and in utter innocence stare back
at the vacant eye of the lens
from the blind, absolute assurance of being.

From Recounting the Seasons: Poems, 1958–2005 (University of Notre Dame Press)

Reprinted with permission of the author, John Engels