Dr Hilberry Considers the War
Dr Hilberry glimpsed the low sun
through the diamond panes of the bow window
at the School of Graduate Studies.
When he heard that the war had begun
he put Baudelaire’s black poems back on the shelf
and walked home to compose an elegant
Petrarchan sonnet about the universal soldier.
Before dinner he took a solid walk
lamenting how sour and out of joint the times were.
After a bibulous party at the dean’s house
he read a heavy book before going to bed
but he didn’t know then that in the war zone
Dr Hassan, his alter ego, was shuddering over
his wife’s pierced body in a ditch.
Dr Hilberry snorted in his sleep.
In the ferocious gloom
he considered driving a spade
through his colleague’s ribcage
for reasons which even then were muddled in his mind.
Next morning a wet wind fanned his terror,
convincing him to observe rocks on his windy walk
and stir the bottom of a small pond with a stick.
He squatted in shadow as a bird on a high branch
postulated a long note to the air
in the forest where on a fine day he’d meet
his bird-watching friends slipping among trees.
He didn’t squeeze any consolation from his walk
but it served his need for discretion.
Back in his study he resolved
to answer letters, not to exaggerate, and to be kind.
At 8 o’clock, after proposing a toast in white wine,
a glum thought floated to him─
that if he sneezed with his eyes open
his eyeballs would fly out, causing the chatter to die.
In fact, there was no convulsion, no abatement
of scholarly discourse. Yet he remained anxious.
Like us, though, he wasn’t aware that others,
scarified by dark flames, howled in ditches
after bombs targeted a road. That was in another
country; even so our teeth were broken.
Here nothing comes, no bird or small animal,
into the grove above the waterfall
streaming from Apple River where they found,
after ten days’ searching,
the body of the murdered girl.
He came in unexpectedly and then beat a path
up and down the living-room.
Declining a drink he spoke of getting his teeth fixed
and of the 7 years of famine
that mandated his feelings about the next 40 years.
He was always disconcerted, he said,
by immoderate day-watches and shadowy presences.
In early morning as density of light
incrementally resisted the dark
he thought about Dr Porter, whether he should get
his autograph or slog him with a shovel.
After coffee, he walked along the parapet 6 floors up,
trusting that the ineffable Lord of Events
(large or small) was gazing benignly down.
He felt vexed that the plumber hadn’t come.
Assured, the army spokeswoman contended that the war
would likely last ‘an unknown amount of time’.
Sitting neatly before TV, Dr Hilberry shrank her words
and picked up the Arts Council’s circular.
He guessed that his father would die all over again
while he had no way of knowing if he (himself)
would at the same instant be murdered or liberated.
It’s dark now. Rain on the roof delivers its plaudits.
Dr Hilberry worries that his hair is falling out.
In the bathroom he rinses his teeth in whisky,
wonders whether the law should be kept or broken,
wonders what’s already treading down the corridor,
wonders whether his notion is fact or whim,
intent on pouring down the plughole all those bright dull years
which he didn’t have the will anymore to forgive.