Portrait of My Husband Reading Henry James

Rather, it is in the shorter history of America,
not England, not Italy, that we find ourselves
in the perfect middle of a rainy summer afternoon
inside a 1930’s shingled boathouse long since
beached on a low hill out of water’s reach,
and plumbed and electrified for habitation.
No effort has been made to hide its origins.
Old masts and spars wait in the overhead rafters.
Blocks and tackle, coiled in figure eight knots,
loop from hooks on the wooden walls’ open studs.
The faded blue transom of Will o’ the Wisp,
my mother-in-law’s 1920’s childhood Sneakbox,
hangs on its traveler over the west window as if
the bow and midship had sailed into the dark wood.

The person concerned sprawls in a Bean shirt
and Top-Siders in an easy chair by a slow fire
crackling like balled up paper uncrumpling,
the length of him spilling on and on out over the ottoman.
He is meeting Isabel Archer, Madame Merle
and Gilbert Osmond while Duke Ellington’s smooth
rationalizations slide out of speakers in a tease
of intrigues and blue notes played behind the beat,
major chords changing to minor, piano and sax
entwining. The face of our reader, caught in the fiction,
softens. The corners of his mouth turn up
just so. His hand rests on the top of his head.
His hair is silver. Ellington segues to Scott Joplin
to Bernstein. Firelight collects on his glasses.

He is in the pleasure of fine distinctions and
complicating clauses that match his own parsing of matters.
I want to stroke his cheek, but hesitate to break the spell.
He is both far away, and close enough to heave to
with, “Listen to this!” and ”Ohhh. But this!”
and reads paragraphs, whole sections aloud
before he’s off again. Or, he fetches up somewhere
in the middle distance wondering at  “all these
oversexed characters!” (He reads little new fiction.)
As if in answer, “Rhapsody in Blue” rises up out of the clarinet
crying. But he’s back in Rome beside the crinkling fire,
jazz working the room, shingles muffling the rain,
the sounds of a summer afternoon composing themselves
like time and happenstance entering and rippling in a human.

© Mary Stewart Hammond, originally published in Ploughshares, 2009.
All rights reserved.