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Whiteheadian Poems

by Conrad Hilberry

Conrad Hilberry is Professor of English at Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 38-45, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


"The experience starts as that smelly feeling…

-- Alfred North Whitehead

The eye hails its friends far off: the cone
of the mountain, gradations of white and violet
in the snow, and barely moving against the distant
cold, the bluejacket and green cap of a skier.
Information only, or so the eye supposes.

But smell knows better. In the presence of a fire,
wet leather, wax, and coffee, we inhale
feelings. Pleasure and regret sleep in the pungent
wool of a sweater. Wood smoke informs the body,
dropping like a laugh from throat to loins.

The blue-green figure on the slope is closer
than we thought. Her long sweep across
the hypothesis of snow enters here,
with breath and the shaking out of hair.
We take her in, as desire, out of the cold.


The Vanishing Horseman

Magnificent in his blue uniform,
Harry Houdini rides a fine white horse
onto the stage, surrounded by attendants

dressed in white. Two of them lift up
a huge fan, hiding Houdini
for a moment. When they lower it,

he has vanished. The horse stamps and rears –
but no blue rider. Where has he gone?
There is no trap door. He is not clinging

to the far side of the horse. Instead
while the fan protected him, he tore off
the blue uniform, made of paper, tucked it

inside his white clothes, dismounted,
and became one of the attendants, one
of the uncounted retinue turning

the empty horse and running to the wings.



Body and Mind

Body and mind, we used to think, were two
freight trains, travelling side by side,
the stunt man making the incredible leap
from one to the other. They now appear to be
one train, or rather one long animal
growing across Iowa, inventing
itself as it goes. Mile after mile
it comes into its own, rushing forward
from what it was, taking into itself
the cows and silos, the farmers in pickup trucks,
the slopes and gullies of the landscape.

Body is the created animal –
the ribs and scales that have actually
occurred, everything that time has settled.
Mind works at the edge where a new creature
twists out of its past; mind lures it west
beyond the finished fact which is Dubuque.



The objects are there, gifts of another time:
air, flowers, sun, the woman, my own approach.
From them, the present shapes its artifact,
all that we have. Gold air curls at the eaves
and stirs the morning glory, whose flowers incline
to left and right. The early sun hollows
the woman’s face below the cheek bone
as she sits on the back steps, one knee
raised, her shoulder slanting toward the grass.
I approach. The telephone rings.
The woman stands and turns into the kitchen.

Or else the moment chooses differently.
A finger of sun catches the chill air,
turning it over. The woman steps down
as I come with the light at my side,
and every mouth of the morning glory
tongues a blue flame. Our shadows touch.
The telephone rings, if at all, in another world.



A Christmas Poem


No one here is old enough. The father,
if that’s what he is, stands awkward as a stork.
The mother does not know whether to smile
or cry, her face beautiful but ill-defined
as faces of the young are. Even the ass
is a yearling and the sheep mutter like children.
To whom shall I hand this myrrh that has trailed
a bitter breath after it over the desert?

I am tired of mothers and their milky ways,
of babies sticky as figs. I have left a kingdom
of them. There must be some truth beyond
this sucking and growing and wasting away.
A star should lead an old man, you would think,
to some geometry, some right triangle
whose legs never slip or warp or aspire
to become the hypotenuse. Instead, this star
wandering out of the ecliptic has led us
to dry straw, a stable, oil burning in
a lamp, a mother nursing another mouth.


Creation, then, is the only axiom –
and it declines to spell itself across
the sky in Roman letters. There are no
abstract fires or vague births. Each fire
gnaws its own sticks, and the welter of what is
conspires in this, a creation you can hold
in your hands, a child. A definite baby
squalls into life, skids out between the legs
of a definite woman, bedded in straw, on the longest
night of the year. And a certain star burns.




A. Now, for example, when the ball lays its ear
to the strings of the racket, the moment comes whole.
Satisfied in the round completion of muscle,
sun, and rubber, it wishes itself gone
so that the woman across the net may
run back, watch the lob float down,
and drop her brown shoulder for the slam.

B. Let’s keep things straight. You foresee the tan
arch of muscles in the far court. The moment
doesn’t care. Feeling is a weed sending
runners through the roots of the grass. Seized
at the center, it may be pulled in one stroke,
leaving the facts: the net, the wood, the woman
whose footwork you admire are particles in motion.

A. The grain of the wood is desire. If you begin
extracting, an instant flattens to splotches of color
on cardboard. Never longing for the stretch
of a body or a ball singing as the strings
taught it, the dead present could create
nothing. Uncaused, uncausing, it would have
no reason to perish into a new time.


Stop Action

(for Brownie Galligan)

Slowly as in an underwater dance
the shortstop dips to take the ball
on a low hop, swings back his arm, balancing
without thought, all muscles intending
the diagonal to the first baseman’s glove.

As the ball leaves his hand, the action stops –
and watching, we feel a curious poignancy,
a catch in the throat. It is not this play
only. Whenever the sweet drive is stopped
and held, our breath wells up like the rush

of sadness or longing we sometimes feel
without remembering the cause of it.
The absolute moment gathers the surge
and muscle of the past, complete,
yet hurling itself forward -- arrested
here between its birth and perishing.



"Even the dim apprehension of some great principle is apt
to clothe itself with tremendous emotional force."

-- Alfred North Whitehead

Clark Kent slips into a telephone booth.
By the next frame, everything the past gave –
the job, the name, the coat and tie -- is
transformed. Out of those shucks and shells

leaps the cape, the great S, the bullets
bouncing back on the crooks. Silly
and false, this flash of red, yellow and blue.
Nonetheless, we may be changed. Surprise

sleeps in the interstices of things.
Pushed by an apprehension, a thousand boys
leap from garage roofs, and I myself
sidle up to a phone booth, fingering my tie.

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