Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Contest Archive

The Poetry of Isabel Nathaniel: Finalist, 1999

A Tale

1. The House

but the South's December, winter
holding off. The lake was all caprice-impetuous
at slightest shift of breeze or light. Trees stood
calm, composed, yet in perfect understanding
with the lake.
                     The view
held the house, pressed, steadied it
against the slope. Forest, lake
wrapped the house on three sides, swathed
its glass with blues, browns, reds. Pine green.
Shivering silver.
                         Gazing out
was like prayer. Postulant in white, I was
almost unapparent at the windows.
                                                        I should tell you
the house was not ours. The owner G—
had proffered keys in upturned palm, then mapped
directions east. Largesse. December gift.

2. The West Room

The outside came in, a moody drift
past the panes, drawn by G—'s
way with the room, his assemblage
of the view's own colors.
                                       The forest, expansive,
enfolded things of the room
into its perfect hush.
                                Sofas, tables, chairs
lay settled in the forest's hold,
shadowed, shaded. Wreathed.

The pottery, of course, remembered
it was earth. At evening meal
bowls still held sun,
warming our hands.
                              But at breakfast
plates would not let go of night,
                                                  a chill
the fishes carved into each rim
did not mind. In border formation
they swam round and round
the greenish depth of glaze.

I waited, vigilant, as if for hours
to ring-the call to prime, terce, sext,

my place at the table facing west.

3. The Visitant

                          On the west deck
my husband sat reading, reading
The Library of America,
having brought volumes 82 and 83
being H. James, Complete Stories.

Eased wholly into his chair, slipped
wholly into a story, he looked up
only if signaled by an arriving bird:
crow, titmouse, woodpecker, wren

and, at a certain hour, a silent blue heron,
which never was seen flying in
but was suddenly there
down on the dock, motionless, big,

a statue of a bird, its blue at dusk
the grey of headstones, its head
lain on its shoulders, a gold-dagger bill
and (through binoculars) a gold eye.

"The heron is here," my husband called.

4. The Moment

As if arrived from a great distance, late,
it is suddenly there in his gaze,
                                                 lone and poised,
arranged on the rail of the dock
to wait in the light that remains-to be
there in the moment my husband looks up from the Master's
undulating sentences
                                (inklings, inferences, possibilities,
ambiguities, implications, darkening textures)

and sees the phantasmal creature,
the intensity of its stillness.

"The heron is here."

5. The Summerhouse

                      Where the deck jutted out
a summerhouse rose into the trees,
                                                      an aerie
with slate floor, weathered wicker
and, rigged from high roofbeam,
                                                  two rope-net swings.

Screen walls, like curtains of light rain, frayed
the seen to delicacy, mystery

while sound took on a charge
heightening the most gossamer vibration.

                                              In this cloister
I was within the scene and outside it.

6. The Reflection

The eye sees two domains:
one above, the other mirrored down.
The real and its replica—no certain line
between them. Star, tree, dock—
each with a splendid likeness.
                                              What happens
happens again
then drowns into itself, dissolves
into alternations, repetitions.
                                            What happened
trembles, breaks, recreates into glittering variation.
The lake is a master with light and shadow;
it invents, suggests, distorts.
It makes an ado.
                        The mind
plays its own game. Lantern, canoe, paddle
blurred, paled, rarefied to those
of the lakes of our childhood: Hopatcong,
Seneca, Cayuga, where we are always
arriving or leaving. It is evening, it is morning.
A white mist, a blue ladder, ropes and nets,
cattails, coontails, the green canoe freshly shellacked.

But now I'm watching the house on the far shore.
It's closed and undisturbed, subtle and shadowed,
barely there without binoculars, though
in reflection I see what to make of it,
its flagless flagpole and empty birdhouse-on-a-post
holding themselves upside down in iridescence,
vanishing little by little yet always there.

7. The Solstice

                                   In the lake
sunset's pink-and-blue
is fuschia-and-peacock neon.
The darkness starting above the dock
somehow casts silver below.

The heron has not come.
My husband has not looked up
from H. James where on every page
figures cast unexpected alternatives

and the portent of words
glitters under the text. Like the lake,
James is busy about many matters
at once and my husband in his desire

for meaning is rereading the last pages
of "Nona Vincent" but light
for print is suddenly gone
as is the fuschia-and-peacock fabulation.

My husband closes volume 82
and raises his eyes to consider
early dark's multiplicity of silvers,
mercurial, unstable, shimmering.

8. The Revelers

Look at the Pleiades tonight—
    the Seven Sisters all done up
        in gleaming couture,

their sheer almost-blue gowns
    banded, belted in diamonds,
        their tiny domain

on the bull's shoulder gaudied
    for solstice festival,
        gods, goddesses

and other glitterati attending,
    buzzed and merry
        and mingling.

Who's who is just beyond
    easy visibility and moment
        to moment everybody

shifts in and out of being seen,
    a graceful game of deception
        behind those swathes

of shivery veil the Sisters hung
    for effect. Look slightly away
        and see how it all gets

brighter, but still fabulously tangled,
    how the characters (lovers,
        villains and unsuspecting

victims) turn, return, refigure,
    evoke, deny, beckon,
        for our fascination.

9. The Coming

Advent calendar
ignored all December
then opened in a rush.

#1 to #24 at once.
Mystery incidents
revealed, lit-up.

Open-wide windows.
Detailed interiors
perfectly displayed.

Little glories
designed for one
big shining effect.

10. The Fête

The Christmas Eve lighting-up
of the house across the lake
surprised even the watchful trees.

How had a somber, shadowed ruin
reinvented itself? and when?
As with the heron there had been

no flurry of arrival. I had observed
no readying. Yet there it was:
unshuttered and shimmering.

Windows framed rooms giddy
with lamps, with candelabra. People
(a houseful) posed, grouped, coupled

in pretty complications, in small dramas;
players whose dress glittered
for the occasion, whose faces gleamed

for each other—did I see so much?
I was "a searcher of hearts—
that frivolous thing, an observer!"

I saw the warmth and perfume
of the interiors, intensity of the talk,
flush and color of the smallest matters—

tables laden with meats, puréed concoctions,
breads; sideboards showy with wines, ducat cakes,
pear tarts, fig conserve; mantels festooned

with the woods' Pine Broom, Red Cedar,
Juniper. The celebration spilled (air balmy as spring)
onto terraced grounds down to the lake

to the dock arrayed with luminarias, rows
of golden glow, flicker; offerings of the old
persuasion, faint curls of smoke rising.

11. The Collaboration

In excitation and extravagance
    I have lit the pantry's total
        treasure of party votives.

Now our side has ranks
    of little flames signaling
        from deck and dock

and the high-up summerhouse
    is an intricate
        seven-candle shimmer

masquerading as ascending
    constellation. For such

the lake plays it straight
    and replicates, for once,
        without distortion—

each tiniest detail
    too much as it is
        to be embellished.

The kingdom builds
    from their shore and ours,
        skyward and down.

No exhalation of light escapes
    but spreads to the lake's center,
         a luminous stain.

12. The Summoned

                                 How easily
a flotilla of canoes arrived, gliding
from periphery to center view.

A pretty strumming (mandolin?)
and red lanterns in the prows
made me think carolers.

At least one boat was mooring
at our dock, figures disembarking.
"Coming by water like Venetians,"

I said, hurrying to add sherries,
cakes to our just-for-two buffet.
I was smiling in greeting

but my husband said the callers
were gone or rather (he sounded
Jamesian now) they had failed

to completely materialize. They
were meant for the other side,
I reasoned, even as I felt some

brilliancy of change. "What have
you done?" my husband accused.
The house breathed a different breath.

13. The Strangers

The presences were to be taken seriously.
I judged them to be only sometimes mild,
other times dark and dangerous. Hear me out.
It was the lake's doing; the lake was a master.

                                            That night
the arriving one, the stranger,
sat across the table: my husband
as who he was in the life
he had not chosen, had not lived;
twin figure, alter ego
whom I did not know (or almost
did not know), his the distant place
supposed (or glimpsed
at the edge of a gaze).

I was playful and outrageous,
a way I used to be: so stylish.
He had a story.
I listened to its slow unfolding.
An understanding grew between us.
Well, more: something atmospheric,
a moment so full, a gift held
that if you took it.... Dear one
hesitate, beware: for such a passion
the gods expect a grief.

The others were less distinct,
mostly shy, wandering the house,
liking the West Room's forest hush;
curious about the laid-out treats:
the pâtés, the cheeses, the Madeleines
with their little humps; considering
the sherries (fino, manzanilla, amontillado);
tinkling, ringing (somehow) the glasses;
admiring each stoneware plate's
carved-rim fishes, knowing (without touching)
the cold below its blackgreen glaze.

Some, I believe, awaited our friend G—.
I tried to tell them he'd be abroad for months.
My knowledge of him had lapses. My scenario
for the extravagantly beautiful woman
with the sullen mouth (who searched for him)
included misunderstandings and desire.


At a late hour, dimly made out
(in the mirror as I turn?):
two boys seated, palely rendered
as if a watercolor (fragile tint
over faint outline), brothers
dressed alike and looking out.
Nothing in the elder's face
says what it will be to die young.
(But does the littler one
already bear the desolation?)
Do not go to...take heed when...
my Sibyl voice drifts off like smoke,
my wild gestures go unnoticed.


Some stayed unseen.

14. The Mist

4 A.M. I left the bed. He slept.
The weather had changed; the air
was dense white mist, like snow,

the gloom white even in the dark,
the kingdom turning into nothing.
I could not see across the lake.

On deck the little votives
had long burned out their vigil.
I heard my own footsteps.

There were two of them still
in the summerhouse (swinging?
scrape of the ropes?). The screendoor

brushed softly against the slate floor
as the woman left. I glimpsed
her gown of almost-blue sheen.

At first light the bird with complicated
five-note call, called. A woodpecker
started work far upshore. I could feel

what happened slide into the suck
and ooze of water at the water's
edge, to dwell quietly in dark spaces

between dulled-bronze lily pads,
the dock place, haunt of the heron
(bent-necked, motionless),

which kept its gold eye always open.