Who turned the page?
When I went out last night
his Life was left wide-open,
halfway through, in lamplight on my desk:
The Middle Years.
Now look at him. Who turned the page?


Where do we find ourselves? What is this tale
With no beginning and no end?
We know not the extremes. Perhaps
There are none.
We are on a kind of stair. The world below
Will never be regained; was never there
Perhaps. And yet it seems
We’ve climbed to where we are
With diligence, as if told long ago
How high the highest rung.
Alas: this lethargy at noon,
This interfered-with air.


We are dreaming of a shape within a blur:
A hairline thread, a fracture that won’t knit,
A flaw that won’t be fatal but won’t fade.
We are dreaming of old damage, scars
That hold but never heal.
We are dreaming of discolorations,
Tubes the size of pinholes, mucky lungs.

We are dreaming of a dream within a dream:
A seaside sickroom breeze,
The blue curtains that lilt with it,
Floral walls. And in the air,
Anxiety, not ours.
I think we are dreaming of young mothers,
Of iodine, thermometers, cool hands.


You used to know. You used to know
My other room, my books,
My altered times of day.
You used to know my friends.

You used to know how hard I tried
And how foolhardily I’d swear
That this time I’d not falter. You could tell
What lay in store for me, and what I’d spent
And what might be retrieved.

Enchantress, know-all, Queen of Numbers, Muse,
You knew all this. And what do you know now?
More of the same, you’ll say,
But toothless, blind, forgetful. Well, perhaps.

Unlock my hand,
Let’s call this ‘for the last time’.
When you go,
Don’t murmur, as you used to, ‘Yes, I know.’

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London Review of Books,
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Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995

Injury succeeds insult for Ralph Waldo Emerson in the pages of the London Review of Books. Ian Hamilton’s poem ‘Steps’ (LRB, 3 August) reads like a hastily versified set of notes taken from the first paragraph of ‘Experience’. The text of Emerson’s great essay reads as follows:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which according to the old belief stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday.

Hamilton’s poem reproduces not only the paragraph’s central image (that of the staircase), which is commonplace enough, but also, word for word, its opening sentence (‘Where do we find ourselves?’), its second sentence, in a somewhat altered version (‘we know not the extremes’), and, in a very slight variation, one of the paragraph’s most striking phrases (‘this lethargy at noon’). I question the tact of the author, and the judgment of his editors, in publishing this work without acknowledgment.

J. Mark Smith
Mammoth Lakes, California

Ian Hamilton made it clear when he offered us ‘Steps’ for publication that the poem had its source in an essay by Emerson. Archaisms like ‘We know not’ and ‘Alas’ surely signal that there is a source and that the poet is not addressing us in his own person. A formal acknowledgment, it seemed to us and to him, would have been heavy-handed.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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