Michael Schmidt: a poem



Bedside Table


I put my specs on an open book under the lamp

On the bedside table, and they start to read.

They gather pace, they skim,

Turning the pages somehow, fast as fingers.


I remove and set my dentures on a plate by the book.

They start pronouncing words, the words the specs read.

My false teeth and my spectacles... I am

Attentive as a child, they're telling a story.

If I'd put new batteries in my hearing aids

I might have followed. As it is: just crackling.


Maybe the story's one where I still have hair,

I am rather young, I have a lover who's young,

Darker than I am, smaller, stronger, too,

Talking my first language with a cheeky accent,

Then picking up a book (not one I've written)

And conning silently, only his lips are moving.


It's the Bible again, because he wants to be good

And thinks somehow the book may tell him the secret.

He finds it raises more questions than it answers

And he has no intention of changing the way we live,

But he persists, the way some Catholics do.


The specs read, the teeth pronounce the story,

Chuckling, clacking, they may even be laughing.

Is this the book I ought to be writing, the one

For which they paid a good advance and gave

A deadline that passed two years ago?

If I could hear, I might take dictation.


Or, rather than the volume under contract,

Is it the story I always wanted to write,

About my "other life", not the actual past

With its years of detour, its catalogue of blunder,

Those bankruptcies, those broken hearts (both ways),

But a past back-projected from a happy-ever-after,

Making fairy-tale sense, harvest-home piled high?


My lover who's young in the story is still around.

Without my specs I can't see, I feel his temperature.

I remember who he was, is that all written down? Look,

My specs gaze in his direction and my dentures

Smile at his warmth, and would be glad to kiss him

If only they had lips.

I reach to touch him and the bedside light goes out.


The specs stop reading and abruptly sleep,

The teeth sigh, clamp shut, the book

Folds its hands in the dark across its stomach

And snores, the bed vibrates with it.

It's as if the bed is singing in short snatches,

A ballad maybe, or a hymn with its own illusions,

The celestial city, angels up and down

Like lift attendants in a grand hotel.


Ah, here he is, my lover, very warm beside me.

His darkness, his downed hard arm, his breathing.

The same for decades, still the space between us

In years is unchanged, though my eyes have debts,

My teeth depart like old folk from the parish,

And we still say we love each other to each other

And know what we mean, or think we know.

That's what the book under the lamp should be about.

I run my tongue over my pitted gums

I lick my lips as if I'm about to say something.



Michael Schmidt was born in Mexico in 1947. He studied at Harvard and Oxford and has taught at Manchester University, University of Glasgow and elsewhere. As a literary historian his best-known books are Lives of the Poets (Knopf), The First Poets (Knopf), The Novel: a biography (Harvard University Press) and Gilgamesh: the Life of a Poem (Princeton University Press). He has edited several canonical and introductory anthologies. He is the Publisher at Carcanet Press and editor of PN Review. This poem is from his forthcoming collection, Talking to Stanley on the Telephone, which will be published by The Poetry Business on 1st March.