Michael Schmidt: a poem



Alone with the Hairy Ainu; Or, 3800 Miles on a Pack Saddle in Yezo and a Cruise to the Kurile Islands by A. H. Savage Landor (1893)


I was reading Alone with the Hairy Ainu.

It was the only book in the house.

Light was fading, the house was cold,

The smell of cooking from next door

Said fish and cabbage, fish and cabbage.

Even fish and cabbage would have been nice.

I had never been to Japan, and to my knowledge

Had never met or even seen an Ainu.

The descriptions made them feel warm,

Like stuffed animals or rugs or fur coats.

It was so cold I almost forgot that they are people

And imagined wrapping myself in one,

Or pressing myself between two and getting warm

Like a toasted cheese and ham panini.

Then as night came on and the pages

Disappeared in shadow I kept saying to myself

You are among them, they're your friends,

They're your fuel, they're your illumination.

If you get much hungrier you may have to eat one.

I went to sleep and when I woke up it was dark.

There were no Ainu and I was alone

In the ice-cold house with only the one book,

No light, no duvet, no food.

(I could have eaten even cabbage, even fish,

But next door had had its dinner, washed its plates,

The only smells were ice and snow and drains.)

I felt a longing so intense for the hairy Ainu,

Aunt or mother, sister Ainu, niece,

I would have married one or all of them,

I would have hugged them. I was so in love.

Not for the first time. And they weren't at home.



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 was published by The Poetry Business on 1st March.