Innocence | Charles Baxter

The birds she could identify—nuthatch, oriole—
     were varied by their colors and their song,
the way they each rested on a branch, both shy and bold,

and she noticed also that faint distant acrid odor
     that anyone of a certain age identifies with autumn,
burning leaves and fields, too, set alight for carbon ash

that fertilizes, and so when, later, over dinner, I mentioned
     Shostakovich, who had suffered through the siege
of Leningrad and who lived through Stalin, but who still, I thought,

had loved the sudden change of seasons, those Russian autumns,
     she asked me to play her something,
and so when I put on the eighth quartet, which he wrote in tears,

and had his signature, four notes, and had meant to be his epitaph,
     she listened for several minutes, and stood up, and told me please
to turn it off: no, she said, I don’t believe it, I can’t stand it,

he’s exaggerating, it’s wrong, no one feels that way,
     it’s just a show; and I’m almost ashamed to say
I loved her then, for the care she had always taken

for her poor, and the animals she adored, the soup kitchens
     where she worked, the God she prayed to,
the settled virtues that she knew, the children she had raised, and so on

and so on in: it was admirable, in its way, how when she was sad
     she was sad so briefly, how each morning, the day held promises
galore, as she would say, also her sweetness

in disbelieving that a citizen could be so terrorized
     as to put his cot outside his apartment door—so when the Leader’s
booted men arrested him, they would not wake his wife and kids–

how she believed in kindness and in trust, all words she had
     invested in, and not in ruin, not in hysteria or pain,
could not believe in suffering so raw, pitiless, and unredeemed.

 

Charles Baxter is the author most recently of There’s Something I Want You to Do (February 2015), and Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (2011). His third novel, The Feast of Love, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000. He has authored a book of poetry: Imaginary Paintings: And Other Poems.  He has received the Award of Merit in the Short Story and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticThe New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, among others. He lives in Minneapolis and is currently the Edelstein Keller Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

Issue #53 December 2015
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