Whiteheadian Poems

by Conrad Hilberry

Conrad HilberryisProfessor of English at Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 38-45, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Eight poems by Whitehead


"The experience starts as that smelly feeling…

-- Alfred North Whitehead

The eye hails its friends far off: the cone

of the mountain, gradations of white and violet

in the snow, and barely moving against the distant

cold, the bluejacket and green cap of a skier.

Information only, or so the eye supposes.

But smell knows better. In the presence of a fire,

wet leather, wax, and coffee, we inhale

feelings. Pleasure and regret sleep in the pungent

wool of a sweater. Wood smoke informs the body,

dropping like a laugh from throat to loins.

The blue-green figure on the slope is closer

than we thought. Her long sweep across

the hypothesis of snow enters here,

with breath and the shaking out of hair.

We take her in, as desire, out of the cold.


The Vanishing Horseman

Magnificent in his blue uniform,

Harry Houdini rides a fine white horse

onto the stage, surrounded by attendants

dressed in white. Two of them lift up

a huge fan, hiding Houdini

for a moment. When they lower it,

he has vanished. The horse stamps and rears –

but no blue rider. Where has he gone?

There is no trap door. He is not clinging

to the far side of the horse. Instead

while the fan protected him, he tore off

the blue uniform, made of paper, tucked it

inside his white clothes, dismounted,

and became one of the attendants, one

of the uncounted retinue turning

the empty horse and running to the wings.



Body and Mind

Body and mind, we used to think, were two

freight trains, travelling side by side,

the stunt man making the incredible leap

from one to the other. They now appear to be

one train, or rather one long animal

growing across Iowa, inventing

itself as it goes. Mile after mile

it comes into its own, rushing forward

from what it was, taking into itself

the cows and silos, the farmers in pickup trucks,

the slopes and gullies of the landscape.

Body is the created animal –

the ribs and scales that have actually

occurred, everything that time has settled.

Mind works at the edge where a new creature

twists out of its past; mind lures it west

beyond the finished fact which is Dubuque.



The objects are there, gifts of another time:

air, flowers, sun, the woman, my own approach.

From them, the present shapes its artifact,

all that we have. Gold air curls at the eaves

and stirs the morning glory, whose flowers incline

to left and right. The early sun hollows

the woman’s face below the cheek bone

as she sits on the back steps, one knee

raised, her shoulder slanting toward the grass.

I approach. The telephone rings.

The woman stands and turns into the kitchen.

Or else the moment chooses differently.

A finger of sun catches the chill air,

turning it over. The woman steps down

as I come with the light at my side,

and every mouth of the morning glory

tongues a blue flame. Our shadows touch.

The telephone rings, if at all, in another world.



A Christmas Poem


No one here is old enough. The father,

if that’s what he is, stands awkward as a stork.

The mother does not know whether to smile

or cry, her face beautiful but ill-defined

as faces of the young are. Even the ass

is a yearling and the sheep mutter like children.

To whom shall I hand this myrrh that has trailed

a bitter breath after it over the desert?

I am tired of mothers and their milky ways,

of babies sticky as figs. I have left a kingdom

of them. There must be some truth beyond

this sucking and growing and wasting away.

A star should lead an old man, you would think,

to some geometry, some right triangle

whose legs never slip or warp or aspire

to become the hypotenuse. Instead, this star

wandering out of the ecliptic has led us

to dry straw, a stable, oil burning in

a lamp, a mother nursing another mouth.


Creation, then, is the only axiom –

and it declines to spell itself across

the sky in Roman letters. There are no

abstract fires or vague births. Each fire

gnaws its own sticks, and the welter of what is

conspires in this, a creation you can hold

in your hands, a child. A definite baby

squalls into life, skids out between the legs

of a definite woman, bedded in straw, on the longest

night of the year. And a certain star burns.






A. Now, for example, when the ball lays its ear

to the strings of the racket, the moment comes whole.

Satisfied in the round completion of muscle,

sun, and rubber, it wishes itself gone

so that the woman across the net may

run back, watch the lob float down,

and drop her brown shoulder for the slam.

B. Let’s keep things straight. You foresee the tan

arch of muscles in the far court. The moment

doesn’t care. Feeling is a weed sending

runners through the roots of the grass. Seized

at the center, it may be pulled in one stroke,

leaving the facts: the net, the wood, the woman

whose footwork you admire are particles in motion.

A. The grain of the wood is desire. If you begin

extracting, an instant flattens to splotches of color

on cardboard. Never longing for the stretch

of a body or a ball singing as the strings

taught it, the dead present could create

nothing. Uncaused, uncausing, it would have

no reason to perish into a new time.


Stop Action

(for Brownie Galligan)

Slowly as in an underwater dance

the shortstop dips to take the ball

on a low hop, swings back his arm, balancing

without thought, all muscles intending

the diagonal to the first baseman’s glove.

As the ball leaves his hand, the action stops –

and watching, we feel a curious poignancy,

a catch in the throat. It is not this play

only. Whenever the sweet drive is stopped

and held, our breath wells up like the rush

of sadness or longing we sometimes feel

without remembering the cause of it.

The absolute moment gathers the surge

and muscle of the past, complete,

yet hurling itself forward -- arrested

here between its birth and perishing.



"Even the dim apprehension of some great principle is apt

to clothe itself with tremendous emotional force."

-- Alfred North Whitehead

Clark Kent slips into a telephone booth.

By the next frame, everything the past gave –

the job, the name, the coat and tie -- is

transformed. Out of those shucks and shells

leaps the cape, the great S, the bullets

bouncing back on the crooks. Silly

and false, this flash of red, yellow and blue.

Nonetheless, we may be changed. Surprise

sleeps in the interstices of things.

Pushed by an apprehension, a thousand boys

leap from garage roofs, and I myself

sidle up to a phone booth, fingering my tie.