On the Eve of a Birthday

On the Eve of a Birthday

By Timothy Steele

As my Scotch, spared the water, blondly sloshes

About its tumbler, and gay manic flame

Is snapping in the fireplace, I grow youthful:

I realize that calendars aren’t truthful

And that for all of my grand unsuccesses

External causes are to blame.


And if at present somewhat destitute,

I plan to alter, prove myself more able,

And suavely stroll into the coming years

As into rooms with thick rugs, chandeliers,

And colorfully pyramided fruit

On linened lengths of table.


At times I fear the future won’t reward

My failures with sufficient compensation,

But dump me, aging, in a garret room

Appointed with twilit, slant-ceilinged gloom

And a lone bulb depending from a cord

Suggestive of self-strangulation.


Then, too, I have bad dreams, in one of which

A cowled, scythe-bearing figure beckons me.

Dark plains glow at his back: it seems I’ve died,

And my soul, weighed and judged, has qualified

For an extended, hyper-sultry hitch

Down in eternity.


Such fears and dreams, however, always pass.

And gazing from my window at the dark,

My drink in hand, I’m jauntily unbowed.

The sky’s tiered, windy galleries stream with cloud,

And higher still, the dazed stars thickly mass

In their long Ptolemaic arc.


What constellated powers, unkind or kind,

Sway me, what far preposterous ghosts of air?

Whoever they are, whatever our connection,

I toast them (toasting also my reflection),

Not minding that the words which come to mind

Make the toast less toast than prayer:


Here’s to the next year, to the best year yet;

To mixed joys, to my harum-scarum prime;

To auguries reliable and specious;

To times to come, such times being precious,

If only for the reason that they get

Shorter all the time.

About the Author

Timothy Steele was born in 1948 in Burlington, Vermont, and holds degrees from Stanford University and Brandeis University. JV Cunningham and Yvor Winters, a force at Stanford for much of the early 20th century, were strong influencers in Steele’s poetry, which is notable for its allegiance to traditional forms, meters, and rhyme schemes. Though Steele has often been grouped as one of the major practitioners of New Formalism, he is wary of the term, alleging it “suggests, among other things, an interest in style rather than substance, whereas I believe that the two are mutually vital in any successful poem. I employ the traditional instruments of verse simply because I love the symmetries and surprises that they produce and because meter especially allows me to render feelings and ideas more flexibly and precisely than I otherwise could.” Although Steele composes in a formal, even classical, style, he tends to write private poems about the personal and the everyday, nearly always in contemporary settings.

Timothy Steele has received numerous awards and honors for his poetry, including a Lavan Younger Poets Award, the Los Angeles PEN Center Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Robert Fitzgerald Award for Excellence in the Study of Prosody. He has taught at Stanford University and the University of California in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Since 1987, he has been a professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.

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