Keeping the Night at Bay poeams by Allen C. West

picture of Allen West
Photograph by Betsey Farber  

The sense of loss informing the elegies in Allen West’s new poetry collection, Keeping Night at Bay, is countered by the tenderness they express, the beauty of their lines, and the resilience with which the poet continues to sing.  These are deeply personal poems and at the same time deeply universal in their humanity, allusiveness, and the exquisite way they intertwine with the poet’s Chinese translations accompanied by Gundi Chan’s original calligraphy.  Seldom do we encounter work that is as unabashedly emotional as the poems in Keeping Night at Bay, while also displaying such rare intelligence.  
  keeping night at bay cover image
  Photograph by Betsey Farber

Allen West was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1930, and came to the U.S. with his family after the 1941 invasion of Greece by Germany. Educated at Phillips Academy and Princeton University, he served three years in the U.S. Army, then earned a PhD in chemistry from Cornell University in 1960.  He taught at Williams College and Lawrence University until 1994, when he and his wife Emily moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there he was a tutor at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School and a volunteer at Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. His wife died in 1999, his son in 2014. He has two daughters and three grandchildren. Since 2007 he has lived in Lexington, Massachusetts.  He began writing poetry in 1983, was a runner-up for the 1992 Grolier Poetry Prize, and won the 2000 chapbook competition of the White Eagle Coffee Store Press, which published The Time of Ripe Figs in 2002.  His full-length poetry collection, Beirut Again, was published in 2010 by Off the Grid Press.

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ISBN 978-1-943826-31-5

First Edition 2017



Copyright © 2017 by Allen C. West


Only Later Did That Day


become our last
            together there.
                        We swam at dawn,

walked salt-encrusted
            on the sand, drank
                        tea at the kitchen

table watching
            red and black
                        buoys lean

against the tide,
            the ebb for us
                        to sail away.


We took our coffee
            to the beach, where
                        the moon flung

a phosphorescence
            of silver flakes
                        at our wet feet.

The Waves

I stand chest-deep. A breaker lifts me
into a slap,
sea that fills my ears, my mouth
with salt and sand.
It’s hard to know where’s up. I push back
at the world
that curbs me, itself out of control,
come up
bobbing, and the fuming waves throw me
down. I try to stay
below the curling foam, using my arms
and hands
like turtle flippers, but mine don’t work
that way,
and then the rip-tide sweeps me out to
where its surge
may let me go, and though I’m strong,
willing to wait,
still it judges me — and I judge myself,
angry at my anger.

The Tree Outside My Window


The tree outside my window
Shades the whole courtyard
 Its shadow fills the courtyard

The heart opens like a leaf
And like a leaf it closes
Unfolding   folding   too much love

I lie awake at night and listen
My heart locked shut
Drip   drip the sweet rain falls

Drop   drop the sad rain falls
Mourning my lost beloved
I lie here   can’t bear to listen


Li Qingzhao (1083 - aft. 1149), trans. by Allen C. West & Gundi Chan

A Year of Ashes


Storm pouring
            over the causeway
churns the cove
            into steep gray,

buffets the yachts.
            The house moans,

gulls flash past,
            my shutters keening

on rusty hinges.
            A great blue heron

hunched on the lee,
            soundless minnows

that swarm. Strange
            not to have known

how much I need

My Father Never Spoke of Love


One evening he said, “I’m going to make
a knife for you, like mine, and you can

come to watch me, if you’d like.” I woke early,
hearing the emery wheel grinding

in his workshop. When he saw me
he nodded while he kept turning

the handle of the wheel. I stood aside.
Sparks flew like a rain of comets.

When mother called us to lunch,
he left his gloves, ate in silence.

All afternoon I watched him shape
that old steel file into a perfect blade.

Next day he carved a handle
until it fit my hand, riveted it

to the blade for which he made
a wooden sheath, then stitched

the sheath into a leather cover
with a loop to hang it from my belt.

After dinner he showed me
how to sharpen it: “Hold the knife

like this, angled to the whetstone.
Stroke it back and forth, one side,

then the other.”His heavy hand
pushed mine the way it had to go.