Joseph Pulitzer Junior High
September 1959 – June 1961

I think we spoke but fifty words, all told.
No more than that, and most were just polite—
A brief exchange of greetings or a comment
On some observed absurdity or joke…
The school did not encourage us to talk.
Perhaps we would have said more, had I not
Been awkward, skinny, tongue-tied, overawed
By what I sensed when drawing close to you:
Quiet perfection and gentility;
Maturity beyond your thirteen years;
A loveliness conjoined with silent grace;
A knowledge and a sympathy that come
Most commonly from long experience.
You stood out from that raw, pubescent crowd
Like one of the Three Graces. When we danced
At the school’s social, I let my hand rest
As lightly as I could against your waist,
And held your hand as if it were a flower
The slightest pressure might have crushed. You smiled
At my restrained politeness, but said nothing.
Perception, awareness, tolerance, discretion—
You saw my need, but held back all response
Because you divined my child-like helplessness.
Since that time a day has not gone by
That I have not thought back upon your face,
Your slender form, your modulated voice,
Your graciousness, as chaste as fresh-cut lilies,
And held these as my precious talismans—
The only remnants of a long-gone world
Where I touched Incorruption, knowing you.


Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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11 Responses

  1. Evan

    So beautiful! Thank you, Mr. Salemi for sharing this.

    Would it be imprudent to suggest a revision to such a seasoned poet? If so, please forgive me:

    The only remnants of a long-gone world
    Where I touched Incorruption, in your hold.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      If I may please interject. Dr. Salemi’s “knowing you” in the last verse is absolutely critical to the entire structure of the poem. For, knowledge of the beloved is the foundation of the beholder’s love for his object, which raises the poem from a simple amatory reminiscence to a transcendent contemplation, placing it in the realm of Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura. But I am grateful that Mr. Mantyk has drawn our attention to this verse.

      • James Sale

        A remarkably fine poem; and I do agree with Joseph Mackenzie on this, and for an additional reason. Whereas ‘in our hold’ is a powerful ending, and the world ‘hold’ itself is evocative, both with its several senses, and also too as it approaches being a pararhyme to ‘world’, yet I would still reject it in favour of the original ‘knowing you’. The reason for my preference here is twofold: first, and foremost, it was ‘knowing’ that directly led to Adam and Eve’s corruption, so that the word effortlessly conveys that sense of paradise regained in its allusive and paradoxical power. But further, ‘hold’ is a noun and so has a static quality, whereas ‘knowing’ is verbal and so active: we reflect on the former, but we feel the latter.

  2. Joe

    Very beautiful! You captured a moment I remember well.
    I ‘m hoping to hear how it registered with women.

  3. Sally Cook

    I’ll try again. Your poem is significant, reminiscent and sweet. Don’t change anything

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Whether Joseph Salemi takes the grand themes of history for his subject, or the most personal reminiscences, the guaranteed result will always be compelling.

    I wish I could say more about this particular piece, because it is not a simple reminiscence, but rather a contemplation of innocence which moves quite easily from the “souvenir d’enfance” into the much larger world of sin and redemption—remarkably in a single line giving the poem’s relentless lyricism all its depth and final meaning.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind words. I deeply appreciate them.

    I must confess that the phrase “to touch Incorruption” is not my own, but borrowed from a passage in Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography “Witness,” where he uses the expression to describe a childhood experience in school.

  6. David Watt

    A lovely piece which speaks with eloquence the often clumsy language of youth.


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