The Prodigy

by Jeffrey Burghauser (August 2019)

People on a Train, Marie-Louise Von Motesiczky, 1920s



    On the train from Buffalo

To Manhattan years ago,

Reading Dylan Thomas, and

Writing with my other hand,

I became aware of this

Figure keen to reminisce,

Sighing with a sweetened woe:


    “I got drunk with him, you know.”


    “Dylan Thomas? When?” I said.


    “Back at Yale, my roommates led

Dylan ‘round in fifty-four,

Halfway through the reading tour—

Basically conducting him

Bar to bar & whim to whim.

Jesus, a disgusting cad.

Very sordid. Very sad.”


    All his features drained of art,

Something deep within the heart

Had begun to sweetly blur

Through this somber traveler.

He began to slowly slack

His imagination back

When his body’s real design

Like a fiber optic line

Taut across the midnight’s pit

Proved a perfect conduit:


    “Ever since my boyhood, I

Was a mathematics guy.

But my friends loved poetry.

I loved them. And they loved me.

So, when it came time to fête,

Let’s see…T.S. Eliot,

Off they went, with me at heel,

Like a happy spaniel.”


    Noticing me noticing

That what he had thought to bring

On his trip was limited

To a garment bag (he hid

Nothing very well), he sighed:


     “Yesterday my brother died.

Funeral’s tomorrow in

The old hometown, New Berlin,

Half an hour east of Troy.

When I was a little boy…”


    But this rumination slid

Really far away. “A kid

I was just a kid when they

Sent me all the goddamned way

Up to Harvard. But they said

Any callow boy whose head

Could do math like mine…insane.”


    Our nearly antique train

Going at an antique pace

Through a bleakly antique space

(Iron lace, a heaven’s face

Quietly immune to grace)

Jerked a little bit, and slowed

Where the angry earth was ploughed.


    “Damnit, just a callow kid.

And for all the good it did…”


     Under all the current strain,

The departments of his pain

Started their reversion to

Waste & welter that withdrew

All those years ago to form

Something like a narrow norm,

Like a world, a Where to when

This aríthmetícíán.

The extended finger of

Memory delayed above

Pastry cases of ideal,

Well-confected & surreal

Instances of youthful shame

Sixty years could not disclaim.


    “When I was a freshman, I

Made an idiot of my-

Self before the girl I knew

Was the very angel who

Heaven allocated for

My Beloved Forevermore.

And,” he closed his eyes to say,

“I’m afraid I ran away.

Cleared my throat, and left the dorm,

Disappeared into the storm

Like a Mediæval tyke.

Christ, how very…poet-like!”


    “What disgrace could possibly—”


    “Merit that?” preempted he,

Followed by a stoic sigh.

“Let me start by saying my

Memory is like a threat.

I’m condemned to not forget.

Everything I’m ever told.

Every plaudit. Every scold.

Every dim historic date.

Every footnote. My irate

Memory must be a king.

I remember everything.

Every type of fungus gnat.

Everything. Except for that.”


    Once a slash of mental sky

Sudden-cleared, he ventured: “I

Think I’d bet you that the dame

Never knew my Christian name.”


    He condensed, an epigram.

“It’s obscene to be a damn

Prodigy…but you, I sense,

Know that from experience.”


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Jeffrey Burghauser is a teacher in Columbus, OH. He was educated at SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Leeds. He currently studies the five-string banjo with a focus on pre-WWII picking styles. A former artist-in-residence at the Arad Arts Project (Israel), his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Appalachian Journal, Fearsome Critters, Iceview, Lehrhaus, and New English Review. Jeffrey’s book-length collection, Real Poems, is available on Amazon and his website is

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


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