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On "Horace, I Dream of Watches" by Gary J. Whitehead

Illustration by Matt Manley
March 12, 2019

On "Horace, I Dream of Watches" by Gary J. Whitehead

I don’t quite remember when I fell in love with watches. My mother, a nurse, always wore one, even at home in the evenings, when she sat with a crossword puzzle or a book, done with taking pulses and BPs. I don’t remember my first watch, either, though I think it was a pocket watch and that my two brothers had them, too, probably birthday or Christmas gifts. I remember a black G-Shock I wore in high school, when things digital were newfangled. Whatever analog watch I’d owned before that G-Shock I must have stowed in a drawer to tick in the dark until its battery wore out and it went mum for good.

In adulthood, my eyes began to linger on watch ads in magazines, glossy photos of Rolexes and Cartiers and Patek Philippe, watches that cost two or three times what my parents spent on their small ranch home in Rumford, Rhode Island. When a doctor aimed a tongue depressor toward my mouth, I’d watch his arm slide out of his sleeve, and I’d strain to see the brand name on his shiny gold or silver watch. I stole glances at men’s watches whenever I could.

I bought my first decent watch on my first honeymoon (I’ve had two) in 1993, on the island of St. Croix. It was a Tag Heuer dive watch with a luminous face, a stainless steel bracelet, and a rotating bezel that made a satisfying clicking when I turned it. I wore that watch for nearly twenty-five years, until I discovered the beauty of mechanical watches and sold all my quartz watches on eBay or gave them away.

Mechanical watches, which wind themselves with the natural movement of the wrist, appeal to my appreciation for craftsmanship and invention. I now own five of them, a modest collection, compared to those of most watch lovers. None of my watches are very high-end, though if I won the lottery that would quickly change. I still dream of expensive mechanical watches, vintage ones especially. I browse the websites of watch brands often. On Instagram, I follow one friend who posts only photos of his ridiculously large collection of vintage Swiss watches. I pop into watch stores wherever I see them and I browse.

I wouldn’t call myself an expert or a connoisseur by any stretch, but I love the lingo of the watch world, and it was this that, in part, inspired my poem, “Horace, I Dream of Watches.” One afternoon, after looking at watches online, my head filled with the watches’ descriptions, I thought of time and why we “keep” it, and why I love to keep it so much, which led to my contemplating and then rereading a translation of Horace’s famous poem “Carpe Diem.” His poem, of course, is all about how we should live for today because tomorrow might not come, how we should seize the day. I like to think that Horace would have understood my obsession with “keeping” time. So I addressed my poem, a sonnet, to him. In the volta, or turn, I shift from explaining my love of watches to pondering mortality and, as skeptical as I am, to wishing for something after death. And, in the meantime, listening to the seconds tick away.

Gary WhiteheadGary J. Whitehead’s fourth book of poems, Strange What Rises, was published by Terrapin Books in early 2019. His third book, A Glossary of Chickens, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and published in 2013 by Princeton University Press. His work has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Guardian’s Poem of the Week, the BBC’s Words and Music program, and American Life in Poetry. Awards for his poetry include the Anne Halley Prize from The Massachusetts Review, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University. He has been a featured poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the Princeton Poetry Festival, and the West Caldwell Poetry Festival, and has held residencies at Blue Mountain Center, Mesa Refuge, the Heinrich Böll Cottage, and Marble House Project. He teaches English at Tenafly High School in northern New Jersey.

Gary Whitehead contributed to North American Review, Volume 304.1.

Illustration by: Matt Manley. Matt has been working as a freelance illustrator for over twenty years. His illustration is primarily figurative and symbolic with surrealist leanings, and past client work includes editorial, corporate, medical, book, and higher education. Though in the end his work is technically digital collage, the process integrates both traditional and digital media.

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