2016

After my favorite poem, my favorite poet.  James Wright is someone who always sends me back to the sources of my own gift and helps me come away replenished.  I don’t imitate him exactly, but in his poems—both the successes and the failures, I should note—I find the pattern for the kind of poetry I wish I could write, and sometimes manage to.  He came to me late in life, perhaps ten years ago or so.  My partner Sari had his complete poems, Above the River, and I picked it up.  Ze’d been assigned it for a class, but the class hadn’t got around to it, so Sari knew as little about it as I.  If you don’t know James Wright, I hope you’ll track him down and read him (a good Selected Poems was made available recently by his widow and his friend Robert Bly), because I’ll be pretty inept at giving you an idea of him.  He hailed from southern Ohio and his poetry is always overshadowed by the hollow, despairing industrial Midwest:  but in the lives of its most pathetic citizens he found material for celebration of a kind, first by means of a tight iambic line and frequently rhyme;  later in free verse satisfied to be fleeting and odd, called surreal by some, but it’s not quite that, it’s letting the English language bear burdens and take flights it could never have accomplished in prose.  When in later life he began to write prose (and insisted that it was just prose, not prose-poetry), it was somehow as free and penetrating, as image-riddled, as his poems:  as if his poetic career had given him the key to pick the lock of prose and set it free.  By this time he’d met his second wife, who helped him moderate his lifelong alcoholism and begin to rise out of lifelong depression, and had also discovered southern Europe, especially Italy, and begun to let his writing live and grow strong in sunlight.  But there was also a lifelong smoking habit.  He developed inoperable throat cancer and died in 1980 after completing his final collection, This Journey.  I reread both the selected and complete poems constantly, so haven’t needed to include more than a handful of essential ones in Otros.  Make sure. when you introduce yourself to him, that you at least read these:

 

                Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning

                A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack

                At the Executed Murderer’s Grave

                Saint Judas

                Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

                Stages on a Journey Westward

                From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower

                Arriving in the Country Again

                A Blessing

                In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned

                Hook

                A Winter Daybreak Above Vence

 

Finally today, the earliest poem in my file, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitter outcry at losing the company of Anne Boleyn, who had gone on to seek lovers in more stellar circles (in another poem she is depicted as a deer with Touch Me Not, For Caesar’s I Am written on her body).  Despite a few archaic words, or words archaically used, the feelings, both sorrowful and resentful, are clearly portrayed.

 

They Flee from Me

 

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,

With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,

That now are wild, and do not remember

That sometime they put themselves in danger

To take bread at my hand;  and now they range,

Busily seeking with a continual change.

 

Thanked be Fortune it hath been otherwise,

Twenty times better;  but once in special,

In thin array, after a pleasant guise,

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,

And she me caught in her arms long and small,

And therewith all sweetly did me kiss

And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

 

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.

But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,

Into a strange fashion of forsaking;

And I have leave to go, of her goodness,

And she also to use newfangleness.

But since that I so kindely am served,

I fain would know what she hath deserved.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), March 2002:  addressed to Tani Arness.  I shouldn’t go to poetry readings while depressed, but I wanted to hear Tani, and it was worth it.  A bhikkhu is a Buddhist monk, and the middle stanza describes a Sri Lankan monk named Paramananda, shown doing walking mindfulness in an episode of “The Long Search” I used to show in my religion classes.  I think he’s here to point out the contrast between his perfect peace and my perfect lack of it that night.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Bhikkhu

for Tani

 

My eyes aren’t strong for a gathering of strangers,

they don’t know whether to cry or see.

My hair’s been in a foreign element

and doesn’t do the correct careless thing.

My clothing’s evidently from the edge,

hard to say the edge of what:  somewhere

accessible to indigence or pageant.

Everyone I’m introduced to will have questions of me,

not spoken questions.  Their faces

belong on their heads.  I can’t think how they do that.

I become so slight it takes me ten minutes

to get from one table to another.

When I sit, I have nowhere to put my hands.

 

There is an old bald man who walks barefooted

up and down a thin dirt track

and he has almost-shut recessed eyes

and a net of calm wrinkles on his taut skull.

 

And you go up to the lectern to read,

only person in this room I know,

and you say “I find myself thinking more and more

about individual words,” and now I’m

hungry and fed with smiling.

 

Since moving from sunny Albuquerque to soggy Bremerton, Bob and I found reading we both like quite a bit at the Hugo House in Seattle, Works in Progress, an open mic for all kinds of writing on the first and third Mondays of the month, 7-9 p.m. (sign up at 6:30 p.m.). 

Here’s a bit of what I’ve been writing since the move. The water has been as good for my poetry as for the moss. So has the moss.
 

The Welcoming Committee

I think they yelled “homo”

 

or perhaps it was “om” or “home” someone hollered from a speeding window

as I walked along the tall iron fence around the naval base, before

I turned onto this quiet street and sat on this bench to talk to my notebook.

 

While the moss picks out a life

between cobblestones, I transform

the indifferent gift of hollered wit

through the alchemy of incomprehension:

Was this the call of longing

for home, for peace, for natural order?

the anger when home, peace, natural order

become a question?

Do I always have to be the questions

no one wants to answer?

 

I am like this moss, lost

to home, to peace, to natural order, fit only to fly

on wild winds, to root in specks

of earth, to encrust the predictable concrete with life

in all its chaos, to be

soaked and sated and washed away in the next rain.

 

A passel of school children passes chattily

behind me. Someone has told them

they can be whoever they want to be,

as long as they button their shirts

on the correct side. Perhaps

they are telling each other now. 

 

I love taking the ferries, and they’re a good, er, “place” to write.

Meditating in the Dark

In shadow where water hides from sun, its surface

takes the shape of Earthly things—

  evergreens like a many-turreted, ivied castle wall

  red smear of little house on shore

  denser dark of the ferry below that shows nothing of earth, heaven or water

 

The nothing is a membrane

between worlds where a gull floats, pretending

to be a duck far from shore.

 

There are shores

whose veils of evergreen

I don’t want to peek behind.

My surfaces are as opaque

as water.

 

This was the first poem I wrote in Washington:

The moss on the stairs isn’t climbing

The sidewalks and bridges, the stone walls of our new city are growing, furred with moss. Mold spores black fronds

in the puddles around our sink. Even the damp folds of my nervous system are growing: green, black and furred red, toxic

 

and nourishing. People tell me how brave I am, starting over like this. I don’t

understand. I didn’t spore in this new puddle, only splashed down, still myself.

 

I’ve been watching the last of the move-in bruises fade, the one that came not from boxes but my fist. The silhouette of palm and pinky is faintest stain

seventeen days since you asked me to stop hurting myself, “Please,” and I held back my hands along with the howling I’d dammed with blows.

 

You’d hoped the good sea air would heal me. It does. You hoped it would heal me

more. I want to tell you: This is life: how it feeds, how it poisons. The same act.

My friend Lee Wilson was such a natural poet that I was sometimes glad he wrote poetry so seldom, because confronted with a greater volume of his poems, I might’ve given up writing in despair.  As it is, when he died in 2004 he left a wonderful body of paintings (scattered to the four winds), an unfinished novel about his time in the mental hospital and its aftermath, and a thin sheaf of poems.  (He tricked me into returning my collection of short stories to him for editing, and promptly destroyed them.)  Both Lisa Gill and I have claimed copyright to the poems (together, not exclusively), for purposes of getting them out there, not fencing them off, and Adam Rubinstein ran off a few copies of a softcover collection in 2007.  I don’t know what its status is now, or whether it is still possible to acquire it.  Meanwhile I want to put some of my favorite poems of Lee’s here, not all the ones in Otros, but the characteristic and poetically outstanding ones.

 

Unicycle

Lightning strobes dark rows between the corn and

rain fogs my lenses so I can’t see the dark clearly.

         I feel each wet slap of the corn leaves and

you laugh at me from the helicopter

saying I can’t see the forest for the trees

but I say God is in the details

et tu Brute?

And a fist of corn gashes my eyebrow

but I pedal faster for there are many rows

and the night is long.

     One two slap slap

     corn whips me

     I pedal against the grain

     the hard cobs that slap me simple.

Out there on the turnpike

did you expect one yellow light,

a refrigerator streamlined for tornadoes,

a man in overalls pacing worn linoleum

or did you say I bet he’s riding his unicycle

thru the cornfield.

      But I go faster not to think

     and I take milk from a tube, from a pack,

     on my back.

      I’m here in my everest not to think

      of the gleaming things

      and the rusting things

      and the creaking floors

      and the humming motors

      and the spectral linen on the wire

      and the vinegar smell from the cellar

      where the dark recalls to me

      the wet slap of the bent swords of corn.

 

the other side of the world

 

I can’t tell them

how when I was six

it was hard to get under my desk

without clonking my head

during ‘duck and cover’ drills.

Farther than Martians

the fogbreathing Russians

circled the world with

a dog in a can.

We might be martyrs

said Sister Marie.

Burnt to a crisp before you can blink

said Dad

and I can’t tell them

that he laughed.

They still plow with horses

he said.

And I can’t tell them

of an awkward pause

in our asphalt games

waiting first for the nose

then the belly

of a B52.

I can’t tell them

how eggbeaters became machineguns

how jars of dust became grenades

how nuns described our maybe torture

how the magazines were warm with cleavage

and next page a row of morons

in the snow, in the mud, in the clearing,

the white and black of black and white

from Hammerland

from Democratic Snowbear Land,

long blocks getting smaller

toward the trees, burnt in the eye of

the mind like staring too long at

germs on a slide and I can’t tell them

how I practised hunger

how I practised cold

and was ready to kill

when I was six.

I try to forget

but if I won’t

then I kon’t.

 

I Want

 

for her, good planets

where pears are yellow

and apples are red,

with sky at the top,

house in the middle,

bolts from pretty suns

that dad stands under

tie blown out by wind

in town’s grid turned green

I want like she wants

to walk dappled paths

in orchards’ lace weave

and to sleep in nests,

before, tall on lines

between sky and land,

we lust for dark oceans

 

Flapper With Hoop

 

They found a grey wall

and powdered her down;

they gave her a hoop.

 

One calf to the floor

one knee to her chin

hands at width of rim.

 

To be calm naked

or be somewhere else

she thought of Greek girls

black glazed and sideways

walking on a vase,

describing circles,

hoops around hard sky;

one of them falling

breaks the orange clay

finding wine inside.

 

spotless

 

peeled by men

who find spots

to pass time

potatoes

in mess halls

are spotless

 

The Wonderful Day

 

Archie’s not likely to pierce his nose

he laughs

and flamingoes skitter

not to be petted

on a long lawn under palms

 

in the comics they’re blue

and don’t move

these shadows

that fleck us like dogs

and patch us onto paths in Eden

 

salsa from the veranda

what’s a veranda?

is a march

Veronica’s hips obey

we wave our bubble wands

she bursts in soap and lilac oil

 

Archie’s not likely to get tattooed

logos are for business he says

we buried our rubber tomahawks

after the fight over Betty

in the years before Business Ad.

 

pink house pink sunset

congas calling up the moon

kids necking by the limo

whole jars of blue

for shadows pointing east

 

Archie’s flat smile

flashing before each olive

wonder what it’s like

with no canines

a mashing bar

 

no dogs howl in Archie’s night

gallons of yellow for the lamps

projecting hourglass Betty

on upstairs window shades

don’t ask Archie what he dreams

 

there are no symbols says Archie

each number is a dollar

each dollar is an object

I tell him he’s drunk

and he strokes my face with a bill

 

Archie and I bought these panels

we’re locked in

where not much happens

I’ll write a letter

if I can remember

 

Kikibear the Cat

 

Kikibear’s color

is café au lait

with orange squeezed in

 

Kikibear’s voice

is nasal

like mine

 

Kikibear’s breath

is a cavendish

of tuna and bones

 

Kikibear is the pharaoh

it is written it is law

so he marks my laundry

and my walls

 

Kikibear is a complete thought

with teeth

 

[Two Men Dying]

 

Stand here playing an air

guitar for a while, and composing

as much as I’m not hearing,

before the two of us

may seem slender pink birds that this morning

is framing over green, and this

a spring trailing behind our tropical yearnings

with hours somehow less bright, less green,

with hours in which the seconds froth

above our expanding moment and across the sky

in its brightness, until we are almost aware

we are passing.

 

[Lee left this poem untitled.  The speaker is one of a pair of gay men, both dying of AIDS, who lived in Lee’s neighborhood.  This is also the poem I mentioned in a previous post, created by making a Mad Lib out of an Ashbery poem.]

 

The Fish

 

are down there all the time

and they never get any towels or blankets

and their mothers don’t twist their ears

to make the water come out

and they never get any french fries

 

This entry is already long, but next in alphabetical order is the poem that has been my favorite poem since 1970, when I read it first:  William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”  I would be hard put to it to say what makes it my favorite—I’m not much of a nature worshipper, nor given to mystical intuitions of a single Spirit moving through all things;  I like the poem’s scaffolding of blank verse but not being confined to the line, instead taking its rhythm from the natural way of reading the poem aloud, had it been prose;  but really, talking about why I like it is like trying to answer why one loves one’s romantic partner:  if one can say why, the love is probably evolving into some safer and tamer emotion.  When I was receiving daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer in 2009—about the farthest distance I could be from the “recollections in tranquility” Wordsworth’s poem describes—I used to say it to myself.  This poem has been, more than the rare experiences of nature available to my mainly urban life, “the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being.”

 

Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour. July 13, 1798

 

      Five years have passed;  five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a soft inland murmur.  Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion;  and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

The day is come when I again repose

Here, under this dark sycamore, and view

These plots of cottage ground, these orchard tufts,

Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,

Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves

’Mid groves and copses.  Once again I see

These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild;  these pastoral farms,

Green to the very door;  and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

With some uncertain notice, as might seem

Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire

The Hermit sits alone.

 

                                          These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind,

With tranquil restoration—feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure;  such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life,

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

Of kindness and of love.  Nor less, I trust,

To them I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime;  that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened—that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on—

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul;

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

 

                                                       If this

Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—

In darkness and amid the many shapes

Of joyless daylight;  when the fretful stir

Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,

Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,

O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer through the woods,

How often has my spirit turned to thee!

 

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,

With many recognitions dim and faint,

And somewhat of a sad perplexity,

The picture of the mind revives again;

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years.  And so I dare to hope,

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first

I came among these hills;  when like a roe

I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led—more like a man

Flying from something that he dreads than one

Who sought the thing he loved.  For nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all.—I cannot paint

What then I was.  The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion;  the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colors and their forms, were then to me

An appetite;  a feeling and a love,

That had no need of a remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,

And all its aching joys are now no more,

And all its dizzy raptures.  Not for this

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur;  other gifts

Have followed;  for such loss, I would believe,

Abundant recompense.  For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth;  but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue.  And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts;  a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.  Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains;  and of all that we behold

From this green earth;  of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear—both what they half create,

And what perceive;  well pleased to recognize

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

 

                                           Nor perchance,

If I were not thus taught, should I the more

Suffer my genial spirits to decay:

For thou art with me here upon the banks

Of this fair river;  thou my dearest Friend,

My dear, dear Friend;  and in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart, and read

My former pleasures in the shooting lights

Of thy wild eyes.  Oh! yet a little while

May I behold in thee what I was once,

My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,

Knowing that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her;  ’tis her privilege,

Through all the years of this our life, to lead

From joy to joy:  for she can so inform

The mind that is within us, so impress

With quietness and beauty, and so feed

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,

Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,

Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all

The dreary intercourse of daily life,

Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb

Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold

Is full of blessings.  Therefore let the moon

Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;

And let the misty mountain winds be free

To blow against thee:  and, in after years,

When these wild ecstasies shall be matured

Into a sober pleasure;  when thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies;  oh! then,

If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief

Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts

Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,

And these my exhortations!  Nor, perchance—

If I should be where I no more can hear

Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams

Of past existence—wilt thou then forget

That on the banks of this delightful stream

We stood together;  and that I, so long

A worshiper of Nature, hither came

Unwearied in that service;  rather say

With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal

Of holier love.  Nor wilt thou then forget,

That after many wanderings, many years

Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,

And this green pastoral landscape, were to me

More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), February 2002:  addressed to Harry Payne Reeves, RIP.  My father was born in Carmi, IL, not far from the Mississippi (actually closer to the Wabash—oops), in 1886.  When he died in 1956 he’d been working on a novel about his boyhood;  this poem tries to capture some of the atmosphere of that unfinished piece.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Mississippi

to my father

 

Riverboy

how did the river pick you

did it sleeve its round grace in your voice

harden its plank houses with your denim stroll

 

Riverboy

how did the fresh flats rear you

was the spasming stick you held by the forks

a wizardry of flood

 

Riverboy

how did the shops guess their contents

did they peddle the limits of your age for a nickel

when the century got up whistling from its blanket of bruise

 

Riverboy

how did the river pick you

was your manhood a far knocked banjo chord

on a pier yawned skyward on the birthtide of the world

Richard Wilbur may be our best living poet.  He’s been a presence in my life since 1970, when an ex-priest I met in Ann Arbor, Michigan told me the story of his struggles to produce a master’s thesis on Wilbur, painstakingly amassing evidence that Wilbur was a Christian, but only after the thesis had been accepted coming upon the interview where Wilbur had said “I am a Christian.”  The facility and clarity of his language, his mastery of both free verse and rhyme, his sure grasp of philosophical issues (not always to be taken for granted in a poet), his sense of humor and the constant beauty of his imagery were impressive to me and my friends, and when I progressed from Catholic friends to fellow philosophy majors I discovered that Wilbur was often the poet of choice among these as well.  An evening at the Taos Aesthetics Institute sometime in the ’80s stands out, when Tom Alexander, Bill Kerr and I got a copy of the great collection Things of This World from the Taos public library and read it aloud to one another over beer.  Throughout my intellectual and aesthetic wanderings since, Wilbur’s poems have been a source of delight, pathos and serene reflection.

The title piece from that collection, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” is in Otros, with the comic poems “Shame,” “A Voice from Under the Table” and “Digging for China” (Wilbur also has a gift for light verse and has published highly entertaining—and silly—books for children), the warm nature and love poems “Fall in Corrales” and “Apology,” a different kind of love poem to his daughter, “The Writer,” and a recent poem recounting a heartbreaking incident when Wilbur was called upon to “exemplify the published poet” to a young and suicidal Sylvia Plath:  “Cottage Street, 1953.”

A single poem in my file, “The Coming of Palomides,” represents Charles Williams’ marvelous Arthurian cycle of poems.  These poems are beautiful but also extremely difficult, and contain as much of Williams’ “romantic theology” as his more accessible novels.  The Arthur story stands at the cusp of Christianity and paganism, and Williams’ version is firmly on the Christian side, but with a sympathetic understanding and appreciation of the pagan elements as well.  These poems can be found in two collections, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, but Williams’ friend C.S. Lewis also published his own incisive and wildly helpful commentary on the poems, with Williams’ incomplete essay on Arthur, in a book called Arthurian Torso.  I see from a quick search of Amazon that it is still possible to purchase all three of these books in one volume—expensive but quite worth it!

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), September 2001.  “I will light the very fire where God hides” was the first line of this that came to me, and I remember thinking, am I really going to write this poem? from this point of view?  It’s been called courageous:  I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I picked the most melodramatic take on these events I possibly could, to blow people at poetry readings away, and for no other purpose.  If there was a serious intent (and I suppose there was some), it wasn’t to represent or defend the actions of the nineteen hijackers, who were utter maniacs as far as I’m concerned, but to make a point about the horribly destructive effects of belief in God.  We learned later that several of the perpetrators were unaware this would be a “martyrdom mission”—but my speaker is obviously one of those in the know.  A couple of them did indulge in alcohol the night before—for “Dutch courage?”  “The Creature” is the United States, if that needs to be clarified.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, in the local zine Central Avenue, and in the chapbook Don McIver and Friends.  A somewhat creepy live performance also appeared on the CD anthology Poetic Democracy.

Morning, Shortly After Takeoff

September 11, 2001

 

They are serving drinks.

I will refuse one this time.

I look down at my watch

and away from the rest of the men.

I cleave to God’s words

pitched throughout my skull

as if by the most beautiful singer,

words about God’s aloneness,

no partner, no son, hid, unshared

but forever shuddering sounds

into human ears and wills,

making us yearn for silence

as he does.

Before my voice was a man’s

and they could see it wore no music,

my parents wanted me to train

for a prayer caller.

Instead I learned to steer

the soaring houses of the Creature

in the Creature’s own school.

I was hills.

I was deep tumbled hills

reeking of sheep and soldiers.

I was rough jokes in a thatched fort.

I was stone earth on thousands of foreheads.

I squatted in the dry cold

to hear of the Creature,

fat and sleepy,

who emptied screams into my skies.

My scalp is tight this morning

not from waiting the signal

but because I broke the law last night

and had a few.

Too many voices of people I’d never met,

never will,

were pushing around me,

pushing me down,

and I needed something to help me get up

not minutes from now.

One voice, one sound, one song

remains.

For an instant,

through me,

God will speak with silence.

I will be the most beautiful singer

and chant his life from the highest place,

an instant of message

wordless as the bursting air.

I will light the very fire where God hides,

a fire too fast for anything else to live there,

not a single thought or word,

not a single one of God’s Names,

only his blinding heart

for my blind heart

to draw near.

Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud.  I’ve been campaigning on the platform that all poetry ought to be read aloud, but Thomas in particular operated at the gentle borderline between meaning and music, crossing it so frequently and systematically that the two are inextricable.  He needs to be heard to be understood.  In his earlier poems, where the meaning is more personal and remote, the music doesn’t really yield much cognitive sense.  Of course you can read them as “language poetry,” but that label to me represents a failure of poetry, not an achievement.  Thomas eventually discovered a way to root his lyric invention in lived sensory depth.  This is done through the authority of narration.  You believe him when he says things are happening, though what those things are will always at least partly puzzle you.  But people who’ve heard Thomas’ rich dramatic voice will testify to his ability to wake printed words from sleep and make them squirm and live:  not just his own words either, for he had a broad, discerning knowledge of modern poetry.  As a twentysomething, I sat at a long table in the UNM Listening Library with headphones on and Thomas’ tipsy boom sweeping through my ears.  An old friend, Bill Murphy, was a Thomas nut, and first turned me on to the poem which is still my favorite, and the only one in Otros, “A Winter’s Tale.”  I also like “Vision and Prayer,” “Fern Hill,” “Lament” … most of the second half of his slim book.  Listen to Thomas say “A Winter’s Tale,” or read it aloud to yourself, and don’t try to extract a prose story from the snowfall-whirling words.  Though the words are often plain and blunt, what actually happens?  A man seems to run outdoors and die of exposure, but he is chasing a “she bird” who somehow comes to life in his house and has the power to resurrect ancient sights and sounds in the landscape.  The suicidal, delusional journey is presented as a kind of mystical union with an eternal bride.  Huh?  Well, did you forget this was poetry?  The lesson is in the telling.    Hear it and accept.

I mentioned Pound’s “Envoi (1919),” which refers to Lawes’ musical setting of this poem by Edmund Waller, a seventeenth-century English poet.  I admire the original too.

 

Song

 

      Go, lovely rose!

Tell her that wastes her time and me

      That now she knows,

When I resemble her to thee,

How sweet and fair she seems to be.

 

      Tell her that’s young,

And shuns to have her graces spied,

      That hadst thou sprung

In deserts, where no men abide,

Thou must have uncommended died.

 

      Small is the worth

Of beauty from the light retired;

      Bid her come forth,

Suffer herself to be desired,

And blush not so to be admired.

 

      Then die! that she

The common fate of all things rare

      May read in thee;

How small a part of time they share

That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

 

And then there is Walt Whitman.  What can I say?  I came to him well into my middle age.  He was “somewhere waiting for me.”  Patiently.  All the years I wasn’t interested and didn’t have time for him.  It was like finding a treasure under a floorboard in my living room.  I’d lugged around my parents’ copy of Leaves of Grass—a nineteenth-century printing—all my life, but hardly opened it till the eve of the new millenium.  Stephen Mitchell’s redaction of “Song of Myself” (in my old book its title is “Walt Whitman”) helped me find my way into this elderly and young spew of insights and declarations.  It’s really not to be missed, but you may have to wait, as I did, till you’ve lived some life before it can charm its way inside you.  In the meantime, as with most of Whitman’s great works, it will remain fresh and still, waiting.

Besides “Song of Myself” I also have Whitman’s lofty elegy for Lincoln, “Where Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed,” his bitter denunciation of postwar America “Respondez!,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which he actually addresses us, the people of his future.  After your indulgence last time, letting me inflict the whole of “Anactoria” on you, I don’t want to fill up this entry with these long poems, especially the book-length “Song of Myself.”  Here is a shorter one that breathes essential Whitman to me.

 

There Was a Child Went Forth

 

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

 

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phœbe-bird,

And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf,

And the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side,

And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and the beautiful curious liquid,

And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all became part of him.

The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him,

Winter-grain sprouts and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,

And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road,

And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern whence he had lately risen,

And the schoolmistress that pass’d on her way to the school,

And the friendly boys that pass’d, and the quarrelsome boys,

And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls, and the barefoot Negro boy and girl,

And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.

 

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,

They gave this child more of themselves than that,

They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

 

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,

The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,

The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,

The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,

The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,

Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal,

The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?

Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks what are they?

The streets themselves and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,

Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves, the huge crossing at the ferries,

The village of the highland seen from afar at sunset, the river between,

Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown two miles off,

The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,

The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,

The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in,

The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud,

These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), May 2001.  I planned this to be the first poem in a cycle about the Atlantis legend, but I was reading Tolkien’s Silmarillion at the time and figured I couldn’t possibly do better with the legend than he had done, so turned my poem into a love poem.  Ho hum, what else is new.  It was written shortly after Leisha broke up with me for the final time, but the woman in the poem isn’t Leisha (she seems to have red hair, for one thing).  My suspicion about Atlantis (which first shows up in Plato’s Critias) is that it was a volcanic island near Crete in the Mediterranean, not in the Atlantic Ocean.  The speaker therefore passes the “Pillars of Hercules” (more or less the Strait of Gibraltar) to sail away from it.  In ancient times this was the limit of the known world.  Dale Harris let me read this at one of her spring multimedia shows wearing a white robe, a white mask and a laurel crown.  I love Mitch Rayes’ music that goes with it on my CD Hush.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the online journal Fickle Muses.

The Last Ship from Atlantis

 

The world burns in the night.

 

Salt tightens my nostrils

as prow cuts water

unshapen now, beyond the Pillars,

a mirror blotted not by fire

but the loss of it.

 

The world burns but I still take your hand

miles beneath me now, and green

as the snow on our mountaintops,

green as our white gates

gaped to streams of horses

jangling gold, bickering ivory,

the saddles sizzling in the scornful noon.

 

I still take your hand and kiss your airless mouth

as the dark sky beneath the dark sky

speeds away without changing

and deep winds cross us to wretched destinations

and slap us back even from there.

 

Hilarious to lose you

to the flying bleeding rocks

when I remember how you could melt the earth

with a sniff and gesture of face

and that walk of yours, tall as a star.

 

We lay in the cool of the dry peaks

and the cool of our sweet sweat,

the mild lime squares of ambergris

still buckled around your bare hips,

toes and fingers colored

after kings’ gowns or eyelids.

 

Lifted on an elbow, you swept

the sea and the gloried island

with your other arm, saying “Gift.”

 

And gift was given.

 

Nor did you and I have anything to do

with the givings and takings of gods,

with barters or oaths,

sins or merits.

 

Gift was the cry of finding, the cry of forsaking,

the same cry,

from your upward broken lips

and the sleep that doused you like June storm

so your thought could scamper in drifted buildings.

 

The hot small flower

you drew along my cheek

was the smash of our strange armadas,

our slaveries, our crawling vaults.

 

Oh, we were everything they killed us for:

I carry that like a tomb

in my open fists.

 

We landed on the world like a hawk

with a voice all hunger and harm.

 

Hunger and harm

were the flags of our plazas

the tribute of our tax

the bread we threw in the wine.

 

I will say you were innocent

with all this murder in your hair to the roots

because this is how you were born,

a tongue of rich pallor

dressed in thieves’ grabbings.

 

And I will say I’m condemned

though I was born how you were,

one of the hawk’s dead fingers,

because it wasn’t work, pleasure,

or any wakeful thing took me

to the harbor this morning,

just dim desire

to look on the lying sea,

and when the crap of our victories

the drench of our sciences

the cripples of our hopes

began to flog the ground to bits in gnashes of smoke

and heavenly vine of flame and spattered lace of screams

I made no attempt

to run between the nodding walls

and under the gods’ own clouds

and up the hills to you.

 

I sat out from shore with a few dried men

shrunk too small for our clothes, our shoes,

and watched you taken under

all day long

while the mountains spilled like suns

and the gods’ sun lowered

into faceless red ocean

and the thing was complete

and a night blew up,

and a wind.

 

We turned ourselves and passed the Pillars.

 

I know you would have me

bring something rescued

to a land we may or may not reach,

and bring it bravely

but the bravery itself

is all I’ve rescued

and it does me as much good

as my love does now.

 

Behind my back

where the fear went down with the love

the world burns

not for a sign or teaching

and not to marry its black element

to a last or first light

but because world swallowed you and you world

and drowned or undrowned,

you burn.

 

For a while, my standard bio has included “writer, artist, Maude activist and novice game-maker” and omitted the rest of my potential laundry list of identity labels. The labels I have used are about what I do — what I do by choice, or at least without too much coercion by necessity or social pressure. Most are self-explanatory, while my “Harold and Maude” reference is perhaps a bit oblique. If you’ve read “A God’s Life,” you may have gotten the clue in “A test.” When Harold asks Maude if she’s done with revolts, she answers, in part, “Still fighting for the Big Issues, but now in my small, individual way.”

Not that I was ever an activist on the scale of Maude. Being always a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, I was a bureaucrat activist, booking the visits to legislators and paying the bills, talking as little as possible to either persons or crowds but doing it a great deal more than I wished, doing it because I had to, for the sake of the cause, the demands of the position, or because I was the only person-of-oppressed-class-X handy. That last was always my very favorite. (Need I employ the sarcasm tag?)

Several things I think of as important to who I am align with various identity-based movements, but I’ve tended to be uncomfortable with identity politics, though I’ve involved myself in them on and off, in the past to a very active degree. Coming to identity politics for refuge from the larger world of being-expected-to-be-what-I-am-not, instead of being thus freed, I found myself subject to all new unreasonable expectations as the price of admission to the community, often as rigidly enforced as the usual norms, or more so. Not all the groups I’ve been involved with have been dominated by identity boundary enforcers, but none have been devoid of them either. 

And yet there is a reason still to employ these labels at times, which I shall get to after that laundry list of identity labels you’ve so patiently awaited. I give it to you here with only a little more ado, or rather a part of it, the parts that seem most important at present:

  • aspie/autism spectrum/neuroatypical
  • nonbinary/genderqueer/transgender/transexual
  • queer/bisexual
  • atheist who used to be a Jew but doesn’t particularly think ze is anymore
  • mentally ill/crazy/disabled
  • possessor nevertheless of the privilege attached to being white and American

What makes most of these labels important is that they involve things people get denigrated for. Why should the fact that people’s genitals aren’t really a factor in my attractions be a matter of identity? Because I think knowing people who are X may do more than anything else to counter the idea that people who are X can also be presumed to be anything else not fundamental to the definition of X, or to being human. So I feel a duty to be “out” about such things.

Being a Maude activist, I try not to restrain any of my queernesses (though one is to be often so quiet very little of me is particularly perceptible much of the time).

These labels name things important to who I am, but they aren’t so important in determining whom I can relate to, or who’s likely to relate to me or my writing. Some of my closest friends are straight cisgender males! Though each part is important to me, none is me, as no part is the whole of anyone.

Being a Maude activist, I try to be my whole self at all times (though I often fail).

First, two friends met at long-gone Albuquerque readings.  Jim Stewart now lives in Brooklyn, but was one of the original participants in the EJ’s reading I’ve mentioned before on this blog—a sassy, acerbic but funny performance poet, he concentrates on prose these days.  I like this wholly atypical poem of his best:

Yale Park at Dusk in November

 

crows and I have this in common:

we like these times

when the frozen air carries their voices

like an empty concert hall

with a silence underneath

that dulls the traffic noise all down Central

 

this same brittle gray sky

that sends them into shrieking ecstasy

makes me not mind so much

that they paint the concrete white and green

so I can’t walk without a nervous glance up

 

because around this time

a crow over the dry elm branches

isn’t really a bird, but the absence of a bird

a cookie cutter hole in the sky

where a bird would fit

and wherever that hole goes to

the sound comes out of

and if I looked into it long enough

it would look into me

 

The second friend is Aaron Stump, who leads a double life as an engineer, but continues to write lean passionate poems steeped in American tradition.  He came to me at another great defunct reading, the Sunday open mic at Best Price Books & Coffee, hosted by Juliette Torrez and then Kenn Rodriguez.  This is one of my favorite poems of his so far:

Elemental Hands

 

The bleak earth

with hands made for you, you tilled the soil

till it came up—green beans better than roses

picked em one by one split between

myself and the bucket and

i ate them hot

with supper

and the Earth, then, was just the earth to me.

 

The riled swarm

with hands made for you, you robbed the hive

spinning those frames

cutting up the comb

with that hot knife

hot and sweet, in a hot, sweet and heavy summer

spitting wax like it was a big man’s chew

and the Day, then, was just a day to me.

 

The calm waters

with hands made for you, you cast the line

baiting my hooks

with fat worms and minding my casts

drinking water out of mason jars

our smiling catfish-strung Polaroid

yellowed into gold by sun and memory

and a fish, then, was just a fish to me.

 

The sharp day

when hands made for you came cold

shovels trembled

and the sun burned, that day, blackened

and the world, then, was so many days

I had known, and tasted, and breathed

the Earth took you and i could not speak

Death was a wailing machine—i could not understand

 

These days

these elements of your hands, in my hands

when each day is born

and still I learn, to do what i could not.

and the Days wash upon me as water.

and the Earth is put under my feet.

and in this element still, I mourn and wonder;

can I live, with hands made for me, so well?

 

Algernon Charles Swinburne.  God help me, one of my very favorite poets.  I was going to begin this by lamenting that I couldn’t put the whole of his long poem “Anactoria” here, but actually, why the hell not?  You don’t have to read it, though I hope you do.  It captures both the attractions and the vices of this gifted master of the Decadence.  You know and I know that Sappho was probably only mildly bisexual, not a “Lesbian” in other than the geographical sense, and Swinburne himself knew, I’m sure, that she wasn’t into sadomasochism and he was projecting some of his own proclivities onto the ancient writer, but this Sappho’s desperate but defiant love is not to be missed, nor her attack on the Christian God—a being who would’ve been simply inconceivable to a real ancient Greek.  You can also sample here Swinburne’s heady prosodic gifts:  even people who can’t stand him admit that he was an incomparable metrical genius.  If he slides over into pure meaningless sound at times, that only endears him to me more.  (You know that if you know my own poetry!)  The critic Arnold Bennett said of “Anactoria” that Swinburne played “a rare trick” on England “by enshrining in the topmost heights of its poetry a lovely poem that cannot be discussed.”

Before that, however, I want to introduce you to the first Swinburne poem I ever encountered, a chorus from his verse play Atalanta in Calydon which the Fugs put on their first album under the title “Swinburne Stomp.”  Read away—

Chorus from Atalanta in Calydon

 

Before the beginning of years

      There came to the making of man

Time, with a gift of tears;

      Grief, with a glass that ran;

Pleasure, with pain for leaven;

      Summer, with flowers that fell;

Remembrance fallen from heaven,

      And madness risen from hell;

Strength without hands to smite;

      Love that endures for a breath:

Night, the shadow of light,

      And life, the shadow of death.

And the high gods took in hand

      Fire, and the falling of tears,

And a measure of sliding sand

      From under the feet of the years;

And froth and drift of the sea;

      And dust of the laboring earth;

And bodies of things to be

      From the houses of death and of birth;

And wrought with weeping and laughter,

      And fashioned with loathing and love

With life before and after

      And death beneath and above,

For a day and a night and a morrow,

      That his strength might endure for a span

With travail and heavy sorrow,

      The holy spirit of man.

From the winds of the north and the south

      They gathered as unto strife;

They breathed upon his mouth,

      They filled his body with life;

Eyesight and speech they wrought

      For the veils of the soul therein,

A time for labor and thought,

      A time to serve and to sin;

They gave him light in his ways,

      And love, and a space for delight,

And beauty and length of days,

      And night, and sleep in the night.

His speech is a burning fire;

      With his lips he travaileth;

In his heart is a blind desire,

      In his eyes foreknowledge of death;

He weaves, and is clothed with derision;

      Sows, and he shall not reap;

His life is a watch or a vision

      Between a sleep and a sleep.

 

Anactoria

 

My life is bitter with thy love;  thine eyes

Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs

Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,

And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.

I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;

Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.

I would the sea had hidden us, the fire

(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)

Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,

And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves.

I feel thy blood against my blood:  my pain

Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.

Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower,

Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.

Why wilt thou follow lesser loves? are thine

Too weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?

I charge thee for my life’s sake, O too sweet

To crush love with thy cruel faultless feet,

I charge thee keep thy lips from hers or his,

Sweetest, till theirs be sweeter than my kiss:

Lest I too lure, a swallow for a dove,

Erotion or Erinna to my love.

I would my love could kill thee;  I am satiated

With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat,

And no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet.

I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,

Intense device, and superflux of pain;

Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake

Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;

Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,

Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;

Relapse and reluctation of the breath,

Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.

I am weary of all thy words and soft strange ways,

Of all love’s fiery nights and all his days,

And all the broken kisses salt as brine

That shuddering lips make moist with waterish wine,

And eyes the bluer for all those hidden hours

That pleasure fills with tears and feeds from flowers,

Fierce at the heart with fire that half comes through,

But all the flowerlike white stained round with blue;

The fervent underlid, and that above

Lifted with laughter or abashed with love;

Thine amorous girdle, full of thee and fair,

And leavings of the lilies in thine hair.

Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,

And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,

And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brine

That Love was born of burns and foams like wine,

And eyes insatiable of amorous hours,

Fervent as fire and delicate as flowers,

Coloured like night at heart, but cloven through

Like night with flame, dyed round like night with blue,

Clothed with deep eyelids under and above—

Yea, all thy beauty sickens me with love;

Thy girdle empty of thee and now not fair,

And ruinous lilies in thy languid hair.

Ah, take no thought for Love’s sake;  shall this be,

And she who loves thy lover not love thee?

Sweet soul, sweet mouth of all that laughs and lives,

Mine is she, very mine;  and she forgives.

For I beheld in sleep the light that is

In her high place in Paphos, heard the kiss

Of body and soul that mix with eager tears

And laughter stinging through the eyes and ears;

Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,

Imperishable, upon her storied seat;

Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,

A mind of many colours, and a mouth

Of many tunes and kisses;  and she bowed,

With all her subtle face laughing aloud,

Bowed down upon me, saying, “Who doth thee wrong,

Sappho?” but thou—thy body is the song,

Thy mouth the music;  thou art more than I,

Though my voice die not till the whole world die;

Though men that hear it madden;  though love weep,

Though nature change, though shame be charmed to sleep.

Ah, wilt thou slay me lest I kiss thee dead?

Yet the queen laughed from her sweet heart and said:

“Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake,

And she shall give thee gifts that would not take,

Shall kiss that would not kiss thee” (yea, kiss me)

“When thou wouldst not”—when I would not kiss thee!

Ah, more to me than all men as thou art,

Shall not my songs assuage her at the heart?

Ah, sweet to me as life seems sweet to death,

Why should her wrath fill thee with fearful breath?

Nay, sweet, for is she God alone? hath she

Made earth and all the centuries of the sea,

Taught the sun ways to travel, woven most fine

The moonbeams, shed the starbeams forth as wine,

Bound with her myrtles, beaten with her rods,

The young men and the maidens and the gods?

Have we not lips to love with, eyes for tears,

And summer and flower of women and of years?

Stars for the foot of morning, and for noon

Sunlight, and exaltation of the moon;

Waters that answer waters, fields that wear

Lilies, and languor of the Lesbian air?

Beyond those flying feet of fluttered doves,

Are there not other gods for other loves?

Yea, though she scourge thee, sweetest, for my sake,

Blossom not thorns and flowers not blood should break.

Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed

To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!

Ah that my mouth for Muses’ milk were fed

On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!

That with my tongue I felt them, and could taste

The faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!

That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat

Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet

Thy body were abolished and consumed,

And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!

Ah, ah, thy beauty! like a beast it bites,

Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites.

Ah sweet, and sweet again, and seven times sweet,

The paces and the pauses of thy feet!

Ah sweeter than all sleep or summer air

The fallen fillets fragrant from thine hair!

Yea, though their alien kisses do me wrong,

Sweeter thy lips than mine with all their song;

Thy shoulders whiter than a fleece of white,

And flower-sweet fingers, good to bruise or bite

As honeycomb of the inmost honey-cells,

With almond-shaped and roseleaf-coloured shells

And blood like purple blossom at the tips

Quivering;  and pain made perfect in thy lips

For my sake when I hurt thee;  O that I

Durst crush thee out of life with love, and die,

Die of thy pain and my delight, and be

Mixed with thy blood and molten into thee!

Would I not plague thee dying overmuch?

Would I not hurt thee perfectly? not touch

Thy pores of sense with torture, and make bright

Thine eyes with bloodlike tears and grievous light?

Strike pang from pang as note is struck from note,

Catch the sob’s middle music in thy throat,

Take thy limbs living, and new-mould with these

A lyre of many faultless agonies?

Feed thee with fever and famine and fine drouth,

With perfect pangs convulse thy perfect mouth,

Make thy life shudder in thee and burn afresh,

And wring thy very spirit through the flesh?

Cruel? but love makes all that love him well

As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.

Me hath love made more bitter toward thee

Than death toward man;  but were I made as he

Who hath made all things to break them one by one,

If my feet trod upon the stars and sun

And souls of men as his have alway trod,

God knows I might be crueller than God.

For who shall change with prayers or thanksgivings

The mystery of the cruelty of things?

Or say what God above all gods and years

With offering and blood-sacrifice of tears,

With lamentation from strange lands, from graves

Where the snake pastures, from scarred mouths of slaves,

From prison, and from plunging prows of ships

Through flamelike foam of the sea’s closing lips—

With thwartings of strange signs, and wind-blown hair

Of comets, desolating the dim air,

When darkness is made fast with seals and bars,

And fierce reluctance of disastrous stars,

Eclipse, and sound of shaken hills, and wings

Darkening, and blind inexpiable things—

With sorrow of labouring moons, and altering light

And travail of the planets of the night,

And weeping of the weary Pleiads seven,

Feeds the mute melancholy lust of heaven?

Is not his incense bitterness, his meat

Murder? his hidden face and iron feet

Hath not man known, and felt them on their way

Threaten and trample all things and every day?

Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed

Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst

Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed

The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,

Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,

Pain animate the dust of dead desire,

And life yield up her flower to violent fate?

Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate,

Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,

And mix his immortality with death.

Why hath he made us? what had all we done

That we should live and loathe the sterile sun,

And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,

And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?

Thee too the years shall cover;  thou shalt be

As the rose born of one same blood with thee,

As a song sung, as a word said, and fall

Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,

Nor any memory of thee anywhere;

For never Muse has bound above thine hair

The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows

All summer kinship of the mortal rose

And colour of deciduous days, nor shed

Reflex and flush of heaven about thine head,

Nor reddened brows made pale by floral grief

With splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.

Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,

Except these kisses of my lips on thine

Brand them with immortality;  but me—

Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,

Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold

Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold

And plumeless wings that make the bright air blind,

Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind

Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown,

But in the light and laughter, in the moan

And music, and in grasp of lip and hand

And shudder of water that makes felt on land

The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,

Memories shall mix and metaphors of me.

Like me shall be the shuddering calm of night,

When all the winds of the world for pure delight

Close lips that quiver and fold up wings that ache;

When nightingales are louder for love’s sake,

And leaves tremble like lute-strings or like fire;

Like me the one star swooning with desire

Even at the cold lips of the sleepless moon,

As I at thine;  like me the waste white noon,

Burnt through with barren sunlight;  and like me

The land-stream and the tide-stream in the sea.

I am sick with time as these with ebb and flow,

And by the yearning in my veins I know

The yearning sound of waters;  and mine eyes

Burn as that beamless fire which fills the skies

With troubled stars and travailing things of flame;

And in my heart the grief consuming them

Labours, and in my veins the thirst of these,

And all the summer travail of the trees

And all the winter sickness;  and the earth,

Filled full with deadly works of death and birth,

Sore spent with hungry lusts of birth and death,

Has pain like mine in her divided breath;

Her spring of leaves is barren, and her fruit

Ashes;  her boughs are burdened, and her root

Fibrous and gnarled with poison;  underneath

Serpents have gnawn it through with tortuous teeth

Made sharp upon the bones of all the dead,

And wild birds rend her branches overhead.

These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,

These hath God made, and me as these, and wrought

Song, and hath lit it at my lips;  and me

Earth shall not gather though she feed on thee.

As a shed tear shalt thou be shed;  but I—

Lo, earth may labour, men live long and die,

Years change and stars, and the high God devise

New things, and old things wane before his eyes

Who wields and wrecks them, being more strong than they—

But, having made me, me he shall not slay.

Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of his

Who laugh and live a little, and their kiss

Contents them, and their loves are swift and sweet,

And sure death grasps and gains them with slow feet,

Love they or hate they, strive or bow their knees—

And all these end;  he hath his will of these.

Yea, but albeit he slay me, hating me—

Albeit he hide me in the deep dear sea

And cover me with cool wan foam, and ease

This soul of mine as any soul of these,

And give me water and great sweet waves, and make

The very sea’s name lordlier for my sake,

The whole sea sweeter—albeit I die indeed

And hide myself and sleep and no man heed,

Of me the high God hath not all his will.

Blossom of branches, and on each high hill

Clear air and wind, and under in clamorous vales

Fierce noises of the fiery nightingales,

Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,

The wan washed sand and the waves’ vain desire,

Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and words

That bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birds

Violently singing till the whole world sings—

I Sappho shall be one with all these things,

With all high things for ever;  and my face

Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,

Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days thereof

With gladness and much sadness and long love.

Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain

New things, and never this best thing again;

Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,

Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine.

And they shall know me as ye who have known me here,

Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year

When I love thee;  and they shall praise me, and say

“She hath all time as all we have our day,

Shall she not live and have her will”—even I?

Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.

For these shall give me of their souls, shall give

Life, and the days and loves wherewith I live,

Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,

Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.

Alas, that neither moon nor snow nor dew

Nor all cold things can purge me wholly through,

Assuage me nor allay me nor appease,

Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;

Till time wax faint in all his periods;

Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,

And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,

Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,

And shed around and over and under me

Thick darkness and the insuperable sea.