I begin this week’s offering with two poems by my friend Mitch Rayes, who’s been preparing a book of autobiographical poems for some time now and publishing dribs and drabs of it here and there. He is a poet of great power and quiet humor: a strange combination. I encourage you to pester him for recordings of these poems and other of his work so you can hear the sublime music he’s created to go with them. (He contributed the wonderful music to the poems on my CD Hush.)
one of those people who always
have to know what they’re doing.
Wrong turns are like
encyclopedias to me.
I can look up anything. You want
to learn something? Try mistaking
a stranger for a loved one.
It happens. I wake up in the middle
of the night like this, surprised
at what street I’m on.
Most people don’t know
how to stray. They keep
their circles tight.
They have a hundred ways
to say nothing. They know
just what they expect to see
without even opening their eyes.
It’s a pretty good trick
but I’ll never get to be proud of it.
I get lost just crossing the street.
I have to notice every leaf.
I see a drop of blood
and I think: was that there before?
taking someone else’s bus. Or a woman
I’ve never seen before
wants me to take her home.
If I find a set of keys on the ground
I go door to door trying them out.
Sometimes I open a door
and I’ll see a child sleeping
and I think: what if it’s mine?
It’s one in the morning, don’t ask me
what day it is.
It must be darker than usual, because
I’ve never seen so many
stars in the city. I can’t find
even one constellation.
There’s a show getting out.
Some people are laughing on the corner.
“Watch out where you’re going!” I say,
“Open your eyes, pay
attention!” And I wish I could
see them wave, like kids
but they don’t even look up.
And why should they
listen to me, what do I know?
Less than the dead, I’m sure of it.
But I know something too:
there is no home, not for any of us.
There never has been.
Hands and feet
marked with crucial fictions, three
crosses carved in a young man’s back.
Then forty years against forgetting
tracking words traced in dirt, buried
with all the first stones hurled
this old man
removes his shirt.
How long can it be
since he’s last seen his sister?
A steel blade bites
in the bristling air, desperate
to undo her flesh, and having dared
to stand and lose a woman raises
what’s left of her hand.
Somewhere unaware a man
sips his cup, unfolds his paper
unfolds his grief his rage, his sister’s
blood is front page news.
And how long has it been
since he has seen his brother?
The lake is like a mirror.
A boy swims out alone, past
the calls, past the buoy
his foot brushes something makes him
shiver, makes him see
a stranger’s hand is waving
from the underwater meadow.
There is a place of no returning
where the dead will bury the dead
a single voice is crying, crying
for a father, anyone to take this cup
word-lashed, broken, waiting
in a street of beaten skulls;
one is crowned in razor wire
one dream-dashed or angry flees
to the end of a rope frozen there
or a glitter of glass
from ten stories up—
ten quick stories in the dwindling air.
And one man throws a line out
a filament of light
to hang a restless faith upon
as a boy steps over another body
and ignorant, keeps walking
and walking on, knows more
comes upon a motorcycle
wrapped around a lightpost
and looking back begins to run
because we cannot know
what will become of us
and it is in not knowing
one man finds
his hope, and one man
holds his grief
and two hands grub
another supper, mustard seed
and locust bread, a sponge
soaked in drugged wine
water and blood a sustenance
powerful and brief as rain
in this neon-stained gethsemane
this land of fallen temples
that shall not rise again.
Rainer Maria Rilke is such an intimidating presence in twentieth century poetry, I hesitate to say much, except that I like his first few books of lyrics, like but don’t really see the point of the Duino Elegies, and am mostly puzzled (in a pleasant way) by the Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke was concerned with speaking truth in a way that approached the philosopher’s—and since Heidegger believed that poetry is more capable of getting at primal truth than philosophy is, Rilke was one of the poets he valued (though placing him on a lower order than Hölderlin, the gushy and demented Romantic!). I think that when he tries to make grand blanket statements about human life and purpose, Rilke is less successful than when in his early poems he piercingly observes nature—the caged panther, the clumsy walking swan—and finds the perfect images to cause the reader to see things his way from this time forward. Edward Snow has a fine one-volume translation of all the important German poems. (He also wrote in French, and his French poems are ghastlier than I can possibly convey.)
Denise Rochelle used to come to the readings for our zine Willow Street, and when I was its editor for a year in 2000, I published this poem of hers written to a friend with Alzheimer’s:
I say your name and smile
Your blue eyes pause on mine
Then leave me behind
A face in a window
Seen from the evening train.
Again, again I speak, smile
Your gaze pauses, passes
Borne on currents
Deeper than I can dive.
When at last you touch my face
I whisper to your fingertips.
I don’t know
What to tell your eyes.
Last, I want to recommend (in addition to his better-known poems like “My Father’s Waltz,” “I Knew a Woman” and “The Waking”) a series of poems by Theodore Roethke delving into his childhood as the son of a German immigrant who operated a floral greenhouse. These simple pieces have the texture and weight of thriving plant life, and the keen human desire to capture a faded past. The poems in the order I found them in two Roethke collections are “Root Cellar,” “Forcing House,” “Weed Puller,” “Moss-Gathering,” “Big Wind,” “Old Florist,” “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze,” “Transplanting,” “Child on Top of a Greenhouse,” “Flower Dump” and “Carnations.”