Otros: Rayes, Rilke, Rochelle, Roethke

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.)



I’m not

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?

I’m always

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

Kindred, agreeable

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.”