My father was a Spanish professor at the University of Illinois, and had formerly had his own radio show in New York where he sang folk songs. He knew Carl Sandburg from the latter context, and when Sandburg came through town (Urbana that is) to sing or read poetry, he used to stay at our house. My feelings about him are hardly objective, but I love all his poems, and even love his reading style, which I’ve heard used as an example of how not to read. The simple irony, wry social comment, faith in humanity (I’m so glad he didn’t live to see this election year, though he was well aware of, and devoted to taunting, charlatans) and sheer humor of poems like “Happiness,” “Child of the Romans,” “Prayers of Steel,” “Cool Tombs” and “Grass” never get old for me, and he also wrote deep love poems like “Broken-Face Gargoyles” and “For You.”
This poem by Percy Shelley reminds us that our ambitions and accomplishments are often as ephemeral as our lives. (Ozymandias, though, is the Greek name for Ramses II, probably the pharaoh of Exodus, so he and his works are indeed remembered annually at Passover!)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Otros contains several poems from Hal Sirowitz’ hilarious book Mother Said. His deadpan delivery, at one of the shortlived Albuquerque Poetry Festivals, of these outrageous lectures by a not untypical Jewish mother of a not abnormally offensive son, introduced me to his pithy, overburdened perceptions—as if a much less cocky Woody Allen wrote poetry.
Another poet since gone on to some fame (in the realm of language poetry, alas) whom I met in the ’90s, this time at the Taos Poetry Circus, is Abraham Smith, a lanky prairie prophet who also won slams. We aren’t in touch, so I’m posting this old poem of his without his permission. Abraham, if you mind, let me know and I’ll pull it. You can taste and smell the texture of these words:
The house is a house in his head.
A goose V haggling over wood. A dirt floor hatched in spring. Horse and cow taking breath.
He scratches his back. He stretches it. Nails go in, answered questions. The hammer swings and the wood is snug.
Children are born between the walls. Their cries and squeezed fists do a lot to shape the rooms. The walls are all bowed and the windows are sharp and blue.
The wife does not have much to say. She says with her hands. She says with hips. Words that are Frieda, bread, Sam, Lloyd, Otto, dinner, Mary, Helen, milk, and Joe.
The youngest child grows quickly. He learns the fiddle. The older ones are all heavy. He plays a tune and the family lifts its feet, dancing in a way.
Mother and Father are old at last or quickly. The sun is a bead of sweat. Calls you to change the shirt. To prayers. Times when Father is at a loss for names.
Stones. Prayer stones chafed, new stones spiked in the church yard field. A stone where rode the stomach. A cobble that will not stop the river.
The children drift like bits of sand. Cold forks and broken plates take on tight dust, break a bit more. Town moans louder.
The house shadow stains the grass. Shade is first to poke the dirt, and say, “Look. To fall, falling …” Wood planks in the walls take leave of each other and walk into a crouch on the ground.
And so it is as it was, but a second home. A hawk sails, ploughs untilled fields. The mice riffle through boards. Gray boards and gray bodies work like muscle and bone.
Roll over, work, and dream.
I keep rereading Gary Snyder’s first three books of poetry, Riprap (published with his translations of Han Shan mentioned in The Dharma Bums), Myths and Texts and The Back Country—later collections not so much: but I think the books have to be taken as whole experiences: it’s hard to separate out individual poems. Therefore Otros only contains one tiny poem called “Artemis,” which I’ve been reciting to myself, off and on, for almost fifty years.
How rare is it to find a song whose lyrics work as poems independently of the music? Really rare. Otros has a sampling of five: Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye and Hello,” Dylan’s “Gates of Eden,” Jim Morrison’s “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War” and Suzanne Vega’s “Small Blue Thing.” I haven’t updated this section of Otros for awhile; if and when I do, I might add “Color Blind” by Counting Crows.