All posts by Robert Reeves

Grade A: Cars

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE, living with Sari Krosinsky, teaching at UNM and T-VI), December 2003.  This series was conceived the fall I settled with Sari for good, and revised and reordered in 2009.  I should say I don’t believe in an afterlife, so poems that explicitly explored Jeffrey the dead boy’s situation have been eliminated or drastically reduced.  He’s important only as a commentator on this world anyway—to my mind.  Other readers may have other opinions.  The Prologue and Epilogue say—not very straightforwardly—that life-after-death is a device I know nothing about.  “Cars” was published in my book 3 Cycles.

Cars

 

It hardly even happened.

Well, nothing happens unless you notice

and he hardly even did,

for a long time after it was over.

So weird to get lost in this city—

he can cross it in a second now

one end to the other

and he always knows the way—

but he got lost that day all right,

he’d only been here once or twice before,

and just thought without thinking

that the school group’d stay straggled over a couple blocks

the way it had been,

but when he glanced up from the magazine rack

he couldn’t see anybody.

It was a short cut

was the plan,

he was sure he knew which way they’d gone

and could make it there faster.

He was a little proud of himself.

Four big kids jamming the sidewalk

didn’t mean anything necessarily,

or meant various things in various situations.

Something about him wasn’t from here:

this city, this ’hood, this doorway.

A drawing-together took place around him.

He didn’t even dislike it,

automatically laughed

which was what he always did,

and it wasn’t the wrong thing to do,

it wasn’t the right thing or the wrong thing.

When the knife came out

that wasn’t wrong or right either,

just something else to be settled

before he got to go on down the block.

He was almost imagining what terms he’d use

to tell José about all this

and see if he could get José to say “Man,

what kinda magazines were those!”

Then Jeffrey’d say “Just cars, man.

I ain’t shittin’ ya.  Only cars.”

He may’ve even said the word “Cars”

to the paramedics or whoever,

whoever was the last person

to hear his voice.

Grade A: MacKenzie River

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), August 2003.  Odd that the first thing I wrote after falling in love with my future spouse would be about a man who rejects the society of other humans:  I guess it’s a farewell to being alone.  In college I had two friends (whose names, alas, I’ve completely forgotten) who talked about their plan to do just this, including the sauna idea—but they were counting on visiting a nearby town for supplies (and the company of Eskimo women) once or twice a year, so the situation isn’t the same.  I love the fact that this was published in Permafrost, the literary mag of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the closest city of any size to the MacKenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories.  I owe the spiders snapping in the stove to my Washington girlfriend, Alex Bradley, who had a wood stove.  In addition to Permafrost, published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

MacKenzie River

 

His door is a pure bald hole in the wall plugged with the piece of the wall sawed out of it.

(We say “door” for open and closed door.  I doubt he thinks of this.)

No conceivable function for a porch, none for a window, an aluminum chimney exists for smoke, or the door for a crisis backdraft.

He wouldn’t want to look around him.  It looks how it looks:  they’re partners not friends, he and the forest, and leave each other be.

 

His quartered logs are pyramided one side of an outhouse;  spiders throw silk cities through them that unstick when the logs are taken, and the spiders snap in the stove.

 

The outhouse isn’t a crapper but a sauna.  All it has inside it are rocks hot water’s poured over in the winter.  He goes naked in the shed, then goes naked into a snowdrift.  No one’s watching.

 

He hunts what he eats.  Those are his slow careful days.

He’s good with a bow or knife but favors his rifle because the pain’s rapid and then lost.  He knows about the pain that isn’t but doesn’t feel any urge to nudge it, pet it on the crown, let alone start it.

 

When did he come up here and lose a life people would understand?

When is more crucial than why:  whys work themselves out over years.  The answer is eleven.

 

Eleven years without moving from these woods without seeing anyone other than the ones with the whisper of death on them also before the shot, flickering buck, bland fox, the pheasant and its fussing.

 

He sleeps sometimes for a week it seems, then wakes a week

and is all a whipped spindle of clanks and risings, of straddled legs and reaching out the back, and at the end of one of those weeks, no sign of anything done

 

because he never adds to his life only repairs it.

 

He owns one book, a scarred old Sears catalog, has the item numbers and prices by heart, the possible colors of the sweaters, the count of parts in the toys.

He can leave it open to one page for days but the pages themselves are unreadable:  he brought the catalog into the sauna once and it wizened and bled.

 

He dreams of walking through a Sears department store, this oblique lingerie model with a clipboard escorting him.  “I’ll take that one, and that” he says and she writes it down.

Then it begins to snow in the showroom, till the store goes blind, and he’s sighting through his gunscope at the cold transforming whiz waiting for a thing, anything, to prowl into it, and feels the hot of his own breath and blood shrink as it leaves him, the blizzard catching it away

and on a startle of breath he awakes.

Grade A: Slice of Life

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), December 2002.  The lines about the imbeciles on the turnpike owe something to an ’80’s George Carlin routine.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Slice of Life

 

Twist the toll collector

who is secretly the Emperor of France

consoles his sullen

disinherited brother

by naming battleships after him

& having him over for macaroni Friday nights

where they watch taped hockey games

& Twist tells him tales

of the latest state executions

& all the imbeciles he deals with on the turnpike,

the ones who never have correct change,

the ones who do but make sure he knows

what they’d rather be doing with the money,

the ones who petition him for clemency

not to set fire to their villages

& offer superb art treasures

Grade A: Herald Angels Sing

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), December 2002.  The firebombing of Dresden would be remembered as one of the worst atrocities of World War II if it hadn’t been dwarfed by the Nazi Holocaust.  The Allies did make an effort to spare churches.  Dresden was in the zone that later became East Germany, so would’ve been occupied by Russian troops.  The “skinny people” are, of course, concentration-camp Jews.  In the years since I wrote this poem I’ve learned more about how the Russian occupiers punished the Germans by repeatedly raping their females, including little girls:  but I see no need to revise my poem, in which, it seems, I’ve protected my speaker from an even uglier reality than I imagined.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Herald Angels Sing

(Dresden, 1945)

 

The cathedral ceiling might as well be the sky,

so apart and faint,

nothing welcome likely to come down from it.

No heat except our couple blankets

and by day, the redundant puppetshow

of the stained glass.

The baptismal font is what we use to wash my only dress,

whose color I try to remember sometimes.

I stand in the blanket around my neck

and pretend I’m a queen being waited on

and at those times, I am.

We’re not supposed to go far from the cathedral

but sometimes there’s bread among the slabs

and if you leave it in the baptism water long enough

you can puff your mouth with it.

It’s not like we couldn’t find our way back,

we live in the only place standing.

I’m good at not stepping on the nails,

I’m good at not going under beams

the wind is waving.

And I weigh nothing.

I’m often chosen for these missions.

Father says less and less

except when he’s pleasuring the Russians out of

some of their vodka,

and except when he’s landed some

and falls to singing Christmas carols:

I don’t like the echoes,

the words of the carols return as other words.

But Mother said Father should be listened to.

I want to do everything she told me.

You learn things you never thought you’d need.

You learn what heartburn tastes like,

how to pinch lice in two,

how to be as small as you are:

this happens with the body and the voice.

The only people it didn’t work on

were those skinny people they brought through for one night.

They looked at my yellow hair

as if it were a mouth

and they were the waterlogged bread.

Grade A: The Crowd

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), August 2002.  Henry Dieterich posted this old photo from Ferry Beach, a Unitarian camp in Saco ME, on his Website and it brought this meditation on bygone times and people.  Besides Henry, those whose names I could recall are my girlfriend at the time, Cammy Peters, whom Henry also loved;  Betsy Gifford, whom I later dropped Cammy for (“the first girl I said ‘I love you’ to”), Kitty Warner and Lisa Harris.  Orange soda with chocolate ice cream was called a Ralph.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

The Crowd

 

It’s been what, thirtyfour years

since I’ve seen this photo?

Thirtyseven since it was taken.

Ten children on a beach in Maine

including me, my soon-to-be

best friend, the first girl I

said “I love you” to.  (Lying

out of ignorance.)  Henry is so

worked up to be next to Cammy,

it makes him look peaceful

& poised.  Cammy is inured to being

photographed & looks unreal.

I’m playacting, so I look

like I know who I am.  Lisa,

the only one who detects the

high tide of sex advancing

up the beach, stands contrapposto.

Kitty & Betsy kneel, the one with

a flippant grace, the other simply

trying to have a physical body.

I’m dismayed I can’t remember

half our names, & thrown by

our naked weeness:  everything

about those couple weeks was huge:

all the shouts with tears in them,

the winking plots, glib treasons,

kisses so despairing they were

angry, cold firelit stares;

not to mention the oxygen

of jest we breathed, spy novels,

Henry’s twig fife more carrying

than ocean roar, orange soda

with chocolate ice cream.

Nor is the gianthood

of any of it gone

even now, but it exists

to scale.  I haven’t left the kid

in this picture behind,

I’ve caked up around him,

a shelled sand-sprawler.

The thing that makes him tinier is

he can’t see me.

 

Grade A: to an activist, from an inactivist

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), July 2002:  addressed to Sari Krosinsky, shortly after we hooked up for the first time and after ze read me a poem in the form of a personal ad where one of the desired activities was “saving the world.”  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the local zine Central Avenue.

to an activist, from an inactivist

 

it’s hard enough

keeping this room clean

 

i completely forget

to save the world

Grade A: Dick & Jane

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), July 2002.  Written in the style of the famous primers from the ’50’s.  This was shortly before I hooked up with my future spouse for the first time, so the wish at the end of the poem did eventually come true, after a bumpy start.  I believe I was reading Mary Renault and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, as well as studying Old English with the aim of reading “Beowulf” in the original.  I was listening to Billy Joel’s classical piano pieces, though most of my life I’ve preferred guitar- to piano-based music.  The steps referred to are the stairs up onto the UNM campus at Central and Mesa I could see through my front door.  The cigarettes are Winstons.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Dick & Jane

 

Girls smile at me because

it costs them nothing.

 

My books are full of

strange blood,

Greek concentrations

Roman absolutes

English savage silver rimmed

with Christian gold.

 

My music is

(strange again)

healing piano—

it falls on my night

gracefuller than

pangs of wrenched guitar.

 

Today the spacious bright

was so low on the earth,

the clear heat so hot,

things had only

the names they’d have

in Dick & Jane primers

& could say no more

than those:

 

See the sky.

The sky is blue.

 

See the cloud.

The cloud is vague

& hardly in the sky.

 

See the steps.

They go up if you’re down here.

They go down if you’re up there.

 

See the three boys

moving into the apartment

across from mine.

See the one with boxes

of cleaning utensils,

the one with a standup lamp.

They are holding the gate for each other.

Squeak, gate, squeak.

 

See the cars.

The cars are working ovens.

Touch one.

 

See the pack of cigarettes.

Crumple, pack, crumple.

The pack is red & white

rimmed in silver

like a Christian shield

held against wicker javelins.

Sob, heathens, sob,

your cosmos about to litter

the reddening sand.

 

See the man girls smile at

because it costs them nothing.

He adores to rue

that his pickings cost him everything.

Rue, man, rue.

Read your disappeared novels

close eyes to the flutter of piano

open the other bottle.

 

See the women in his head.

See he didn’t know

they were winged they

had the talent of flight

they had norths to return to

while he’d be

bound to July

smeared with ordeal even

if the ordeal was just

returning a couple of videos

halfamile from here.

 

See his grown face &

sopped hair & how the

clothes droop limp & he

still expects his

furnace life to catch

spark & love to open

sliced & chilly on his

bare tongue again.

Catch, spark, catch.

Grade A: two kids

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), May 2002.  This took place on Silver SE, a couple blocks from my apartment.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, in the local zines Central Avenue and the Rag, and in the journal Lummox.  It was also accepted by Pegasus.

two kids

 

he’s one

& keeps saying his sister’s name

over & over

 

she’s three

& keeps answering “What!”

with more & more annoyance

 

she’s learned

that names are beckonings

 

he’s only learned

that names are bursts of praise

Grade A: The Other Truth

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), May 2002:  addressed to J—.  As to Beckett, I meant, in particular, the Beckett of Watt.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the journal Lummox.

The Other Truth

 

This agony in my lower back

is my trustiest memory of you.

 

It pounces on me about once a year,

stays maybe two-three days.

 

Wouldn’t you know it today was the one

I’d scheduled to put clean sheets on the futon,

 

and I can’t go immediately from standing to squatting

so plotted out a system of gradated platforms

 

and did the tucking part scooting

my infinitesimal ass along the floor;

 

it’d probably take Sam Beckett

to describe it in further detail.

 

Three years ago when I threw the back out

I’d been changing abode for a week,

 

heavy boxes up and down stairs,

and now was helping you move too.

 

I started to step up into your Sidekick

and wham, and you could see it,

 

how fortuitous and how immense,

and your face went to panic,

 

and I was looking toward you, and saw

not the least flash of concern for me

 

but all the other truth instantly opened:

your chore day might have to be interrupted,

 

somebody might actually see us together,

this man in your life was an old man.

Otros: Yeats & closing remarks

Yeah, I said James Wright was my favorite poet, but if you asked me who the best twentieth-century poet was, I’d name one who began in the nineteenth:  William Butler Yeats.  Why would I call him best?  Because he was the master, in the same sense that the painters called Old Masters were masters:  they underwent training, trained others, and to show the extent of their mastery, produced masterworks.  There was a country, and a language, in which till very recent times poets underwent rigid formal schooling and testing of this kind:  Ireland and the Irish language.  Yeats, like Joyce, was expert in English poetry, and infused his best work with a magic that (by all accounts) had evaporated from traditional Bardic poetry for centuries, leaving only an academic husk:  but in these days when most poetry that gets published is feeble, watery, self-regarding pap, the power and grace of Yeats, in a language most of his countrymen identified with their alien oppressor, still rise tall.  So does his humor, broad, pointed and scornful as Swift’s or Donleavy’s or Joyce’s:  but theirs is essentially prose humor.  Yeats wrote everything, even his often rather misguided prose, in the service of poetry, and placed his own master-poems at a height still hard to approach.  This was intentional, and immodestly claimed:  he famously boasted of being the best poet writing in English, or said as much, when Swinburne died:  “Now I am king of the cats.”

 

Admitting that claim is not to say that he wasn’t an uneven poet, often embarking on paths of experimentation or obsession that turned out to be blind alleys:  but true poetry poured out of him at such a rate that he could afford as many bad poems as he liked.  From the beginning when he led the wispy neo-Romantics of the Celtic Renaissance, to the end when he confessed his poetry belonged, and always had, in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” he stuck close to a standard of great poetry that his best poems always upheld.

 

Not all of his best poems are in Otros, and as usual I tend to like things, sometimes, which aren’t his best for quirky reasons of my own, but I don’t think my choices will be particularly surprising:  any good anthology is likely to have most of them.  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a signature early poem with a beguiling vision of peace as simple as it is intense.  “When You Are Old” is a sentimental love poem, but touched by the terror of the Old Gods of whom Love is one of the most formidable.  In “Who Goes with Fergus?,” “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” Yeats uses Celtic myth to express, in singularly beautiful words, inexpressible longings.  “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is a poignant wince of unrequited (or indifferently-requited) love.  “Easter 1916” raises the Irish independence movement to the status of myth through a tough, eyes-open eulogy of four of its martyrs.  I’ve seen “The Second Coming” quoted several times to knell the rise of Donald Trump:  a nearly hundred-year-old poem is still the best we can do to communicate the nature and monstrousness of social disaster.  “Leda and the Swan” is not, as some feminists paint it, a glorification of rape, but a compassionate portrait of human helplessness in the face of inexorable fate.  In “Among School Children” Yeats takes his place among “public, smiling, sixty-year-old” men who haven’t learned the lesson that passion is ever to be avoided.  “For Anne Gregory” makes the same point about the inevitable triviality of attraction.  “Byzantium” is the poem I added most recently, and I’m not sure I understand it, except that it seems to exalt and pity the human power to create at the same time.  Finally, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” shows that an old person’s humility and pride are both so appropriate as to be almost the same thing.

 

… So ends this tour of my file of other people’s poetry.  I’ve left out poets I know whose permission to post their work I didn’t think I’d get, and at least one poet whose work has to be read as a whole and whom it would be misleading to excerpt:  Marge Piercy.  I’ve written elsewhere that Piercy’s voice was the one that struck me as most like my own when I first read her, though her focus dwells on the political to the same degree that mine flees from it.  Other poets acknowledged as great are people I just don’t get:  Moore, Lowell, Berryman … well, Milton for that matter.  I want people to be readers of poetry enough to pick their own favorites and not be limited to mine.

 

I don’t know where my half of this blog is going in the future (don’t know how much future is left to me, frankly), but I’m gonna step up the frequency of the Grade A poems till we get to the end of those (for now), and I haven’t forgotten my promise to do that thing I’ve never been any good at and attempt a close reading of “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”  Meanwhile, I hope I’ve suggested some fruitful directions your reading might take and/or introduced you to some poets worth knowing.

Grade A: First Sunset / to Margaret

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), May 2002:  addressed to Margaret Trujillo, RIP.  May 5th, to be exact:  the date of my mother’s death.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, in the local zine Central Avenue, and in the journal The Neovictorian/Cochlea.

First Sunset

to Margaret

 

Only some slender longing,

a certain soreness,

a hesitancy with myself,

dwells over my first sunset

as an orphan.

 

Yesterday I got new furniture

and the room is strange,

rank with wood finish.

 

When I started

replacing my life like this

one of the first things I did,

mother, was have your picture framed

and hang it up:

twentysomething, never-cut hair

coiled about your head,

hands quiet in each other,

in profile, a face of soft strength,

plentiful listening.  Wearing

black.  On a black background.

Our color today.

Shortly the sky will put it on.