Author: Robert Reeves

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.

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.

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.


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


                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.


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.


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.



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.




peeled by men

who find spots

to pass time


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.


to my father



how did the river pick you

did it sleeve its round grace in your voice

harden its plank houses with your denim stroll



how did the fresh flats rear you

was the spasming stick you held by the forks

a wizardry of flood



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



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


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.




      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.