Author: Robert Reeves

First, two friends met at long-gone Albuquerque readings.  Jim Stewart now lives in Brooklyn, but was one of the original participants in the EJ’s reading I’ve mentioned before on this blog—a sassy, acerbic but funny performance poet, he concentrates on prose these days.  I like this wholly atypical poem of his best:

Yale Park at Dusk in November

 

crows and I have this in common:

we like these times

when the frozen air carries their voices

like an empty concert hall

with a silence underneath

that dulls the traffic noise all down Central

 

this same brittle gray sky

that sends them into shrieking ecstasy

makes me not mind so much

that they paint the concrete white and green

so I can’t walk without a nervous glance up

 

because around this time

a crow over the dry elm branches

isn’t really a bird, but the absence of a bird

a cookie cutter hole in the sky

where a bird would fit

and wherever that hole goes to

the sound comes out of

and if I looked into it long enough

it would look into me

 

The second friend is Aaron Stump, who leads a double life as an engineer, but continues to write lean passionate poems steeped in American tradition.  He came to me at another great defunct reading, the Sunday open mic at Best Price Books & Coffee, hosted by Juliette Torrez and then Kenn Rodriguez.  This is one of my favorite poems of his so far:

Elemental Hands

 

The bleak earth

with hands made for you, you tilled the soil

till it came up—green beans better than roses

picked em one by one split between

myself and the bucket and

i ate them hot

with supper

and the Earth, then, was just the earth to me.

 

The riled swarm

with hands made for you, you robbed the hive

spinning those frames

cutting up the comb

with that hot knife

hot and sweet, in a hot, sweet and heavy summer

spitting wax like it was a big man’s chew

and the Day, then, was just a day to me.

 

The calm waters

with hands made for you, you cast the line

baiting my hooks

with fat worms and minding my casts

drinking water out of mason jars

our smiling catfish-strung Polaroid

yellowed into gold by sun and memory

and a fish, then, was just a fish to me.

 

The sharp day

when hands made for you came cold

shovels trembled

and the sun burned, that day, blackened

and the world, then, was so many days

I had known, and tasted, and breathed

the Earth took you and i could not speak

Death was a wailing machine—i could not understand

 

These days

these elements of your hands, in my hands

when each day is born

and still I learn, to do what i could not.

and the Days wash upon me as water.

and the Earth is put under my feet.

and in this element still, I mourn and wonder;

can I live, with hands made for me, so well?

 

Algernon Charles Swinburne.  God help me, one of my very favorite poets.  I was going to begin this by lamenting that I couldn’t put the whole of his long poem “Anactoria” here, but actually, why the hell not?  You don’t have to read it, though I hope you do.  It captures both the attractions and the vices of this gifted master of the Decadence.  You know and I know that Sappho was probably only mildly bisexual, not a “Lesbian” in other than the geographical sense, and Swinburne himself knew, I’m sure, that she wasn’t into sadomasochism and he was projecting some of his own proclivities onto the ancient writer, but this Sappho’s desperate but defiant love is not to be missed, nor her attack on the Christian God—a being who would’ve been simply inconceivable to a real ancient Greek.  You can also sample here Swinburne’s heady prosodic gifts:  even people who can’t stand him admit that he was an incomparable metrical genius.  If he slides over into pure meaningless sound at times, that only endears him to me more.  (You know that if you know my own poetry!)  The critic Arnold Bennett said of “Anactoria” that Swinburne played “a rare trick” on England “by enshrining in the topmost heights of its poetry a lovely poem that cannot be discussed.”

Before that, however, I want to introduce you to the first Swinburne poem I ever encountered, a chorus from his verse play Atalanta in Calydon which the Fugs put on their first album under the title “Swinburne Stomp.”  Read away—

Chorus from Atalanta in Calydon

 

Before the beginning of years

      There came to the making of man

Time, with a gift of tears;

      Grief, with a glass that ran;

Pleasure, with pain for leaven;

      Summer, with flowers that fell;

Remembrance fallen from heaven,

      And madness risen from hell;

Strength without hands to smite;

      Love that endures for a breath:

Night, the shadow of light,

      And life, the shadow of death.

And the high gods took in hand

      Fire, and the falling of tears,

And a measure of sliding sand

      From under the feet of the years;

And froth and drift of the sea;

      And dust of the laboring earth;

And bodies of things to be

      From the houses of death and of birth;

And wrought with weeping and laughter,

      And fashioned with loathing and love

With life before and after

      And death beneath and above,

For a day and a night and a morrow,

      That his strength might endure for a span

With travail and heavy sorrow,

      The holy spirit of man.

From the winds of the north and the south

      They gathered as unto strife;

They breathed upon his mouth,

      They filled his body with life;

Eyesight and speech they wrought

      For the veils of the soul therein,

A time for labor and thought,

      A time to serve and to sin;

They gave him light in his ways,

      And love, and a space for delight,

And beauty and length of days,

      And night, and sleep in the night.

His speech is a burning fire;

      With his lips he travaileth;

In his heart is a blind desire,

      In his eyes foreknowledge of death;

He weaves, and is clothed with derision;

      Sows, and he shall not reap;

His life is a watch or a vision

      Between a sleep and a sleep.

 

Anactoria

 

My life is bitter with thy love;  thine eyes

Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs

Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,

And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.

I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;

Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.

I would the sea had hidden us, the fire

(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)

Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,

And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves.

I feel thy blood against my blood:  my pain

Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.

Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower,

Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.

Why wilt thou follow lesser loves? are thine

Too weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?

I charge thee for my life’s sake, O too sweet

To crush love with thy cruel faultless feet,

I charge thee keep thy lips from hers or his,

Sweetest, till theirs be sweeter than my kiss:

Lest I too lure, a swallow for a dove,

Erotion or Erinna to my love.

I would my love could kill thee;  I am satiated

With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat,

And no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet.

I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,

Intense device, and superflux of pain;

Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake

Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;

Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,

Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;

Relapse and reluctation of the breath,

Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.

I am weary of all thy words and soft strange ways,

Of all love’s fiery nights and all his days,

And all the broken kisses salt as brine

That shuddering lips make moist with waterish wine,

And eyes the bluer for all those hidden hours

That pleasure fills with tears and feeds from flowers,

Fierce at the heart with fire that half comes through,

But all the flowerlike white stained round with blue;

The fervent underlid, and that above

Lifted with laughter or abashed with love;

Thine amorous girdle, full of thee and fair,

And leavings of the lilies in thine hair.

Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,

And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,

And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brine

That Love was born of burns and foams like wine,

And eyes insatiable of amorous hours,

Fervent as fire and delicate as flowers,

Coloured like night at heart, but cloven through

Like night with flame, dyed round like night with blue,

Clothed with deep eyelids under and above—

Yea, all thy beauty sickens me with love;

Thy girdle empty of thee and now not fair,

And ruinous lilies in thy languid hair.

Ah, take no thought for Love’s sake;  shall this be,

And she who loves thy lover not love thee?

Sweet soul, sweet mouth of all that laughs and lives,

Mine is she, very mine;  and she forgives.

For I beheld in sleep the light that is

In her high place in Paphos, heard the kiss

Of body and soul that mix with eager tears

And laughter stinging through the eyes and ears;

Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,

Imperishable, upon her storied seat;

Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,

A mind of many colours, and a mouth

Of many tunes and kisses;  and she bowed,

With all her subtle face laughing aloud,

Bowed down upon me, saying, “Who doth thee wrong,

Sappho?” but thou—thy body is the song,

Thy mouth the music;  thou art more than I,

Though my voice die not till the whole world die;

Though men that hear it madden;  though love weep,

Though nature change, though shame be charmed to sleep.

Ah, wilt thou slay me lest I kiss thee dead?

Yet the queen laughed from her sweet heart and said:

“Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake,

And she shall give thee gifts that would not take,

Shall kiss that would not kiss thee” (yea, kiss me)

“When thou wouldst not”—when I would not kiss thee!

Ah, more to me than all men as thou art,

Shall not my songs assuage her at the heart?

Ah, sweet to me as life seems sweet to death,

Why should her wrath fill thee with fearful breath?

Nay, sweet, for is she God alone? hath she

Made earth and all the centuries of the sea,

Taught the sun ways to travel, woven most fine

The moonbeams, shed the starbeams forth as wine,

Bound with her myrtles, beaten with her rods,

The young men and the maidens and the gods?

Have we not lips to love with, eyes for tears,

And summer and flower of women and of years?

Stars for the foot of morning, and for noon

Sunlight, and exaltation of the moon;

Waters that answer waters, fields that wear

Lilies, and languor of the Lesbian air?

Beyond those flying feet of fluttered doves,

Are there not other gods for other loves?

Yea, though she scourge thee, sweetest, for my sake,

Blossom not thorns and flowers not blood should break.

Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed

To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!

Ah that my mouth for Muses’ milk were fed

On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!

That with my tongue I felt them, and could taste

The faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!

That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat

Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet

Thy body were abolished and consumed,

And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!

Ah, ah, thy beauty! like a beast it bites,

Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites.

Ah sweet, and sweet again, and seven times sweet,

The paces and the pauses of thy feet!

Ah sweeter than all sleep or summer air

The fallen fillets fragrant from thine hair!

Yea, though their alien kisses do me wrong,

Sweeter thy lips than mine with all their song;

Thy shoulders whiter than a fleece of white,

And flower-sweet fingers, good to bruise or bite

As honeycomb of the inmost honey-cells,

With almond-shaped and roseleaf-coloured shells

And blood like purple blossom at the tips

Quivering;  and pain made perfect in thy lips

For my sake when I hurt thee;  O that I

Durst crush thee out of life with love, and die,

Die of thy pain and my delight, and be

Mixed with thy blood and molten into thee!

Would I not plague thee dying overmuch?

Would I not hurt thee perfectly? not touch

Thy pores of sense with torture, and make bright

Thine eyes with bloodlike tears and grievous light?

Strike pang from pang as note is struck from note,

Catch the sob’s middle music in thy throat,

Take thy limbs living, and new-mould with these

A lyre of many faultless agonies?

Feed thee with fever and famine and fine drouth,

With perfect pangs convulse thy perfect mouth,

Make thy life shudder in thee and burn afresh,

And wring thy very spirit through the flesh?

Cruel? but love makes all that love him well

As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.

Me hath love made more bitter toward thee

Than death toward man;  but were I made as he

Who hath made all things to break them one by one,

If my feet trod upon the stars and sun

And souls of men as his have alway trod,

God knows I might be crueller than God.

For who shall change with prayers or thanksgivings

The mystery of the cruelty of things?

Or say what God above all gods and years

With offering and blood-sacrifice of tears,

With lamentation from strange lands, from graves

Where the snake pastures, from scarred mouths of slaves,

From prison, and from plunging prows of ships

Through flamelike foam of the sea’s closing lips—

With thwartings of strange signs, and wind-blown hair

Of comets, desolating the dim air,

When darkness is made fast with seals and bars,

And fierce reluctance of disastrous stars,

Eclipse, and sound of shaken hills, and wings

Darkening, and blind inexpiable things—

With sorrow of labouring moons, and altering light

And travail of the planets of the night,

And weeping of the weary Pleiads seven,

Feeds the mute melancholy lust of heaven?

Is not his incense bitterness, his meat

Murder? his hidden face and iron feet

Hath not man known, and felt them on their way

Threaten and trample all things and every day?

Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed

Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst

Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed

The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,

Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,

Pain animate the dust of dead desire,

And life yield up her flower to violent fate?

Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate,

Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,

And mix his immortality with death.

Why hath he made us? what had all we done

That we should live and loathe the sterile sun,

And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,

And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?

Thee too the years shall cover;  thou shalt be

As the rose born of one same blood with thee,

As a song sung, as a word said, and fall

Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,

Nor any memory of thee anywhere;

For never Muse has bound above thine hair

The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows

All summer kinship of the mortal rose

And colour of deciduous days, nor shed

Reflex and flush of heaven about thine head,

Nor reddened brows made pale by floral grief

With splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.

Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,

Except these kisses of my lips on thine

Brand them with immortality;  but me—

Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,

Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold

Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold

And plumeless wings that make the bright air blind,

Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind

Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown,

But in the light and laughter, in the moan

And music, and in grasp of lip and hand

And shudder of water that makes felt on land

The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,

Memories shall mix and metaphors of me.

Like me shall be the shuddering calm of night,

When all the winds of the world for pure delight

Close lips that quiver and fold up wings that ache;

When nightingales are louder for love’s sake,

And leaves tremble like lute-strings or like fire;

Like me the one star swooning with desire

Even at the cold lips of the sleepless moon,

As I at thine;  like me the waste white noon,

Burnt through with barren sunlight;  and like me

The land-stream and the tide-stream in the sea.

I am sick with time as these with ebb and flow,

And by the yearning in my veins I know

The yearning sound of waters;  and mine eyes

Burn as that beamless fire which fills the skies

With troubled stars and travailing things of flame;

And in my heart the grief consuming them

Labours, and in my veins the thirst of these,

And all the summer travail of the trees

And all the winter sickness;  and the earth,

Filled full with deadly works of death and birth,

Sore spent with hungry lusts of birth and death,

Has pain like mine in her divided breath;

Her spring of leaves is barren, and her fruit

Ashes;  her boughs are burdened, and her root

Fibrous and gnarled with poison;  underneath

Serpents have gnawn it through with tortuous teeth

Made sharp upon the bones of all the dead,

And wild birds rend her branches overhead.

These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,

These hath God made, and me as these, and wrought

Song, and hath lit it at my lips;  and me

Earth shall not gather though she feed on thee.

As a shed tear shalt thou be shed;  but I—

Lo, earth may labour, men live long and die,

Years change and stars, and the high God devise

New things, and old things wane before his eyes

Who wields and wrecks them, being more strong than they—

But, having made me, me he shall not slay.

Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of his

Who laugh and live a little, and their kiss

Contents them, and their loves are swift and sweet,

And sure death grasps and gains them with slow feet,

Love they or hate they, strive or bow their knees—

And all these end;  he hath his will of these.

Yea, but albeit he slay me, hating me—

Albeit he hide me in the deep dear sea

And cover me with cool wan foam, and ease

This soul of mine as any soul of these,

And give me water and great sweet waves, and make

The very sea’s name lordlier for my sake,

The whole sea sweeter—albeit I die indeed

And hide myself and sleep and no man heed,

Of me the high God hath not all his will.

Blossom of branches, and on each high hill

Clear air and wind, and under in clamorous vales

Fierce noises of the fiery nightingales,

Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,

The wan washed sand and the waves’ vain desire,

Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and words

That bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birds

Violently singing till the whole world sings—

I Sappho shall be one with all these things,

With all high things for ever;  and my face

Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,

Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days thereof

With gladness and much sadness and long love.

Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain

New things, and never this best thing again;

Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,

Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine.

And they shall know me as ye who have known me here,

Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year

When I love thee;  and they shall praise me, and say

“She hath all time as all we have our day,

Shall she not live and have her will”—even I?

Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.

For these shall give me of their souls, shall give

Life, and the days and loves wherewith I live,

Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,

Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.

Alas, that neither moon nor snow nor dew

Nor all cold things can purge me wholly through,

Assuage me nor allay me nor appease,

Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;

Till time wax faint in all his periods;

Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,

And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,

Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,

And shed around and over and under me

Thick darkness and the insuperable sea.

Birmingham, AL, December 2000:  addressed to Leisha Hultgren.  Written on my third and final trip to Alabama to be with Leisha.  The phrase “mother’s water” is lifted from a poem of Mary Rechner’s, “First Water.”  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Near

 

On the travelling globe

any staying is a going.

 

The beaked shoulderblade

cresting hot beneath your pajamatop

beneath my palm

already clacks flat in a grave

and still coalesces in a womb

out of mother’s water.

 

If I forget to rest,

this is because

I’m being carried.

If I shun movement,

this is because

your blood breathes fine and pink

against my hug.

 

Once I stood before you

before my bath

and you wound the burning smudge

around me naked,

and everything under my nostrils

became sweet, but still

a sweet of burning.

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!)

Ozymandias

 

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:

Cerro Gordo

 

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.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), October 2000.  One of those poems that just appear and demand to be written down right away.  I’m still a little scared of it.  I’d been reading James Dickey, but god help me, it sounds more like Dylan Thomas.  I told myself at the time that it was a poem about how my recent history would’ve gone if I’d never gotten involved with Leisha Hultgren.  J— is definitely the “swept girl.”  Danny Solis suggested I change “athletic doubt” to “muscled doubt;”  I made it “muscular” because the two d’s bumped heads—but that was the only revision.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Dark.

 

Shrinking with the last moon

he gave himself gray to the ghostway

cut himself punching with chambered thighs between the thicksmelling whims of a swept girl

cut himself free from the freedom of willing law & the servant’s crouch ambiguously upright

& the servant a hidden king but hidden from himself

cut himself from a black throat calling & pink eyes cracking on asphalt

& smokestained legs that grew under night like a white weed nursing on graves

 

He shrank in the barrels of his curing

the ghostway a scalped nerve of spit in the mouth of the swept girl

calling with her hands bright & bitter in her armpits

the very burn of June a chill to her

& his new cock was leaping as she passed asleep in cinders & his hairs were boiling on the shoulders of his neck

he hated her with all his dying love & crept in muscular doubt to where she might be waiting for the deserts to pay court

the brown sand spires to spread their crotches

 

Their punched marriage was a line of beads of yellow faces

only gasping only watching

waypoints on the ghostway

they paraded their slivers of kiss before their lavish cinders

but he had a little nerve of anger & hope in his temple

he had ridden her stream out far enough to spot the closed pointed shrine of her desert bloodings

& he had been a king like a servant

but chopped himself free to drool down into a vanished body vanished thought & slack teeth of her brown sleep

& there would be no boats pulling in to these grainless islands

& there would be no havoc harbor no cruise of fingers on a breath-flat belly

for his hope was shreds the night tore

& the swept girl was somebody swept & lost away

& the ghosts lifted around him in the spit of their flower

with a grief of flesh with the closed shrine lifting off asphalt into the conscious stars & loss

& he was fallen in love forever with the sunlight nowhere & every moon of his sex gone dark

 

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.)

Bequest

 

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.

 

Stigmata

 

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:

Traveller

 

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.”

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), August 2000.  Mitch Rayes commented:  “My problem is always that at the last possible moment I realize we aren’t children.”  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

The Park

 

He went outside to see what she looked like.

He shuffled his cards & took them with him.

If he drew a seven, he’d speak to her.

 

She went outside to see whether her gray eyes

would melt into any other color.

 

They sat across from each other

at a picnic table.

All the sevens were at the bottom of the deck.

Tigers were hiding nearby,

they almost guessed it.

 

At the last possible moment

they remembered they were children.

 

My big sister Lu (authorially she styled herself L.R. Pettus) died in San Jose, California in 2014.  She was well known to the poetry community there as a “storypoet”—i.e. a shaper of narrative poems out of (usually but not always European) folktales, of which she was also a learned researcher.  I admired those poems, but earlier in her writing life she also produced some of the lyric poetry that satisfies my own taste more.  Here is a sample, issued privately in a beautiful run of tiny chapbooks in the 1980’s:

Seven Harp Songs

 

to Maggie

 

one story says the first harp was made

    of the empty shell of a dead turtle

and one story says the wind resonated

    through the rib bones of the skeleton

                of a beached whale

the origin of the harp is a secret thing

we think it came out of the great water

    because we came out of the great water

and because its music is a live thing

but we know something had to die

    to make it so

 

three children left home               one after the other

    to seek their fortunes

they never came back

their old parents sat patiently by the fire

and the grey wind blew rain all about the house

this is an old story

why do i want to weep

 

why do we imagine

    the gods play musical instruments

do we invest them with our boredom

    and loneliness

or do we hope in some light-dazzled hereafter

    to emulate them

to bring forth perfect harmonies

    from unbreakable strings

haven’t we learned yet

that what makes music happen

is that this time we didn’t make mistakes

 

why are we dismayed to discover

                the track of the dark companion

why do we speak of disaster

there is a song for the soft ash of the volcano

and a song for the earthquake

the world is made of these things

why do we speak of them in terms of property

there is a song for the night-blooming cereus

each note passes into silence

    and is beautiful

 

sometimes i am satisfied to be idle

neither plucking strings

    nor tapping on the small drum

nor whistling under my breath

    the notes of the flute

not even dancing

after all what would the music be

if i didn’t hear it

 

i followed your wet-sand footprints

picking up driftwood and pieces of shell

and a seagull feather

what did i want you to see

what did i want you to hear when i called

the wind blew echoes of my words

but you said nothing

before your footprints vanished in the water

 

stone        music        word

so much is lost in the water

where has the roughness gone

what was the shape of the beginning

what i was about to say to you

before i thought it over

what was the first note

from the string

 

I have to say I don’t really like the poems Sylvia Plath is especially famous for.  Merely looking at their text, they seem petty, and I suspect they’re admired as monuments to a simpleminded feminism Plath would’ve found mysterious and distasteful.  But she was one of our most acute, inventive and deeply living poets, and the easy explanations of her death strike me as an insult to anyone who struggles with severe depression.  Her poetry is, even when not inflammatory and oratorical on purpose, exciting for its facility with ever-altering mood, its ability to pluck the most dazzling and surprising language from everyday experiences, and not least its equal familiarity with the outer and inner worlds of a stunningly intelligent spirit.  The poems I like best, and have typed into my Otros collection, are “Tulips,” “The Night Dances,” “The Detective,” “Ariel,” “Poppies in October,” “Nick and the Candlestick” and “Berck-Plage.”  The collection Ariel is now available as she planned it, in a different order and with different contents than the book as edited by her widower Ted Hughes:  but I think both versions are great books worth reading.

Ezra Pound was a strong influence on my poetic choices when I began to write as a young adult in the ’70’s.  His chiseled, careful speech helped wean me off Hopkins’ luxuriances.  His interest in Anglo-Saxon, classical Greek and Chinese verse forms broadened several generations’ sense of what poetry was and could be:  mine too, and of course to the young man I was, the Cantos, at that time still actively underway, seemed an intensely thrilling project.  I’ve read the book since, and have to conclude that it’s mostly a dismal failure, and where it doesn’t fail dismally, it bores.  Perhaps five to ten good poems can be rescued from this self-indulgent and frequently hateful compost pile.  Pound’s earlier poems, like the beautiful couplet “In a Station of the Metro” (of which Hugh Kenner said “Every word is necessary, including in the title”) and the formal—not to say archaic—love poem “Envoi, 1919,” modeled on an Elizabethan song by Edmund Waller, are delightful examples of the powerful restraint and grace Pound lost in the Cantos.

My favorite poems are mostly in English.  Someday I’ll try to write something about why I think English is (historically!) the best language for poetry.  I do read some amount of poetry in other languages though, and the main reason I haven’t included more of it in Otros is my mistrust of the available translations.  Where the poem is in a language I don’t know, my criterion has to be whether the translation itself works as a poem.  That’s the case with Ferlinghetti’s rendering of Jacques Prévert’s “Song in the Blood,” a hypnotic anti-war (or anti-humanity) poem I discovered on Joan Baez’s magnificent poetry album Baptism.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), July 2000:  addressed to J—.  From my second-storey porch I could get something of a bird’s-eye view of what was going on below, and here I tried to apply the same view to myself.  Sari Krosinsky questions whether changing the “you” in the final lines is okay.  I think my habit of indenting quotes takes care of that, on the page anyway.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon.

The Man in the Pickup

 

Sick & tired of sorting out

who’s a friend & who’s that different thing,

Christ, tired of sorting out

who’s a stranger & who isn’t,

I watched a stranger I automatically liked

the looks of cross the courtyard below,

knock on a door, not stand there long,

go & sit in his pickup.

There we were, me on my porchdeck

him in his truck, waiting for women.

I wanted to walk downstairs & say to him

“Are you in love with someone too,

  someone who’s made up her mind

  she doesn’t want anyone that way?

  I’ve got shelves of peaceful books

  upstairs, & I could peacefully burn them,

  could peacefully do murder,

  a best friend as easy as anyone,

  if this grief would end its ridicule,

  or this knowledge.  You?

  Have you found out you’re a zero?

  The one who isn’t home,

  have you found out she’s a zero?

  You add those numbers together

  & you’ve got what you began with.

  Our trouble is, we began.”

But I wound up not going thru with it

because there you came,

only ten minutes late tonight,

in a wonderful white dress.

This week’s four poets are all from the twentieth century (two of them just barely), so I won’t reproduce their poems here.  I’m including things by friends of mine they’ve given me permission to post, but otherwise regarding as public domain only pre-twentieth-century poems.

I had the same kind of horrible poetic education most Americans had … I should say “have,” because despite a tendency to (very uncritically) encourage student writing, mostly along the lines of slam or performance poetry, I don’t think the actual poems students are presented with have changed all that much, and everyone my age remembers how lifeless and boring those poems were.  I recall being made to read some harmless Frost and cute Dickinson—not that these poets are either harmless or cute, but an effort was made not to introduce us to their poems of power.  Emily in particular isn’t someone a child should be exposed to—because she demands of her readers an inner life a child just doesn’t possess.  When there was a question of a poet being shocking or unsafe, like Whitman, our English teachers made sure we only knew accessible (and wildly untypical) things like “O Captain! My Captain!”—which could give the impression that Whitman rhymed.  I recall Wordworth’s skipping, pleasant poem about the daffodils, but none of his pantheistic sublimity.  It’s as if there was a secret meeting where it was decided that the sooner students could be made to turn away from poetry entirely, the better, and anthologies were constructed to that end.  I feel privileged to have run into a living community of working poets, people who read, when I was still young enough to discover poetry in myself.

The one exception to this inculcated distaste for poetry was Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” and I was appalled, when I went to the university library to look through lower-school English anthologies, to find that it had been eliminated since my day.  Probably the rationale was political correctness:  a woman shouldn’t sacrifice herself for her lover, but if she happened to, the lover shouldn’t then be shot “down like a dog” within a day.  Maybe it was just that our teachers decided children shouldn’t be exposed to blood and gore.  News flash:  kids love blood and gore, and not just the boys:  but Bess the landlord’s daughter is the hero of the poem, and she is as strong and fearless a woman as any latter-day Disney princess.  Then there’s the unhappy ending and the suggestion of a continued ghostly presence at the end, and kids also love tragedy and spookiness.  The reason we don’t think they do is we take pains never to expose them to those moods.  Phil Ochs liked the poem enough to set it to music.  (So did Loreena McKennitt, but I’m not a fan.)  I don’t think I’m forgetting anything important when I say that this swoony adventure poem was the single poem that gave me even a glimmer of how overwhelming a force poetry could be in one’s life—if only one were presented with better examples at an early age:  as Housman would say, we should be trying to make children’s hair stand on end!

Sharon Olds is unafraid to think about things.  After thinking, she is unafraid to talk, with a kind of detached passion that allows her to be part of her poetry and outside it at the same time.  “The Pope’s Penis” reminds us that male power isn’t always unambiguous—that the most powerful male in religion might as well be female, for all the good his genitals do him.  Olds sees them as a tiny, soundless clapper in a huge ceremonial bell.  “I Go Back to May 1937” is Olds’ fantasy of what she would say to her parents on the eve of their marriage.  “I want to say Stop, don’t do it … but I don’t do it.  I want to live.”  Her attitude toward her parents is one of pity, not anger.  “They are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody.”

The poetry establishment—I take the position that there is one, and that I am not a paranoid—doesn’t know how to react when one of their own—a poet who passes as great by their own standards—becomes popular.  Popularity is supposed to equal lack of skill or talent.  That can’t be said of Mary Oliver.  Her chosen theme is “nature poetry,” and perhaps that makes her accessible to a more plebian class of reader (though I don’t see why it should), and like the “nature poets” of the Romantic era she suggests that nature holds the answer, or a large set of effective answers, to human problems.  I like most of her poetry, but I was led to her via the same poem everyone knows, “Wild Geese.”  If that poem has a message above and beyond what it “says,” it is that all living things consitute a community, even a family, and that acceptance of that fact can remedy despair and loneliness.  I don’t know whether this message is true, but in a way, that makes this humble didactic poem all the more appealing.

Wilfred Owen’s bitter response to Horace’s saying Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is well known and impossible to refute, though most nations make a show now of deploring poison gas.  A soldier can admit both the noble motivations for going to war—in the case of World War I these were often brave and sincere—and the horrid details of struggle and suffering which make any appeal to patriotism a lie. You think about the person next to you, an ex-Army friend said to me.  If you’re as towering a poet as Owen was, you can step back later in your mind and note the contrast between what the soldier undergoes and what the politician preaches.  It isn’t an “anti-war argument.”  Owen wants us to look at what we do to one another, and see whether there’s anything “sweet” or “fitting” about it.

Written in Albuquerque (Mesa SE), May? 2000:  addressed to Leisha Hultgren.  She came to stay with me (or in town, anyway) for about a month, during which we postponed our plan for me to move to Alabama to be with her … then reconfirmed it, then postponed it again several times.  Part of the problem (on her side) was her reluctance to believe her relationship with her ex-husband was over.  I had a symmetrical reluctance.  The final verse describes her wedding day.  A year later she performed this poem in Birmingham in first person.  Published in my books The Closed Shrine and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the chapbook Don McIver and Friends.

you & you

 

how much it hurts you

that you still wish to fuck

tiptoe in traildust

your oblivious

dancing ass like the rocksides

above you spinning

their music of day

& darkness

 

how much it hurts you

that you still wish to swallow

fathomless barrels of

wine & word till your words

release in a bloodlife

of yammering bats

 

when you’d rather be a grandmother

learned & finished

whose words would only save

who’d love everyone the same

 

when you’d rather be everyone

you promised you’d be

the day your feet rested

on the rapid planet

& all your friends approved

of your velvet &

you held flowers

 

Robert Hass in one of his essays recommended James McMichael’s long poem “Four Good Things,” so I bought the book it came in, and admired the poem, but fell in love with another book-length poem, “Each in a Place Apart,” an autobiographical story, or fictional autobiography, of a California writer who enters on an affair with a woman in his church youth group, winds up leaving his wife and children for her and marrying her, then sees their marriage come to pieces.  This “plot” is less important than the imaginations, distractions, trepidations and doubts of the characters along the way, including an extended sequence where he fantasizes about his lover falling in love with another man on her first trip to England, and a flashback to his own Puritan ancestors, who made their own irrevocable but highly accidental decisions.  It’s an examination, among lots of things, of the old question “Is love enough?”—and doesn’t give a simple answer … or a complex one, for that matter.  A rich journey at the intersection of poetry and storytelling.

George Meredith’s poignant picture of Satan as sorrowful prisoner to his own “hot fit of pride” is a lovely thing, though theologically inept:  an angel can’t be overcome by passion, or regret his actions … or be deluded enough to hope that, the next time he explores them, the walls of his prison will be gone.  But none of that matters to the chilly fatedness of the poem—we share both his lust for freedom and his loss of it.

Lucifer in Starlight

 

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion, swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball, in cloud part screened,

Where sinners hugged their specter of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he leaned,

Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,

Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reached a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.

Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.

 

The Catholic (or toward the end, Catholic/Buddhist) writer Thomas Merton was a superb poet, author before he died in 1968 of a truly stupefying series of modernist poems called The Geography of Lograire.  The poem of his in Otros predates that by a bit.  “Night-Flowering Cactus” is an exquisite demonstration, not quite of the cliché “holiness of the ordinary,” but of the ordinary sometimes not being so ordinary after all:  that nature in its mysterious unfoldings is “intricate and whole, not art but wrought passion.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay is a poet I knew as a child, from my parents’ library:  my father had a crush on her, mom said.  (That wasn’t a small club.)  I recently reread her verse play The King’s Henchman, written pretty faithfully to the standards of Old English alliterative poesy, and it holds up … if you enjoy, as I do, the headily, deadly romantic.  There’s a Selected Poems from 1991 edited by Colin Falck which I recommend.  Two of my favorites are in Otros, the sonnet “Love is not all” and the free-verse “Dirge without Music.”