That linkage of warnings sent a tremor through June as if to prepare October in the hardest apples. One week in late July we held hands through the bars of his hospital bed. Our sleep made a canopy over us and it seemed I heard its durable roaring in the companion sleep of what must have been our Bedouin god, and now when the poppy lets go I know it is to lay bare his thickly seeded black coach at the pinnacle of dying. My shaggy ponies heard the shallow snapping of silk but grazed on down the hillside, their prayer flags tearing at the void-what we stared into, its cool flux of blue and white. How just shaking at flies they sprinkled the air with the soft unconscious praise of bells braided into their manes. My life simplified to "for him" and his thinned like an injection wearing off so the real gave way to the more-than-real, each moment's carmine abundance, furl of reddest petals lifted from the stalk and no hint of the black hussar's hat at the center. By then his breathing stopped so gradually I had to brush lips to know an ending. Tasting then that plush of scarlet which is the last of warmth, kissless kiss he would have given. Mine to extend a lover's right past its radius, to give and also most needfully, my gallant hussar, to bend and take.
Bread and Hyacinths
The second half of my life will be black to the white rind of the old and fading moon. The second half of my life will be water over the cracked floor of these desert years. I will land on my feet this time, knowing at least two languages and who my friends are. I will dress for the occasion, and my hair shall be whatever color I please. Everyone will go on celebrating the old birthday, counting the years as usual, but I will count myself new from this inception, this imprint of my own desire. The second half of my life will be swift, past leaning fenceposts, a gravel shoulder, asphalt tickets, the beckon of open road. The second half of my life will be wide-eyed, fingers shifting through fine sands, arms loose at my sides, wandering feet. There will be new dreams every night, and the drapes will never be closed. I will toss my string of keys into a deep well and old letters into the grate. The second half of my life will be ice breaking up on the river, rain soaking the fields, a hand held out, a fire, and smoke going upward, always up.
Among the first we learn is good-bye, your tiny wrist between Dad's forefinger and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom, whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield. Then it's done to make us follow: in a crowded mall, a woman waves, "Bye, we're leaving," and her son stands firm sobbing, until at last he runs after her, among shoppers drifting like sharks who must drag their great hulks underwater, even in sleep, or drown. Living, we cover vast territories; imagine your life drawn on a map-- a scribble on the town where you grew up, each bus trip traced between school and home, or a clean line across the sea to a place you flew once. Think of the time and things we accumulate, all the while growing more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging, our bodies collect wrinkles and scars for each place the world would not give under our weight. Our thoughts get laced with strange aches, sweet as the final chord that hangs in a guitar's blond torso. Think how a particular ridge of hills from a summer of your childhood grows in significance, or one hour of light-- late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings the shadow of Virginia creeper vines across the wall of a tiny, white room where a girl makes love for the first time. Its leaves tremble like small hands against the screen while she weeps in the arms of her bewildered lover. She's too young to see that as we gather losses, we may also grow in love; as in passion, the body shudders and clutches what it must release.
Storms of perfume lift from honeysuckle, lilac, clover—and drift across the threshold, outside reclaiming inside as its home. Warm days whirl in a bright unnumberable blur, a cup—a grail brimmed with delirium and humbling boredom both. I was a boy, I thought I'd always be a boy, pell—mell, mean, and gaily murderous one moment as I decapitated daises with a stick, then overcome with summer's opium, numb—slumberous. I thought I'd always be a boy, each day its own millennium, each one thousand years of daylight ending in the night watch, summer's pervigilium, which I could never keep because by sunset I was an old man. I was Methuselah, the oldest man in the holy book. I drowsed. I nodded, slept—and without my watching, the world, whose permanence I doubted, returned again, bluebell and blue jay, speedwell and cardinal still there when the light swept back, and so was I, which I had also doubted. I understood with horror then with joy, dubious and luminous joy: it simply spins. It doesn't need my feet to make it turn. It doesn't even need my eyes to watch it, and I, though a latecomer to its surface, I'd be leaving early. It was my duty to stay awake and sing if I could keep my mind on singing, not extinction, as blurred green summer, lifted to its apex, succumbed to gravity and fell to autumn, Ilium, and ashes. In joy we are our own uncomprehending mourners, and more than joy I longed for understanding and more than understanding I longed for joy.
In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is asleep. The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins. The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream, and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the street corner the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the stars. Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is asleep. In a graveyard far off there is a corpse who has moaned for three years because of a dry countryside on his knee; and that boy they buried this morning cried so much it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet. Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias. But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist; flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths in a thicket of new veins, and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders. One day the horses will live in the saloons and the enraged ants will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows. Another day we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue. Careful! Be careful! Be careful! The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm, and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of the bridge, or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe, we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes are waiting, where the bear's teeth are waiting, where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting, and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder. Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody. Nobody is sleeping. If someone does close his eyes, a whip, boys, a whip! Let there be a landscape of open eyes and bitter wounds on fire. No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one. I have said it before. No one is sleeping. But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night, open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
My father said I could not do it, but all night I picked the peaches. The orchard was still, the canals ran steadily. I was a girl then, my chest its own walled garden. How many ladders to gather an orchard? I had only one and a long patience with lit hands and the looking of the stars which moved right through me the way the water moved through the canals with a voice that seemed to speak of this moonless gathering and those who had gathered before me. I put the peaches in the pond's cold water, all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors, all night my back a straight road to the sky. And then out of its own goodness, out of the far fields of the stars, the morning came, and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses just after it has been rung, before the metal begins to long again for the clapper's stroke. The light came over the orchard. The canals were silver and then were not. and the pond was--I could see as I laid the last peach in the water--full of fish and eyes.
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Life has loveliness to sell, All beautiful and splendid things, Blue waves whitened on a cliff, Soaring fire that sways and sings, And childrens's faces looking up Holding wonder in a cup. Life has loveliness to sell, Music like a curve of gold, Scent of pine trees in the rain, Eyes that love you, arms that hold, And for your spirit's still delight, Holy thoughts that star the night. Spend all you have for loveliness, Buy it and never count the cost; For one white singing hour of peace Count many a year of strife well lost, And for a breath of ecstacy Give all you have been, or could be.
1. Such pleasure one needs to make for oneself. She has snipped the paltry forsythia to force the bloom, has cut each stem on the slant and sprinkled brown sugar in a vase, so the wintered reeds will take their water. It hurts her to do this but she does it. When are we most ourselves, and when the least? Last night, the man in the recessed doorway, homeless or searching for something, or sought— all he needed was one hand and quiet. The city around him was one small room. He leaned into the dark portal, gray shade in a door, a shadow of himself. His eyes were closed. His rhythm became him. So we have shut our eyes, as dead or as other, and held the thought of another whose pleasure is need, face over a face ... 2. It hurts her to use her hands, to hold a cup or bud or touch a thing. The doctors have turned her burning hands in their hands. The tests have shown a problem, but no cause, a neuropathology of mere touch. We have all made love in the dark, small room of such need, without shame, to our comfort, our compulsion. I know I have. She has. We have held or helped each other, sometimes watching from the doorway of a warm house where candletips of new growth light the walls, the city in likeness beyond, our hands on the swollen damp branch or bud or cup. Sometimes we are most ourselves when we are least, or hurt, or lost, face over a face—. You have, too. It's your secret, your delight. You smell the wild scent all day on your hand.
The brief secrets are still here, and the light has come back. The word remember touches my hand, But I shake it off and watch the turkey buzzards bank and wheel Against the occluded sky. All of the little names sink down, weighted with what is invisible, But no one will utter them, no one will smooth their rumpled hair. There isn't much time, in any case. There isn't much left to talk about as the year deflates. There isn't a lot to add. Road-worn, December-colored, they cluster like unattractive angels Wherever a thing appears, Crisp and unspoken, unspeakable in their mute and glittering garb. All afternoon the clouds have been sliding toward us out of the Blue Ridge. All afternoon the leaves have scuttled Across the sidewalk and driveway, clicking their clattery claws. And now the evening is over us, Small slices of silence running under a dark rain, Wrapped in a larger.
Eight hours by bus, and night was on them. He could see himself now in the window, see his head there with the country running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat. Darkness outside; darkness in the bus—as if the sea were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it. He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly, to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so occasional headlights struck it into life. But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed: only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.
Take this quiet woman, she has been standing before a polishing wheel for over three hours, and she lacks twenty minutes before she can take a lunch break. Is she a woman? Consider the arms as they press the long brass tube against the buffer, they are striated along the triceps, the three heads of which clearly show. Consider the fine dusting of dark down above the upper lip, and the beads of sweat that run from under the red kerchief across the brow and are wiped away with a blackening wrist band in one odd motion a child might make to say No! No! You must come closer to find out, you must hang your tie and jacket in one of the lockers in favor of a black smock, you must be prepared to spend shift after shift hauling off the metal trays of stock, bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, then lifting with a gasp, the first word of tenderness between the two of you, then you must bring new trays of dull unpolished tubes. You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place. Make no mistake, the place has a language, and if by some luck the power were cut, the wheel slowed to a stop so that you suddenly saw it was not a solid object but so many separate bristles forming in motion a perfect circle, she would turn to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why of why must I spend five nights a week? Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic you knew, you wouldn't dare speak for fear of her laughter, which now you have anyway as she places the five tapering fingers of her filthy hand on the arm of your white shirt to mark you for your own, now and forever.
This has nothing to do with propagating The species is continued as so many are (among the smaller creatures) by fission (and this species is very small next in order to the amoeba, the beginning one) The paramecium achieves, then, immortality by dividing But when the paramecium desires renewal strength another joy this is what the paramecium does: The paramecium lies down beside another paramecium Slowly inexplicably the exchange takes place in which some bits of the nucleus of each are exchanged for some bits of the nucleus of the other This is called the conjugation of the paramecium.
And they will gather by the well, its dark water a mirror to catch whatever stars slide by in the slow precession of the skies, the tilting dome of time, over all, a light mist like a scrim, and here and there some clouds that will open at the last and let the moon shine through; it will be at the wheel's turning, when three zeros stand like paw-prints in the snow; it will be a crescent moon, and it will shine up from the dark water like a silver hook without a fish--until, as we lean closer, swimming up from the well, something dark but glowing, animate, like live coals-- it is our own eyes staring up at us, as the moon sets its hook; and they, whose dim shapes are no more than what we will become, take up their long-handled dippers of brass, and one by one, they catch the moon in the cup-shaped bowls, and they raise its floating light to their lips, and with it, they drink back our eyes, burning with desire to see into the gullet of night: each one dips and drinks, and dips, and drinks, until there is only dark water, until there is only the dark.
I. Fabulous days with endless swims, with algae around my waist and convex tears on my cheeks. Far away on the shore: children shouting, dogs with golden rings circling their muzzles, and rumors of abandoned memories. I know what's awaiting me— the winter of my discontent. I have a reservation outside on a hard bench holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes. That's why I swim so far out, willing prisoner inside the sea's immense green magnifying glass. II. Despite all my inner crumblings, I'm still able to recognize a perfect day: sea without shadow, sky without wrinkles, air hovering over me like a blessing. How did this day escape the aggressor's edicts? I'm not entitled to it, my well-being is not permitted. Drunk, as with some hint of freedom, we bump into each other, and laugh raucously on an acutely superstitious scale knowing that it's forbidden. Could it be just a trap this perfection this impeccable air, this water unpolluted by fear? Let's savor it as long as we can: quickly, quickly, quickly.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass. And the eyes of those two Indian ponies Darken with kindness. They have come gladly out of the willows To welcome my friend and me. We step over the barbed wire into the pasture Where they have been grazing all day, alone. They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness That we have come. They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. There is no loneliness like theirs. At home once more, They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness. I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, For she has walked over to me And nuzzled my left hand. She is black and white, Her mane falls wild on her forehead, And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist. Suddenly I realize That if I stepped out of my body I would break Into blossom.
Poetry Valentines Browse all six free cards
(I) Steering my little boat towards a misty islet, I watch the sun descend while my sorrows grow: In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops, But in the blue lake the moon is coming close. [translated by William Carlos Williams] (II) Night on the Great River We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island. As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. The plain stretches away without limit. The sky is just above the tree tops. The river flows quietly by. The moon comes down amongst men. [translated by Kenneth Rexroth] (III) Mooring on Chien-te River The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island Sunset, my loneliness comes again. In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees. In the clear river water, the moon draws near. [translated by Gary Snyder]
During the depression my mother, teetotaler, but thrifty to a fault, surprised my father and me when she cobbled up a still, kept it on a shelf behind the kitchen stove, and salvaged a crate of too-ripe pears by making brandy, pouring it into Mason jars, and storing them on the cellar stairs. When my father found a better job at last, and movers came one day to move our stuff, "A shame to have this go to waste," we heard my mother say, offering them the brandy, which they polished off. They soon grew happy at their work, hanging a chamber pot and her Sunday dress on outside panels of their battered truck and speeding off into the dusk before she could protest. We closed the house, cranked the Model-A, and started out, following over stony mountain ruts, but soon were stopping now and then when headlights showed familiar shapes lying in the road or ditch: first the chamber pot and dress; next, a chair, a bucket, and a box of sheets. But drunk with hope, we praised our luck, sang "Bringing in the Sheaves" as we collected what the truck had dropped.
Sha- Dow, As of A meteor At mid- Day: it goes From there. A perfect circle falls Onto white imperfections. (Consider the black road, How it seems white the entire Length of a sunshine day.) Or I could say Shadows and mirage Compensate the world, Completing its changes With no change. In the morning after a storm, We used brooms. Out front, There was broken glass to collect. In the backyard, the sand Was covered with transparent wings. The insects could not use them in the wind And so abandoned them. Why Hadn't the wings scattered? Why Did they lie so stilly where they'd dropped? It can only be the wind passed through them. Jealous lover, Your desire Passes the same way. And jealous earth, There is a shadow you cannot keep To yourself alone. At midday, My soul wants only to go The black road which is the white road. I'm not needed Like wings in a storm, And God is the storm.
I saw that a star had broken its rope in the stables of heaven— This homeless one will find her home in the foothills of a green century. Who sleeps beside still waters, wakes. The terrestrial hands of the heaven clock comb out the comet's tangled mane and twelve strands float free. In the absence of light and gravity, slowly as dust, or the continents' drift, sinuous, they twine a text, one letter to an eon: I am the dawn horse. Ride me.
By the detergents and dish soap by the orderly books and broom on the floor, by the clean windows, by the table without papers, notebooks or pens, by the easy chairs without newspapers, whoever approaches my house will find a day that is completely Friday. That is how I find it when I go out into the streets and the cathedral has been taken over by the world of the living and in the supermarket June becomes a bottle of gin, sausages and dessert, fan of light in the kiosk of the flower shop, city that undresses completely Friday. As does my body which recalls the memory of your body and foretells your presence in the restlessness of all it touches, in the remote control for the music, in the paper of the magazine, in the ice melted away just as the morning melts away completely Friday. When the front door opens the icebox divines what my body knew and suggests other titles for this poem: completely you, morning of the return, good love, good company.
Be careful if you take this flower into your house. The peony has a thousand lips. It is pink and white like the lady’s skirt and smells sharp and sweet as cinnamon. There are a thousand ants living inside but you will only see one or two at a time. I am like that down there--pink and busy inside. The dark is a bolt of cloth, crushed and blue, and I unfurl against it. If you lie down on the floor of the closet the hems of silk will lick you. My own gown is thin as the skin of dried grass so I can see the ants dancing down there. The night has big paws. I imagine the wool of the bears, the cloth of monkeys. the night smells like vetiver and cedar. His mouth is cool with mint and warm with rum, and I am not afraid as he rubs his wool against me. I saw the bear dancing at the circus when I was small. He was wearing a green felt cap with gold bric-a-brac and kept by a thin wire thread. My brother bought me a sucker for the train ride home, and I am like that now on the inside, burning soft with lemon. What fruit do you like best? I like tangerines. And the night leaves me these. A small paper bag on the bedside table. The wrought iron and roses like an altar. I am glowing now. My teeth are stitching kisses to my fist. I go to the river. My legs are frogs legs. Tiny wands, see how they glisten. A thousand fish swim through me. I am a boat now. I know no anchor. My hair unfurls, copper and cinnamon. Look how it opens, beautiful world.
Out for a deadbolt, light bulbs and two-by-fours, I find a flock of sparrows safe from hawks and weather under the roof of Lowe's amazing discount store. They skitter from the racks of stockpiled posts and hoses to a spill of winter birdseed on the concrete floor. How they know to forage here, I can't guess, but the automatic door is close enough, and we've had a week of storms. They are, after all, ubiquitous, though poor, their only song an irritating noise, and yet they soar to offer, amid hardware, rope and handyman brochures, some relief, as if a flurry of notes from Mozart swirled from seed to ceiling, entreating us to set aside our evening chores and take grace where we find it, saying it is possible, even in this month of flood, blackout and frustration, to float once more on sheer survival and the shadowy bliss we exist to explore.
You'll show that toad-eater who wrote Night Thoughts what's happened in two centuries or so. You'll make your yard the spirit's doorway to metamorphs and comet-lit inventions. Go ahead, walk the cathedral-volumned night. Let Perseids stripe your eyes. * I read the other day that giant black snowballs from outer space created our oceans. Center me, physics, keep me from brooding too long on my fear, on the pickup truck that rammed the school bus, on the strange sea pastures of the Persian Gulf, on love and its string of losses. Now everything's strings, they say, cosmic strings that pull the galaxies toward the Great Attractor holding all matter together. Microcosm, meet macrocosm. Solace us with your kinship, make one little yard an everywhere. I think of Calvino's dark, humorous mind, another squirrel in the treetops-- how he made truth and wit from troubling loops of knowledge. And Miroslav Holub, who lived alone in this house one spring and pondered this yard as I do. The appetite for fact helped him survive, walk around and laugh to himself, inside this century's bluntest terrors-- the one that Hitler made, the one that Stalin added. A string may link me to them here, and run right through the blackened school bus, the rubble of Beirut, down to the toxic wastes, on up and out to the ice ball punching our atmosphere-- Like Theseus in his labyrinth, I stand here holding my little end of string. * I caught and cupped a firefly just now like an old miser blowing on his palms to keep some warmth in. I'd like that glow to be The milky streams of star-mess overhead, the rivulets of words below, nacreous teeth of the speaker in the dark words folding into the spiral that runs up to the coiled shape of galaxies as the brain whorls match the labyrinthine curves, echoing stairwell, spinning DNA, the play with nests and shrinking models, the sidewise slide, the folding-up of sense, the web the spider swings and spins, connecting. * Is this a dream?--I see my grandpa milking, I watch my mother watching him. The cats swarm round, the barn is cold, the cows chew steadily and stamp in random patterns, defecate in flops and splatters, steaming heaps. I'm the froth of the milk, the silvery pail, the piles of hay, the cats spiraling round my legs. I am the frost-coated lightning rod. We play with infinity, this is our luck, measureless measuring, lot lines and boundaries always deferred, always potential, doing, undoing, doing, undoing, we repeat ourselves so infinity can make love to finity, kiss it, dance with it all night. I taste the water from that old farm's well. The milk was warm. The water's hard and sweet. * Repetition's magic. I knew it in my bones. Let me repeat my dream for you, let me repeat it for myself. Let me talk on in this starlight, these meteor streakings of nonsense, this chaos, these fractals and freckles. Don't take my words away from me yet. I'm doing my midnight weeding, grasping the thistles close to the root, I'm losing the dream farm, I'm probably failing, repeating what others have said-- but that farm, like an old brown photograph suddenly filling the senses-- and this night, like a silver gelatin print-- and a string that runs from me to the past: the view from the farmhouse window across the silent fields of snow.
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: "Live in the layers, not on the litter." Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
For Grace Bulmer Bowers
From narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea, home of the long tides where the bay leaves the sea twice a day and takes the herrings long rides, where if the river enters or retreats in a wall of brown foam depends on if it meets the bay coming in, the bay not at home; where, silted red, sometimes the sun sets facing a red sea, and others, veins the flats' lavender, rich mud in burning rivulets; on red, gravelly roads, down rows of sugar maples, past clapboard farmhouses and neat, clapboard churches, bleached, ridged as clamshells, past twin silver birches, through late afternoon a bus journeys west, the windshield flashing pink, pink glancing off of metal, brushing the dented flank of blue, beat-up enamel; down hollows, up rises, and waits, patient, while a lone traveller gives kisses and embraces to seven relatives and a collie supervises. Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in. Its cold, round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens' feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles; the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences. One stop at Bass River. Then the Economies Lower, Middle, Upper; Five Islands, Five Houses, where a woman shakes a tablecloth out after supper. A pale flickering. Gone. The Tantramar marshes and the smell of salt hay. An iron bridge trembles and a loose plank rattles but doesn't give way. On the left, a red light swims through the dark: a ship's port lantern. Two rubber boots show, illuminated, solemn. A dog gives one bark. A woman climbs in with two market bags, brisk, freckled, elderly. "A grand night. Yes, sir, all the way to Boston." She regards us amicably. Moonlight as we enter the New Brunswick woods, hairy, scratchy, splintery; moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. The passengers lie back. Snores. Some long sighs. A dreamy divagation begins in the night, a gentle, auditory, slow hallucination. . . . In the creakings and noises, an old conversation --not concerning us, but recognizable, somewhere, back in the bus: Grandparents' voices uninterruptedly talking, in Eternity: names being mentioned, things cleared up finally; what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; deaths, deaths and sicknesses; the year he remarried; the year (something) happened. She died in childbirth. That was the son lost when the schooner foundered. He took to drink. Yes. She went to the bad. When Amos began to pray even in the store and finally the family had to put him away. "Yes . . ." that peculiar affirmative. "Yes . . ." A sharp, indrawn breath, half groan, half acceptance, that means "Life's like that. We know it (also death)." Talking the way they talked in the old featherbed, peacefully, on and on, dim lamplight in the hall, down in the kitchen, the dog tucked in her shawl. Now, it's all right now even to fall asleep just as on all those nights. --Suddenly the bus driver stops with a jolt, turns off his lights. A moose has come out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road. It approaches; it sniffs at the bus's hot hood. Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man's voice assures us "Perfectly harmless. . . ." Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, "Sure are big creatures." "It's awful plain." "Look! It's a she!" Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy? "Curious creatures," says our quiet driver, rolling his r's. "Look at that, would you." Then he shifts gears. For a moment longer, by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there's a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.
For I can snore like a bullhorn or play loud music or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman and Fergus will only sink deeper into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash, but let there be that heavy breathing or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house and he will wrench himself awake and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together, after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies, familiar touch of the long-married, and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens, the neck opening so small he has to screw them on— and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep, his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child. In the half darkness we look at each other and smile and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body— this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making, sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake, this blessing love gives again into our arms.
The place of language is the place between me and the world of presences I have lost —complex country, not flat. Its elements free- float, coherent for luck to come across; its lines curve as in a mental orrery implicit with stars in active orbit, only their slowness or swiftness lost to sense. The will dissolves here. It becomes the infinite air of imagination that stirs immense among losses and leaves me less desolate. Breathing it I spot a sentence or a name, a rescuer, charted for recovery, to speak against the daily sinking flame & the shrinking waters of the mortal sea.
Each time I go outside the world is different. This has happened all my life. * The clock stopped at 5:30 for three months. Now it's always time to quit work, have a drink, cook dinner. * "What I would do for wisdom," I cried out as a young man. Evidently not much. Or so it seems. Even on walks I follow the dog. * Old friend, perhaps we work too hard at being remembered.
A campesino looked at the air And told me: With hurricanes it's not the wind or the noise or the water. I'll tell you he said: it's the mangoes, avocados Green plantains and bananas flying into town like projectiles. How would your family feel if they had to tell The generations that you got killed by a flying Banana. Death by drowning has honor If the wind picked you up and slammed you Against a mountain boulder This would not carry shame But to suffer a mango smashing Your skull or a plantain hitting your Temple at 70 miles per hour is the ultimate disgrace. The campesino takes off his hat— As a sign of respect toward the fury of the wind And says: Don't worry about the noise Don't worry about the water Don't worry about the wind— If you are going out beware of mangoes And all such beautiful sweet things.
The ghosts swarm. They speak as one person. Each loves you. Each has left something undone. • Did the palo verde blush yellow all at once? Today's edges are so sharp they might cut anything that moved. • The way a lost word will come back unbidden. You're not interested in it now, only in knowing where it's been.
It fell to me to tell the bees, though I had wanted another duty— to be the scribbler at his death, there chart the third day's quickening. But fate said no, it falls to you to tell the bees, the middle daughter. So it was written at your birth. I wanted to keep the fire, working the constant arranging and shifting of the coals blown flaring, my cheeks flushed red, my bed laid down before the fire, myself anonymous among the strangers there who'd come and go. But destiny said no. It falls to you to tell the bees, it said. I wanted to be the one to wash his linens, boiling the death-soiled sheets, using the waters for my tea. I might have been the one to seal his solitude with mud and thatch and string, the webs he parted every morning, the hounds' hair combed from brushes, the dust swept into piles with sparrows' feathers. Who makes the laws that live inside the brick and mortar of a name, selects the seeds, garden or wild, brings forth the foliage grown up around it through drought or blight or blossom, the honey darkening in the bitter years, the combs like funeral lace or wedding veils steeped in oak gall and rainwater, sequined of rent wings. And so arrayed I set out, this once obedient, toward the hives' domed skeps on evening's hill, five tombs alight. I thought I heard the thrash and moaning of confinement, beyond the century, a calling across dreams, as if asked to make haste just out of sleep. I knelt and waited. The voice that found me gave the news. Up flew the bees toward his orchards.
And the just man trailed God's shining agent, over a black mountain, in his giant track, while a restless voice kept harrying his woman: "It's not too late, you can still look back at the red towers of your native Sodom, the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed, at the empty windows set in the tall house where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed." A single glance: a sudden dart of pain stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . . Her body flaked into transparent salt, and her swift legs rooted to the ground. Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem too insignificant for our concern? Yet in my heart I never will deny her, who suffered death because she chose to turn.
Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down. Let the cricket take up chafing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn. Let evening come. Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned in long grass. Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn. Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside. Let evening come. To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats, to air in the lung let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don't be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.
The dark sky opens and it starts to rain. I go outside
to stand in the stream, the longed-for gift of water
where it hasn’t rained for so long. I shout and dance
with the dog, who puts his ears back and licks my nose.
When we come back in, he shakes and I do too,
a few drops flying off my hair. I notice the Buddha
sitting on my desk. He’s a rubber Buddha
in a yellow robe. If you squeeze him he squeaks.
He’s got a radiant smile on his face, his eyebrows
happy half-moons over his eyes. As I stare at him
my wife walks by and with a cheery Buddha-like glint says,
“It’s raining.” In his right hand the Buddha’s got a cappuccino
and in his left a cell phone pressed to his ear.
His lips are closed so I know he’s listening, not talking.
One more thing—I pick up a little kaleidoscope
lying next to the Buddha and lift it to my eye to look outside.
I thought it would make the raindrops glitter
through the autumn-dry corn but instead what I see
looks like the ceiling of a great cathedral.
I whirl around and am presented with the image
of a thousand rubber Buddhas, each one
a drop of rain, falling, ready to hit the ground.
Shoes, secret face of my inner life: Two gaping toothless mouths, Two partly decomposed animal skins Smelling of mice-nests. My brother and sister who died at birth Continuing their existence in you, Guiding my life Toward their incomprehensible innocence. What use are books to me When in you it is possible to read The Gospel of my life on earth And still beyond, of things to come? I want to proclaim the religion I have devised for your perfect humility And the strange church I am building With you as the altar. Ascetic and maternal, you endure: Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men, With your mute patience, forming The only true likeness of myself.
In color photographs, my childhood house looks fresh as an uncut sheet cake— pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim squeezed from the grooved tip of a pastry tube. Whose dream was this confection? This suburb of identical, pillow-mint homes? The sky, too, is pastel. Children roller skate down the new sidewalk. Fathers stake young trees. Mothers plan baby showers and Tupperware parties. The Avon Lady treks door to door. Six or seven years old, I stand on the front porch, hand on the decorative cast-iron trellis that frames it, squinting in California sunlight, striped short-sleeved shirt buttoned at the neck. I sit in the backyard (this picture's black-and-white), my Flintstones playset spread out on the grass. I arrange each plastic character, each dinosaur, each palm tree and round "granite" house. Half a century later, I barely recognize it when I search the address on Google Maps and, via "Street view," find myself face to face— foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted a drab brown. I click to zoom: light hits one of the windows. I can almost see what's inside.
Besides the toss and drag of shells are you shown no proof as to time lost here? Same stamp on every morning. Tattered glass at rub on sunblind margin. No island roofs or goat-skinned rocks. My stars but you are travel-rank! Cracked with offering. Your hands bear what? bow-spray? mast-scrape? Keel, stinging under silver weight. what boats unloads your night? Why do the waves keep you in their shattered cloak? Eyes each upon you creaking pilot, pilot, pilot?
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city, Mad-eyed from stating the obvious, Not proclaiming our fall but begging us In God's name to have self-pity, Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range, The long numbers that rocket the mind; Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind, Unable to fear what is too strange. Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race. How should we dream of this place without us?-- The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us, A stone look on the stone's face? Speak of the world's own change. Though we cannot conceive Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost, How the view alters. We could believe, If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy, The lark avoid the reaches of our eye, The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn As Xanthus once, its gliding trout Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without The dolphin's arc, the dove's return, These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken? Ask us, prophet, how we shall call Our natures forth when that live tongue is all Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean Horse of our courage, in which beheld The singing locust of the soul unshelled, And all we mean or wish to mean. Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding Whether there shall be lofty or long standing When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
Rain hazes a street cart's green umbrella but not its apples, heaped in paper cartons, dry under cling film. The apple man, who shirrs his mouth as though eating tart fruit, exhibits four like racehorses at auction: Blacktwig, Holland, Crimson King, Salome. I tried one and its cold grain jolted memory: a hill where meager apples fell so bruised that locals wondered why we scooped them up, my friend and I, in matching navy blazers. One bite and I heard her laughter toll, free as school's out, her face flushed in late sun. I asked the apple merchant for another, jaunty as Cezanne's still-life reds and yellows, having more life than stillness, telling us, uncut, unpeeled, they are not for the feast but for themselves, and building strength to fly at any moment, leap from a skewed bowl, whirl in the air, and roll off a tilted table. Fruit-stand vendor, master of Northern Spies, let a loose apple teach me how to spin at random, burn in light and rave in shadows. Bring me a Winesap like the one Eve tasted, savored and shared, and asked for more. No fool, she knew that beauty strikes just once, hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit, tasting of earth and song, I'd risk exile. The air is bland here. I would forfeit mist for hail, put on a robe of dandelions, and run out, broken, to weep and curse — for joy.
Your voice, with clear location of June days, Called me outside the window. You were there, Light yet composed, as in the just soft stare Of uncontested summer all things raise Plainly their seeming into seamless air. Then your love looked as simple and entire As that picked pear you tossed me, and your face As legible as pearskin's fleck and trace, Which promise always wine, by mottled fire More fatal fleshed than ever human grace. And your gay gift—Oh when I saw it fall Into my hands, through all that naïve light, It seemed as blessed with truth and new delight As must have been the first great gift of all.
We've come so far, thought the astronaut as he swam around the capsule in his third week and by accident kicked a god in the eye --so far that there's no difference anymore between up and down, north and south, heavy and light. And how, then, can we know righteousness. So far. And weightless, in a sealed room we chase the sunrises at high speed and sicken with longing for a green stalk or the heft of something in our hands. Lifting a stone. One night he saw that the Earth was like an open eye that looked at him as gravely as the eye of a child awakened in the middle of the night.
We need some pines to assuage the darkness when it blankets the mind, we need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly as a plane's wing, and a worn bed of needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind, and a blur or two of a wild thing that sees and is not seen. We need these things between appointments, after work, and, if we keep them, then someone someday, lying down after a walk and supper, with the fire hole wet down, the whole night sky set at a particular time, without numbers or hours, will cause a little sound of thanks--a zipper or a snap-- to close round the moment and the thought of whatever good we did.
Now that no one looking at the night— Sky blanked by leakage from electric lamps And headlights prowling through the parking lot Could recognize the Babylonian dance That once held every gazer; now that spoons And scales, and swordsmen battling with beasts Have decomposed into a few stars strewn Illegibly across an empty space, Maybe the old unfalsifiable Predictions and extrapolated spheres No longer need to be an obstacle To hearing what it is the stars declare: That there are things created of a size We can't and weren't meant to understand, As fish know nothing of the sun that writes Its bright glyphs on the black waves overhead.
The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of, as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones. Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag, and even now as you memorize the order of the planets, something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps, the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay. Whatever it is you are struggling to remember it is not poised on the tip of your tongue, not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen. It has floated away down a dark mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle. No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Ginkgo, cottonwood, pin oak, sweet gum, tulip tree: our emotions resemble leaves and alive to their shapes we are nourished. Have you felt the expanse and contours of grief along the edges of a big Norway maple? Have you winced at the orange flare searing the curves of a curling dogwood? I have seen from the air logged islands, each with a network of branching gravel roads, and felt a moment of pure anger, aspen gold. I have seen sandhill cranes moving in an open field, a single white whooping crane in the flock. And I have traveled along the contours of leaves that have no name. Here where the air is wet and the light is cool, I feel what others are thinking and do not speak, I know pleasure in the veins of a sugar maple, I am living at the edge of a new leaf.
Oh, but it is dirty! —this little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match! Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him (it's a family filling station), all quite thoroughly dirty. Do they live in the station? It has a cement porch behind the pumps, and on it a set of crushed and grease- impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy. Some comic books provide the only note of color— of certain color. They lie upon a big dim doily draping a taboret (part of the set), beside a big hirsute begonia. Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? (Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.) Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant, or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: ESSO—SO—SO—SO to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.
Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side, and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around and look out the back windows first. I hear the view's magnificent: old silent pines leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer of magnificent light. Should you be hungry, I'm sorry but there's no Chinese takeout, only a General Store. You passed it coming in, but you probably didn't notice its one weary gas pump along with all those Esso cans from decades ago. If you're somewhat confused, think Vermont, that state where people are folded into the mountains like berries in batter. . . . What I'd like when I get there is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate on one thing at a time. I'd start with radiators and work my way up to Meister Eckhart, or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many take small steps into what they never do, the first weeks, the first lessons, until they choose something other, beginning and beginning their lives, so never knowing what it's like to risk last minute failure. . . .I'd save blue for last. Klein blue, or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning. That would take decades. . . .Don't forget to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing make sure your socks are off. You've forgotten, I expect, the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers: In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break who had followed the snows for seven years and planned on at least seven more. We're here for the enjoyment of it, he said, to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you'll find Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur'ans, as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants, old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open. You might pay them some heed. Don't be alarmed when what's familiar starts fading, as gradually you lose your bearings, your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent, until finally it's invisible--what old age rehearses us for and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West. Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I'm on my way, the long middle passage done, fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the checkerboard set, or chess if you insist, out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch's shadow, pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard, then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows, until you tell them all--the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors, those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses-- that I'm allowed, and if there's a place for me that love has kept protected, I'll be coming, I'll be coming too.
The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion whose flowers have faded, like those of summer, and a small brown spider has hung out her web on a line between porch post and chain so that no one may swing without breaking it. She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with, time that the creaking and pinging and popping that sang through the ceiling were past, time now for the soft vibrations of moths, the wasp tapping each board for an entrance, the cool dewdrops to brush from her work every morning, one world at a time.
At dusk, by the irrigation ditch gurgling past backyards near the highway, locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods. A Spanish girl in a white party dress strolls the levee by the muddy water where her small sister plunks in stones. Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot. Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer. Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm, rocking the immense trees and whipping up clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool. In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle playing "The Mississippi Sawyer" inside a shack. Moments like that, you can love this country.
1 Every October it becomes important, no, necessary to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded by leaves turning; it's not just the symbolism, to confront in the death of the year your death, one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony isn't lost on you that nature is most seductive when it's about to die, flaunting the dazzle of its incipient exit, an ending that at least so far the effects of human progress (pollution, acid rain) have not yet frightened you enough to make you believe is real; that is, you know this ending is a deception because of course nature is always renewing itself— the trees don't die, they just pretend, go out in style, and return in style: a new style. 2 Is it deliberate how far they make you go especially if you live in the city to get far enough away from home to see not just trees but only trees? The boring highways, roadsigns, high speeds, 10-axle trucks passing you as if they were in an even greater hurry than you to look at leaves: so you drive in terror for literal hours and it looks like rain, or snow, but it's probably just clouds (too cloudy to see any color?) and you wonder, given the poverty of your memory, which road had the most color last year, but it doesn't matter since you're probably too late anyway, or too early— whichever road you take will be the wrong one and you've probably come all this way for nothing. 3 You'll be driving along depressed when suddenly a cloud will move and the sun will muscle through and ignite the hills. It may not last. Probably won't last. But for a moment the whole world comes to. Wakes up. Proves it lives. It lives— red, yellow, orange, brown, russet, ocher, vermilion, gold. Flame and rust. Flame and rust, the permutations of burning. You're on fire. Your eyes are on fire. It won't last, you don't want it to last. You can't stand any more. But you don't want it to stop. It's what you've come for. It's what you'll come back for. It won't stay with you, but you'll remember that it felt like nothing else you've felt or something you've felt that also didn't last.
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined Half of the night with our old friend Who'd showed us in the end To a bed I reached in one drunk stride. Already I lay snug, And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side. I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug, Suddenly, from behind, In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed: Your instep to my heel, My shoulder-blades against your chest. It was not sex, but I could feel The whole strength of your body set, Or braced, to mine, And locking me to you As if we were still twenty-two When our grand passion had not yet Become familial. My quick sleep had deleted all Of intervening time and place. I only knew The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years. . . . I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . . . When the young girl who starves sits down to a table she will sit beside me. . . . I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . . I am water rushing to the wellhead, filling the pitcher until it spills. . . . I am the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden. . . . I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge. . . . I am the heart contracted by joy. . . the longest hair, white before the rest. . . . I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow. . . . I am the musk rose opening unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . . I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name. . . .
Because one day I grew so bored
with Lucretius, I fell in love
with the one object that seemed to be stationary,
the sleeping kid two rows up,
the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.
While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun
of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,
I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.
Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl
to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic
composition of smoke and dew,
and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,
the calves’ intriguing
resiliency, the integrity to the shank,
the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.
Light falling through blinds,
a bee flinging itself into a flower,
a seemingly infinite set of texts
to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms
who was given a name at birth,
Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,
his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters
seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly
of matter that had the goodness to settle
long enough to make a body
so fascinating it got me
through fifty-five minutes
of the nature of things.
So that each is its own, now--each has fallen, blond stillness. Closer, above them, the damselflies pass as they would over water, if the fruit were water, or as bees would, if they weren't somewhere else, had the fruit found already a point more steep in rot, as soon it must, if none shall lift it from the grass whose damp only softens further those parts where flesh goes soft. There are those whom no amount of patience looks likely to improve ever, I always said, meaning gift is random, assigned here, here withheld--almost always correctly as it's turned out: how your hands clear easily the wreckage; how you stand--like a building for a time condemned, then deemed historic. Yes. You will be saved.
Reincarnation, life everlasting-- call it whatever you will-- it will not change the facts: we are ashes of stellar death. And, in the end, wishing on shooting stars is like pinning your hopes on the last sound of the whistle trailing off, last chord of the train sparking on the tracks then fading into the dark.
All I do these drawn-out days is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge where there are no pheasants to be seen and last time I looked, no ridge. I could drive over to Quail Falls and spend the day there playing bridge, but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge. I know a widow at Fox Run and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge. One of them smokes, and neither can run, so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge. Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge? I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.
Helen says heaven, for her, would be complete immersion in physical process, without self-consciousness— to be the respiration of the grass, or ionized agitation just above the break of a wave, traffic in a sunflower's thousand golden rooms. Images of exchange, and of untrammeled nature. But if we're to become part of it all, won't our paradise also involve participation in being, say, diesel fuel, the impatience of trucks on August pavement, weird glow of service areas along the interstate at night? We'll be shiny pink egg cartons, and the thick treads of burst tires along the highways in Pennsylvania: a hell we've made to accompany the given: we will join our tiresome productions, things that want to be useless forever. But that's me talking. Helen would take the greatest pleasure in being a scrap of paper, if that's what there were to experience. Perhaps that's why she's a painter, finally: to practice disappearing into her scrupulous attention, an exacting rehearsal for the larger world of things it won't be easy to love. Helen I think will master it, though I may not. She has practiced a long time learning to see I have devoted myself to affirmation, when I should have kept my eyes on the ground.
1 My mother always called it a nest, the multi-colored mass harvested from her six daughters' brushes, and handed it to one of us after she had shaped it, as we sat in front of the fire drying our hair. She said some birds steal anything, a strand of spider's web, or horse's mane, the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses near a fold where every summer of her girlhood hundreds nested. Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius— how they transform the useless. I've seen plastics stripped and whittled into a brilliant straw, and newspapers—the dates, the years— supporting the underweavings. 2 As tonight in our bed by the window you brush my hair to help me sleep, and clean the brush as my mother did, offering the nest to the updraft. I'd like to think it will be lifted as far as the river, and catch in some white sycamore, or drift, too light to sink, into the shaded inlets, the bank-moss, where small fish, frogs, and insects lay their eggs. Would this constitute an afterlife? The story goes that sailors, moored for weeks off islands they called paradise, stood in the early sunlight cutting their hair. And the rare birds there, nameless, almost extinct, came down around them and cleaned the decks and disappeared into the trees above the sea.
Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing, Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches, Mad with the joy of the Sabbath, Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun, Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes, A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry living wild on the Streets through generations of children. Give praise with the sound of the milk-train far away With its mutter of wheels and long-drawn-out sweet whistle As it speeds through the fields of sleep at three in the morning, Give praise with the immense and peaceful sigh Of the wind in the pinewoods, At night give praise with starry silences. Give praise with the skirling of seagulls And the rattle and flap of sails And gongs of buoys rocked by the sea-swell Out in the shipping-lanes beyond the harbor. Give praise with the humpback whales, Huge in the ocean they sing to one another. Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas, Give praise with hum of bees, Give praise with the little peepers who live near water. When they fill the marsh with a shimmer of bell-like cries We know that the winter is over. Give praise with mockingbirds, day's nightingales. Hour by hour they sing in the crepe myrtle And glossy tulip trees On quiet side streets in southern towns. Give praise with the rippling speech Of the eider-duck and her ducklings As they paddle their way downstream In the red-gold morning On Restiguche, their cold river, Salmon river, Wilderness river. Give praise with the whitethroat sparrow. Far, far from the cities, Far even from the towns, With piercing innocence He sings in the spruce-tree tops, Always four notes And four notes only. Give praise with water, With storms of rain and thunder And the small rains that sparkle as they dry, And the faint floating ocean roar That fills the seaside villages, And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood, And with the angels in that other country.
The only legend I have ever loved is the story of a daughter lost in hell. And found and rescued there. Love and blackmail are the gist of it. Ceres and Persephone the names. And the best thing about the legend is I can enter it anywhere. And have. As a child in exile in a city of fogs and strange consonants, I read it first and at first I was an exiled child in the crackling dusk of the underworld, the stars blighted. Later I walked out in a summer twilight searching for my daughter at bed-time. When she came running I was ready to make any bargain to keep her. I carried her back past whitebeams and wasps and honey-scented buddleias. But I was Ceres then and I knew winter was in store for every leaf on every tree on that road. Was inescapable for each one we passed. And for me. It is winter and the stars are hidden. I climb the stairs and stand where I can see my child asleep beside her teen magazines, her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit. The pomegranate! How did I forget it? She could have come home and been safe and ended the story and all our heart-broken searching but she reached out a hand and plucked a pomegranate. She put out her hand and pulled down the French sound for apple and the noise of stone and the proof that even in the place of death, at the heart of legend, in the midst of rocks full of unshed tears ready to be diamonds by the time the story was told, a child can be hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance. The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured. The suburb has cars and cable television. The veiled stars are above ground. It is another world. But what else can a mother give her daughter but such beautiful rifts in time? If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift. The legend will be hers as well as mine. She will enter it. As I have. She will wake up. She will hold the papery flushed skin in her hand. And to her lips. I will say nothing.
This I saw on an April day: Warm rain spilt from a sun-lined cloud, A sky-flung wave of gold at evening, And a cock pheasant treading a dusty path Shy and proud. And this I found in an April field: A new white calf in the sun at noon, A flash of blue in a cool moss bank, And tips of tulips promising flowers To a blue-winged loon. And this I tried to understand As I scrubbed the rust from my brightening plow: The movement of seed in furrowed earth, And a blackbird whistling sweet and clear From a green-sprayed bough.
A hand is not four fingers and a thumb. Nor is it palm and knuckles, not ligaments or the fat's yellow pillow, not tendons, star of the wristbone, meander of veins. A hand is not the thick thatch of its lines with their infinite dramas, nor what it has written, not on the page, not on the ecstatic body. Nor is the hand its meadows of holding, of shaping— not sponge of rising yeast-bread, not rotor pin's smoothness, not ink. The maple's green hands do not cup the proliferant rain. What empties itself falls into the place that is open. A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.
the full rage of kansas turns loose upon us. On the mexican radio station they are singing Espiritu de mis sueños and that is exactly it tonight. The spirit of my dreams rises in the storm like vapor. Deep clouds bulge together and below them we are a tiny constellation of lights the car laid under sheets of lightning moving straight in to the night. Before us are miles and miles of water and wind.
And to think I had just paid a cousin twenty dollars to shovel the walk. He and two of his buddies, still smelling of an all-nighter, arrived at 7 am to begin their work. When I left them a while later I noticed their ungloved hands and winter made me feel selfish and unsure. This ground seems unsure of itself for its own reasons. Real spring is still distant and no one is trying to make themselves believe this might last, this last unreasonable half hour. It is six-thirty in eastern Montana and the cold has finally given way. The time is important not because this has been a long winter or for the fact that it is my first here since childhood, but because there is so much else to be unsure of. At a time like this how is it that when I left only a week ago there were three feet of snow on the ground, and now there are none, not even a single patch holding on in the shadow of the fence-line. We do not gauge enough of our lives by changes in temperature. When I first began to write poems I was laying claim to battle. It began with a death and I have tried to say it was unjust, not because of the actual dying but because of what was left. What time of year was that? I have still not yet learned to write of war. I have friends who speak out--as is necessary--with subtle and unsubtle force. But I am from this place and a great deal has been going wrong for some time now. The two young Indian boys who might have drowned last night in the fast-rising creek near school are casualties enough for me. There have been too many just like them and I have no way to fix these things. A friend from Boston wrote something to me last week about not have the intelligence to take as subject for his poems anything other than his own life. For a while now I have sensed this in my own mood: this poem was never supposed to mention itself, other writers, or me. But I will not regret the boys who made it home, or the cousins who used the money at the bar. Still, something is being lost here and there are no lights on this street; enough mud remains on our feet to carry with us into the house.
I am out before dawn, marching a small dog through a meager park Boulevards angle away, newspapers fly around like blind white birds Two days in a row I have not seen the meteors though the radio news says they are overhead Leonid's brimstones are barred by clouds; I cannot read the signs in heaven, I cannot see night rendered into fire And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me You would not think I still knew these things: I get on the train, I buy the food, I sweep, discuss, consider gloves or boots, and in the summer, open windows, find beads to string with pearls You would not think that I had survived anything but the life you see me living now In the darkness, the dog stops and sniffs the air She has been alone, she has known danger, and so now she watches for it always and I agree, with the conviction of my mistakes. But in the second part of my life, slowly, slowly, I begin to counsel bravery. Slowly, slowly, I begin to feel the planets turning, and I am turning toward the crackling shower of their sparks These are the mysteries I could not approach when I was younger: the boulevards, the meteors, the deep desires that split the sky Walking down the paths of the cold park I remember myself, the one who can wait out anything So I caution the dog to go silently, to bear with me the burden of knowing what spins on and on above our heads For this is our reward:Come Armageddon, come fire or flood, come love, not love, millennia of portents-- there is a future in which the dog and I are laughing Born into it, the mystery, I know we will be saved
Late one afternoon in October I hear them for the first time: loud-voiced palavering, whistles, murmurs, quarrels, bickering and warbling, croaking and chatter in the high plane trees of the street. The leaves are all turning yellow this time of year, causing huge yellow sunlit rooms to appear at the level of the fifth and sixth floors opposite the barracks, where the tram turns off from the Via delle Milizie. Solid branches, twigs, and perches: every bit of space is taken up in this parliament of starlings! They are tightly bunched together there among the leaves; and the hundreds of thousands of starlings that perform their flying exercises against the backdrop of the evening's mass of motionless cloud will surely soon have lost their places: there are myriads of swarming punctuation marks out there, starlings flying in formation, sudden sharp turns, steep ascents, swarm on delightful swarm against a rosy cloud bank in the east. The October evening is cool. The shop windows of the Via Ottaviano are shining. And the starlings are chattering, quarreling and laughing, whispering and quietly enjoying themselves, when suddenly a blustering as of ten thousand pairs of sharp-edged scissors passes through the republic of the plains-- it is as though an alarm had sounded, heard as an echo over the muffled traffic. Soon the darkness of night will fall. But the starlings up there won't stop talking, they move together, push one another, chatter and flit. Virgil must have had them in mind when somewhere he likens the souls of the deceased to flights of birds which toward sundown abandon the mountains and gather in high trees. I seem to be standing in an Underworld in the midst of a swarm of birds. The block is Virgilian; the street is crossed by the Viale Giulio Cesare, where you lived for some time before you died. That's why I am stopping here. The souls of the dead have gathered in the trees. Their number is incredible, suddenly it seems ghastly; is this what it will be like? For a moment I am a prisoner of the poem I am writing. There must be an exit. The soldier coming up to me has noticed that I have been standing for quite some time looking up into the foliage-- into the darkness of feathers, bird's eyes, and beaks. The peasant boy inside him apprises me of the fact that starlings come in vast migrations "from Poland and Russia" to spend the winter in the south: "And things go very well for them! In the daytime they fly out to the countryside and spend the night in here," he explains with great amusement, turning his gaze up toward the swarm of birds. Their anxiety seems to have ceased; in just a moment they all seem to have fallen asleep. Only single chirps and clucks are heard from starlings talking in their sleep. What are they dreaming of? Ten thousand starlings are dreaming in the darkness about the sunlight over the fields. As for myself, I am thinking of the tranquility in certain restaurants in the countryside, in the Albano Mountains and on the Campagna-- the tranquility at noon on a sunny day in October. I am filled with the clarity of the fall day. And am touched by something immeasurable, transparent, which I cannot describe at first but must be everything we never said to each other. There are so many things I'd like to say. How shall I be able to speak? Today you are not shade, you are light. And in the poem I am writing you will be my guest. We are going to talk about Digenís Akrítas, the Byzantine heroic poem with the strangely compelling rhythm; and since the manuscript of the poem is preserved in the monastery at Grottaferrata I shall order wine from Grottaferrata, golden and shimmering in its carafe; we shall talk about the miraculously translucent autumn poem by Petronius which appears first in Ekelöf's Elective Affinities; and about Ekelöf's poems, to which you devoted such attention. Did Ekelöf ever come to Grottaferrata? I seem to detect your lively gaze. And we shall see how the starlings come flying across the fields in teeming swarms. They will come from Rome and spend the day out here where they will eat snails, worms, and seeds and suddenly they will fly up from a field as at a given signal and make us look into the sun.
In Memoriam Ludovica Koch (1941-93)
There is something dense, united, settled in the depths, repeating its number, its identical sign. How it is noted that stones have touched time, in their refined matter there is an odor of age, of water brought by the sea, from salt and sleep. I'm encircled by a single thing, a single movement: a mineral weight, a honeyed light cling to the sound of the word "noche": the tint of wheat, of ivory, of tears, things of leather, of wood, of wool, archaic, faded, uniform, collect around me like walls. I work quietly, wheeling over myself, a crow over death, a crow in mourning. I mediate, isolated in the spread of seasons, centric, encircled by a silent geometry: a partial temperature drifts down from the sky, a distant empire of confused unities reunites encircling me.
Long after we are gone, Summer will stroke this ridge in blue; The hawk still flies above the flowers, Thinking, perhaps, the sky has fallen And back and forth forever he may trace His shadow on its azure face. Long after we are gone, Evening wind will languish here Between the lupine and the sage To die a little death upon the earth, As though over the sundown prairies fell A requiem from a bronze-tongued bell. Long after we are gone, This ridge will shape the night, Lifting the wine-streaked west, Shouldering the stars. And always here Lovers will walk under the summer skies Through flowers the color of your eyes.
At this height, Kansas is just a concept, a checkerboard design of wheat and corn no larger than the foldout section of my neighbor's travel magazine. At this stage of the journey I would estimate the distance between myself and my own feelings is roughly the same as the mileage from Seattle to New York, so I can lean back into the upholstered interval between Muzak and lunch, a little bored, a little old and strange. I remember, as a dreamy backyard kind of kid, tilting up my head to watch those planes engrave the sky in lines so steady and so straight they implied the enormous concentration of good men, but now my eyes flicker from the in-flight movie to the stewardess's pantyline, then back into my book, where men throw harpoons at something much bigger and probably better than themselves, wanting to kill it, wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt to prove that they exist. Imagine being born and growing up, rushing through the world for sixty years at unimaginable speeds. Imagine a century like a room so large, a corridor so long you could travel for a lifetime and never find the door, until you had forgotten that such a thing as doors exist. Better to be on board the Pequod, with a mad one-legged captain living for revenge. Better to feel the salt wind spitting in your face, to hold your sharpened weapon high, to see the glisten of the beast beneath the waves. What a relief it would be to hear someone in the crew cry out like a gull, Oh Captain, Captain! Where are we going now?
Even at this late date, sometimes I have to look up the word "receive." I received his deep and interested gaze. A bean plant flourishes under the rain of sweet words. Tell what you think—I'm listening. The story ruffled its twenty leaves. * Once my teacher set me on a high stool for laughing. She thought the eyes of my classmates would whittle me to size. But they said otherwise. We'd laugh too if we knew how. I pinned my gaze out the window on a ripe line of sky. That's where I was going.
My condolences to the man dressed for a funeral, sitting bored on a gray folding chair, the zero of his mouth widening in a yawn. No doubt he's pictured himself inside a painting or two around his station, stealing a plump green grape from the cluster hanging above the corkscrew locks of Dionysus, or shooting arrows at rosy-cheeked cherubs hiding behind a woolly cloud. With time limping along like a Bruegel beggar, no doubt he's even seen himself taking the place of the one crucified: the black spike of the minute hand piercing his left palm, the hour hand penetrating the right, nailed forever to one spot.
How did we get to be old ladies— my grandmother's job—when we were the long-leggèd girls? — Hilma Wolitzer Instead of marrying the day after graduation, in spite of freezing on my father's arm as here comes the bride struck up, saying, I'm not sure I want to do this, I should have taken that fellowship to the University of Grenoble to examine the original manuscript of Stendhal's unfinished Lucien Leuwen, I, who had never been west of the Mississippi, should have crossed the ocean in third class on the Cunard White Star, the war just over, the Second World War when Kilroy was here, that innocent graffito, two eyes and a nose draped over a fence line. How could I go? Passion had locked us together. Sixty years my lover, he says he would have waited. He says he would have sat where the steamship docked till the last of the pursers decamped, and I rushed back littering the runway with carbon paper . . . Why didn’t I go? It was fated. Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand, flesh against flesh for the final haul, we tugged our lifeline through limestone and sand, lover and long-leggèd girl.
Black Phoebe Highwayman of the air, coal-headed, darting Plunderer of gnat hordes, lasso with beak – "Surely, that fellow creature on the wing," The phoebe thinks, "should fly like this." And loops His flight path in a wiry noose, takes wing Like a cast line and hits the living fly, Ripping it from the fluid of its life. Devereux Lagoon Shiners leap ahead of diving cormorants And killdeer cry, alarming one another. In an egret's beak, the catch flashes like shook foil. How well these field glasses scope out the place— A kestrel sky, serrations of the Madres, And sand flats darkened by a rare rain shower. Such an odd peace, as creatures stalk each other Dispatch from Devereux Slough Fall, 2008 The gulls have no idea. The distant bark of sea lions gives nothing away. The white-tailed kite flutters and hunts. The pelicans perform their sloppy angling. The ironbark eucalyptus dwells in ignorance and beauty. And the night herons brood in their heronry like yoga masters, each balanced on a twig. The world has changed. The news will take some time to get here. From the Garden Toad A cri de coeur of mud, a heartfelt groan Of deep damp, mother rainfall and her sire; A plea from underground, from drooping shade, From memories of sunlight and clear water; Reproach of an old grandparent half-forgotten – All in that voice, announcing a desire To have sex under the giant philodendron. Marine Layer No one is out tonight, but just in case, A tubaphone's deep echo, like a seine net, Sweeps under darkness and pulls darkness in The way a trellis shadow cages light. To hear the foghorn is to hear your childhood, If you were lucky to have lived near ocean, Moving again into your neighborhood. Overcast on Ellwood Mesa Hawks like it. Wings cast no shadow, hovering, And white crowned sparrows are easier to pick out Among the foxtails, scurrying like mice. Under the gray cloud cover, blue birds course Like running water through the fennel stalks, And the shrike, color of the sky, keeps watch From the barbed wire of the startling green golf course. September Song Those phosphorescent shoulders of the night surf Passing beneath the pier, as we looked down, Were an agitation in the falling water Of creatures set to glowing, all together, By sudden apprehension, which we perceived As incandescent wonder, our eyes feasting, Our hearts filled by the light of crashing down. Shorebreak, 3 a.m. At night the swell and crash, the swell and crash, As waves rush forward, peak, and then collapse Gasping and giving up a ghost of spray, Sounds from a distance like a low-voiced hush. Awake, alone, at the right hour to hear it, That hush, for all the sleeplessness behind it, Can lead one, walking wounded, back to sleep. Sundowner Waking at nightfall like the other monsters, The vampire and the moonstruck wolfman, arson Is hardly required to set your body burning, Thirsting for dryness, dry brush, stucco houses. Flame wind, ember wind, wind of moonlit smoke, Rolling a fog of ash downhill to sea, The sun's down is the harsh fur of your burning. Surgeons The egret is more patient than any watcher And lances its incision when its stillness Has made one look away. Its anesthetic Is stillness, and it numbs the water's skin. The pelican takes a hatchet to the water, The egret plies a scalpel. They extract fish, But one by smash and gulp, and one by stillness. The Crystal Ship Sands Beach, Goleta The famous rock star thought up his famous rock song While gazing out at the oil derrick offshore. Lit up at night it might look, to stoned eyes, Like a faceted galleon perfect for a song. Tonight, as sunset gives off its green flash, The derrick has that look. And so does the oil barge Docked to it, dead black, filling up with cargo. To a Dead Sea Lion at Sands Beach You had returned from dry land back to water, Preferring it, and welcomed the new limbs, Webbed to conceal your toe and finger bones. You rolled along the surf, all memory Of other motion swept back in your wake, And ended here, among fly-buzzing kelp. Sleek swimmer drowned, and with your unwebbed bones. Heaven When we are reunited after death, The owls will call among the eucalyptus, The white tailed kite will arc across the mesa, And sunset cast orange light from the Pacific Against the golden bush and eucalyptus Where flowers and fruit and seeds appear all seasons And our paired silhouettes are waiting for us.
"Everyone needs one untranslatable song." —Juarroz On hearing the striped contralto of guinea fowl, its mock opera quivers the parsley atop its head— The song makes its imprint in the air, making itself felt, a felt world. Here, there, the stunned silence of knowing I will not remember what I heard; futures that will never happen, a fluidity we cannot achieve except as a child creating possibility. This is the untranslatable song hidden in the earth.
Now that legal tender has lost its tenderness, and its very legality is so often in question, it may be time to consider the zero— long rows of them, empty, black circles in clumps of three, presided over by a numeral or two. Admired, even revered, these zeros of imaginary money capture the open gaze of innocents like a vision of earthly paradise. Now the zero has a new name: The Economy. As for that earthly paradise—well...
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return
They don't wade in so much as they are taken. Deep in the day, in the deep of the field, every current in the grasses whispers hurry hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume like a rumor, impelling them further on. It is the way of girls. It is the sway of their dresses in the summer trance- light, their bare calves already far-gone in green. What songs will they follow? Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm or harm the border promises, whatever calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless through the high grass and into the willow- blur, traceless across the lean blue glint of the river, to the long dark bodies of the conifers, and over the welcoming threshold of nightfall.