poem index

A Compendium of Destruction

"The only two certainties in life are death and taxes."
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Recession
Sydney Lea
A grotesquerie for so long we all ignored it:
The mammoth plastic Santa lighting up
On the Quik-Stop's roof, presiding over pumps
That gleamed and gushed in the tarmac lot below it.
 
Out back, with pumps of their own, the muttering diesels.
And we, for the most part ordinary folks,
Took all for granted: the idling semis' smoke,
The fuel that streamed into our tanks, above all

Our livelihoods. We stepped indoors to talk
With friends, shared coffee, read the local paper,
Heavy with news of hard times now. We shiver.
Our afternoons are gone. At five o'clock

—Once we gave the matter little thought—
Our Santa Claus no longer flares with light.
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Advice to Passengers
John Gallaher
There is a man, there is a woman,
and there is a child. 

Their faces too plain,
their mouths too wide.

It's a grim business.  You can feel it piling up
however quiet you refuse to be.

Watch them.

They woke up one morning
and their hands were all rubber.

"How can you hold me?"
they asked.
"How can I feel you?"

They woke up 
and their voices were coming through
on the radio,
saying, "I should've warned you."

It would seem easy enough 
to warn someone.

They are at the window
in the sunlight.

Step back a bit.

Don't forget to thank them
for their time.
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The Book of the Dead Man (Food)
Marvin Bell, 1937
Live as if you were already dead.
                          Zen admonition
1. About the Dead Man and Food

The dead man likes chocolate, dark chocolate.
The dead man remembers custard as it was, spumoni as it was, shave
          ice as it was.
The dead man talks food with an active tongue, licks his fingers, takes
          seconds, but has moved on to salads.
It's the cheese, it's the crunch of the crunchy, it's the vinegar in the oil
          that makes a salad more than grass.
The dead man has a grassy disposition but no cow stomach for flappy
          leaves and diced croutons.
The dead man remembers oysterettes as they were.
He recalls good water and metal-free fish.
Headlights from the dock drew in blue claw crabs by the bucketful.
A flashlight showed them where the net lay.
If they looked bigger in the water than in the pail, they grew back on the
          stove.
It was like that, before salads.
The dead man, at the age he is, has redefined mealtime.
It being the quantum fact that the dead man does not believe in time, but
          in mealtime.

2. More About the Dead Man and Food

The dead man's happiness may seem unseemly.
By land or by sea, aloft or alit, happiness befalls us.
Were mankind less transfixed by its own importance, it would be harder
          to be happy.
Were the poets less obsessed with the illusion of the self, it would be
          more difficult to sing.
It would be crisscross, it would be askew, it would be zigzag, it would be
          awry, it would be cockeyed in any context of thought.
The dead man has felt the sensation of living.
He has felt the orgasmic, the restful, the ambiguous, the nearly-falling-over,
           the equilibrium, the lightning-in-the-bottle and the bottle in shards.
You cannot make the dead man write what you want.
The dead man offers quick approval but seeks none in return.
Chocolate is the more existential, it has the requisite absurdity, it loosens
          the gland.
The dead man must choose what he ingests, it cannot be anything goes
          in the world the world made.
So we come back to chocolate, which frees the dead man's tongue.
The dead man is every emotion at once, every heartbreak, every falling-
          down laugh riot, every fishhook that caught a finger.
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Good Night
Wilhelm Müller
I came as a stranger; as a stranger now I leave. The flowers of May once
welcomed me warmly; a young girl spoke of love, her mother even of marriage.
Now all is bleak--the pathway covered with snow.
The time of departure is not mine to choose; I must find my way alone in
this darkness. With the shadow of the moon at my side, I search for traces of
wildlife in the white snow.
Why should I linger and give them reason to send me away? Let stray hounds
howl outside their master's house. Love likes to wander from one to another,
as if God willed it so. My darling, farewell.
A quiet step, a careful shutting of the door so your sleep is not disturbed,
and two words written on the gate as I leave, "Good night," to let you know I
thought of you.
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Inferno, Canto XXXIV
Dante Alighieri, 1265 - 1321
"'Vexilla Regis prodeunt Inferni'
  Towards us; therefore look in front of thee,"
  My Master said, "if thou discernest him."

As, when there breathes a heavy fog, or when
  Our hemisphere is darkening into night,
  Appears far off a mill the wind is turning,

Methought that such a building then I saw;
  And, for the wind, I drew myself behind
  My Guide, because there was no other shelter.

Now was I, and with fear in verse I put it,
  There where the shades were wholly covered up,
  And glimmered through like unto straws in glass.

Some prone are lying, others stand erect,
  This with the head, and that one with the soles;
  Another, bow-like, face to feet inverts.

When in advance so far we had proceeded,
  That it my Master pleased to show to me
  The creature who once had the beauteous semblance,

He from before me moved and made me stop,
  Saying: "Behold Dis, and behold the place
  Where thou with fortitude must arm thyself."

How frozen I became and powerless then,
  Ask it not, Reader, for I write it not,
  Because all language would be insufficient.

I did not die, and I alive remained not;
  Think for thyself now, hast thou aught of wit,
  What I became, being of both deprived.

The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
  From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice;
  And better with a giant I compare

Than do the giants with those arms of his;
  Consider now how great must be that whole,
  Which unto such a part conforms itself.

Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
  And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
  Well may proceed from him all tribulation.

O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
  When I beheld three faces on his head!
  The one in front, and that vermilion was;

Two were the others, that were joined with this
  Above the middle part of either shoulder,
  And they were joined together at the crest;

And the right-hand one seemed 'twixt white and yellow;
  The left was such to look upon as those
  Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward.

Underneath each came forth two mighty wings,
  Such as befitting were so great a bird;
  Sails of the sea I never saw so large.

 No feathers had they, but as of a bat
  Their fashion was; and he was waving them,
  So that three winds proceeded forth therefrom.

Thereby Cocytus wholly was congealed.
  With six eyes did he weep, and down three chins
  Trickled the tear-drops and the bloody drivel.

At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
  A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
  So that he three of them tormented thus.

To him in front the biting was as naught
  Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
  Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.

"That soul up there which has the greatest pain,"
  The Master said, "is Judas Iscariot;
  With head inside, he plies his legs without.

Of the two others, who head downward are,
  The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;
  See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.

And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.
  But night is reascending, and 'tis time
  That we depart, for we have seen the whole."

As seemed him good, I clasped him round the neck,
  And he the vantage seized of time and place,
  And when the wings were opened wide apart,

He laid fast hold upon the shaggy sides;
  From fell to fell descended downward then
  Between the thick hair and the frozen crust.

When we were come to where the thigh revolves
  Exactly on the thickness of the haunch,
  The Guide, with labour and with hard-drawn breath,

Turned round his head where he had had his legs,
  And grappled to the hair, as one who mounts,
  So that to Hell I thought we were returning.

"Keep fast thy hold, for by such stairs as these,"
  The Master said, panting as one fatigued,
  "Must we perforce depart from so much evil."

Then through the opening of a rock he issued,
  And down upon the margin seated me;
  Then tow'rds me he outstretched his wary step.

I lifted up mine eyes and thought to see
  Lucifer in the same way I had left him;
  And I beheld him upward hold his legs.

And if I then became disquieted,
  Let stolid people think who do not see
  What the point is beyond which I had passed.

"Rise up," the Master said, "upon thy feet;
  The way is long, and difficult the road,
  And now the sun to middle-tierce returns."

It was not any palace corridor
  There where we were, but dungeon natural,
  With floor uneven and unease of light.

"Ere from the abyss I tear myself away,
  My Master," said I when I had arisen,
  "To draw me from an error speak a little;

Where is the ice? and how is this one fixed
  Thus upside down? and how in such short time
  From eve to morn has the sun made his transit?"

And he to me: "Thou still imaginest
  Thou art beyond the centre, where I grasped
  The hair of the fell worm, who mines the world.

That side thou wast, so long as I descended;
  When round I turned me, thou didst pass the point
  To which things heavy draw from every side,

And now beneath the hemisphere art come
  Opposite that which overhangs the vast
  Dry-land, and 'neath whose cope was put to death

The Man who without sin was born and lived.
  Thou hast thy feet upon the little sphere
  Which makes the other face of the Judecca.

Here it is morn when it is evening there;
  And he who with his hair a stairway made us
  Still fixed remaineth as he was before.

Upon this side he fell down out of heaven;
  And all the land, that whilom here emerged,
  For fear of him made of the sea a veil,

And came to our hemisphere; and peradventure
  To flee from him, what on this side appears
  Left the place vacant here, and back recoiled."

A place there is below, from Beelzebub
  As far receding as the tomb extends,
  Which not by sight is known, but by the sound

Of a small rivulet, that there descendeth
  Through chasm within the stone, which it has gnawed
  With course that winds about and slightly falls.

The Guide and I into that hidden road
  Now entered, to return to the bright world;
  And without care of having any rest

We mounted up, he first and I the second,
  Till I beheld through a round aperture
  Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.
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A Poison Tree
William Blake, 1757 - 1827
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,--

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
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The Fall of Rome
W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973

(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
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Another Elegy
Jericho Brown
This is what our dying looks like.
You believe in the sun. I believe
I can’t love you. Always be closing,
Said our favorite professor before
He let the gun go off in his mouth.
I turned 29 the way any man turns
In his sleep, unaware of the earth
Moving beneath him, its plates in
Their places, a dated disagreement.
Let’s fight it out, baby. You have
Only so long left—a man turning
In his sleep—so I take a picture.
I won’t look at it, of course. It’s
His bad side, his Mr. Hyde, the hole
In a husband’s head, the O
Of his wife’s mouth. Every night,
I take a pill. Miss one, and I’m gone.
Miss two, and we’re through. Hotels
Bore me, unless I get a mountain view,
A room in which my cell won’t work,
And there’s nothing to do but see
The sun go down into the ground
That cradles us as any coffin can.
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Bomb Crater Sky
Lam Thi My Da
They say that you, a road builder
Had such love for our country
You rushed out and waved your torch
To call the bombs down on yourself
And save the road for the troops

As my unit passed on that worn road
The bomb crater reminded us of your story
Your grave is radiant with bright-colored stones
Piled high with love for you, a young girl

As I looked in the bomb crater where you died
The rain water became a patch of sky
Our country is kind
Water from the sky washes pain away

Now you lie down deep in the earth
As the sky lay down in that earthen crater
At night your soul sheds light
Like the dazzling stars
Did your soft white skin
Become a bank of white clouds?

By day I pass under a sun-flooded sky
And it is your sky
And that anxious, wakeful disc
Is it the sun, or is it your heart
Lighting my way
As I walk down the long road?

The name of the road is your name
Your death is a young girl's patch of blue sky
My soul is lit by your life

And my friends, who never saw you
Each has a different image of your face
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Age and Death
Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
Come closer, kind, white, long-familiar friend,
      Embrace me, fold me to thy broad, soft breast.
Life has grown strange and cold, but thou dost bend
      Mild eyes of blessing wooing to my rest.
So often hast thou come, and from my side
So many hast thou lured, I only bide
Thy beck, to follow glad thy steps divine.
      Thy world is peopled for me; this world's bare.
      Through all these years my couch thou didst prepare.
Thou art supreme Love--kiss me--I am thine!