PART IV:  MADISON, 1990-1999

 

MANIFESTO IN BLACK ON BLACK

 

                                                for Harold Bloom

 

Where no law apprehends, far from the scene

of the suicide, One Thought beheld song's archons

betray a world, the links of mind and mind

by which insect and dolphin were secured.

 

There fell an Amazon in the abeyance

circumgaped by the politician's laugh;

lungs now unfold in vacuum, a tongue

is nailed to the empty air's flagstaff

 

saying we're to turn. We're to unteach the torsions

by which hands ramify out of eyes' sight.

Words are to unionize, march on jargon

and plant on landfills the deed of truth.

 

Then shall intertextual certitudes be founded

on the rock of the air, held in the net

of the unravelled hands. Then shall the transparent

laws coded in the ozone layer come down.

 

 

WAVESON

 

Hugging nothing in this bed where all

tides hurl and sway, a city on the tide

from far away invokes me, and I am,

wreckage-pinned, a voice beneath the world.

 

Where the three Marys of the sea went down

in wavewash, phosphorescence marks the spot,

a spreading marker, an oil-spill of remembrance,

where albatrosses plunge and founder.

 

Amid blown carrion on the beach may I

befriend them with my bones, in whom the human

constellation rejoices to unravel:

 

To that unknown Whowhich ever mixes

sea-salt, alleles and atmospheres I pray

no longer save us, but salvage what It can.

 

*

 

SABBATH LIGHT

 

I did not know on which page*

was the passage about the light of creation

by which you could see from one end of the world to the other

and which reappears each week to gleam in the light

of the Sabbath tapers.

 

But my heart,

or the unconscious mind

that is not mine alone

and can still see by that light,

told my fingers

and the book opened at once

to the page I sought.

 

And this interpretation was whispered

to my mind long ago:

the light of the Sabbath is the light that appears

when we draw aside the curtain of our strife

and see through each other's eyes

and each other's hearts

till there would be one eye

one heart

one mind

did not Havdalah come again.

 

Queen Sabbath, let me each week

give all into your hands

and give me back the soul

 of the Primal Human --

the soul not mine alone,

the soul of peace.

                                                            1990

 

*Of Abraham Joshua Heschel's book The Sabbath.

 

*

 

Rivki drives a red-and-gold sun

over a green-and-red field, and the sun

has Rivki's face.

 

Her mother's friend says,

"She will be an artist someday."

"I am an artist now,"

says Rivki.

 

Her mother Devorah writes to me,

"Our beautiful city of peace

is a city of peace no more."

 

Ribbono shel olam, I know you're busy,

there are lots of issues, it's hard to sort it all out,

I'll give you a hint.  Just keep an eye on Rivki,

concentrate on keeping Rivki safe.  OK?

 

                                                            1990

 

*

 

ON THE EVE OF WAR

 

White snow, you fly

To meet me as I drive from friend to home,

From warm to warm,

Upon a night when many wait to die.

 

A self, enclosed

In temporary comfort, contemplates

The diverse fates

Of other selves to the uttermost exposed.

 

There is no prayer

To bind this snugness to that misery

Nor keep from me

The evils which I soon or late must share.

 

White snow, you fly

And vanish in the beam of my headlight

As on this night

The thoughts, the hopes of all who wait to die.

 

*

PAGING ISAIAH

 

If I could slow-talk you into hearing

the fibrillation of an incorporeal heart,

then the language you hold would peel off

and you would walk, naked-tongued, through the city.

 

And if you could be brought to see, through your blindspot,

the reticulation of an incorporeal brain,

you'd fight your way through invisible brambles till

you came to the clearing where the Authentic Voice commands.

 

And this communication is sealed with the seal

of the Prime Minister of Utopia; also with a kiss

from the eternal Old Maid of the Universe,

 

who approaches, drawn by quaggas and passenger-pigeons,

who waits amid the ruins of her bridal feast,

whose voluminous locket holds your lost face too.

 

*

 

PROPERTY

 

High in the economy the naked dice

in the dead hand roll our fortunes, constellate

our wills.  Or so you say, and legislate

thereby against my call to the One Choice,

 

or so it seems.  And yet there is no price

on that which no one covets: the estate

of talismans and tokens, cast by fates

obscure beyond the workings of the bourse.

 

Like, there's this old house in Jerusalem

a friend once dreamed she'd given me.  I went

to the neighborhood.  Friends there had dreamed I'd come.

Before you'd write an equation for these lines

I could return, with all the world's consent,

and claim that house by eminent domain.

 

 *

 

FORGIVE

 

Forgive me every wrong I've done to you,

Each unintended slight, each oversight;

And if in anything I have been right,

Forgive that too.

 

*

 

OMEN IN LATE MARCH

 

Today is the autumn of the oak trees.

The unfinished business of winter,

The old leaves, like unrelinquished resentments,

Bunched rustily on the branches, six months long,

To mar the snow's ascetic harmonies --

Now they are being unceremoniously booted

By the new buds; and today is a dry day.

They ought, we feel, to be decently damped down

To earth, to make mud, which is all they're good for,

But no.  They roll down the slopes, riot in the valley,

Whooshing like a football crowd's energetic ghost,

Making it hard to concentrate on the naive

Bridal hepatica tendering her bouquets

In token (we'd like to think) of a fresh start.

 

 *

 

 

LILITH TRIES TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT

 

1.

First of all, my words were misreported.*

If I rebelled against Adam, it was not

because he and I were made from the same dust --

compulsion is the dust's inheritance --

but because we two were formed, male and female,

in the image of God, Whose ultimate freedom

only God's truth can in a sense compel,

yet not compel, seeing the two are one.

But in fact, I did not actively rebel,

I just couldn't help conveying what I thought

and felt. Too near the original creation,

I was his truth, his conscience. He preferred

the falsehood fashioned from his sleeping flesh --

and I have been in exile ever since.

 

2.

Of course, I do not exist in the same mode

as the characters in the text. I sprang into being

from a silence, a lapse in consistency, a need

for explanation: why was man created twice?

I have no lines, no part to play, but for

that very reason, perhaps, I move along

behind the text, between the lines, keeping pace

with the narration, picking up the dropped

hints, the unsolved riddles,

mustering to my cause all the unnamed

and all the almost audibly untold,

refuting the claim of completeness, working

in darkness to make whole.

Grimm-like, you changed me into the bird of night.

In Greece the owl was attribute of wisdom.

 

*According to legend, Lilith rebelled at being subordinate to Adam on the grounds that they were taken from the same dust.  Her name (“nocturnal one”) is also the name of a kind of owl.

 

*

 

 

SOME DEFINITIONS

 

1. "Poem"

 

Words

that stick

together.

 

2. "To write"

 

To send

the current

of your life

through the word-

field,

 

to note

what sticks

together

 

and set it down

while the current

holds.

3. "To read"

 

To perceive

what sticks

together,

 

to allow

the prehensile

associations,

 

to seehear

with all your nerves

the Gestalt,

 

to go

in

and come out

with the necessary

changes

made.

 

4. "To Select"

 

To acknowledge

what sticks

in the mind.

 

(To catch the mind

before it pulls off

what wants

to stick.)

 

5. "To Interpret"

 

To track

the words

to the hand

and grasp

the hand.

 

To keep

their/

your/

the

word.

To "give the

word."

To be with the

words that

stick

together

and with whoever else

is there,

 

to make it

stick.

 

*

 

[untitled]

 

The will to

be

united

some words.

 

The will not to

see

scattered them

again.

 

*

 

ON WAKING IN A COUNTRY HOUSE AND HEARING FEW BIRDS

 

The robin does not know his chorus dwindles --

The last bird's song is like the first;

But I, as song around me sinks to hush,

Recall too well the good from which I nursed.

 

I make comparisons of then and now

And sound too often the diminished chord.

But knowing's not the fault: when through me flowed

That current of abundance none can hoard,

 

Then thoughts were hopes, and knowing was delight.

The songbird has the song-spring in himself;

Poets, however, are electrified --

When community shuts down, their power's off.

 

The images that let in worlds, the tunes

That fell so unexpected, yet so right,

Were ours, not mine alone; and this poor verse

Is but a tablet set to mark their flight.

                                                                           1991

 

*

 

JOHN ZOOK

 

I never saw the man whose name -- John Zook --

Graced the last mailbox in the farthest lane;

The house was small and set far back, and looked

Like a lonely face, though none showed at the pane.

 

Nor did I think to find a trace of him

Four decades afterward, when I went back,

But there was the long lawn, a jungle-gym

In the middle, and "Zook Park" upon a plaque.

 

I often drive that way now, for the city

Has grown and made the lane a thoroughfare,

And give the park a glance; though it's a pity

Not to see more children playing there.

 

The lawn's kept mowed; the maple trees renew

And shed their leaves; the days turn cold and warm;

And I remember, though I never knew,

The man John Zook.

                                    I think he did no harm.

 

                                                            1991

 

*

ON THE PUBLICATION OF CELAN'S "EINGEDUNKELT," 1991

 

Out of thy tomb as from the drying fountain

of human mercy, roll a few more tears,

toward the test-tubes of those alchemists

whose boilings will not find thy wisdom's salt.

 

"Learn to live" didst thou command thyself

or me, thine answering pronoun, who have learned

little thou didst not know from years that had

little to teach to those who would not study

 

treachery: the wiring of that world

whose beginning is No-word, whose inorganic

tree is rooted in love's mind's decay.

 

This didst thou teach: to strike no root in that

death of deaths, but live-die in the phased-

out word that still remains to speak of thee.

 

                                                                        1991

*

 

METAMORPHOSIS

 

Fifty years! And I still feel young.

Young and fresh as a wound given

in the war-year when I was born.

Fresh as the moment of failure remained for Lord Jim.

And yet I am old.  Only my mother remembers

the color my hair had before it turned gray.

Like last spring's berries on the chinaberry tree

I cling to the heedlessly greening branch of her love.

Fifty years is longer than any human being

should have to live alone.

They say that the fiftieth gate of understanding

is beyond human power to pass through.

Perhaps that is why at fifty I again

understand nothing. Have nothing.

Am starting again

with nothing.

 

Mazal toff, a woman-child is born!

Have you ever seen an infant with such a long body,

with gray hair and scars on the belly?

Like the navel of Eve, like the fossils waiting in earth

on creation morning, to snare clever unbelievers

into thinking eons had passed.

No time has passed.  The world was created today

and I an old woman am born today

with memories of being young.

And with me were created my photographs

with the beauty of the world before creation

and the secret tapes: angelic debates on whether

or not to make this old woman.

The angels of truth were in favor. Of love, against.

They said: let her remain a dream

with that light in her eyes as of creatures

who do not have to exist.

The angels of truth said: The young prince's story

needs scarecrows to stand by the road shrieking:

"To this all flesh must come!"

So I am born at fifty,

not on that mythical birthday but now,

on a bitter cold night at 11:00 pm

under Capricorn: an unbeautiful sign

beaming no illusions that life can be fair,

but an earth sign, again.

And my face is driftwood,

it is sandstone,

and my hair is January clouds

and my hands are hands

and my eyes are eyes.

I am born because it is written:

"Choose life."  Why is that written?

Who'd choose this wedding with a fate that looks

like a toothless scholar studying menstrual taboos?

But we are born against our will

despite our longing for the one

who looks through the lattice, who will surely come,

although none has ever photographed the handsome prince

carrying in his arms the crone.

 

                                                                        January, 1992

 

*

 

FUTURES

 

The trading goes on:

A computer chip

For the heart of a sparrow.

 

 

 *

 

[untitled]

 

In the library

entrance, a lying-down sculpture:

homeless man sleeping.

 

 

*

 

 

A PROLOGUE TO SOME CIVIC SONNETS

 

Before this mirror, mysteriously curved,

That seems to hold the faint reflexive smile

Of passion and conviction self-observed,

Many have paused and eyed themselves awhile;

Realities have lingered self-beguiled

Before the plunge to undescribed abysses.

The form is rumored to be out of style

But still keeps its attraction for Narcissus.

Then here's another face, another scene.

Your sonneteer's an educated lady

Against the background of a modern city,

A seat of learning and of government.

She feels herself stare from a pediment

Upon a world that wills itself unseen.

 

 

 

 

The restaurant was airy and well-lit,

With a display of woodcuts on the walls.

The menu was exotic, the portions small.

She had often found it a pleasant place to sit.

But today she was not there with her usual friend

Who must be back from abroad, but had not called.

A duo played some jazz that made her skin crawl,

And as with vague impatient gaze she scanned

Her fellow-patrons' faces, she could not find

Anything to her liking. All appeared

Too well-dressed, too hard-edged, too self-assured

Ever to pause a moment in their talk

And, gazing round the restaurant, give back

Her glance, and wonder what was on her mind.

 

 

 

 

There was something wrong with her, there must have been,

Or she could never have lived for fifty years

Getting nothing by fair means or foul, by laughter or tears.

Long she sought her neurosis, her flaw or her sin.

But she found only inconsequential things

That bore no proportion either to the vastness

Of what she had wanted to give, or to the disaster

Of her performance. She began to think

That it was maybe the gifts they didn't want --

Too large for the vestibule, the coffee-table,

Unless she really was the classical fable

Of the tragedienne whose tragedy is to trip.

Her nose was a bit too long, her temper a trifle short,

And that may have been the long and the short of it.

 

 

 

 

 

The people have been well and truly had.

Their children are abused, their values smashed,

Their culture and environment are trashed,

While robbers legislate in statesmen's stead.

But let us reason (lest we should go mad)

And analyze exactly how they crashed.

One thing is certain: when the media flashed

They paid for their admission, head for head.

 

Aye, for the jiggling of some colored lights,

For tunes and tattlings hammered out to tempt

A mind and heart held spellbound by contempt,

They opened up their homes to all that blights

While casting out their neighbor's song and wit,

Which now they lack and, lacking, cannot look for it.

 

 

 

WARNING:

 

You are now living in a city

Whose officials no longer feel any duty

To give you valid reasons for their acts.

They issue statements like a duck that quacks.

 

They count upon your apathy, your fear,

Your cynicism, mistrust of those most near,

Your craven hope that they won't pick on you

But on somebody else: woman, black or Jew,

 

Anyone fool enough to lift their head.

They count on your self-hate to make you hate

Those who still hold what you perforce betrayed

And do the thing you guess you ought to do.

They count on inertia that always says Too late.

They count on everything, friend, except me and you.

 

 

 

 

BUSINESS PORTRAIT

 

Her picture stands on the table top,

And everyone says it is very fine.

The made-up face doesn't show a line,

The tinted hair is well fluffed up,

The tilt of the head seems meant to say,

"Look at me, I'm as shrewd and sharp as any,

Be sure my looks cost a pretty penny,

I'm poised and launched for success -- make way!"

Only the eyes give her away.

They whisper, "This isn't where I belong.

This hairdo, this suit, are wrong, all wrong.

I never was good at overreaching,

And I'm much too tired and sad for the teaching.

Let me walk in the woods, by the shore of the sea,

Like the dreaming girl they once let me be."

 

 

 

 

THE ANONYMOUS POET

 

I saw the Anonymous Poet the other day.

Her small, stooped, stocky form was somewhat stiffened

With ten more years, but otherwise no different,

The thrift-store clothes still clean if slightly frayed.

The ash-blond hair, I saw, was mixed with gray,

The focus of the whole face somewhat sharpened.

She took my turning up as though nothing had happened,

Said "Oh, hello" as if I'd never been away.

 

Nor did she seem to want to be less alone,

Said it was years since she had written a line.

It made me wonder if I had done right

To break in on her word-hoard, let the light

Of conversation in upon a spark

That might have thriven longer in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

THE SECRET POLICE

 

No one has ever seen the secret police,

You will not read about them in the papers.

Their existence must be inferred from the behavior

Of a citizenry terrified at the least

Display of magnanimity or release

Of truth.  A very sudden See you later

Shuts like a steel door behind the faces

And you're under arrest. They'll let you walk the streets

 

But no one is going to speak to you again,

You're out for life.  Before applying for friends

You should have gotten a clearance from the bureau

That has no address, but everybody knows

Where it is.  The stamp's invisible, but it shows.

 

This may be worse than prison camps in Siberia.

 

 

 

 

CORPORATE TAXATION

 

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

-- Noam Chomsky

 

The corporation's colorless green idea

sleeps furiously through the sections of the code,

as on the futures market mitochondria

logistify a hubbub into outcomes.

 

While hands of flesh let go their grip, the wires

grope toward each other, programs copulate

in the usurious space, and calculations

mesh to convolute a brain nowhere.

 

We're the card section.  Keep your cards in order,

don't shuffle them, don't show another color

or you might garble our message to the stars.

 

In plain terms, brother, I do not like what's taking

shape from us; would flash a laser mirror

in anyone's eyes, so as not to be that sight.

 

 

 

 

TO MAIA

 

 

If you could put off beauty like a gown

And walk among us in such peasant guise

As we wear all the time, having no choice,

Would then some common truth make itself known

To you, at last undazzled by the glare

Of our, your subjects', adulatory stare?

 

Don't bet on it.  We come to you in hunger

From customary deserts of pretense;

Weary of lies that lack the seal of wonder,

Of haps that string together without sense,

We're looking for a queen to start the show

And typify the hidden truth we know.

 

Then, waiting in the wings, our jealousy . . .

Only your heart cries "Coward!" when you flee.

 

 

 

 

Poets in Law School

 

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

                                                                                    --Shelley

 

We take to law because our love has failed.

We study how to sue instead of sing.

We still plead; but our pleadings have a sting:

They're meant not to reach out, but to be hurled.

Farewell, the uncorrupted word that held

In visionary light each common thing,

That fitted symbolism like a ring

Upon the hand of the abandoned world.

 

Here we avoid each other's eyes in shame,

Learning our lawyer tricks, earning the blame

For half the evils of this addled time.

Wish our congeners could have valued us

When we spoke to them in truth and trust.

They cast out reason, when they turned from rhyme.

 

 

                              's muss asoj sajn

 

Friend of my friends, let none think to disjoin

By telling tales, my thoughts from them or you;

Whatever wrong you did, or they may do,

I grieve for it, as for a fault of mine.

All faults are but the fractures of one being

Beneath the hammer of an angry foe,

Or else the echoes of one voice decreeing,

"In the world where you live, it must be so."

I will believe that all are as they seemed

In the holy mirror of the One Desire,

Even such as the martyrs might have dreamed

The living, from their sleep beyond the fire:

However Time those images betray,

I will believe these dead shall rise someday.

 

 

 

 

EPITAPH ON A LANDFILL

 

Here lies the matter of the universe,

Murdered by mind amuck, which has so made

These lightless forms that they can never fade

And bloom again in the cycle of the years:

The atoms have outwornness like a curse

Indelibly affixed, and now must bide,

Impervious as an evildoer's pride,

Itching and suppurating in the earth.

 

Here unrots our presumption's mutant fruit,

Death beyond death! Corpses and dung are sweet

As apple blossom in comparison.

You who drive by here, pray we amend

Our works that they return to Earth as friend

And we to the Great Round, the All-in-One.

 

 

 

HERE, AS AT NINEVEH

 

Some read a poem as if it were a peach

For them to eat and spit away the stone,

A joint of which they leave the moral-bone.

Scarcely admitting that the poem speaks,

They get indignant if it tries to preach.

I do not write for the taste-buds alone;

I write to grasp and firmly to set down

Some truth that had been dancing out of reach.

 

And what is wrong with preaching, may I ask?

It says that there is something you can do;

It says you're big enough to see it too.

Upon those who will not be taken to task

Hype and manipulation pipe and play,

Here as at Nineveh, now as yesterday.

MARITAL AGREEMENTS

 

When two decide to bind their lives together,

Having no thought except for love alone,

They cannot fear that clouds could ever gather

Between them, or their love to strife be prone.

Love, absolute, commands that voice be dumb

Which cautions that enchantment can take flight

And then estrangement, and then anger come

Which blinds the angered to the other's right.

O Love! be humble in your proudest hour,

Consider that you work in mortal clay;

Secure yourself against the darker power

By contracts that will bind you to fair play

If worst should come to worst.  Then many a storm

May lightly blow, knowing it cannot harm.

 

 

 

 

THE FOURTEENTH OF JULY

 

All in the dewy morning

On the fourteenth of July

I went to walk beneath the trees

That grow so green and high.

 

And there I met Tom Jefferson,

He was pacing up and down,

His head was sunk upon his chest,

His face it wore a frown.

 

"What is the matter, sir," I said,

"Or what is it you seek?"

"I'm looking for the people

With whom I wish to speak."

 

"What do you mean," I cried in fear,

"I see them all around."

"I see their bodies just like you,

But their spirits are not found.

 

"They do not hear, they do not see,

They walk with empty eyes."

"I guess you mean the media

That have got them hypnotized.

 

"Their ears are filled with crashing sound,

Their eyes with flashing lights,

Their minds too full of greed and gore

To sort out truth from lies.

 

"They have no time to meet and talk

And hear the liberty bell --

It is as if some evil king

Had bound them in a spell."

 

"Climb up, climb up into that tower,

"And ring that bell once more."

"That bell has got a crack," I replied,

The sound would not go o'er."

 

"Then you must forge it new," he said,

"In the flame of your desire,

Until they come together

To hear what freedom requires.

 

"Tell them to keep the Sabbath,

A day when all are free:

That day they must not buy nor sell

Nor sit and watch TV.

 

"It is a day to meet and talk

And find the ones they trust

To keep their hands from bribery

And on wisdom to insist.

 

"And these in turn together

Will meet in council high

To write a Constitution

For the coming century.

 

"For everything wears out at last

And needs to be renewed

Out of the ancient spirit

Of truth and rectitude.

 

"That spirit has a mighty power,

Although the odds be high;

Will you go and tell the people?"

I said that I would try.

 

 

 

JOB INTERVIEW

 

The judge, debating whether he should hire

This poet as his clerk, stirred in his seat

And questioned if one ever could be sure

Of truth, since differences of view are great.

The words went through the poet like a gong

Changing the scene.  A cold mosaic floor

Underfoot.  Shoulders that freshly stung.

Before her, leaning in a curule chair,

Was someone in authority, toga-clad

And sandalled, but the uneasy glance the same.

"What is truth?" he was asking, and she had

No answer.  Trying foolishly to frame

One now, she knew where they had met and when,

Though doubtless there were many times between.

 

 

 

 

The Chief Injustice and a Full House at the Union Theater

 

I went to see the Grand Inquisitor --

It isn't every day one gets the chance,

Tickets were free, and Evidence was cancelled,

Besides, I thought that I might get a satire

Out of it.  But he just got up there

And talked about the overloaded courts.

The colorless, odorless and tasteless words,

With our polite applause, replaced the air.

 

Behind the wall behind him, thin, unclear,

Like ghosts confined to another time and space,

A few score demonstrators shrilled and jeered.

He reached for pathos with a Tennyson quote

Before concluding on an upbeat note;

Then we filed out, complicit and disgraced.

 

 

 

 

FUSION

 

That visible as violence might burn

In the air the fusion of concerted minds

By insight ineluctably confined

In a magnetic circle of concern;

That thus a power might generate to turn

A counter-movement to entropic time

And lend attraction to the whole and prime

To which all fleeing fractions must return --

This I have seen, not in prophetic trance

But in the reasoning of a mind compelled

By the sheer daylight force of evidence

That this must and can be. I have not erred:

I swear by earth and stars, by me and you

That though the world be false, yet this is true.

 

 

 

 

RESPITE

 

Now then begone, dull discontent,

And likewise, fretting gloom!

This morning I have learned the scent

Of blackberry vines in bloom.

 

This morning I have seen a plant

I never saw before.

It was a single thin-leaved stalk,

One yellow flower it bore.

 

Bright swallowtail came floating by,

A song-sparrow did whistle,

And I saw -- what made my courage high --

Worms feeding on the thistle.

 

                                                            1992

 

 

 

 

THE BLACKBERRY PICKER

 

Where blackberries with brighter dark

Articulate the leaf-layered shade,

Hand reaching in among the sharp

Thorns, relearns its ancient trade:

Surely for this the swivelling wrist,

The supple finger-joints were made.

 

And as they pluck, the smooth palm's cup

Makes and unmakes itself to hold

The loosened berries as they drop,

The prudent seconding the bold.

From such cabal of skill and skill

The rest might well have been foretold.

 

Who would have heard what no one said?

Here no one thinks aloud but I.

The birds are gone; amid the dead

Leaves of the floor, a cricket's cry;

An airplane, somewhere overhead,

Furrows the wind's unending sigh.

 

This hand, once having gashed the ground

To feed when Earth could nurse no more,

Found itself quick to many an end

And learnt to learn, and write its lore;

Yet never found a work that wore

So smoothly as this first, uncursed.

 

It wishes, Earth, that it could close

The wound it struck so heedlessly

And at your dole, with all that grows,

Take dearth and bounty, live and die,

Since the fulfillment of its will

Proved sharper than necessity.

 

 

 

 

VISITATION IN AUTUMN

 

Through you things unforeseen and unregarded

are touched with speech.  Of a sudden it is not

the dark rainwater shuddering in the roadbed

between the rusting rails, but you who say

I was here.  You have become a patron of embankments,

of older ways still slanting through the grid

we travel on.  Of momentary freedoms,

glimpses not possessory but of that

which still can wrest itself out of our grip

and free us, for that instant, from ourselves –

never more.  What remains cannot name itself

except in the recollection of an image,

say, of rainwater riffling between rails,

that is, again, no more than what it was.

 

                                                                        9/9/92

A SKEIN FOR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER

                                                                                                           

 

                        There is nothing left

                                                -- Sylvia Plath

           

                        Crooked was the way I went,                                                                                                              crooked, aye,

                        for, aye,

                        it was straight.

                                                -- Paul Celan

 

Great-grandmother, I've tried to write to you,

sagest and most exacting of relations,

in prose and formless verse, but it won't do.

 

From you the thought that limits are foundations

came down to me; so it is right to choose

the form that most severely tries my patience.

 

Why terza rima should be so hard to use

when sonnets flow as easily as water

is more than I know; but I can't refuse

 

if I'm to live up to the name your daughter

most inconsiderately wished on me

with a pretentiousness you never taught her,

 

not pausing to divine the misery

attached to that prestigious hoodoo-name;

but that, again, was her temerity,

 

unless you hold that parents can bring blame

upon their children, as your Bible says

(Freud, come to think of it, says much the same).

 

If we had just been Jews in the first place,

they would have named me simply after you,

which would have saved me many winding ways;

 

but as it was, I didn't know I knew

your name, till I had chosen it to bear

upon resolving to become a Jew.

 

Then all at once my mother was aware

of an old Bible entry that recorded

your death (the family archives were her care),

and then my father's memory afforded

glimpses of early influence forgot

in a world where skepticism is rewarded.

 

He said that you were very strict, though not

with others, but above all with yourself;

it was by your example that you taught.

 

He said that you were careful of your health,

avoided certain foods and ate alone

and often took your Bible from the shelf.

 

Pain was the enemy.  You struggled on

until my father reached his seventh year,

and when you died, the doctor said you'd gone

 

for some years without kidneys. It is clear

that such a story must awaken doubt,

but also that some thread of truth is here,

 

for other tales of you were then brought out:

how as a doctor's wife in a small town

when the poor needed clothing you would scout

 

the attic for the cast-off shirt or gown

which you and your three daughters could remake,

and always on the Sunday afternoon

 

buggy-ride in the country, you would take

trowel and pail, and when you saw an old

rotten stump, then you'd get out and scrape

 

some earth there, to increase your garden's yield.

When my great-grandfather, a town-bred tease

who stayed at home on Sunday mornings, told

 

his skeptic jokes, you seem to have kept the peace,

but while your widowed mother, who was blind,

lived in your house, each object had its place

 

and had to be put back for her to find.

You made things serve. You knew when to relax

and when the strictest order was most kind.

 

And then my mother, sorting through a box

of family photographs, found one of you

in your last years. The face is hard as rocks,

and yet there is a light upon it too

of humor and benevolence. Thus at last

the hidden (which our name means) came to view.

 

Did we retrieve your image from the past,

or did your stubborn will outstep the grave

to get a kaddish said, to set a task,

 

or was it maybe me you came to save?

For the two poets who'd pronounced your name

so that it shone like something I should have

 

both wrote wild words till, maddened by the same,

they made their deaths and never called it sin.

I had no safer guides until you came.

 

But can you guide me through the maze I'm in?

The customs under which you lived are gone,

the Bible which you read cannot sustain

 

one to whom it spoke with double tongue:

I know too much of history and science.

No stone remains upon another stone

 

in all that fabric that had your reliance,

just as the reasoning now seems unsure

in those celestial monologues of my aunt's

 

that lend salvation such a faint allure.

Pardon these modern and irreverent tones,

for by our standards, what did you endure?

 

You never heard of the Fuehrer and his clones,

the fallout from their violence did not steep

your days and nights; as for the Indian bones,

 

there is no record that they cost you sleep;

the Satanic mills lay southward, past the border.

It isn't that we had a right to keep

 

the homestead of your certainty and order

whose fragments now, cyclonically twirled

about my head, are whistling bloody murder.

 

Nothing remains, nothing, of all your world.

And yet upon my vision you persist,

worldless, wordless. Though every flag be furled

 

that sheltered you, what you made manifest

still claims allegiance: the bare will to good

which now upon itself alone insists.

 

This Will, if I have rightly understood

a Jewish teaching, is the primal Source

of all that is, the rock on which they build,

 

to which the first and every subsequent course

must remain true, or else be broken back

by the doing of wry deeds that bring remorse,

 

and many starts have taken the wrong track

because, that Will appearing powerless,

folk sought by other power to fill the lack.

 

Thus movements undermine what they profess,

forsaking proximate good to seek the far,

and find themselves confounded in success,

 

while innocents who find themselves at war

with wrong, may fail to recognize a friend,

contract their world into an angry scar.

 

Yet valid is the imperative you send:

to see, receive and use all that is given,

first from one's own forgetfulness defend

 

whatever good remains despite the uneven

hand of privilege that deals the ration,

and by discerning act knit earth and heaven.

 

If the concerned would lay on this foundation

such bricks as they can bring, a building might

arise out of a common meditation

 

on truth and consequence, on need and right:

this thought might be unfolded to a Law

true to Earth's wholeness and the common plight.

 

Though it is late, and ill forebodings gnaw

my confidence, yet your still-smiling eyes

encourage me, Great-grandmother, to draw

 


 

such plans. May all the thoughts my mind supplies

be true to your original intent;

may my acts give no reason to despise

 

your legacy, but may I represent

you faithfully, whether or not the way

that I must walk can lead toward covenant,

 

for which in your name and in theirs I pray.

 

                                                                        1992

 

 

 

 

LAWYERS NEVER CRY

 

Well, I was a starving poet not so very long ago,

And I came to law school hoping it would help me make some dough,

But I also hoped that it would help me work for liberty,

But the very day I got here, this is what they said to me:

“Lawyers never cry, they don’t dream at night,

Spend their long days working under fluorescent lights.

If the principles we’re teaching you do not seem very high,

First thing you must learn here is, Lawyers Never Cry.”

 

There were some who came here thinking they were going to save thetrees,

While others spoke of helping women and minorities,

But I saw their dreams grow dimmer as they learned about the game,

And their faces with each passing week looked more and more the same.

They’d found out Lawyers never cry, they don’t dream at night,

Spend their long days working under fluorescent lights.

If your interviewer says to you, “Why did you even try?”

Just keep saying to yourself, Lawyers Never Cry.

 

When the fall came round we all began to go for interviews,

And they told us very frankly, “This is what we mean to do:

We will pay the winner sixty grand to run a treadmill race,

And if they burn out there’ll be plenty more to take their place.

But you know Lawyers never cry, they don’t dream at night,

Spend their long days working under fluorescent lights.

If your supervising attorney comes on like Captain Bligh,

Grit your teeth and tell yourself, Lawyers Never Cry.”

 

Well, I used to think the purpose of the law was to define

The rights and wrongs we live by, and to keep the bad in line,

But the view that now prevails is that it’s just a power-tool,

And if you mention right and wrong you’re made to seem a fool.

They’ll tell you Lawyers never cry, they don’t dream at night,

Spend their long days working under fluorescent light.

If you get the blues for justice and your heart is asking why,

Close your eyes and yell out loud, Lawyers Never Cry.

 

Now come all you lawyers who have time, or who did not get hired,

Or who burnt out or who expressed convictions and got fired:

Grass-roots organization is the job that must be done

Until we have a law again that’s fair to everyone.

Till then let the lawyers cry, let them dream at night,

Let them take long walks and get some fresh air and sunlight,

Let them help the people find out what is going on and why

And how to build a government that won’t make people cry.

I said let the lawyers cry, let them dream at night,

Let them take long walks and get some fresh air and sunlight,

Let them help the people find out what is going on and why

Until we have a government that won’t make people cry.

 

 

 

THE POET TO HER COLLEAGUE

 

Come sit with me and be my friend

And we'll tell stories without end

From far and near, from books and life,

Interweaving without strife.

 

The dreams I've dreamed, the lands I've known,

Why should you not call your own?

The friends you've had, both false and true,

Shall I not know them all through you?

 

Let the unenlightened talk of spite

And envy among those who write!

The faster shall our friendship grow,

The livelier shall our verses go.

 

Two's company, three's company,

Six constitute a poets' bee,

Ten, a council of the wise --

No end to what we might devise!

 

And whether all eggs or few may hatch,

This present good at least we'll catch,

If (as our favoring signs portend)

You'll sit with me and be my friend.

 

ARS ANTIPOETICA

 

Don't show you care for anything.

Resist the strongest urge to sing,

Or if you sing, sing out of tune,

Like everybody else is doing.

Your foremost task is to appease

Envy, not to instruct or please;

Therefore avoid all tones that sound

As though the great dead were gathered round,

Keep it colloquial, in the flat

Patter of cocktail-party chat.

To take the wind from the sails of those

Who cannot tell your verse from prose,

Pursue the mechanic metaphor.

No one will ask you what it's for:

A mask of mere analogy

Lets peep the dear vacuity.

The Poetry Administration

Has put a ban on Inspiration,

So any unexpected grace

Must be immediately effaced.

In short, you must write badly, though

Never spontaneously so,

But thumb Roget and pull your hair,

Wrestling like Genius with Despair,

To purge all trace of self-respect

And win the plaudits of the abject.

Thus you'll be published, thus promoted,

Though never learnt by heart nor quoted

In speech of friends or at lone midnight,

Never rising to lips at the sight

Of lovely face or blossoming tree

Or act that sets the spirit free,

Never sung by walkers on the shore

To mingle your words with the sea's roar.

These are for poets to whom the game

Meant something more than place and fame,

Who sang for the sweet singing's sake,

Whose words may reach us by mistake,

A slip of the Establishment.

The best, for all we know, is blent

With long-forgotten dust.  But they

Had, at least, their singing-day,

Praised what was to be praised, and blamed

That by which humankind is shamed,

Knew, and were known by, eternal Mind,

Still heard by those that hear the wind.

 

                                                            1992 

 

 

 

 

THE HEXAGON

 

In the middle of the city

Stands the house of song and story

Built of stone, its rooms are many,

And the rooms are all six-sided,

Large the lower, small the upper,

Ranged around a central courtyard

Where a single fountain plashes;

And the fountain has ten basins:

From the highest flow the waters,

Now divided, now uniting,

To the lowest and the largest

On whose brim the poets often

Sit and scan, their eyes half marking

How the ripples in their motion

Touch the brim and seek the center,

Then spread outward once again.

Underneath the ground is hollowed

To one room, a mighty kiva,

Where, amid those pillars chiseled

In the likeness of great tree-trunks,

All the poets of the city

Stand at equinox and solstice

To hear read the formulation

Of each season's task and tidings

And give counsel where they can.

From the front the house is entered

Through a porch with seven columns

Carved with leaf and vine defining

Panels where you see depicted

Figures from the ancient legends

On the origins of song

And the lives of bards and prophets,

Seers, shamans of all nations,

With their own works interwoven:

Shakespeare holds the Globe, and Dante

Works his way through Hell and Heaven,

Black Elk makes his solemn offering

Of the pipe with four bright feathers,

While White Buffalo Woman watches.

But upon the central column

There appear no human faces,

Only living things and textures

Of the planets: jungle, tundra,

Wood and honeycomb and crystal,

And an oval-shaped medallion,

Framed by rosemary and poppy,

Blank, except for the inscription

For the nameless.  Overhead,

On the architrave is written

Vita est legenda -- that is,

"Life is legend," or, more deeply,

"Life is to be read." You enter,

And a spacious room receives you,

Lined with many books; at tables

Several persons are discovered,

Men and women, dressed in garments

Long and flowing, of one fashion

But of varying hues, matched subtly

To each person's type and aura,

Almost plain on younger persons,

Richly figured on the eldest,

With most various sign and symbol

Beaded, feathered and embroidered.

In the walls beside the entry

There are windows; in the facing

Wall, a door with one glass panel

Through which you can see the courtyard

As the porter, who sits reading

By the doorway, asks your errand,

You observe a staircase leading

To a gallery, book-lined also,

And more galleries receding

With diminishing six-sided

Figures ring the central cavern

Toward the crystal-pointed skylight

And the changing sky above.

As the porter will inform you,

On the ground floor are the oldest

Works of literature, the newest

Occupy the highest level.

Having mentioned this, the porter

At a glance surveys the readers,

Then with quiet steps approaches

One of middle years, and asks them

If their studies leave them leisure

To conduct an honored traveller

From the Time of Near Extinction

On a short tour of the building.

And this bard, gladly agreeing,

Opens first the right-hand doorway

To a hall with chairs and tables,

Like a coffeehouse.  Large windows

On three sides there let the light in;

On the walls between them, cithar,

Harp and lyre, guitar and dulcimer

And whatever bards may play on

To accompany their recitals,

Are hung up for the convenience

Of the poets there conversing.

On the fourth, a serving-counter

Has been cut through to the kitchen,

And a bard with robe embroidered

Only just around the collar

Rises from their book behind it

As your guide requests two coffees.

Sipping yours, you note the frescoes

On the back wall and the side wall

Where you entered, showing gatherings

In all different times and places

Among such as share the word:

On the moors within stone circles,

Under trees, in hall and wigwam,

Round the council-fire of men

And the council-fire of women.

Here you see the harp or peace-pipe

Or the speaking-stick being handed

By one speaker to another;

Here, intent upon their Talmud,

Two yeshiva students argue;

There are scenes of women talking

As they sit and weave together

Or beside the well, their pitchers

Resting while they speak their minds.

But the panel round which all these

Are arranged, depicts a woman

And a man, dressed in the costume

Of the century you have quitted,

Sitting at a sidewalk-table

With the city in the background;

From the faces' concentration

It appears as though a silence

Momentarily has fallen.

Should you ask your guide, "Who are they?",

You will hear, in brief, the legend

Of the poet and the poetess

Who took counsel with each other

In the Time of Near Extinction

To renew the Way of Bardcraft,

And begin the Great Reweaving.

When you've drunk your cup of coffee

(Or perhaps some other liquid

Better suited to this system)

At a sign from your conductor

You go back the way you entered,

Through the library and into

The next room, left of the entry,

Lined with shelves filled up with volumes

Similar in size and binding.

Here and there, as in the first room,

Several bards sit reading, writing,

And the one who seems in charge here,

After fitting introduction,

Tells you that this is the Archive

Of Life-Stories.  Every bard here,

When they reach the age of fifty,

Has a customary duty

To record their life's experience,

Observations, and new learnings,

And each person in the city

Who desires to leave a record

May do likewise: for a twelvemonth

They are freed of obligations

Save the task of this recording.

As the archivist will tell you,

In this time there are no graveyards:

"It is fitting that the ashes

Of the body should be scattered

To the air and earth and water

From whose substance they were taken,

But the life-tale should be treasured."

Thence you pass into the adjoining

Room, whose shelves are filled with binders;

These the bard in charge will tell you,

Are the journals and the poems

Which the living of the city

Write and bring here for safekeeping,

And here several bards are busy

Poring over the latest pages

To discern the signs and portents

Which through dream and inspiration

Bring the message of the Spheres.

Hence the Highest Bards consult them

When they weave the equinoctial

Songs that speak to all the city.

In the last room on this level

All the walls are lined with portraits

From the wainscoting and upward,

While below, large horizontal

Files are filled, as the curator

Of this room will gladly show you,

With more portraits, in the order

Of the years when they were painted:

Men and women, youths and children,

Cast of feature and complexion

Varying, yet every likeness

Vivid and profound.  Displaying

Leaf by leaf, the proud curator

Says, "These are the illustrations

To the great Book of the City";

And you feel that you could stand there

All your life just gazing into

Every pair of eyes depicted.

Seeing this, the wise curator

Calls attention to a curtain

That conceals what you had taken

For the opening of a doorway:

"Underneath," they say, "waits hidden,

Unexpressed, the single likeness

Every citizen must see here

After solemn preparation.

Hence I will not move the curtain

For you now; your intuition

Must divine what would appear."

From this room your guide conducts you

Through a door which you had noticed

On your right hand as you entered

Out into the central courtyard.

"Sit a moment by the fountain,"

Says your guide, "and I will tell you,

Now that you have seen the archives,

Something of the general layout.

As you see, the upper levels

Are made smaller than the lower,

So the central space diminishes

And each floor is cantilevered

Slightly over that beneath it;

In addition, all the chambers

Of each level are connected

By a gallery that encroaches

Further on the empty center.

As the first floor is devoted

To the city's past and present,

So the second is dedicated

To its coming generation.

When a child is born, the parents

Bring it to the Room of Naming,

Where before two bards, a woman

And a man, they tell their stories

And the stories of their parents,

And the bards observe the movements

Of the child, draw up a star-chart,

Lay the cards and sort the yarrow,

Till a name is found befitting

This new being and its heritage

And the hour of its birth.

After seven days the parents

Bring the child back for the naming

If the name still seems the right one:

Often later inspiration

Brings another name, whose rightness

All the parties recognize.

As the child grows up, the parents

Bring its drawings and its sayings

And its poems to the keepers

Of the Rooms of Children's Wisdom.

Every child born in the city

Has a box there, and the poets

Sift its contents to discover

What particular gifts and questions

This new person brings among us

As a message from the Spheres.

On the third floor are the classrooms

Where all children in the city

Who show promise of good bardcraft

Come to learn what every poet

Needs to know: the tales and poems

Which describe the world we live in

With its elements and creatures,

And the nature of our species,

And the Law it needs to follow

Lest the sheltering sky should crumble

As it almost did in your time;

Next, the rules of rhyme and meter,

Every form, and its best uses:

Melodies that lull and strengthen

And awaken intuition;

Then the ways of divination,

Dream- and text-interpretation,

And above all" -- they say, pointing

To the inscription round the basin

Of the pool, one word: "Attention" --

"In which word the sacred science

Of our bardcraft is contained."

Your attention caught by one thing

That now tugs it for the third time,

You inquire, "Do you believe, then,

That you can divine the future?"

"Not entirely," says your mentor,

"But the casts of divination,

Like the images in poems,

Are projections of a knowledge

Deeper than our understanding

Can descend, which only orders

What the diver Intuition

Fishes up; but at the same time

Intuition has no meaning

Save what Understanding gives it

In the context of connections

Which comprise our general knowledge.

If you grasp this, you are ready

To receive the signs that Heaven

And Earth send you, for your guidance.

In this spirit, too, the omens,

With all other ways of knowledge,

Are consulted on the fourth floor,

In the Rooms of Healing. Likewise

In the Rooms of Mediation

On the fifth floor, where the people

Come when quarrels fall among them,

Or when anyone is troubled

By the action of a neighbor

Tales are heard, and yarrow counted,

And two bards, a man and woman,

Meditate on the occurrence

Till in common constellation

They perceive the shape of justice.

Not by written laws we go here,

For no rule contains the future.

Know: the Law as we perceive it

Is more like the rules that govern

Terza rima and sestina

Than your statutes; 'tis a pattern

For the flow of love and knowledge,

Like the basins of this fountain.

It prescribes workday and Sabbath

And the seasonal assemblies

That attune us, through observance,

To the ways of earth and Heaven,

And the various other customs

Of which I have briefly told you.

But when wrong befalls, we meet it

As we can, and all our striving

Is to keep it from engraving

Its bad mark on our tradition.

So we do not speak of precedent,

But the ancient stories help us

To discern what may be fitting,

And the tale of every quarrel

With the judgment that was rendered

And the later consequences

For the parties and the city

Is recorded, for the most part

In the form of pithy fable,

Up there, in a special archive.

Of these tales the mediators

Read as much as they can stomach.

When a quarrel is presented

They consult their recollections

From such readings, as they ponder

What the best course here may be.

And the topmost ring, whose jutting

Over that beneath, you see here,

Is the Tier of Highest Council.

There the Highest Bards foregather

On the night of every Sabbath,

Eighteen men and eighteen women

In six groups of six divided,

To exchange their observations

And divine what new directions

Are intended by the Spheres."*

Having given these explanations,

Your conductor now arises

From the fountain-side. Together

You ascend the staircase leading

To the building's upper stories.

But to tell of all the inscriptions,

All the carvings, all the frescoes

Suited to each chamber's purpose,

All the curious collections

Of bright stone and shell and feather

(To accompany the teaching

Of the Names, the teachers tell you),

All the methods of instruction,

Ceremonies and discussions

Which you witness on each level,

Would require a lens of higher

Resolution than the vision

Of this poet now possesses.

And you also may be thinking

That an elevator's needed,

And may wonder how to fit it

To the plan, without disturbing

Either symmetry or function --

To such questions I've no answer.

Someone else would have to draw it

With more skill in architecture.

So the House of Song and Story

Must remain, for now, unfinished,

But may many hands complete it,

May the people find the way there

Very soon; and say Amen.

 

                                                1992-1993

 

*Here, at the urging of a poet who was also a parent, a passage was omitted which I would like nevertheless to preserve.   It should re read in the light of Jonathan Schell’s concept of “universal parenthood” and the reflection that social order is impossible without some form of sacrifice – recognized or not:

Then by lot they choose one member

From each group.  The following morning

These assemble in one chamber

And the King and Queen, descending

From their rooftop towers, join them

To recite what they have woven

From their dreaming since last Sabbath,

And they pass the day in council,

Varied by a frugal feasting,

With new song and jest enlivened.

When night falls, the royal couple

Solemnly take leave, retreating

To their towers on the rooftops --

You just see them there, the Queen's tower

On the left side of the skylight

And the King's tower on the right side,

And the central one, the farthest,

Opposite the building's entrance,

Where the Sabbath evening only

Brings the royal pair together.

In between, each has a rooftop

Garden which they tend for pastime;

Otherwise, they read and study

Or go anywhere they wish to

In the building or the city

Or the countryside around it,

But in plain robes, and the people

Are forbidden to address them

Otherwise than with the greetings

They would give to any stranger

From a far-off sister-city."

"Are you not afraid," you wonder,

"That some malcontent might harm them?"

"May the Spheres forfend!" they answer.

"If our mutual love and knowledge

And the warnings of the Spirit

Cannot shield the best that's in us

From the worst, what would protect us?

We must trust the Spell of Wholeness

That has bound the earth together

Since the Time of the Reweaving."

"May I see it!" you may answer,

"But now tell me in what manner,

By what cast or ceremonial,

Your two monarchs are selected."

"Each solunar year," they answer,

"When the nineteenth sun-course finally

Brings a reconciliation

Of the sun and moon, whose cycles

For the most part seem discordant,

So that no day's anniversary

Keeps the same moon as companion,

When full moon and summer solstice

On one eve are joined together,

Then the Highest Bards in council

Sift the coming generation

Of young bards, try combinations

Till they find the youth and maiden

Whose harmonious stars are suited

To the city and each other,

And they wed and dedicate them

To the attunement of the city

With the Spirit of the Wholeness

In the next solunar year.

And they live as I have told you:

All the children of their union

Must be given into fosterage,

And they may not see the children,

May not even know who rears them

If a dream does not reveal it,

Till their nineteen years are done,

For their child is all the city,

And no partial thought must guide them.

When their cycle ends, another

Couple comes to take their places,

And the bards then reunite them

With their children, in a dwelling

On the outskirts of the city,

Where the foster-parents help them

To resume the common pattern

Of our lives; and they return here

As apprentices and servants,

Later teachers, mediators,

As their talents may incline them,

And at last to highest council

May be summoned once again."

 

 

 

 

VILLANELLE BEGINNING WITH A SENTENCE BY WITTGENSTEIN

 

The world is everything that is the case.

The dead were never more than what they were.

Alternate futures do not leave a trace.

 

Nature has no objection to the pace

Of progress threatening fin and fern and fur:

The world is everything that is the case.

 

No backfile keeps the losers in the race.

The Albigensian ashes do not stir.

Alternate futures do not leave a trace.

 

However you thread the analytic maze

Of cause and consequence, you wind up here:

The world is everything that is the case.

 

That memory and regret may be effaced,

Officials of the new regime aver

Alternative futures do not leave a trace.

 

Dreams and reflections, in a sense, take place;

Acts of will, it is rumored, do occur.

The world being everything that is the case,

Alternate futures thus can leave a trace.

EVEN NOW BE UNDISMAYED

 

                                       from the German of Paul Fleming

 

Even now be undismayed, even now call loss a liar,

Yield not to fortune's blows, leave envy far beneath,

Take joy in thine own being, and count it not as grief

Though time and space and fate against thee should conspire.

 

The sweet and bitter both accept as thine own choice,

As thine own destined lot it boots thee not to rue;

Before the order comes, do that which thou must do;

Each day shall have new birth, whereat thou may'st rejoice.

 

What use to praise and blame?  His greatest woe and weal

Is each to his own self.  Whatever thou may'st behold

Is all in thee.  From vain illusions disenthralled,

 

Look inward first, before thou goest thine outward way.

If o'er thy soul thou hold'st an undisputed sway,

The world and all therein shall do thee service leal.

 

 

 

 

 

THE BARD'S FOURFOLD TASK

 

To learn the tradition and hear how the voices converse together;

To find your own vision and voice, assume your part in the play;

Attentive to all around you, to gather and order knowledge;

Then, on the ground thus gained, to teach and organize others.

 

 

 

 

INSTRUCTIONAL VERSES (THE PATH OF SONG)

 

  Those who aspire   to the skill of singing

And wish to know   how to acquire it

Should bear in mind   with joy and reverence

Four things chiefly:   the word, the self,

The human other,   the cosmic Whole.

  First the word:   how each word we use

Contains a wealth,   a world of meaning.

At every hour   watch words in action,

To names above all   accord attention,

For the act of naming   is half of art.

Read, too, the books   of the bards before you,

Watch what they do   and how they do it,

At tradition's table   listen and learn.

  Next, attend   to yourself, your soul,

Storehouse of memories,   well of dreams,

Wearer of wounds,   seeker of healing,

Unending teller   of its own tale,

Source of melody   beyond experience:

Those who can hear   both tale and tune,

To them all things   bring signs of guidance.

  Then, the others   who are to themselves

Storehouses of memories,   wells of dreams,

Wearers of wounds,   seekers of healing,

Unending tellers   of their own tales,

Source of melody   beyond experience,

Messengers to you   as you to them.

Above all, abhor   envy like poison,

For envy blinds   the I in the other,

Blots creation   with hatred of good.

If envy stings,   let its sting alert you

To what you must praise   lest your soul perish,

Then draw its fang   with magnanimous deed

And all you acknowledge   shall be your own.

  Last and first:   the cosmic Whole,

The household of Earth   and all its inhabitants,

The infinite fugue   of human fates,

The hope of vision,   of one awareness

Embracing all earth,   surmounting strife,

In each true word   the poet utters

Calls to attention,   advances toward peace.

Vast is the Way,  complex beyond knowing,

Yet free, unforced   as a child's chanting;

At every step   the goal is present

And most when we manage   the step of silence.

May all who read this   find friends in wisdom

And inspiration   for sacred song!

 

                                                            1993

 

 

 

 

TOWARD THE RAINBOW

 

They cry "Peace, peace" when there is no peace.

I have not known peace since I left the circle

Of my mother's care and walked toward the other children

Who had already heard the call to arms.

Their orders were: stone beauty, punish trust,

And weave no bonds, except to further war.

 

It's true their fathers had to go to war.

Those memories heaved beneath the surface of peace.

The silence of the guns was not to trust.

The dogs of war sat round them in a circle,

With long tongues prophesying, "You'll take up arms,

For that is the destiny of human children."

 

Ah, it could make one glad not to have children,

To have delivered no captive to this war.

It must be sweet to hold within one's arms

A small creature seeking and finding peace,

But still you'd know: the wheel must come full circle

And break your child's, as it once broke your trust.

 

And then they say a nation ought to trust,

Write songs of peace to be sung by crowds of children.

The child looks round its immediate circle

And sees a thousand shuttles weaving war.

It sees what happens to those who love peace

Too much, and do not learn how to bear arms.

 

Suppose one came to stand with empty arms

Before them, saying: "Though you slay, I trust.

If ever you hope to see the light of peace,

Strike not one who comes in the name of your children

But hold my hands, against all winds of war,

And grasp your neighbor's hand to form a circle --"

 

Could such acts ever break the vicious circle

Of every generation's grief that arms

Its orphans for another round of war?

Are any desperate enough to trust

The tokens found by solitary children

To shield them as they walk toward the rainbow Peace?

 

O PEACE, speak to us from the Great Circle,

Guide each one of your children toward the arms

Of trust, that we may turn away from war.

 

                                                                        1993

 

 

 

 

READING POETRY AT THE STATE CAPITOL ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON

 

The hive of government is empty now,

stone wedding-cake of power and hired art,

stately it stands upon the narrow brow

that keeps two lakes apart;

only the overtaxed or overzealous

still burrow, plot and plan

the people's and Earth's bane

of which a headline some months hence will tell us.

 

Upon a corner of the Capitol Square

given to the people for a weekly fair,

a knot of poets try to raise their voices

above the waning noises

of morning's market; shoppers going home

have little time to spend

upon the word no friend

to the football cheer, the television's drone.

 

The various causes, too, already fold

their tables, and the meager dollars doled

by citizens whom various wrongs incense,

though few seek out the sense

of the vast web that implicates them all,

which solely through the word

of poets, when it's heard,

relates the part to the comprehended whole.

 

So thinly now in end-of-summer air

amid the sounds of life's retreat, yet clear,

our voices sing the mating-dance of thought,

the rain-dance that has brought

the lightning down on many a throne

in ages past, and still,

could we reforge the will,

might lift a wave of earth beneath this dome.

 

So hear us, powers of water, earth and air,

all civic spirits that may linger here

to grieve the ruin of your good intent:

teach us the government

of the eternal and unchanging Way

and show the paths that lead

through minds of those that heed,

that here true counsel's house may stand someday.

 

                                                                                    1993

 

 

 

GRIEF

 

Since you are gone, my world is shrunk and darkened.

I stumble in it, grasp at missing stair-rails,

surprised by downward steps I did not see.

A part of me is gone.  I find myself

falling into the space you left behind

till I become invisible to the living,

I watch them from behind a one-way mirror,

and cannot find you either. You are lost,

and I whom you beheld am lost with you.

 

Sometimes I come into the congregation.

We stand there, each alone yet all caught up

in the words of the prayer: "G-d full of compassion";

then for a moment I can see the wings

of the Shekhinah folded over all

that humans ever lost; I see a hand

pick up the scattered straws of human lives,

replace them in the bundle that they fell from

into this world.  "Nothing," whispers a voice,

"nothing is lost."  Then I weep, and hear weeping.

The voice of prayer moves on.  The tears are dried.

The service ends.  I bow my head and hurry

out of the shul, knowing I cannot meet

the strangers' faces which I know the others

will have put on again.  Life must go on,

the unbonded life, where grief must not be shown.

"It is decreed the dead shall be forgotten -- "

And even I find that I cannot see

your face in memory as I once did.

I gather it. It falls apart again.

I gaze upon your photograph, and something

seems to slide between my eyes and it.

I am forgetting you; and yet remains

this crater in my life: the lack of all

you were and gave, which never can be filled.

 

Well then, farewell, I say at every moment

(Who am I speaking to?  To you? To G-d?):

Grant me both to forget and to remember.

Release my soul from straining after yours.

Open my eyes to all that in the world

pleads for attention, pleads to be allowed

to be and to be seen, to give, to grow.

Let not one spark of truth, fallen from your world

into this, complain I passed it by.

Henceforth all this is you to me; and grant me

patience with the estrangement in the world,

the face of exile.  Make me one who gathers,

though many times be stricken from my hand,

or clumsily dropped, the rare and precious gleanings.

And may it be Your will so to inspire

others, and so to gather all the scattered.

Thus resolved, I step forth into the spring

with thanks for all that was, and may yet be.

 

                                                                        1994

 

 

PASSOVER 5754

 

Set is the table in the ancient way:

With the triumphal wine, the humble-bread,

The platters that to hungry eyes display

The story-food whose meanings we shall read.

And all around the world, we know, is spread

This board, occurs this scene

Where scattered Jews convene,

Descendants of the host that Moses led.

 

We were all there. Each of us can recall

The brutal voice, the lash, the heat and thirst,

The lean of laboring crews that strain and fall,

The pangs that ripped the heart (that was the worst)

For children snatched away by hands accursed;

The look of man on wife

Fearful of giving life

In a world where good and evil seemed reversed.

 

Oppression is.  Morning and night the news

Is brought to us by print and flickering screen

In hard insouciant voices that refuse

To deepen to the mourner's keen.

The soul in us cowers unheard, unseen

Amid a world that bids

Us live by heartless wits

While all our senses suffer the obscene.

 

And when for sanctuary we have turned

To friend or mate, or to the company

Of those we thought a common faith had bound

With us in mutual surety,

Sometimes they spurned our offerings and our plea;

In the familiar eyes

We saw the stranger rise

And flee us, as if scattering made them free.

 

We are hemmed in by too much latitude,

By knowing not to what we must be true.

Too many times the holy scrolls dripped blood

When madmen started up to do

What voices in the text had urged them to.

And how shall we now press

That scroll against our breasts

And from its fount our covenant renew?

 

Yet to refuse this cup would be to sever

The chain, the vein of generations' bond

That links us to our ancestors forever

And to the Rock on which they made their stand,

To countersign with our own hand

The work of those whose rage

Pursued us age on age:

They now could say that they had seen our end.

 

And Israel, in Israel's promised land

Still wrestles with the angel of the choice

Whether to fight or welcome as a friend

Those who with weapons massed and dove-like voice

Ask land in trade for words of peace.

It is a choice that grieves

Our mind until it cleaves,

And Jew sees fellow-Jew in the foe's place.

 

The law of nations gives us tenuous hold

Upon a land where others dwelt before:

A surer charter seems the voice enscrolled,

Ordering us to play the conqueror --

That, and necessity, which from Europe's shore

Expelled us to this strait:

All seems determinate,

Fruit of the dark compulsion known as war.

 

Yet still we are commanded to recall

Not only Egypt but the going out:

Those messengers, still shaken by their call,

The signs they showed us, that dispelled our doubt,

The plagues that put our enemies to rout,

The seas that stood, aghast,

Aside while Israel passed

To where we praised our God with song and shout.

 

When have we known this, save in songs and tales

That sound so faintly to our distant ear?

Yet even in this world some miracles

Must have occurred, though few appear:

In every generation doubt and fear

Dispute which one shall slay

Our people on the way,

And yet, somehow or other, we are here.

 

And each of us, perhaps, can call to mind

Some moment when before the straining eye

The seas of fate were parted, and a sign

Was given, that dispelled causality:

Moments of love, or of discovery,

When what we thought we knew

Opened to something new,

And in that new dimension we were free.

Together on this night we gaze ahead

As from the foreshore of our history,

The way a speaker stands before the unsaid,

Waiting the word.  O G-d our destiny,

Reveal us to ourselves! Cause us to see

The signs that You will send

Our spirits to befriend

And lead us out to Possibility.

 

Help us to find a language to the world

To plead our cause, our being and our place,

That all, no more chaotically hurled,

In all events Your ultimate Law may trace,

And meanwhile, keep and guard us by Your grace.

By ways hidden and clear

O may the time draw near

When all the world in Israel's name shall bless.

 

                                                                                    1994

 

 

 

 

OFF ZOLOFT AT 2:00 A.M.

 

Akathisiac,

the road cannot rest.

The cars go coursing along

with a whirr of tires

like the seething of blood

in my ears, through my brain, hopefully

washing out the smart solution

in which I've been pickling it. 

This time

I must choose them, the army

of little black ants with mandibles

dragging at muscle fibers, the impress

of a boot in the gut, the tears

squeezed through the lids like oil

from under the great stone of the olive press.

O cheshire grin of mental honeymoon

with the mind of a mad scientist, farewell!

I'm gliding out and down,

cold feet first,

into despair,

my element.

 

TO M.K., A MAGNIFICO OF METAPHOR

 

                                                            (part of a letter)

 

M., as you know, I lack the social graces;

I only have one face, and not two faces;

I find it easier to compose an epic

than to assume the manners of this epoch.

My message would sound gauche in a prose letter;

I found speaking my mind in verse went better.

Accept therefore the following verse epistle --

I hope you'll find in it more meat than gristle.

 

Before the labyrinth you stand,

And Ariadne's thread is in your hand.

You hesitate.  The crowd is at your back.

You pull the thread, take up the slack,

but it is turning into something else,

a rainbow scarf!  You don't believe, yourself,

how full it has become, how many-hued!

Now from the billowing folds you see protrude

a rabbit's head, an eagle's beak, the snout

of an agile grinning dwarf who tumbles out,

followed by Spanish dancers in a troop

and a small airplane flying loop-the-loop --

You've let out a whole circus, and the crowd

is cheering, oo-ing, ah-ing.  You feel proud

and at the same time just a little scared:

this revelry, that started at your word,

is it still under your control?

You see a witch peep out, a troll,

behind them other faces that appal.

Your hand drops, you stop pulling, and a pause

ensues, though soon filled up by wild applause

and cries of "More! More!" Then you espy

one who stands aside, casts a cold eye,

looks like the Queen of Spades.  She's saying, "Nu,

go in there, man; you've got a deed to do!"

You look where she is pointing, and the shapes

which you have conjured fade.  Before you gapes

the original aperture: black, still, and cold.

The Old Maid's voice is whispering, "Be bold;

you can do it, and it's there you'll win

the wand to make you master without sin,

like Gandalf, Merlin, Schmendrick at the last:

we need a white wizard, and we need him fast."

 

So far the play I've seen; I leave the sequel

to your imagination and decision;

if the shoe doesn't fit, by all means fling

it at my head.  Only, say something --

 

                                                                     1995(?)

 

 

 

ABSOLUTION

 

"Wisdom," she wept, "may wisdom come of this" --

Seeing heaven's hawk, whom she had sought to tame,

Food for time's crows, whose cawing gave her blame

For that she had not loosed the final jess

Of longing (nay! of soul's identity)

And left him wholly free.

 

O lady, those who overpardon treason,

They do but strive to lengthen out the chain

Lest, tautening, it tear the heart.  In vain:

That cord must twist, and strangle in due season.

Set was the trap; you had your part to play.

Ego absolvo te.

 

 

 

 

A STRANGE THING

 

In a season when my heart seemed dry

I thought about that moment, years ago,

when someone called me by my name, and I

 

could make no acknowledgment, although

I knew it came from one impelled to die:

pinned was I by whatever makes us slow

 

to answer, though we feel, the needy cry.

Things went with him as they were bound to go,

and ever afterward that muted cry

 

came back, accusing me.  Only just now

the thought occurs: did he perhaps descry

my silent grief; and did he mean to try

 

to say: I know?

A PHOTOGRAPH

 

Emerging from the office building out

onto the top floor of a parking ramp,

I looked into an illumined page of sky

framed by two dark vertical walls of buildings

and by a sill of roof, upon which stood

a dark antenna with two arms bent upward,

like an attenuated five-fingered

extinct menorah by Giacometti,

reaching as if to pull down a dark-gray

shade of cloud over a space of light

gold-green, an inexhaustible draught for the eye,

beneath which yet another swathe of cloud

lay like a shoreline with a line of rosy

breakers folding silently, far off,

in the light from a sun already sunk.

And the light caught upon the upper cloud

whose lower edge, sharp to first sight, then showed

mottled, stippled, crumbled to a fretting

of gold and rose-gold over turquoise-green.

And this reflected light upon the cloud

was gathered to a pillar in the middle,

just behind that grasping black antenna --

it shifted, while I stood there, to one side.

From time to time a pigeon flew, displaying

its wings against the all-dissolving light,

then perched or strutted on the roof again.

And from the beginning of the world this sight

was never seen until that very moment,

that space-time gem my sole eye apprehended,

nor shall creation's book again lie open

to this same page, until all time be closed.

 

 

 

 

HEALING CIRCLE

 

In the half-light of Jackie's living-room

we crowd into a circle, leaving open

the space where each of us will lie at length.

Yael unwraps a skein of scarlet yarn,

telling of how the women walk and wind

threads around Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem

where she lies waiting for her children's succor.

The yarn begins to travel round the circle

as one by one we grasp and pass it on,

an umbilical cord (says someone, and we laugh),

an artery, from which the new bright blood

flows from a heart, now beating, to each one;

invisible it flows beneath the words

of prayer and telling, as each one relates

their version of the story of our exile

in flesh that feels but its own wound alone,

in mind bound to the flesh, divided with it,

until the space within the circle fills

with the dark matter of our pain and fear.

Now, in the middle, one lies down full length,

becomes the body of our pain and fear,

becomes the body of our exiled wholeness,

on which the rest lay hands and cry to God

to heal him, her, us, all; and then arises,

another one becomes the one we pray for,

and when the central space again is empty,

we say the Kaddish, and at last let go.

Shall we divide the thread, give each a piece?

We keep it whole, and roll it in a box,

but from the same skein Yael cuts a length

for each of us to wear around our arm,

sensing each other sensing, as we move

along the separate pathways of our weeks,

that we stay roped together like mountaineers,

each of us made more fearless yet more careful

by this connecting thread, by this new life.

 

 

 

 

FREEDOM

 

in memory of John Clare

 

Oh what is human freedom in this world?

We are the creatures of our heritage,

The pattern from the genes at first unfurled,

Then worked on by the currents of the age.

Take from us air or water, heat or food,

And we return to dust from which we came;

Afflict a single nerve, and all the good

Life holds for us goes up in howling flame.

Our very reason hangs upon a thread

Within the brain, so easily unstrung;

And where the bards must labor for their bread

To Muzak's whine, their song remains unsung.

No cure there is, except to use the time

That still is given for reason and sweet rhyme.

 

 

 

 

AVIVA'S POEM

 

Like sand through the hourglass

Between parent and child

Love and insight pass.

 

 

 

 

SABBATICAL

 

This is the sabbath of our husbandry:

unrented pasture gone to rosy plumes,

moving toward us in soft turbulence,

wind-herded; matted here and there to deer-beds,

but pathless; angelica's green nimbus rising

from the creek-beds; fast-moving patterns

of fritillary clapping where the thistle

crowns itself king.  Warbler and finch motets,

the stream's more lengthy discourse. Not for long

will the earth get away with it; the bulldozers

rev themselves in the distance. But meanwhile

"So be it" sings from the tree.  The land has rest.

 

 

 

 

LIGHT GOING FROM THE HIGH FIELD

 

Amid the deepening blue,

flawless from rim to rim

of the circling horizon,

the radiance that was day contracts

into a golden apse.

In this Church of the Divine Absence

the evening star

is not there,

 

up there

 

FORGETTING HISTORY

 

They appear in the green shadows

like stars coming out:

  at first

I see only the red

unripe fruit, then the black ones

were there all along.

  As I move

among the canes, picking, something

scuffles close by.  My coming

has interfered.  And here

the vines are flattened, as if

a deer had lain down

perhaps?

     I am

one of the owners, the masters,

no longer in the secret.

                            Yet tonight

when I close my eyes, the black raspberries

will appear once more, on stems

fragile as the lines connecting

the stars that guided the tribes

before they named the Great Bear

and scattered. 

Like stars, these clusters

have led me forth

from the cities into which time

drove us: I can imagine

the grandmothers move beside me, picking

and gossiping, or singing, in their language

of which no word remains, unless a place-name --

"origin unknown."

   It is summer, the days

have just begun to shorten,

the cool bright sunlight that comes

after a berrymaking rain

falls through the leaves,

the hand reverts to a movement

reflexive as sucking.

 

I have all that I need.

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOOD TEACHER

 

for F.G., 35 years later

 

Fall in love with me, and never let me know it,

So that I fall in love with you, and dare not show it,

Then let us speak of song until we sing.

O rose without thorn! honeycomb without sting!

 

 

 

 

SALUTE

 

That heavy woman I saw --

she made you respect her

for carrying so much of the earth

with her.

 

 

 

 

AFTER THE WILD GEESE: A PHILOSOPHY

 

Alpha. They are leaving us, the companions of our soul.

One small flock of wild geese this year, soon over.

The whippoorwill now haunts the evening woods

in a meaning not intended: as the mute

memory of a voice.  The meadowlark --

shameful to confess, I took their song

so much for granted that I can't remember

how it sounded, nor recall the feeling

it gave; I only know its name was joy.

Shelley's left us his "Skylark."  But that poem

is so hard to get into, nowadays,

so easily picked apart, just as we've picked

the world apart, less beautiful this year,

in an autumn more than autumn that will last

through spring, when once again I'll count the missing.

It isn't that first robin that I dread

with dread like sirens tearing through all song.

Feeling can kill you.  Better stuff your ears

with wax, turn on the answering-machine

of irony, palter with form, talk tough,

think yourself cleverer than the elder bards

who had earth's unspoilt music in their ears;

easier still to cut the meaning-nerve,

block out the voice of poets altogether,

beget on speech obtuse monstrosities,

on intellect confusions with brass knuckles,

merge mind with meganetwork, and be done.

 

Beta. And if it happens, so what? Isn't earth's

whole ecosystem just one great big network,

each gene as selfish as a CEO?

Isn't blind war the father of all things,

including consciousness and visioned peace?

The dice-throw has no chance of cancelling Chance,

the back-thrown ripple won't reverse the stream;

the snake will get its tail into its mouth

and what will be will be what was before --

less beautiful in the eyes of the beholder,

but then there's no beholder anymore,

to make short what undoubtedly will be

a drawn-out painful tale.

Gamma.                                               Shall we curse God,

or make a god to curse, kicking the void

as if it were a chair that did us wrong,

kicking the earth, on which we stand to kick?

Someone once handed me a little black

box, with a lever sticking from the side;

you pressed the lever, and there came a whirring,

the lid came up, a hand came out and pressed

the lever, and the lid clapped shut again.

And so, with us, a mystery came out

and was, perhaps, meant to go back again --

why should we be ungrateful to the world?

Think of the primate's brain, the songbird's throat,

evolving through unnumbered ages toward

that apogee where mind and matter mate

freely, in recognition that's unquestioned,

unforced, and from their union springs Delight?

Perhaps that's all eternity intended

with the making of the world; and though the moment

passes, yet somewhere the joy remains.

Beta.  Meanwhile, god knows, there's work enough to do

to summarize an agonizing world,

although the summary must go unheard

what time the world-tree falls, amid the silence

of those vast gulfs.

Alpha.                          But till and during that

end, how live?  There's always Mallarmé's

written, and Celan's enacted end,

the freezing of oneself into a statue

like Vonnegut's protagonist.  Then you're out.

Gamma. The game goes on, and your elimination

has consequences in the game. Nobody's

really out, though some have given signs

-- from love, from furious irreverence --

and while we count them up, I guess they count,

and while our voices call to one another,

the universe is not quite dark and mute.

Alpha. The earth still breathes, and we are breathing with it,

our hand upon the testaments of joy,

reciting still, like an asthmatic prayer:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

 

                                                                         1994

 

 

 

DIRGE

 

So much of what made life good

In my lifetime has gone:

The whippoorwill from the wood,

The meadowlark from the rise,

The stars from the glare-blind skies,

Love's song from the lips of man.

 

 

 

[untitled]

 

Two birds were sitting on the wires.

The first one sang his little tune,

The other one then spoke his piece,

And this went on for quite some time.

 

Each one stuck to his tune, nor changed

A quaver for his friend's reply.

I've known some human dialogues

To which the aforesaid might apply.

 

 

 

 

 

A REPENTANCE

 

Two things have shown me where I went wrong,

And one was good Ruth Pitter’s song,

Ruth Pitter, gardener, stout and hale,

Not above a pint of ale

Or robust laughter at rude jest,

Yet careful of the tiniest

Nuance of summer, spring and fall,

Attentive to the mutest call,

Generous as the earth itself

And quite as innocent of pelf,

Aware of what the worst can do

And of our lesser foibles too,

A realist, yet visionary,

Refreshed with hope that cannot weary,

Cannot fail, because it springs

From love, not hate, of present things.

If I when young had learned her ways,

I might have shunned the cheeseless maze

Of intellectual pretention

And saved myself much strain and tension

And made the most of what was mine --

But she would not have me repine.

 

The other thing I have to tell

Occurred across from a hotel

Upon a sand bar that enclosed

Still water where the heron dozed,

Where ibises and egrets waded

And stately pelicans paraded.

I had come, upon my morning stroll

To where, across a glittering shoal,

Lagoon and gulf communicate,

And sea-birds like to congregate:

Skimmers with heavy lower bills

Went racing over watery hills,

Sandpipers skittered in and out,

Grey willets stood, as if in doubt,

With long curved beaks; I noticed three

Oystercatchers earnestly

Conferring at a rivulet;

In stately dance two herons met.

So many different kinds to see

Together, was a joy to me,

Nor did I have the wit of stone

To think the gladness mine alone.

Oh no!  all knew in their own way

The wonderfulness of the play;

By air and water, sun and sand,

I felt their beings with mine expand

In freedom, their right element,

To me but for a moment lent,

Who must return to servitude C

This truth for the first time I viewed.

Only a glimpse, but it has lasted.

Bred to vain mastery, I tasted

For once the fruit of Paradise --

May I remember and grow wise.

 

 

 

 


 

PRIMAVERA

 

Can you recall, or have you divined, my sister,

The times when we brought in the spring together

On an earth that did not change from year to year,

Or when we paced, you walking a little ahead,

Into the magnetized space of a poet's dream

To herald the return of the human spring?

 

It was in the dead of last winter, when the spring

Seemed far away, that you wept because of your sister

In that childhood in a bad postwar dream

Of a family that was never really together,

And you couldn't see much intimacy ahead

After her answer to your letter last year.

 

Estrangements widening from year to year;

In the middle, resentments always set to spring;

The need to cut your losses and move ahead;

The pain of having and not having a sister:

All made you want to cut the nerve altogether,

Seal off the room of an unproductive dream.

 

And then I come to you from a different dream

(Though no less the product of a bad year)

Of trying to put the people back together:

Does it feel as though someone is trying to spring

A joke, a trap on you? I'm not your sister

From that past.  Our kinship lies ahead

 

Or farther behind. I come to you with a head

Unbowed, still holding the unshattered dream

Of when friends honored friends with the name of sister,

With ceremonies measuring out the year,

Drawing up from the unpolluted spring

Waters of joy for all to drink together.

 

Just now, when you have so much to hold together,

There are all kinds of pressures to get ahead,

And there is always that touchy hidden spring

Of jealousy -- no one should ever dream

It won't spring up like the thistle, year after year

In the fields between brother and brother, sister and sister.

 

Still I think you're my long-sought sister. We'll get it together,

I hope, this coming year.  I see good times ahead

This winter, as we refashion the dream of spring.

CONFIGURATION IN BLACK AND WHITE AGATE

 

for Don

 

Man in the moon

That was hidden in stone,

By random hand

Unthinkingly drawn

Before the name

Of man was known,

Then the stone egg cracked

And the image shown

To my brother, who came

To fetch it down.

 

"Yin and Yang,"

My brother said.

But I: "There's an eye

That serves for a head,

And the legs are strangely

Elongated,

Twisted around,

Serpentine,

Like the walls in a laby-

rinth design

The Bushmen trace

On cliffs oversea

With sense arcane

Yet no mystery:

Emblem of matrix,

Emblem of man,

Who is both room

And denizen,

Who is the wall,

The key, the door,

Time out of mind

And forevermore."

 

                                                1994

 

 

 

SESTINA OF THE OCTOBER RAIN

 

There is that sound in the sound of rain outside

That bids me to speak, what time I wake in sorrow

Before dawn, for thinking of that lady

Whose servant I would be, though she is poor

And for many days I have had of her no sign

That she remembers me in her distant tower.

 

Long have I known she is prisoned in the tower

And those who would serve her must roam outside

To receive on their brows, as the sign

Of her favor, the tracings of stubborn sorrow,

Sole livery of those who love the poor

And keep faith with them and their constant lady.

 

In this time she has few who call her lady:

The powers and principalities do so tower

Over all, systematically making poor

All who by will or hap remain outside

Their dominion; their minions sneer at sorrow

And count it folly to believe a sign.

 

The scored serpent, that is their only sign.

They strenuously boast there is no lady

It cannot charm, no tort or sorrow

It cannot compensate, no lofty tower

Of troth it cannot throw down.  They sweep outside,

Mechanically, the refuse of the poor.

 

They have drawn from her even the hearts of the poor,

Who watch the strutting potentate's every sign,

Hypnotized by a glittering outside

Into spurning the counsel of the lady

And flocking round the foot of the dark tower,

As those whom fear and hunger rule more than sorrow.

 

For these in the early morning hours I sorrow,

And for many a one who dared be poor

Until a beam from the searchlight in the tower

Fell on them; then they fled, forgetting the sign

They had received, alleging fear that the lady

Would draw them, with arms of remorse, inside.

 

The rain outside is still.  I have spoken my sorrow.

Lady, remember me among your poor

And make my name a sign against the tower. 

                                                                                   1994

 

 

 

 

SABBATH SONG

 

From my cell on the infinite spreadsheet,

My address on the infinite grid,

I declare that a circle is ready

To welcome the banished and hid.

 

The circle exists if you draw it

And go in and stand in there too,

Proclaiming that if there's a law, it

Must shelter the I and the You.

 

Though Time keeps on scrolling, the Sabbath

Will come if we turn off the screen,

And Capital has to stop grabbing

In the hour when we welcome the Queen.

 

O tell me the name that will find you

In the matrix that is not a square,

The tokens and signs that remind you

To look up, to awaken and care.

 

From my cell on the infinite spreadsheet,

My address on the infinite grid,

I declare that a circle is ready

To welcome the banished and hid.

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD, DECEMBER 21

 

The light like some huge unfelt hand

Remolds a world from dark and glare,

A world with woods and snowy land

And fogs suspended in the air

Like boas of a sorceress

With woodsmoke’s grey outfloated tress.

 

Now, after signs for food and fuel,

An empty main street stretches wide:

A cemetery, then a school

With children standing round outside;

Snow and white clapboard wall absorb

Rose tinct from the low-lingering orb.

 

And now with the advancing day

We're swept into the freeway stream,

The rushing lanes, billboards' display

Still seem to grapple in a dream

With lowland fogs that creep abroad

And lay white arms across our road.

 

At last between dimmed paper mills

We glide, and down a mansioned street

Whose air a sulphurous vapor fills.

Perhaps -- who knows -- the scent is sweet

To those it tells of their own wealth,

Although not good for others' health.

We find the address, we do our stint

Before a group that does not warm

To hear of want's predicament,

Nor mind the pains we took to come.

It is the time, it is the place,

Or so we say as we retrace

 

Our road through darkness once again

Past signs that could be anywhere:

"Insty-Print," "Menards," "Jo-Ann

Fabrics."  Exhaustion, as we fare,

Loosens our tongues to thoughts unplaced

On the agenda of our days:

 

Strange dreams, and visits of the dead,

Our childhood's taste of heaven and hell,

Connections sought, connections fled,

Old books that bound us in a spell,

The fortunes of the state, in which

Are bound the fates of all and each.

 

How will it end, the enormous plot

That wraps the ball on which we roll,

Where each is but a pixel-dot

In the vast portrait of the whole?

Perhaps even with the threads we spin

In dark-bound speech, new turns begin.

 

                                                                   1994

 

 

 


 

NO PLACE TO STAND

 

For a woman alone the world is cold,

You've started thinking about getting old,

You work long hours for minimal pay,

And the prices keep rising day by day.

And there's no place to stand,

No one to lend a helping hand,

Just winds and shifting sand.

 

Ten years ago you had no fear,

You thought you were headed for a great career.

Love and inspiration set the world aglow,

So much to do, so much to know.

Now there's no place to stand . . .

 

You have seen the women who sleep in the street,

These are the women no one wants or needs.

You hear from the Third World that millions are dying,

When you think about it you feel like crying.

And there's no place to stand . . .

 

And now there's a man you think you might fit,

You keep hoping and hoping that he'll commit,

He says, "You're too serious, it's all a play,”

And when a sister calls he pulls you away.

And there's no place to stand . . .

 

Sister, I've been thinking again

About the holy women and the holy men

Who made poverty their sacred vow,

Knowing the spirit would help somehow.

They said G-d's our place to stand

And our G-d is a helping hand

Amid the winds and the shifting sand.

 

And brother, if you want the world to get better

You've got to learn to love a woman and let her

Be true to the spirit and true to the need

Of a world the spirit wants to house and feed,

For we've got to make a stand,

Got to join our helping hands,

We can't build on shifting sands.

 

 

 

 

THE TREE

(a Tu Bishvat prayer for 10 voices)

 

Keter/Ratzon (Crown/Will).

Within the Ein-Sof, the Infinite unknown,

quickens the Will that there should be a world,

purpose that is the Crown of all creation.

 

Chokhmah/Abba (Wisdom/Father).

Out of the Will burgeons the seed of Wisdom,

infinitesimal point, holding a vast

potential still unconscious of itself,

First-Father, whom we summon with the thought

of the Name too high and hidden for our breathing.

 

 

Binah/Imma/Teshuvah

(Understanding/Mother/Return).

From Wisdom's arcane point unfolds the matrix

Understanding, Mother of all things,

shape of all shapes united in one being,

Palace of the universe inscribed

with the name of the maker, Elohim;

soul's birthplace and the goal of all Returning,

from her emerge the seven lower spheres:

 

Hesed (Lovingkindness)

Lovingkindness, Generosity,

spring of Compassion that is always flowing,

impulse of abundance pouring forth

beyond all bounds.

 

Din/Gevurah (Judgment/Power).

Judgment, shadow of the Mother's structure,

Power that begins in self-restraint.

 

Tiferet (Beauty).

Beauty, synthesis of love and judgment,

balance of freedom and necessity,

Splendor of truth.

 

Netzach (Victory/Eternity).

Steadfastness rooted in Eternity.

 

Hod (Glory; Acknowledgment)

Glory springing from Acknowledgment,

vesture of recognition and acclaim.

Tzaddik/Yesod

(Righteous One; Foundation)

The Righteous Individual, Foundation

of the world, lover and partner of --

 

Malkhut/Shekhinah

(Kingdom/Indwelling Presence).

Shekhinah, holiness of the Creation

with highest purpose crowned, Presence among us

in the Community, upon the Earth.

 

All.

Ten primal Numbers of the universe,

ten Spheres of energy, ten waves of thought,

ten fiery blossoms on one holy tree,

ten limbs of the mystic form of human being.

G-d who are One in all Your varying shapes,

plant this tree in our midst and in our hearts,

and make us fruitful in the coming year.

 

Note: Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (January-February), is the Jewish “New Year of the Trees.”  The Kabbalistic rabbis connected this with the “Tree” of the Sefirot.

 

 

 

 

ON A LENGTH OF RAYON CLOTH FROM INDONESIA

 

I see fire-filled crevasses that divide

Between the firmaments of unknown worlds.

I see despairing faces on the tide.

 

I see rayed suns, ringed planets, moons that ride

Horizons inexhaustibly unfurled.

I see fire-filled crevasses that divide

 

While rickrack bridges seek the other side,

Would grapple what the centrifuge has whirled.

I see despairing faces on the tide,

 

Mute protoplasmic entities that glide

Rapidly toward the edge where they are hurled

Into fire-filled crevasses that divide

 

This cloth, this aqua-umber-puce landslide

Of forms No-thought impetuously has willed.

I see despairing faces on the tide,

Mouths gaped open showing no inside,

Eyes that are bubbles bursting in the swirl --

I see!

          Fire-filled crevasses yawn, divide

Despairing faces racing with the tide.

 

                                                                        1995

 

*

 

RECONSTRUCTION

 

In times when violence and corruption threaten

To dissolve the world back to when it was not,

The poet still keeps faith with G-d's creation --

It is a mournful, yet a blessed lot.

 

The souls of all the multitudes that perished,

Of all who live coerced and compromised,

The shapes of lovely things no longer cherished,

The calls of birds missed from the emptying skies --

 

All in the listening mind convene, assemble,

Seeking themselves, seeking the world they lost,

Groping for kinship, striving to re-member

A wholeness where each thing once had its post,

 

Seeking a design -- perhaps of action, even.

The poet molds the vessel they command,

And fills it with their wine, and toward the living

Bears it with resolute though trembling hand.

 

Drink and behold: a sign, a flag that flutters

Over the stronghold of the heart, still free,

A new stone brought to the rebuilding structure,

A greening leaf on a renewing tree.

 

 

 

ELISHEVA TO MIRIAM

 

I knew you, my kinswoman,

by your step on the threshold

and because I had known you must come;

and I knew for whom you'd be weeping

because my attendants had heard something

and I had made them tell me.

The senses of age are faint,

but the heart of age, knowing much,

needs only faint cues.

So there is nothing wonderful in my knowing.

Not like that other time.

 

That day, when I looked from my window

down the wadi

and saw the grey donkey jerking slowly upward

with the cloaked form bent forward, its face hidden,

I knew who came -- you

and the one who came with you --

by the leaping of the one who dwelt in me

already quick with divination.

I was astonished then

at the joy that opened my mouth

to sing --

the joy that was in me, yet not mine.

 

But I was almost used to astonishment.

It had begun that day

when Zecharyah came back from Jerusalem

not speaking, dumbstruck, and bore

me down, and thrust into me

as if the seed were the word

he could no longer speak.

It had been years since we'd felt much desire;

our barrenness had planted

disappointment between us,

and we no longer talked much either --

the sages say a man shouldn't,

and he was very religious.  So was I.

He was a priest in Jerusalem, had that pride,

and I too was of priestly kin.

There was no one who wouldn't eat at my house,

there were always young brides to be settled,

children to be helped into the world,

the poor to be fed and clothed, the dead to be washed.

And he was a good husband in many ways:

never reproached me, could have taken

another wife, but did not.

It was a full life, except just

that hollowness at the core;

I filled it with resignation, but for him,

I guess, some sap of prayer must have risen there still,

though he was too worn out to believe in the answer,

at first, when it came.

 

And I, at first, did not want others to know.

I was ashamed --

not of pregnancy in middle age

but because the first thing I thought of

when I knew what was what

was the look I'd see on the faces

of the neighbors who had so enjoyed

pitying me, all these years,

and I knew, all of a sudden, how much I'd hated it

and how much I would enjoy seeing that look,

and I thought, I am not worthy.

 

Only you knew,

who had no way of knowing,

you with the greater miracle, the greater gift.

And the babe leapt in my womb, and I sang,

and I felt the joy within me becoming mine,

and blessing you, I too

became blessed.

And then you spoke:

"My soul magnifies the Lord" --

And it seems to me still

that the joy of that moment will last forever,

although it is no longer mine,

nor yours perhaps.

 

Well, all has turned out as it must,

no doubt.

We gave him the name "God-is-gracious,"

Zecharya and I, without speaking together.

And then he spoke.

From what he said, I saw that he believed

that through Yochanan our God would help his people

against their oppressors.

 

I had almost forgotten the oppressors,

living within a globe of light I saw

like dim shapes the thoughts of my silent husband

and now and then a shadow that seemed

like an intention of God,

but till he broke the silence, these things

had no names.

It was then the first misgiving

stole back into my heart,

the first sliver of fear,

though I said nothing.

 

Who knows for what our gifts are given us?

Yochanan was a beautiful child,

a beautiful boy and man,

tall, with flashing eyes and a passionate heart,

who could not believe God made the world to lie

beneath the boot-heel of the Romans,

their corrupt and lustful collaborators.

What could they have done, being what they were.

And what else could have happened to them, given

the world as it is.

When what happened, happened

three years ago, I was glad

that Zecharyah had died still clutching his fierce hope,

believing.  I do not know

if he could have learned to live, like me,

without belief.

I have

learned it, Miriam, as will you.  Your eyes

will get used to absence, as to darkness.

Then you'll see that something of the light

remains in little things:

a look not quite like his,

a saying that he would have laughed to hear

with the triumphant laugh of one who finds

a truth, or a fine blade that he can hone.

Things that aren't for us, and yet they are,

and that we see them, is the best in us.

And beyond that even, a tree, a weed,

even a stone by the road,

they speak to you, once you've known fruitfulness;

that stays.

What God meant by it, is another question.

Who knows what God means.  I see things ahead

that I don't like to speak of.

Miriam, our sons -- I think they won't

be forgotten.  What they were cannot

be killed so easily.  But it can be

distorted.  People will go on reshaping

what comes to them by grace into what they want

or think they need.  That is their way,

Miriam.  What they were to us, perhaps

a few will guess.  Perhaps a few will even

grasp, as much as we did,

the joy that moved us, then,

at that meeting, different from this one:

moved us and moved on and never stays

long enough for anyone to tell

what it is.   

 

 

 

 

SUPERFLUOUS PEOPLE

 

We are the superfluous people.

We are the unionized workers replaced by robots or slaves,

the secretaries ousted by computers.

We are the people of color, the over-50, the people with disabilities,

the ones who don't belong on the team.

We are the displaced homemakers,

the parentless children,

the partnerless parents,

the poets without readers,

the teachers without students,

the students who can't afford college,

the graduates who didn't get hired,

the scientists without grants,

the executives who got downsized.

 

Why is this?

Isn't there enough work to do in the world?

Aren't there enough stomachs to be filled,

enough limbs to be clothed,

enough babes to be rocked,

enough children and youth to be taught,

enough neighborhoods to be beautified,

enough trees to be planted,

enough fields to be tilled,

enough songs to be sung,

enough stories to be told,

enough riddles to be solved,

enough wounds to be healed,

enough houses and cities to be built right?

 

But the market does not ask these questions.

The market cannot ask what people need.

It can only ask what those who have the money

want.

Only community can ask

what people need.

 

And time may be short.

As slave labor replaces free,

as machines replace people,

as large corporations swallow up small ones

and cut their staffs

and buy up the press and the government,

I tell you Spaceship Earth is flying

with a shrinking crew,

a skeleton crew

with skeleton motives,

and the rest of us are not passengers.

We are ballast.

And we feel the moment edging closer

when we could be pushed off.

 

But let's keep our heads, my friends.

Let us put them together.

Together let us learn to ask the question

what we, the people, need.

 

We are the superfluous people.

Nobody needs us

except ourselves.

But if you'll say you need me

I'll say I need you.

And we can start.

 

                                      1995

 

 

 

MUTABILITY

 

All that seems constant in the affairs of men

Is but a sandbar in the stream of time:

Custom and place, and what was wisdom then,

Arts, now ridiculous, that were sublime,

Truths that appear self-evident no more,

Gifts hardly recognized until found missing,

Diseases grown to mock their ancient cure,

A crop of curses up from last year's blessing -

We lived and throve upon a flowery isle,

And lo! its bank is shelving day by day;

The little goods, the little faiths we pile

Against the cutting wave, are swept away;

Nothing we have that will bear clinging to

Save God, who constantly creates the world anew.

 

 

FORGIVENESS BEFORE SPRING

 

A white-winged hawk is wheeling in the sky

over stark branches, fields left bare and brown

by melting snow.  The sun, halfway to noon,

throws the winged shadow on the sandstone scarp.

The stream is free and has resumed its long

refrain heard through the season of the living

and afterward a while, as now.  How briefly

the grip of death is loosened from the land

age teaches us to know, time's lesson driven

home, again, again.  But let the crow be still,

the oriole once more alight and sing,

and I am ready to forget, remember,

and be again where light and life are all.

 

 

 

 

THE BREAD OF OUR EARLY YEARS

(a ceremony)

 

Here, in the space we have built with our words,

where my story is a stone

and your story is a stone,

in the temple of a common listening ear,

where your voice has echoed

and my voice has echoed,

we sit down now

and prepare to break bread.

 

This is the bread of my early years,

the dark rye, the roti, the tortilla, the pizza,

This is the bread from my mother's kitchen,

the pita, the matso, the corncake, the slice of Gardner's.

This is the bread I ate with my laughter among kin,

this is the bread I ate with my tears among strangers.

I break it for you.

Eat.

And yours too I will taste.

I will taste the tears you shed among strangers.

I will taste your laughter among kin.

I will smell the smells of your mother's kitchen.

I will feel the hunger of your early years.

 

In a vision I saw a great tree

with wide-spreading branches

And beneath the tree were many circles of humans

arranged in one great circle.

At the center of every circle

there was a fire on which they cooked their food,

a fire that warmed them and cheered them at night,

a fire to which they sang songs.

And every now and then, someone

would go out from one circle

and walk around the other circles,

with gifts of song and story and food,

listening to their songs and stories and eating of their food.

And all they ate was fruits of one tree.

And all knew this.

 

Therefore we bless, we ask a blessing

on all who share this food,

on the earth that brought it forth,

on all who labored that it might come to our mouths.

May what is sacred to you be honored by me,

may what is sacred to me be honored by you,

and may this be sacred.

 

 

 

 

FLUTE SONG

 

I have been a king upon the river Nile,

gliding in stately funeral barge downstream,

my limbs all linen-wound, and in my veins

an ichor that precluded pulse and breath;

and yet I was aware that in the prow

the spirit that had guided me, my ka,

stood and steered, and sang from time to time

with a voice like that which vessels make when wind

blows over them and they cannot but sigh.

And other barges moved upon the stream,

each with its passenger silent and supine,

its upright singing steersman, all whose voices

made up one instrument of many pipes

played on by one in desultory dream.

And thus through many a change of day and night

we glided on, till near the river mouth

we came to port.  I do not know what helpers

descended to the waterside, took up

each bier, conveyed it past the fertile land

to its predestined tomb and laid it down,

then sealed the entry-stone and went away.

Now each reposed amid the pictured walls

which to the unbreathed air rehearsed forever

the tale of all that each had been and done --

Yet not confined, for wakefulness had gone

into a talisman worn round the neck

of each one’s ka. And now the kas assembled

in silent conference, and took the way

back to the city which our death had emptied.

From shrine to shrine they moved, performing rites

to cleanse it of the plague. Somehow there were

new people in the city, and they lived,

yet they could see the kas and heed the signs

they gave.  So all was well within the city

for many ages yet, as from the breastplates

of our undying kas, we woke and watched.

 

 

 

 

 

A CANTO FOR MISS N.

 

We used to have our laughs about Miss N.:

With jutting chest, cream skin, long legs, she was

so obviously designed to capture men

 

and didn't care what ripples she might cause

by crossing those same long fantastic legs

while sitting on her desk.  Yet there were laws

 

she recognized.  Called "Wuthering Heights" the dregs,

its value system "skewed," which made no sense

to Beth and me in crinolined glad-rags,

 

garb of our snobbish 'fifties innocence

in love with the idea of such a passion

and loath to put a price upon romance.

 

By then I think she was already flashing

the diamond that declared her safe in port

(whereas our dreams of love were to come crashing).

 

How much she grasped of literary art

we used to doubt; yet when she taught we were

inspired; and it's to her I owe my start.

 

For one day I was moved to show to her

certain cramped lyrics based on nature scenes,

and she in turn was prompted to confer

 

with Miss N. of the senior English team,

an intellectual heavy.  Then to me

Miss N. brought down their verdict: "In your teens

 

you should bring out a volume.  Meanwhile, see

Dickinson and Millay, and also learn

from Untermeyer's great anthology."

 

You may imagine that I did not spurn

this good advice, but swallowed it as swift

as folk can seize on that for which they yearn.

 

Thus I became apprentice to the craft

of truth the Anchoress practiced all alone,

while with Millay I felt the gravestone lift

 

from off my throat, caught the ascending tone

of one who joins, at last, the audible choir,

who gives the greeting and is welcomed home

 

into that company which Untermeyer

assembles there, the lesser and the great,

Santayana with Yeats, and kind Ruth Pitter

 

with Hopkins and with Pound, whom well I hate

for that he was the enemy of all ruth,

and the power he served prevailed, so that too late

 

I came to join that party.  The mean-mouthed

detractors of Millay held the positions;

and where you can't tell your emotional truth

 

the way it wants to sound, the consolations

of feminism are cold.  Often to me

it's felt like part of the same inquisition.

 

Yes, curious things occur in “herstory,”

but enough; we all know this is hell.

Hypocrite reader! you, with power to be

 

witness or censor! Stop a moment, fill

a cup with kindness.  Drink with me a toast

to Dickinson and Millay, aye, and Teasdale,

 

to all the nameless whose sweet song is lost,

to those most truly tortured -- Plath, Celan --,

to Pushkin's and Akiba's holy ghosts,

 

to Shelley's hope for the race of wo-and-man

in the poetic word, that pits its strength

against the wheel, to the last; and to Miss N.

 

For, despite all the "doctors and the saints"

of high-toned evil, the belief she knew

something, has given me wind to go this length;

 

I've thought of her in bad and good times too.

May these years have afforded her the best.

I hope her skin stayed smooth, her man stayed true,

 

and many children rise and call her blest.

 

 

 

 

ON ATTENDING A PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S 'EROICA'

 

Enchanted in thine air benign and shrewd

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

If only I could hear it like Millay --

Is it because I cannot close my eyes

Or, shutting them, cannot quite exorcise

The spectre of that murdering popinjay

Who made a mess of Europe, paved the way

For worse and worst? I see a galvanized

Puppet on the podium organize

The dying; and it is too late to say

That some mirage of magnanimity

Betrayed him into celebrating might.

More musical, no doubt, I could take flight

And find the dustless sphere of harmony,

But being myself, in this place, now, I hear

Only the strains of triumph, too close, too clear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SELF-APPROBATION

 

At the last judgment’s bar I will cheerfully say:

“I have always admitted to liking Millay.”

 

 

 

A HUMBLE COIN OF PRAISE

 

Who ever could be bitter

while they can read Ruth Pitter?

 

 

 

FORWARD

 

Citizen, as you make your way along

the square that holds your Capitol, I pray you

pause at that corner where, within the frame

of a descending street, Mendota shines,

its waters glinting free to the far shore

under the summer sun.  Look outward, then

look up at me, who stand beside you there

in the image of a tall, majestic-robed

woman fixed forever in mid-stride,

one hand extended, raised, as if to give

a blessing even as it points the way,

the other holding to my side a banner --

almost superfluous, as I myself

am here the standard, yet by me protected.

For I have many names.  I am the form

by which men have depicted Liberty,

Justice, Wisdom, the Spirit of the Whole;

but here a woman sculpted me, to stand

for women's right and voice in government.

Yet, standing for myself, I stand no less

for all.  For where our voice is heard, there too

the poor are heard, the outcast, and the song

of truth may rise above the clash of power;

and where our form is reverenced, respect

keeps order in good will and fellowship.

Stand, Citizen, a little while, and gaze

into this stern aspiring countenance,

and seek for its reflection in your soul,

before I am hidden from the light of day

and in my place an emblem sit that would

be honorable were it in my presence,

but if it should displace me, would become

a badge of shame on government affixed.

Think on this, and relight the fire that would

have cast me in enduring bronze, to stand here,

not foe, but friend, to the guardians of the State

while me they honor, and my right defend.

 

 

 

 

HOME TOWN FUNERAL

 

They read it in the paper,

They heard it on the phone:

In the hospital on Tuesday

An elder has gone home.

Her kinfolk and her neighbors

And friends from years gone by

Came crowding to the funeral home

To say a last goodbye.

 

She never went to college,

She did not travel far,

She had her share of sorrows,

But they did not make her hard.

Her door was always open

For a neighbor or a friend --

With a coffee cup and a comfy joke

Pleasant hours with her they'd spend.

 

There were people at the service

Who had known her from the start

And travelled with her to the place

Where all good friends must part.

Now they sit around the living-room

Of her home for fifty years

Talking of old times and the rain outside,

Eating food they'd brought to share.

 

And we who have been wanderers

Upon the face of earth,

Who do not know a single soul

In the cities of our birth,

We have seen the world, we have made our play

For fortune and for fame,

To learn that what is cast away

Cannot be bought again.

ON A GIFT OF FLOWERS, FOLLOWED BY TWO BOOKS OF QUOTATIONS

 

for Don, Tammye, Jeremiah and Sarah

 

Among the things bards can desire

To keep up their internal fire,

A book with wisdom of the ages

Stored upon closely-printed pages,

Is excellent; to find two such,

Is like the manna, twice as much

Of which was given on Sabbath eve,

That on the Seventh all might leave

Their daily toil of gathering

To hear what higher spheres might sing.

Yet no less fair a gift were those

Flowers, purple, white and rose,

Which as the books’ mere herald came:

Like joys that do not ask for fame

They gladdened eyes and made their room

The vessel of their rare perfume.

Thus all that’s worth remembering

May from some heedless present spring;

Of moments lived for their own sake

Their choicest songs the poets make.

Thus, of what makes a poet’s heaven

The sign and substance you have given,

And shown me, too, the knowing heart

That chooses gifts with such rare art.

Therefore may all of you be blessed

With what to you is loveliest,

With happy days that leave behind

Memories that feed the mind

On honeydew through winter days

And win the soul to lasting praise.

 

 

 

AFTER EQUINOX

 

The summer clothes are put away

down in the basement and the dark.

Fall clothes make soberer display --

the summer clothes are put away.

The geese have risen. Yesterday

you heard their disappearing bark.

The summer clothes are put away

down in the basement and the dark.

MANDALA, MADISON

 

One Shabbat when I was clamped in mental unrest

from relating to those with whom my karma had bound me

a generation after the great destruction,

I went into the museum to watch the Tibetan monks

construct a mandala from grains of colored sand.

In the atrium a cordoned square, inside it

a square gray table where three or four monks were working --

it was almost finished, they were just doing the border.

With a conical silver tube, about the size

of the yad with which you point to the place in the Torah

but having a scoop on the large end, they'd scoop the sand

from plastic cups on a table outside the cordon,

then tilt it point down and with a small silver rod

rub a corrugated patch on the side of the tube,

making a slight rasping sound, setting up a vibration

so that the grains came out of the tube one by one

and they could fill in the intricate details

of the design.  They used bright primary colors,

I found the effect at first almost a bit garish,

the pictorial code of course was unfamiliar.

The monks were not chanting, you could ask them questions,

they were working matter-of-factly like any workmen,

but they didn't know much English, though one did say

the design was called "The Palace of the Five Deities."

A center, circular, with a lotus flower,

this, the monk said, represented the Buddha

(there was a long Sanskrit name I did not catch),

and around this, four wings in a similar arrangement

to the four wings round our Capitol rotunda.

Only that is gray stone whereas these were in strong bright colors,

one red, one green, one yellow, one white, they stood,

as the monk explained to me, for the four directions,

and probably for many things besides.

And the whole (this explanation was in the paper)

was intended as an exercise promoting

the enlightenment of all beings, to which this Buddha,

whose quality is compassion, is dedicated.

I stood there among a crowd of twenty or thirty

Madisonians, familiar types if not faces,

who formed a "rose of gazing" (that Rilke phrase

came to my mind) around the cordoned square,

and I thought of Dante's white celestial rose,

of the rose among thorns, the Shekhinah,

of Black Elk's four-rayed herb of Understanding,

and then of our coming Messiah, the son of David --

as the colors began to speak of light

I greatly desired "the enlightenment of all beings"

and would have liked to forget the sword of David.

But I saw that the monks (they seemed young) each wore a pin,

gold with dark red enamel, like their robes,

and the pins said:  "Students for a Free Tibet"

and history rushed back in like the dark of Mitsraim

and then I was Arjuna, poised at the edge of battle,

with the charioteer explaining why he must fight,

though I heard, as well, the dismal echo of history

to all such words, and to this no answer.  And yet

for a few hours the next day my heart was fortified,

I could meet the others with more compassion, less fear,

and heard the words, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord"

as a sympathetic chord from the harp of David.

By then the monks had swept the mandala up

(that the intricate work may not create more attachments

like our scriptures, our scripts, our past-patterns, my art?)

and thrown the sand, with chanting, into the lake --

I was not there to see it.  But now I pray

to the Jewel in the Lotus, to That which dwells in the Rose,

to the supernal Point whence the Rose is projected:

Hoka-hey!  Shalom!  Om!  Wherever You are:

gather us and establish us in compassion

and teach your seekers the just measure of struggle

for heart's fortress, the enlightenment of all beings,

the homelands of freedom, and the circle of the Earth.

 

                                                                                    1996

 

 

 

AE FITE SONG

 

Times are getting hard

And the world is getting harder;

Machines are getting smart,

So the people must get smarter.

If I can’t keep pace

What am I to do?

Will there be a place

For someone like you?

 

Living is a gift,

And each one is a giver;

Love can make no rift

In the flowing of its river.

Somehow we must find

The task for every hand,

The question for each mind,

A place for all to stand.

 

Look around you now –

Doesn’t everybody know it?

Only question’s how

Do we find the time to show it?

Let distraction cease,

Listen, think and speak –

Each one has a piece

Of the answer that we seek.

 

All of us are real,

And the rest is just illusion.

We can stop the wheel

If we wake up from confusion.

Be our labor blest,

Wise our song and play,

Calm our hours of rest,

Hope rise with each day.

 

 

 

 

THE FLOWERS OF EVIL

 

The flowers of evil burgeon bushily everywhere.

To find them you need not be clever.

The trick these days is to discover

A sprig of innocence here and there.

 

 

CLONE

 

From an adult, whom we suppose consenting,

yea, eager for an issue all its own --

not darkly mingled from unknown components

of self and other -- we extract a cell

and from that cell a core, which we implant

in someone's emptied egg, likewise supposed

consenting, from pure self-negating love

or need of cash.  The single-parent egg

is then ensconced within a womb (consenting --

see above).  In nine months (with controlled

nutrition and external stimuli)

out pops your man-made man.  Still immature,

and there are still some challenges ahead.

Historically, as you know, the infant's

development has been facilitated

by someone in the role of nurse or mammy;

such nurses carry various superstitions;

But what with television and computers,

with the experience of the primate lab

and, indeed, the modern day-care center,

we may with cautious optimism say

a virtual mammy is on the horizon.

We think the idea has unlimited

market potential.  Think of all the women

who'd swoon at the idea they could carry

a lifelike reproduction of their idol!

Think of the sports world betting on the futures

of stars reborn!  Think of the perfect work-force --

team players all!  Think of how many heirs,

exactly like himself, each robber-baron

would like to make!  Think of the wars those heirs

would generate -- a sonic boom in weapons!

And here the sky is literally the limit.

We'll make men fit to live in space, to breathe

canned air, and eat their own recycled dung --

nothing will be withheld from us that we

propose to do.  Someone there have a problem?

Whose image?  What's that -- poetry or something?

 

*

 

IN MEMORIAM MENACHEM FITTERMAN

 

He never told the same tale twice, although

He'd tell them by the dozen and the score,

On Sabbath noons nothing could stop the flow,

And he would still be talking at the door

Of things he'd had to witness and endure

From the moment when Abaddon's engine

Sucked him up in Poland, till the hour

It spat him forth from China; and between.

An Odyssey that never found a form

His talk was. I am left with just this sense

Of one vast story, moving, wider than the steppes,

And his eyes' gleam, like a candle in the storm.

That stream of speech has found the sea at last --

O Rabbi! we have heard you; may you rest.

 

 

 

 

TILL THE LAST

 

The flowers that her distant children send her

my mother always saves until the last

bud has opened palely and then faded

among dark greens and baby’s breath. 

                                                              I might

prefer to toss them while I can remember

the flash of the original display

without the bleached-out puce of ghostly lilies

interposing.  But she cannot bear

not to give such late and lesser things

their chance.

                       I look at these decayed arrangements

and see my life, from which the prides and joys

one by one have shriveled and been plucked,

but she would have me live it.  Till the last.

 

 

 

 

CENSORSHIP THEN AND NOW

 

The Victorians were not very free.

They were censored, unlike you and me.

Their lines had to rhyme,

Or at least to keep time,

And they could not use profanity.

 

Yet they were, with respect to a thing

Or two, on a much longer string:

Could be noble, judgmental,

Abstract, sentimental,

Archaic; could preach, teach and sing.

 

 

 

 

THE INTERNET

 

The Internet is very draining,

So many voices far and near

Arguing, coming on, complaining!

The Internet is very draining.

You don’t know if it’s clear or raining,

You live outside the atmosphere.

The Internet is very draining.

So many voices, far and near.

 

 

 

 

THE MISSING LETTER

 

I tried to write the Hebrew alphabet

The other day, and counted twenty-one.

What was the letter that I could not get?

At last it came to me: the missing one

Was Tzaddik!  That this sign of all could shun

My swift recall, consumes me with regret.

I could no more forget it than the sun;

Only, for now, it is too deeply set.

 

 

 

 

BEAR STATION

 

Up there where the sea before occluding

heaves a queasy blanket of white breccia,

the pine-trees hunch with seaward sides denuded,

the human populace hold out in wretched

prefab huts and trailers, and the bears

like glaciers that have picked up speed and purpose

come lumping over the tundra at the end

of that division of inclemency

which is, for want of warmer, given summer’s

name; and it is not good luck to stand,

even behind barred doors, where they may be

coming through. All which should not unnerve us

who generally have noted that life will

take what it can get.  Any terms at all.

 

 

 

PAINTED FEATHER

 

Thanks to a painted feather,

I can hear the song of the quetzal

beside the waterfall.

 

 

 

JOHN CLARE

 

John Clare! How did they let you get so far,

Or what harsh dice assigned you to this star?

 

Beside the hedge, through field and moor you strayed,

Catching the tunes your quiet voice replayed.

 

To you the world was not man’s stage alone:

The life of every creature was its own.

 

The wren that sheltered from the thunderstorm,

The sheep in winter huddling to keep warm,

 

The hissing badger’s brave but losing war,

The skulking dog unfed at gypsies’ fire,

 

To you were fellow-earthlings, and not game:

You had the hunter’s eye, but not his aim.

 

On morning’s dewy light and sunset’s wonders

You seemed to feed, oblivious of hunger,

 

Loving the earth that fed you ill, condemned

To cruel toil, and madness in the end.

 

“This threshing-floor that makes our kind so fierce”,

As Dante says, drew from you only tears.

 

John Clare, John Clare, how did you come so far,

Or what mischance assigned you to this star?

 

 

LOCKED PROBLEM

 

In the desk drawer

I found but these:

Keys without locks

And locks without keys.

 

What is it makes

The heart to freeze

About keys without locks

And locks without keys?

 

Never a night

Without a morn,

Seldom a rose

Without a thorn,

 

Never a peach

Without a stone,

Seldom a lecture

Without a yawn,

 

But plenty of rocks

Without any trees,

And lots of locks

Without any keys,

 

And many a foxhole

Without a fox,

And scads of keys

Without any locks.

 

Now go ask the prince

And go ask the page,

Go ask the fool

And go ask the sage,

 

Go ask the wicked,

Go ask the good,

The scholar, the preacher,

The witch in the wood,

 

The Man in the Moon

And the wind in the trees:

What is the reason                              

And purpose of these                         

Keys without locks                             

And locks without keys?

 

 

 

 

 

I always have been on the Internet.

Before they had the chips, the ISP’s,

I’ve always, always had you in my head.

 

Once for two hours I sat in jail, and read

the walls and bench, and scratched there, “Thoughts are free.”

I always have been on the Internet,

 

When I got up and when I went to bed,

Sitting at home or walking down the street,

I’ve always, always had you in my head,

 

I’ve heard your words and answered what you said,

known you were there although I could not see.

I always have been on the Internet.

 

That server can’t go down, though war and dread

sever our ties and slice the world in three.

I’ve always, always had you in my head

 

and you (unknowing?) stood me in good stead.

You’ve fought it, but we’re branches of one tree.

I always have been on the Internet.

I’ve always, always had you in my head.

 

 

 

 

TO THE MAN I SHOULD HAVE MARRIED

 

I'll always wonder, you know,

what happened to you.

 

Did you miss the flight to the city

where we were to meet,

maybe at the baggage claim

when the bags didn't come?

Or maybe you were to see me standing

beside the rent-a-car desk

and be struck by my pensive manner.

Was the flight canceled?

 

Did you have this dream of a dark woman

trying to speak to you in an unknown language,

did you remember her face

for a while anyway?

 

Did you run through three wives

of identical designer appearance,

did you fall in love with a man,

a guru,

a computer,

did you marry someone cute, submissive, efficient,

realize after 10 years you were bored

and start having affairs with your students,

retreat into work,

concentrate on the kids?

 

Could our paths have crossed at some point C

say at a party

where you were the star of the evening

and I was stuck in a corner

and afterwards you realized

you'd meant to come over and talk

and you thought another time?

 

I recall no such incident.

My minds still keeps projecting

scenarios where we meet.

Say I'm a volunteer at Hospice,

like Evangeline, and you're brought in

and our eyes meet and for one moment

we both know we existed,

 

if it still matters.

 

 

 

SPRING SONG

 

How sweet to the ear is the robin’s first song

In late March when the days just begin to be long,

When the air is still cold but the sun’s rays feel strong,

Then how sweet to the ear is the robin’s first song.

 

All the folk whom sad winter left weary and wan

And who thought that the dark days would never be done

Now rejoice to observe that the last snow is gone

And listen with pleasure to the robin’s first song.

 

As yet no green grassblade has shown in the lawn,

The fields and the waysides are barren and brown,

But hope springs in the heart when you wake in the dawn

To the clear gliding notes of the robin’s first song.

 

Oh soon the bright blossoms these bare boughs will throng

And summer will come, for which we all long,

But of all joys of nature the sweetest belong,

I sometimes believe, to the robin’s first song.

 

 

 

 

END OF THE TIGER LILIES

 

The tiger lilies' firefall is ended,

That for three-quarters of a moon or more,

Till finally doused by yesterday's downpour,

Had made the back edge of the garden splendid.

All but the topmost trumpets have surrendered.

Untidy blossoms, not one in a score

Symmetrical, made such a fine uproar

That summer’s doom appeared so long suspended.

 

We're moving now toward a foregone conclusion.

Dahlia centers try to cache the sun,

Marigolds' bitter scent foretells the close,

Zinnias carry on without illusion.

In synagogue the warning note is blown.

The catalogues come out with winter clothes.

 

 

 

 

SONNET IN SHAKY HANDWRITING

 

Things change shape in motion, Einstein says.

I, late a solid citizen of Here,

Am becoming goods in transit, the dear

Departed of the ones who stayed in place,

A visitation to those toward whom the race

Carries me, and to myself a mere

Hint of reflection in the window-mirror,

Successive landscapes’ thin if constant glaze.

 

But wasn’t this in fact always the case,

When one came to think of it, as no believer

In any thing that claimed a stable base,

Too conscious of the truth of road and river?

The moment of transition C a release,

A coming home to Nowhere and to Never.

WINTER GARDEN

 

My mother raises paperwhites within-

doors, now that snow has claimed the ground outside.

The bronze-clad bulbs on beds of pebbles ride,

each one sending up a single thin

finger, white-sheathed, then the blades’ twin green

clinging together while the sheath grows wide,

pregnant with the bud rising to divide

into six-seven stars. Paper-white.  Pristine.

 

Meanwhile the gray clouds make the snow appear

like newsprint.  Car tracks mark up its expanse

as headlines mar the peace of morningtide.

The scent is like a music that can hear

itself, only itself.  Narcotic.  Incense.

Pervading, intimating: these abide.

 

 

 

 

OLD MOON IN WINTER

 

Early one winter morning I looked to the eastern sky

Where the dawn was seeping upward through green and steely blue,

And beyond the leafless branches, on the hem of receding dark,

Hung the shape the old moon has when it returns to the new.

 

Worn to a sliver, it shone with a stronger clearer light

Than even the full moon gave.  And within, by a sheen

Like a globe of crystal held against a black velvet drape,

The obscured form of the moon was still to be seen.

 

The whole disc, lit with the fainter farther light

Of the unknowable stars, not the sun that makes up our days.

And I thought of you, diminished, diminishing, yet all

You ever were.  Shall I find you still in your darkest phase?

 

 

 


 

THE BARD LIADAN, OR PERHAPS ONE OF THE RISHIS, CONSIDERS THE INFORMATION OF A TIME-TRAVELER

 

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

-- Shakespeare.

 

Let me be certain I have understood you.

You tell me that you have no guilds of bards

pledged to convene and sing to one another

in sacred measures of what has transpired

between the full and dark, the dark and full,

each offering the fragments of their vision

until an image of the hour take shape,

which the most skilled then set before the people

to put them on their guard against the guileful

and rectify the laws and names of things?

That poets vie in speaking idle words,

promising nothing, making nothing happen?

That for their labors most have no reward

save to be printed on a page perused

by none, except their rivals studious

of the judge’s mind, that they too may be printed?

Ochone, the harp of concord thus untuned

and bardcraft made into a trade for fools!

It is the dark age you must live in surely,

the age our eldest bards foretold last solstice

in such a cold as no one could recall.

 

But, traveler, if you hear me, as I you,

And if your well of wit is not quite dry,

will you not now return and tell your comrades

the time has come to win word’s honor back,

reforge the canon and the sacred forms,

reconvene the counsels of the wise,

send forth your strongest voices to beseech

the people to return to reason’s measure?

The words of all who say so will be deeds,

worthy of space in the memory of the gods;

the rest is vanity, the trash of time

which time will sweep away.

 

 


 

STAR OF WONDER, STAR OF BLIGHT

 

Look to the eastern sky.  No need to point ‑‑

That point of light sheds radiance across

the moon and other stars.  That is no mere

material sun, made small by aeons' distance.

Out of some world of radiance and grace

this light is shed into our world to make it

the spouse of one who never will forsake it.

 

Look to the western sky.  What is that black

Speck?  Nothing that flies.  It is not moving.

Yet all our sky seems to be moving toward it,

light rushing toward, into, that spaceless hole.

Light earthly candles, or we shall not see.

What is this dream from which we cannot waken?

O G‑d, our G‑d, are we utterly forsaken?

 

*

 

IT’S NOT FAIR!

 

                                                Erblinde schon heut

                                                            -- Paul Celan

 

Sometimes it seems as if I’m going blind,

there is so little left that I can see.

The ads and most all programs on TV

are Trojan horses sent to trash the mind.

I don’t watch the damned thing, but try and find

a conversation anywhere that’s free

of fallout.  To the countryside you flee

along a gauntlet, sign- and billboard-lined.

 

Sometimes it seems the only place to go

is back in time.  But, going back, you know

how it came out, and why.  The roots were there.

It’s like what Dante said: after the end

there will be nothing left for the condemned

to think about.  I’m innocent!  It’s not fair!

 

A MISGIVING

 

I do not trust a grief that will not speak

in simple words, that can't forget itself

and revert, like the woman in childbed

finally screaming in Yiddish, to those formulas

we laugh at, old hat, till the day the old hats

land on us, and fit. What's grief for

if not to break us down to what we share

with the red-eyed man whose chair is the angle

between sidewalk and wall, the crimp-haired woman

leafing her book of inspirational verses

in the crackerbox house, the abandoned child

crooning to itself a dirge that will not interest

the vultures that will shortly strip its bones;

and what is poetry for if not to make

a sanctuary in the mind for these,

which if they could enter (and isn't it our business

to get them in?), they'd recognize their grief

laid out fine, in the right words

they couldn't reach, but that were there all along.

 

 

 

TRANSIT

 

Frozen in headlong plunge toward our pine-tree,

the green-white lentil in its trailing shroud

stands, as four thousand years ago it stood

above the wondering Sumerian crowd.

(And when you next look down, what will you see?)

 

My father edges out onto the drive

and gazes, leaning on four-legged cane,

but blindness at the center of his sight

swallows the portent; he goes back inside.

(And how long till his like are seen again?)

 

 

 

SUBTEXT

 

what I sing no one must hear

where I dwell no one must see

what I am no one must know

 

echo to my whisper, low

answer to my murmured “Dear”,

shadow,

                HENCE!

                            I know not thee!

 

 

 

COMMENCEMENT

 

Four years of drudgery allayed with drink

Have brought you, on this morning, to the brink

Of adult life, armed with the wisdom we,

The many-cuts-surviving faculty,

Have shown and taught, to wit: cover your rear;

See that your true designs do not appear;

Stick at nothing lest you lose your place;

If white stags cross your path, do not give chase.

But now medieval gowns and mortarboards

Move our deans to open their word-hoards,

And shining thoughts like ceremonial swords

Flash in their unused splendor, never aging,

To take the awkwardness off the occasion.

Yours is the world!  It’s come a bit unstuck,

But see what you can do with it.  Good luck!

 

MY MOTHER’S WAR

 

The spring after my parents wed,

They were still groom and bride,

Together they drove up to view

The New England countryside,

And all their brothers, two and two,

Came along for the ride.

 

My mother’s brothers, Rick and Hal,

And my father’s, Mike and Ron,

Gazed at the blossoming apple trees

Under the vernal sun,

And my mother gazed at them and thought:

All these beautiful young men!

 

Soon after that the war broke out.

My father stayed at home C

He was working for the government C

But the draft board’s notice came

To Hal and Rick and Mike and Ron,

And none came back the same, she said,

None came back the same.

 

 

 

FOR HADASSAH

 

About the summer solstice rite

where at the climax of the drum

full moon unclouded and came out

just when one struck a golden gong

 

you told me on the phone; and I

the black octagonal lacquered box

whose inlaid circle interlocks

two nacreous birds C one earth one sky C      

 

one hovering, one stretching up,

reversible, the self-same shape,

described for you.  We shall not save,

 

as it now appears, the world,

although each gave it her own whirl,

 

but still these gifts to see and give

 

MEDUSA

 

Medusa, whom the gods had put a curse on,

had a lot of people petrified.

She must have been a pretty awful person --

We’re told it was a punishment for pride.

 

But does it follow that she was from hell

Because she had a dire effect on the viewer?

Perhaps she was a nice girl and meant well;

It was just the way people reacted to her.

 

 

 

 

AFTER A DISCUSSION ON COMMUNITY THAT TURNED OUT TO BE ABOUT POETRY

 

                                for Iris M.

 

Iris, when we discussed that poem by Amichai

about standing before an Arab's shop on Yom Kippur,

you were the one who noticed that all those items --

the threads and the buttons and the snaps and the zippers and the buckles --

were things meant to connect, though the needed connection,

it seemed, could not be made.

 

Afterwards it occurred to me that the poet's wares --

the metaphors and the similes and the allusions

and the alliterations and the rhythms and the rhymes --

are also things that are meant to help connect,

though it often happens that the connection is cut off

and the poet ends up the most isolated of all.

 

But already at the meeting I thought of a poem I could send you,

a poem written long ago as a present for my mother

in place of an afghan I hadn't finished crocheting.

The mind goes on connecting, like the "noiseless patient spider" of  Whitman and Robert the Bruce,

and of course on the Shekhinah's loom the patterns are clear,

as the rainbow exists, whether or not it appears in the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A WARM, NEW AGE HUG, OR THE QUINTESSENCE OF QUALITY TIME

 

What cheeks my cheeks have pressed, what beards have brushed,

What streaks of alien lipstick graced my chin,

I have forgotten; it was all too rushed

For memorable exchanges to begin.

I think they’re trying to convey the sense

That, though their schedule’s full, they care for me,

So into greeting’s instant they condense

The stations of long-pleasuring amity.

Just think, my soul, what such a hug may hold:

What reels of talk, mundane and recondite,

Outdoors in summer, indoors when it’s cold,

Letters at noon, and phone calls in the night,

How much shared bread and wine and joy and pain --

All this you have at once, and you complain?

 

 

 

 

THE PICNIC OF THE QUIET FOLK

 

My kind brother, who sort of believes in God

and tries to find at least one thing each day

that he can praise, would have me write this poem

about the picnic of the quiet folk.

 

The livelier ones played volleyball, the others

sat beneath the tent with those who brought them,

glad of the sun outside, the breeze that came in,

uttering in sundry ways their satisfaction.

 

It wasn’t a conversation, since no one

felt bound to give an answer; yet it seemed

the contentment of one fell into the dream of the other,

 

expanded there, and surfaced after a while.

Across and around the lake, the stillness of trees --

There, too, exchange and growth, happening slowly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE MONARCH

 

While dancing on the grass

I saw a monarch pass,

Arrayed in robes of black and golden red.

I raised my net up high

Between him and the sky

And brought it down, and caught him in my net.

 

I closed the net and eyed

The captive wings with pride

That I had caught so beautiful a prey,

But it was grander yet

To open up the net

And see him flutter gladly on his way.

 

 

 

 

“RAGE, RAGE”

 

About old age, as I begin to guess:

It is not just the steepening of the stair,

it is not just the thickening of one’s glasses,

it is not just the thinning of one’s hair,

one’s friends, the changing of familiar scenes,

it is not just the receding of one’s era

into lang syne’s medley of hackneyed themes.

It rather is the tedium of knowing

too thoroughly one’s own inherent scheme.

One’s said one’s piece and might as well be going,

one has explored one’s bounds, paced off one’s cage,

one has perused, but cannot turn, the page.

That this must end, does not seem cause for rage.

 

 

 

 

CASE CLOSED

 

She always swore she would put up a fight.

She had for Death only the harshest names.

She lit the lamps while it was still daylight

So as not to forget when twilight came.

What happened then?  The usual:  she lived

To see one dead she had not loved enough,

To hear good faith and gentleness reviled

And the tone set by those who could talk tough.

One night when she had worked almost till dawn

She met a stranger halfway up the stair,

And though the door was shut and the bolt drawn

She did not act surprised to see him there.

“Edna Millay,” he said, “I’ve come for you.”

And she went with him without much ado.

 

 

 

 

Winter crows winter sun

How long have I yet to run

 

Frozen ground pallid sky

Is it marked where I shall lie

 

Snow-clad yew can you see

How the cup shall come to me

 

Withered weed winter grain

Shall my seed live again

 

 

 

 

TO THE SHEKHINAH AT WINTER SOLSTICE

 

Upon this day of darkness, Mother, may

Your image rise and shine in many minds

As the one metaphor of all our caring,

Sign of the being in which we must live.

 

Your image rises, shines in many minds.

Your light shines forth from one face to another.

Sign of the being in which we must live,

In your presence things fall into place.

 

Your light shines forth from one face to another.

Under your glance the ways of help appear.

In your presence things fall into place.

You organize our issues and concerns.

 

Under your glance the ways of help appear.

In your hands the things we do add up.

You organize our issues and concerns.

You are the map, the blueprint of our temple.

 

In your hands the things we do add up.

You are memory, storehouse of our good.

You are the map, the blueprint of our temple.

You are the meeting-place, the standing-ground.

 

You are memory, storehouse of our good.

You are mind’s integrity and purpose.

You are the meeting-place, the standing-ground,

Talisman of the freedom of the upright.

 

You are mind’s integrity and purpose.

You show us how to sift the laws and customs.

Talisman of the freedom of the upright,

Through you we know what we must hold inviolate.

 

You show us how to sift the laws and customs.

As the one metaphor of all our caring,

Soul of creation, our inviolate House,

Upon this day of darkness, Mother, rise.

 

 

 

 

SMALL CHANUKAH PRAYER

 

Keeper of the Eternal Light,

Show us what we have to fight

 

In our time and in our place.

Help us fight it with good grace

 

So that we may not destroy

The spring of peace, the root of joy.

 

These will flow and grow again

In summer sun, in vernal rain.

 

Strength and patience grant tonight,

Kindler of the Chanukah light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PANTOUM ON A LINE GIVEN BY MY MOTHER

 

The earth revolves and spins through space.

Nothing remains the same for long.

There was a garden in your face.

I felt a love I thought was strong.

 

Nothing remains the same for long.

Form suffers the attack of air.

I felt a love I thought was strong,

A tie I thought could never tear.

 

Form suffers the attack of air,

The eater is transformed to bread.

A tie I thought could never tear

In my hands is a phone gone dead.

 

The eater is transformed to bread,

The eager flesh breeds not its own.

In my hands is a phone gone dead.

Before me stands a face unknown.

 

The eager flesh breeds not its own,

The true word echoes out in lies.

Before me stands a face unknown,

I look into unseeing eyes.

 

The true word echoes out in lies,

Might bids the loyal friend forget.

I look into unseeing eyes,

Alone I bury my regret.

 

Might bids the loyal friend forget

There was a garden in your face.

Alone I bury my regret.

The earth revolves and spins through space.

 

 

 

 

THIS TIME OF YEAR AROUND JERUSALEM

 

This time of year around Jerusalem

the almond flowers, leaning into the hills,

each tree like a fragment of waterfall

dawn-suffused.  Anemones start to gem

the spaces between rocks hollowed like skulls

whose small accommodations are soon filled

by that rare guest, the Persian cyclamen.

 

And asphodel, that flower which the dead

have claimed, musters its tribes in the waste places,

its hexagrams rust-striped as if from traces

of old blood-feud or long-since-rusted blade.

But through the months of sullen winter days

dark with the pouring rain for which one prays

the almond flowers.  Keep watch for me, shaked.

 

Shaked is the Hebrew word for “almond.”  Its root is also the root of the verb meaning to wake, to be watchful (cf. Jeremiah 1:11-12).

 

*

 

BREUGHEL’S TOWER

                                             ....they were never wrong...

                                                                       Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”

 

And they were also right about this

tower mounting up at man’s command

-- at man’s command, but not under man’s control.

 

Someone, foreground left, acts in control:

in the corner there you can see the laborers grovel

before one crowned, accompanied, giving commands.

The sweep of his cloak from shoulder to ground makes a shape

that is almost the shape of the tower.

 

But in the middle ground bulks the tower,

its tiers backed by receding planes of countryside,

river, harbor and far-off sea-horizon.

A cloud hangs a familiar arm around the top.

Though the darker cloud at the left may be an immense

 

turned down thumb, the tower is so immense

that for a while you saw nothing else.

With earthen ramps still clinging to its sides

and timbered archways black as adits,

it surfaces out of the ground, Leviathan rising, earth, water

cascading off its sides, or like a tumor gathering

itself out of the flesh, drawing the nourishment

to itself through new vasculation: here, to the left,

beyond the dwarfed and darkening town snakes

an aqueduct; there, to the right,

under the tower’s shoulder the ships dock

and a raft of logs comes rowing,

and men work on the wharf unloading,

and carts toil upwards from wharf to ramp,

and everywhere you look, on the tower’s surface,

are ant-like configurations of labor,

men lifting, digging, pointing, hauling, walking

from one place to another, or maybe sitting

forgotten for a moment in a corner

with legs outstretched, staring into -- what?

 

And before this creature of his will, what

is the king?  Has this tower risen out of the earth

at the king’s command, or has the king risen

at the command of the tower?  Or did the earth

dream the king and the tower

and the eye that saw and the hand that showed

and the tongue

still trying to gather words to speak of this

 

 

 

 

CANZONE

 

Love said to me, “What trials shall we devise

For one who claims to love you faithfully?

For we have learned that trials in love must be,

Since love untried is like one who all day

Lies abed and takes no exercise.

What shall become of him, when suddenly

He hears the summons of necessity:

‘Arise, your love has need of deeds today’?

What shall he do, alas, what shall he say,

Rubbing eyes unaccustomed to the dawn,

While Pride (its sting by humble strains undrawn)

Prompts, as he feels his faint legs giving way

Like the weak wings of birdling far from fledged:

‘I never knew Love, nor aught ever pledged’?”

 

Then I to Love: “Lord of this life, shall I

Measure the strength of any other wight,

Meshed as he is in I know not what plight?

My own love’s strength and worth can I assay?

Can I, indeed, with certitude descry

Even my own necessity and right?

For that I would have need of heaven’s sight

And heaven’s balances, wherewith to weigh

Credit and debt.  How should I dare to lay

The course for any other, when I go

In my own course with stumbling steps and slow,

And often find that I have gone astray?

So I am blindfold in this nether sphere;

And shall I then be guide to others here?”

 

At this methought Love smiled (invisibly).

And as it were Love’s voice within me said,

“Not without reason do you fear to tread

Where all things change their names, and signs their sense,

In the no-man’s-land between the Me and Thee.

But as the Sabbath surges in to wed

Domains the weekday strife has limited,

So I may not abide in nonfeasance,

Seeing my labor is my recompense:

I keep not, save I hazard, all my stake.

The vision of the world that I would make

Gazes beyond the pale to pitch its tents

In just those reaches of uncertainty

On which I call you to walk forth with me.

 

“And therefore though you fear to give commands

Lest they be heard as love-of-rule’s caprice,

I bid you dread as much that cowardice

Which silently accepts false coin for true.

For he who rightly wills and understands

Must seek what will augment the loved one’s bliss,

Which if his own unaided thought should miss,

He will not make reminder cause for rue,

But hear his Higher Power’s voice through you

As through himself.  For such are holy friends

That each the other’s reach of sight extends,

And their concord appears in all they do.

The lover who from love’s behests cries free

Know not love; his love is vanity.

 

“And although much is hidden from your sight

Because another’s world you cannot see

Unless that other show it willingly,

Yet certain true and certain things you know:

That love in self-disclosure takes delight,

That rhyme and meter speak of constancy

And fortify the soul that would be free,

That one of upright mind will not be slow

By unfrequented paths of good to go,

To set his foot on My ascending stair

And gaze where truth and beauty shine most fair,

Though foul and false rage round him and below,

Nor shrink from scorn, but faithful witness bring

Wherever he may. -- Thus shall you say and sing.”

 

Shaked is the Hebrew word for “almond.”  Its root is also the root of the verb meaning to wake, to be watchful (cf. Jeremiah 1:11-12).

 

 

 

 

GRAIL CASTLE

 

Helen, I have forgotten her last name, lived on Meridian Street

in Seattle.  She had a face that looked like it was carved with an axe,

hefty frame, dyed black hair, Cockney accent, a husband Andy somewhere,

house full of gewgaws, lots of red: I remember a huge Spanish fan

splayed on the wall, an innocently obscene pastel plastic mushroom.

I was brought there by Stephanie, who had answered my ad for a room

which I'd placed not wanting to stay in a room where I had gone crazy.

Twenty or so, Montessori student, soft and pretty, played the flute,

she thought I could benefit by taking a "spiritual journey"

under Helen's guidance.  They had a circle of people who did this,

guided each other on these drugless trips, after a vision given

to one of their number on one of the islands some years before.

Helen had all this spiritual literature lying round the house --

to read it, you would think there was nothing but love in the universe.

Allegedly channeled, it was written not in prose but in word-floods --

naturally I couldn't buy either the philosophy or the style

and yet did not wholly trust the voice in me that said "Preposterous!",

having recently O.D.’d badly on the fruits of the well-known tree.

So I lay down in a darkened room in a tract house in Seattle

and she commenced to guide me on a journey, but I did not get far.

Ugly things came to meet me, and we did not know how to defeat them.

So I sat up and told her my dream of Anfortas glaring at me

in a vast kind of unlit space where there seemed to be no up or down.

Helen nodded her head wisely:  "You was astral-traveling with him."

She told me further that when a person commits suicide they fall

down to a very low level and cannot get up unless they drag

someone else down in their stead.  Anfortas, she thought, was trying this

with me.  He was very strong, I was not so strong, and if I let him

I would not be able to pull anyone else down; I'd just be stuck,

but if I resisted then I could help him, send him the light-bringers.

I thought this unfair to Anfortas; I thought he wanted me to live;

I remembered having read the word "light-bearers" in one of his poems.

Years later I heard that he wrote it under the influence of one

whom he ended up rejecting, as I did Helen.  Soon I moved out

and stayed out of touch until the next spring when, once more overmastered,

I returned to lie on the couch listening to the susurration

of the aquarium; it soothed, while Helen read me part of a letter

from Stephanie in England, who had seen me on one of her journeys

and seemed to know right where I was.  She and Helen were greatly concerned.

But I got up again, left.  Went home, to Madison, to Jerusalem

and back, still looking for a house that is not on Meridian Street

but was perhaps tangent there, as it has been elsewhere.  I seem to hear

from behind Anfortas a soft voice:  "We don't know, do we, what's valid"

-- where it is, the castle of all our failures, the heart's fortified place.

 

 

 

 

AFTER A PEACE VIGIL

 

1.

 

I don't really believe in those things,

but someone asked me and I went.

 

A sanctuary in the round,

circle of light above,

circle of chairs below,

in the middle, a raised platform,

an altar,

nine candles.

 

Someone sang an anti-war song,

someone lit the candles:

for the nine religions.

 

A Tibetan refugee with a kind face

chanted and translated words

from the Dalai Lama:

"Establish the noble generosity of divine friendship

among these objects of compassion..."

 

I looked round the circle

at the tired baffled faces

and a vision of the peace we are missing

rose between my shoulderblades:

 

a glacial valley whose immemorial quiet

the shouts of hunters

the trumpeting of mammoths

could only briefly stir.

 

Union?  We do not even like each other.

A kind hand would rescatter us

among places with no name

and set over us the merciful tooth of the tiger

instead of our own.

On the path to the parking lot,

again, what Dante said

about the giants that jut up

out of the deepest hell:

"for where cunning is joined to malice and great force

there is nothing humans can do."

 

2.

 

Nevertheless I would like to believe in peace,

In peace, the sacred stage for revelations,

The state of mind where things fall into place,

Where, like the stones in primitive calculation,

Thoughts let themselves be picked up and set down

By an unhurried and unerring hand,

And the result grows quietly as the dawn

Or as the pattern which the weaver planned.

 

Mathematicians doubtless know this best,

For nameless quantities are freed from strife,

Though war and commerce pounce upon the fruits.

Poets who rise above self-interest

Witness the play of names -- and their own life

Is often hostage for these absolutes.

 

 

 

 

JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA REPORTS TO HIS TEACHER, RABBAN GAMLIEL, AFTER PASSOVER 3793

 

Report me and my cause aright

To the unsatisfied.

                                Hamlet, Act V

To my master and teacher Gamliel,

may he live long and peacefully, Yosef,

his student and his servant, writes at starshine

after the set of Passover’s last sun

to say G-d granted us once more to keep

the festival according to its laws,

even, at times, with the joy befitting those

who serve the Eternal in the realm of time.

Moreover Heaven heard our prayers, and kept

revolt and bloodshed from the holy city.

The people have returned each to his place,

the soldiers’ hands hang slacker by their swords,

and we are spared till Shavuot at least;

but yet I cannot say that all is well.

That preacher from the Galilean hills

has gotten what he craved, apparently:

a martyr’s death, may Heaven avenge his blood.

The tale perhaps has come to you already

how five days previous to the feast he entered

the city, mounted on an ass’s back,

with its foal following, lest any miss

the allusion. -- Such a prophecy might well

have moved our teachers’ teachers to decree

that the prophetic voice had fallen silent

save for babblings given to fools and women. --

As if the word of G-d could be compelled

by acting of it out, like histrions

posturing on some stage the Hellenes build,

as children play at general and prince!

The ignorant carried palms before him, cried

“Save us!” as cry the Roman mobs to Caesar,

spread their thin cloaks for the donkey’s hooves to beat.

A century of troops, or so, were watching,

and watched, too, when outside the Temple walls

he overturned the tables of the changers.

The Zadokites, who as my teacher knows

profit by this trade, were not best pleased,

and doubtless the High Priest discussed the matter

with Pontius Pilate over wine that night.

Within the Temple, some few of your students

tried once more to bring the man to reason.

One thrust a coin into his face: “Whose image

is on the coin?”  He, never hesitating,

replied, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and

give God that which is God’s.” 

                                                    My master sees

his skill at speech.  No one could rival him

at turning logic with a glittering phrase.

He was a man who would not say: “I must.”

Such men are futureless.  Without surprise

we heard they came for him at midnight, after

the feast, while heavy sleep lay on the city.

 

Your servant cannot fathom what impelled him

to climb Golgotha, that dark afternoon

threatening with unseasonable rain.

They had him nailed up there, on that same tree

that’s borne so many teachers of our line,

and even then and there he made your servant

strive with anger.  “Forgive them, for they know

not what they do.”  How did he know that?  What

righteous man can plumb the wicked’s soul?

Nothing we know of them except their will

to power, which subdues us, and which God,

Whose ways are not our ways, has let prevail

in punishment for our revolt against

His everlasting law and blindness to

His truth.  Yet He has not abandoned us,

as many steadfast martyrs testify. --

But none is held to account for words he said

in pain.  He at the last gave up his spirit

to God, as befits a Jew, and he is dead.

Your servant gave him burial, as a deed

of kindness, also in some hope of soothing

his followers, and healing the division

which love and hate of this strange man have made

in Israel.  But our purposes, alas,

are brought to other ends than we designed;

vain is our wisdom!  Though the Romans set

a guard before the tomb, no doubt advised

by the High Priest -- he knows the ways of sects --

the body of the Nazarene was stolen

on the first night.  The guards were drugged, or bribed

-- who knows.  Your servant scarcely credited

that band of seeming moonstruck hangers-on

with so much cunning.  Some of them indeed

had it not: that poor wretch from Kriyot,

who hanged himself, after his master showed

he was but flesh.  The others . . . God alone

fathoms the depths where self-deception twines

itself around the wish to take in others!

These last few days, the streets have coursed with rumors

as the desert runs with freshets after rain. 

Two women first cried out that they had seen him,

and afterward the remnant of the band

that followed him from Galilee.  They say

that he is risen and prepares his coming

in strength, with all his Father’s heavenly host.

When this comes not to pass, what will they dream?

My master knows that folly is the serpent

which that Greek fable tells of: cut off one

head, two others burgeon in its place.

Nor is there peace among us.  Of the people

many are stirred, while of our brethren some

unwisely mock; his followers already

begin to say that we informed on him --

as if our information had been needed!

-- My master, pardon that your servant’s heart

feels not the joy of service well performed

to the Most High, but sorrow and foreboding

and too much grief perhaps for this one man

who, though he was a trouble to the wise,

out-Absaloming Absalom in high

presumption, yet there was a brightness round him

in which there seemed to be no room for Caesars

and all the sons of worthlessness they sway,

-- nor for our temporizing regulations,

the hedges and the fences that we build

to shelter in the shadow of that might.

‘Tis like those cities which my master too

has seen upon the clouds above the desert,

undispelled by the knowledge they are not.

O let your servant tell you that the sages

spoke truly, when they said that with one soul

destroyed, the whole world crumbles.  In the instant

when that man’s soul exhaled, there came a clap

of thunder -- rainless.  As they say -- a sign.

Your servant knows we are bidden not to heed

such signs, but to obey the Law as given

then, when we and G-d stood face to face,

and as interpreted by righteous sages,

each in his time, from his care that the people

should live and should not die.

                                                      May my dear master

forgive these aimless thoughts, set down without

fear they could trouble that long-proven calm

more than the wind sends ripples over rock --

that calm which, sorrow told, your servant’s heart

now feels returning.  Long is exile, dark,

and many monsters yet must plague time’s womb

before the apparition of the day

when G-d will shine His justice over all;

but the spring flowers are out, the young are courting,

the new lambs bleat, and prayer is in the heart.

Your servant hopes that the Tiberian waters

have done my master good, and that before

the Omer has been counted many days

our master’s face again will shine among us

as we retell the sayings of the fathers

and purify our hearts toward Shavuot,

feast of our first espousals with our G-d

and foretaste of the second, everlasting,

may it come speedily and in our day. 

 

 

Notes:

The Gospel accounts depict Joseph of Arimathea as, if anything, a Sadducee.  In this “pseudepigraphic” work I have taken the liberty of making him a Pharisee and placing in his mouth what a Pharisee might have said about the episode, given their values which were already those of rabbinic Judaism (including the belief that burial of the dead is an important form of charity).

Zadokites – “Sadducees”, the priestly aristocracy.  They controlled the Sanhedrin, and are generally thought to have collaborated with the Roman rulers, whereas the Pharisees tried for the most part to steer a middle course between collaboration and armed, and futile, revolt. 

The word “Hosanna (hoshi-ana)”, which the crowds called out to Jesus, means literally, “Save us.”

The “omer” -- literally, a sheaf of wheat -- is “counted” in the forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuot (a feast commemorating the giving of the Law on Sinai, and transformed in Christianity as “Pentecost”).  During the time between Passover and Shavuot it is today customary to read the “Sayings of the Fathers”, a collection of ethical maxims that was codified around 200 CE, but goes back as far as the early Second Temple period.

 

 

 

 

THE CRITIAD

 

Thou art just, critic, if I contend

With you; my very protest proves you right;

A barb must be well aimed if it offend,

And the most faults are shown to keenest sight.

Without your offices, well-meaning friend,

Who ever found his muse’s mouthings trite,

Or, balked by rhyme, withstood the urge to spirit

A clunker in, hoping no one would hear it?

 

But still, dear sir or madam, let me tell you

That criticism too has its temptations.

To price an item you should know its value;

When making your particular observations

A vision of the whole thing should impel you.

(Who would expect a sculptor to have patience

With any studio visitor who shows off

By saying, AStatue’s nice -- just knock that nose off@?)

 

There is the critic who seems hypnotized

By words, and will not even look for meaning;

All may be fair if it is well disguised,

Metaphor-gingerbread conceals all sinning,

A non-esthetic standard is despised,

Although the poem must submit to screening

Lest it conceal a moral anywhere --

For morals are the one thing he can’t bear.

And there’s the one -- or are these two the same --

Who cannot stand to hear another’s voice,

To see the world through someone else’s frame.

Each handshake is for him a pinching vice:

He shakes it off, then wields the sneer to shame

His fellow-readers out of kinder choice.

Touched, he hits back to hurt, and others fear --

Nothing more quickly spoils an atmosphere.

 

Then mark the wight -- though once again we may

Be dealing in degrees and in nuances --

Who fears her judgment may be led astray,

So to be on the safe side, quickly pounces

Once she has found a target in your say

At which to launch one of her stock responses,

Such as: “archaic”, “summary”, “didactic”,

And, to be sure, “cliché” -- a curious tactic.

 

Innumerable the little weeds that flower

Around the critic’s golden opportunity:

The flatterer, the envious, the coward

Here have leave to practice with impunity.

To own another’s worth is to yield power,

To know their pain is to cast off immunity:

These truths require some fortitude to face,

But fortitude’s not taught to MFA’s,

 

As far as I’ve been told or ever knew.

Hypocrite critique!  my semblable,

My sibling (for you are a poet too)!

Our words ring hollow in an empty hall,

The world notes little what we say or do,

We are quite unter uns.  Why should we kill

Each other off?  Unless you hope to get

A university position yet.

 

If so, just say so, and I will not mind

Your comments anymore.  I’ll know you must,

To pass the sieve, render yourself soul-blind

And concentrate on seeing shapes in dust;

Must cram your mouth with meal, must tightly bind

Your muse’s feet and keep her pinions trussed;

And doing thus, it follows naturally

That you will then expect the same of me.

 

But otherwise, I think we could relax.

I’ll let your oddities of diction go

If you’ll be gracious unto my syntax

And concentrate on seeing what I show,

And let me see you following my tracks

Of thought, or, if I’ve lost you, let me know.

“As if we were God’s spies” let us convene,

Debrief each other, and survey the scene.

 

Of course, if you discern where I could mend

A line or two (after you’ve understood it),

By all means tell me so; you won’t offend;

I hope none ever told me truth and rued it.

I wish we may converse as friend and friend,

Not giving way to subterfuge or rudeness --

This, though perhaps not fashionable, is art

Enough to occupy the mind and heart.

 

That last rhyme sounded -- horrors!  sentimental,

And not by chance.  I know that many feel

A poet should be torn from the parental

Bosom of sympathy -- that the ordeal

Of loveless criticism is essential;

But love’s the source of all that’s fresh and real,

And its denial helps, begging your pardon,

Like herbicide upon a growing garden.

 

No doubt love must encounter intellect,

But ought to find it helpmeet, and not foe:

The creator’s urge to chisel and perfect,

Which parents, friends and lovers also know,

Is not the stranger’s impulse to reject.

Those ancient forms which at least clearly show

The workmanship, afforded some protection

Against the hostile frivolous objection.

 

Now I have done; I find I cannot spin it

Any further -- my first modest whack

At the Don Juan stanza.  In a minute,

Critic, you shall have it, and no lack

Of faults I’m sure you’ll spot. I’ve left some in it

On purpose, so you’ll have at what to hack.

Even to those who will not dig for treasure

The generous bard provides a bit of pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

NOBILITY

 

A man called Noble told me how he came

To wear the ornament of that fair name.

The original form, it seems, was Knoblauch, or

“Garlic”.  He explained that in days of yore,

When gentiles handed out surnames to Jews,

For a small gift the clerk would let them choose

A pleasant name, like Blumenthal -- or else

Be named for grotesque objects and strong smells.

“Knoblauch,” as proof an ancestor defied

Unrightful power, was worn with bitter pride,

Until the Ellis Island scribe had trouble

With such a mouthful.  Scratched his head, wrote “Noble.”

So there you have a case of justice done.

It doesn’t happen, though, to everyone.

 

 

 

SOCIAL SECURITY

 

             Each one has a name

                                           --Zelda

 

Just as you need a Social Security number,

each person needs a poetic identity.

 

A name that is nothing like a number,

that ties us

to the uncountable.

A constellation of syllables that recall

whatever spoke to us

when we were alone.

 

A name by which we are called up

when courage is needed,

A name by which we can be held

to the promises of love.

 

A name like the pouch of charms

round the neck of the shaman,

like the box of small treasures

each child should have the right

to bring to school.

 

A name that weaves us

into the text

of a common life,

a life among kin.

 

And the poet should be the one

who goes 'round

giving names.

 

 

 

 

PAS DE DEUX

 

A formal poem is a pas de deux

Where the one partner, with all he requires

Is form; the other is the poet, you,

With your perceptions, memories, and desires;

Where each learns her capacity, and fires

The other on and on to ever-varied

Displays; but all is spoiled if either tires

Or lets himself be overwhelmed or carried.

 

And yet there are those lovely leans and lifts

Where mate on mate all will-lessly reclines

Or the balance of their strength more subtly shifts,

Those pauses eye to eye, where each divines

The other not as something in the way

But deepest self, and what she wanted most to say.

 

 

 

 

from A FEW GRAINS OF SALT

 

A sage one day set up a school

To make a wise man of a fool,

Who from that self-same day began

To make a fool of that wise man.

 

*

 

Blessed are the poets who steer clear of theory

And read their Keats and Shakespeare every day.

Poets, like children, learn by overhearing

The conversations of those who are greater than they.

 

*

 

You say you have matured.  But, oh my dear,

How much I’d rather have you “whine” than sneer.

 

*

 

There’s verse that spurs my Pegasus to war

Like the trumpet of a kindred animal,

And verse that makes me ask, “Am I, at all,

A poet? and what did I want to be one for?”

 

*

 

Those whom the inner ear does not advise

Are seldom helped when others criticize.

 

*

 

Does “Love your enemies” seem like a lot to ask?

To love those who love you may prove the harder task.

 

Love the evildoers, as the Gospel says you should,

But first be absolutely sure you love the good.

 

*

 

The righteous like to contemplate the sins that they abhor.

It would not please them if you really went and sinned no more.

 

The sinner’s pleasure in his act would forfeit half its savor

Without the thought of someone looking on it in disfavor.

 

*

 

[Retort to D.H.]

 

What’s wrong with those words I really can’t tell,

But those who employ them don’t often mean well.

 

*

 

[On the Editors of Poetry Magazines]

 

The ones who don’t know good from bad are best;

At least they print some good works with the rest.

 

*

 

ON FIRST READING “AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM” IN ITS ENTIRETY

 

Pope, in my youth I scorned your tutelage,

But now approach you with approaching age

To gaze (in verse as smooth as finest jade)

On my own best with better thoughts displayed.

 

 

 

 

MEDUSA REVISITED

 

For God’s sake have some pity on the woman.

She did the best she could, though only human.

 

She wed a man she meant to love and tend.

She would, if possible, have stayed his end.

 

She brought her children up the best she could.

The daughter ran off into the dark wood,

 

Hoping perhaps to find her father there.

She didn’t come back.  Perhaps she met a bear,

 

Perhaps she threw away her mother’s thread

Or trod upon her mother’s home-baked bread,

 

As everyone encouraged her to do,

Teachers, peers, that lady therapist too.

 

Whose fault was it?  We were all pretty dumb.

Spare a few roses for the mother’s tomb.

 

 

 

 

ECCENTRIC

 

What ARE we if not eccentric?  Crazy as a loon

we’re not; we know a hawk from a handsaw on the whole;

parading a lobster down the boulevard at high noon

may not be where it’s at.  But it’s an individual

pulse that drives us, the lub-dub of this one fist-shaped lump of muscle,

on which other patterns may be superimposed --

poetry, I would say, emerges from the tussle

between them.   It is not like a store-bought suit of clothes

cut to a standard measure and if it doesn’t fit you, tough.

Nor is it like a room fitted out by a decorator,

rather it is like a room where objects have accumulated, some earlier, some later,

all held together by being some one person’s stuff.

It follows that the first rule of criticism is: love

(with everything about them that you could not possibly have invented) your neighbor.

 

 

 

 

IMITATIO RETROGRADA

 

Love’s canon in reverse: he rears in fright,

Powerless not to fight the will he sees

Fluttering at the corners of his sight.

 

He hears the tread of men who come to seize

And bind him, in the thudding of his heart.

Girl, now is not the time for gifts that please:

 

Now everything that pleases forms a part

Of what he flees, in search of his own will.

Truth, reason fare no better here than art,

 

If these were ever separate.  If he still

Recalled what his will was, before you came...

But that to him is your most dreadful skill,

 

The fact that you’re so very much the same.

He found his own mind’s likeness in your mind;

But he must tear himself from your fate’s frame,

 

Though, since you have his eyes, he goes out blind.

 

 

 

 

A MAGNANIMOUS AND VISIONARY COMPANY

 

A magnanimous and visionary company

were moving along in the sunlight of Imagination,

spreading wings visible to the inner eye,

rich in pattern and involved in a richer pattern

that developed as they moved round one another

in gestures of acknowledgment and praise,

a Whole, ceaselessly evolving and each evolving within it.

 

But one there was among that company

who fell to wondering if his wings were the brightest.

For him it was not enough to be one among them,

he wanted to be First.  At that thought his wings darkened

and he shed his wings altogether and appeared among them

in the shape of a Boy who pulls wings off butterflies.

 

At this these all-colored peaceable omnisexual Beings

became murderers and murderees flashing to one another

scenes of mutilation and self-mutilation,

and the colors of their wings became blood-red, ash-white, char-black

and the Design of their movements fell into disarray

and the Wings fell off and strewed the ground with ashes

and the Boy who specialized in pulling wings off butterflies

(though not the all-colored Being he had been)

was wickedly satisfied

that the state of that Company now resembled the state of the world.

 

I tell the story as it has turned out so far;

but perhaps there was hope at some point,

if for instance when the villain’s wings changed color

that magnanimous and visionary Company had summoned the Courage

to recognize the signs and send him off

till his wings recovered their proper and healthful Hue.

 

 

 

 

ONE POET’S SMALL PRAYER

 

Oh Muse,

how will I do it?

You have given me such a soft voice

against all the brass bands of pretention.

 

But I will not despair.

On the busy road the other day

how loud one robin sounded

above the traffic’s roar.

 

 

 

 


 

THE KAKISTOCRATS

                                        One sinner will destroy much good.

                                                                                 – Proverbs

                                               

Poets whose Skill avails them naught to make,

Or not enough, that they could rightly take

Preeminence among peers, and get a Name

(Though in these days most dubious is Fame,

When every unhung Villain boasts his deed

And a besotted Public buys his screed) --

Such bards, who cannot make themselves content

Fitly to praise such good as Heaven hath sent

And blame like honest folk the wrong they see,

Do in their poems practice Villainy.

Whenever they find no Rime, or Metaphor,

They catch the reader’s eye with glimpse of Gore,

Then foul Pollutions in his ear they pour

Until his thought conceives the good no more.

To make good Verse, and show a better way,

The skilled may strain and labor many a day,

But to make mischief and lead folk astray

One Fool can do, in the time it takes to say.

But for this not one, but all are to blame

Who do not hiss at ill, and cry For Shame.

 

 

 

 

THE SIGH OF THE SPHINX

 

Oedipus always has to kill the Sphinx

on his way toward power he will rue.

The murmur of “You know not what you do”

he will not hear till later.  Now he thinks

he’s rid the countryside of a foul jinx --

On to the rest!  From ancient plays no clue

(the costumes and the set are always new)

till from plague-mouths again the riddle stinks.

 

All history is this recurring dream.

The world’s designed that way, though it may seem

painful and uninstructive.  In the end

it all comes down to chemistry.  But still

the roads are laid, Oedipus crests the hill,

the Sphinx comes forth, hoping to find a friend.

 

 

BUILDING

 

Imagining a luminous order of voices

While around you the whole shebang is falling to pieces,

 

Joining word unto word till they make a line

While dodging the various projectiles that come flying,

 

Laying line upon line till they make a poem

While the wrecking ball crashes into the wall of your home,

 

Placing poem beside poem till they seem

To mount up and mean, as in that dream

 

Where rainbow pastel butterflies bore aloft

And carried through the air an enormous wooden raft,

 

Or like those cells that converge and build to fruition,

A choirs’ choir, polypolyphonic, yet not without resolution:

 

For building is the only fortress still secure;

Building, you move toward an own-made future,

 

Though on the deck of a boat that is drifting down

Toward the drop.  Your eyes are to the Should-Have-Been,

The Precedent of Past.  To the Midnight Sun.

 

 

 

 

THE BEAUTIFUL TENNESSEE WALTZ

 

The duo-chinned dame in, it seemed, a wig

And silver muumuu stitched with leaves of gold

Swathing a form grown comfortably big,

Carefully nursed a cracked voice through the old

Song that no one else has ever sung

With voice like hers, nor yet in such a way

That, hearing, you’d forget how she when young

Could sigh herself into its air, convey

The loss of love, the loveliness of loss,

The leaning of desire, that lightly veers

So that with any motion we may toss

Away that after which our later years

Are labor lost ... Yet she could proudly show

Seven of eleven grandchildren in a row.

 

 

                        from the Russian of Osip Mandel’shtam

 

Telephone is crying in the flat,

Five rings, ten rings, fifteen – stops at that.

Now it sits there black and gloering –

Ach! nobody picked up on the ring.

 

That means: no one loves me anymore,

I’m offended, sniffle, I’m a bore.

Old men phones, to your receivers clinging,

You will understand why I am ringing!

 

 

 

 

NORWEGIAN STAVE CHURCH

 

Here is no temple rooted in the earth,

No columns chiseled from the living stone

To stand like trees of venerable girth

Around the sacred hearth, the augur’s drone.

No, this is like some raven that once landed

Bearing behests from a great southern king.

The northern folk have done as he commanded

And as they understood: have built this thing

To house the far-brought word, the far-brought light.

It is like a black ship readied for the sea,

As they knew how: logs pitched and fitted tight;

And those who in its belly bend the knee

Are oarsmen in an ark that has floated long

Without a sight of land, save in their song.

 

 

 

 

WITCHES’ KITCHEN

 

Cornice and counter, loft and curving wall

Are clad in textured plastic like the hide

Of some tough copper-colored animal.

An unclothed puce plush dummy sits astride

One of the half-walls that divide the stations,

Displaying leggy legs, pointing her toes

Amid a flock of crimson-bottled lotions.

The mirrored space through facing mirrors grows

And human figures too reduplicate

Ad infinitum, till one scarcely knows

The flesh from figment.

                                        Here we sit in state

And priestesses in solemn headdress wield

(Softly while country singers ululate)

The spells that keep us pleasing to this world.

 

 

 

 

edickinson@elysium.com

 

She would have loved the Internet.

I sense her leaning here

With chin upon my shoulder.

Her Eyes deep-seeing peer

 

Beyond the screen into a room

Where she has never been,

Yet to the chambers of her Brain

A Phrase conveys the scene.

 

At "Virtual Experience"

She looks exceeding Sly --

And wonders softly  -- what they had

Supposed, of Poetry --

 

If you are in Antarctica

Or India, she regrets

She cannot send her Verse to you

With bread -- or Violets --

 

But such a Transport she must know --

With Minds all over Earth

Like Empyrean Seraphs --

In Lightnings -- to converse --

 

 

 

 

CORPSES CLOG THE LITMAGS

 

The soul is naked among enemies,

  And nowhere does it take more grievous wounds

    Than where "well-meaning" poets hack away

      At one another's poems.  Merciless

 

As angels of the IRS, they pounce

  On any word that each deems not OK,

    Seldom standing still for long to guess

      At the moving shape on the poem's horizon

 

Or hear the word the poem cannot quite say.

  The poet, on his knees, starts to confess

    His errors as they're fingered one by one.

      Soon from his comrades' hands he takes the knife

 

And cuts the poem's tie to his own breath

  And does the rest of what the pack wants done.

    Its maker's eyes lit with thirst for its life-

      Blood are the last thing the poem sees.

 

The corpses clog the litmags by the ton.

 

 

 

 

HALF OF A CORRESPONDENCE, IN SONNET FORM, ON THE SONNET “THE FIRST LINE IS THE HARDEST”

 

The First Line Is the Hardest

 

What's new? I work a day-job, and compose

a sonnet every weekday.  It is not

that difficult. There is a kind of spot

your have to let the mind find, a pause

where the gravities can come to equipoise,

a wide white silence, a minute black dot

which any number of elephants of thought

can balance on.  From there on in it flows,

 

or at least the problem has been framed:

mind's journeymen then make the pieces fit.

And what's the good of all that? you may say.

Call it something like a balance-sheet

for soul's accounts.  A pastime for the condemned.

It keeps the little men in white away.

 

 

1.

Dear Peter, thanks for taking in good part

all that I said.  Though when it comes to youth,

I owned to seven hundred at the start,

and if you want the unembellished truth,

I have completed four-fifths of the span

the Bible grants to common humankind,

and it does not appear to backward scan

that I was ever really young in mind.

And can you not remember how we spelled,

huddled around a fire of mammoth-bones,

the other bards in epic tales that held

the folk entranced through winter?  Ancient ones,

do not, I think, need other ceremony

than these reciprocal gifts of wax and honey.

 

2.

My small screen showed me only your first sonnet,

and I in haste assumed that that was all,

and jingled out the above reflection on it.

Now I must prop my courage lest it fall:

Ten sonnets to my fifty blank-verse lines!

For fluency you’ve got me beat hands down.

More power to you! and above all, what fun!

I see, though, that with you I must take pains

to be exact, which probably is good

for me.  We didn’t agree to disagree,

it’s true, on the sestet.  I thought I would

just state a case this case recalled to me

and leave the merits of those lines in doubt;

but you came back to give another clout.

 

3.

For the record, then, the poem’s as it should be.

You want the sestet’s strategy the same

as the octave’s.  I don’t see how it could be;

we’re dealing with two stages of the game.

The octave’s leading up to the conception --

in the elephants you see it culminate;

the rest is just mechanics and reception,

a working-out of what’s determinate.

Didn’t you catch the linkage (rather neat)

between “mind’s journeymen” and “the little men

in white”? Or how the sonnet as “balance sheet

for soul’s accounts” adds one more dimension

to the prior “balancing” of elephants?

-- After the intuitive leap, the making-sense.

 

4.

But if you still don’t like it, that’s all right.

Poems -- I’m well acquainted with the fact --

are often fairest in their maker’s sight.

And likewise I would readily retract

as rash, any suggestion I could draw

conclusions on your work from that small sample;

my remarks were limited to what I saw.

The vision of that as-yet-unread ample

folder of yours, is what I’m angling for.

“Safe”, too, may be a word we understand

differently.  It’s evident that to score

off something powerful, can get you canned;

but words of love are often met with sneers,

and sometimes this awakens deeper fears.

 

5.

And that, to my mind, is the heart of the matter.

I hope that when my work is weighed at last

they’ll say I wrote neither to flout nor flatter

but to commend the things that I love best,

in the wild hope humankind might be persuaded

to spare them more.  The planetary fate

has chafed me since before the phrase grew jaded,

since I was ten or so, not just of late.

I have one work, The Consciousness of Earth,

some seven thousand blank-verse lines, self-published;

I’ve clever friends who think it of some worth,

although for market purposes it’s rubbish.

Earth was first seen from space in Dante’s dream --   [Par. XXII]

How could a poet today escape the theme?

 

6.

By the way, have you read Luigi Valli,

Il Linguaggio Segreto di Dante

e dei “Fedeli D’amore”?  He makes tally

various facts to argue that what haunted

the poet was no lady’s face but rather

the doctrine of a sect which, to elude

detection, coded in romantic blather

the reportage of mystic interludes.

The interesting thing about it, though,

was Valli’s quite convincing demonstration

that the sonnets of the Vita Nuova, so

puzzling, formed part of a conversation

in sonnet form among these poet friends --

that’s what I’d like to see us try again,

 

7.

not necessarily in sonnet form,

just so poets understand they’re talking,

so dialogue again becomes the norm

and we give up the foolish way of blocking

(see Harold Bloom) each other’s messages.

By “negative capability” I didn’t

mean you should be more “critical” but less!

-- should try to understand all that is hidden

before you say it should be otherwise.

If the poem speaks, after all, it doesn’t want       [Paul Celan, “Der Meridian”]

you to consider it for a speaking prize

or take the time to pick apart its accent;

but to be understood and understand,

as friend on life’s deep subjects speaks with friend.

 

8.

You ask for explanation of one passage.

Not knowing which link failed, I’m puzzled here,

but think that I meant something like the message

of Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence: fear

of losing some autonomy prevents us

from making common cause with fellow-bards

against the cultural pattern of word-deafness

that makes a poet’s life so bloody hard.

 

Listen: it’s hard to state one’s point of view

without the effect of scoring off the other;

please know that isn’t what I meant to do.

I do suspect the poems I’d like best

of yours, would be those you consider trite,

kitschy, academic and the rest;

but then, why grudge a sweet tooth its delight?

But anything that you may choose to share

will meet with kindly interest from

                                                          Esther.

 

 

 

 

 

"BRACH DODI"

 

Return, beloved, kindler

Of love in divided hearts,

Of fire on scattered altars,

Giver of hope, restorer of courage,

Reviver of compassion, regatherer

Of all that lies scattered in cold darkness.

 

Rebuild the temples

Of understanding where the faces

Of the faceless blossom again.

Bring back the time of singing,

Let song fly back to the throat

And wonder-working word to the tongue.

 

Unsealer of eyes, unstopper of ears, dilater of hearts,

Expander of minds, opener of doors --

Return, beloved, refocus

The human image, reorder

our lives in a life faithful

To You, our only One.

 

 

 

 

SESTINA IN MIRROR WRITING

                                                            for D. A.

 

I have lived my life in your word’s encircling shadow

Rising on all sides like a range of hills

Wherein my hopes must pasture on sparse grass,

For seldom do those hills grow truly green

Beneath the sky that like a blank gray stone

Seals the destiny of mortal woman.

 

I am not sure you were a friend to woman;

All your life you pursued a luminous shadow

You hoped to capture on tablets of stone.

Toward her you climbed imaginary hills

Clad above with a lucent profound green

Never found in earthly trees and grass.

 

I too, perhaps by virtue of a strange grass,

Beheld once a shape that seemed more than woman

Pacing toward me over a carpet of green

Through gentling mists that served instead of shadow.

The place was level, there were no hills,

Though reached by climbing up a stair of stone.

 

For the telling of which, folk tend to stone

Me.  I am trodden underfoot like grass,

And though I climb a thousand glass hills,

At the top I am still the extra woman:

I am the one who looks on from the shadow

At all the tournaments of gold and green.

I must be grateful to have had one green

Age, likewise for the ring with the false stone

Betrothing me to your descendant shadow,

And for those earlier picnics on the grass

Broken up by the thunder that on woman

Seems always trained from somewhere in the hills.

 

But after all, this tale is old as the hills.

My own writ tells me, “Your eye is green