CONSTANCE ROWELL MASTORES
Constance Rowell Mastores lives in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in The Lyric, The Blue Unicorn, Rattapallax, and many other poetry journals. She has been a contributor to The Neovictorian/Cochlea and The Deronda Review since 1996.
photograph: Elio de Pisa
Paris:1957 In the Beginning Midnight Clear Toward
a Windless Autumn After Twenty Years
"Shalom," says the crumpled man
in six different versions. Even
But mine is tattooed onto my scalp
on the rue des Rosiers. The market's
IN THE BEGINNING
He does not write to her --
Forgive him for
These are the diseased
TOWARD A WINDLESS AUTUMN
The leaves grow tired
buffeted by shifts and pulls,
the tidal winds
that blow as if the ocean’s emptying
or just plain disappearing.
Who can say.
As if muttering in a saggy mood
she says: “Your soup is growing cold.”
Would that be any different?
Such tiny absences.
No one there to eat it.
AFTER TWENTY YEARS
There is nothing I can do to bridge
his black foulard knotted like a hangman's
in dreams - Ich bin verrückt. Shalom! Ich bin
passageway in Venice's deserted ghetto,
the twisted charm of a De Chirico,
coming back to haunt the last;
foulard knotted over the haggard eye.
lurch toward him or his toward mine?
BOY IN THE GREENERY WAITING
He is more shy than the leaves that clothe him,
Who will find him if he dares not wish to meet them?
He was more tree than flesh. . .or flesh than tree -
by those whose senses hunt for weakness;
Differences, once sought, are less sought now,
Or one conversation. About dinner and guests.
Lists on the kitchen counter, on the breakfast table.
But what's it serve to argue differences,
Taken off into the
with the unmistakable track
These gorgeous holes of blue
the breakup of clouds
but not up here
in the radiance
meanwhile I dance and
how beautiful, this moon pool,
A bandtail pigeon perches
He is the only bird
He finds himself
Only the diminishing
And when he is ready,
LEARNING TO LOOK AT WINTER
I had to learn to make sense of you before I began,
Now I know the names of Betelgeuse and Rigel.
And the breath I drew was cold as wind on snow, and as fresh
Now that I am realigned and have eclipsed that distant other,
GOATS AT DUSK ON A HILLSIDE
They prepare to bed themselves down,
Have you ever seen those cheap tapestries depicting
The herd grows listless in its milling. One by one
The Pharaoh's kohl-dark eyes.
Can you tell me that the kneeling down of goats
What makes me want to press that and this into memory? To lift
CONSIDERATIONS AT DUSK
Exceptions have so ruled
This Dante knew who heard
At times we need to hear
Francesca's ancient grief
TO MY GRANDMOTHER IN DARKNESS
Now tired eyes must rest
Fears of solitary
If eyes see no kind lies
Our worrisome debates
My love, my younger years,
To earn your past, pay fee,
Quiet darkness shivers
Behavior in the past.
To trust appear and claim
I too will come to this:
May darkness teach us faith
Of crocus, I say, pick out the purple-white
the ones with sumptuous gold stamens topped
of pure spring -- albeit brief this push toward
So low they sit, uncharacteristically wealthy.
peering at them, focused entirely, wondering
this flowery, mutable design, detailed
in its hard-to-grasp purple-white-yellow-orange
unsigned now, closed down by the full moon
and beyond, so far beyond, that if you think too much
is the colossal war. Gaze instead upon the moon,
Tomorrow we'll peer into the fuse of time.
MEDIEVAL SPECULATIONS ON A NAME
I, whose name is Constancy, have borne
With you, though hardly in my own, I never
Impassive, almost wise,
to do with Time that always has preferred
CHOPIN BETWEEN SISTERS
Ah, yes, we did sit
Being older, she played better
Later, grown old,
until her operation,
So much to make up for,
ON THE WAY TO THE NEUROLOGICAL HOSPITAL
First on required list: Teddy Bear.
MOTHER TERESA QUIETLY TURNS 87
Harmony, perhaps, or interwoven soulfulness,
Phrygian. Greek. A Muezzin's call
How wonderful and absurd this melodious waking
And then these newcomers, a song bird,
amid such misery
we always expected it --
these wings --
Stayed up all night for no reason. Watched
acting, talking. Jigsaw puzzle not yet
bold beyond belief -- yes, that's it, beyond
Henry Fonda, like God, has done his work.
HORSES OF THE NIGHT
This long unsheathing like
It brushes along
Soft buzz, soft hum,
Last night a vixen
Today a quiet world,
the snap of poppies
A simple coffin of plain wood will do quite well.
Later, we congratulate ourselves
At Elmwood Cemetery, under a mauve
Back at the house after the funeral dinner,
WILLOW ON LAKE MICHIGAN
Tonight, as I brood under the ancient willow,
PHOTOGRAPHING PIGEONS AT DUSK
The pigeons are everywhere --
changed our sense of it: the greens
more irrational. The pigeons layer
against everything I know: hills,
I like the wild formality,
by the roadside, watercress
its muted foliage rustling
Island of umbrellas. Yet soon
strewn with shell; in browns
stretches; left to themselves
as they shift about. Pelicans,
EL COLOR DE LA MUERTE
The color of death is in a rainbow,
It is a rumpled sheet, a hollowed pillow,
It is in the seeds you gave me at your wedding --
dangling from the crib of heaven --
I used to think I would dress myself
These stunted misbegotten trees
scorned and scorning? No counterparts
Hold on, hold on. I, too, am stoical.
Among the small panting breaths,
The light-flood is billowing through gusts
rebellious, unwilling to concede! I speak,
SPRING'S FRENCH ACADEMY
Leaves glint in the early wind.
I can smell eucalyptus
The brighter flowers
breathing its moist flowery air.
from around the daffodil
for the plucking
so the solitary ones
I don't know yet, but just looking helps.
A gaze following as I write. Someone
One ruined look....his work so near completion
One chapter more and I am done.
Branches flowering, lyre a limb
Best not to look back.
His will was yet unstructured
Although one must.
Could she move weightlessly
If only to make sure.
Her steps become the air, the light,
That the one following is not out to get you.
Looking back he saw no other footsteps but his own
Someone with death on her mind.
No longer felt the touch of silver sand
So scary it must be broken.
THE WIDENESS AND BRIGHTNESS OF WINTER
The sun is leached of all impurity,
Windows of the house, any house,
The morning crisp and virginal
Oh praise the Lord!
But would the Lord be lucidly etched
Everything in focus, photographed
through a Leica lens
even to the way the shy gray-greens of eucalyptus
Only the bay tree
of budding green
seems to cut the edge of purity
And now, just now,
the red squirrel
that keeps its eye on me
like the eye in a portrait
in a stale room that hopes for understanding
and follows you - what else to do? -
and sees each bone,
ALL OR NOTHING
The absence fled into what he had not
She hissed and buzzed at him,
whereas he was looking for a middle place -
without fiery wheels and ravenous stars -
from the universe zeroing in - eager
determined to have it all, all of the time.
What he wanted was to get out and then in.
to curl into - with no biting and pecking -
out - unless he was handed his hat, period -
IN PRAISE OF
For I will consider my neighbor Dorothy.
For she did not flinch though they filled her with poison.
* Farid Ud-din Attar was the 12th century Persian poet who wrote The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq Uttair)
SWARMING WITH HEISENBERG'S BEES
The bees I heard, but could not see,
until I stepped into their midst,
as they flew in flux in a wanderlust
without much fuss, into an observed
Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle postulates (in the Schrodinger interpretation) that a particle
doesn't have a single fixed location but a wave of possible positions until the wave is "collapsed"
into a singularity by observation.
Blackness into light,
transpositions across the sky
crossing the morning, morning
the universe and retreats;
when self explores its possibility,
into sanctuary, blueness,
afternoon, when self explores
It was when she said,
oh, you who weep so close to me,
that the page opened
leaves gathering, glance upon glance,
It was when she said,
that my heart opened
MY SISTER'S TRIPLE-CHAMBERED HEART
For Sharon Rowell, creator of the huaca: a clay
The forlorn sigh spreads over her as she lies dreaming
She wonders how to answer him, how she will love
How we each need the
and moon to earth; how each
deep space we've fallen into;
that icy reach that holds
It's a bland, tedious night.
A few stars puncturing
A poem here, a poem there,
like a senseless unity.
Come Havoc, destroy me!
into the heart of the no-heart,
WILLOW SONG* AMONG THE LEONIDS
Already the burning Pleiades descend into the ocean
from a grove of black poplars,
and soon the Leonids will streak across a sky
as birds fly down from dark branches
undo my hair, I pray you,
as the funeral song unveils itself, petal
at prayer, kneeling on silken folds,
the end burned into the
beginning and then out,
and the night grown terrible again
and then the song re-opened, petal upon petal -
the weeping willow shall be my garland,
the wind knocking at the door, at the whole sky,
*From Verdi's Otello.
YOU, WILLIAM DUNBAR
November nears and where the hour
of budding leaf, of quince and plum?
Flown with the bee that sipped each flower.
Yet still the fear of what to come,
the scuttling leaf, the dying sun,
the angst of loss and how to bear
the weakened state, the chilblain air,
as leaves, green sap withdrawn, release
their grasp and fall upon the layered
place of duff and rot and mast;
and still the fear of what is last,
the shriveled mind and shrunken past,
and then the corpse, the pall, the grave.
Timor mortis conturbat me.
WHERE THE SPIDER RUNS
Dark spider on the warm, dry earth – what sweet
surprise! It runs before me on a path
that winds uphill among the aromatic
residue of monkey flower, mullein
weed and sage. As yet no rain, but rain
expected. Or so they say. A few bleak clouds,
a few last husks of wild oat that hold
as a reminder. How bravely they persist.
The air grows gray and chill, and through the mist
the sun has turned to silver – poor ghost of itself
damned to dream through winter. Where now, dark spider?
Where now, warm earth and lush swarm of summer?
Look up! The sky is slate. A dark wood
where the way is broken. Even the birds are still.
A small hand on the tree
takes a branch and pushes
it a little--
one way and than this –
wind of the
world figuring itself out.
We are not
the only ones to know how
for Henry Vaughn
I would like to believe in the everyness
of things. In the universe and fiery stars.
In the warp-worlds. In the greater possibility
of that impossibility. In the huge seductiveness
burning outside my window. Every night
it winks at me. Every night, at odds, I stare at it
and write strange sentences on yellow tablets
that create their own kind of haphazard universe
upon the table. I read them like a Rorschach test.
I see windmills. I tilt at them. I tilt at the universe
burning outside my window, dare it to make me
believe, to walk right up to me and announce
itself – shake me by the shoulder. There is
in God, some say, a deep, but dazzling darkness.
If the deer that nap in the shade
of the magnolia
are beautiful to me,
they are no longer beautiful to her;
nor the velvet antlered buck
that stands on its hind legs
and samples from the apple tree;
nor the bluejay that still pecks
at the kitchen window
and tries to woo her back
with lovelorn eyes.
I have never seen such eyes
in a bird before, never heard such tender speech.
Yet, if I take her by the shoulders
to turn her gently
towards the window,
she will do her best to slip away.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES: THE EUMENIDES
That poor old wing
having a heave-ho of itself .
And I, too, having the same heave-ho
in the ho of the wing.
The edge of myself
in her broken wing.
Even in my right mind,
death is not an easy issue,
Durable Power of Attorney
coming out from my mouth as Durable Power
in a slip of the tongue.
Mom, what do you want? Bodily parts?
Whole corpse? Creation?
She stares at me. Incredulous.
We embrace in laughter .
(Mother, please let go)
Like that old gray mare
the sky ain't what she used to be. . .
a little sallow, a little dry.
Until clouds on a spree come rolling in
and surround a bird high on a tree
reciting its melismatic text.
The sky leans in a little,
roused, if roused is what to call
this salute to clouds gathering
around a bird in a tree.
And then, because of wooing winds
and a blackbird singing
in the leafy tongue of a tree,
the sky throws off its dullard self,
assumes the mantle of heaven,
and spring, ludicrous, all honey and bees
and tournament of roses
rings in the blue and spacious plenty.
From a window parted on the world...
that lovely receding....orange
melting into mauve...into violet evening.
Towhees and grosbeaks at rest, at last.
All day they sang obsessively. As if their life
depended on success in love...and I remember
a lovely song that scratched its way across
the needle of an old Victrola.
I was young and curled my hair. I wore
a skirt that day and a matching cashmere sweater.
Is this what it’s like to grow old?
To not remember the word for a wild hillside flower?
Or young again? Seeing before
there’s a name to see with? Purple blossoms
toppling into dusk, into shady curvaceous
evening. Doves settling. Towhees
and grosbeaks, wing-wrapped, drowsing
to the last few notes of song.
In Paris, a young debonair cranks up his Victrola
and a tune circles its way across the floor.
The music is tender and aches with love...
His plumage?...Slick black shoes,
striped suit, maroon and silver tie...
Eyes?...Green and flecked with gold? How
could I not say yes to him? I was young.
I was nineteen. When he slipped his hand around
my waist – what else is there to tell? –
no longer drab, reversible, I learned to sing.
MY MOTHER’S HEART
I don’t like the way the sky is feeling tonight.
I can’t get a reading.
Dry winds blowing endlessly,
no rain in sight.
A huge yawn of a sky,
the way it holds off and says nothing.
Auguries harder and harder to come by.
Limits discernible and closing.
Lovely weather, nonetheless.
A ridge of high pressure, like a seawall,
OF ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
for Tom Mosher
As you stand over his body, emaciated
to where flesh is lost to bone, extubated,
dying, almost invisible on a white,
comfortless bed, and feel that in your grief
your heart can bear no more, I, who never
pray, pray for you, as you pray for him
this night, standing watch over your first-
born son, pleading not for an end of sorrow,
but a place for sorrow to be hallowed in,
even as your thoughts embrace his death,
and your hand, placed upon his chest,
receives the ebb of blood and breath.
It's like some sort of hell up here
without the rain. And nobody brings
me stories, things I can play with.
Outside, it's a desert of dying cacti.
Beetles explode in puffs of smoke.
Malay chickens strut about on stilts.
Not much else. Until the rain comes.
The tower is a drag. A virgin and
a unicorn vacuously discuss
the fine points of their relationship.
Musty. Unprovocative. Fruitless.
When they said I had to dry out,
they weren't kidding. I'd rather be
in the dungeon communing with bugs.
One of the Malays – the goldilocks
rooster – is being eaten by Rusty the Fox.
Rusty must have dug himself a sand hole.
Can God take the place of water?
Who put those chickens here anyway?
They're foolish and hysterical.
When they've all been eaten to the bone
and the fox and the cacti are dust,
I suppose I'll have no other choice
but to make up my own boring stories.
"Once upon a time there was a Virgin
who lived in a fertile land with gobs
and gobs of blood. It ran sticky and sweet
and the unicorn, terrified. . ."
Come on! Come on!
It's a gift called Radiance.
It comes once, perhaps
twice, in a lifetime.
You go to war for it,
you forsake all others.
You follow it to freedom
You struggle each day
for its promise
of joy. You do
your damndest to answer
You think long
and hard into the night
when everyone else
is asleep. You say you can't
go on, but you do,
your feet placed
on firm, perilous ground.
after Rainer Maria Rilke
Sliver of moon,
what hand deft enough
to capture in one quick stroke
your first delicate appearing?
This slimmest paring?
Poignancy that affects the whole?
The birds have flown.
No seagull’s white
to vie with your barest glimmer.
The fog stands off, banked in purple,
and the sky, in a golden flush,
relinquishes itself to you.
No stars. Not yet. The mind
concentrated on this minimum,
this brief apostrophe that commands the eye.
Prelude to the fullest flower,
crease of silk to the flowing gown,
your merest presence: profound desire.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
My brother singles out
a single blue-eyed grass
emerging from the wet
November ground. My mother,
wrapped in an old shawl,
her shoulders hunched, body
dwarfed, bends a little lower
to where he points. They stand
for a while talking about
different grasses, what
to expect in spring, her eyes
lifting, once, to take him in.
The hillside floats in a light wind. Standing there
in changeling form, I watch as quail come twittering
up the slope and break the spell of silence –
or is it wretchedness? – that hangs like a shroud
at dusk, nacreous pools where doves once drank
insidious and blank. No mirror to mirror
my strange unseeming, no shimmer to dissipate
the haunted world of anguish and self-doubt.
Disturbed, the quail hesitate, drop back,
although, distilled in thought, I spread no shadow
where they pass. How heavy I must seem to them,
the unsubstantial ones that melt away
like prayers into the underbrush. A gaze
of centuries turned inward. Gravity collapsed.
We’ve arrived at the Doctor’s, all three of us,
my mother, Mrs. S, and I. “We’re arranged
in order of our appointments,” I explain
to the receptionist (who is invisible, at least to me
standing behind my mother and Mrs. S).
“We each have fifteen minutes of the Doctor’s time,”
I continue. “My mother, as you can see, is first.
Then she. Then me.” “Oh, is she in the garden, too?”
my mother turns to ask. “Yes,” I say, touching
her small bony shoulder. “And so am I.”
ON A NIGHT LIKE OVID
Every night he slipped the story on
like a second self, like a silk chemise his wife
once wore, like sepals overlapped around a bud,
like new bark on green skin, like a boy
in love with flowers – so naturally did it fit.
In the morning, the dream unraveled. It unspooled
and ran like water. His mind could not retrieve one pebble.
The sun blew over him. He felt a chill.
Like a re-run of a classic. Someone had sold out,
was being hunted down, was running through the streets
of an old city, hopping a tram in the nick
of time, traveling backward, changing into something
more comfortable – the body of a girl, who fled
into the same irresistible sorrow, night after night.
The last door of light now opens
on a depth of field that is trans-
personal to the eye fastened open,
to the eye that has no choice
but to see the deep field, the
violation of that Other Eye
that scans distance from such
an anonymous point of view;
an agony at first, the eye fastened
open, unable to look away
from what is insisted, from what is
imposed, unable to blink away
that Other Eye staring down the
distance in a curse of light,
lens shattered, objects trashed,
a vacancy of matter,
the eye fastened to the inscrutable,
to the unbearable, to what
is intended, to what is imposed,
to what is given...heavy lid
now opening to the first shadowy
lgiht – to shadow and light
cohering – the Other’s steady eye.
RILIEVO CON FIGURA Dl MENADE
Museo Nazionale Romano
There is nothing frenzied, mad,
or even joyous about this figure of a maenad
with her pet goat. Instead
there is gentleness. Playfulness also.
Smiling, she takes the goat by its left horn
and pulls him toward her ,
the animal responding, leaning
into her with adoration – according to the eyes,
the fond expression.
All this in stone palpable –
the flowing gown and shaggy coat, the tenderness
and love between the goat
and woman. . .palpable.
But every madness has its interlude,
its strange calm gift.
HIGH IN THE SISKIYOU
Downstream, you sensed
their presence, a dark spot almost
invisible amid green water,
roll to the surface. At night
on a high tide they came in, trading
the heavy salt of the ocean
for clear, fresh water,
them always upward
to taste their water of birth.
To arrive at this stretch of meandering
stream, they have wasted
themselves like warriors in battle. Their fins
are frayed and torn,
their dark backs splotched with white
infection. They hover
in the shade of boulders and pine snags,
slowly waving their tails,
opening and closing their mouths.
Within a few weeks
they will spawn, shuddering out the last
of their lives to the cold
creek gravel, and their bodies will slide
downstream with the steady
current they've obsessively fought,
their ripened red flesh
disappearing into bear and raccoon,
becoming meadow grass. . .
flowers. . .
streamside pines. . .
I used to like old lamps,
the kind of light they shed, soft,
oblique, wistfully withdrawn, a hint
of modesty in intrusive times.
And when their source was struck
I valued candles equally as much.
But then I valued
anything that winnowed darkness
and cast a flattering glow.
In the merciless glare
of bulbs nothing stands a chance –
not the stars, not you, not the slip of a moon
barely beginning to declare itself.
Today, drowsily engaged in a winter sun
and my orange tabby cat,
I watch how the pupils of his eyes
contract, revealing a luminous
sea beyond. By evening,
that luminous sea has vanished
and what I see in them –
or what they see themselves –
is darkness opening to light.
The storm plays its dark, windy primitivo
against the old house on the hill.
Panes rattle, and high up in a room,
a woman parts the curtains to stare out
at the sky. What she sees is a black
spider hanging just outside her window.
Its body is sleek. It must eat well.
She also sees that the sky is lit by Orion,
that he, too, hangs just outside her window –
or that the black spider is hanging
inside Orion hanging outside her window –
and that the two now seem inseparable.
Perhaps the constellation or the spider
will have to be renamed. And what of herself?
Has not the spider chosen to be by her?
And she by the window that faces Orion?
When Orion sets, the spider disappears.
It hates the day. She loves the day,
but more and more she finds herself
waiting for that time of night when the spider
drops outside her window; for that time
of being when she appears before
them both and becomes part of the frame-
work, part of the scheme: Woman-Housed-
in the Winter-Sky-of-Spider-and-Orion.
I had a moon once,
I thought ideas
that ended in desire.
I was hooded
and yet I reached.
I was a layman’s dream.
I came in curves
but none of them
And, then, one night,
in a small, dark room,
I saw an anguished figure
sitting in a chair.
His face was ashen,
his harvest was a thorn.
I wanted to embrace him,
ease his fear of death,
but grief had taken over
and there was nothing left.
And so I served as witness,
standing by his side,
although I, too, was terrified
and wanted more.
When I asked (his face
was ashen, I watched
him face the void) if I
should stay, he couldn’t
mouth a word. Did he meet
death as a substance?
Well, he faced it.
But he could not look at me –
though I looked on.
MUSINGS ON THE DRIED STALKS OF WILD ANISE
Tilden Park in early Winter
Now when I walk, I see Winter’s skeletal remains of Spring’s new life and growth.
Wild Anise, you are transformed into a different kind of beauty!
Gone is your delicate green foliage,
Your golden clusters of seed-bearing flowers.
Now you have a dry linear beauty
As you stand tall and isolated against the sky.
If I could look at you with innocent eyes
Unclouded by experience from the past,
I would not label you “Dear old dried out Anise”!
For death has pared you down to your form’s essence,
Rhythmic, alternate, skyward branching,
Each branch tipped with lateral star-bursts.
And I have seen you in the early mornings –
A child’s wondrous fairy tree,
Bedecked with prismatic dew-drop diamonds
Hanging from each seed-pod cluster.
You have brought back memories of a child’s delight
In all that sparkles and reflects the sun,
And of the magic of a single drop of dew!
But tell me, Wild Anise,
Explain the mystery on which I have so often pondered,
When does your thin sere skeleton fall
And merge with the earth below?
The winds of winter play a theme of dessication
And of death upon your slender dried out frame,
But do not mow you down!
You stand there rustling all through winter,
High above the low ground cover
Of brambles, weeds and grass.
How will there be room around you
For the seeds that you have sown?
But then, at some unnoticed stage in time,
There is only new young growth of Anise
And your remains I cannot find!
Frances Behrend Burch (1907-2005)
A last kiss and
we all move forward
The Venetian blinds opening
to the simple pleasure
of water and night
The stars breathing
our respirations as we imagine
sweet winds, sweet kisses
at the edge of sleep
Do not forsake me, I say
to my mother in her empty bed
No graves even in the mind.
We don’t do death the way we used to:
Achilles prostrate on the ground,
grief-dust crammed into each leaking pore,
neck jerked back, mouth wailing to heaven.
No answer there – except the screak
of a hawk. Here, dirt-screwed, soul-plucked.
You can’t do torture better than that.
Do you think, if you tell him to get on with his life,
to put Patroklos behind him, he will listen?
His world is spoken for, he knows exactly what
he’s born to. At an end soon enough
his brief but glorious life. Corruptible into
the incorruptible. A thing the weeping
spirit visits. Agony drowned out. We here,
on a rocking boat, my sister, my brother,
and I scattering our mother’s ashes over water.
No god-hurl. Quiet moments. Quiet death.
A small disturbance in the leaves,
scurry of rats across the roof...
then, suddenly, the stern crack
of thunder, unrelenting fire.
What had we done, or not done,
to deserve this rage? Wind
clacking at the windows; leaves,
their sharp-toothed beaks,
struggling to get in? Mind,
dissolved, put back into its cage
of terror, dispossessed of god
or ghost? What have we done? Or
not done, to deserve erasure?
This banishment from Time?
It started as a simple storm, then
suddenly it spread like fire.
Cornelius Gustaf Jimenez
of a black hole
singing in B flat
but a B flat
than middle C
the lowest note
of the universe
Cornelius Gustaf Jimenez
a musician also
He plays the cello
Beethoven's Late String Quartets
the Quartet in B-flat major
that expresses what
he himself cannot express
that knows no bound
A suffering that offers
its own redemption
(the word anguished*
written over a passage
of ghostly beauty)
the lowest note transposed
on the shores
of a great silence
TO MOTHER E
I was young, so full of song, but not the one you needed.
You abandoned me. I returned the favor.
You were a huge ocean washing with sound.
I stayed and I whispered.
Who knew what lay in your heart?
The house is empty. But not as empty as you.
You are now so near.
If there is anything far in you, it must be me.
I I cannot get over my grief no matter how many songs I write.
If I cannot write of you, what’s left for me to sing?
And yet when you, oh breath! were here I shunned you.
I cannot swear it would not happen again.
My husband’s face,
as he naps in the rocking chair,
is becoming more and more
like his father’s –
and yet I love him more
for this aging
into another’s age.
He has worked so hard
to become so different.
Before my mother died,
I swore I would not repeat her.
And yet I do.
The moon is full, or almost full,
and all around me people are swaying
in discontent. The fullness bothers;
the stars appear less numerous
obscured by the ripe candescence;
imagination less free to explore the coming
forth, the going hence; the ones
that come to you unbidden
from deep night without the orisons
and bright hosannas. . . more like embers
in a black ocean, a nearly silent
weeping. . . umber butterfly, miles out
to sea. . . feather fallen on blue grass. . .
so lightly it rested on the water. . .
at odds, beautiful, with death.
LE COUTEAU DU DÉPART
The knife of departure
drives deep into the water.
A thousand wounds!
Each one a slippery fin
angling off. How far do they go?
As far as the South
China Sea? As far as death
from the ones it deserted?
How deep does it go?
The knife of departure?
The night cools,
the hooting owls far off
as the sound of waves
in a distant ocean. . .
I remember how you used
to look at me
if it was time to go.
Come on, you honey-muckle,
I say to the ferret
scampering and snaking his funny stuff
through every orifice
and sneak-hole of the living room.
His name is Dale
and his fur smells of honeysuckle
instead of musk.
And he goes a-snoodling
through conduits and couches;
burrows his head in a shoe;
takes a bite from a bag of Nachos.
What a field day they’re having!
these lonely, lovely ones,
who otherwise would stare
at nothing, watch TV.
Now they are laughing,
gasping with delight,
as he does his shimmer-shake
and runs from lap to lap.
And oh, my heart! In it,
a thousand blooms, an ocean of plumes!
For he, this hour, in his feverish lust,
hath restored to us our youth,
our fundamental joy.
They have all joined in, the jakes and sultans,
have shuddered their fans and thrummed;
puffed themselves up with the pomp of death;
displayed their wattles and snoods
to the feeding hens that appear
unmoved by the fanfare and bluster —
eyes turned not to the dance, the display,
the formal parade, nor the slow turn
brought to an end with a stamp
of wings and release of air; but to
the seeded earth and bugs below,
as the gobblers move, superb and aloof
among their chattering, dismissive harem.
And then, one day, after weeks of refusal,
my oldest and fondest — who chased
from her feed the antlered deer
and curious cats — walked meekly forward
and placed her head against the chest
of the ugliest tom and most grotesque.
I breathed a sigh, then held my breath.
The day was pure and still.
I thought of Mallarmé’s white page;
the holy sonnets of John Donne.
Venus burns low in the southwest
attended by crescent moon — Oh,
what a song is here! If I could sing it.
There’s ice on Mars, they say,
pure water ice — thousands of square miles of it —
more than a mile thick.
How we wish the planet well.
And us. Humans could melt
the ice and drink it.
What will we do up there?
For that matter what do we do
down here. Search for life?
For meaning? Study what’s left us?
A small price to pay
for being mortal.
Low in the southwest,
Beauty sets. We wish her well.
What the sweet heart sips
is not the joy
but the transformation
and though we sense its presence
coming before it is —
the universe un-graspable
but here nevertheless
nearer and nearing,
the mind harnessed to it
locked in a treasure hunt
giddy for the bright trinket
fondest play-things —
it is there always
dangling before our eyes.
LINES AFTER CÉSAR VALLEJO
and exhume –
Ocean – O mighty fortress –
plume and spray on fleeing
splendid privacy of fog,
Snowy plover a ghost
in the eerie
light of dawn—so soft,
so love! Later, when the sun
not a single cemetery
How little I died for you this
SEPARATION IN GELATIN SILVER
That's all it took that evening. A glance
over her pale, sloping shoulder ... the kind of
look Pallas Athena might throw to her mortal charge,
Ulysses, as she disappears along the rocky island path ...
Husband adrift with a book on the sofa,
cat spread out before a gold and crimson fire.
Everything as it should be this Sunday in December ...
until, with that sideways glance, she separates herself
from them, from the faithful homebodies
she had thought never to be separate from ...
until that look over the shoulder, the starry-eyed
adieu, the sweetness that partakes of sorrow. How slippery
she is: reflection in a secret pool; sand
shone-upon by water; clouds dissolving into light.
How ancient her hands ... As if made of green oblivion ...
Eyes, still turned towards them, like hindsight cast in silver.
BAT & CO.
Bat was company
tonight. Angle, curve. No slack
in his momentum ...
Bat has moved from storage
to first class. He hangs from
hemlock and dreams of Socrates.
Or Socrates of him.
His nose leaf is an organ of perception.
Today I climbed a ladder
to observe the delicate nuance
of his feet. Why would
a woman scream in fear
to have Bat dangling from her ear?
Bats in the belfry is not
the same thing. To know Bat
you must live at home with him.
Bat has lent me an ear.
It is frightening to hear
the world like this.
Forget about harmony.
Forget about spheres.
When Bat flew out tonight
I felt a chill.
My company is not enough.
What must I do to get him back?
My arms are not equipped.
My ears are deaf. Even my
mother suggests I give it up.
Perhaps she too flies
with sensitive wings;
has a new circle of friends;
has begun to forget.
CESAR VALLEJO REMEMBERS
Mother, you hid,
one night in July, at dusk;
but instead of hiding laughing, you were sad.
And the children of those extinct
evenings have grown weary from not finding you.
Now a shadow falls across the soul.
The moon blotted by clouds.
Tomorrow the second anniversary.
I have made a cake.
The candles number one hundred.
We blow them out
with three grand breaths.
But we are not together
at the anniversary.
We live in separate pools
of thought. So perhaps she soars
to remind us how beautiful
it is to love – releases feather.
after a line by Zbigniew Herbert
It is in terrible taste for nature
to condemn a woman schooled
in words slowly to become
a ghost of words; she who excelled
in Scrabble, crossword puzzles,
and crushing critical remarks.
I asked her once for guidance,
on how my life should go. Two
sentences came back. I thought
her very cold. But now that I
am also old, I see she meant
no harm – merely wished to set
me straight with the fewest words
that spoke the purest faith.
Two, perhaps three times,
I thought I'd got
to the bottom of things.
I swarmed with Heisenberg' s bees –
until they dumped me;
I stood at the sea shore
and shouted platitudes.
They all came back.
The third, if there is a third,
happened long ago:
a problem in geometry
had me stumped –
I fell to the ground laughing.
Now I see. if I do see,
that to dismiss the world
is something like getting to the bottom
You think up principles;
you fall in love;
you throw it all away.
You play with outlines;
you are a child inventing the life of a doll.
Your eyes are fixed
On the heart of things.
It is of great concern
that all who are invited
TOUCHING NEW BARK
I like the mood of the manzanita,
the way it sloughs its winter bark, inviting me
to brush away its dark furls and touch
the lucid underneath.
Miraculous exposure. Liquid notes
of a piano piece I played
as a child. Fingers sensing the melancholy
resolution, the holy striving,
the falling from and drawing near
to God – simple at His source
but hard to grasp, as the new bark of the manzanita
is hard to grasp, though near
and touchable. But not touchable
in what the feel of the new spring bark
invokes: the child closeness of what the child
senses, the aftermath of a simple theme –
a sarabande in D minor, for example,
and how it played to the nearness
and farness, how Bach searched exquisitely
the agile motions of his soul
touching. or trying to touch. an immense
longing; as today I try to touch,
in this quiet glade, the ghost of love,
elusive as the wind, and swift like a receding dream.
THE HEART IN ITS PROGRESSIONS, WRITTEN
may regret this night that erases the moon – a Prelude
moody with misgivings – an angst urged on by gale-
force winds that threatens to blow out all the windows,
and make one wish to forget that there is such a thing
as nature... or human nature. Have I explained myself
too fiercely in the letter? Brutalized her with the truth, if,
indeed, it is the truth. Antagonized with no hope of...
And yet, so beautiful, so dark these Chopin-esque
progressions descending to that one chord held infinitely.
Perhaps my sister, at the storm’s still center, awaits me.
And one day
in the midst of falling
it will come to her
that her time though brief
as the tiny flowers
that grow on the forest’s floor
as the bees that feed on them
and the light that invades the dark
is cherished –
visibly, audibly, palpably –
in the modesty of its grace.
Near the horizon the cold glow of rose
and mauve — on the ground a few last leaves
from late December. Orion about to begin
his slow sweep across the heavens — telling
time by his time (no shadow on a dial
half so sweet as this languorous slippage into
evening; the sky, in its winter chill, deepening
into Giotto's dream of indigo). Sliver of moon.
Hint of stars.
A winged and fleshless battle
plays havoc in the trees,
and we, the faithful chattel,
have fallen like the leaves;
fallen and returned to ground,
flesh darkening on the mold,
this our newly trusted bond,
yesterday the lords of old:
shadows lengthening through the blue,
tall fires in the hall,
bright spaces where the swallows flew,
summer ripening into fall.
Great battle rings of war
returned victorious with plunder,
drunken nights were heard once more,
outside a growing wonder.
Burnished mail ceased to hum,
ravens gathered through the day,
and while our breath grew oddly numb,
another quickened in his sway.
A beast unseen, unknown
devoured each night a man of worth,
and as our fear began to grow
we gathered at the hearth.
We sang of ancient boasts,
of war and Heorot’s glory,
then drank large-portioned toasts
to what we were, as in a story.
Now fleshless as our dreams
and of our lands bereft,
we hum a bit of Heorot’s fiend
and scavenge what the dragon left.
after Thomas Hardy
A black and yellow butterfly, this blithe
and reckless day, has met me on a crag
atop a hill and lured me with its beauty.
See, how it weaves its wings among the dead
stalks of wild fennel? Departs? Returns?
Why here, my sylph, my vanishing Giselle?
No nectar hangs upon these winter relics!
Though new growth will soon re-take the old,
never will it yield the sustenant drink
inherent in the lush, full-throated flower.
Where now, my gold-silk gown, my black-edged
Why flaunt yourself in danger’s hollow? Surrender
honest love to that which would destroy it?
Come, light upon my hand I’ll lead you to
a kinder path of lily, lupine, sage, where
even the stern, commanding oak brings forth
new tender growth that welcomes and delights.
Stay awhile. Take shelter here. Endure.
It is an easy sell, out here,
out late, in the west: the splendid
fog. The owls buy in.
They become more lyric,
less visible, more supernatural.
How they resonate, these hoots,
in the nights nearing autumn.
How the crickets stridulate
with no one there to see them.
The houses on the hill, for example,
are beautifully degendered.
They used to shine so heatedly.
Now they are left to themselves.
The details that so perturbed me
after my mother’s death disappear
into the distance, into the fog.
“She died peacefully in her sleep,”
I write. To no one in particular.
ONCE UPON A TIME, MY BROTHER
Don’t you ever knock, she said to the suddenly
opened door that yielded nothing;
but the wind kept on knocking,
or the theory of the wind kept on knocking,
eventually followed by little catcalls
and a whole field of May’s bright flowers;
so it wasn’t clear exactly what was knocking,
hate or its lonely corollary,
that sometimes stands to the side.
And you huffed and you puffed, Brother,
until my house became a house of bricks
the better to oppose you. We hurled stones,
Brother, till we were blue in the face.
We salved our wounds with mud. Rested on straw.
There’s night and day,
both bring joy;
sun, moon and stars,
for our delight;
on the heath,
the music of birds.
Life is very sweet,
Who would want to die?
after the sale of my mother’s beach house
That sea-flood frightens me,
good memory; powerful guardian; implacable
cruel sweetness. It puts me on edge. . .
as does this house that calls to me
and assumes that I will enter.
Let’s not go in. It stirs up Orphic dreams
this permission to return at any time across a vanished
bridge. I advance no further,
sweet guardian; courageous memory; sad
How the dream of this abandoned house
engulfs me, entangles me,
and obstructs with savvy calculation my outlets
to a dry actuality.
The air is damp and boarded up.
That flood that doesn’t know how to hold back
rises higher and higher.
Courageous memory, I push no further.
Play the black keys, sad
skeleton. Sing your pale, whispering song.
“Fatti non foste a viver come brutti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”
Inferno, Canto XXVI
Let’s look at Night,
deadly and aloof,
and yet it cradles us
in a rude, archaic rocking —
We long for it, the dear-starry
adrift in our memory
keeping an eye
on what was; what is;
on the course forward;
therefore we venture
uncharted distances —
ferociously far away —
the other side of impediment.
Night like the open sea —
unmeasured in its response.
The writing table, how empty it looks!
And how weary the chair
that can’t quite rise to the occasion.
If you sit on it, however,
and turn just a little to look out the window,
you’ll see an elderberry in flower, wild mustard,
and a hillside of inflammable Scotch broom.
Ravens fly back and forth
across the valley.
I used to hate them.
Now they are friends.
The writing table has a life of its own.
It doesn’t need me.
Although once upon a time it seemed
to need me very much.
We composed poems together.
We drank wine at night;
and every morning, over coffee,
we talked to each other
in that soft, laconic language that lovers use.
We have grown shabby.
We have lost our stimulus.
I sense an emptiness.
Like a doll house that has grown up.
BEETHOVEN FOR WRITERS
Meditate on Beethoven.
On a rising arpeggio that is methodically
shortened and fragmented
as it repeats itself.
With every contraction
the theme gains
in coiled energy
until whittled down
into a single
Meditate on the poignant juxtaposition
of the sacred and the earthy.
The change of emotions, the abrupt transitions.
The modulations not merely from key to key,
but from mood to mood.
A theme is stated, developed, pushed out
of shape, imperceptively deformed
until, though recognizable, it has become
quite different. Like a childhood friend
not seen for fifty years.
Like an old sweetheart at a high school reunion.
Beethoven the ossifrage, the breaker of bones!
He first fills your soul with sweet melancholy,
then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords.
He seems to harbor together
doves and crocodiles.
His music bristles with violence;
entrances with tenderness.
It is obstinate.
It is accepting.
Meditate on Beethoven. The
stunning suspension of time in his
last sonata, where delicate trills grow into
a shimmering, pervasive harmony--like the
Big Bang in slow motion. A narrator about to bring
to his lips the little spoon with its piece of tea-soaked madeleine.