Mark Halperin is professor emeritus at Central Washington University and has taught in
Japan, Estonia, and Russia. His books include Backroads (University of Pittsburgh Press), A
Place Made Fast (Copper Canyons), The Measure of Islands (Wesleyan University Press), Time
as Distance (New Issues), Near and Far (March Street Press) and Greatest Hits 1967-2000
(Pudding House Publications). He and his wife, the painter Bobbie Halperin, live near the
Yakima River, where he fishes avidly.
The poems reproduced here appeared in The Neovictorian/Cochlea; "From the House"
and "Homage: Variation on a Theme of Paul Celan" also appear in Time as Distance.
From the House Choosing - Memories of Patzquaro and Tallinn Homage: Variation on a
Theme By Paul Celan The Nameless Banjo Music Among the Dead Out of
Happiness Business in memoriam: Jan Mejer 1942-1998
FROM THE HOUSE
The arms of the darkened trees are filled
with the pitch and breathing of space.
When cars beyond them race
by, only leaves rustle, stalled
at the edge of your attention
like a peaceful marriage. How do we shun
so much when so much is fleeting? You know
what happens: a lack of trust
shows up as greed, lust,
erosion of concern-- the growth
of slow but deadening cancers.
Maybe fate is a good boxer
with a one-two so fast it seems
only a one, but think
of trees, arms linked
above the strict horizon, how we lean
toward them, stretching to listen
from the house. It's as if voices begin,
intimate talk in another room
we seem never to enter.
The speeding cars litter
the roadside. They bring home
a loneliness so youthful or rare,
you forget to listen for its answer.
The trees might say it was yourself
ransformed, always another
you sought, part lover
and ghost, a husband. Notice with what stealth
the moon turns its key
in the numbed branches, entering the sky.
CHOOSING - MEMORIES OF PATZQUARO AND TALLINN
As waves lap the ship's hull, a uniformed guard
processes my papers. I look away -
gray clouds above the building, crowds
pressing mto the barrier. By the stand-up desk,
scratchy pen in hand, I pause before
answering one of the questions, embarrassed.
Once, at a temporary, southern road block, men
stopped some of the cars, and asked for donations.
By day's-end, everyone had stared at the whitewashed
pock-marked, stucco wall for so long, the gully
behind it, flowing with garbage and the kids, picking
their way down to the river, were souvenirs.
Between my fear of the new place that I've
stepped into, unprepared, and conscience -
filling out the forms - I wonder: what do we
save or reach for? The reek of gasoline fills the back
of the tiny car, weaving off at high speed
from this latest port: I'm making polite conversation,
keeping down what's in my stomach. As the gaps
between lights grow, and the well-lit city recedes,
I wonder: who have I come to be this time?
Unable to make out street names or scenery -
unable to work my way back, should I need to -
I wonder where are they taking me and who?
HOMAGE: VARIATION ON A THEME OF PAUL CELAN
[I hear that the axe has flowered,
I hear that the place can't be named,
I hear that the bread which looks at him
heals the hanged man,
the bread baked for him by his wife,
I hear that they call life
our only refuge.
tr. Michael Hamburger]
I hear that the books can be corrected,
I hear that the mistakes can be renamed
and that moles swim in dirt
and live lives of perfect commitment.
* * *
I hear that irony dries the tongue
and when autumn comes
the leaves fall, speech fails
and the tourists go home -
that the Seine, even when filthy, shines.
I hear there is another version
of the past in which no one is to blame.
" * *
I hear the defiled used to need us.
I hear that memory could replace justice once.
I hear that we can shut our eyes
and snow tucks the corpses in
like flattening rocks.
I hear there is another life
for which only we are responsible.
When no one is left to say
Kaddish for us, when no one loves us
enough to keep something of us
alive, will we start to stray
past the familiar outlines of
tree and house, flattened horizon--
past gravity and final ties? When
there's nothing below or above,
before or after, will we be free?
Or will something force us to stalk
the grounds like watchful parents? Walk
where they will -- though this tree
hide the molten sunset, though this street,
ignite and burn as the loveless do--
how will the nameless hide? Who
will be those they have not met?
I'm at summer camp. A small, dark-skinned boy,
whose name I can't recall or why we're in
this room, plays a tenor-banjo, a penny
for a pick. It's loud music, shifting patterns,
metal-bright like curlicues and bird-cages.
"What's that," I ask, and he says, "Rock of Ages."
Then, when I don't recognize the melody,
explains about the different versions: there are
two songs with one name--oh I see
I say, but I don't. I watch the lake, its shore
like another country. When he comes back in focus
he's my one friend who is different from us.
That summer I'd be stung by wasps; my face
would swell to the size of a full moon and I'd fight
repeatedly with counselors, be disgraced
till my mother was called. The lake's mist was whiter
than moonlight, a shimmering banjo music
stretched beyond 'ours' or 'yours' or even breathing.
AMONG THE DEAD
Between the station-wagons, the pickups in raw
gray primer and puddles known to easily swallow
a man alive, I spot Owen-- his half-lit
smile and that bemused look that spreads
across the faces of twins. I make as though
to wave, then catch myself, recalling he's dead.
It's someone else, of course. Another day,
I'd swear it was Conrad I'd almost collided with, saw
marching down the street at a furious pace,
stick in hand, waving away, although
he collapsed and died in a stairwell months before.
I've read of ghosts. I always thought they glowed
the way brights in a rear-view mirror do.
Who could have guessed they sneaked off or dreaded
each other's company, would adopt our moves,
our bodies when these came available--like fire
using what's there--that we live among the dead
as among hopes and inexpressible desires.
OUT OF HAPPINESS
Air washes by the window, huge drifts of it
you can't see except in the sideways buffet
and slippage of flying birds. The trees offer
themselves like water to cool and please
the chin, drum out quibbles, the leaves
sifting and shiftings you can't count or measure.
In rare moments of contentment, you look through
a window. In the next room are two chairs,
a small table. What else was there to desire?
Whatever you hear is no more than an echo
or charm that comes from somebody else
who will not be questioned out of happiness.
The lips pull, stretching
muscles that work the jaw,
then knot. Holding a smile
up is like slipping the clutch
to keep the car on a steep hill.
The teeth ache and the eyes,
wanting to be slits, widen just
keeping open. The voice wants
to hiss, to turn edge-on and thrum
with the wind-fanned sleekness
of the cheeks. Being polite is
lying to the other and knowing
the other is too, trading stock
compliments, insincere best wishes,
"I was just thinking of you"s, showing
off social skills, while the body
strains at the end of a string of "so
good to see you," and "we really must
do more to keep in touch," the ends
of leashes you can barely hold on to.
in memoriam: Jan Mejer 1942-1998
When she told us Jan was dying, we remembered
her alarmist tendencies, but did get back in touch,
swimming past the lapsed years. She'd
been right though; he wrote that he was reconciled,
tired easily and needed morphine now at night
to sleep. Then the cancer shutting off his breath
clamped down--weeks earlier than anyone expected,
before we'd resolved whose father and which
denial, and had time for one more 'one more letter',
one more time--and a silence started,
like more vast water, chilly, viscous,
clear: more impeccable and absolute than ever.