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.
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.
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
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.
*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,"
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?
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
2. "To write"
of your life
through the word-
and set it down
while the current
3. "To read"
with all your nerves
and come out
with the necessary
4. "To Select"
in the mind.
(To catch the mind
before it pulls off
5. "To Interpret"
to the hand
To "give the
To be with the
and with whoever else
to make it
The will to
The will not to
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The trading goes on:
A computer chip
For the heart of a sparrow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A SKEIN FOR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER
There is nothing left
-- Sylvia Plath
Crooked was the way I went, crooked, 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.
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.
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.
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.
*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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
OFF ZOLOFT AT 2:00 A.M.
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.
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,
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 --
"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?
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.
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.
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.
Like sand through the hourglass
Between parent and child
Love and insight pass.
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,
They appear in the green shadows
like stars coming out:
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
one of the owners, the masters,
no longer in the secret.
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
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 --
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!
That heavy woman I saw --
she made you respect her
for carrying so much of the earth
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Man in the moon
That was hidden in stone,
By random hand
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
Like the walls in a laby-
The Bushmen trace
On cliffs oversea
With sense arcane
Yet no mystery:
Emblem of matrix,
Emblem of man,
Who is both room
Who is the wall,
The key, the door,
Time out of mind
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.
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.
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.
(a Tu Bishvat prayer for 10 voices)
Within the Ein-Sof, the Infinite unknown,
quickens the Will that there should be a world,
purpose that is the Crown of all creation.
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.
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:
spring of Compassion that is always flowing,
impulse of abundance pouring forth
beyond all bounds.
Judgment, shadow of the Mother's structure,
Power that begins in self-restraint.
Beauty, synthesis of love and judgment,
balance of freedom and necessity,
Splendor of truth.
Steadfastness rooted in Eternity.
Hod (Glory; Acknowledgment)
Glory springing from Acknowledgment,
vesture of recognition and acclaim.
(Righteous One; Foundation)
The Righteous Individual, Foundation
of the world, lover and partner of --
Shekhinah, holiness of the Creation
with highest purpose crowned, Presence among us
in the Community, upon the Earth.
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 --
Fire-filled crevasses yawn, divide
Despairing faces racing with the tide.
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
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,
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,
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;
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.
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
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
But if you'll say you need me
I'll say I need you.
And we can start.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
Archaic; could preach, teach and sing.
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.
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.
Thanks to a painted feather,
I can hear the song of the quetzal
beside the waterfall.
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?
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,
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?)
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”,
I know not thee!
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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).
....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
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).
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
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,
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each one has a name
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
One sinner will destroy much good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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,
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.
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
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
With the envy proverbial in woman,
For whom no stone will stay on another stone,
Or like any poet whose wit, common as grass,
Perceives a tree it cannot overshadow.”
Our hearts cast the shadow as we climb your hills
Toward the sun urging every grass to grow green
And the stone to give birth to living man and woman.
HACKER: A REVIEW
(Marilyn Hacker, Selected Poems 1965-1990, New York and London: Norton, 1994)
“The Rune of the Finland Woman” is worth the price.
Taken in conjunction with the rest –
domestic and political exercises,
mostly – it left me with a sense of waste.
Amid so many stanzas full of chatter
affecting, for no reason, rhyme, I missed
“An Alexandrite Pendant for My Mother”,
one poem where the images do mesh
into an Image that transcends the clutter,
a Form in mental space, and where the plash
and clash of sounds amounts to music too.
Lightnings as potent as those of the flesh
play in that faceted abyss, renew
an ancient pattern, as if the sestina
had been thought up to give this theme its due,
causing at least one reader to begin a
sestina of her own, taking her emblem
not from the gem-cutter but from the spinner.
No higher praise has poet for a semblable
than to have caught the spirit from her line.
And much I wish, Hacker, that you’d found tenable
the place from which that sprang, instead of trying
to get the reader high on second-hand sex
and pouring more of Joplin’s rot-gut wine.
There also is a silence that protects
the spirit, out of which the true word grows
and which to override produces wrecks –
this, I believe, the Finland woman knows.
She also knows that though the banners of
good causes lie in rags, the book’s not closed:
She has not yet begun to speak, to move,
she has not yet begun to call her dead,
she has not yet begun to spin, to weave,
to form her vast blue crystal of our heads.
This is the kind of poem that may do
The poet’s psyche good, in cleaning out
Some ancient muck; what benefits accrue
To the reader’s soul, however, is in doubt.
The poet tells how badly kith and kin
Treated him when just a little sprout,
How airless was the corner he grew in,
How sunless -- hence the poem’s lack of spark.
Who could ask more from the victim of such sin,
How cruel seems for instance this remark.
Good grief! If that’s what poetry is for,
A huddling of lepers in the semi-dark,
Each commenting on his particular sore,
I’d rather be, in my next incarnation,
Maybe a telephone solicitor.
To write and read such stuff is like damnation.
as played by Mitsuko Uchida
a lost silk scarf, thin,
carried along by the wind
over the mountains
i heard the falling of snow
the falling of petals
the weeping of honeydew
from night-blooming flowers
the weaving of the spiders
that weave the snow