Poem of the Week Archives

from The Prodigal Son

The bishop places a paperweight atop my reports on his desk,
our professional talk is measured by the silence of the dead
who are always flinging open their shutters,
religion being the work of the living and the dead,
the hope and release of children turning to their parents –
all that business in life that remains unrehearsed.

My mother’s every exhale is


My mother’s every exhale is
somewhere between a rasp
and a scream now.

Hospice says they’ll bring
phenobarbital in the morning.

Between us we have
–new bottle of morphine
–the dog’s phenobarbital
–three syringes of Parry’s insulin
–methadone, Haldol, etc.

Parry and I discuss combinations.
We want the best for our mother.

We do not want
to fuck this
one up.

   — October 22, +/- 2 a.m.

 

 

 

 

 

                              ,,,
                              On the phone, my brother Whit
                              says Don’t Google it.

Idioglossia

                                            Were we twins earlier
we might have saved the other from learning to speak,

to speak dead, to speak dead romance, to speak dead romance
languages. Utter embouchure. The aftertaste of hurt knots the tongue,

an unripe persimmon. An echo tumbles from the mountain range
of a French horn, hunt long finished, rabbits interrupted

by bullets. Then skinned. Then opened wide. There is no translation
for rescue save breath. How we speak to and only to each other.

By the routine of lung. After years of half-formed, airtight Hebrew
the lonely heart’s grammar relaxes, allows one vowel. U.

The Minds of the Higher Animals

are without exception irresponsible. Which
sounds alarming and is, admittedly, an aberration
(perhaps not funny) of a more valid, thinkable notion,
that dolphins, wolves, chimps, etc., flip a switch

in us, casting klieg light on the frightening solitude
engendered by the very Fifties idea — I know —
that we alone are responsible for our own
consciousness. A friend, who’d taken work as tutor

to a high-school student, leaned over the back wall
of a booth in a pub and told me: of all the thumbnail
sketches he’d done for her, from Plato to Pascal
and beyond, this Sartrean concept of taking ownership over all

that you know, feel, and do, had proved the most opaque,
the singularly most inconceivable stupidity
ever designed to befall a girl
, driving her to kick some shitty
desk chair in frustrated disbelief. Now, Reader, make

a face that’s meant to express some woeful sense
of pity and surprise, while feeling a cold sickness underneath.
That was my face. I was mumbling things so far from the truth
of what I felt, I could have been a clergy entering the manse,

touching tops of heads, asking how days went, seeking food,
while wishing one or the other end of this circus dead.
The sight of a pint glass didn’t cause me to vomit. I didn’t
reel, sweating and murderous, out into the street; but my mood

stiffened, grew intractable, opaque; I felt blue flashes inside
that were flares of all the moments I’d sought causality,
a why for each failing of character, somewhere outside
of myself, amounting to a web of reflexive sophistry

that reached back into the years of my life like illness
discovered late, or how rot sets into wood compromising
the strength of a structure by softening its centre. Rising
from my seat, I went and faced a woman whose caress

had eased my passage through some months I couldn’t pass
through on my own, she’d been more than kind, I’d
found I couldn’t love her at the time, and fled.
So I faced her, and apologized as best I could, given the mass

of people in the pub. ‘This is a poem,’ she said, ‘and that’s not
good enough. Around here, we don’t let art, no matter
how acutely felt, stand in for what’s necessary, true, and right.
Next time you face me, maybe leave you here. End quote.’

from Strange Birds; Twitching Birds

4

What a witches’ sabbath of wings
– Robinson Jeffers

Little bird, little bird, LET ME OUT. Not-a-chance Not-a-chance Forget-get-get-get-it

Damn this cracked crow! Damn this wicked net! A snare of ritual and vexation: Icterinæ Tyranny. Grackle Sacrament. Sins of the Feather. Banging your head till you’re blackbird and blue.

All the time in Hell on your hands and an eternity of bird devotions on an endless string of millet … Ave Aviary, Ave Oriole, Hail bob-bob-bob Bobolink …

Dead of night and captive to an unremitting chorus of blackbirds: Rusty Falsetto (creaking demons and doors and coming unhinged!), Nasal-Toned Tricolour (triple-glazed windows, blue in the face), Quiscalus mexicanus … Arriba! Arriba! Arriba!

Grisly dreams. A palpitating litany of shadowy birds: Quiscalus quiscula (Commonest Common Grackle), Euphagus cyanocephalus (Brewer’s Blackbird, volcanic stomach), Euphagus … esophagus (a nagging bird in the throat and your hands

won’t stop trembling).

Northwest Passage

after Cavafy
The Franklin Expedition, 1845-48

When you set out to find your Northwest Passage
and cross to an empty region of the map

with a headlong desire to know what lies beyond,
sailing the thundering ice-fields on the ocean,

feeling her power move you from below;
when all summer the sun’s hypnotic eye

won’t blink, and the season slowly passes, an endless
dream in which you’re forever diving into pools,

fame’s image forever rising up to meet you;
when the fall comes, at last, triumphantly,

and you enter Victoria’s narrow frozen Strait,
and your Terror and Erebus freeze in the crushing floes;

in that long winter night among the steeples
of jagged ice, and the infinite, empty plain of wind and snow,

when the sea refuses to be reborn in spring,
three winters pass without a thaw, and the men,

far from their wives and children, far from God,
are murdering one another over cards;

when blue gums, colic, paralysis of the wrists
come creeping indiscriminately among you;

and you leave the ships, and set out on the ice,
dragging the lifeboats behind, loaded

with mirrors and soap, slippers and clocks,
into the starlit body of the night,

with your terrible desire to know what lies beyond;
then, half-mad, snow blind, even then,

before you kill the ones who’ve drawn the fatal lots,
and take your ghastly communion in the snow,

may you stumble at last upon some band of Inuit
hauling their catch of seal across the ice,

and see how foolish you have been:
forcing your way by will across a land

that can’t be forced, but must be understood,
toward a passage just now breaking up within.

The Story of a Coat

We talked about Baroness Pannonica
driving her Silver Pigeon to the Five Spot
to chauffeur Monk home. I was happy
not to talk football, the inventory of skulls
in a cave in Somalia, the democratic vistas
of the Cedar Tavern, or about Spinoza.
We were saying how the legs go first
& then from the eyes mystery is stolen.
I said how much I miss Bill Matthews,
that sometimes at the Village Vanguard,
Fez, or Small’s, especially when some cat
steals a riff out of Prez’s left back pocket,
I hear his Cincinnati laugh. Then our gaze
snagged on a green dress shifting the light.
If you’d asked me, I couldn’t have said why
I knew jasmine from the silence of Egypt,
or how water lives only to remember fire.
As we walked out of the sanctuary of garlic,
chive, onion, mushroom, & peppery dough,
we agreed Rahsaan could see rhythm
when he blew wounded cries of night hawks
at daybreak. The heat of the pizza parlor
followed us to the corner, & two steps later
I remembered the scent of loneliness
in my coat left draped over the chair.
I had fallen in love with its cut,
how it made me walk straighter.
When I passed the young James Dean
coming out the door with my blue-gray coat
balled up in his arms, I didn’t stop him.
I don’t know why. I just stood there
at the table. But, David, years after
I circled the globe, I’m still ashamed
of memories that make me American
as music made of harmony & malice.

Green, How Much I Want You Green

Green, how much I want you green.
Great stars of white frost
come with the fish of darkness
that opens the road of dawn.
– Somnambular Ballad (Stephen Spender and G.L. Gili, trs.)

Landscape of crystals
rock salt and icebergs
white trees, white grasses,
hills forged from pale metals
padlock and freeze me
in the Pleistocene.
See my skin wither
heart become brittle
cast as the Snow Queen.
Green, how much I want you green.

Green oak, green ilex
green weeping willow
green grass and green clover
all my lost youth.
Come before springtime
before the brown locust
come like the rain
that blows in the night
and melts to fine dust
great stars of white frost.

Water, sweet water
chortling, running
the chinooks of my childhood
warm wind, the ripple
of icicles dripping
from my frozen palace.
How sweet the water
moonstones and vodka
poured from a chalice
with the fish of darkness.

Come water, come springtime
come my green lover
with a whistle of grass
to call me to clover.
A key for my lock
small flowers for my crown.
The Ice Age is over,
green moss and green lichen
will paint a green lawn
that opens the road of dawn.

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit –
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping:
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who seeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea –
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.