Poem of the Week Archives

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.

Insomnia

If I were to sleep, it would be on an iron bed,
bolted to the floor in a bomb-proof concrete room
with twelve locks on the door.
I wouldn’t ask for a mattress
or decorate. I wouldn’t ask for beautiful.
I’d let the philosophers in,
but not into my bed.
They’d arrive cradling their brass instruments.
I might let them play
but only very softly and only if
they didn’t fight or sing.

If I were to sleep, there wouldn’t be any windows.
There would be a skylight,
but in the middle of the floor.
I’d press my face against the glass
and stare down at other floors upon floors upon floors …
I’d do a sleep dance right on top of the skylight.
It would be a new game.
It would involve amazing feats of sleep contortion.
It would involve letters.

If I were to sleep, I would be spread-eagled across the bed,
and even with the iron struts and screws cutting into my back,
I would protect the metal frame.
I would protect the springs.

A Short Story of Falling

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

b)

he heard snatches of comment
going up from the river bank

all them injuns is people first
and besides for this buckskin

why we even shoot at them
and seems like a sign of warm

dead as a horse friendship
and time to pedal their eyes

to lean out and say the truth3
all you injuns is just white keys

from Rings

Problem is our armpits and crotches are feathered
with cobwebs. Problem is she leaks soft-boiled eggs
or I package seedless grapes. Problem is her parents
made us wait until that had crossed the width
of my nose. Problem is she has a migraine. Problem is
we did not want children. Problem is we did
not want each other until too late. Problem is I can’t be
late for work in the morning. Problem is this morning
she says she dreamt she was holding a sandwich bag
of crickets. Problem is I am already late and listening
to the weather. Problem is we don’t speak
to the problem. Problem is the school bus
that stops in front of our townhouse just as I’m reversing

the problem is we don’t know who

But we did not want children. But we did
not want a townhouse either. But we got
a townhouse in a field of children with round
dimpled faces. But we did not want girls.
But we saw them in ribbon and crinoline
at church. But we did not want boys. But
we saw them squeezing frogs near the ravine.
But we did not want children. But they knocked
on our door with UNICEF cartons and chocolate
almonds. But we did not buy. But we bought.
But they wore soccer uniforms and ballet leotards
under their winter coats. But they sat in their mother’s
car as she dropped off the Avon. But we were surrounded by

pregnant women who grew round around

Or we could get a Pekingese. Give me children, or else I die.
Or a Siamese cat. Give me children, or else I die. Or we could
redecorate with glass and steel and pointy corners
in the best modern way. Give me children, or else I die. Or else
move to a ch-ching penthouse. Give me children,
or else I die.
Or throw parties and serve canapés. Give me
children, or else I die.
Or travel by train from farther to further
every spring. Give me children, or else I die. Or we could spend
the evenings counting our gold. Give me children, or else
I die.
Or become the cool aunt and uncle. Give me children,
or else I die.
Or sponsor a child or buy a goat. Give me children,
or else I die.
Or buy a hybrid or recycle more or run
a shelter or feed the poor or bike for cancer or knit for preemies

or else give me children or else give me children

Token Resistance

As one turns to one in a dream
smiling like a bell that has just
stopped tolling, hold out a book
and speaks: “All the vulgarity

of time, from the Stone Age
to our present, with its noodle parlors
and token resistance, is as a life
to the life that is given you. Wear it,”

so must one descend from checkered heights
that are our friends, needlessly
rehearsing what we will say
as a common light bathes us,

a common fiction reverberates as we pass
to the celebration. Originally
we weren’t going to leave home. But made bold
somehow by the rain we put our best foot forward.

Now it’s years after that. It
isn’t possible to be young anymore.
Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend;
my own shoes have scarred the walk I’ve taken.

Requests

O tell us more about your dad,
or why your second wife went mad,
or how it was you had no choice
but to give those men a voice;
sing that Cornish lullaby
you hush your kids with when they cry,
produce a boiled egg from your pocket,
a flageolet from your jacket,
expand on your idea that rhyme
is dead, or tell us of the time
you dropped your cellphone in the toilet;
a joke, a bird-call – please don’t spoil it,
go on with your brilliant proem!
Anything but read your poem.