Poem of the Week Archives

Someone You Have Seen Before

It was a night for listening to Corelli, Geminiani
Or Manfredini. The tables had been set with beautiful white cloths
And bouquets of flowers. Outside the big glass windows
The rain drilled mercilessly into the rock garden, which made light
Of the whole thing. Both business and entertainment waited
With parted lips, because so much new way of being
With one’s emotion and keeping track of it at the same time
Had been silently expressed. Even the waiters were happy.

It was an example of how much one can grow lustily
Without fracturing the shell of coziness that surrounds us,
And all things as well. “We spend so much time
Trying to convince ourselves we’re happy that we don’t recognize
The real thing when it comes along,” the Disney official said.
He’s got a point, you must admit. If we followed nature
More closely we’d realize that, I mean really getting your face pressed
Into the muck and indecision of it. Then it’s as if
We grew out of our happiness, not the other way round, as is
Commonly supposed. We’re the characters in its novel,
And anybody who doubts that need only look out of the window
Past his or her own reflection, to the bright, patterned,
Timeless unofficial truth hanging around out there,
Waiting for the signal to be galvanized into a crowd scene,
Joyful or threatening, it doesn’t matter, so long as we know
It’s inside, here with us.

But people do change in life,
As well as in fiction. And what happens then? Is it because we think nobody’s
Listening that one day it comes, the urge to delete yourself,
“Take yourself out,” as they say? As though this could matter
Even to the concerned ones who crowd around,
Expressions of lightness and peace on their faces,
In which you play no part perhaps, but even so
Their happiness is for you, it’s your birthday, and even
When the balloons and fudge get tangled with extraneous
Good wishes from everywhere, it is, I believe, made to order
For your questioning stance and that impression
Left on the inside of your pleasure by some bivalve
With which you have been identified. Sure,
Nothing is ever perfect enough, but that’s part of how it fits
The mixed bag
Of leftover character traits that used to be part of you
Before the change was performed
And of all those acquaintances bursting with vigor and
Humor, as though they wanted to call you down
Into closeness, not for being close, or snug, or whatever,
But because they believe you were made to fit this unique
And valuable situation whose lid is rising, totally
Into the morning-glory-colored future. Remember, don’t throw away
The quadrant of unused situations just because they’re here:
They may not always be, and you haven’t finished looking
Through them all yet. So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

from thirsty

IV

History doesn’t enter here, life, if you call it that,
on this small street is inconsequential,
Julia, worked at testing cultures and the stingy
task, in every way irredeemable, of saving money

Then Alan came, his mother, left, came ill
squeezing a sewing machine into a hallway
and then the baby. Already you can see how
joylessness took a hold pretending to be joy

Once she had risen, reprieved from the humus subway,
heard his sermonizing, sent to her by the wind
on the harp of children and leaves and engines,
she bolted the sound of his voice pursuing

She had been expecting happiness with him, why not
a ravishing measureless happiness, he spilled instead
suspicions on her belly, where was the money
she was saving, where the light she was keeping from his hands

She would waken to find the luminous filament
of his cigarette, he rage red as the tip,
weeping, he couldn’t take it any more. Then threats.
She tried tenderness. What? She must take him for a fool

The worn velvet, the late condolences
for a thing buried long before his death. Julia
sees malediction in the sly crucifix,
her back bent over specimens plotting rapture

Old Man Vacanas

5

The old man who picks up the phone
does not get your message.

Call again.
Please call again.

The cats leave squirrel guts
on the Tibetan rug.
Augury I cannot read.

You’ve got to talk with me.
I scrape glistening coils
into a dust pan,
spit on drops of blood and spray ammonia.

The blood spreads into the white wool.

I am so sick of purring beasts.

Don’t tempt me, old man.
Today I have four arms
and weapons in each hand.

from Americans in Italy

      The three things Americans visiting Italy worry about most
are (1) being cheated, (2) being made to eat something
      they don’t like, and (3) being cheated in the course
of being made to eat something they don’t like.
      To these people, I say: Americans, do not worry.
Italians will not cheat you. Dishonesty requires calculation,
      and Italians are no fonder of calculation than we are.
As for the food, remember that you are in a restaurant,
      for Christ’s sake, and therefore it is highly unlikely

      that your handsome, attentive waiter will bring you
a bunch of boiled fish heads, much less a bowl of hairspray soup
      or a slice of tobacco pie topped with booger ice cream.
Indeed, you have already been both cheated and made to eat
      bad food in your so-called Italian restaurant in Dearborn
or Terre Haute where the specialty is limp manicotti
      stuffed with cat food and welded to an oversized ashtray
with industrial-strength tomato sauce; therefore be not
      like the scholar in The Charterhouse of Parma

      who never pays for the smellest trifle without looking up
its price in Mrs. Starke’s Travels, where it states how much
      an Englishman should pay for a turkey, an apple,
a glass of milk, and so on, but eat, drink, and spend freely,
      for tomorrow you will again be in Grand Rapids or Fort Wayne.
As Cosimo strolled his corridor, he could glance out from time to time
      to see if three or four of the abovementioned Pazzi or Albizi
were gathering to discuss something that almost certainly
      would not have been a surprise birthday party for him.

K was supposed to come with the key, I was

K WAS SUPPOSED TO COME WITH THE KEY, I WAS
to wait outside the gate. I arrived on time,
the time we had agreed on and waited, as agreed,
outside the gate. I waited a long time, waited
and waited, waited a very long time. I stood
next to the security guard from Securitas, who also
stood outside the gate. I waited, the security guard
from Securitas just stood there, he wasn’t waiting,
it was his job to stand there, he didn’t take
any breaks, he just stood there, keeping an eye
on what he was supposed to keep an eye on. K
didn’t show up. I waited. When the security guard
from Securitas finished his shift I went home
with him, sat down across from him at the kitchen
table, ate spicy meatballs on rice, summer cabbage
followed by green tea and mango from Brazil.
In the night he laid his human hand between
my shoulder blades before we both stumbled
across the threshold into a brand new now.

The Lady from the Sea

(after Ibsen)

She  Born in a lighthouse, I still find it hard
as wife to a doctor ten miles from the coast.
My home is a pleasant one but I get bored;
the mountains bother me. Now, like a ghost,
you show up here, severe and adamant.
What are you anyhow? What do you want?

He  I am a simple man upon the land,
I am a seal upon the open sea.
Your eyes are of the depths. Give me your hand,
give me your heart and come away with me.
to the Spice Islands, the South Seas; anywhere.
Only the force of habit keeps you here.

She  Even up here, enclosed, I sniff the brine,
the open sea out there beyond the beach;
my thoughts are waves, my dreams are estuarine
and deeper than an anchor chain could reach.
I knew you’d come, like some demonic fate
glimpsed at a window or garden gate.

He  How can you live here with no real horizon,
someone like you, a mermaid and a Muse,
a figment of your own imagination,
the years elapsing like a tedious cruise?
Your settled life is like this summer glow;
dark clouds foreshadow the approaching snow.

She  Sometimes,emerging frommy daily swim
or gazing from the dock these quiet nights,
I know my siren soul; and in a dream
I stare astonished at the harbour lights,
hugging my knees and sitting up alone
as ships glide darkly past with a low moan.

He  If our mad race had never left the sea,
had we remained content with mud and rock,
we might have saved ourselves great misery;
though even this evening we might still go back.
Think of the crashing breakers, the dim haze
of a salt sun rising on watery days.

She  My wild spirit unbroken, should I return
to the tide, choosing at last my other life,
reverting to blue water and sea-brine,
or do I continue as a faithful wife?
If faithful is the world for one who clings
to the lost pre-existence of previous things.

He  do you remember the great vow you made
to the one man you chose from other men?
The years have come between, with nothing said,
and now the stranger has appeared again
to claim your former love and make it new.
You ask me what I am; but what are you?

She  I am a troubled woman on the land,
I am a seal upon the open sea,
but it’s too late to give my heart and hand
to someone who remains a mystery.
Siren or not, this is my proper place;
go to your ship and leave me here in peace.

My heart has an Embassy

My heart has an Embassy
for Ecuador where I will seek
asylum. Earthquakes
and aftershocks undermine
my hope and my means to work
and the Americans
have wormed into my psyche
with their black knack at fear.
My heart has an Embassy
for Ecuador as rare in air
and sumptuous as the Andes,
as clear as the Equator. There
will be in it waterfalls
and jungles like salvation.
There will be friends
whom I owe nothing, no
famed bail, no knotty
knowing sexualities. My heart
has an Embassy for Ecuador
where there will be no secrets
and the truth falls down like water
from giant granites of despair.

from Correspondences

Sometimes we are led through the doorway
by a child, sometimes
by a stranger, always a matter of grace changing
the past, for if there is anything we must change
it is the past. To look back
and see another map.

Love enough to fill
a shoe, a suitcase, a bit of ink,
a painting, a child’s eyes at a chalkboard,
a bit of chalk, a bit of
bone in ash.

All that is cupped,
all that is emptied

the rush of water from a pump,
a word spelled out
on a palm.

The Work of Poets

Willie Cooper, what are you doing here, this early in your death?

To show us what we are, who live by twisting words—
Heaven is finished. A poet is anachronistic as a blacksmith.

You planted a long row and followed it. Signed your name X
for seventy years.
Poverty is not hell. Fingers cracked by frost
And lacerated by Johnson grass are not hell.

Hell is what others think we are.

You told me once, “Never worry.”
Your share of worry was as small as your share of the profits,

Mornings-after of lightning and radiator shine,
The beater Dodge you bought in late October—
By February, its engine would hang from a rafter like a ham.

You had a free place to stay, a wife
Who bore you fourteen children. Nine live still.

You live in the stripped skeleton of a shovelbill cat.

Up here in the unforgivable amnesia of libraries,
Where many poems lie dying of first-person omniscience,
The footnotes are doing their effete dance, as always.

But only one of your grandsons will sleep tonight in Kilby Prison.
The hackberry in the sand field will be there long objectifying.

Once I was embarrassed to have to read for you
A letter from Shields, your brother in Detroit,
A hick-grammared, epic lie of northern women and money.

All I want is to get one grain of the dust to remember.

I think it was your advice I followed across the oceans.
What can I do for you now?

from CHAPTER I, for Dick Higgins

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks — impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing schtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits, sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.