Poem of the Week Archives

from Homer: War Music

    Under the curve the keel makes
Where it sweeps upright to the painted beak
Achilles’ heroes placed their gilded oars,
Set twelve carved thwarts across them,
Surfaced this stage with wolf- and beaver-fleece
Amid whose stirring nap Patroclus lay,
The damaged statue of a prince awaiting transportation.
    Near it Achilles sat, Odysseus beside,
And women brought them food.
    ‘Patroclus liked to eat,’ Achilles said,
‘And you cooked well, Patroclus, didn’t you?
Particularly well that summer when
My cousin Ajax and king Nestor drove
Up from the Pel’ponnesus crying “wife”
And “theft” and “war” and “please” and –
What is this “eat of yours Odysseus?
If you were telling me: He’s dead, your father; well,
I might eat a bit; troubled, it’s true; but eat
Like any fool who came God knows how many mist
And danger mixed sea miles to repossess fair Helen.
    I know you, Ithaca: you think:
Achilles will fight better if ne feeds.
Don’t be so sure.
    I do not care about his gifts. I do not care, Odysseus,
Do not care.
    Patroclus was my life’s sole love.
The only living thing that called
Love out of me.

    At night I usedto dream of how, when he came home to
      Greece,
He’d tell them of my death – for I must die – and show my son,
This house, for instance, or that stone beside the stream,
My long green meadows stretching through the light,
So clear it seems to magnify …’

    And here Achilles, loved by God,
Was led by Sleep to sleep beside the stage,
And king Odysseus goes off as close to tears
As he will ever be.

Wheat Seedlings

On the mountainside field after field of wheat seedlings shiver
the farther up the more they tremble
the mountain will soon shake itself apart.

Spring borrows the wind
to spread a fear of heights even farther.
It seems a transparent weapon is hidden in the heart of the sky
it seems danger wants to drop down and stab us.

There is a bundle of light walking about
the sun is preparing to make the green even greener.
The wheat seedlings ooze bile in fear
one by one the mountaintops connect, light up.

The wheat keeps spreading into the pitch-black towns
the bread steamed on the fire breaks open.
Those who have eaten their fill go outside
to turn up a roiling red clay tail.
The red tail’s human leader also strolls up to the mountaintop
the only thing on earth that seems timid is the wheat.

The green color’s fear is of the hoe.
It’s of the piercing bright blade of the sickle.
And it’s of us, the flour-eaters.

At Ursula’s

A cold and stormy morning
   I sit in Ursula’s place
and fancy something spicy
   served with the usual grace

by one of her bright workforce
   who know us from before,
a nice girl from Tbilisi,
   Penang or Baltimore.

Some red basil linguine
   would surely hit the spot,
something light and shiny,
   mint-yoghurty and hot;

a frosty but delightful
   pistachio ice-cream
and some strong herbal
   infusion wreathed in steam.

Once a tomato sandwich
   and a pint of stout would do
but them days are over.
   I want to have a go

at some amusing fusion
   Thai and Italian both,
a dish of squid and pine-nuts
   simmered in lemon broth,

and catch the atmospherics,
   the happy lunchtime crowd,
as the cold hand gets warmer
   and conversation loud.

Boats strain at sea, alas,
   gales rattle the slates
while inside at Ursula’s
   we bow to our warm plates.

In the International Pavilion

   In the International Pavilion,
for carven cats there are three positions
mainly: the sleeping round, the sphinx
and the sitting upright Bast,
protector of women. These cats
are painted in African sunset
colours, from bird pink to black,
with russets, grapes, and tangerines.
They look edgy, like the live
exhibits. The Show is always
edgy, its moon often a high
cold full Easter moon. Some of the
animals will die and be tasted
and fear it. Some schoolchildren
who bred them will vomit with pride.
      Katharine and I avoid
the live exhibits these days, even
the pretty petting zoo. We buy a small pride
of soapstone for her cat collection, two
hippos for my soapstone hippos,
too. These hippos are different:
curled asleep like cats, not upright
on four legs with flaring noses.
When Katharine was a baby, I wrote
a poem that cats have small dry
noses and dogs large wet ones. Mysteriously,
it was requested for an erotic
international anthology and I agreed
diplomatically. Katharine still
finds that hilarious, but I suppose
the anthologists could have been northern
from some area of ice where noses
chill easily and need a pridelike welcome.
I try to photograph her with the new
digital camera but it has too
funhouse a dimension, distorts
the nose too far before the face, which
should suit the Show, but I abandon
it for the mobile phone, which shows
that moon of equinox behind her better, and
her small fine straight nose with its
slight nostril flare in proportion.
We buy a round white cloth cat:
mouthless, Japanese and strong,
the lack of mouth suggesting not
docility but a placid and wide
powerful telepathy. It has
a nose, which looks sensitive and neat.
Such cats were strewn around
the Japanese tidal wave wreckage, wet
and no doubt radioactive. Urbane men
with grim in their name and tone spoke
on Western TV saying that
the Japanese crisis would prove
the safety of nuclear power. Stray
toy cats without mouths did not
lower their pride to reply. The grim moon
of April is a pale pear blossom, not
pink like cherry, peach, or plum. Somewhere
here a cow lows, uncertain. We
hope it is a dairy cow, move on
in the milk-warm moon of caution.

“The Sparrow”

The little Blaisdale girl was knock-kneed
and cranky with freckles. She was
quiet and often immersed
in the King’s versions of holy writ.
They called her Sparrow,
so the Lord would be watchful of her …

When her father’s boat failed
to come back from the North Atlantic
there was finally a memorial
followed by a feast –
she and I were charged
to take blue enamel kettles
full of garbage
out to the pit beyond the henhouses.

She was a year older than me and could
walk faster. I stumbled
twice in the pigs’ run. It was
a cold peninsula in Maine.

It was snowing heavily …

In her old communion dress she was
now invisible in a white wind – the gulls
arriving were quickly lost
also in the storm:
there was a disembodied sobbing, only the red
carapace of lobsters, the screams of gulls

and then again,
only the armor of those big sea spiders
climbing high to a vanishing point
beyond even Butler’s Cove
and the great granite face
of Morse Mountain which like a freighter
from Asia moved impossibly into the nor’easter …

Asia was where her mother said the father
had died first,
eating even the bones of snakes, the sound
of gnashing teeth
there beside the compost heap, again and again,
with full ardor
and in the full circle of cold and nitrogen.

Thinktent

I am my world. (The microcosm.)
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Hospitality: the first demand
what is your name?
the city bound me so I entered

to dream a science that would name me
daughter and launch beyond
grief, that old thoracic cause

myocardium: a blood-orange foundry
handed down by the humoral
anatomists and not be

inside my own head perpetually
not simply a Wittgenstein’s girl
but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent

If you are in need of an answer
consult a jiisakiiwinini
scientific rigour
psychoanalysis
the unconscious a construct
method amphibious
of two minds
that’s the translator
her task to receive
the call that comes
down the barrel
of the future

all of us a congress
of selves a vibrational chorus
I know myself to be a guest
in your mind a grand lodge
of everything I long to know and hold
within this potlatch we call
the present
moment

If I speak of the night
speak its illicit cerebrum
of branches and back seats
speak beyond our future
a thinkable urn

my empirical training
my non-status brow ridge
indivisible and glistening

every time I tease a thread of being
from its moment in standard time

let’s elevate the coordinates of distress
take it all in
I’m all in and over the limit

the limit, the eliminative, the lumens, the mens rea, the loom

to be a shopkeep in the showroom of nouns
what to purchase and what
to disavow

speak with saffron

speak of just the small bits, atomic

speak of the inevitable curve in the data

all foreclosed upon and glimmering

like a good bitch in the brine of night

I haven’t nearly enough heat here

in this stakeout

the sky died and I’m its anima in the pitch thickets

I have fingers with which to squish

pin cherries and rosehips

dogwood, I have begun

to hear a rosary of pure tones, the colony

hear its call toward disorder

citizens, I have never

been dishonest in my horror

the underclass of our era

a requisite paternity test

dominus

in excelsis

 

9/11

The first person is an existentialist

like trash in the groin of the sand dunes
like a brown cardboard home beside a dam

like seeing like things the same
between Death Valley and the desert of Paran

An earthquake a turret with arms and legs
The second person is the beloved

like winners taking the hit
like looking down on Utah as if

it was Saudi Arabia or Pakistan
like war-planes out of Miramar

like a split cult a jolt of coke New York
like Mexico in its deep beige couplets

like this, like that … like Call us all It
Thou It. “Sky to Spirit! Call us all It!”

The third person is a materialist.

Homage to Pessoa

I once loved.
I thought I would be loved.
But I wasn’t loved.
I wasn’t loved for the only reason that matters-
It was not to be.
I unbuttoned my white gloves and stripped each off.
I set aside my gold-knobbed cane.
I picked up this pen…
And thought how many other men
Had smelled the rose in the bud vase
And lifted a fountain pen,
And lifted a mountain…
And put the shotgun in their mouth,
And noticed that their hunting dog was pointing.

Clean

I have
a white floor
and the floor was clean,
there wasn’t any mud on it,

said Kelly’s stepmother, testifying
in her daughter’s defense.

Cool linoleum.

The Gorge by Craigflower Bridge,
full
of seaweed and filth and mud,

her daughter’s skin

clean, white.