Poem of the Week Archives

The Stairwell

For Lucy McDiarmid

I have been thinking about the music for my funeral –
Liszt’s transcription of that Schumann song, for instance,
‘Dedication’ – inwardness meets the poetry of excess –
When you lead me out of your apartment to demonstrate
In the Halloween-decorated lobby the perfect acoustic
Of the stairwell, and stand among pumpkins, cobwebby
Skulls, dancing skeletons, and blow kisses at the ceiling,
Whistling Great War numbers – ‘Over There’, ‘It’s a Long,
Long Way’, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ (the refrain) –
As though for my father who could also whistle them,
Trench memories, your eyes closed, your head tilted back,
Your cheeks filling up with air and melody and laughter.
I hold the banister. I touch your arm. Listen, Lucy,
There are songbirds circling high up in the stairwell.

Disquisition on Trees

The book that says the President is a friend of trees is a book of lies! The President should read the one about the little mouse that drove a car and got his girlfriend pregnant and they had to fly a rubberband-powered airplane over a stack of newspapers. Not a tree in sight. Not a tree in the whole book. Another book that he might pick up casually could strip the veil of illusion from his eyes: pretty women, the unpleasant foot odors of. But that is only what it appears to be about. It is a book about how to have a big piece missing from your head and live.

Lost Empire

And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden.
Its victories were air, its dominions dirt:
Burma, Canada, Egypt, Africa, India, the Sudan.
The map that had seeped its stain on a schoolboy’s shirt
like red ink on a blotter, battles, long sieges.
Dhows and feluccas, hill stations, outposts, flags
fluttering down in the dusk, their golden aegis
went out with the sun, the last gleam on a great crag,
with tiger-eyed turbaned Sikhs, pennons of the Raj
to a sobbing bugle. I see it all come about
again, the tasselled cortege, the clop of the tossing team
with funeral pom-poms, the sergeant major’s shout,
the stamp of boots, then the volley; there is no greater theme
than this chasm-deep surrendering of power
the whited eyes and robes of surrendering hordes,
red tunics, and the great names Sind, Turkistan, Cawnpore,
dust-dervishes and the Saharan silence afterwards.

A dragonfly’s biplane settles and there, on the map,
the archipelago looks as if a continent fell
and scattered into fragments; from Pointe du Cap
to Moule à Chique, bois-canot, laurier cannelles,
canoe-wood, spicy laurel, the wind-churned trees
echo the African crests; at night, the stars
are far fishermen’s fires, not glittering cities,
Genoa, Milan, London, Madrid, Paris,
but crab-hunters’ torches. This small place produces
nothing but beauty, the wind-warped trees, the breakers
on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens
a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us
merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,
light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.
I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres;
for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,
to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.

Dim-Lit Interior

I’m done crying into my beer about love.

My days of riding the shiny brass schoolbus are behind me as well.

The changes come slowly but suddenly.

One day the sun will burn so brightly it will turn all our seas into vast boiling vats.

Freedom comes from understanding our lack of ability to change things.

So lead me O Destiny whither is ordained by your decree.

Just please don’t force me to vacuum the stairs.

The quiet that follows the storm may be the same as the quiet before it.

Let the wind blow.

Let it blow down each tree on the bright boulevard.

The things I would most like to change are the things that make me believe change is possible.

Theatre of the Millo Seco (Botos)

I am in the little field of my mother
Her field touches
oaks of the valley
and I touch the faces of my corn

Opening corn’s faces
so that my hands touch its braille letters
The face of corn is all in braille
the corn wrote it

Fires will burn this evening
burn the dry husks of the corn
and I will learn to read
Sheep will wait by the trough
for they know corn’s feature, corn’s humility

corn’s dichten


granite too

The Poor

By Roberto Sosa, a translation

The poor are many
and so —
impossible to forget.

No doubt,
as day breaks,
they see the buildings
where they wish
they could live with their children.

can steady the coffin
of a constellation on their shoulders.
They can wreck
the air like furious birds,
blocking the sun.

But not knowing these gifts,
they enter and exit through mirrors of blood,
walking and dying slowly.

And so,
one cannot forget them.

The Hands


When we overwhelm a village,
I am told to make sure
none will ever pull a trigger.

I go in with a machete,
come out with a sack of hands.
My fathers feed me, count the pairs.

In the darkness I feel cool
palms crawl up to stroke
my head, soft hairless

hand-backs on my cheeks.
Thumbs draw down my eyelids,
fingers shush my lips.


In a terracotta jar,
a tobacco-brown plant,
tight as a mummified fist.

‘Leave it in the rain,
and see what happens.’

So we tipped it in the sink.

Amid the crockery
it unfurled and began to beg:
ever open, plaintive.

We kept it watered,
then, sick of supplication –
left it in the sun to clench.

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


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


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.