Send Me a Leaf

Send me a leaf, but from a little tree
That grows no nearer your house
Than half an hour away. For then
You will have to walk, you will get strong and I
Shall thank you for the pretty leaf.

- by Bertolt Brecht (trans. by David Constantine)

Poem in October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbor wood

            And the mussel pooled and the heron

                                    Priested shore

                        The morning beckon

With water praying and call of seagull and rook

And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall

                        Myself to set foot

                                    That second

            In the still sleeping town and set forth.

           

            My birthday began with the water-

Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name

            Above the farms and the white horses

                                    And I rose

                        In rainy autumn

And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

High tide and the heron dived when I took the road

                        Over the border

                                    And the gates

            Of the town closed as the town awoke.

            A springful of larks in a rolling

Cloud and and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling

            Blackbirds and the sun of October

                                    Summery

                        On the hill's shoulder,

Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly

Come in the morning where I wandered and listened

                        to the rain wringing

                                    Wind blow cold

            In the wood faraway under me.

            Pale rain over the dwindling harbour

And over the sea wet church the size of a snail

            With its horns through mist and the castle

                                    Brown as owls

                        But all the gardens

Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales

Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.

                        There could I marvel

                                    My birthday

            Away but the weather turned around.

            It turned away from the blithe country

And down the other air and the blue altered sky

            Streamed again a wonder of summer

                                    With apples

                        Pears and red currants

And i saw in the turning so clearly a child's

Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother

                        Through the parables

                                    Of sun light

            And the legends of the green chapels

            And the twice told fields of infancy

That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.

            These were the woods the river and the sea

                                    Where a boy

                        In the listening

Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy

To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.

                        And the mystery

                                    Sang alive

            Still in the water and singingbirds.

            And there could I marvel my birthday

Away but the weather turned around. And the true

            Joy of the long dead child sang burning

                                    In the sun.

                        It was my thirtieth

Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon

Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.

                        O may my heart's truth

                                    Still be sung

            On this high hill in a year's turning.


- Dylan Thomas

The Spell

In memory of Elise Asher

Our four year old neighbor Pablo has lost his wand
and so he tries to cast spells with his finger
which doesn’t seem to work as well.

Then he brings handfuls of dimes and nickels to the couch
where I’m sitting, and when I say, Give me some money,
he says, No, laughing.

Give me some money, I say,
and he says, No.

Then he draws, on a piece of paper, a circle with a 10 inside
the word No, an unhappy mouth and eyes,
and gives that to me.

Why not ask the wand to find itself?
No, he says, shaking his head slowly.
Why not make a spell that will find it?
No, he says, that won’t work.
What about the stick? His mother says, holding up a chopstick.
No, says Pablo, who knows the difference between what is secular and
what is sacred.

Every day when I pick up my four year old daughter from preschool
she climbs into the her back booster seat and says, Mom – tell me your story.
And almost every day I tell her: I dropped you off, I taught my class
I ate a tuna fish sandwich, wrote e-mails, returned phone calls, talked with students
and then I came to pick you up.
And almost every day I think, My God, is that what I did?

Yesterday, she climbed into the backseat and said, Mom
tell me your story, and I did what I always did:
I said I dropped you off
taught my class, had lunch, returned e-mails, talked with students….
And she said, No Mom, tell me the whole thing.

And I said, ok, I feel a little sad.
And she said, Tell me the whole thing Mom.
And I said, ok, Elise died.

Elise is dead and the world feels weary and brokenhearted.
and she said, Tell me the whole thing Mom.
And I said, in the dream last night I felt my life building up around me and
when I stepped forward and away from it and turned around I saw a high
and forever crested wave.

And she said, the whole thing Mom.
Then I thought of the other dream, I said, when a goose landed heavily on my    
head—
but when I’d untangled it from my hair I saw it wasn’t a goose but a winged
serpent
writhing up into the sky like a disappearing bee.

And she said, Tell me the whole story.
And I said, Elise is dead, and all the frozen tears are mine of course
and if that wave broke it might wash my life clear,
and I might begin again from now and from here.

And I looked into the rearview mirror—
she was looking sideways, out the window, to the right
                               --where they say the unlived life is.
Ok? I said.
And she said, Ok, still looking in that direction.


- by Marie Howe

 

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

- William Butler Yeats

Cancer

Mine, I know, started at a distance
five hundred and twenty light-years away
and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,
yesterday, at birth, or that time when I was ten
lying on my back looking up at the cluster
called the Beehive or by its other name
in the constellation Cancer,
the Crab, able to move its nebulae projections
backward and forward, side to side,
in the tumor Hippocrates describes as carcinoma,
from karkinos, the analogue, in order to show
what being cancer looks like.
Star, therefore, to start,
like waking on the best day of your life
to feel this living and immortal thing inside you.
You were in love, you were a saint,
you were going to walk the sunlight blessing water,
you were almost word for word forever.
The crown, the throne, the thorn—
now to see the smoke shining in the mirror,
the long half-dark of dark down the hallway inside it.
Now to see what wasn’t seen before:
the old loved landscape fading from the window,
the druid soul within the dying tree,
the depth of blue coloring the cornflower,
the birthday-ribbon river of a road,
and the young man who resembles you
opening a door in the half-built house
you helped your father build,
saying, in your voice, come forth.

- Stanley Plumly

 

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, 
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans, 
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white, 
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater. 
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there, 
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

  - Seamus Heaney

The Empty Glass

I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.

And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.

O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.

But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.

Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.

I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.

Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—

What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?

And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.

   - Louise Gluck

Low Tide, Late August

That last summer when everything was almost always terrible
we waded into the bay one late afternoon as the tide had almost finished
pulling all the way out

and sat down in the waist-deep water,
I floating on his lap facing him, my legs floating around him,
and we quietly coupled,

and stayed, loosely joined like that, not moving,
but being moved by the softly sucking and lapping water,
as the pulling out reached its limit and the tide began to flow slowly back again.

Some children ran after each other, squealing in the shallows, near but not too near.

I rested my chin on his shoulder looking toward the shore.
As he must have been looking over my shoulder, to where the water deepened
and the small boats tugged on their anchors.

Fiat Lux

Static from the radio stippled grey as anesthesia dream,
band after band of voices,
the luminous bar of speedometer, column shift. Cruising,
the long battered car fogged in whiskey
breath, the sumptuous trash, canvas scraps, pasteled
bills of lading. Father and daughter—

and over them blue spruce laden with snow arcing the white
mentioned avenue of robber barons’
palaces, the steamship magnates and celebrities, the city’s
skyline gothamed electric
across the horizon. Small hands on the pane wick the chill
until I’m icy pure flame,

outside the big houses, streets unwinding below like a tulle scarf
from a woman’s shoulders
to the damp wooden houses huddled in their steam,
the marshes’
smoking blackness beyond. Swallow the moon like a coin,
an ivory poker chip polished

for luck, driving fast past the opera singer’s house, his name
like nervous laughter, that
music blown to shards, arias of ice, and always the city’s
dragon-back silhouette, someplace
a child might never get to. Fiat lux, the windows’

glow, buttery and old.
The city’s become a figure for the way you’ve learned to love
what’s distant, fantastic,
an abyss of space between. One of those returning things, skeins
of planetary days, lunar phases,
solar years turning harmonies celestial in the blood. One’s

never done with the past.
Close your eyes. The laden winter night, hill tumbling downs
and beneath the burning meadows’
spreading stain, the runaway’s smoking train through roots, the blind
white worms and rat swarms
underneath the mercury-colored river. I always loved stories

that began that way: the elaborate entry
to the city of cast-iron garlands and window displays intricate
as a universe with shining cogs
and wheels, a world where night reversed to day, and towering Women
waterfalled their Dynel tresses
in the shelter of marquees, boas spitting plumage in the faces

of nightwaiters.
Yes, the gilded birds, plunder in the turrets. And the pulse,
the mission, secret formulas
discovered all around me, the daughter swept in her black serge
dust-bin coat, tangled in foxtails,
glass eyes, shoplifter’s pockets sewn inside stuffed with broken trinkets,

cancelled stamps from Peru and Mozambique.
Fingers tracing the skyline through the windshield of that battered car:
mere fiat lux, tricks,
delusions of sleek verb, the lustrous nouns. How to imagine
those places where chaos
holds sway, the old night where you hear scared laughter pierce

the anesthesia dream, song
of shoulders pushed rough to alley walls, torn caress, dark dress,
song that goes
I’ll do it for 10, for 5, I’ll do it, burnt spoon twisted in the pocket.
Don’t tell her. Child stroking
the frosted pane, galactic, impervious and caught in this endless

coming to be that’s endlessly undone
the long car’s weaving tracks blurred quickly in the snow beneath
the laden shelter of trees,
my father’s whiskied breath as we drove like thieves through skeins
of planetary nights, air rich
with signals, the arias and perfect boundless schemes where
the city floated
distant and celestial, brutal in its own rung music.

   - Lynda Hull

Sphere

       For Harold Bloom

"Sir, I don't have no black tea," the waitress replied, 
so I ordered Black Label instead. It was summer and the fragrant
white flowers of the black locusts had awakened, like faeries or obscure matter. 
A black bear clothed in thorns made a mess of the bird feeder where hungry
blackcaps were a vision. And the black flies were biting energetically. 
Billy died of the Black Death (I shouldn't call it that) and hovered like a
       winged horseman. 
There's nothing so wrong as when young folks die. I smashed my bike, 
blacked out, and got two black eyes. At the Mayo Clinic, 
Daddy had his arteries cleared, praising the surgeon's fine black hands. 
After he died, we called everyone in his black book and found
a black space that couldn't be lifted by impotent wings. Like me, 
he was the black sheep. There were struggles. Once, driving near Black Mountain, 
he blurted, "There ain't nothing so good as stolen corn or watermelon." 
His face was like a smiling black spider's. Questioning the earth
from which he came ("Son, you got mixed blood")—and that drew him back— 
he cleared a way forward into the murky light. Beside the roadside blacktop, 
a deer, with black diamonds in its eyes, lay in a bed of black pansies. 
Around us, black ash and black walnuts made a velvety curtain. 
Dead ten years, he visits me often, like a head behind bars, with that black temper
and black bile still coming out of his mouth, but tenderness, too, like black gold. 
Did I love him back, I wonder? If I loved him with all my heart
and all my liver, why did I spit him into the river?

   - Henri Cole

 

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-

Korsakov, Debussy, Bartok, Hindemith, Schonberg, Szymanowski, hundreds of composers throughout all of Europe. Over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self, to bastardize it, for genius wants bastardy, the use of external procedures to undermine the dictatorship of the church chant and harmony, why am I getting worked up all alone on my pillow now, probably because I'm a poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about. Today no one is interested anymore in Felicien David who became extraordinarily famous on December 8, 1844 after the premiere of Le Desert at the Paris Conservatoire, an ode-symphony in three parts for narrator, solo tenor, male chorus, and orchestra, based on the composer's memories of his journey to the Orient, between Cairo and Beirut...The Desert invades Paris--"by unanimous opinion, it was the most beautiful storm music had every produced, no maestro had ever gone so far," Theophile Gautier writes in La Presse, describing the storm assailing the caravan in the desert; it's also the premier of the "Danse des almees," the Dance of the Almahs, an erotic motif whose subsequent fortune we know, and surprise of surprises, the first "Chant du muezzin," the first Muslim call to prayer that ever sounded in Paris." 

- Mathias Enard, from Compass

Yellowjackets

When the plowblade struck
An old stump hiding under
The soil like a beggar’s
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up
& Mister Jackson left the plow
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.
The horse was midnight
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s
Pocketwatch. He shivered, but not
The way women shook their heads
Before mirrors at the five
& dime—a deeper connection
To the low field’s evening star.
He stood there, in tracechains,
Lathered in froth, just
Stopped by a great, goofy
Calmness. He whinnied
Once, & then the whole
Beautiful, blue-black sky
Fell on his back.

   - by Yusef Komunyakaa

Monster

The train, which I took back
across the great plain,
I tell you, it was a monster
with a swollen belly.

It had a lair in Pulawy,
ravened in Warsaw;
children greeted it
and it swallowed them.

Now they’re playing together—
the boys from the blocks,
the girls with the matches,
Aesculapius in palaestra.

Their parents have managed
to toss each one a toy:
hamsters in an aquarium,
A PlayStation, and a stamp album.

The parents are getting older,
longing consumes them,
now it’s they who come
to greet the travelers.

They look at their watches
through dark glasses,
and would like to light up,
but where’s the fire?

Until the icebreaker Sadness
weighs anchor.
Until the Summer School
of Common Language begins.

I was there, I know what I’m saying,
it was a thick monster—
the train, which I took back
across the great plain.

   - by Dariusz Sosnicki
     (Translated from the Polish, by Piotr Florczyk and Boris Dralyuk)

The Road

         Better a monosyllabic life than a ragged
         and muttered one; let its report be short
         and round like a rifle, so that it may hear
         its own echo in the surrounding silence.

         THOREAU

A life: pared to the bone.
Think of a room with no
chair, no bed. Like a monk,

I sit on a black square
in a patch of light.
In my mind, I sit there.

Or, a life on the road
that takes me here, there,
the trees in fall so bare.

And I with just
the rags on my back,
a gnarled stick to lean on.

Your life, held next
to mine, is rich and fat.
You walk with a pack

and wear a big straw hat
that blocks the sun.
You like things loud,

loud songs, and beat
a drum as you walk.
Hoooo there! you call,

but I let you pass.
The days and years
mount up as I walk on

toward a word dark
as night, black as pitch,
still as a held breath.

A place where a night
bird sings. It sounds
like Keats so I stop.

I build a fire,
sleep like the dead,
dream of a bright star,

and wake at dawn,
the sweet bird gone.
Then rise, splash my face

from the stream. Up the road,
a few souls, gray as time,
stand in a patch of shade,

their arms held out.
So it was for this! I think,
This life, this road! This!

and run as I have never
run, back to the beginning,
the very beginning.

They are all
where I left them.
And there is so much to say.

   - by Elizabeth Spires

Temple Example

 

The mind doesn't do what we want it to do.

Mine plays speed Scrabble; it sifts pages and pages

of pictures of shoes. Palmyra goodbye. Temple of Bel not a pun

but a ruin. A ruined ruin, a ruin sent to oblivion

on purpose. Who cares if I fold up at my desk

a heap of angry sorrow. Not any candidate,

no ambassador. Sign a petition? Email some senators?

I make nothing happen. I make

nothing but orders, seven-letter words, coffee

with the hard water from the oleander-pierced pipes

with their roaches and mud. A temple

stood for twenty centuries and today the New York Times

shows us its new life as dust. Baal is how they spell it.

A neat aerial square of nothing now. The world wants

what from us in reply to the hatred of the mind?

I should say "soul," I know, or "history" or "culture"

but probably only the mind can thwart destructions.

In America, the mind is also hated,

by whosoever sells us shoes and phones. We are subtle

here, give lots of money to the arts.

- by Sally Ball

Masts at Dawn

Masts at Dawn

Past second cock-crow yacht masts in the harbor go slowly white.

No light in the east yet, but the stars show a certain fatigue.
They withdraw into a new distance, have discovered our unworthiness. It is long since

The owl, in the dark eucalyptus, dire and melodious, last called, and

Long since the moon sank and the English
Finished fornicating in their ketches. In the evening there was a strong swell.

Red died the sun, but a dark wind rose easterly, white sea nagged the black harbor headland.

When there is a strong swell, you may, if you surrender to it, experience
A sense, in the act, of mystic unity with that rhythm. Your peace is the sea's will.

But now no motion, the bay-face is glossy in darkness, like

An old window pane flat on black ground by the wall, near the ash heap. It neither
Receives nor gives light. Now is the hour when the sea

Sinks into meditation. It doubts its own mission. The drowned cat
That on the evening swell had kept nudging the piles of the pier and had seemed

To want to climb out and lick itself dry, now floats free. On that surface a slight convexity
         only, it is like

An eyelid, in darkness, closed. You must learn to accept the kiss of fate, for

The masts go white slow, as light, like dew, from darkness
Condensed on them, on oiled wood, on metal. Dew whitens in darkness.

I lie in my bed and think how, in darkness, the masts go white.

The sound of the engine of the first fishing dory dies seaward. Soon
In the inland glen wakes the dawn-dove. We must try

To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.

     - Robert Penn Warren