Summer Solstice, New York City

By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children's father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man's leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted next to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
everything stopped
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when its found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.


- Sharon Olds

Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing

1

A boy dyes his shirt the iridescent blue of sky

at dusk—or is it dawn? Rouged & glittered
he begins, smacking lips, licking gums

inside the club’s electronic hum.
         Older men,
displayed by the bar, slip off their tees—
leading the child
a labor of word, lyre, bark—
Ecstatic, he lurks into the back room, slipping
his tongue through the body’s shutters.
Floorboards unravel into a skein of metal.
What pattern of occasion will free him?


2

A prayer rug for a strict occasion.

A patch of sand, enclosed within a mesh fence,
where women in headscarves kneel on sajda,
hot from the day’s sun, a pleasure this agony
of warmth & muscle: knee to sand, head to sand.
A pleasure: restraint from lamb & water,
the empty carafe, the scales of fish

meatless & hanging to dry,
the grapes never to become wine.


3

Eating grapes, my friend harangues me
about the state of affairs in Riyadh.
His lips are wet, he is driving a Nissan rental.
At a streetlight, a single blackstart lands
on the side-view mirror: a lore of midnight
& melancholy song. “This Arab spring,”
my friend continues, my friend stops. . .

“Yes,” I say, thinking of the blackstart
somewhere in a baobab by now.

4

Somewhere, a mother faints at the butcher

when a lamb’s tongue is cut from the head—

the butcher pressing his fingers into

the eye sockets for leverage
                                    & the vague cool
of the air passing through the room awakes her
as when Mohammed awoke
in the night desert: no spruce to shade the dead
meat of him, no wind, not even stars—
& as the mother exits
a boy begins his journey to the city,

wearing yellow sandals & a ring on each finger.

- Charif Shanahan

Lateral Dimensions

Cloudy night—
not enough stars
to make frost

haunted house—
one room the cattle 
never would go in

mowing done—
each thing's a ship again 
on a wide green harbour

purification—
newspapers soaked in rain 
before they are read

an airliner, high—
life falling in from space 
to ramify

rodeo bull 
he wins every time 
then back on the truck

only one car 
of your amber necklace 
holds a once-living passenger

afternoon plains—
the only hill ahead 
is the rising moon

eels' 
liquid jostle through the grass 
that night of the year

big pelican, begging, 
hook through one yellow foot—
and nobody dares

on line 
the first motor car 
trotting without a horse

joking 
in a foreign language 
everyone looks down

accused of history 
many decide 
not to know any

all the colours 
of inside a pumpkin—
Mallee forest in rain 


- Les Murray

 

 

 

The World

I couldn't tell one song from another,
which bird said what or to whom or for what reason.

The oak tree seemed to be writing something using very few words.
I couldn't decide which door to open--they looked the same, or what

would happen when I did reach out and turn a knob. I thought I was safe,
standing there
but my death remembered its date:

only so many summer nights still stood before me, full moon, waning moon,
October mornings: what to make of them? which door?

I couldn't tell which stars were which or how far away any one of them was,
or which were still burning or not--their light moving through space like a
long

late train--and I've lived on this earth so long--50 winters, 50 springs and
summers,
and all this time stars in the sky--in daylight

when I couldn't see them, and at night when, most nights, I didn't look.

- Marie Howe, from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

From "The Old Man"

“…One winter morning, at the crack of dawn, heading back to Michigan again, to see my father before he had a major heart procedure, I got on the train and sat back and, as we pushed out of Chicago, with Bellow in my lap, I recalled that in Humboldt’s Gift, another favorite of my father’s, there had been some mention of the afterlife, or of the dead. (Now, here, at my desk, with a copy of the book beside me, I locate the section, on page 141 of my edition, and in it Charlie Citrine, the central character and narrator, says that he cannot accept the “view of death taken by most of us, and taken by me during most of my life — on esthetic grounds therefore I am obliged to deny that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever. No, the dead are about us, shut out by our metaphysical denial of them. As we lie nightly in our hemispheres asleep by the billions, our dead approach us.”)

I now see that on the train, barely remembering this passage, just catching the gist of it, I was somehow retroactively aware that in getting up in the middle of the night and packing in the dark and heading downstairs in an Ambien stupor to catch the earliest train possible, I was, somehow, knowingly, joining the dead who haunted the nighttime places between sleep and waking. I didn’t know at the time but I was following in the tracks of Charlie Citrine’s logic, preparing myself somehow not only to travel to my father, who would die a few days later, but also for the state I would be in when he was gone. I was feeling it in the cab, sensing it in the sweep of streets — Chicago streets, against logic, rise and fall more than expected. Call it wishful thinking or sweet delusion or whatever you want, but I know now, here, writing this, that the sensation I had was of communion with the dead around me. On the train that morning, I was aware — without knowing it, admitting it fully — of the shadow-space, partly because, of course, on a train in that transitory state between one place and another, between Chicago and my hometown, Kalamazoo, I was suspended between a sense of the life behind me and my father ahead, something like that. It’s high time you admit, I say to myself now (and said on the train), that you have a full-blown belief in a certain communion with the dead, one that you feel, strongly, must be sustained, if not in argument then at least in the fiction you write. A man stands alone along a stream in upper Michigan casting his line in a curl behind him, feeling it, sensing the gorgeous loop, the play of gravity and air and swing and motion, and then lays the line down perfectly along the stream’s surface so that the fly, far out at the end of the leader, which is invisible, makes just the right splash — the same splash a mayfly would make — and he takes a split second to look away from his task and to sweep his eyes from one end of the scene to the other and feels himself to be utterly alone with nature itself, folded into the place and the moment, while also aware somehow that he is not at all alone but subsumed in his own essential eternity along with all those who came before him. In his own violation of the rules of physics, he exists and doesn’t exist, and that sensation allows him — I’m pushing here — a vital link with those who are gone, because he is gone, too, as far as reality is concerned, and no one can prove that he made such a beautiful cast because no one knows they have to prove it, and when he has left that spot, along the Au Sable River, he will purposely avoid making mention of the moment and will answer questions from his friends with vague pleasantness. That’s what I feel about that moment on the train; that I’d be much better off not even trying to articulate it, or would be better served to simply say I felt strange in the cab on the way to the train, and then on the train itself; whereas inside I’m saying, I had a communion with the dead and readied myself to have a different relation with my father, one that would be between a dead man and myself, retroactively, without knowing I was doing so.”

- David Means, from his nonfiction essay in Harper’s Magazine, full link here: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/06/the-old-man-2/

From "Sleeping Bear Lament"

The great roiling swells of sand driven upward by more sand, compiled against itself; the eternal days and nights of Lake Michigan currents and the constant pounding winds rolling grain upon grain; the fronts staggering listlessly across the lake from Wisconsin like drunken louts, picking up moisture over the great body of water and pounding the coast until from nothing grew something. What did the Ottawa Indians think, wandering this moonscape, praying to their beloved Sleeping Bear as he lay prone on the great expanse of otherness, huddled against the lake? All along this side of the state the beaches were being taken away by the currents; houses tumbled down in slow-mo on the news, tag teams of bright yellow bulldozers attempted to rearrange fate, and we smoked our cigarettes and drank a last beer and sat in a little alcove of razor grass and laughed at our fear, at the idea that we could worry that Rondo, all taut muscle and hockey arms, might be dead.

It was turning out to be a brisk, fall-like day. The front had swung through a giant line of anvilheads. Out of the firmament, the ceaseless drive of wind, Sam came to me once more: that day in his house alone in that room with the soft linty smell of furnace heat (What’cha wanna do? Don’t know); the event with the trumpet. And of course his death—his death most of all—taking the whole high school by surprise. His cocky fuck-yous dead and gone. by that time he was completely one of those fringe beings, absorbed by the vast riptides of misery we pretended didn’t exist…

- David Means (whole story here: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/sleeping-bear-lament/)

Hospital in Oregon

Shhh, my grandmother is sleeping.
They doped her up with morphine for her last hours.
Her eyes are black and vacant like a deer’s.
She says she hears my grandfather calling.

A deerfly enters through a tear in the screen,
Must’ve escaped from those there sickly Douglas firs.
Flits from ankle to elbow, then lands on her ear.
Together, they listen to the ancient valley.

- Marilyn Chin

I Called Shotgun When You Died

I tried hard to be a ghost, so we could break into basements together to see who had whiskey and who did not, but I couldn’t die no matter how hard I tried. I stood lookout without you instead. I waited forever, but no one’s lights came on; everyone stayed asleep. You were still underground, casing the place, tangled in roots and the nests of mysterious spiders.
   
I called shotgun when you died, thinking we could still ride together through the neighborhood, selling bags of light to the newly dead. It didn’t seem fair that you had to cross the river by yourself.
   
I’m the same age I was back then, only older. The girls we loved are women now, their eyes still wet with tears.
   
When I dream of you, you’re always sitting on a barstool, just a kid, really, laughing when I say, I didn’t know you were still alive.
   
What’s new? Drugs are still good. They’re like love, getting all warm and up inside me, then ripping out my fucking heart, but in a good way, until I’ve seen 100 billion galaxies and can no longer clutch a Bible like a life preserver, as I drown in the sea of all those motherfucking stars.
   
Good night says the moment that brought me here, the moment we made of cotton and blood. Like an astronaut, I look for you in the flare of the genius sun in the blue-black sky, while terror draws a picture with its finger on my bedroom window—sand-worm, drought-fish, day-ghost—hieroglyphics I come to understand eventually: There is no sun. There are no stars. The coast is never clear.

- Christopher Kennedy

Inside / Out

The pits of cherries aren’t fruit, but seed. Buried
inside of their orbs, they exist to make
more. The pits contain cyanide and can kill
us if we try hard enough—if we eat them one
after another after another. I’m used to having pieces

of foreign things inside of me; I couldn’t
tell you how much metal is holding
my body together. They say I can have a baby.
Will I feel like my child is part of me

completely, or will I simply be growing something
to release to the outside? The day we ate
cherries on the beach we decided they’re
a worse version of grapes. Spat pits into sand.

What do we do when we find ourselves
outside of ourselves? When asked for the story,
I watch myself tell it. I’ve begun to wonder
if it actually happened to me.

They say you don’t want to lose the pain
of loss because it’s all you have left
of the thing. I can run loops around the park
miles and miles without stopping.

- Molly Johnsen



A Christmas Greeting

Good evening, Charlie. Yes, I know. You rise,
Two lean gray spiders drifting through your eyes.
Poor Charlie, hobbling down the hill to find
The last bootlegger who might strike them blind,
Be dead. A child, I saw you hunch your spine,
Wrench your left elbow round, to hold in line
The left-hand hollow of your back, as though
The kidney prayed for mercy. Years ago.
The kidneys do not pray, the kidneys drip.
Urine stains at the liver; lip by lip,
Affectionate, the snub-nosed demons kiss
And sting us back to such a world as this.
Charlie, the moon drips slowly in the dark,
The mill smoke stains the snow, the gray whores walk,
The left-hand hollow fills up, like the tide
Drowning the moon, skillful with suicide.
Charlie, don't ask me. Charlie go away,
I feel my own spine hunching. If I pray,
I lose all meaning. I don't know my kind;
Sack me, or bury me among the blind.
What should I pray for? what can they forgive?
You died because you could not bear to live,
Pitched off the bridge in Brookside, God knows why.
Well, don't remind me. I'm afraid to die,
It hurts to die, although the lucky do.
Charlie, I don't know what to say to you
Except Good Evening, Greetings, and Good Night,
God Bless Us Every One. Your grave is white.
What are you doing here?


-
by James Wright

A Blue Line

Hey, look, when you used to come into my kitchen
I didn’t even know where to stand, it was my kitchen
but it was yours, that quickly. And the evening had
a metal mouth which was meant to scare us, but we
listened to the desert instead. You taught us.
Unemployed, fuck the moon.

Years later there’s a dog biting into my book.
I pass the book on before too long. I hear feet
running toward the bank, then back again. It’s
night. The wives have come home to look at the
maps. The husbands are thinking invisibly through
someone from earlier in the blue day.

The blue line. The blue hat. The blue Atlantic
and that incredible blue distance to the small
apartment on the other side of the blue continent.
The blue judge, the blue court, the blue cop
good enough to say goodbye instead of staying.

Hey, once in the blue rain I was screaming for
you. It was more foreign than a foreign city.
Every time I left the house the rain got bluer,
and I had to turn back. Worse, I felt trapped.
It went on and on. I went nowhere.

I didn’t even know there was still a blue line
from me to you, that if I had just followed it
I would have found you: lonely like me then,
with your mouth to the window, and the stars
blinking but saying write darkly for now.

Write darkly.

- Michael Burkard

[Last night as I was sleeping]

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

- Antonio Machado, trans. by Robert Bly

Melancholy Thoughts

Leaves falling one by one
and rain at dusk is tender

vermilion lute, playing alone
sound of a clear voice singing

try to ignore your regret
at having no intimate friends or lovers

try to build up your character
and cast your bitterness into the sea

sound of a carriage outside the door
come for some venerable elder

heaps of Taoist books
scattered in front of the pillow

raggedly dressed people
eventually go to heaven

green water and blue hills
already here and gone.

- Yu Xuanji, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin

Students

You see me here smeared
with chalk and pressed against
the slate-gray triptych from fear,
white as paper, white as a flensed
seal. Sometimes I can step outside
myself and listen
to my voice in its best bedside
manner reassure with glistening
lies, with cool purgatorial lies,
that although this is fall
we are not complying
and my heart goes out to myself.


I think when I go home of the syllabus
of love and horror movies
you’ve sat through in the Very Rich Hours
of your summer. The corpses are gorgeous,
and the books just begin to be
the artifice we need to begin.
To begin: to cut open. To love:
to be cut open and to heal and to cut open.
And I thought I could be above
It all—professional, textual, sacrificial.

- Bruce Smith

The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

- T.S. Eliot