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

[Once there was rage and the promise]

Once there was rage and the promise
that rage was a god not a corpse
message nor a melting of the core.
Once it moved us closer to weather
and thunder and it made poetry
as a cure. Then Herodotus broke
my heart with his history: his rumor
that begins as living twice and ends
as recompense for loss. Events bent me.
I took the arrow of accuracy in my eye.
The sugary accounts made me votary,
the biographical acids lashed my back.
I gave up songs for facts: those green
squawking parrots, that fire truck,
that earring, that body bound and gagged.
Then America broke my other heart
with its jails and gerrymandering,
its Emmett Till, its charms
and concussions, its ringing in my ears.
Who’s the president? Who’s your mother?
Who painted the angels? Who bombed
Homs? Repeat after me: comorbid,
torpid, transported. Close one eye. Hum.
Where’s your mother’s nation? Your father’s
sky? Who’s your other? Close the other eye.

- Bruce Smith, from “Spill”

Self-Portrait in a Gold Kimono

Born, I was born.

                               Tears represent how much my mother loves me,

shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.

                                                         My heart as innocent as Buddha's,

my name a Parisian bandleader's,

                                                            I am trying to stand.

Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,

                                                                  like a glassblower on a flame.

Stars on his blue serge uniform flaunt a feeling

                                                             of formal precision and stoicism.

Growing, I am growing now,

                                       as straight as red pines in the low mountains.

Please don't leave, Grandmother Pearl.

                                                                      I become distressed

watching the president's caisson.

                                                 We, we together move to the big house.

Shining, the sun is shining on my time line.

                                                                           Tears, copper-hot tears,

spatter the house 

                                when Father is drunk, irate, and boisterous.

The essence of self emerges

                                                  shuttling between parents.

Noel, the wet nimbus of Noel's tongue

                                                                       draws me out of the pit.

I drop acid with Rita.

                                         Chez Woo eros is released.

I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue.

                                                                                  The draft card torn up;

the war lost.

                        I cling like a cicada to the latticework of memory.

Mother: "I have memories, too.

                                                           Don't let me forget them."

Father: "I'm glad the journey is set.

                                                                  I'm glad I'm going."

Crows, the voices of crows

                                             leaving their nests at dawn, circle around,

as I sit in a gold kimono,

                                             feeling the subterranean magma flows,

the sultry air, the hand holding a pen,

                                                                      bending to write,

Thank you,

                      Mother and Father, for creating me.

- Henri Cole

"I had a friend who could not sleep,

and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning light, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained in the night? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals. The White Rose bars opened very early in the morning; I recall waiting in one of them to watch an astronaut go into space, waiting so long that at the moment it actually happened I had my eyes not on the television screen but on a cockroach on the tile floor.”

- Joan Didion, from “Goodbye to All That”

Newport, 1930

Stepping deftly to the jetty,
members of the boating party,
women in pearls, long skirts, cloche hats,
men in blazers, white yachting flannels,
slickers dangling from an arm,

walk the ramp to the misty shore.
The sand is grey, the water greyer,
the light is a queasy off-grey color
depriving everything of shadow.
The time must be late afternoon,

the day unlike the day in summer,
given the variables, it must be.
Crews from the offshore yawls and sloops,
maneuvering small white-hulled tenders
ferrying members of the party,

are dressed as that year’s crews are dressed,
are seen to do what ships’ crews do.
Though their hands are unseen by us
(the distance, yes, but greyness, too)
we are given to understand

(I cannot yet fully explain it)
nowhere will they prove less than equal
to whatever is asked of them:
hold to the wheel, haul port, trim starboard,
cast these members ashore, man stations.

A small flag flutters from the stern of
each of the auxiliary tenders.
Could we count the stars splattered on them
we could, within specific limits,
narrow the context, taste the year.

Of the life of those party members
put ashore on the coast of twilight,
walking in twos in that evening
where the evening is spread before them
like the fall of a women’s hair,

what can I say but that this woman
after the dusk has fallen, late,
somewhere not far from sea-routes, sailor,
where the choices pertain to voyage,
lets down her hair as dark as water;

that the man who accompanies her,
armed with a slicker against her sheer downpour,
soon, with the night and tide propitious,
sails out on what, not far from here,
the woman has let down like water;

that the hands of the crew, no matter
how astonishing that insight
into the reach of their commitment,
in the long darkness founder, crumble,
finger by finger leak with dust.

From the balustrade we view them
moving together into contexts
of which we have nothing but outlines:
fleets in the bay riding at anchor,
tenders plying their final runs,

the first stars tangled in the rigging,
belowdeck crews taking their suppers;
that entering on darkness, darkness
the absence, voyager, of shadows,
that letting down, somewhere, of hair.

- Herbert Morris

Illness and Literature

In those cold rooms with the blue plastic chairs, sometimes the human condition is an old Texas redneck with a brushy mustache reading a Louis L’Amour novel while waiting for his chemotherapy; this tough old man who ran an auto-parts store for years, then bought a whole chain of auto-parts stores, who sits now furiously reading about fistfights and saloons, as the cattle drive heads up into Wyoming to the summer pasture in the big sky country. The schoolmarm buys two yards of calico in the general store and the drunken sheriff gathers his nerve for the public gunfight in the dusty street, while the cancer keeps plowing, plowing, plowing on a small piece of land just west of town; while the owner of the valley, and of the whole darn territory, is this leathery old Texan in the blue plastic chair who shifts from his left buttock to his right, tugs at his mustache, and turns the page. He has a long way to go — he’s got to get to Abilene before they hang the wrong man. Now, hearing his name called from the clinic door, he stands and walks into the hot dry wind, his spurs ringing on the polished floor. - Tony Hoagland ( - 10/23/2018) / originally published in The Sun

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