poems

Just Yesterday


Before prayer in the schools we had the Crusades
and we cleaned out the stockpot once a year.

Virtually everything we ate induced narcosis,
a condition we often confused with god.

Some told of a river that ran outside the city walls
and of how it moved to avoid their touch,

a giant serpent twisting forever away. If it wasn’t the devil
it was the work of the devil, like everything else we wanted.

Remorse held us together until we died young
and most of us never realized we were mammals—

indeed we were suspicious of birds but rats, well, rats
we found charming, with their eyes so full

of sympathy, their need for warmth like our own. We also
wanted love to suffice. Flies that collected on the lesions

of the dying: angels one and all: no one could be too careful.
It seemed a flood was forever rinsing ideas from my tongue

so I said nothing or spoke louder, I was always drowning.
I couldn’t have changed anything.

All right there was the alchemist
and I loved him but I could not save him.

Once I dreamt of electricity. Was this the river,
the one that altered its course like a wounded thing?

We had no trees, only sticks.
Huge gears turned in the sky.

- Mark Bibbins

Fragment from John Ashbery

“…Summer is all about being a season.
I’m not sure I can take too much more
of it, but while it lasts I’m along
for the ride. I’d be a jerk
not to be especially since there’s no
alternative, it just keeps coming,
and we take it in, like a barn accepting
bales of hay from a hay wain, until
they’re gone. That will have to do.
Besides (did I mention it?), I’m tired.
This day’s a wrap. Others will happen along,
maybe fall in love with one. But that’s another story.
We’ll find a new wand, horizons will be bright
and anxious. A friend will give us
what we’re owed and something extra,
something we couldn’t have imagined,
a space like a dream.”

- John Ashbery

A Warm Day

Today the sun was shining
so my neighbor washed her nightdresses in the river—
she comes home with everything folded in a basket,
beaming, as though her life had just been
lengthened a decade. Cleanliness makes her happy—
it says you can begin again,
the old mistakes needn’t hold you back.

A good neighbor—we leave each other
to our privacies. Just now
she’s singing to herself, pinning the damp wash to the line.

Little by little, days like this
will seem normal. But winter was hard:
the nights coming early, the dawns dark
with a gray, persistent rain—months of that,
and then the snow, like silence coming from the sky,
obliterating the trees and gardens.

Today, all that’s past us.
The birds are back, chattering over seeds.
All the snow’s melted; the fruit trees are covered with downy new growth.
A few couples even walk in the meadow, promising whatever they promise.

We stand in the sun and the sun heals us.
It doesn’t rush away. It hangs above us, unmoving,
like an actor pleased with his welcome.

My neighbor’s quiet a moment,
staring at the mountain, listening to the birds.

So many garments, where did they come from?
And my neighbor’s still out there,
fixing them to the line, as though the basket would never be empty—

It’s still full, nothing is finished,
though the sun’s beginning to move lower in the sky;
remember, it isn’t summer yet, only the beginning of spring;
warmth hasn’t taken hold yet, and the cold’s returning—

She feels it, as though the last bit of linen had frozen in her hands.
She looks at her hands—how old they are. It’s not the beginning, it’s the end.
And the adults, they’re all dead now.
Only the children are left, alone, growing old.

- Louise Gluck

How I Shaded the Book

I was in the town before my end.  I knew more deeply
than before I was in trouble with drinking.
I received a copy of a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair, in the mail.
I sat down to read it one night, sure I would not like it,
but I could not stop reading.
I felt the romance of the book was validating one more wild prolonged fling,
alcohol at the center of the fling. I had no one in mind but I knew there would be
someone. And I knew it would be trouble.
The novel made me feel as if I could see it all.

In the middle of the night there was a knock on the door.
A neighbor—I had met no one in the few days I had been in town—
asked if I would drive her and her daughter to the hospital.
Her daughter was sick, she had no car. She had seen my light.
For some reason I was glad to do so. I took the book.
The wait was long, the mother finally told me I could leave,
she could call a relative if they had to leave the hospital.

I saw them on the street days later—she hardly spoke—I wondered if it was because
we were of different races. She simply nodded when I asked if her daughter
was all right.
They left their house within a month. The house became a place for itinerants.
Six families in six months. One afternoon I heard screaming and cackling
and looked out the window to see an overweight man who could hardly walk
limping and tilting away from the old woman on the porch.
She both screamed and cackled. The overweight man finally
hobbled off like an old wagon.

I want to thank the woman and her child for interrupting my reverie.
Although I proceeded to wildly continue an affair for drinking
I feel that couple as a pull from life, a pull
from a source I was for a final time denying.
The book meant more than life. How I shaded the book
meant more than anything, anyone.

- Michael Burkard

Joe Louis's Fist

1.

After the sun rose into rust between gravel and horizon,
after the scent of you oxidized the steel of my car going
into the lidocaine of the morning air as the highway slid

into northeast Detroit past Chill & Mingle,
I did a double-take and took a wrong turn at Rim Repair.
(Long ago my father said I should see the fist).

No one spoke Swahili on 12th Street, still rubble
after the blind pigs folded up.
It was a cliché of the image of itself but it was, it was

like nothing, the vacant burned-out bungalows, car parts, metal scraps
arson jobs, abandoned homes, barbed wire playgrounds,
shacks pummeled along Six Mile Road—derelict since ’67.

2.

My father said when Louis won, the radio static was a wave
of sound that stayed all night like the riots blocks away in Harlem,
as the scent of lilac and gin wafted down Broadway to his window

across from the Columbia gates where the sounds of
Fletcher Henderson and Dizzy buzzed the air,
where the mock Nazi salutes were shadows over the

granite lions and snake-dancing, and car horns
banged the tar and busted windshields,
even coffee shops south of 116th were looted.

3.

It came back in fragments—through the gauze
of the summer of love, through Lucy in the Sky
and other amnesias; streets of burnt-out buildings,

paratroopers bivouacked in high schools with gas and bayonets.
By 6 a.m. July 23 national guards were walking
in the rain of black cinder and pillars of smoke—

a black body hanging from a fence of an auto part yard,
whisky-faced boys shooting through the fire
as torn bags of loot trailed the streets.

Prostitutes used pool cues to defend themselves.
Booze and cartridge smoke ate their skin.
One trooper said it looked like Berlin in ’45.

4.

Samson, David, and Elijah in one left hook
my father said, (6/22/38) upbraided Neville Chamberlain
liberated Austria and Sudetenland

knocked the lights out in Berlin—
sent Polish Jews into the boulevards
for one night of phantasmal liberation.

Because Hitler banned jazz, because Black Moses led
crowds and crowds to the marvelous, inscrutable, overwhelming
balked dreams of revenge, millions seeped out of doorways, alleys, tenements—

dreaming of the diamond pots, of Chrysler heaven,
the golden girls of Hollywood and Shirley Temple
who rubbed some salt into his hands for luck.

Untermensch from Alabama—
sucker for the right hand—the other side of Hailee Salisee
black men howled to him from their electric chairs.

5.

When I drove past Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard
and the Hitsville USA sign on the studio-house,
the lights were out and I could only

imagine the snake pit where Smokey Robinson
spun into vinyl, where “Heat Wave”
came as sweet blackmail in the beach air of ’64

where the Funkbrothers and Martha Reeves
took the mini opera and dumped it on its head.

By the time I hit Jefferson and Woodward
the sun was glaring on the high windows.
and then it hit me—spinning the light—

horizontal two-foot arm smashing the blue
through the empty pyramid holding it up
in the glare of skyscraper glass: molten

bronze-hand, hypotenuse of history,
displaced knuckles—

the smooth-casting over the gouged-out wounds—
the naked, beloved, half-known forms.

- Peter Balakian

 

Fog

Hide what is far from my eyes,
pale fog, impalpable gray
vapor climbing the light
                    of the coming day,
after the storm-streaked night,                    
the rockfall skies…

Hide what has gone, and what goes,
hide what lies beyond me…
Let me see only that hedge                    
at my boundary,
and this wall, by whose crumbling edge
                    valerian grows.

Hide from my eyes what is dead:
the world is drunk on tears…
Show my two peach trees in bloom,
                    my two pears,
that spread their sugared balm
                    on my black bread.

Hide from my eyes lost things
whose need for my love is a goad...
Let me see only the white
                    of the stone road –
I too will ride it some night
                    as a tired bell rings.

Hide the far things – hide
them beyond the sweep of my heart...
Show only that cypress tree,
                    standing apart,
and here, lying sleepily,
                    this dog at my side.

- Giovanni Pascoli, trans. from Italian by Geoffrey Brock

Without Music

Only the car radio
driving from the drugstore to the restaurant to his apartment:

rock and roll, oldies but goodies,
and sometimes, softly, piano music

rising from the piano teacher's apartment on the first floor.

Most of it happened without music,
the clink of a spoon from the kitchen,

someone talking.  Silence.
Somebody sleeping.  Someone watching somebody sleep.

- Marie Howe

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

- Wallace Stevens

Like Sailboats on TV

Across from the charred white bar and grill, in the place where the
Irish still bury their dead, I stood next to your grave. Looking at it
then, it didn’t seem so final.

There was a light that fell across the marker the amber color of an
empty pill bottle.


And the distance was false.

You were gone but here, like the picture you took of sailboats on
TV. Like the handwriting of a letter you wrote in 1961.

As the light faded, my vision narrowed, and I saw the grave had
grown four legs and a long, prehensile tail.

I watched as it crawled away, a green, stone-headed creature, in a
halo of blue whatever.

- Christopher Kennedy, from “Clues From the Animal Kingdom”

The First Time They Saw the Whole Earth

My mother was washing dishes;
a turquoise pendant

dangled at her sternum
as she looked out onto the patio,

the bees cross-pollinating
her Mortgage Lifters,

her Big Boys, her Fourth
of Julys. My father came home

on the late bus, walked through
the dandelions with his

brown leather shoes
and fished the newspaper

from the hydrangea.
My sister chalked

a circle on the driveway
and stepped inside.

The next day, my mother
rode the gondola up the mountain

—she wanted to really
see the moon—

and my father discovered
country music, that he had

a voice for those sad, celestial notes.
And my sister played croquet

by her own rules, sent
balls with coloured stripes

plock plocking all over the yard.

- Clear Roberts

[You who never arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me—the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods—
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house—, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon,—
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening...

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Midi

Muscles and torsoes of cloud 
ascended over the mountains. 
The fields looked like high speed 
so new-mown was the hay,

then the dark blue Italian lavender 
met overhead, a strange maize 
deeply planted as mass javelins 
in the hoed floor of the land.

Insects in plastic armour stared 
from their turrets, and munched 
as others machined stiffly over us 
and we turned, enchanted 
in sweet walling breath 
under far-up gables of the lavender.

- Les Murray

Exiliados

We didn’t hold typhoons or tropics in our hands.
I didn’t reach across the table on our first date
at Cornelia Street Café. In my humid pockets,

my fists were old tennis balls thrown to the stray dog
of love bouncing toward the Hudson down
to South Ferry. We didn’t hold hands in that cold

October wind, but the waves witnessed our promise
to return to my cratered-deforested homeland,
and you to your parents’, sometime in the future.

No citizenship or some other violence in our countries
(separated by the Pacific, tied by the latitude
of dragon fruits, tamarinds, mangosteens) was why

we couldn’t, and can’t, return for now. Then, us
in the subway at 2 am, oh the things I dreamt: a kiss
to the back of your neck, collarbone, belly-button, there—

to kneel and bow my head, then return to the mole
next to your lips and taste your latitude together.
Instead, I went home, you touched my cheek,

it was enough. I stood, remembering what it’s like
to stand on desert dirt wishing stars would fall
as rain, on that huge dark country ahead of me.


- Javier Zamora

In Passing

On the Canadian side, we’re standing far enough away
the Falls look like photography, the roar a radio.

In the real rain, so vertical it fuses with the air,
the boat below us is starting for the caves.

Everyone on deck is dressed in black, braced for weather
and crossing against the current of the river.

They seem lost in the gorge dimensions of the place,
then, in fog, in a moment, gone.
In the Chekhov story,
the lovers live in a cloud, above the sheer witness of a valley.

They call it circumstance. They look up at the open wing
of the sky, or they look down into the future.

Death is a power like any other pull of the earth.
The people in the raingear with the cameras want to see it

from the inside, from behind, from the dark looking into the light.
They want to take its picture, give it size—

how much easier to get lost in the gradations of a large
and yellow leaf drifting its good-bye down one side of the
            gorge.

There is almost nothing that does not signal loneliness,
then loveliness, then something connecting all we will become.

All around us the luminous passage of the air,
the flat, wet gold of the leaves. I will never love you

more than at this moment, here in October,
the new rain rising slowly from the river.

- Stanley Plumly

Sonnet for Mark

Now wakes a path between the oaks, now

falls a spell of dove and frog, and stones

dream of their mountain clans and each stick

breaks to hear its name. Now light edges creek

and water appears as a quick coin trick or

silk pulled from a funnel of months, now

behind us, at last, and shade and sky fill

the mirror moving from next to next. Now

do you see there is no stillness to this world?

Even in sleep a seed is knitting its breach

from the dark and the body hums

on the march to becoming less and right

now; words depart then arrive, like a brush

returning to a well of color.

- Emma Trelles

Adaptation, Tel Aviv

I squeeze the aloe
flesh over my knees

as your cousin scolds me
for saying ocean

when we are by a sea.
To me this is casual—

isn’t it all the same water?—
to her it isn’t.

What I could call her
is colonist since

it takes one to know.
Later, I wake when evening

still stains viridian
above the pink

and lemon neighborhood
to the schhh

of your grandfather’s
slippers on the tile which I hear

as the first soft syllable
of the name

we share. Six years
now you and I don’t speak.

If I was not in love
there are secrets

a self keeps safe—
if I was you were right

to forget me.

- Sam Ross, from Company

Sunset Park

The Chinese truck driver
throws the rope
like a lasso, with a practiced flick,

over the load:
where it hovers an instant,
then arcs like a willow

into the waiting,
gloved hand
of his brother.

What does it matter
that, sitting in traffic,
I glanced out the window

and found them that way?
So lean and sleek-muscled
in their sweat-stiffened t-shirts:

offloading the pallets
just so they can load up
again in the morning,

and so on,
and so forth,
forever like that—

like Sisyphus
I might tell them
if I spoke Mandarin,

or had a Marlboro to offer,
or thought for a minute
they’d believe it

when I say that I know
how it feels
to break your own

back for a living.
Then again,
what’s the difference?

When every light
for a mile turns
green all at once,

no matter how much
I might like
to keep watching

the older one squint
and blow smoke
through his nose?

Something like sadness,
like joy, like a sudden
love for my life,

and for the body
in which I have lived it,
overtaking me all at once,

as a bus driver honks
and the setting
sun glints, so bright

off a windshield
I wince and look back
and it’s gone.

- Patrick Phillips

Will You?

When, at the end, the children wanted
to add glitter to their valentines, I said no.

I said nope, no, no glitter, and then,
when they started to fuss, I found myself

saying something my brother’s football coach
used to bark from the sidelines when one

of his players showed signs of being
human: oh come on now, suck it up.

That’s what I said to my children.
Suck what up? my daughter asked,

and, because she is so young, I told her
I didn’t know and never mind, and she took

that for an answer. My children are so young
when I turn off the radio as the news turns

to counting the dead or naming the act,
they aren’t even suspicious. My children

are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in. Their God is still

a real God, a whole God, a God made wholly
of actions. And I think they think I work

for that God. And I know they will someday soon
see everything and they will know about

everything and they will no longer take
never mind for an answer. The valentines

would’ve been better with glitter, and my son
hurt himself on an envelope, and then, much

later, when we were eating dinner, my daughter
realized she’d forgotten one of the three

Henrys in her class. How can there be three Henrys
in one class? I said, and she said, Because there are.

And so, before bed we took everything out
again—paper and pens and stamps and scissors—

and she sat at the table with her freshly washed hair
parted smartly down the middle and wrote

WILL YOU BE MINE, HENRY T.? and she did it
so carefully, I could hardly stand to watch.

- Carrie Fountain (Originally published on poets.org)

Three Sentences for a Dead Swan

1.
There they are now,
The wings,
And I heard them beginning to starve
Between two cold white shadows,
But I dreamed they would rise
Together,
My black Ohioan swan.


2.
Now one after another I let the black scales fall
From the beautiful black spine
Of this lonesome dragon that is born on the earth at last,
My black fire,
Ovoid of my darkness,
Machine-gunned and shattered hillsides of yellow trees
In the Autumn of my blood where the apples
Purse their wild lips and smirk knowingly
That my love is dead.


3.
Here, carry his splintered bones
Slowly, slowly
Back into the
Tar and chemical strangled tomb,
The strange water, the
Ohio river, that is no tomb to
Rise from the dead
From.

- James Wright, from Shall We Gather at the River