poetry

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

Mondrian Tissue Box

And I thought only characters in film alternated between
laughter and tears in the shower when it thundered.

When it was my turn to cry, I bent my head
and closed my eyes and the colors were a diaspora.

I spent a lot of time deciphering twigs from worms.
My horoscope says many Leos will die today. Another horoscope

says strut your stuff. That a whole generation
won’t know the sound of a rotary dial in their ear.

I swallow and think of who you last loved; bent over the way I am
I bend my head to take her into me. You will experience a Disintegration.

If there is anything to be known about obsession,
it is to say by staring, I could take her into me.

I’ve stared at someone’s name for that long,
the tears decrescendo, sunset shampooed and alive.

Mondrian doll faces in the grime of the window, Botticelli shoulders
mermaids and anime girls with pearl earrings.

It’s 10:36: I was born at this time. You will
laugh as the thunder comes. Your mind will wring you dry.

- Jessica Scicchitano (first published in Columbia Journal)

Terminal

My neck is sore from looking up at the bay of TVs above the airport bar,

live-action news of emergency crews around the 767

that overran the runway, crashed into the breaker stones outside.

I witnessed it from my gate, was the first to wander over here in a daze

where for two hours now I’ve sat with others,

shoulder-to-shoulder, another three rows standing to capacity.

Ambulance strobes look pink through the natural static of wintry mix.

Those kept out are forced to huddle around the windows

to watch the action in real-time. The strange elation

of witnessing disaster. I feel it pulsing through the air,

a shared intimacy, and yet how lonely it makes each of us,

none of whom are responsible for being where we are.

My neighbor orders us another round I wish I didn’t want,

could say no thanks I’ve had enough because I have,

but I accept it with a cheers. I hate the way I smile as I drink it.

We shared a plate of wings, almost like friends.

A man holding his smartphone checks his wristwatch for the time

beside departures in a column glowing red.

A correspondent in an anorak walks on screen,

squints against the weather, presses a finger to his ear

to better hear the questions of his colleague in the studio.

Conversations expand, grow louder to resist new info;

knowing nothing for sure feels like a special kind of freedom.

My neighbor asks why do the replays of the crash look so different than what I saw?

Starched white napkins orange with prints of sauce-stained mouths.

Spilled vodka sodas, plates of bones. My neighbor asks do you know what I mean?

I press a finger to my ear and ask could he repeat that?

A channel splits the livestream with crash footage

shot on phones from within the terminal,

then a recording of the crowd watching the crash.

How we jumped up from our seats. Held our hands to our mouths.

Reached for our devices. People hiss for quiet, searching for themselves

on screen. That I’m unable to see what my face was reacting to,

regardless of the fact that I had witnessed it,

makes the past seem incomplete.

Requests for silverware, closed captioning.

I say when I saw my brother’s mugshot on the news

I wasn’t convinced it was him. The nose was right. But the face

too fleshy. Spectral mists of de-icing spray drift into the frame.

He says I once saw a plane filled with Herefords headed for Japan

crash on takeoff up in Anchorage. Notoriously bad winds there.

Shattered trees and bloody steak.

I feel obligated to keep this up, repulsed by the reminder of obligations.

Deadlines, itineraries, itemized receipts.

I said that I read that “daiboufu” in Japanese means the wind

that knocks down horses. He says we’re talking cattle and besides I’ve heard that.

I know he hasn’t heard that.

Minor betrayals are happening everywhere.

Someone says just to smoke a cigarette you’ve got to go all the way out,

come all the way back.

The window crowd erupts in applause before news cameras

have even focused on the plane doors bursting open, yellow slides inflating.

By the time we cheer for the first passenger to jump

she’s already on the tarmac walking toward us.

- Will Brewer (Originally published in The Rumpus)

Getting a Second Opinion

I've just bought you a new winter coat
and we're temporarily sane, 
cruising two blocks down the street 
from K-Mart in Rapid City. 
Three young Indian boys, 
fourteen, maybe fifteen years 
old and living the thug life 
are strolling across the busy street 
making cars stop and I slam on 
the brakes and give them the finger 
and they flash gang signs and one pulls 
a small, silver gun and I stomp on the gas 
and in the rearview mirror I see them 
laughing and I know positively 
by the fear in your eyes that 
not only is the white man's God 
dead, but the Great Spirit is too.

— Adrian C. Louis

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

 

 

 

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

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



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

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)

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