21 July 2007

John Skelton

[excerpt from John Skelton’s “Philip Sparrow," ~1805]

from Philip Sparrow

Sometime he would gasp
When he saw a wasp;
A fly or a gnat,
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant.
Lord, how he would pry
After the butterfly!
Lord, how he would hop
After the gressop!
And when I said, “Phip, Phip!”
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas, it will me slo
That Philip is gone me from! . . .

[gressop = grasshopper]

20 July 2007

Jaki Shelton Green

[from Jaki Shelton Green's Breath of the Song, 2005]

dust memoirs


candles drip air
washed away smiles linger to breathe;
a skeletal interpretation of motherhood
suspends itself above penurized nativity.
go into yourself and free those
midsummer visits free those grasshopper tragedies;
free those public telephones with passionate coffin smells
drip into your burial urn. drip.
this is called neurotic fiction. i am going out of myself into a
woman without skin, into a face without a mouth, into
a woman without a man i am woeman. woeman. this is
neurotic fission. drip, drip into my confusions. i am
vaguely alive, am dying alive native depression and
intellectual inclinations balance this head. keep it adrift.
i have no sweet songs of georgia pine to sing. i have no
succulent verse of carolina wind to whisper. i have only
come to bury my dead. i have only come to bury my dead.
this is my only sonnet. write in the dust with or without
the sandman's help . . . the moon is late. is somewhere raging
suicides and spreading apart skies. such is a product of my
unconsciousness. i do not know who i am and why i
choose . . . life? the writing will actualize the deed the
writing will fire the first plunge and sink the first little dove
into painless death. . . .

Breath of the Song: New And Selected Poems

16 July 2007

Laurie Sheck

[from Laurie Sheck's Captivity, 2007]

Or resolve into a calm

For there is so much crumbling and instead. I think of you now writing
       that last
    Note. How the aparts multiply, grow wild with clash and scatter. Or
       resolve into a calm
I can barely understand — a wasp's nest, maybe, the papery regularity of
       its cells,
    All those steady carefuls lining up. Your thin, your brittle wrist, gave

Its weight, its mass, its shadow — but to what? And now, in me, the far of
       your death
    Sternly whitens the notion of to see. You, now, not singular, but
Among the questions,

Elsewheres of water rushing down stone steps.

A ragged fabric

And then the mind begins to starve itself. As if the brain clefts were
       giving back their networks,
    All their tensile webs. Unsafe the worldspeed and the scalded
Warnings. Quiet as errors in genetic script
    Or handcuffs left rusting on a table, the folds and softs
Are vanished from the air. Shock knits a ragged fabric. Each move leads

Ambush and undone.

That I might step

Then I came to a peace so random it felt dangerous.
    Rough battlefield, expectancy, most tenuous and fragile contract,
How can I step with threadbare tenderness
    Across the zero hour of each strike and batter?

Why do we live in time? — its edges crumbling, its contours filling with
    Hard data. But there is a very plain in things that sometimes comes
Just calmly. It holds no trade routes, no borders fortressed, guarded.
    That I may briefly touch it. That I might step into the curious

Despite —


15 July 2007

Malena Morling

[from Malena Morling's Ocean Avenue, 1999]

Standing on the Earth Among the Cows
       for Elena

When I was driving through Wyoming
past fields of just-overturned earth
black in the noon sun
and past thousands of cows
totally at home in the open,
I stopped the car to stop moving
and got out to stand among them
and I said nothing in English or Swedish.
Now I want to be whoever I was at that moment
when I discovered my own breathing
among the cows' breathing in the field
and studied their satin bellies
and udders slowly filling with milk.
I was not separate from anything living, I was
equally there and there was nothing to wait for.

Ocean Avenue (The New Issues Press Poetry Series)

Maurice Manning

[from Maurice Manning's Bucolics, 2007]


did you teach the woodpecker how
to knock its head against the wood
of hollow trees did you say this
is how you do it Boss then knock
your own head so hard into
the tree it made a rattle clap
I'm thinking nine is the number of times
the bird must knock the tree to make
it rattle right does that sound right
to you is nine the number Boss
to make a rattle clap it sounds
all right to me the number sounds
just right inside the rattle Boss
did you teach birds to count did you
teach me to count what counts beyond
the numbers up above them Boss
are you a number or a sound
or something else I can't learn how
to think about you birdbrain Boss
you rattle me you knock me down


13 July 2007

Susan Hutton

[from Susan Hutton's On the Vanishing of Large Creatures, 2007]

Is More Than

The beautiful folded fish nets, the bleached floats,
the ropes and anchors arranged along the shore
belie their heartless presence in the sea. Meanwhile,

the fish have made a heaven of the air. They rise from their cold nights
toward the multiplying dawn. The colors are marvelous, splendid.
It's unfair when they're caught. The escapists: confirmed liars.

The rest: it ends badly, but it simplifies things.
The idea of heaven was once all that mattered: whole and perfect,
beyond complaint. And in the seven such days I spent

in Riomaggiore, knives and forks clattered at me
from other windows while I ate. When the church bells ran in the
we were all yanked from sleep. I lived easily in their habits

while my world was fresh. After a thousand breakfasts together,
the table really is a table, just as the grass is really the grass.
There is the smell, for one thing, and the way the table stands.

On the Vanishing of Large Creatures (Carnegie Mellon Poetry)

Rosanna Warren

[from Rosanna Warren's Stained Glass, 1993]

Child Model
     for Rosalie Carlson
     (Greenland Eskimo mummy, boy, four years old,
     National Geographic, February 1985)

I want to adopt you, doll-like child,
your death, your National
resurrection. Cold

has clasped you in its cache, all
gaze, all shimmer. Arctic star,
cuddled in sealskin grave-creche, still

you wait there for your mother,
trusting she'll trudge back through the snow,
famine, centuries: lift you from this glamour,

snatch you, full-limbed, laughing home. But now
in these pages, trapped, you touch
for comfort tiny beads of bone. We know

nothing of you save that such
patient beauty, still unputrefied,
was never seen in death. We clutch

you, ancient child: we need
to think you're saved, as if one face unmarred
in Kodachrome rescued all others who have died

ugly, bruised, disqualified.

Stained Glass: Poems

11 July 2007

Rosanna Warren

[from Rosanna Warren's "Sappho: Translation as Elegy" in The Art of Translation: voices from the field, edited by Rosanna Warren]

My translation of Catullus' "ille mi par . . ." occurs, with another Catullus poem in the Sapphic meter, in a volume of my own poems. But these possessive phrases become obtrusive, as indeed they ought in matters of authorship. The purpose in focusing on a translation of a translation is not to claim that the world needs yet another version of this perennially retranslated poem; nor is it to demonstrate that I have outpaced all my predecessors and found a perfect English equivalent for Catullus. Rather, I should like to offer it, impersonally, as a small instance of lyric lineage, a type or model for poetry's perpetual re-engendering of itself. It is to argue that poetry is, finally, a family matter, involving the strains of birth, love, power, death, and inheritance; and that, given such strains (in every sense), one is never "by onself" however isolated the act of writing may appear. The so-called original poems in my book are, in their own way, translations of several lyric traditions into personal experience and idiom, and are possible only because of strenuous acts of reading, one form of which we know, conventionally, as translation. I am concerned here with the way in which the individual poet inherits poetry, or, in Eliot's formulation, is catalyzed by it; and I take translation as a specific and especially focused instance of the reception and transformation of literary tradition.

The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field

10 July 2007

Henri Cole

[from Henri Cole's Blackbird and Wolf, 2007]

American Kestrel

I see you sitting erect on my fire escape,
plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse,
like the red strings of a harp, choking a bit
on the venous blue flesh and hemorrhaging tail.
With your perfect black-and-white thief's mask,
you look like a stuffed bird in a glass case,
somewhere between the animal and human life.
The love word is far away. Can you see me?
I am a man. No one has what I have:
my long clean hands, my bored lips. This is my home:
Woof woof, the dog utters, afraid of emptiness,
as I am, so my soul attaches itself to things,
trying to create something neither confessional
nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.

Blackbird and Wolf: Poems

Richard McCann

[from Richard McCann's "The Universe Concealed," the last chapter of Mother of Sorrows, 2005]

My friend Helen and I are rowing a boat on Eagle Lake. It's almost dusk, but Helen is wearing her swimsuit because she's working on a tan. She has brought along her bottle of Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil and a Panasonic cassette player made of cheap white plastic, like a teenage girl's. As we row, we listen to The Torah Tapes, which Helen has secured from a Hasidic man who runs a shop on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. He also sells special Yahrzeit candles, she says, although she prefers the ordinary kind that come in blue paper wrappers, available in regular grocery stores. She says they remind her of the Dixie cups of ice cream her father bought her when she was a girl in Livington, New Jersey.

"Be neither sad nor regretful," says Rabbi Ezekiel Stollman. Rabbi Stollman's our invisible passenger, the one whose voice we strain to hear when the Panasonic's batteries are running low. On The Torah Tapes, he speaks in a kind of up-and-down chanting. He says that sadness is arrogance and vanity. The things that sadden us are actually blessings, he says, coming to us from a universe that's concealed.

While Rabbi Stollman talks, I feel the rhythm of rowing — the bending forward, and then the long leaning back, pulling the oars through water — as a kind of secret davening. Helen sits across form me, adjusting her swimsuit's straps. "You think I'm getting too much sun?" she asks.

For several days now, since coming to the Eagle Lake Lodge and Cottages, where we plan to spend a week, we've been making a list of the things we would see if the concealed universe were suddenly and astonishingly revealed to us. At the top of the list, we have written "UV rays."

Beneath that we have written "Joshua," the name of Helen's twelve-year-old son, who died a year ago, and then the names of my friends who have died — Jim, Edward Marcellus, Larry, George, Darnell, Allen, Ricardo, Stanley, Paul, Jaime, Billy, Eduardo, and, most recently, Francisco.

Helen says we should make a list of the things we hope will remain concealed forever. At the top of that list, she says, she'll put the cotton prosthesis she was given after her mastectomy, not long before Josh was killed. On a third list, a list of things that are generally concealed but which we believe might be revealed to us with a minimum of effort, if we put our minds to it, we plan to write "penises."

Mother of Sorrows

09 July 2007

Rick Mulkey

[from Rick Mulkey's Before the Age of Reason, 1998]

Cain's Apology

I didn't want to work; Dad made us.
You held a pick; I held a shovel.
And every time you gladly buried your pick
into that black sod, I wanted to bury
my shovel into your black hair.
When I clenched your neck, blood leaped:
I don't know if it was anger or fear
but as I pressed you against the ground,
the vein in your left temple swelled
and branched like a flooding stream.

We were only boys, fifteen and ten.
But I used the man talk. A kid
apprenticed to movie tough guys,
I imitated the slurs of punch-drunk boxers,
spit hanging from my lip,
or the bound-for-hell curses of rednecks
at the Milner Matz lounge,
welts and scars on their cheeks.
I spat bruising words tongued in rail yards
where peroxide whores, numb from Mad Dog,
waited for Norfolk & Western brakemen.

I didn't know the power of words.
Or the difficulty in taking them back.
If I could change my life,
change yours, alter that the last time
I held you was by the throat
then I'd choke back words
meant to make you small, words
which made me smaller. I'd unclench
the past. Gladly plant trees
in shale hard soil.

Before the Age of Reason

07 July 2007

A. R. Ammons

[from section 6 of A. R. Ammons's Garbage, 1993]

. . . on writing a poem — you sit vacant and
relaxed (if possible), your mind wandering

freely, unengaged and in search of focus: you
may sit this way for several minutes till the

void unsettles you a bit and you become impatient
with the intrusion of an awareness of yourself

sitting with a touch of unwelcome exasperation
over a great blank: but you keep your mind

open and on the move and eventually there is a
trace of feeling like a bit of mist on a backroad

but then it reappears stronger and more central,
still coming and going, so the mind can't

grab it and hold on to it: but the mind begins
to make an effort, to shed from itself all

awareness except that of going with the feeling,
to relax and hold the feeling — the feeling

is a brutal burning, a rich, raw urgency:
the mind knows that it is nothing without the

feeling, so concentrating on the feeling, it
dreams of imminent shapes, emergences, of

clust'ral abundances, of free flow, forms discernible,
material, concrete, shapes on the move, and

then the mind gives way from its triggering, and
the mechanisms of necessity fall into, grasping the

upheaval, the action of making; the presence
of pressure appears, forces open a way, the

intensity heightens, groans of anguish and
satisfaction break from the depths of the

body, and the sweet dream occurs, the work
payloads, the fall-away slips through, the body

contracts and returns, ease lengthens through
the byways, and the mind picks up on the

environment again, turns to the practical
policing of the scene, restores itself to

normalcy and the objective world, the body hitching
itself up on the way: shit fire (and save matches):

we wheeled down the long glide from the mountains
into Wheeling: morning fog smoked away the tops

of hills and a river (or two) confluencing slashed
across by scary iron bridges jammed the the narrowed

valley road, when the big black mouth of a tunnel
suddenly opened out of fog in solid rock, all the

events at once happening in the shakes: but then going
on down Route 7 along the Ohio; mammoth standings

of steam, way out of size, too solid to vanish, oozed
up from the nuclear craters, so much so tall that even

on our side of the river the outsized opal shades
of steam broke across us, shadowing us once and again:

slows like flying by or trying to drive to a mountain,
the far ahead lingering far behind: the freeway of

refineries, chemical steams, the gross companies
toughening the banks down by the banks of the O-hi-o.

Garbage: A Poem

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Eolian Harp
          Composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire, 1795

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown
With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch'd from yon bean-field! and the world so hush'd!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.
                         And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress'd,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam'd wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where —
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill'd;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

    And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos'd eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall'd and undetain'd,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
    But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O belovéd Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow'd dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily disprais'd
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder'd and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour'd Maid!

05 July 2007

Norman Nicholson

[from Norman Nicholson's "For Hokey and Henrietta," 1944]

What more can you learn to ask for in your prayers,
Than years unpredicted as weather, and days
Adventurous as a lobby full of bears.

Norman Nicholson: Collected Poems

04 July 2007

A. K. Ramanujan

[from A. K. Ramanujan's essay "On Translating a Tamil Poem" in The Art of Translation: voices from the field, edited by Rosanna Warren, 1985]

The translation must not only re-present, but represent, the original. One walks a tightrope between the To-language and the From-language, in a double loyalty. A translator is an "artist on oath." Sometimes one may succeed only in re-presenting a poem, not in closely representing it. At such times one draws consolation from parables like the following: A Chinese emperor ordered a tunnel to be bored through a great mountain. The engineers decided that the best and quickest way to do it would be to begin work on both sides of the mountain, after precise measurements. If the measurements are precise enough, the two tunnels will meet in the middle, making a single one. "But, what happens if they don't meet?" asked the emperor. The counselors, in their wisdom, answered, "If they don't meet, we will have two tunnels instead of one." So, too, if the representation in another language is not close enough, but still succeeds in "carrying" the other poem in some sense, we will have two poems instead of one.

The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field

02 July 2007

May Swenson

visit Washington University Libraries
scroll down
read and listen to May Swenson's "Bleeding"

01 July 2007

Kwame Dawes

[from Kwame Dawes's Impossible Flying, 2007]


The dirt track turns to marl in the wind tunnel
between Maternity — the pale yellow gowns of swollen
women, a constant slash of light through the gray
louvres — and the whitewashed ward where you are.
My heart grows as I walk by casually,
trying to pretend I have forgotten your eyes pleading
with me in the brightly lit greeting room,
pointing to the stumble and glossolalia
of the pretty girl who does not care that her breasts
are poking out of the too small hospital issue
green tunic. Around us the sterile slow pace
of medicated bodies. Like her, I imagine
that you don’t belong; I imagine you are too
astute, too collected for this; your pathologies
are civil things. And yet I see the scars
on your knuckles, and you drool, how you drool,
your tongue, not yours, just a clumsy lump
of meat in your mouth. You are telling me you need
to go, lucid as anyone I know, until you laugh,
reminding me of the morning I held you down,
tied your wings, did not have the faith;
and in that same clean logic, your eyes
stared steadily at me as you spoke in soft
conspiracy, I woulda be flying now,
you know that? I woulda be flying if you never
hold me down . . .
It has been a week
since I stopped. That last time the orderlies
told me of the straps you strained against,
the electricity, the padded walls, the shit
in your pants, the tears, as if you were
someone else, as if they needed me
to understand the lunatic’s dialect, as if
they saw in me the hubris of class, or the hope
of sanity; as if I did not understand
the commonness of tragedy. That day I did not stop.
I simply bowed my head and walked away
weeping, angry at my tears, at the noble sorrow —
as if it was me caught in this wrestle
with the chemistry of the head — the demon tyranny.
I wept (a good verb) like an actor, testing each mood,
swept, yes, by the passion of the narrative,
but consumed by the tragic consequence
of fear. I wept as I walked the stony path
to Papine, helpless like that. Tonight
is the seventh night I have walked past.
It becomes easier, now. I fear only
that you will see me going by, not stopping.
Maybe you will see my lips moving, praying
for the miracle promised — another vanity —
the scripted prophecy of my peace.

Impossible Flying

May Swenson

[from May Swenson's Nature: Poems Old and New, 1971]


Part otter, part snake, part bird the bird Anhinga,
jalousie wings, draped open, dry. When slack-
hinged, the wind flips them shut. Her cry,
a slatted clatter, inflates her chin-
pouch; it's like a fish's swim-
bladder. Anhinga's body, otter-
furry, floats, under water-
mosses, neck a snake with white-
rimmed blue round roving eyes. Those long feet stilt-
submerged. Otter-
quick over bream that hover in water-
shade, she feeds, finds fillets among the water-
weeds. Her beak, ferrule of a folded black
umbrella, with neat thrust impales her prey.
She flaps up to dry on the crooked, look-
dead-limb of the Gumbo Limbo, her tan-
tipped wing fans spread, tail a shut fan dangled.

Nature: Poems Old and New