28 July 2008

James Merrill

[from James Merrill's From the First Nine: 1946-1976, 1981]

The Mad Scene

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute's nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.

From the First Nine. Poems 1946-1976

25 July 2008

James Merrill

[from James Merrill's Collected Prose]

unless there's a story, of what conceivable interest is a tone of voice?

. . .

It can take me dozens of drafts to get something right, which often turns out to be a perfect commonplace. What joy when it works -- like fighting one's way through cobwebs to an open window. I don't mean that the more work you put into something, the better it turns out. Often you can feel the life ebbing away at the hands of a Mad Embalmer.

Collected Prose

Jorie Graham

[from Jorie Graham's Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, 1980]

Girl at the Piano

It begins, what I can hear, with the train withdrawing from itself
at an even pace in the night although it always seems
to withdraw from us.
Our house almost continues

in its neighbors, although the thinnest bent and wavering fence
keeps us completely strange.
Perhaps it is a daughter who practices the piano, practices
slow and overstressed like the train, slow and relentless

like the crickets weaving their briar between us and growing
unsure of purpose. These three sounds continue, and I
alongside them so that we seem to stand
terribly still. Every change

is into a new childhood, what grows old only the fiber
of remembering, tight at first like crickets and ivories,
crickets and train,
then slackening

though always hanging on to the good bones of windowframes and eaves
and white columns of the porch
in moonlight. Like taffeta, the song,
though not yet learned, is closer to inhabiting her hands

and less her mind, ever closer to believing
it could never have been otherwise. Your sleep beside me is the real,
the loom I can return to when all loosens into speculation.
Silently, the air is woven

by the terribly important shuttle of your breath,
       the air that has crossed
your body retreating, the new air approaching. See,
transformation, or our love of it,
draws a pattern we can't see but own. Like the pennies we pushed

into the soil beneath the pillowy hydrangea, pennies
that will turn the white flowers blue,
or the song I finish past her, the completely learned song
like my other self, a penny slipped next to the heart, a neighbor.

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets)

23 July 2008

Kimberly Johnson

[from Kimberly Johnson's A Metaphorical God, 2008]

Jubilee, featured today on Verse Daily

A Metaphorical God: Poems

22 July 2008

William Carlos Williams

[from William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell: Improvisations, 1918]


When you hang your clothes on the line you do not expect to see the line broken and them trailing in the mud. Nor would you expect to keep your hands clean by putting them in a dirty pocket. However and of course if you are a market man, fish, cheeses and the like going under your fingers every minute in the hour you would not leave off the business and expect to handle a basket of fine laces without at least mopping yourself on a towel, soiled as it may be. Then how will you expect a fine trickle of words to follow you through the intimacies of this dance without — oh, come let us walk together into the air awhile first. One must be watchman to much secret arrogance before his ways are tuned to these measures. You see there is a dip of the ground between us. You think you can leap up from your gross caresses of these creatures and at a gesture fling it all off and step out in silver to my finger tips. Ah, it is not that I do not wait for you, always! But my sweet fellow — you have broken yourself without purpose, you are — Hark! it is the music! Whence does it come? What! Out of the ground? Is it this that you have been preparing fro me? Ha, goodbye, I have a rendezvous in the tips of three birch sisters. Encouragez vox musiciens! Ask them to play faster. I will return — later. Ah you are kind. — and I? must dance with the wind, make my own snow flakes, whistle a contrapuntal melody to my own fugue! Huzza then, this is the mazurka of the hollow log! Huzza then, this is the dance of rain in the cold trees.


What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But if you pick one berry from the ash tree I'd not know it again for the same no matter how the rain washed. Make my bed of witchhazel twigs, said the old man, since they bloom on the brink of winter.


Truth's a wonder. What difference is it how the best head we have greets his first born these days? What weight has it that the bravest hair of all's gone waiting on cheap tables or the most garrulous lives lonely by a bad neighbor and has her south windows pestered with caterpillars? The nights are long for lice combing or moon dodging — and the net comes in empty again. Or there's been no fish in this fiord since Christian was a baby. Yet     up surges the good zest and the game's on. Follow at my heels, there's little to tell you you'd think a stoopsworth. You'd pick the same faces in a crowd no matter what I'd say. And you'd be right too. The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time. But here's another handful of west wind. White of the night! White of the night. Turn back till I tell you a puzzle: What is it in the stilled face of an old mender man and winter not far off and a darky parts his wool, and wenches wear of a Sunday? It's a sparrow with a crumb in his beak dodging wheels and clouds crossing two ways.

Imaginations (A New Directions Paperbook)

16 July 2008

Ellen Bryant Voigt

[from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, 2007]


Everywhere, like grass, toadflax, yellow coils
           a girl’s pincurls. Overhead,
the purely ornamental fruits, whites and pinks

thick on the bough. And straight ahead, along the path,
           spice viburnum, exotic shrub
named for the smell its clustered flowers held — nutmeg —

that made St. Louis tropical. We walked a lush,
           vast, groomed preserve — preserve in the sense
meant by self-indulgent kings, and in the sense

meant by science: every bloom and bine and bole,
           each independent green was labeled,
that was what we loved. And at the center, bronzed:

Linnaeus, master of design, whose art it was
           to shepherd any living thing
into its proper pasture. There, foamflower. There,

lungwort, vernacular “Spilled Milk,” leaf splashed with white,
           a graceful pulmonaria
in the language of greatest clarity which classifies

lilies and roses, rows of lilac. And here, at our feet,
           shade-drunk dark herb: wormwood, our word
for bitterness: an Artemesia, The Hunter,

goddess made incarnate on the ground, in whose name
           the avid mortal watching her
was torn apart. Where was his name? Where was his flower?

A cloud paused in the spring sky, and there came to us then,
           on the path, another blossoming.
Radiant in mauve, head to toe, back braced

as though to balance the weight of full breasts, one hand,
           gloved, lifted, unthinking to pet
the back of the hair, the hair itself a lacquered helmet.

And what should we make of her height, her heft, the size of the
           the gruff swagger in the gait:
we stared outright — it seemed all right to stare, like

Linnaeus, who’d ranked the stones, and sorted the plants by how
           they propagate and colonized
whatever crawls and swims and flies and bears live young?

Light by which I’ve lived, the wish to name, to know,
           the work of it, the cost of it —
if only I could be, or want to be, more like

that boy: ignorant, stunned, human.
                                                     “Acteon,” you said,
           by his own hounds torn asunder. And so
the brief shadow flickered and dissolved: the world

was ours again, the world like this, made less confused.
           And we strolled like kings back down the path,
past a redbud tree in plush white bloom.

Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006

15 July 2008

Jorie Graham

[from Jorie Graham's Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, 1980]

Tennessee June

This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything
and loves the flaw.
Nothing is heavier than its spirit,
nothing more landlocked than the body within it.
Its daylilies grow overnight, our lawns
bare, then falsely gay, then bare again. Imagine
your mind wandering without its logic,
your body the sides of a riverbed giving in . . .
In it, no world can survive
having more than its neighbors;
in it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure
to take forevermore
to get there. Oh

let it touch you . . .
The porch is sharply lit — little box of the body —
and the hammock swings out easily over its edge.
Beyond, the hot ferns bed, and fireflies gauze
the fat tobacco slums,
the crickets boring holes into the heat the crickets fill.
Rock out into that dark and back to where
the blind moths circle, circle,
back and forth from the bone-white house to the creepers unbraiding.
Nothing will catch you.
Nothing will let you go.
We call it blossoming —
the spirit breaks from you and you remain.

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets)

14 July 2008

Peter Matthiessen

[from Peter Matthiessen's Bone by Bone, 1999]

The habitual killer who is not a professional -- not a lawman, say, or an outlaw or a soldier -- must account for himself to his community and church and state. The fear that otherwise he might be banished was why Cox made excuses for his killings, why it was always someone's fault, why he could never accept responsibility for what he'd done. He had been banished long ago, of course, but did not know it yet.

Anyway, those men agreed that the first killing was the hard one. That was true even for Cox, and it was true for me. The next one comes easier, and after that there is nothing much to stop a man from the third and fourth and fifth. It is too late to go back so one may as well go forward, though the track goes nowhere, like a track into the Glades, dying out at last in the sea of grass. Out there, there is no destination, only a great emptiness, a great silence like the south wind in the grasses.

I wondered what Les might have become if circumstances had been different, if nothing had triggered him, laid bare that streak in him, if he had never killed that first time with Sam Tolen. Perhaps he would have gone on pitching, gone off to the major leagues and found the notoriety he needed, throwing beanballs when he felt an urge to hurt. Or perhaps that instinct toward murder would have sprouted anyway, like certain lunacies.

For most men of criminal persuasion, notoriety is crucial, with ill fame far better than no fame at all. Ill fame is a kind of honor that replaces traditional honor in certain circumstances. When we were in Duval County jail, a reference in the newspaper to "the handsome young murder suspect Leslie Cox" was the only detail Les gave a damn about. He would snatch that paper right out of your hand to see his name in type, read it over and over, as if that black ink in a public record restored his confidence in his own existence. That utter lack of knowledge of himself made him unpredictable in everything he did, like a rabid dog which has left behind the known traits of its kind to become a strange lone creature.

Bone by Bone

13 July 2008

Medbh McGuckian

[from Medbh McGuckian's The Book of the Angel, 2004]

Rose Shoes

Different from every neighbour,
the mountain tries to enter the house
like the element in which the world swims.

Should we call this otherwise a creature,
showing its wear, its sojourn in the deep
yellow shadows the woman presses to her breast?

It is cored out, its shell of shadow,
which we have dared to call glory,
and brightly lit shoulder, outside of sleep,

a sky-blue gospel. The house turns
to control the seasons, part of the house
detains the falling evidence of light

and its daydreams; where my deepest
thought, which carries all thought,
falls through like a devotion.

Already the ignition of the skin
that he troubles and holds, touching
but not touching, is a desire that withdraws

from its satisfaction, from electricity's
unnerving ways . . . not absolutely unseen
but missed by sight, whose imperfect,

perfectible, high-speed, machine-eye
could not explain the feast he desired
of the absolute repose of the earth.

The Book of the Angel

09 July 2008

Susan Stewart

[from Susan Stewart's The Hive, 1987]

Mother's Day

    If your mother is alive, wear
    a red carnation; otherwise, wear
    a white one to be banquet.
    -- Mother's Day program, 1962

This was the black day in the house of straw,
The frail house built by the north-gone swallows.
All morning they beat sideways against the windows, hollowing
An old ache out of ice and putty, then the slow thaw
Of daylight on the spattered panes. What calls
Them to that spent light must be desire, and desire's own callow
Reflection: the lost wing, the fire gone out, the tallow
Hardening. This, love, is the nest that falls

In the back of the mind forever, where a mother
Is still alive, a song's not quite forgotten, and so turns
Back slowly in strings and twigs. I need a mended curtain,
A battered red carnation, a certain
Accompaniment to the end of winter as this high sun burns
On the glass, the white blanket; an extra wing, a tuck or gather.

The Hive: Poems (Contemporary Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press).)

08 July 2008

Gertrude Stein

[from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, 1914]

A Red Hat

A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily, it is so monstros because there is no red in it. If red is in everything it is not necessary. Is that not an argument for any use of it and even so is there any place that is better, is there any place that has so much stretched out.

Tender Buttons

07 July 2008

Eavan Boland

[from Eavan Boland's New Collected Poems, 2008]

Midnight Flowers

I go down step by step.
The house is quiet, full of trapped heat and sleep.
In the kitchen everything is still.
Nothing is distinct; there is no moon to speak of.

I could be undone every single day by
paradox or what they call in the countryside
blackthorn winter,
when hailstones come with the first apple blossom.

I turn a switch and the garden grows.
A whole summer's work in one instant!
I press my face to the glass. I can see
shadows of lilac, of fuchsia; a dark likeness of blackcurrant:

little clients of suddenness, how sullen they are at
the margins of the light.
They need no rain, they have no roots.
I reach out a hand; they are gone.

When I was a child a snapdragon was
held an inch from my face. Look, a voice said, this
is the colour of your hair. And there it was, my head,
a pliant jewel in the hands of someone else.

New Collected Poems

05 July 2008

Rabia the Mystic

[from Rabia the Mystic as translated by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone in Voices of Light: Spiritual and Visionary Poems by Women Around the World from Ancient Sumeria to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone, 1999]

You are the companion of my heart

You are the companion of my heart
Though my body I offer to those who desire it.

My body is friendly to guests

But you the companion of my heart
Are the guest of my soul.

Voices of Light

04 July 2008

John Rybicki

[from John Rybicki's We Bed Down into Water, 2008]

Yellow-Haired Girl with Spider

Once a spider lived under her arm and
so she never shaved. She let her hair
grow gnarl for that spider to nest in.
She'd slipper step the wet grass night
with her wet grass feet and hold a bare
lightbulb up under her hairy arm
with the hairy spider living inside it.
She'd keep that one arm raised until
fat moths and June bugs and beetles
and swarms of mosquitoes tangled in her
armpit, trembling and pinned down,
exhausting themselves until the spider
slipped from warm cave top
to sting those moths and beetle
bugs and June bugs and mosquitoes,
sting them over and over with that
one kiss I could not live without.

We Bed Down into Water: Poems (Triquarterly Books)

Scott M. Silsbe interviews John Rybicki on nidus.

03 July 2008

Per Petterson

[from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, translated by Anne Born, 2007]

. . . alongside the cabin wall there was a big patch of stinging nettles, growing tall and thick, and I worked my way around them in a wide arc, and then my father came round the house and stood looking at me. He held his head aslant and rubbed his chin, and I straightened up and waited to hear what he would say.

"Why not cut down the nettles?" he said.

I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.

"It will hurt," I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of his head.

"You decide for yourself when it will hurt," he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm . . .

The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare's last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.

Out Stealing Horses: A Novel