30 April 2011

Nicole Cooley

[from Nicole Cooley's Milk Dress, Alice James, 2010]


Gold-zippered, blue plaid, gilded with initials: suitcase
we were told to pack in case of a new attack. Girl's suitcase,

my grandmother's gift for those first sleepovers.
I fill it with duct tape. Cipro hidden in the suitcase.

The pediatrician refused but, yes, I begged, cried.
In the Before, this would be my daughter's suitcase.

While she slept inside me, I'd pack each silky nightie.
In the third trimester, I'd lie in bed and arrange the suitcase.

Now: Swiss Army knife. Distilled water. Potassium iodide
to carry with us at all times, in case of –

tablets to swallow as the subway fills with smoke.
This city permanently on Orange Alert, the ready suitcase

waiting while I nurse my daughter, watch the news.
In the After, another day of jewel blue sky, I pack the suitcase,

seal the windows, as told, against possible chemical attack,
but still we breathe in the burning, the ash, the soot.

Plan an evacuation route. The city shuts tunnels,
cuts us off. We're packed and ready, with our suitcase.

I watch the news. I already know I won't have another child.
Packed and ready for the next attack: our suitcase.

You must be ready, the TV tells us. To leave your life,
for the safety of your family.
I lay my daughter in the suitcase

stamped with my initials, N.R.C., letters engraved long ago
on a headstone, and now not mine, not hers, no one's suitcase.

Nicole Cooley

24 April 2011

Chŏng Chŏl, Pak Illo, & Yun Sŏndo

[from Pine River and Lone Peak: An Anthology of Three Chosŏn Poets, tr. Peter H. Lee, Hawaii, 1991]

Chŏng Chŏl



Let us strain sour wine and drink
Until our mouths become sour.
Let us steam bitter herbs and chew them
Until they turn sweet.
Let us walk around
Until the nails in our clogs have worn flat.


Let forty thousand pecks of pearls
Rest on the lotus leaves.
I box them and measure them
To send them off somewhere.
Tumultuous rolling drops –
How zestful, graceful.
lotus leaf trichomes


I press the second note on the third string
Of the Black Zither.
The sound surges like a stream freed of ice
Rushing up from the shallows.
Distant raindrops, too, play in concert;
They beat on lotus leaves.

Pak Illo

Early Red Persimmons (1601)
[Chohongsi ka]


When a crow joins
A flock of phoenix,
It’s like a single rock
In a pile of white jade.
Enough! Phoenix too are birds.
Why not mingle with them and play?

crow feather

Twenty-nine Songs on the Standing Rock (1629)
[Ibam isipku kokk]


Let me ask you again quietly
How many thousands of years old you are.
Your age is surely great,
And mine small.
Now let us grow old together,
You and I.


With my small thatched hut
Set among boulders,
My feeble eyes are used to
The colors of bamboo and pine.
Here I cannot tell
When spring goes and autumn comes.

Songs of the Five Relations (after 1634)
[Oryun ka]


When heaven begot men,
Marriage thus began.
Heaven fixed worthy matches,
Important are man and wife.
Make a morning of your life
And harmonize like small and large zithers together.

Yun Sŏndo

The Angler’s Calendar (1651)
[Ŏbu sasi sa]


The sun’s fair rays are shining,
Water shimmers like oil.
Row away, row away!
Should we cast a net,
Or drop a line on such a day?
Chigukch’ong chigukch’ong ŏsawa.
The Fisherman’s Song stirs my fancy;
I have forgotten all about fishing.


Where is it, where am I?
Are heaven and earth separate?
Moor the boat, moor the boat!
Since the west wind’s dust can’t reach us,
Why fan off the empty air?
Chigukch’ong chigukch’ong ŏsawa.
Further, since I have heard no words,
Why should I bother to wash my ears?

hair cells of a guinea pig's inner ear

17 April 2011

João Cabral de Melo Neto

[from João Cabral de Melo Neto's Selected Poetry, 1937-1990, ed. Djelal Kadir, Wesleyan, 1994]

The Lesson of Poetry


The entire morning spent
like a motionless sun
before the blank page:
beginning of the world, new moon.

You could no longer trace
so much as a line;
neither name nor flower
bloomed in the table's summer,

not even in the paper's midday
brightness, paid for
daily (even though paper
accepts any kind of world).


All night the poet
at his desk, trying
to save from death the monsters
germinated in his inkwell.

Monsters, worms, phantoms
of words – meandering,
urinating on the paper,
smearing it with their carbon.

Carbon from the pencil, carbon
of obsessions, carbon
of extinct emotions, carbon
consumed in dreams.


White struggle on the paper
which the poet resists,
white struggle of blood
flowing from his saltwater veins.

The physics of fear discerned
in daily gestures; fear
of things that never alight and yet
are immobile – unstill still lifes.

And the twenty words collected
in the saltwater of the poet,
to be used by the poet
in his efficient machine.

Always the same twenty words
he knows so well: their operation,
their evaporation, their density
less than the air's.

          – translated by Richard Zenith

Psychology of Composition [excerpt]


I live with certain words,
household bees.

From the clear day
(white parasol)
those lucid spindles
retrieve the filaments of honey
(from the day that unfolded
also like a flower)
that by night
(pit where the aerial
flower goes to rest)
will persist: golden
taste, and sour,
against the sugar of putrefaction.

          – translated by Djelal Kadir

13 April 2011

contemporary Vietnamese poets

[from Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry, ed./tr. by Nguyen Do & Paul Hoover, Milkweed, 2008]

Nguyen Do & Paul Hoover

Three Variations at Sixty-Five Years Old [excerpt]
          – Van Cao

I fall into a spiderweb
It wraps me tightly
no way of getting out
I’m like a silkworm
in this life

I want to break the net
but my arms are far too few!

Van Cao

Women Carrying River Water
          – Nguyen Quang Thieu

Long, black, and bony, their toenails splay wide as a hen’s.
For five years, fifteen years – thirsty years and half my life –
I’ve seen them carry water from the river.
Their hair flows down their soft, wet backs,
one hand supporting the thin shoulder poles,
the other clinging to the whiteness of clouds.
The river hides its face in its banks then turns and runs on.
The men leave home silently, carrying fishing poles and dreams of the ocean.
The spiritual fish turn their faces away to weep.
Buoys made of corn sink in the river’s flow.
Angrily and sadly, men are leaving the home
that I have seen for five years, fifteen years – thirsty years and half my life –
following these women who carry river water like naked children
who run along with their mothers and soon grow up.
The girls will always lay poles on their shoulders and go to the shore.
The boys will always leave home silently, carrying fishing poles and ocean dreams.
And the spiritual fish will always turn their faces to weep
in front of the bait, dumbstruck as it gazes from its fishhook.

Nguyen Quang Thieu

Collected Short Poems [excerpt]
          –Tran Dan

A circle of people always surrounds a naked man.

Creation is total force, action, and suddenness including the
          scrotum, which is involved in creation also.

Building a poetry collection is like breaking into a prison.

Tran Dan

To Suddenly Remember
          – Thanh Thao

like someone beating a drum, the rain dropped on my waterproof
          army poncho
which was torn and badly needed mending
my friends were like forest trees, day by day diminishing
the war cut them down
like an electric trimmer
but now they’re all at peace
I remember also that evening, as a child,
the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,
even sweeter when she carried me on her back!
the road over the dike echoed the soul of the river
dark brown sails and bamboo shadows floating slowly
a bridge where an older man got tired
and lay down to rest but not sleep
the room where he keeps only the barest necessities
the ripe smell of bananas
some old chairs
and a small ancient teapot
the aged sunlight
an evening of summer rain
and the bomb’s echoes from the Duong bridge that sounded like
          rolling thunder
my parents lived there in a home
a ten-square-meter country
but because of our greater home
my parents didn’t prevent me
from going into battle
not hoping for a brave death or “rainbow”
I’m the hand on a compass
that only turns toward our room
where everything is old

Thanh Thao

09 April 2011

Dana Levin

[from Dana Levin's Sky Burial, Copper Canyon, 2011]

School of Flesh

         Blush for a cheek of stone.

         Blush for the lips sewn tight with thread, no speech
for the dead
         maker –

         You’ve got the razor. You can make each suture

         And watch the mouth
bloom up with foam,
         as if he’d drowned himself in soap –

         You lift the neck and let the head drop back.
The mouth yawns wide its prize –

         White thrive.
The larval joy.
         Hot in their gorge on the stew of balms,
a moist exhale –
         as of there were a last breath, a taunt
         into your inner ear, Good Dog, you dig your hands in,
         the glossal
bed –
         saying, Graduate
of the School of Flesh, Father Conspirator –
         I will

         bite the tongue
from the corpse –

This from That

              who studies the emergence of butterflies
from chrysalides,
              of fighter jets
from number chars,
              of syllables
from kettledrums –


              Insects that pupate in a cocoon
must escape from it

              says Wikipedia.

              Wikipedia, which says:
Whilst inside the pupa

              Says: digestive juices, to destroy much
of the larva's body

              larva meaning
its own –

              which has been instructed
to leave a few cells intact for

total change,
              through the nutrients of suffering, of the self-

              carnivore –
(lumbering up,
              hoisting my flesh from the floor – )


I study ziggurats
              from cigarettes. Smoke

the effluvium of fire, the
              fire in the mouth from

cigarettes, from

              striking dry tinder from the tongue –

"It is queer to be assisting
              at the éclosion


              of a great new mental epoch,"
wrote William James
              in 1906:

eclosion, verb eclose,
              "emergence from concealment" –

which is what "religion and philosophy" do,
              which is what certain

insects do,
              even people, slipping their suits, and what we need

              is a new mental epoch –

whatever lies

              self-liquidation –


              Who studies

              concerto notes
from finger-scales,
              survivor guilt
from firestorms,
from bombing runs –

              Through the open back door,
bending a petunia,

Papilio machaon
              drinking deeply

              and long.

04 April 2011

Staged Right

I like it comes first, I
try to feel shocked. No more a
dependent nor child, the truth is, I'm
an adult with a drink at a bar, my
free will invites me. On me
I hear him say. I feel his
fingers, my bicep squeezed. Next
emotion fresh out of the
limbic Crash goes the glass into the bar
swells contentedly, contracts
resentfully, a regular pulse, it
splays his fingers loose, the remaining
pressure only to my shoulder, no capture like
before, he chatters on as caged
parrots do once they yield. Who
ricochets flash through the scrum
are you stools clear on both
sides putting your hands on? Hands rise
his from me first, others toward
him, partway. He & I hold our
ground, focused on the
roughhousing an apron comes, scowl-browed
bartender our expulsion bound. I
spit hard (benny from my
brothers), beer-fed eructation, my
mouth still pursed, shoulder bag to hip,
whiskey cross-eyed, Desolation Valley in my
short-term future. I'm
such a proto-mock Penelope
toe-tapping, sequin-bowtied, no
apocryphal Odysseus back, posturing
danger-scripter, semi-tanked.
Curtseying strangers clear a path, I
zag out blinking, alone so long the
taste of violence rushes me, then no
nothing beyond the gap.
No applause.

Naomi Shihab Nye

[from Naomi Shihab Nye's Honeybee, Harper Collins, 2008]

Running Egret

We want our nature to have a face.
An eye we can look into,
not like ours – clearer. Strong body
moving swiftly over land, belonging to no one.

Nonpartisan egret,
beyond everything that burden us,
unexpected, unpredictable,
sheer motion – flash of white –
creatures with a silence
wider than our own.

There are days we wake and need an egret.

The Little Bun of Hours (excerpt)

Days that felt like sheet cakes in long silver pans
frosted or not, plenty of cake no matter who appeared,
a sift of powdered sugar, and the knife
laid casually by. Maybe a sack of French bread
broken in half. I liked the small stacked plates
on the counter, the way you drove around in a box
without going anywhere. We could send
the bears to school and write notes for them
to take home to their mothers, who were camels
and rabbits. Sometimes I looked at a clock.
When you were four, lightning cracked my brain
and I could see all the way till now, this fist of days
before you leave. It took away my sleep, my confidence,
who were we before you? . . .