30 March 2006

Vijay Seshadri

[from The Long Meadow by Vijay Seshadri]

Superman Agonistes

"When my X-ray eyes look through the humans
to the need inside,
glowing red and green,
my blood cells collide,

my lungs collapse,
my cortex rebels,
and my heart wraps
a bomb around itself

and threatens to kill us both.
But I can't stay away.
I have to fly down
and watch them pray,

to watch them couple,
to watch them fight,
exposing myself
to their kryptonite."

Jack Gilbert

[from Great Fires by Jack Gilbert]

Conceiving Himself

Night after night after hot night in the clearing.
Stars, odor of damp grass, the faint sound of waves.
The palm trees around hardly visible, and the smell
of the jungle beyond. Hour after hour of the drumming
on bells, while young girls danced elegantly in their
heavy golden costumes. Afterward, groping his way
back along the dirt paths through blackness, dazed
by the trembling music, the dancing, and their hands.
(Pittsburgh so long ago. The spoor of someone inside
him.Knowing it sometimes waiting for a train in snow,
or just a moment while eating figs in a stony field.)
One evening the rain spilled down and he ran into
the tent behind the altar, where dancers and musicians
crowded together in the unnatural light of a Coleman
lantern: the girls undressing, rain in their hair,
the delicate faces still painted, their teeth white
as they laughed. None speaking English, their language
impossible. The man finally backstage in his life.

29 March 2006

Patrick Phillips

Last weekend I attended the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville and heard readings by many very good poets including Sarah Gambito, Jane Hirshfield, Charlotte Matthews, Gregory Orr, Vijay Seshadri, and Natasha Trethewey.

After the very young-looking Patrick Phillips read from his remarkable book Chattahoochee, the 2005 Kate Tufts Award winner, my friend Susan Meyers bought me a copy.

If you don't know Phillips's work, you should. The following is an excerpt from the title poem from Chattahoochee:


Some tragedies are comic:
a man dies for twenty-three dollars
but would’ve done it for less.
In coveralls, a ball cap, black whorls of beard,

he crouches like a catcher
to bury his jar under the magnolia.
He stamps on the mound, smoothes it with his shoe.
There is movement, of course,

order to disorder—the brown river rising,
flooding the house, the barn,
the blossoming magnolia. There is the man
wading down the steps of his porch like a Baptist,

cool water filling his pockets with mica
as he dog paddles over the place
where the shimmer should be, the glint
of the pickle jar through the Chattahoochee.

He takes a long breath before going,
then goes. A small act in the story,
one body floating downstream,
becoming a creature of water:

the brown eyes open,
the blue skin spotted with leeches,
the throat filled with pollen and leaves—
floating upstream the day the flood crests.

Only the living need a spirit
for the physics of buoyancy. For us
there’s always a message swirling in the eddy,
a voice in the movements of water.

If the drowned man must speak, then—
as his body, stripped bare, floats away—let him say this:
the oldest instinct is to find what you bury,
to come back and dig up your bones.

22 March 2006

Jane Hirshfield

[from After by Jane Hirshfield]

Flowering Vetch

Each of the tragedies can be read
as the tale of a single ripening self,
every character part of one soul.
The comedies can be included in this as well.
Often the flaw is a flaw of self-knowledge;
sometimes greed. For this reason
the comic glint of a school of herring leads to no plot line,
we cannot imagine a tragedy of donkeys or bees.
Before the ordinary realities, ordinary failures:
hunger, coldness, anger, longing, heat.
Yet one day, a thought as small as a vetch flower opens.
After, no longer minding the minor and almost wordless role,
playing the messenger given the letter
everyone knows will arrive too late or ruined by water.
To have stopped by the fig and eaten was not an error, then,
but the reason for going.

16 March 2006

Dana Levin

[from In the Surgical Theatre by Dana Levin]


Crushed mouse head on the picnic table—
       it is your thumb,
your tongue.
       Some part of you
hanging from the great owl’s mouth—
       What were you thinking when you took shelter here,
standing in a gray
       powder of droppings, tumors
of matted hair and bone
       rotting the floor of this abandoned barn—
       the crush and the blood. The live
       up in the eaves, the enormous, rotting nest—

You thought it was him, you thought it was all
turning toward the hills where the hares were running,
       their yellow coats gleaming like suns in the snow,
       the sharp-cocked claw—
And now you feel them,
       under your feet: the broken shells that are hers—

The great swoop and then you, little mouse,
       pinched up
by the skin of your nape,
       hovering above the white-streaked floor—
And that you wanted it, the dark fold of embrace,
       cradling you away
from the arctic wind
       whipping through these cankered walls—
The dark well
       of her open eye,
the beak, the lunge, the eating.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

Even if you don't read Verse Daily every day, you must read it today.

15 March 2006

Wislawa Szymborska

[from Wislawa Szymborska's View with a Grain of Sand


In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees.

It violently divides into doom and salvation,
retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.

An abyss appears in the middle of its body
between what instantly become two foreign shores.

Life on one shore, death on the other.
Here hope and there despair.

If there are scales, the pans don’t move.
If there is justice, this is it.

To die just as required, without excess.
To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left.

We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
Into flesh and poetry.

The throat on one side, laughter on the other,
quiet, quickly dying out.

Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar
just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers.

The abyss doesn’t divide us.
The abyss surrounds us.

         In memoriam Halina PoĊ›wiatowska

12 March 2006

Linda Gregg

[from Too Bright to See & Alma by Linda Gregg]

The Girl I Call Alma

The girl I call Alma who is so white
is good, isn't she? Even though she does not speak,
you can tell by her distress that she is
just like the beach and the sea, isn't she?
And she is disappearing, isn't that good?
And the white curtains, and the secret smile
are just her way with the lies, aren't they?
And that we are not alone, ever.
And that everything is backwards
And that inside the no is the yes. Isn't it?
Isn't it? And that she is the god who perishes:
the food we eat, the body we fuck,
the loose net we throw out that gathers her.
Fish! Fish! White sun! Tell me we are one
and that it's the others who scar me,
not you.

There She Is

When I go into the garden, there she is.
The specter holds up her arms to show
that her hands are eaten off.
She is silent because of the agony.
There is blood on her face.
I can see she has done this to herself.
So she would not feel the other pain.
And it is true, she does not feel it.
She does not even see me.
It is not she anymore, but the pain itself
that moves her. I look and think
how to forget. How can I live while she
stands there? And if I take her life
what will that make of me? I cannot
touch her, make her conscious.
It would hurt her too much.
I hear the sound all through the air
that was her eating, but it is on its own now,
completely separate from her. I think
I am supposed to look. I am not supposed
to turn away. I am supposed to see each detail
and all expression gone. My God, I think,
if paradise is to be here
it will have to include her.

The Grub

The almost transparent white grub moves
slowly along the edge of the frying pan.
The grease makes the only sound, loud
in the empty room. Even the rim is cooking him.
The worm stops. Raises his head slightly.
Lowers it, moving tentatively down the side.
He seems to be moving on his own time,
but he is falling by definition. He moves forward
touching the frying grease with his whole face.

10 March 2006

Richard Siken

[from Crush by Richard Siken]

Visible World

    Sunlight pouring across your skin, your shadow
                                                            flat on the wall.
        The dawn was breaking the bones of your heart like twigs.
You had not expected this,
               the bedroom gone white, the astronomical light
                                               pummeling you in a stream of fists.
    You raised your hand to your face as if
               to hide it, the pink fingers gone gold as the light
streamed straight to the bone,
    as if you were the small room closed in glass
                                         with every speck of dust illuminated.
    The light is no mystery,
the mystery is that there is something to keep the light
                                                                 from passing through.

This short volume of poems is as good as a great film and better than most novels published these days.

07 March 2006

W. B. Yeats

Cuchulain Comforted

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority
Among those bird-like things came, and let fall
A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.
And thereupon that linen-carrier said:
‘Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

‘Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;
Mainly because of what we only know
The rattle of those arms makes us afraid.

‘We thread the needles’ eyes, and all we do
All must together do.’ That done, the man
Took up the nearest and began to sew.

‘Now must we sing and sing the best we can,
But first you must be told our character:
Convicted cowards all, by kindred slain

‘Or driven from home and left to die in fear.’
They sang, but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before;

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

Judy Jordan

[from Carolina Ghost Woods by Judy Jordan]

       (in memory: CNHJ)

First light shook with ax-blows to the frozen pond,
and the geese called in guttural distress
as I chopped through to the still, black water.
All day the land gave over to thaw, and snow released the cabin,
softened and eased off the ridged tin roof in foundation-shaking
until night when Orion whistled his dogs
behind clouds mottled like weathered rock,
then the farm sighed under the new storm
and silence returned like an old sorrow.

I wish that silence held some answer or passage
to forgetting. I would go to it
with its hesitant and dangerous tacks,
its seepage into night like shadows slipping into bodies,
where it hangs like smoke,
drifts into itself as smoke will,
rises slow above trees
to the flat of the sky, rises and hangs
and, like sorrow, waits and will not fade.

06 March 2006

Rachel Zucker

The remarkable (and funny) poet called Rachel Zucker defines both confessional and Confessionalistic Poetry in an essay posted on the Academy of American Poets website.

Thank you Anne Haines for this link.

05 March 2006

Jane Hirshfield

[from The Lives of the Heart by Jane Hirshfield]

The Roses of the Nag Hammadi Library

Dry summers,
the deer come down
to eat my roses.
Think of a rack made of roses.
Think of a hoof,
of the long and rose-colored
muscles of foreleg and shoulder.
A leap made of roses is easier,
over the fence like a vine.
When the boys hunting nitrate
broke open a jar in the mountains
and brought home some paper—
old, very dry—their mother, who could
not read, found it good kindling.
“Imagine the flavor,” my friend said,
but kasha is kasha. The rains come,
the deer slip back into the mountains
like hungry, rose-colored smoke.
They move mouthful by mouthful; pensive,
they slowly rise.

04 March 2006

Hopkins on Keats

[from a letter to Coventry Patmore]

"It is impossible not to feel with weariness how [Keats's] verse is at every turn abandoning itself to an unmanly and enervating luxury. It appears too that he said something like 'O for a life of impressions rather than thoughts' . . . Nevertheless, I feel and see in him the beginnings of something opposite to this, of an interest in higher things, and of powerful and active thought . . . His mind had, as it seems to me, the distinctly masculine powers in abundance, his character the manly virtues, but while he gave himself up to dreaming and self-indulgence, of course, they were in abeyance . . . but . . . his genius would have taken to an austere utterance in art. Reason, thought, what he did not want to live by, would have asserted itself presently."

02 March 2006

William Butler Yeats

The Fascination of What's Difficult

The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not hold blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up fifty ways,
On the day's war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

As Seamus Heaney says . . .
        The words fly off there like stones in a riot.