28 November 2009

Christian Wiman

[from Christian Wiman's Hard Night, Copper Canyon, 2005]

[from "Reading Herodotus"]

Confusion is to be born
into a people without names or dreams
to whom the dead must come in the daylight —
brief faces in the clouds, traces of familiar dust
to which you cannot call out, of which you cannot speak

"Reading Herodotus"

[from "The Funeral"]

the solemnity with which each head is bowed
as one by one, and row by row, they lose
themselves to a keen indigenous grief
that binds them cry to cry and tear to tear,
until its binding is its own relief

"The Funeral"

25 November 2009

Paula Bohince

[from Paula Bohince's Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, Sarabande, 2008]


Abdomen small as a mole
on a cheek, as magnetic, but mostly near
nothing — transparent limbs
stilt-walking through the cracked-open window and into
the sunroom where Father,
thin as his mattress, tosses on the bony cot.

Longlegs, drawn by such heat
and sweat, wracked inhales,
exhales, tumbles toward his face,

a frail monster unafraid of the lingering smell
of hand-fed pigeons, the kerosene jug's
glistening mouth.

Soon this will all be over, soon . . .

Button at my throat, ruffle
at my feet, I look to its shadow long on the sheet,
then to its body,
a kernel, something to be crushed,

woods' chill seeping in
over all I cannot touch: the unlovely man, the whistle
coming through time, the pond
I'd run from, into his arms.

Emily Wilson

[from Emily Wilson's Micrographia, Iowa, 2009]

Sunset: Rouen?

Just to the left and down from
the central engagements
— clock-tower, vaults of the long mauve bridge
sun and its correlate
swashes come back
to prime, spurred
cathedral, ceding
carmine, chartreuse up against it.
The horses stand in their traces.
Their wagon floats at the dark wharf-fringe.
Fused through the loads, watermarks, persons or poles,
soldered spots that are shadows
or breaks at the junctures of reeds,
scarcely at home in themselves, stationing there,
forced to make reddish banks red
they have been horses —
the fixing of them in grit-grass —
strangely set off.
Ramparts ruck over the underside slips.
What are they waiting for?
The edge of the picture unsettles,
tricks itself forth
like the passage in which is restored
your miniature boy
ritually combed and folded.
A few fawn strokes still to be
harbored as horses.

23 November 2009

Toi Derricotte

[from Toi Derricotte's The Empress of the Death House, Lotus, 1991]

The Feeding

My grandmother
haunted the halls
above Webster's Funeral
Home like a red-
gowned ghost. Til dawn
I'd see her spectral
form — henna-hair
blown back,
green eyes:

She was proud.
Like God,
I swore I'd love her.
At night we whispered
how we hated mother
and wished that I could
live with her.

In the morning while she slept,
I'd pluck
costume diamonds
form a heart-shaped chest,
try her tortoise combs
and hairpins in my hair.
She'd wake
and take me to her bed.

Maroon-quilted, eider-downed,
I drowned.
Rocking on her wasted breast,
I'd hear her tell me
how she nursed my father
til he was old enough to ask.

Then, she'd draw me
to her — ask me
if she still had milk.
Yes. I said, yes.
Feeding on the sapless
even now
the taste of emptiness
weights my mouth.

22 November 2009

Stephanie Anderson

[from Stephanie Anderson's In the Particular Particular, New Michigan Press, 2007]

Winter Slaughter

My omnivore, we will eat all but
squeal. I brought you home head-first
in sack, sight-weak one. You barged

scrap-fed with acorn and milk.
Grew long in your board slab
pen. I was glad you could not

see the gun as I sharpened the sticking
knives, skinning knives. In February —
crushing rosin under brick and iron.

We boil water over tires; tub-cradle you
and rub with chains. Hand scrape your nooks,
gaff the hoofs, work in the lime.

At last, you hang burnished and clean.
When I go to fill signal lanterns, I will pocket
you paper-wrapped and larded.

21 November 2009

Marilyn Hacker

[from "A Conversation with Marilyn Hacker," an Annie Finch interview of Marilyn Hacker, in Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form, eds. Annie Finch and Susan M. Schultz, Textos, 2008]

MH: When Tom Disch and I were doing sonnets, we were doing Shakespearean sonnets where, except for the couplet, you were rhyming with yourself. I wrote the a line and he would write the b line; however, you didn't see the line that was going before yours, you were just told by the other person that "I wrote a line that ends with a preposition indicating direction," or "I have given a proper noun. Follow it with a verb." or "I have given a prepositional phrase that requires a direct object. Provied a direct object." And go on from there. For the couplet, whoever wrote the first line had to give the second person the rhyme. The couplet of one of these sonnets -- and one person wrote one line and the other person wrote the second line without having seen the other line was, "The road reels by in millions of white flashes / like checks from out of state that no one cashes," which I think is a great American couplet. It's published in a tiny little chapbook that we brought out, called Highway Sandwiches.

17 November 2009

John Berryman

[a description of John Berryman writing "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" from Paul Mariani's Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, William Morrow, 1990]

Berryman began writing the poem at white heat. Each day he went to his studio to write a single stanza: no more, no less. By then he had hundreds of detached lines and notes, and he worked each piece over, stitching lines together into eight-line stanzas on an erasable, glassine-covered wax pad. He placed the fragments he already had beneath the glassine and then worked at connecting his lines and revising each stanza. At lunchtime he descended to his apartment with his new stanza and read it over and over to Eileen, then returned to the studio to work at it again. At dinner, elated and exhausted, he read the revised stanza to her again.

16 November 2009

Joshua Poteat

[from Joshua Poteat's Ornithologies, Anhinga, 2006]

The Angels Continue Turning the Wheels of the Universe Despite Their Ugly Souls
(Malvern Hill Battleground)
                                 — after Alice Aycock

There is truth in the phrase, the dead are at ease under the fields.

Autumn is what seizes it. A field of dried cotton stalks
                 have a grace in the wind only the dead can love,
and so, belief comes simple, rendering not a season
                 but stalk against stalk,

poor cousin-song of crickets,
                 poor furrow-in-the-gut, little nothing-at-all.

At least it will snow soon, goes the cotton's rattled melody,
                 and this field beyond the city, flooded by night,
turns blue in the first frost as the ghosts of past crops
                 bridle upon it.

I give the field ghosts, and the wind eggs them on —
                 corn and sweet potato, tobacco and bean —
hovering the mule-plough of two hundred years.

So much for truth.

It's the least I can do since I cannot for the life of me
                 think of anything but the thin curtains of a hospital room
and an X-ray of my crooked spine pinned to a wall of light,

the sweet milk of vertebrae, my own skull
                 frowning back at me, such a cold cup of jaw,
so white I could have easily drunk myself.

What a desire, to take one's self in, to unravel
                 the body's red yarn shapes and deceive the plague
of boundless hunger, to imagine this cotton field as bone
                 ready for the gin, rib and wrist and collar,

all tenderhearted stars,
                 inexact, held up to the light of no moon, no cloud.

This is me scattered in the furrows, I thought.
This is me, marrowless and fluff, grub-eaten.

I don't believe in much. Not the descent and re-ascent
                 of the soul . . . the palace of the kingdom of the dead . . .

So much for desire.

I have seen those X-rays of Velasquez, the hidden layers
                 illuminated to reveal six ghost-versions of hands along the rim
of an egg bowl, six different plates of fish and garlic,
                 a dwarf's blind face formed into the severed head of a pig,
then back to a dwarf, leaving the pig's wondrous eyes.

A bird later becomes a peach in the mouth of a jug,
                 and this is how I feel about the world at the moment.

Troppo vero, said Pope Innocent in a letter
                 to Velasquez of his portraits. Too faithful.

Representation is all we are in the end, I guess, and then some.

Charred ivory: muller stone: horse-hair:
                 white lead: madder: massicot.

This is me.

It is almost winter, here in the leftover cotton
                 that once held the thousand luminous angels of desire
as they curled inward towards a truth

unlike any flame they had seen.

This must be how the soldiers slept,
                 with the night all around them
and their bodies knowing where it was.

And this must be how the deer moved
                 over the fields long after the battle, drinking frost
from the eyes of the dead with their small pink tongues.

Oh dwarf, oh king, oh skeleton of mine,
                 will I ever feel your wings between my hands again?

13 November 2009

Kate Greenstreet

[from Kate Greenstreet's case sensitive, Ahsahta, 2006]

Salt (excerpt)

2 [was known to have been made]

She was on the medicine for grief.
"Even if they don't die, it doesn't help much."

Grit of salt around her chair.
Basically, a question you have to ask yourself.

Can you shut the eye with something in it and continue?
"Most commonly, this transformation takes

the form of disappearances
of persons."

What do we share
that can help us?

"In the very distant

even older than light."

destiny. A kind of song. Escape

with what you are. Walking,
talking, for a thousand miles . . .

"Some may not need gold, but who
does not need salt?" And sometime after,

felt the need to write.
Wherewith will it be salted?

Why bring it up again? Red eyes,
read for meaning.

The buried ring, marked map, "the consolation
of religion."

Things go together because they are together.
It's a challenge to the spirit that cleans the spirit.

Snow on the cold side
of the fence.

Isn't that the definition
of sense?

12 November 2009

Ingeborg Bachman

[from Ingeborg Bachmann's Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems, tr. Peter Filkins, Zephyr, 2006]

March Stars

Still it's too early for sowing. Fields
surface in rain, March stars appear.
Like an afterthought, the universe submits
to familiar equations, such as the light
that falls but leaves the snow untouched.

Under the snow there will also be dust
and, what doesn't disintegrate, the dust's
later nourishment. O wind, picking up.
Again the plows rip open the darkness.
Each new day will want to be longer.

It's on long days that we are sown,
unasked, in those neat and crooked rows,
as stars sink away above. In fields
we thrive or rot without a choice,
submitting to rain and also at last the light

09 November 2009

C. P. Cavafy

[from C. P. Cavafy's The Unfinished Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009]

Antiochus the Cyzicene

The people of Syria put up with him:
as long as someone stronger doesn't come along.
And what is "Syria"? It barely comes to half;
what with the little kingdoms, with John Hyrcanus,
with the cities that are declaring their independence.

It seems the realm once began, the historians say,
at the Aegean and went right up to India.
From the Aegean right up to India! Patience.
Let's have a look at those puppets,
the animals he's brought us.

08 November 2009

Mary Jo Bang

[from Mary Jo Bang's The Bride of E, Graywolf, 2009]

Death and Disappearance

A plague. The population shaped by the spread.
The meeting with mammals whose bones are not found
Upright anymore. The slow pandemic and its subsequent
Effect. The unusually high rate of devastation.

Winter and spring. Take any year and it's possible to infer
The purple spots on abdomen or limbs.
The overwhelming priority. The impoverishment with
Every outbreak. The corpses in recurrent waves.

A pyre burning the molecular biology
Of the virulent strain and taking with it the haunting evocation
Of a face. A cluster of cases provides whatever
With no knowledge of exactly how. With no possible

Undermining flowering of certainty. The dark outsider status
Of the mechanical animal. Gear churn. Lung bellow.
A foot thumping in the rib cage. Back and forth.
The limited skills for finding what can no longer be seen.

Only a surround where one feels seriously cheated.
As if beat handily. As if exploited. As if a wide variety of poses
That resemble manikins. The fascinating nature of
The stratagems of staggering forward with exhaustion

Into the final further line of inquiry.
The body becoming meat and bone and the iconographic
Culture saturated with reaction. The subject itself
Now manifested in any number of ways as a formless arc.

Swaddled in the basic fact of layers of purpose
That simply become profoundly brutal. The aura escaping
Description except as an empire of trouble where cells line up
To meet the edge where the car takes the body away.

07 November 2009

Ana Božičević

[from Ana Božičević's Stars of the Night Commute, Tarpaulin Sky, 2009]

Spoken by a Piece of Gum on the Open-Air Platform

Comes a thing better
than names: this piece of wire
angling from the trash-yard door:

a mobile, a thinness! Early on,
we find out, via stomach:
it's better to be green, or wire, or

gum. Our landscape is all thrust:
skyscrapers. Avalanche. Even
Sebastian —     — Sorry,

that name's an
water bottle. Someday its sound

will be emblem
of my temperance. But now?
it's sorrow.

05 November 2009

Sherman Alexie

[from Sherman Alexie's Face, Hanging Loose, 2009]

The Sum of His Parts

Driving home, I ran over a bull snake
And tore it into three pieces.

I didn't mean to kill the thing.
I'd thought it was the thin shadow

Of a telephone pole stretched across the road.
I realized it was a snake

Only after I'd run it over.
Thump, thump:

That's the percussion
Of car tires and snake.

After I ran over it, I stopped,
Left the car idling,

And walked back
To the three pieces of snake.

In death-shock, the head and tail
Thrashed separately

Against the pavement
That had been its warm rock.

The middle piece, strange
And disconnected, did not move.

I said a prayer
To the Snake God,

And wondered if such a God exists.
That's theology.

If the Snake God does exist,
Then it is likely the same

As every other God:

I didn't want the snake's body to be insulted
By other cars and their drivers,

So I dragged the tail off the road to the west
And the head off the road to the east,

But could not touch the middle piece
Because it was flattened and gory.

Satisfied that I'd shown the snake
Enough respect, I drove away.

But two miles up the road, I turned
Around and traveled back to the snake.

I don't know if there is a Snake Heaven,
But I didn't want the snake to suffer

because of my doubts.
If the snake's three pieces arrived

separately in Heaven,
Would any of them be able to find the others?

I dragged the tail and middle
Across the road and laid them beside the head

Because snake + snake + snake = snake.

Jane Kenyon

[from Jane Kenyon's Otherwise, Graywolf, 1996]

From the Back Steps

A bird begins to sing,
hesitates, like a carpenter
pausing to straighten a nail, then
begins again.
The cat lolls in the shade
under the parked car, his head
in the wheel's path.
I bury the thing I love.

But the cat continues to lie
comfortably, right where he is,
and no one will move the car.
My own violence falls away
like paint peeling from a wall.
I am choosing a new color
to paint my house, though I'm still
not sure what the color will be.

Afternoon in the House

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats -- and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect possibility.

04 November 2009

Douglas Oliver

[from Douglas Oliver's Three Variations on the Theme of Harm, Paladin, 1990]

The Heron

I talk only of voices either real or virtual in my ear:
of shadows, only those that pass over islands' sunny turf
vivid to my eye. But when I come to all my birds,
all I've ever seen, they are too many. I talk of things unseen.

Together, they would pack the sky like moving embroidery
in the white silks, browns and blacks of their great tribe,
endless litters of puppies writhing,
a heavenly roof alive but no progress of flight in it.

Every memory adds to this intricate plot;
starting up redshanks first, and they bank, flashing white,
across a sepia estuary where I felt freedom
in watching their undulating patterns on the air.

They flight down but hold at mid-height: horizontal
stick puppets of the Styx. The black light whitens
with the harmonious wings of swan formations,
the day cast over with their bright feathering.

Behind the swans the sky absolutely fills with starlings
homing to roost as once I saw them over Stonehenge;
gulls flock up and hold there, and brown passeriformes
spring between airspaces and stop of invisible branches.

Millions of birds, crows and daws, teal,
quicker wing-beated than wigeon, among mallard hordes;
swifts print arrows on the pulsating featheriness;
the sky is covered over with the puppy litters.

I can't tell you all the names; I'm worried
about the birds rabbling the sky. D'you suppose
I can avoid even the dusty body of every sparrow,
or every sparrow hawk flipping over a thicket?

Unseen, this nature crowds my mind. If there's pulsation,
it's disturbing; if stasis it's a painting
and all the life goes out; but any sudden switch
between pulse and the static is schizophrenic.

In the foreground of the multifarious flights
one talismanic bird, a heron, lifts to the top
of its single leg and takes off like an umbrella.
Fluff in a corner of the past becomes grey flame.

Its shoulders unshackle and heave, legs become the addendum,
the beak stabs out purposefully from the sunken neck.
It sails. In this flight's brevity,
I find what lives for me among all the dead songs.

03 November 2009

Louise Gluck

[from Louise Gluck's A Village Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009]


He steals sometimes, because they don't have their own tree
and he loves fruit. Not steals exactly —
he pretends he's an animal; he eats off the ground,
as the animals would eat. This is what he tells the priest,
that he doesn't think it should be a sin to take what would just lie there and rot,
this year like every other year.

As a man, as a human being, the priest agrees with the boy,
but as a priest he chastises him, though the penance is light,
so as to not kill off imagination: what he'd give
to a much younger boy who took something that wasn't his.

But the boy objects. He's willing to do the penance
because he likes the priest, but he refuses to believe that Jesus
gave this fig tree to this woman; he wants to know
what Jesus does with all the money he gets from real estate,
not just in this village but in the whole country.

Partly he's joking but partly he's serious
and the priest gets irritated — he's out of his depth with this boy,
he can't explain that though Christ doesn't deal in property,
still the fig tree belongs to the woman, even if she never picks the figs.
Perhaps one day, with the boy's encouragement,
the woman will become a saint and share her fig tree and her big house with strangers,
but for the moment she's a human being whose ancestors built this house.

The priest is pleased to have moved the conversation away from money,
which makes him nervous, and back to words like family or tradition,
where he feels more secure. The boy stares at him —
he knows perfectly well the ways in which he's taken advantage of a senile old lady,
the ways he's tried to charm the priest, to impress him. But he despises
speeches like the one beginning now;
he wants to taunt the priest with his own flight: if he loves family so much,
why didn't the priest marry as his parents married, continue the line from which he came.

But he's silent. The words that mean there will be
no questioning, no trying to reason — those words have been uttered.
"Thank you, Father," he says.