Friday, June 30, 2006

152. 25TH ANNIVERSARY - Linda Pastan

There is something I want
to tell you beyond love
or gratitude or sex, beyond
irritation or a purer anger.
For years I have hoarded
your small faults the way
I might hoard kindling
towards some future conflagration,
and from the moment you broke
into my life, all out of breath,
I have half expected you
to break back out.
But here we are
like the married couple
from Cerveteri who smile
from their 6th-century sarcophagus
as if they are giving a party.
How young we were in Rome, buying
their portraits on postcards,
thinking that we too
were entangled already
beyond amputation, beyond
even death, as we are
as we are now.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

151. THE ENIGMAS - Jorge Luis Borges

(Translated by John Updike)

I who am singing these lines today
Will be tomorrow the enigmatic corpse
Who dwells in a realm, magical and barren,
Without a before or an after or a when.
So say the mystics. I say I believe
Myself undeserving of Heaven or of Hell,
But make no predictions. Each man's tale
Shifts like the watery forms of Proteus.
What errant labyrinth, what blinding flash
Of splendor and glory shall become my fate
When the end of this adventure presents me with
The curious experience of death?
I want to drink its crystal-pure oblivion,
To be forever; but never to have been.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

150. EARTH VERSE - Gary Snyder

An Excerpt from The Gary Snyder Reader by Gary Snyder

Wide enough to keep you looking

Open enough to keep you moving

Dry enough to keep you honest

Prickly enough to make you tough

Green enough to go on living

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

149. REISEBILDER, 48 - Edorardo Sanguineti

So it takes very little indeed: a brasserie with Beaujolais 1968 Reserve
and small inside terraces (as pleasant as they are impossible to find here),
with a horseshoe-shaped bar counter and fake candles winking their
wicked yellow, with servings of snails and baby goat prepared comme il faut;

and we discover ourselves very cursedly latin,
no doubt about it, with other desires, other moods (and full of
good thoughts: prosperous, pulpy, and pagan);

so it happened that yesterday, October 3rd, glancing
about me a bit and observing a Germanic sampling of chewing couples,
I discovered that all women are latin, along all parallels and meridians;

(and what warm soft winds of departure blew by then, filling the sails
of our old hearts, in the darkening port of Wittenbergplatz!)

Monday, June 26, 2006

148. A SONG ON THE END OF THE WORLD - Czeslaw Milosz

(translated by Anthony Milosz)

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A Fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet,
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

147. A FAST OF GOD'S CHOOSING - John Canaday

[from John Canaday's The Invisible World]

A Fast of God’s Choosing

For ye have brought us forth into this wilderness,
to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
— Exodus 16:3

Past one and still no vendor’s cart in sight,
no minimarts here on the Freedom Trail.
My hollow belly moans a kind of song,
like the west wind whistling hosannas
under the vault of the Old South Meeting House:

“When hunger sucks the marrow from your bones,
whittle an octave’s worth of fingering
along your fibula and then your soul
will pipe a song to make you weep for God.
And though tears linger on the desert of your lips,
resist their salty frankness, for it masks
a deeper thirst than you should care to know.
No, do not speak. Words speak of damnable
conceit. Which of us knows God’s ways? Your lips
should crack with thirst before you fold your breath
in speech. Thank God when he humiliates
your flesh beyond the compass of mere words.
A plump blackberry like a ripe bon mot
could spell damnation if it made you think
the fullness of a summer afternoon
meant jack. The scent of summer honeysuckle
blinds us to an everlasting emptiness
that mortal hunger only echoes. Praise
God for the deserts, famines, droughts with which
he seasons us when we wax fit. And bless
these vacant words as well. Inhabit them.”

Saturday, June 24, 2006

146. LOVE - Sonnet L'Abbé

I try to take only
my edited self
to public places.

Aren’t you tired
of the rough draft
every day?

In your hurt eyes
all my crossed-out
words, still legible.

In your glow
all the white space
where I can unfold.

Friday, June 23, 2006

145. JUNE, 1968 - Jorge Luis Borges

(translated by Hoyt Rogers)

In the golden afternoon, or in
a serenity the gold of afternoon
might symbolize,
a man arranges books
on waiting shelves
and feels the parchment, the leather, the cloth,
and the pleasure bestowed
by looking forward to a habit
and establishing an order.
Here Stevenson and Andrew Lang, the other Scot,
will magically resume
their slow discussion
which seas and death cut short,
and surely Reyes will not be displased
by the closeness of Virgil.
(In a modest, silent way,
by ranging books on shelves
we ply the critic's art.)
The man is blind, and knows
he won't be able to decode
the handsome volumes he is handling,
and that they will never help him write
the book that will justify his life in others' eyes;
but in the afternoon that might be gold
he smiles at his curious fate
and feels that peculiar happiness
which comes from loved old things.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

144. A SONG ON THE END OF THE WORLD - Czeslaw Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet,
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

143. FOR WHAT BINDS US - Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield - For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down––
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest––

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

Monday, June 19, 2006

142. WHO'S WHO - W. H. Auden

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day:
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

141. LOVE - Sonnet L'Abbé

I try to take only
my edited self
to public places.

Aren’t you tired
of the rough draft
every day?

In your hurt eyes
all my crossed-out
words, still legible.

In your glow
all the white space
where I can unfold.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

141. SNOW MELTING - Gjertrud Schnackenberg

[from Supernatural Love by Gjertrud Schnackenberg]

Snow melting when I left you, and I took
This fragile bone we'd found in melting snow
Before I left, exposed beside a brook
Where raccoons washed their hands. And this, I know,

Is that raccoon we'd watched for every day.
Though at the time her wild human hand
Had gestured inexplicably, I say
Her meaning now is more than I can stand.

We've reasons, we have reasons, so we say,
For giving love, and for withholding it.
I who would love must marvel at the way
I know aloneness when I'm holding it,

Know near and far as words for live and die,
Know distance, as I'm trying to draw near,
Growing immense, and know, but don't know why,
Things seen up close enlarge, then disappear.

Tonight this small room seems too huge to cross.
And my life is that looming kind of place.
Here, left with this alone, and at a loss
I hold an alien and vacant face

Which shrinks away, and yet is magnified—
More so than I seem able to explain.
Tonight the giant galaxies outside
Are tiny, tiny on my windowpane.

Friday, June 16, 2006

139. TO MY MOTHER - George Barker

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her,––
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
But leans on the mahogany table like a mountain
Whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


The beautiful American word, Sure,
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp's button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,

As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.

Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever's near,

And hope for day when the whole world has that face:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind's sufficient grace.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

137. CAEDMON - Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov - Caedmon

All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I'd wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I'd see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.

The following commentary, condensed, is from

Cædmon (fl. 658-680)
Commentary by Ian Lancashire

Caedmon gives hope to all would-be poets. For most of his life, he worked in animal husbandry for a monastery, living with the non-religious, and reporting to the reeve, a steward who superintended the abbess' estates. When the workers routinely ate together in the hall at a table, they entertained each other by singing lyrics to a hand-held harp, passed around. Surviving Old English poetry hints at what they sang about: historical battles like Maldon, mythic heroes like Beowulf, lonely wanderers by land and sea such as Widsith, and riddles. Before Caedmon's turn to sing came, he left for home or for the stable where he kept the livestock overnight. One time, when his turn came to sleep with the animals, he had a dream. In it a man called him by name and told him to sing. When Caedmon explained that he could not sing to the others, the man asked him to sing to him instead. When Caedmon said that he did not know what to sing about, the man told him, "the Creation of all things." In the dream, Caedmon did so, with verses he had never heard before. Awaking, he remembered his dream and the song, and added more to it.

The religious for whom Caedmon performed his song later attributed his singing as a gift by God's grace. He must have seemed to them like one of the disciples in the gospels whom Jesus had called by name to God's service. Creativity in making songs, to them, happened when a greater power took over the poet and made him its voice. John Milton also attributed his poems to a "Heavenly Muse." Late in life, and blind, like Homer, he composed Paradise Lost in his mind early in the morning and waited until his daughters arrived to "milk" him, that is, take dictation. However, the monastic brothers were wrong about Caedmon's "gift." The man in his dream gave him, not the verses, as a Muse might, but the subject matter. Like a teacher, this man only set the topic. Caedmon, and only he, composed the verses. What astounded the monastery's scholars was the immediacy of his composition. The verses came out without work or prompting of memory.

Caedmon's account of what happened to him is cognitively true. When people speak, they seldom rely on a mental script that they copy in uttering. Our words emerge unself-consciously, spontaneously. Our language process relies on a form of memory termed implicit or procedural. We cannot search for how to compose an utterance, as we do in trying to remember a name or a date, some part of our knowledge of the world which we have stored in long-term memory. All we can do is to want to say something and then "recall the procedure" of making language by actually doing it. We may sense, mentally, a welling up of an inchoate need to utter something on a topic at hand. The uttering then is a relief. Often it comes in words that we have never before used in that combination before. We can be surprised by what happens to us in speaking. If we stand before a crowd, charged with speaking off-the-cuff, we can become conscious of our state of unknowing, and it can unnerve us. It is like standing before a cliff and jumping out into thin air, in the belief that we will fly. That fright leads to stuttering, blocking, silence, and sometimes escape. Caedmon experienced this very same "stage fright" when the harp approached him. His dream released this damming up of his power to utter. Surprised, given no time to worry, Caedmon just obeyed the man's command. That Caedmon was unselfconscious of how he managed to sing what he did wonderfully captures the reality of language cognition. We may often not know what we are going to say until we have said it. That he had something to say on the topic, on the other hand, is obvious. No one worked for a monastery without repeatedly hearing the story of Genesis or the duty of man to praise God for it.

Caedmon does not say that he penned his song after waking up, but that he remembered it. Bede clearly explains that one of Caedmon's abilities was to store up what he was taught in his memory. He wrote down nothing, as far as we can tell, and he was likely illiterate. Reading and writing then were technical skills, needed by few, and so taught to few. Herdsmen would not have been among that number. The astonishment with which Caedmon's song-making skills were met by learned people reflects the skepticism that they feel in hearing of an undereducated person composing expertly. (For centuries, Shakespeare has borne the brunt of such disbelief; he was the son of a glover and had a grammar school education, good for its times, but comparable to leaving school after grade eight.)

The text of Caedmon's hymn of the Creation also perfectly satisfies the cognitive needs of an utterance that, once generated, must be memorizable so that it can later be recalled by rote. Each Old English line has two balanced phrases with four stressed syllables, three of which alliterate. Each half-line, if uttered musically, in time to the plucking of a harp, would fit nicely into our phonological working (short-term) memory, which can accept two seconds of speech only before recycling. The poet phonologically encodes each first half-line to make recall of the closing half-line easy. For example, "hergan" (`praise') alliteratively -- that is, musically -- calls up "hefaenricæs" (`Heaven's kingdom'), as "metudæs maecti" (`the creator's might') does "modgidanc" (`thought'). Half-lines often are formulas, common fixed phrases that repeat themselves, such as "eci dryctin" (`the Eternal Lord'). The same word often begins different half-lines, such as "hefaenricæs" (1) and "hefen to hrofæ" (6), or ends such lines, like "uard" (1, 7) and "mehti" (2, 9). For such reasons, literary historians term Old English poetry as "oral formulaic": meant for publishing only as speech, and so not available in written form, poets filled their works with formulas, easily re-used and remembered building blocks. Caedmon's hymn has just two sentences, which can be summarized: "Let me now praise God the Creator" (1-4), and "God created Heaven, earth, and man" (5-9). The assertion itself has a simple logic that ensures Caedmon can link together, in memory, the larger units, the full lines, into a verse paragraph. Its length may also reflect a common cognitive upper-limit on large text segments.

Most poems take from and contribute to a pre-existing body of poetry. In T. S. Eliot's terms, Caedmon drew from a Biblical poetic tradition. The brothers fed him stories from the Old and New Testaments, and he versified them. Denise Levertov, in "Caedmon," in turn draws from Bede's story of Caedmon's first hymn to create a very modern poem about how poets make poetry. Her lovely revisioning, however, substitutes her own poetics for his. She turns a dream into an angelic visitation and so substitutes the monks' Muse-based account of inspiration for cognitive one that is based on memory and is truer to what Caedmon said happened to him and to what he actually composed.

Levertov writes a dramatic monologue, from Caedmon's perspective, using the first person. She makes him physically clumsy (3) and psychologically insecure, hunching down at the back of the room near the door, and nervously licking his lips. In Bede's account, confidently enough, Caedmon sits at the table. His persona in Levertov's poem does not understand "talk" that sounds like a "dance," that is, words put to music, or song, and so he breaks the "gliding ring" that forms when men pass a harp from one to another around a table. Her Caedmon feels like one of the unspeaking "warm beasts," "at home and lonely," enjoying the silence or the simple sighing and "body sounds" of the feeding cows. He prefers being at table with the animals in the near-dark, where a lighted "twist" (of hemp) creates shadows. His transformation comes, not in a dream but in real life, and by means not of a man but of a "sudden angel" in great light, his wings sparking with "feathers of flame." In picturing a "hand of fire" touching Caedmon's lips and tongue and pulling his "voice / into the ring of the dance," Levertov adapts the events of Pentecost in the New Testament. Then the Holy Ghost descends among the apostles with tongues of fire and gives them all the ability to speak many languages. With these, the once retiring disciples spread throughout the earth to preach Christ's gospel, often facing martyrdom. For Levertov, poetic inspiration comes with pain, unaccountably wrenching the shy, inarticulate, awkward person into public performance. The source of poetry for her is the "muse of fire" of which the Prologue in Shakespeare's Henry V speaks.

However she may differ from Bede's account, Levertov's "ring of the dance" beautifully describes the communal aesthetics of poetry. As the harp passes from one poet to another, each taking up the same dance motif, so poets take the traditions of poetry as their source and inspiration. By creating his persona, Levertov becomes Caedmon. The ring comes full circle after 1400 years. Where Caedmon wrote of God's creation, on the other hand, Levertov writes of man's. Even as monastery brothers told Caedmon what to write, so he, a monastery brother, gives her the poem's subject. A gradual secularization of poetry -- its separation from institutional religion -- has turned poets inward, describing aspects of themselves rather the external world. Time has made Caedmon's creative process, in Levertov's eyes, less cognitive and more supernatural or mythic.

Of course, by Levertov's time, poetic method had changed drastically. No longer did a modern Caedmon compose in or publish from memory. Most poets today store text on paper or disk so that it can be edited and read rather than revised in memory and recited by rote. Yet she begins by imitating the Old English form. Her verse splits in two Caedmon's conventional joined half-lines and uses alliteration comparably. For example,
All others talked as if talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet would break the gliding ring.
I'd wipe my mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds of the simple ones.
slow in the wake of deep untroubled sighs.

Once she describes the angel's "hand of fire," at the word "Until," lines become more irregular in length, imitating the abrupt, fearful summons of the angel. By indenting lines 30 and 33, especially, Levertov shows how the image of the words on the page -- here the indenting -- replaces the sound of the poet's voice and his harp in segmenting the lines expressively. Yet by echoing lines 1-4 in the final two lines, Levertov makes her poetic form imitate her subject. Both come full circle.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

136. I AM A BOOK I NEITHER WROTE NOR READ - Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz - I Am a Book I Neither Wrote nor Read

I am a book I neither wrote nor read,
A comic, tragic play in which new masquerades
Astonishing as guns crackle like raids
Newly each time, whatever one is prepared
To come upon, suddenly dismayed and afraid,
As in the dreams which make the fear of sleep
The terror of love, the depth one cannot leap.

How the false truths of the years of youth have passed!
Have passed at full speed like trains which never stopped
There where I stood and waited, hardly aware,
How little I knew, or which of them was the one
To mount and ride to hope or where true hope arrives.

I no more wrote than read that book which is
The self I am, half-hidden as it is
From one and all who see within a kiss
The lounging formless blackness of an abyss.

How could I think the brief years were enough
To prove the reality of endless love?

Monday, June 12, 2006

135. THE MOUNTAIN SNOW - George Borrow

(from Borrow's Welsh Poems)

The mountain snow: The stag doth fly,
The wind about the roofs doth sigh.
Love cannot in concealment lie.

The mountain snow: the grove is dark,
The raven black; the hound doth bark.
God keep you from all evil work.

The mountain snow: the crust is sound;
The wind doth twist the reeds around.
Where ignorance is, no grace is found.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

134. ADAM AND EVE IN LATER LIFE - Howard Nemerov

On getting out of bed the one says, “Ouch!”
The other “What?” and when the one says “I said
‘Ouch,’ ” the other says, “All right, you needn’t shout.”

Deucalion and Pyrrha, Darby and Joan, Philemon and Baucis,
Tracy and Hepburn––if this can happen to Hepburn
No is safe––all rolled up into two,
Contented with the cottage and the cottage cheese
And envied only by ambitious gods . . .

Later, over coffee, they compare the backs of their hands
And conclude they are slowly being turned into lizards.
But nothing much surprises them these days.

133. JAPAN - Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

Friday, June 09, 2006

132. AFTER PARADISE - Czeslaw Milosz

Don't run any more. Quiet. How softly it rains
On the roofs of the city. How perfect
All things are. Now, for the two of you
Waking up in a royal bed by a garret window.
For a man and a woman. For one plant divided
Into masculine and feminine which longed for each other.
Yes, this is my gift to you. Above ashes
On a bitter, bitter earth. Above the subterranean
Echo of clamorings and vows. So that now at dawn
You must be attentive: the tilt of a head,
A hand with a comb, two faces in a mirror
Are only forever once, even if unremembered,
So that you watch what it is, though it fades away,
And are grateful every moment for your being.
Let that little park with greenish marble busts
In the pearl-gray light, under a summer drizzle,
Remain as it was when you opened the gate.
And the street of tall peeling porticos
Which this love of yours suddenly transformed.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

131. FLOCK - Billy Collins

"It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible...required the skins of 300 sheep." -from an article on printing

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

130. Archibald MacLeish - from A Happy Marriage

Love is the way that lovers never know
Who know the shortest way to find their love,
And never turn aside and never go
By vales beneath nor by the hills above,
But running straight to the familiar door
Break sudden in and call their dear by name
And have their wish and so wish nothing more
And neither know nor trouble how they came.

Love is the path that comes to this same ease
Over the summit of the westward hill,
And feels the rolling of the earth and sees
The sun go down and hears the summer still,
and dips and follows where the orchards fall
And comes here late of never comes at all.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

129. DEDICATIONS - Adrienne Rich

[From the last section of the title poem in An Atlas of the Difficult World by Adrienne Rich]


I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

Monday, June 05, 2006

128. SO MUCH HAPPINESS - Naomi Shihab Nye


It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit,
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

127. A MOMENT IN TROY - Wislawa Szymborska

(Translated by Stanislaw Baranczk and Clare Cavanagh)

Little girls—
skinny, resigned
to freckles that won’t go away,

not turning any heads
as they walk across the eyelids of the world,

looking just like Mom or Dad,
and sincerely horrified by it—

in the middle of dinner,
in the middle of a book,
while studying the mirror,
may suddenly be taken off to Troy.

In the grand boudoir of a wink
they all turn into beautiful Helens.

They ascend the royal staircase
in the rustling of silk and admiration.
They feel light. They all know
that beauty equals rest,
that lips mold the speech’s meaning,
and gestures sculpt themselves
in inspired nonchalance.

Their small faces
worth dismissing envoys for
extend proudly on necks
that merit countless sieges.

Those tall, dark movie stars,
their girlfriends’ older brothers,
the teacher from art class,
alas, they must all be slain.

Little girls
observe disaster
from a tower of smiles.

Little girls
wring their hands
in intoxicating mock despair.

Little girls
against a backdrop of destruction,
with flaming towns for tiaras,
in earrings of pandemic lamentation.

Pale and tearless.
Triumphant. Sated with the view.
Dreading only the inevitable
moment of return.

Little girls

Friday, June 02, 2006

126. AFTER AN ABSENCE - Linda Pastan

After an absence that was no one's fault
we are shy with each,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.
Perhaps we should have stayed
tied like mountain climbers
by the safe cord of the phone,
its dial our own small prayer wheel,
our voices less ghostly across the miles,
less awkward than they are now.
I had forgotten the grey in your curls,
that splash of winter over your face,
remembering the younger man
you used to be.

And I feel myself turn old and ordinary,
having to think again of food for supper,
the animals to be tended, the whole riptide
of daily life hidden but perilous
pulling both of us under so fast.
I have dreamed of our bed
as if it were a shore where we would be washed up,
not this striped mattress
we must cover with sheets. I had forgotten
all the old business between us,
like mail unanswered so long that silence
becomes eloquent, a message of its own.
I had even forgotten how married love
is a territory more mysterious
the more it is explored, like one of those terrains
you read about, a garden in the desert
where you stoop to drink, never knowing
if your mouth will fill with water or sand.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

125. CARMEL POINT - Robinson Jeffers

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses–––
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few mulch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all the time. It knows people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.–––As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves:
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.