Thursday, June 28, 2007

441. Tension - Billy Collins

"Never use the word suddenly just to
create tension." –– Writing Fiction

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.

When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.

A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen
where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.

I observed a window of leafy activity
and, beyond that, a bird perched on the edge
of the stone birdbath
when suddenly you announced you were leaving

to pick up a few things at the market
and I stunned you by impulsively
pointing out that we were getting low on butter
and another case of wine would not be a bad idea.

Who could tell what the next moment would hold?
Another drip from the faucet?
Another little spasm of the second hand?
Would the painting of the bowl of pears continue

to hang on the wall from that nail?
Would the heavy anthologies remain on their shelves?
Would the stove hold its position?
Suddenly, it was anyone's guess.

The sun rose ever higher.
The state capitals remained motionless on the wall map
when suddenly I found myself lying on a couch
where I closed my eyes and without any warning

began to picture the Andes, of all places,
and a path that led over the mountain to another country
with strange customs and eye-catching hats
suddenly fringed with little colorful, dangling balls.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

440. Circus Animals - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Walter Whipple

Bears are tapping their paws to the beat,
a lion jumps through a flaming hoop,
a monkey in a yellow tunic rides a bicycle,
the whip cracks and the music sounds,
the whip cracks and animals roll their eyes,
an elephant carries around a pitcher on his head,
dogs are dancing with carefully measured steps.

I'm very much ashamed, I – a human.

A horrible time was had that day:
boisterous applause was not lacking,
though an arm longer by the length of a whip
cast a sharp shadow on the sand.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak

Bears are stomping in perfect time.
A lion jumps through flaming hoops.
A whip cracks and the music grinds.
A monkey rides a bike in a yellow suit.
A whip cracks and the animals turn their glance.
Dogs dance in carefully measured movement.
An elephant walks with a pitcher in perfect balance.

Myself, I'm quite embarrassed, I, a human.

People didn't enjoy themselves that day.
You wouldn't know it from the clapping hands
though one hand elongated by a whip
cast a striking shadow on the sand.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

439. The Face - Philip Levine

A strange wind off the night.
I have come here to talk
to you at last, here
in an empty hotel room
half the world away from home.
Our tracks have crossed
how many times—a dozen
at least—and yet it’s more
than forty years since I saw
you, solemn and hurt, gazing
from your favorite window
at the night that would
soon flood your eyes and darken
the living veins. Below,
the city is almost
asleep. An old man, no
taller than a boy, mumbles
drunkenly on his way,
and then only a sentry
passes from time to time,
his head sunk to his chest,
his eyes closed against
the strange summer cold.

We should all be asleep.
The hour is good for
nothing else, and yet
I cannot sleep because
suddenly today I caught
your presence beside me
on the street as I hadn’t
before in all these years
A tall man laid aside
his paper and stared at me,
a man no older, than I,
with the long sad face
that passed from you
to me. I kept walking,
feeling his eyes on me,
and when I turned at last
he was gone, and the bench
filled with dirty children.
I went back—but no—
he was gone, and wherever
I walked I felt those eyes
on me and felt somehow
a time had come when
we might speak at last.

And so I do. I say, Father,
the years have brought
me here, still your son;
they have brought me
to a life I cannot
understand. I’m silent.
A ship is mooring
in the great harbor,
and the only voice
that comes back is the faint
after-ringing of my own.
I say, Father, the dark
moon above this battered city
must once have guided you
across the twelve frontiers
you crossed to save
your life. It leads me
nowhere, for I’m a free man,
alone as you were,
but going nowhere. I, too,
have lost my three sons
to America, I, too, have climbed
the long hillsides
of Spain in early light
as our forefathers did,
and gazed down at the sea,
deep and silent. I prayed
for some small hope,
which never came. I know
the life you lost. I
have it here, Father,
where you left it, in
the long face of Spain,
in these hands, long
and broken like your own,
in the silence collecting
between each ringing
of my heart, the silence
you anoint me with each day.

Below, the sentry passes
once more in a new light,
for morning is graying
the streets of this quarter.
He wipes his nose on
the rough green wool
of his sleeve and stamps
his feet. Spain will waken
soon to street cries, to
the cries of children,
the cries of the lost men
and women of Barcelona
naming their despair.
I will walk among them,
tired and useless. Today
I will not talk, not
even to myself, for
it is time to listen,
as though some secret
message came blaring
over the megaphones,
or a voice mumbled below
the waves of traffic, as though
one word mattered more
than another in this world,
in this city, broken and stained,
which is the home of no one,
though it shouts out all
our names. I will listen
as though you spoke and told
me all you never knew
of why the earth takes
back all she gives and
even that comes to be enough.

Monday, June 25, 2007

438 Tree - Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books––

already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly immensity taps at your life.

Friday, June 22, 2007

437. The Clouds III (Scherzo) - William Carlos Williams

I came upon a priest once at St. Andrew's
in Amalfi in crimson and gold brocade riding
the clouds of his belief.

It happened that we tourists had intervened
at some mid-moment of the ritual ––
tipped the sacristan or whatever it was.

No one else was there –– porphyry and alabaster,
the light flooding in scented
with sandalwood –– but this holy man

jiggling upon his buttocks to the litany
chanted, in response, by two kneeling altar boys!
I was amazed and stared in such manner

that he, caught half off the earth
in his ecstasy –– though without losing beat ––
turned and grinned at me from his cloud.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

436. The Return - Jane Flanders

(in memory of Agnes Plummer Schroyer, 1883-1921)

This is not everything––

Cold moment under the sheet
And whispers by the door,
Flowers, this glassy fall.

Do not believe them.

How could I leave
You most of all, before breakfast,
With the smell of sun
Filling the kitchen

And the beds unmade?

Would I run barefoot downstairs,
Into the garden without my glasses?
Would I go without telling you everything,

Your hair ribbons tremble.
Cries skim over the pool
Of the dream of my departure.

Hush. do not believe them.

You must wait by the new lettuce.
It will come up bearing
Love in my own hand.
You must listen to soup and light rain
For news of me.

On Christmas morning you will be gently
Slipping the bow from your father's gift
(Such a careful child)

You will glance out the window for only a moment
(The bow will be almost off)
And see my hair, my red, red hair,
Beautifully piled on top of my head.

You will see light through my muslin sleeves,
My gold heart ticking in the snow.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

435. Any Case - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from Polish by Graźyna Drabik and Sharon Olds

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Father away.
It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were the first.
You survived because you were the last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a frame, a turn, an inch a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.

Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
one step, a hair away––

So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net's mesh was tight, but you––through the mesh?
I can't stop wondering at it, can't be silent enough.
how quickly your heart is beating in me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

434. Among The Multitudes - Wislawa Szymborska

I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.

I could have different
ancestors, after all.
I could have fluttered
from another nest
or crawled bescaled
from another tree.

Nature's wardrobe
holds a fair supply of costumes:
spider, seagull, fieldmouse.
Each fits perfectly right off
and is dutifully worn
into shreds.

I didn't get a choice either,
but I can't complain.
I could have been someone
much less separate.
Someone from an anthill, shoal, or buzzing swarm,
an inch of landscape ruffled by the wind.

Someone much less fortunate,
bred for my fur
or Christmas dinner,
something swimming under a square of glass.

A tree rooted to the ground
as the fire draws near.

A grass blade trampled by a stampede
of incomprehensible events.

A shady type whose darkness
dazzled some.

What if I'd prompted only fear,
or pity?

If I'd been born
in the wrong tribe
with all roads closed before me?

Fate has been kind
to me thus far.

I might never have been given
the memory of happy moments.

My yen for comparison
might have been taken away.

I might have been myself minus amazement,
that is,
someone completely different.

Monday, June 18, 2007

433. Boats In Fog - Robinson Jeffers

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voices of music.
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.
A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean,
A throbbing of engines moved in it,
At length, a stone's throw out, between the rocks and the vapor,
One by one moved shadows
Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other
Following the cliff for guidance,
Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog
And the foam on the shore granite.
One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me.
Out of the vapor and into it,
The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and cautious,
Coasting all around the peninsula
Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.

Friday, June 15, 2007

432. Community - Sally Roberts Jones

(Mr. Rogers, buried April 26, 1972)

There has been a death in the street.
Drawn curtains, collection for wreaths ––
The historians call it Cymortha,
Assume that it vanished
In the stream of industrial birth.

We're the size of a village: forty houses,
A shop. Over fences the women gossip,
Watch weddings and growings –– observe
The proper and ritual tact
Of those who must live with their kin.

No blood ties, it's true; our bonds
Are accent and place –– and desire
For much the same ends. We are not
Political animals; held
An Investiture feast for the children,

And praised all that pomp. On Sundays
Expediency pegs out the washing:
If God is not mocked–– well, He knows us ––
I suppose it was like this before
When Piety lay in the clouds, and oncoming thunder.

There has been a death in the street;
We are less by that much. Statistics
Cannot say what we lose, what we give:
Questionnaires for the Welfare Department
Tell industrious lies.

We adapt. To the chimneys, the concrete,
The furnace, the smoke, the dead trees.
Our fields are the names of roadways,
Our flocks and our language are gone:
But we hold our diminished city in the face of the sun.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

431. The Buddha's Last Instruction - Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light “
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I’m not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

430. Cavalry Crossing A Ford - Walt Whitman

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun––
hark to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering
stop to drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a
picture, the negligent rest on the saddles.
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering
the ford––while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

429. Theatrical Impressions - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

In tragedy I find the sixth act most important:
when they arise from stage battlefields,
adjust their wigs and robes,
pull out the knife from the breast,
remove the noose from the neck,
stand in line amongst the living
facing the audience.

Bows individual and collective:
a white hand on a wounded heart,
a suicide curtseying,
a beheaded nodding.

Bows in pairs:
fury offering an arm to gentleness,
the victim gazing blissfully into the torturer's eyes,
the revolutionary ungrudgingly marching with the tyrant.

Eternity squashed with the toe of a golden slipper.
Morals dispersed with the brim of a hat.
An incorrigible readiness to repeat it all tomorrow.

A file of those who died much earlier
in acts three and four and between the acts.
The miraculous return of those vanished without trace.
The thought that in the wings they patiently waited
not shedding their costumes
not taking off their make-up
moves me more than tragic tirades.

But truly uplifting is the falling curtain
and what can still be glimpsed beneath it:
here a hand hastily grabs a flower,
there another snatches a dropped sword.
Only then a third, unseen,
accomplishes its task:
grips me by the throat.

Monday, June 11, 2007

428. The Sun - Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–––
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–––
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love–––
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–––

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Friday, June 08, 2007

427. Cloisonné - Jane Flanders

for Steve Fisher

Near Kyoto, around 1900,
Perfection was finally achieved
In the shape of a small vase,
Owing something to art nouveau
And much to the Chinese.
Three birds crossing the water –
You might have expected more.

Something like music begins and overtakes you.
Birds embedded in sky
Carry the though glass doors
And over the chained, enamel spume.
You would forget to breathe,
Without the wires
Spreading your ribs like wings.

A phosphorescent stranger
(Whose retinae, like yours,
Must once have recorded depth,
Change, roiling water)
Surfaces from beneath the blue glaze
And calls, "There were never such birds.
There is no place like this,
Even beyond Kyoto.

It is chance that these shapes
Resemble your life.
Follow me. You will learn to unsay
Bird, water, sky, love, solitude."
And you begin the flawless descent.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

426. Places To Return - Dana Gioia

There are landscapes one can own,
bright rooms which look out to the sea,
tall houses where beyond the window
day after day the same dark river
turns slowly through the hills, and there
are homesteads perched on mountaintops
whose cool white caps outlast the spring.

And there are other places which
although we did not stay for long,
stick in the mind and call us back–
a valley visited one spring
where walking through an apple orchard
we breathed its blossoms with the air.
Return seems like a sacrament.

Then there are landscapes one has lost–
the brown hills circling a wide bay
I watched each afternoon one summer
talking to friends who now are dead.
I like to think I could go back again
and stand out on the balcony,
dizzy with a sense of déjà vu.

But coming up these steps to you
at just that moment when the moon,
magnificently full and bright
behind the lattice-work of clouds,
seems almost set upon the rooftops
it illuminates, how shall I
ever summon it again?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

425. Green Frog At Roadstead, Wisconsin - James Schevill

It is the way of a pleasant path
To walk through white birch, fir,
And spruce on a limestone trail
Through the quiet, complacent time
Of summer when, suddenly, the frog jumps
And you jump after him, laughing,
Hopping, frog and woman, to show
The stationary world its flat ways.
Love is a Frog, I grin that greenly
To your green eyes and they leap
At me. Up, I will enter the Frog World
With you and try the leaping ways
Of the heart that we do not fail to find
The sunlit air full of leaping chances.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

424. Late Ripeness - Czeslaw Milosz

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget - I kept saying - that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago -
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef - they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

Monday, June 04, 2007

423. Passing The Unworked Field - Mary Oliver

Queen Anne's lace
is hardly prized but
neither is it idle, look how it
stands fiercely on its
thin stem, how it
nurtures its white budlets with the
gift of the sun, how it
makes for this world all the
loveliness it can.

Friday, June 01, 2007

422. The Joy Of Writing - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.