Saturday, December 04, 2010

867. The Great American Poem - Billy Collins

If this were a novel,
it would begin with a character,
a man alone on a southbound train
or a young girl on a swing by a farmhouse.

And as the pages turned, you would be told
that it was morning or the dead of night,
and I, the narrator, would describe
for you the miscellaneous clouds over the farmhouse

and what the man was wearing on the train
right down to his red tartan scarf,
and the hat he tossed onto the rack above his head,
as well as the cows sliding past his window.

Eventually—one can only read so fast—
you would learn either that the train was bearing
the man back to the place of his birth
or that he was headed into the vast unknown,

and you might just tolerate all of this
as you waited patiently for shots to ring out
in a ravine where the man was hiding
or for a tall, raven-haired woman to appear in a doorway.

But this is a poem, not a novel,
and the only characters here are you and I,
alone in an imaginary room
which will disappear after a few more lines,

leaving us no time to point guns at one another
or toss all our clothes into a roaring fireplace.
I ask you: who needs the man on the train
and who cares what his black valise contains?

We have something better than all this turbulence
lurching toward some ruinous conclusion.
I mean the sound that we will hear
as soon as I stop writing and put down this pen.

I once heard someone compare it
to the sound of crickets in a field of wheat
or, more faintly, just the wind
over that field stirring things that we will never see.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

866. Coda - Jason Shinder

And now I know what most deeply connects us

after that summer so many years ago,
and it isn’t poetry, although it is poetry,

and it isn’t illness, although we have that in common,

and it isn’t gratitude for every moment,
even the terrifying ones, even the physical pain,

though we are halfway through
it, or even the way you describe the magnificence

of being alive, catching a glimpse,

in the store window, of your blowing hair and chapped lips,
though it is beautiful, it is; but it is

that you’re my friend out here on the far reaches

of what humans can find out about each other.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

865. Hineni - Stanley F. Chyet

here I am again
without much to offer by way of moral worth
I’ve a rich collection of defeats
maybe that’s to your liking?
I don’t know, do you?
if I’m to be quite frank
your likes and dislikes have never been
all that clear to me
presumably love is something you’re in favor of
and I’ve found it possible to love
but never without a certain anguish
whether that’s the way you intended it
or that’s a problem all my own
I can’t say, can you?
I’ve never wanted to pain others
I’ve never wanted to pain myself
I guess I can plead good intentions
but I needn’t tell you about good intentions
and the road to hell
I’ve often wondered: did you yourself intend
when you got it all going
that to live would be so complicated
to find a way in the world so hazardous?
did you have any idea at all
that living would involve such confusion
and such heartbreak?
I can’t be sure any of this will mean much to you
I can’t even be sure that your exist
as more than a figment of my own mysterious psyche
it’s a risk to open up to you
who knows, I may be branding myself a terrible fool
but whats not a risk? what’s guaranteed to be foolproof?
so here I am again
praying for some modest bravery
so that I can go on saying to you: here
I am again

Friday, November 12, 2010

864. Candles - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.

I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

Friday, November 05, 2010

863. The Laboratory - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Walter Whipple

Did it all
happen in the laboratory?
Beneath one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Are we a trial generation?
Poured from one beaker to another,
shaken in retorts,
observed by something more than an eye,
each one individually
taken by forceps?

Or maybe otherwise:
no interventions.
The transformations occur on their own
in accordance with a plan.
The needle draws
the expected zigzags.

Maybe until now there was nothing interesting in us.
The control monitors are seldom switched on,
except when there's a war, and a rather big one at that,
several flights over the lump of clay called Earth,
or significant movements from point A to point B.

Or perhaps thus:
they only have a taste for episodes.
Look! a little girl on a big screen
is sewing a button to her sleeve.

The monitors begin to shriek,
personnel come running in.
Oh, what short of tiny creature
with a little heart beating on the inside!
What graceful dignity
in the way she draws the thread!
Someone calls out in rapture:
Tell the Boss,
and let him come see for himself!

Friday, October 22, 2010

862. The City - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed then totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

860. Black Maps - Mark Strand

Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

not the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath.

And if they are studied at all
it is only to find,
too late, what you thought
were concerns of yours

do not exist.
Your house is not marked
on any of them,
nor are your friends,

waiting for you to appear,
nor are your enemies,
listing your faults.
Only you are there,

saying hello
to what you will be,
and the black grass
is holding up the black stars.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

859. At Great Pond - Mary Oliver


 At Great Pond

the sun, rising,

scrapes his orange breast

on the thick pines,

and down tumble

a few orange feathers into

the dark water.

On the far shore

a white bird is standing

like a white candle —

or a man, in the distance,

in the clasp of some meditation —

while all around me the lilies

are breaking open again

from the black cave

of the night.

Later, I will consider

what I have seen —

what it could signify —

what words of adoration I might

make of it, and to do this

I will go indoors to my desk—

I will sit in my chair —

I will look back

into the lost morning

in which I am moving, now,

like a swimmer,

so smoothly,

so peacefully,

I am almost the lily —

almost the bird vanishing over the water

on its sleeves of night.

858. Love at First Sight (1)- Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Walter Whipple

Both are convinced
that a sudden surge of emotion bound them together.
Beautiful is such a certainty,
but uncertainty is more beautiful.

Because they didn't know each other earlier, they suppose that
nothing was happening between them.
What of the streets, stairways and corridors
where they could have passed each other long ago?

I'd like to ask them
whether they remember-- perhaps in a revolving door
ever being face to face?
an "excuse me" in a crowd
or a voice "wrong number" in the receiver.
But I know their answer:
no, they don't remember.

They'd be greatly astonished
to learn that for a long time
chance had been playing with them.

Not yet wholly ready
to transform into fate for them
it approached them, then backed off,
stood in their way
and, suppressing a giggle,
jumped to the side.

There were signs, signals:
but what of it if they were illegible.
Perhaps three years ago,
or last Tuesday
did a certain leaflet fly
from shoulder to shoulder?
There was something lost and picked up.
Who knows but what it was a ball
in the bushes of childhood.

There were doorknobs and bells
on which earlier
touch piled on touch.
Bags beside each other in the luggage room.
Perhaps they had the same dream on a certain night,
suddenly erased after waking.

Every beginning
is but a continuation,
and the book of events
is never more than half open.

857. A Man Adrift on a Slim Spar - Stephen Crane

A man adrift on a slim spar
A horizon smaller than the rim of a bottle
Tented waves rearing lashy dark points
The near whine of froth in circles.
God is cold.

The incessant raise and swing of the sea
And growl after growl of crest
The sinkings, green seething, endless
The upheaval half-completed.
God is cold.

The seas are in the hollow of The Hand;
Oceans may be turned to a spray
Raining down through the stars
Because of a gesture of pity toward a babe.
Oceans may become grey ashes,
Die with a long moan and a roar
Amid the tumult of the fishes
And the cries of the ships,
Because The Hand beckons the mice.

A horizon smaller than a doomed assassin’s cap,
Inky, surging tumults
A reeling, drunken sky and no sky
A pale hand sliding from a polished spar.
God is cold.

The puff of a coat imprisoning air:
A face kissing the water-death
A weary slow sway of a lost hand
And the sea, the moving sea, the sea.
God is cold.

Friday, June 11, 2010

856. Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played - Jack Gilbert

We are not one with this world. We are not
the complexity our body is, nor the summer air
idling in the big maple without purpose.
We are a shape the wind makes in these leaves
as it passes through. We are not he wood
any more than the fire, but the heat which is a marriage
between the two. We are certainly not the lake
nor the fish in it, but the something that is
pleased by them. We are the stillness when
a mighty Mediterranean noon subtracts even the voices of
insects by the broken farmhouse. We are evident
when the orchestra plays, and yet are not part
of the strings or brass. Like the song that exists
only in the singing, and is not the singer.
God does not live among the church bells
but is briefly resident there. We are occasional
like that. A lifetime of easy happiness mixed
with pain and loss, trying always to name and hold
on to the enterprise under way in our chest.
Reality is not what we marry as a feeling. It is what
walks up the dirt path, through the excessive heat
and giant sky, the sea stretching away.
He continues past the nunnery to the old villa
where he will sit on the terrace with her, their sides
touching. In the quiet that is the music of that place,
which is the difference between silence and windlessness.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

855. Daisies - Mary Oliver

It is possible, I suppose, that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what I means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead

oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petaled daisies display
the small suns of their center-piece - their, if you don't
mind my saying so - their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know.
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly; for example - I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch -
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

854. The Disquieting Muses - Mark Strand

Boredom sets in first, and then despair.
One tries to brush it off. It only grows.
Something about the silence of the square.

Something is wrong; something about the air,
Its color; about the light, the way it glows.
Boredom sets in first, and then despair.

The muses in their fluted evening wear,
Their faces blank, might lead one to suppose
Something about the silence of the square,

Something about the buildings standing there.
But no, they have no purpose but to pose.
Boredom sets in first, and then despair.

What happens after that, one doesn’t care.
What brought one here—the desire to compose
Something about the silence of the square,

Or something else, of which one’s not aware,
Life itself, perhaps—who really knows?
Boredom sets in first, and then despair…
Something about the silence of the square.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

853. Alexandrian Kings - C. P. Cavafy

C. P. Cavafy - Alexandrian Kings (1)
Translated from the Greek by Theoharis C. Theoharis

The Alexandrians flocked
to view the children of Cleopatra,
Kaisarion and his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first time
had been brought out to the Gymnasium,
to be proclaimed kings there,
amidst the gleaming company of soldiers on parade.

Alexander—him they named king
of Armenia, Media, and the Parthians.
Ptolemy—him they named king
of Cilicia, Syria, and Phoenicia.
Kaisarion was standing furthest forward,
dressed in rose-toned silk,
on his belt paired lines of sapphires and amethysts,
his shoes laced by white
ribbons pinned with rose-blush pearls.
Him they named higher than the younger ones,
him they named King of Kings.

The Alexandrians certainly understood
that these were words and histrionics.

But the day was warm and poetic,
the sky a clear, wide blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium a
triumphant artistic feat,
the courtiers luxury at its crest,
Kairsarion all grace and beauty
(the son of Cleopatra, blood of the Lagids);
and the Alexandrians raced to the festive name-day,
and worked themselves into raptures, and called out
cheers in Greek, in Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
enchanted by the lovely spectacle—
even though they very clearly knew the value of these things,
what inane words make up these titled kings.

C. P. Cavafy - Alexandrian Kings (2)
Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

The Alexandrians turned out in force
to see Cleopatra’s children,
Kairsarion and his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first time
has been taken out to the Gymnasium,
to be proclaimed kings there
before a brilliant array of soldiers.

Alexander: they declared him
king of Cilicia, Syria, and Phoenicia.
Kairsarion was standing in front of the others,
dressed in pink silk,
on his chest a bunch of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of amethysts and sapphires,
his shoes tied with white ribbons
prinked with rose-colored pearls.
They declared him greater than his little brothers,
they declared him King of Kings

The Alexandrians know of course
that this was all mere words, all theatre.

But the day was warm and poetic,
the sky a pale blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium
a complete artistic triumph,
the courtiers wonderfully sumptous,
Kaisarion all grace and beauty
(Cleopatra’s son, blood of the Lagids);
and the the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.

Friday, March 26, 2010

852. Insomnia - Linda Pastan

I remember when by body
was a friend.

when sleep like a good dog
came when summoned.

The door to the future
had not started to shut,

and lying on my back
between cold sheets

did not feel
like a rehearsal.

Now what light is left
comes up—a stain in the east,

and sleep, reluctant
as a busy doctor,

gives me a little
of its time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

851. Sunrise - Mary Oliver

You can
die for it -
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
an unforgettable
fury of light. but

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of china,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

Monday, March 01, 2010

850. A Meditation On John Constable - Charles Tomlinson

"Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?"

––John Constable: The History of Landscape Painting

He replied to his own question, and with the unmannered
Exactness of art; enriched his premises
By confirming his practice: the labour of observation
In face of meteorological fact. Clouds
Followed by others, temper the sun in passing
Over and off it. Massed darks
Blotting it back, scattered and mellowed shafts
Break damply out of them, until the source
Unmasks, floods its retreating bank
With raw fire. One perceives (though scarcely)
The remnant clouds trailing across it
In rags, and thinned to a gauze.
But the next will dam it. They loom past
And narrow its blaze. It shrinks to a crescent
Crushed out, a still lengthening ooze
As the mass thickens, though cannot exclude
Its silvered-yellow. The eclipse is sudden,
Seen first on the darkening grass, then complete
In a covered sky.
Facts. And what are they?
He admired accidents, because governed by laws,
Representing them (since the illusion was not his end)
As governed by feeling. The end is our approval
Freely accorded, the illusion persuading us
That it exists as a human image. Caught
By a wavering sun, or under a wind
Which moistening among the outlines of banked foliage
Prepares to dissolve them, it must grow constant;
Though there, ruffling and parted, the disturbed
Trees let through the distance, like white fog
Into their broken ranks, It must persuade
And with a constancy, not to be swept back
To reveal what it half-conceals. Art is itself
Once we accept it. The day veers. He would have judged
Exactly in such a light, that strides down
Over the quick stains of cloud-shadows
Expunged now, by its conflagration of colour.
A descriptive painter? If delight
Describes, which wrings from the brush
The errors of a mind, so tempered
It can forgo all pathos; for what he saw
Discovered what he was, and the hand––unswayed
By the dictation of a single sense––
Bodied the accurate and total knowledge
In a calligraphy of present pleasure. Art
Is complete when it is human. It is human
Once the looped pigments, the pin-heads of light
Securing space under their deft restrictions
Convince, as the index of a possible passion,
As the adequate gauge, both of the passion
And its object. The artist lies
For the improvement of truth. Believe him.

Friday, February 19, 2010

849. A Primer of the Daily Round - Howard Nemerov

A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E's knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H's grave, I do not understand
But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L's head,
And M takes mustard, N drives into town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,
R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,
Who happens just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.

Monday, February 08, 2010

848. Of Simplicity - James Kavanaugh

Simplicity calls
After all the schemings done,
Now that I've paid homage
To damn near everyone.
God should be satisfied,
Parents got their due.
My education's justified.
I proved myself to you.

Simplicity calls
Now that everyone's been paid,
But even so I hesitate
Because I'm still afraid.
One of these days,
I'll jump the last few walls:
Give no explanation
Save "Simplicity calls"!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

847. Fidelity - Grace Paley

After supper I returned to
my reading book I had
reached page one hundred
and forty two hundred and twenty
more to go I had been thinking that
evening as we spoke
early at dinner with a couple of young
people of the time dense improbable
life of that book in which I had become so comfortable
the characters were now my troubled companions
I knew them understood I could
reenter these lives without loss
so firm my habitation I scanned the shelves
some books so dear to me I had missed them
learned forward to take the work into
my hands I took a couple of deep breaths
thought about the acceleration of days
yes I could reenter them but . . .
No how could I desert that other whole life
those others in their city basements
Abandonment How could I have allowed myself
even thought of a half hour's distraction
when life had pages or decades to go
so much was about to happen to people
I already know and nearly loved

Sunday, January 24, 2010

846. I Live My Life In Widening Circles - Rainer Maria Rilke

I live my life in widening circles
that drift out over the things.
I may not achieve the very last,
but it will be my aim.

I circle around God, around the age-old tower;
I've been circling for millennia
and still I don't know: an I a falcon a storm,
or a sovereign song?

Friday, January 15, 2010

845. King Demetrius - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn
Not like a king, but like an actor, he exchanged his showy robe of state for a dark cloak, and in secret stole away.
Plutarch, Life of Demetrius

When the Macedonians deserted him,
and made it clear that it was Pyrrhus they preferred
King Demetrius (who had a noble
soul) did not—so they said—
behave at all like a king. He went
and cast off his golden clothes,
and flung off his shoes
of richest purple In simple clothes
he dressed himself quickly and left:
doing just as an actor does
who, when the performance is over,
changes his attire and departs.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

844. The Caedmon Room - Allen Grossman

Upstairs, one floor below the Opera House
(top floor of the building), is the Caedmon
room––a library of sorts. The Caedmon room
was empty of readers most of the time.
When the last reader left and closed the door,
I locked it and moved in for life. Right now,
I am writing this in the Caedmon room.
Caedmon was an illiterate, seventh-century
British peasant to whom one night a lady
appeared in a dream. She said to him, speaking
in her own language, "Caedmon! Sing me something!"
And he did just that. What he sang, in his
own language, was consequential––because
he did not learn the art of poetry
from men, but from God. For that reason,
he could not compose a trivial poem,
but what is right and fitting for a lady
who wants a song. These are the words he sang:
"Now praise the empty sky where no words are."
This was Caedmon's song. Caedmon's voice is sweet.
In the Caedmon room shelves groan under the
weight of his eloquent blank pages, Histories
of a sweet world in which we are not found.
Caedmon turned each page, page after page
until the last page––on which is written:
"To the one who conquers, I give the morning star."