Saturday, October 3, 2015

Heroic Simile by Richard Hass

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.

They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from the midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal   
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something   
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.

How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Gaffe by C.K. Williams


If that someone who’s me yet not me yet who judges me is always with me,    
as he is, shouldn’t he have been there when I said so long ago that thing I said?   

If he who rakes me with such not trivial shame for minor sins now were there then,   
shouldn’t he have warned me he’d even now devastate me for my unpardonable affront?   

I’m a child then, yet already I’ve composed this conscience-beast, who harries me:   
is there anything else I can say with certainty about who I was, except that I, that he,   

could already draw from infinitesimal transgressions complex chords of remorse,   
and orchestrate ever undiminishing retribution from the hapless rest of myself?   

The son of some friends of my parents has died, and my parents, paying their call,   
take me along, and I’m sent out with the dead boy’s brother and some others to play.   

We’re joking around, and some words come to my mind, which to my amazement are said.   
How do you know when you can laugh when somebody dies, your brother dies

is what’s said, and the others go quiet, the backyard goes quiet, everyone stares,   
and I want to know now why that someone in me who’s me yet not me let me say it.   

Shouldn’t he have told me the contrition cycle would from then be ever upon me,   
it didn’t matter that I’d really only wanted to know how grief ends, and when?   

I could hear the boy’s mother sobbing inside, then stopping, sobbing then stopping.   
Was the end of her grief already there? Had her someone in her told her it would end?   

Was her someone in her kinder to her, not tearing at her, as mine did, still does, me,   
for guessing grief someday ends? Is that why her sobbing stopped sometimes?   

She didn’t laugh, though, or I never heard her. How do you know when you can laugh
Why couldn’t someone have been there in me not just to accuse me, but to explain?   

The kids were playing again, I was playing, I didn’t hear anything more from inside.   
The way now sometimes what’s in me is silent, too, and sometimes, though never really, forgets.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Burial Rites by Philip Levine

Everyone comes back here to die
as I will soon. The place feels right
since it’s half dead to begin with.
Even on a rare morning of rain,
like this morning, with the low sky
hoarding its riches except for
a few mock tears, the hard ground
accepts nothing. Six years ago
I buried my mother’s ashes
beside a young lilac that’s now
taller than I, and stuck the stub
of a rosebush into her dirt,
where like everything else not
human it thrives. The small blossoms
never unfurl; whatever they know
they keep to themselves until
a morning rain or a night wind
pares the petals down to nothing.
Even the neighbor cat who shits
daily on the paths and then hides
deep in the jungle of the weeds
refuses to purr. Whatever’s here
is just here, and nowhere else,
so it’s right to end up beside
the woman who bore me, to shovel
into the dirt whatever’s left
and leave only a name for some-
one who wants it. Think of it,
my name, no longer a portion
of me, no longer inflated
or bruised, no longer stewing
in a rich compost of memory
or the simpler one of bone shards,
dirt, kitty litter, wood ashes,
the roots of the eucalyptus
I planted in ’73,
a tiny me taking nothing,
giving nothing, and free at last.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Morning Poem by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches ---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging ---

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted ---

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

NOTE: Poet Mary Oliver  (b.1935) is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books,“particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.”  She sought to understand the wonder and pain of nature.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

“After Disappointment” by Mark Jarman

To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone 
Is calming as anything I know. To fall 
Asleep, her books arranged above your head, 
Is to admit that you have never been
So tired, so enchanted by the spell 
Of your grown body. To feel small instead 
Of blocking out the light, to feel alone, 
Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel, 
Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said 
About the cramped escapes and obstacles 
You plan and face and have to call the world, 
That there remain these places, occupied 
By children, yours if lucky, like the girl 
Who finds you here and lies down by your side.

“Interesting Times” by Mark Jarman

Everything’s happening on the cusp of tragedy, the tip of comedy, the pivot of event.
You want a placid life, find another planet. This one is occupied with the story’s arc:
About to happen, on the verge, horizontal. You want another planet, try the moon.
Try any of the eight, try Planet X. It’s out there somewhere, black with serenity.
How interesting will our times become? How much more interesting can they become?
A crow with something dangling from its beak flaps onto a telephone pole top, daintily,
And croaks its victory to other crows and tries to keep its morsel to itself.
A limp shape, leggy, stunned, drops from the black beak’s scissors like a rag.
We drive past, commenting, and looking upward. A sunny morning, too cold to be nesting,
Unless that is a nest the crow has seized, against the coming spring.
We’ve been at this historical site before, but not in any history we remember.
The present has been cloaked in cloud before, and not on any holy mountaintop.
To know the stars will one day fly apart so far they can’t be seen
Is almost a relief. For the future flies in one direction—toward us.
And the only way to sidestep it—the only way—is headed this way, too.
So, look. That woman’s got a child by the hand. She’s dragging him across the street.
He’s crying and she’s shouting, but we see only dumbshow. Their breath is smoke.
Will she give in and comfort him? Will he concede at last? We do not know.
Their words are smoke. In a minute they’ll be somewhere else entirely.
Everyone in a minute will be somewhere else entirely. As the crow flies.

From Wiki: Wheat Field with Crows depicts a dramatic, cloudy sky filled with crows over a wheat field.  A sense of isolation is heightened by a central path leading nowhere and by the uncertain direction of flight of the crows.   Jules Michelet, one of van Gogh's favorite authors, wrote of the crows: "They interest themselves in everything, and observe everything. The ancients, who lived far more completely than ourselves in and with nature, found it no small profit to follow, in a hundred obscure things where human experience as yet affords no light, the directions of so prudent and sage a bird."

Mark Jarman, “Interesting Times” from Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2011 by Mark Jarman. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Little Diary of Getting Old, Part VIII by Carlo Bettochi

And then at night, when old, 
we start having vague pointless
scraps of dreams that lead us
to this place or that, since even
our failing senses insist on
outings: and lost friends reappear, 
sleepwalking through the stupor 
of surrendered existence.
But here too there’s something
that’s not unconscious, as when
the boatman stops his old ferry 
along the banks of the Arno, 
plunges his wooden bailer 
into the bottom of the boat, 
and dumps that stale water,
gone to grime between the staves,
overboard into the river,
where it flows again,
though the boat is held fast
amid the mud and rushes.

(translated by Geoffrey Brock)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Cold Heaven by W.B. Yeats

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting Heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot bloom of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.  Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

NOTE: The visionary moment in the first half of this poem is powerful and, to me, entirely relatable.