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Nation Topics - Poetry


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I would like an unbroken stretch of drizzly

weekday afternoons, in a moulting season:

nowhere else to go but across the street for

bread, and the paper.

Later, faces, voices across a table,

or an autumn fricassee, cèpes and shallots,

sipping Gigandas as I dice and hum to

Charpentier's vespers.

No one's waiting for me across an ocean.

What I can't understand or change is distant.

War is a debate, or at worst, a headlined

nightmare. But waking

it will be there still, and one morning closer

to my implication in what I never

chose, elected, as my natal sky rains down

civilian ashes.

For Hana Amichai

Inside a domed room photos of children's faces

turn in a candlelit dark as recorded voices

recite their names, ages and nationality.

"Ah, such beautiful faces," a woman sighs.

Yes, but faces without the prestige

of the future or the tolerance of the past.

Not one asks: Why is this happening to me?

They stare at the camera as if it were a commandment:

thou shall not bear false witness...

Why would anyone want to take their photo,

remember what they no longer looked like?

There's no delusion in their eyes,

no recognition or longing, only

the flatness of hours without minutes,

hunger without appetite.

They understand they are no longer children,

that death is redundant, and mundane.

Expected, like a long-awaited guest

who arrives bearing the gift

of greater anticipation. Their eyes

are heavy--fear perhaps,

or the unforgiving weight

of knowledge.

Did they understand why they were so hated?

Wonder why they were Jews?

Did God hear their prayers and write

something in one of his glistening books?

Were they of too little consequence?

What did they think of God, finally?

Dante cannot help us.

Imagination is the first child in line.

They cannot help us.

It is wrong to ask them.

Philosophy cannot help us,

nor wisdom, or time.

Or memory.

We look at their faces and their faces look at us.

They know we are pious.

They know we grieve.

But they also know we will soon leave.

We are not their mothers and fathers,

who also could not save them.

Great Oracle,why are you staring at me,

do I baffle you, do I make you despair?

I, Americus, the American,

wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,

from the dark of ancient Europa--

Why are you staring at me now

in the dusk of our civilization--

Why are you staring at me

as if I were America itself

the new Empire

far greater than any in ancient days

with its electronic highways

carrying its corporate monoculture

around the world

And English the Latin of our day--

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,

Awaken now at last

And tell us how to save us from ourselves

and how to survive our own rulers

who would make a plutocracy of our democracy

in the Great Divide

between the rich and the poor

in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil,

You of the winged dreams,

Speak out from your temple of light

as the serious constellations

with Greek names

still stare down on us

as a lighthouse moves its megaphone

over the sea

Speak out and shine upon us

the sea-light of Greece

the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,

Come out of your cave at last

And speak to us in the poet's voice

the voice of the fourth person singular

the voice of the inscrutable future

the voice of the people mixed

with a wild soft laughter--

And give us new dreams to dream,

Give us new myths to live by!

Spoken to the Oracle by the author at UNESCO's World Poetry Day, March 21, at Delphi

I came upon her weeping,
                              gray face gone pewter.
            She held still for me
                                        and the wet sponge

pressed gently down,
                              and closed her eyes.
            Beneath her skin the muscle rippled
                                        as a pond does

under water's pressure.
                              Rowing outward,
            past the screen that windows the view,
                                        are shadows,

field's edge, an island of trees.
                              I put it on, to know
            what the horse sees
                                        caged in the blue mesh,

in a realm of monocular vision.
                              I fasten it
            beneath the throat
                                        while she chews the grain,

lips roving in the bucket.
                              Winter flies
            beyond the cage. Cold's oncoming
                                        as the wind cries,

pressing against
                              my skin,
            whatever antennae I had
                                        lost in the generations.

Something brushed my cheek with damp--
a leaf, its little valley slick with run-off

after rain. One last drop shook loose
and struck a spider web, which shuddered

but held on to this grieving world
so a butterfly--a mourning cloak?--

could uncoil its watch-spring of a tongue
in the time it took a limousine to stretch

down the thin twig of street, almost to my door.
A long albino snake gone straight,

tied with a big white bow--O pet,
you're not mine. You belong a few doors down--

see, here comes a man in gold morning coat,
carrying pale pink roses like a lute.

He leaned inside the low dark cave
of a car to kiss someone I never saw,

who straightened his pale pink cravat.
Orpheus, would love turn back while it can?

Around the corner a nurse in white
stood at an open door, lifting her long white arm

gently to bar the way of an old woman
bundled in hat and coat, though it was August.


Meditations on writers’ conferences, Schlesinger Jr. on America, an Auden poem.

May 15, 2014

We published some of his earliest poems as well as his great 1964 essay on Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay.

January 11, 2014

How do you rhyme “Obama” with “Yokahama”?

December 16, 2012

Todd Akin, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan all have me thinking of June Jordan’s great “Poem about My Rights.”

August 22, 2012

A poet passionately engaged with writing and politics, she said "art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."

March 28, 2012

If the great Hiroshima novel remains unwritten, a number of major poets have written brilliantly on nuclear concerns.

August 16, 2011