No matter the hour
of night or day,
at one shaded bank
of the pond
or the other.
Once, it almost frightened me--
she was in the center,
not a ripple on the lake,
not her mate,
nor another wading bird in sight--
so regal and pure, and unharmed,
so unafraid--it seemed
Imagine, desire gone,
no longer essential.
Not touch, perhaps one luxury--
memory--to sustain her.
And then as night falls
so brilliant and still in that darkness,
a splash of white.
Just as I wonder
whether it's going to die,
the orchid blossoms
and I can't explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure
comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower
opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.
Even to white-
haired craggy poet, it's
pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful
of earth, and water.
Erotic because there's death
at the heart of birth,
drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,
who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.
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
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
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
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.
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
If they have come for the butterflies then
bless their breaking hearts, but the young pair is
looking nowhere except each other's eyes.
He seems like he could carry them both
over the street on great wings of grief tucked
under his coat, while all around them float,
like wisps of ash or the delicate
prism sunlight flashing off the city glass,
the orange-yellow-black-wing-flecked monarchs.
Migrant, they're more than two dozen today,
more long-lived than the species who keep
to the localized gardens--they're barely
a gram apiece, landing, holding still for
the common milkweed that feeds their larvae,
or balanced on bridges of plumegrass stalks
and bottle-brush, wings fanning, closing, calmed
by the long searchlight stems of hollyhock.
If they have come for the butterflies then
why is she weeping when he lifts her chin?
He looks like he's holding his breath back--
or is he trying to shed tears, too? Are
any left? He's got his other hand
raised, waving, and almost before it stops
the taxi's doors flare on both sides open.
Nothing's stirring in the garden, not us,
not the thinnest breeze among the flowers,
yet by the time we look again they've flown.
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.
past the screen that windows the view,
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.
beyond the cage. Cold's oncoming
as the wind cries,
whatever antennae I had
lost in the generations.
When you spread your hand over the globe,
across mountain range, island, intuitive seas,
nothing disappeared, just as my first touch,
fingering down the rocky spine of your back,
ended in the confusion of whether to return
or continue. Furthest from home, the traveler
turns home, no matter where he turns.
But it was you I turned to, when I turned.
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.
Once again, The Nation announces the winners of Discovery/The Nation, the Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize. Now in its twenty-seventh year, it is an annual contest for poets whose work has not been published previously in book form. The new winners are: Amy Beeder, Bryan Dietrich, Monica Ferrell and Joanna Goodman. This year's judges are Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips and Marie Ponsot. In the competition, whose manuscripts are judged anonymously, distinguished former winners include Susan Mitchell, Katha Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Sherod Santos, Arthur Smith and David St. John. This year's winners will read their poems at Discovery/The Nation '01 at 8:15 pm on Monday, April 23, at The Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue) in New York City.
--Grace Schulman, poetry editor
Give to Her Your Cloak Also
I understand the necessary lie,
that pasty face he passes off for work,
the interest vested in his paper
tiger. But, frankly, three in a bed
is not what I had planned. Each night
that I slip--calling him, from some stark peak
of passion, Clark--the covers grow more
crowded, the issue, more cumulous.
To which side do I cleave, then? On which
thunderous thigh do these nails leave
no trace? Though there are times I enjoy
such naughtiness (the occasional
quick one in Perry's office, a hot kiss
on the fly), I still find it hard
to divide time between what he is
and what he's had to hide to be just
that. Don't get me wrong, Diary, I love
the both of him, but these days, when I send
him out for squeeze cheese and chips, when
he comes back, Midway Mart sack in one
hand, would-be thug in the other, I can't
help wondering.... Should I prefer this
Superman who saves a world a week,
or he who's learned to live his life
by loaning it his cheek.
'The soul is a number moving by itself' --Aristotle, De Anima
It is not cold at the top of the stairs.
The years strike like radium drops.
There is a little door, there is a little lock,
There are many good machines whose purposes are lost.
In the plump and tidy cabinets
The red drawers are full of numbers
Irrational and fatly simpering,
While the white drawers have numbers
Imaginary and drifting,
And I am one of those.
Oh, the furnace wheezes, the charwoman sweeps,
The wood sighs and settles and the dormouse sleeps.
Don't try to look at me directly.
It's not by chance that as this house turns to rot,
the outer rooms fill up with feathers: jackdaw
and grackle black, grit-colored slivers of sparrow
or finch that grub for crumbs on every sidewalk.
Don't be fooled by thrash or rapture:
a bird is only vitriol, a lizard's foot,
gristle and a sack of stones, diviner of nothing
but endings. If you doubt it, think of cockfights
or starlings' pulse against the rain-wet glass
each Spring returning to shock you,
a darkness like blood in the yolk. Spurious, plagiarist--
Amid thick leaves I saw the wink of black eyes
waiting in dark pines, the snow-broken greenhouse.
On my stairs is a long rooster's shadow;
nights the rafters host a storm of chatter, the breeze
of a thousand wings; though in the morning
dirty legions can rise silent from one winter's tree.
Ahead, no singular, no grief.
Silicon retina, artificial cochlea, tongue:
we are learning how best to transcribe spirit
by tracking chemical release. To cobble
soul and sense together open here,
the nerve: insert. Localized
interior. My room looks west, and north;
late day's gray veneer aroused by breeze.
Months pass, moth-filled and uncontained,
since we slipped through ovals in San Marco's
dormer cells, looking down through glass to see
back towards black mountains' robed retreat,
blue fields, hands floating out of time.
It was neither mystical nor real, but it was both.
A thin lather of rain fell last night.
I woke at four again and listened to first birdcalls swerve
along the eaves. Voices scored for feeling
and depth: tassled, metallic rows of rants
unravel meridians. Immediate, unmediated world.
The talk here's about sacrifice--
Who would give up body first, who mind.
I try not to be seen or heard, though apparently
all we want is to be found.
Risen chambers along twigs of black gum,
butternut: buttercup playing Camaldoli's
forest floor. I held one to your chin, silence
stretching light's expanse between us. Measured
rhythms, equilibriums: that the shapes might
fit; mass to rhapsodic mass, vein to leaf, leaf
to branch; error to its thought; that in the symmetry
between hand and touch we might find not just relief.
I've lost track of how I've hurt you.
Out of stone huts hermits emerge
like mist's cargo, dissolve without blundering
into air. They'll come down the mountain
in old age. We watch from outside the gate--
Smoke curls skyward--
And darkness corked by light.
In this night scene the first bridge, built
out of the first man's mouth, makes the world make
sense. One theory says God fell in love and in letting go: matter. Between death and dream breath's vanishing,
the broken parts, bring us back to each other--
erasures, secco-frescoed molecules--
malachite, ultramarine, lead tin yellow,
flaking with time, vine black triangles
where a branch once held the tree trembling in place.