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Sounds that twisted
around the room like smoke,
bludgeoning, blossoming,
where I did not want
to find them, but I find them
over and over. Father,
bless your hair.
Bless your hammer
and your no-song whistle,
your voice, your strange
language--embarrassing to me
once. Too lyrical, too vulgar.
But father, bless your hair:
sculptural, short, black
lamb's wool, steel wool
like your voice--gravel
underfoot when I'd walk
home from school. Bless
your voice, the gravel
underfoot, your hammer,
your strange language twisting
like smoke, biting like a snake
the head of which I wanted
to stroke or crush with my heel.
And your whistle father,
and when you'd stop
whistling, suddenly,
in the middle of your work,
as if something had cut
away the part of you
that wanted to sing.

A box of Chopin nocturnes handed down
from the other side of my mother's death--
evening gowns in trash bags making a little
Golgotha of their own right in the corner
of that studio we had spent all morning
emptying out--uncandled cold chaperoned
through the sill. Lullabies all of us had
already heard while drinks kept going round
the parlor after her wake assembled now
into makeshift history--bits of tenderness
discarded down the cosmos slide, each night
a phantom limb, the hours trapezing over
that sea of anonymous faces where sidereal
glances scale up the piano's mirrored lid.

In later paintings--

a Brueghel, a Dali--

a hill could also be a breast

grazed by clouds, the breast

of a woman lying on her back

facing heaven. But in this painting

by the Osservanza Master

(about whom nothing is known,

not even his real name)

the hill is just a hill

beneath an arch of cirrus,

although it swirls like cream

to a soft peak, although it hides

a distant church blushing in the dusk.

I love this painting,

no larger than a leaf

of notebook paper.

Its sharp thin brushstrokes

shiny as currycombed hair

drinking track-light.

And I love the story it tells:

Saint Anthony Abbot tempted

by a heap of gold. Stranger than any

hill transformed into a breast

is that the pile of gold has vanished!

Yet the Saint is still

so distinct you could lift him

off the panel. His hands cupped

like a calyx holding its flower

he gazes downward

at the damaged place

where the gold has been,

where now a small pink ghost lingers

like a kiss on the hillside.

But it's hard to know if he's still

surprised by the temptation

he'd once found at his feet,

or by the rabbit crouching there, forever

bearing a tree rooted in air.

Or is he simply amazed

that what he never had was taken away

What will become of these

my many lives,

abandoned each morning abruptly to their own fates?

Of the fox who stopped to look up at me,

bright death stippling her muzzle,

and announced--clearly, simply--"I was hungry"?

Of the engine left half-disassembled,

the unmendable roofleaks, the waiting packed bags?

Cloudbellies of horses drinking at sunset.

Fierce embraces remembered half a day if at all.

Even the bedside jar of minute and actual seashells

wavers and thins--

though each was lifted, chosen,

I no longer recall if it was in joy or distraction,

in foreknowledge or false belief.

How much more elusive, these half-legible scribblings.

If souvenirs at all, they are someone else's.

As each of my memories,

it seems, is destined to be someone else's,

to belong to a woman who

looks faintly like me and whom I wish well,

as one would any stranger passed in a shop, on the street.

Why must the noble rose
bristle before it blooms, and why

must the frost declare

allegiance to the dew?

Don't tell me the robin's

forlorn invitation

could not be denied.

I've heard the magpie's lies.

Outside my window,

twenty-seven juncos

consort in a cedar tree,

fat and happy to be free

of all desire--ah, but

that's not true! See

how they dance and turn

when I throw out the seed.

It was curled on the pavement, forehead to knees,

as if it had died while bowing. Its stripes

were citrine-yellow, and the black of a moonless

starless, clear night. It did not

belong on a street, to be stepped on, I picked it

up in a fold of glove, and in the taxi

canted it onto a floral hankie,

a small, thin, cotton death-glade--

and the bee moved, one foreleg,

like an arm, feebly, as if old. It seemed

not long for this world, and it seemed I could not

save it, and had been saved, by its gesture,

from smothering it all day in my bag. I would have

liked to set it in a real glade,

but I thought that it might still, right now,

be suffering, yet I could not kill it

directly--I shook it, from the hankie, out the window,

onto West End Avenue,

hoping that, before a tire

killed it, instantly, it would hear

and feel huge rushes of tread and wind,

like flight, like the bee-god's escape.

Crow light: I call it that at dawn
when one wing, then this other, bursts in flame,
catching the sun's rising. The stupid bird,
dipping his hunk of bread into the water,
doesn't know the Mississippi is my friend:
it disgorges in the gulf the frozen states I came from.
Mississippi! She was a grade school spelling word
in Detroit for me. I spelled well. Now, forty years later
I jog beside her interchange of gold and silver lustres,
always too much in love with any surface of the world.
But the crow: I know it's not the same bird
morning after morning. Still, the dipping of his beak
into this water, softening a breakfast for his gullet
demanding, like mine, daily satisfactions
lets me pretend every day's the same.
On one chunk of that bread some day up ahead
my last day is written, clear as the printing
on my birth certificate on file in Michigan.
Crows dip their bread. Daily, I run for breath,
hoping to extend my distance, even a little.
The Mississippi muddies, clears, according to the factories
up North, the local, snarled measures against its dying.
Slowly, even the river is passing from us while I run.

Blogs

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