Against Narrative

By Amittai Aviram


The poems presented on this Web site,, are the property of the author, Amittai Aviram, amittai dot aviram at gmail dot com. All rights are reserved. Copyright © 2002. Do not copy or distribute these poems without including this statement, with the author's name, copyright date, URL, and e-mail address.

I. Love Letter

II. The Swimmer

III. Against Narrative


Against Narrative

Poems by Amittai Aviram

I. Love Letter

Love Letter

After Sappho

Even though we cannot become the perfect
Lovers for each other, my friend, and even
Though we turn away now, alone, and once more
Prowl through the evening,

Still, you shine among all the other young men
Everywhere I see you, just as the scarlet
Cardinal, glowing shyly among the branches
Shines in the springtime,

Heedless of his beauty; one whispers softly,
Pointing to him, careful, lest he, once startled,
Dart away — yet, rustling, the spring breeze murmurs,
Urging him take flight;

Or as in the country, I heard at dusk once
Sweetly through the damp summer air, the moaning
Whippoorwill against all the brave cicadas'
Delicate chorus,

Harvesting the sadness of August moonlight:
"Will there come again such a summer, swarming
Through these woods," he sighs, "when a lover's hopes will
Tease me to such tones?

"Might dark-gliding death turn a circle round me
Sooner?" So he chants all the night, and sweetly
Rise hot wafts and fall in the weeping willow,
Crooning their cadence;

So, although we cannot be perfect lovers,
Hear my words of friendship, and still remember,
Friend, I love you, hoping tomorrow's summer
Brings you the right one.

[ Table of Contents ]

Pictures of Maurice Among Funeral Flowers

For Maurice P. Quesnel, in memory.
Gather the flowers, but spare the buds.
— Marvell

Your smile, the only thing that glimmered through
the heavy snow, that February night,
the only bright, new thing in all New Haven,
shone out your snorkel-hood, when I trudged out
onto my stoop, braced for the bar, to which
you, too, were headed. Seeing sincerity through
your wire-framed glasses, and a measureless smile,
I showed you in. And soon your glasses, fogged,
came off. And we forgot about the bar.

I hadn't seen you in ages. It was time,
after the hundredth fight with my new lover,
to see your narrow half of a narrow room
in the East Village. But then, you cracked the hatch,
and up we climbed to freedom on the roof.
You and the air burst heady on my funk.
Our clothes came off again, and all your skin
said yes, like a silken flower, and mine cried yes,
caressing your petals, filling your pliant clasp.

Something familiar about those white buttocks,
and then my eyes rose — it was you, head turned
gently over your shoulder, more to reveal
your profile, sloped — there, at the Fifty-Ninth
Street Pool, among the jocks and homeless men,
picture of innocence, voluptuous,
in a chance ray among shadows in the shower.
You looked surprised before you could quite place me,
waking, a little boy, from dreams of flowers.

My watch advanced while you were disappeared
among the dunes behind us at Jones Beach.
I knew how you would burn. But when you came
back, spent, your hair shone redder with the blush
of joy — half in the deed, half in the report.
We'd heard the age was past for sport in bushes,
but who'd find blame in such triumphant colors,
the pink-flushed neck, the green eyes ever open
to taste, to sip, to drink from summer fruit.

By days, your voice got thinner on the line;
the shadow-thought I kept of you got thin.
What did you look like, then? A shadowy sore
slowly enveloped you from the crotch upwards
and swallowed up the brightness, shade by shade,
making your voice flicker and cast its dim,
warm light around the little that was left.
You'd done what you were sent here for: you came,
and left, too soon, before we thought to look.

[ Table of Contents ]

A Single Iris

A full glass of cool water
Offering in a curve
Of blue a single iris
Standing, silent, beside

A square of brilliant sunlight
Conducts me to a rock
Covert over a silver
Pond, hidden by high

Grasses and bending sumacs,
Penetrated by all
The dizzying scream of crickets
Ecstatic in summer dusk;

Trees bending as one's lover
Suiting to run (one foot
Raised to tighten a shoestring)
Leans down, half-turned, his neck,

Arms, shoulders, back, and buttocks
Sloped — like a meadow flower
The breeze caresses: tender
Green stem and pollen sweet.

[ Table of Contents ]

Letters from an Unfinished Romantic Epistolary Novel

August 15.

Dearest BT,

This letter is a fiction.
This letter is a lie.
If we were really lovers,
I'd call you on the phone.

We'd talk and talk for hours,
and I'd be always broke;
I'd shuffle credit lines around
so we could talk some more.

But phone calls don't get written,
while poems really must;
so let's indulge this quaint pursuit,
my sham-archaic writ.

Suppose that I am writing this
while riding on a train
away from having seen you for
too short a tête-à-tête,

And though I know I'm going home,
I don't know where I'm going;
I don't know where I started from;
I don't know where I am.

I'm writing this to tell you words
I could not tell you there: . . .
Yet, even now, my head is filled
not with the strains of love,

but with callump, callump, callump
of wheels of steel on steel,
whose rhythm brings your body near
in muscular refrain,

and when you read this, you will hear
the wheels we spun together,
when you spread out your rails and I
discovered slick directions.

It was as if you paid my fare
on credit, and since then,
I lost my words, I lost my way,
I don't know where I've been.



August 16

Dearest BT,

I'm writing you before you've answered me.
When I got off the train, the world flashed bright
like boxers' blows to a long night's dry eyes —
but voices of the city lulled me home.
Now, here, a silence watches as I write,
calm, like a string quartet's adagio.
I write before you've had a chance to answer.

Sometimes you seem closer when we're apart,
as if there's just a door ajar between us —
enough to catch your messages of sweat
and rustling questions in my silent room,
a universe of disappointment, where
once, panting, we would hope our heartbeats met.
Sometimes I bring you closer from afar.

The silence where I write to you alone
rustles and whispers with soft questionings
like leaves trembling before their yellow fall.
I wonder what I know of you at all:
a mystery of darkened eyes, a curve
of muscle echoed like a rhythmic charm,
these silence answers with lone breaths of muse.

Your answer comes to mind before I hear it:
we grow not like two merging streams, but trees
apart, our leaves just touching, by an edge
of desert, bending to desire's warm winds.
How can I once know your desire, and sieze
those tendrils in the autumn's train of days?
Your answer whispers, comes to mind. I hear.

Constantly yours,


August 25

Dearest BT,

I have your teasing postcard pinned
where I can see its naked figure,
recalling all the words you penned
on its mysterious hidden verso.

You asked what plot was guiding us
in this, our novel life . . . and I
thought of a meadowy garden-plot
while you, a plot of grass-haired graves —

since death is how things always end,
and since you held it in your arms —
a friend, the whitening breathing stilled,
the clutching hands gone limp and bent —

and now you must be at the wake,
even as I write this, or at home
studying pictures of his smiles
whose lines, unknowing, point to gloom . . .

and I? I live in another city,
and in my mind burgeons a rank
abandoned field, at end of summer,
vexatious gnats' fertility —

lost in an overgrowth of scents
and memories of muscled curves —
even a generation's corpse
seems fetid now, teeming with spurs

of surprising life. Where's the path
through garden-grave? The weeds are wise:
they spread defiance underground
and pop green heads from the overgrowth —

no yew-berries here, just strawberries.
But somewhere, "gardeners" must draw lines
and mourners put up fences, where
a sheltered covert beckons us —

although our play within is penned
and hemmed about, its nakedness
sprinkles the plot of plans and plants
with whispered messages laid bare.

Intensely yours,


September 6

Dearest BT,

I didn't mean to fail to hear your cry.
I woke up early, sleepless. Here at dawn,
my birthday, rhythmically my eyes reread
my calendar, from now to when you come,
over and over, curious, hypnotized.

Why does it matter if we live or die?
You're as alive now as you'll ever be,
and we are always dying, shedding off
pale strippings of ourselves. A generation
of brilliant young men die while I am writing.

And when you read this, don't be disappointed
in a world fogged with disappointment. When
you read this, let it find you in your bath,
washing the neighboring factories from your gleam,
for in those water-droplets plays my tongue.

Your body leaves a spark of absence here
in my dark room, waiting for you to return,
like the air before a thunderstorm at night,
enveloping, seducing, threatening,
and beckoning the roar of your arrival.

You'll come cleanly into a clean space,
smelling of plants like those that drape my study
where I am writing this, turning to green
this letter, while the leaves outside turn gold,
shedding the darkness of your long ride home.

Expectantly yours,


Dearest BT,

You must be on the train by now,
so when you read this letter,
you will have come, things will have changed,
I'll have to write another.

But meanwhile, let me hear the thump
and scream of wheels on steel,
imagining the rumble that
your loins will, trembling, feel,

as if it were the imprint, suave,
of an unwritten letter
spun out in taps and touches that
we wrestled out together —

as if we rode the train, we two,
not knowing where we were,
not knowing where our tracks would lead,
past hamlet and lone shore —

and help me not to run away
from love as I have done:
read me your words, and read again
mine when you are alone.

It's almost time to meet you now —
I'll find you by the clock,
carry your baggage, laugh with you,
adore your rugged looks,

and find that tunnel in the hill
of you, where trains can come
and go, one passenger inside,
reading your howl and hum.

Yours with desire,

[ Table of Contents ]

Death and the Young Man

Young Man:

Go! Get away from me, you troll!
You know I'm not your guy.
Go find your type — bald, bent, and old;
I'm far too young to die.


You have me wrong, my handsome friend:
I offer peace and bliss,
Sweet rest from strife, hard labor's end,
Warm light, an endless kiss.

Young Man:

Then take me to your sleepy town.
I'm tired of toil and stress!
Why wait till age has worn me down
While chasing happiness?


Too soon, boy, after all — how fast
You've fallen for my bluff!
You're stuck with life now — make it last!
I'll have you soon enough.

[ Table of Contents ]


For Tal

I. Allegro.

I did not know that life could bloom
So fragrantly with love,
That everywhere I walked, bright sprouts
Of rubies in an emerald loom
Would weave delight, and all my doubts
Mere passing clouds would prove.

Those flowers once seemed best meant for pots
In a fine funeral
Where all my friends would gather, weep,
Make speeches, read my poems, with lots
Of praise, and long into the deep
Night they'd retell, recall.

To this sweet requiem, I'd become
A happy sod, where grows
Soon enough every daffodil,
Rose, violet, tulip, peony, mum,
Or any of those flowers that fill
Catalogues bards compose.

The trouble is, as such rich loam,
I'd never hear a word —
I'd be too late — the love would reach
My friends, as they through memories roam,
Trading their stories each with each —
To me, a dream deferred.

But still, that funeral in my brain
Would carry me through days
When love seemed wintered over, lost,
Invisible through freezing rain,
Or far away, as window frost
Dims shapes in mottled glaze.

Imagine my surprise to find
Where I had almost tired
Of looking, love, a flower's gleam,
And life so sweet I might not mind
Letting the funeral wait, my dream
Here to be loved, admired.

2. Sarabande: Larghetto.

For every door you open, one must close —
And yet you never shut them all the way:
You leave a crack for voices from before
To echo, as when night's horizon glows.

You stopped your car and honked at me, one day —
In wet, grey weather: leaning out your door,
You called my name. I couldn't even say
What torments I had travelled. No words rose —

As if the door of that dark room, ajar,
Left, not a glow or whisper, but more dark,
A web of shadow, soaking up the light,
Leaking a vacuum into space, a star

Gone out, and pulling every star from sight —
And yet, in rendering quietness more stark,
It sends this whispered word, however slight,
Backward in answer to that day, that car.

The word I send you, now that we are here,
Moved on, doors opened, others closed, my love,
Wanders through doorway cracks, a faint, sweet scent,
As when you unexpectedly appear,

Apologizing, no disruption meant,
Opening the door, one stealthy hand above
The knob, hiding the flowers — before we're sent
Back to our days of work, apart, but near.

For every door we open, one must close,
At least a little. But the doors behind —
So many! — stay cracked open just enough
To let a breeze float through to tease the nose —

To tease to travel, see the world's bright stuff
before we wither; walk, together, mind
In mind, or ride that road, however rough,
While round us, every shadow longer grows.

3. Allegro Leggero

"When you open the window, a flood of warm air
Brings you back to a spring at your memory's edge —
When the school radiators would clang, and you'd stare
Out the window, and search for new leaves by the ledge;

"Your young ears never heard how that clanging would pledge
To this day, unimagined, with trees again bare,
That a window's exhaling would cleave, like a wedge,
Your forgetting — a wall, slowly built of despair.

"In those days, your desire, circled round by a hedge
And rail fence, shining animal, fanciful, rare,
With one horn, bore a mane that was fabled to fledge
Any captor for flight to his freedom from care;

"But the window today opens out to the sedge
Of remembrance, and breezes will carry you there,
Where across distant green, at the deep forest's edge,
Clanging pipes and mute hunting horns fill the warm air."

— So I said to myself, as I leaned on the frame
Of my window, one bright afternoon in the fall,
Looking down to the street, where my eye, taking aim,
Lay in wait for you, walking, right after your call —

And I wonder, meanwhile, how I got here. How came
The collapse of those rails, the escape, and then all
The reversals and terrible flights, and my claim
To this lookout, aloft, where the world can seem small?

It's the hour when the cars have slowed down to a crawl
And the sky gleams metallic, a smooth silver flame,
Green and red blinks the traffic-lights' mute madrigal,
Whose gay melody horns, sweetly honking, proclaim;

While far off, beyond window-light, street, concrete wall,
Blow the leaves in the breeze, falling slowly, like fame,
Onto layers upon layers ... You ring, down the hall —
You come in; fall is spring — its bright colors the same.

[ Table of Contents ]


Consult the prophets' scriptures; then — back on the shelf;
The Book of Revelation read — then close the book;

And have your palm read once, and scoured again, your cards
Examined by the expert eye and kerchiefed brow,

And look into the mirror long — and long — and see
Life's agon, fall, and denouement — then turn away.

Remember that your dreams are real as any writ
Of oracle or sybil, save that theirs are said

Without the certitudes of blue or lemonade
Or pungencies of flesh or slow resonant strum;

And that it is my love for you that makes all things
Possible, even when the cards say otherwise,

Since cards are blind to how dark powers beyond their ken
Dance, in an unseen chorus, in your dreaming eyes.

[ Table of Contents ]


For Tal

When I was just a little child,
I loved to stay awake;
I cried when I was called to bed
Until my eyes would ache.

I loved to stay up late at night,
For then I might be free
To glimpse the secret grown-ups' world
And love's dark mystery.

And when I was grown up myself,
Young, shining-new, and proud,
I'd roam the night in restless joy
And dance among the crowd.

I looked so forward to the night,
Day drifted dreamily;
For night would whisper coy refrains
Of love's dark mystery.

Now I love day. At dawn, I watch
The sun's slim fingers trace
The curves and ridges, delicate,
Of love's still sleeping face,

As I behold you by my side,
And in the soft light, see
At last, the colors, brightening,
Of love's sweet mystery.

[ Table of Contents ]

II. The Swimmer

Spring Storm in Columbia, South Carolina

No, no, go not to lethe ...

The smooth panes flash: a gleaming sheet;
The glass door melts in silver plashes.
As if already soaked, one dashes,
Dives into the flooding street.

But now it's wet. The pins and blades
Of chill mix terror with delight
For spine and nerves. A shock of light
Crosses the sky. The cramping fades.

Now pedals bob the long way home
Through smells of lakes once swum in spring.
The rosy sky is welcoming,
A peach parfait with floating foam.

The rosy sky gives forth a wet
Chimera, spectral colors, smoke,
A prism's pillar. Raindrops soak
The skin; the watery mind forgets.

The road is one forgetting, long
And flooded, with a cyclist there
Alone, forgetting how to fear,
Or make a turn that turns out wrong,

Forgetting street names, words, and all.
The light shifts, buildings glow an eerie
Gold; the air thins, lightens; weary,
Still the rider pedals, tall —

As one might ride a dream-horse — no
Reins — even bareback — naked — clear
Up to a peak, where plains appear
Like woven seas spread out below —

And then leap off that cliff — the wet
Slivers of rain drive hard and stir
Sky, leaves, and muck in a grey blur,
Waking the dreamer, drenched in sweat.

The flooding ditches draw away
Nightmares to leave a glistening scene,
Enameled art in gold and green
And silver in the burnished day.

The dimming sky remembers rose
In smoky clouds of paint. The lane
Opens toward home. The the easing rain
Withdraws. Skin dries. A soft wind blows.

[ Table of Contents ]

Cascadilla Creek Gorge

(Cascadilla is one of three glacial creeks cutting sublime chasms through Cornell's hill overlooking Ithaca, New York and Cayuga lake. There, every year, several promising youths jump to their deaths, a bitter tradition.)

Give yourself over to fiction
And give yourself over to me,
Your splintering thoughts' turbulent chorus,
To my rushing, rushing, rushing
Ornament to your vertigo.
Give yourself wholly to me

And drag that sable night of your soul
Over the rail,
Let it plunge to my shattering faces
Waiting to refract you, frozen
Ice-grey and faintly green,
The hues of scattered desire.

Give yourself over, and over,
Toss the fragile lines of memory
Like fish-lines over the quay,
And let me pull and tug like a prize catch,
Rushing, driven, urged
To shallows where nightmares spawn.

I have no nightmares. I
Am dreaming you in the day. I have been here
A long, long time
And I have watched your likenesses,
Pale images of paler shades,
Come rushing to me, running

Away from love. As brisk as I rush away
Down from my source, laughing
Luscious crashes of shards,
Giggling to the chase of timbrels, pipes,
A frenzied procession of leaves,
Tossing all this glitter down to my end —

Where I have forever to rush. You, but a second.

O you, so cool and so seductive, day
After day I pass you, stare, watch your white
Laugh and listen to your brash monotone,
Your offered decorations for a corpse
Au naturel, sublime experiment
With cadences and rests: down there, where lies
A greenness without words, a simple swirl
And roll against the rocks, a rich decline.

Is it so rich to die? Or does it foul
The sheen of laughing time like a red wen,
Insult against eternity? How plunge
When even death can't be perfect or sublime?
It is a paltry thing: the splattered skull,
Face marked with a turbulence of gore,
Collapsed torso and twisted limbs — no charm
Here. Much nicer to be a sod. Would be.

But O, repose! The calm to rise from heaps
Of ineffectual limbs, review the dance
Of birth and fevers, loves and accidents,
And bathe in the warm beam of final sweet
Forgetfulness. Surely not there, not there,
A woman's sodden hand's imploring reach,
A boy's abandoned gesture. Won't that sheen
Make light of all the salt you itch to wash?

There is no sense in plunging to that light.
The light is for walking. There'll be time for that,
But now there is no time. The hour grows late,
The shadows long, the chill of April air
Threatening with its green. For I have heard
The call, and call again, and did not come
And did not answer, and delayed, declined,
And now my time is running short. I run

Not to those cold transparent arms, though sweet
Their call, but to your arms as they withdraw —
Come back! — you, over there, who give yourself
Again and again to fiction, like me

Wandering on a bridge with time run short.
Will you tell that one who calls your name, cool
And rushing, how you'll wait, and meet it soon
Enough? Will you wait with me, and give yourself

Fictions that quicken in their own due time?

[ Table of Contents ]

Because You Are, Always, and Finally, Free

It's going to rain, but you are going out
running anyway. It is summer evening,
the air is dense and damp and tense. You run
down to the edge of the river. Just as
you get there, it starts to pour. Thunder snarls.
You are running hard and fast along the bank,
keeping your eyes in front. A flash of light
cracks open the sky right over the water
just thirty feet off to your right — so close
you feel you are bathed in bluish white — or would
if you had time to feel. You bolt astart
in a twist and hear the horrid dry crackle.

That sound has no name. You stop and watch the boats:
a Circle Line ship speeding up, it seems,
a little fishing junk adrift, an old
salty woman cajoling down its flaps.
No one had jumped but you. You think of steel,
you think of sparks, of bombs, of cracking sounds,
of colors, you think of how — you hear one man
telling another — how the water was
blanketed in glowing white, you think how you
didn't see it when it happened, how you missed
the action, turned too late — you'd been resolved
then not to let the storm deter your run.

Let's reconstruct the scene. The lightning rides
in with its charging host and fanfare blasts
of regal trumps: Ho! Open up the sky!
— storming the infidel's camps . . . No, like a lone
archangel it sweeps, a flash on silken wings
bearing a sword of Justice, face aglow
in wrath: Vengeance is mine! . . . No, no, it comes
on nothing, bearing nothing, saying no name,
but saying "witness me!" — saying "I" in white
so white it is almost blue, telling you
a crackling that seems to tear the sky, seems
to crack you from your purpose, seems to say
that you are nothing that is not quite free.

It pours, and on a bench there lies a homeless
young man. He huddles in a little closer
towards the fetal, a little closer now —
he dreams — to the womb. His limbs are dark, slender,
thick black hair, broad shoulders sloping to delicate
middle: he is handsome, beautiful. He comes
from the Carribean, producer of so much beauty,
it seems like too much beauty for this place
to hold on to. You're walking now. You stare
at him and think these things. Does lightning speak
to him? And does it set him free? He lies,
drooping, filthy — like a dark flower, dropped.

You missed the flash — caught its stinging glow
just in the corner of your eye. And then
you thought you could remember it as if
you really saw. But he slept through the cracks,
the whips and sparks. Then what do they tell him?
He dreams of possibilities, and tells
nothing of what he dreams. He is no flower,
he is a dreamer, looking out for one
crack of freedom amid the crumbling rocks
of a precocious empire in decline.
The pouring beckons you to run, and you
feel the electric freedom of your feet.

The rain will beckon him as well. Will he
rise with his dreams? And will he feel the surge
and crackle of the lightning's wrath come pierce
his sleep? Or will it blast this empire's shards
apart in its hands? How good it would be
to drop those remnants in the rain, loose scraps
of power! — and melt into his memories
of sweet fruit on a beach. Now nothing comes
but rain to drive him to the rail, and see
the wake of lightning, smell the ghostly sparks
whispering nothing, letting all dreamers know
the crackling power of being, being free.

But this is no dream you had, not a lone
dance of ghosts and figures. You were there
to hear the crackle, and to see the face
of someone beautiful on the edge of life,
there at the edge of the river — or, rather,
you were as good as there. The lightning strikes
no one alone. It snaps you into its dream
along with all those stranded at the edge,
whether or not you were really there, to make
your dreams and those of homeless men grow back
together in the rain, a chastened throng,
knowing you are, always, and finally, free.

[ Table of Contents ]


Shifting bodies, padding feet
On a sidewalk, in Harlem,
At dusk, slender boys and girls
And women, to a faint beat:
Through the heavy summer air,
You see them as you leave the park
Running, in the cool and dark
Of evening, blue, dancing there.

Touching pavement to the beat
Of a radio box somewhere
Like a tincture in the air
Of late summer's humid musk,
In Harlem, at dusk:
Slender bodies, boys and girls,
Women watchful, where the world
And the Harlem sidewalk meet.

You are running by somewhere
In the evening, cool and dark,
Toward the radio whispering —
Like a tincture, like a spark,
Like a cat on padded feet,
A stranger, in Harlem,
While the women watch and dance,
Dance in figures by the street.

Figures by the Harlem street
In the air, heavy with musk,
Laden with mist, in a hush,
Land like cats with curves and sweet
Feel of silk, the girls and boys,
Watching nothing but the feel
Of their shiftings, like a spark
In the musky evening's noise —

Watching strangers, in their poise
Watching you, whose home is far,
Running far to catch the park
At dusk and see slender boys
And feel the padding in your feet
And feel the shiftings of your frame
And watch the women, like a spark,
And light the evening like a flame.
The flame is dark with musk
Drawing all into its blue
Shiftings, while the evening hush
Closes you within its husk,
And a shining spark of blue
Goes on dancing on the limbs
Of Harlem, in the evening air,
A running spark: it turns from you.

Why the running, running feet,
In the cool of the evening,
Padding like a cat — and not
Dancing in the dusky blue?
O that you could stay, that you
Could become the music itself! —
And fly into a nothingness
Where the beat is strange and true.

That beat will follow you.
It has touched your padded feet
Like a tincture, like a blue
Tint, in the dusky street,
And you will always land in hush —
Never where you thought you were,
Like a flame of nothingness:
Stranger in the evening there.

[ Table of Contents ]

The Sea Off Hilton Head Speaks to the Poet

I am what you cannot find language for:
color that is no color, voice that is
only the voice you clip to me — it slips
and skips away: taste that cannot be drunk
more than a sip, already too much; feel
of a flowing stone, like slate, like flint, — like
something that has no likeness, giving back
no image to the face of muse or gaze.

Around you, swimmer, I impose the dark
other, a gesture without will, compose
my greens and greys in whispers fraught with hush —
fraught with you, who impose the greens and greys
of dazzled irises, who hear the rush
and lullaby of death, compose the swank
lascivious croonings of your own desire's
salty arousal. Here you find your pulse.

And here you find your dreams, giving me voice.
Long afterward, you'll pull your limbs to bed,
and feel me rock you, side to side, with long,
slow, powerful strokes, giving you ecstasy
to be so overpowered by sleep — but you
are rocking not to any ocean's lilt,
but to the beat of tragic choruses —
revived, with satyr plays, in silent ears.

Enough of allegories! You are no
swimmer, I am no sea. I am a sign,
painted over in grey and green, like mold
or cancer. And you? — I am too stern. I,
who whispered lilting death, who heard you sing
beyond my constant cry, I kiss your sides
and thighs with chilling lips — that you might swim,
and, swimming, be: voice of a raging surge.

I am not chilling; there you have me wrong.
I am the brimming warmth of your own body,
your own delicate gestures in my midst.
In this, I am like you, but you feel my slate,
my smooth, reptilian ancientness, and know
me as the knowing nothingness, salt sphinx,
who in not knowing, draws and renders back
an eye that knows itself for being there.

[ Table of Contents ]

Beauty's Imperative

In the subway, in winter, in a wet coat,
in a bad time, shivering, poor, confused,
you find it hard to hear the jazz musicians —
horn and guitar — suggesting tender phrases;
hard to attend the syllables of that cry
of trumpet, call of copper, puffing out
its muted self in purple tones and blue
enticements; find it very hard to note
that voice through holes in your soggy hood, hard
just to distinguish much between the screech
of subway's brakes and this most selfish song,
this dictum: Mark me, harken to me, hear
and hang upon me, and become me: I
am all there is, and all there ever was

That polished, brassy thought, it is so hard,
I turn away to tell you, much as I
would rather melt into that purple funk,
that daze with purple wings and golden tail.
But it is making its demand upon you,
and I am telling its demand as mine,
that you must hear — yes, even though the rage
of things is sogging all about you, though
you dangle there, a marionette on strings,
playing a script that neither of us wrote,
and even though you can't help wondering how
and why you ever came into this world
that wasn't made for you — yet I, the horn,
the blaring blues, was made for you. I sing,
and you remember purple wings, and you,
inhabiting the royalty of brass,
intone a song made wholly out of trouble:
the wintry laughs above your bobbing head,
the rattling cough of someone near, the cops
threatening her for loitering, the headlines
announcing war, conspiracy, and how
you are supposed to think. All this will be
made purple in that brassy moan, the gold
and strident cry to cut the strings, your call.

[ Table of Contents ]

Rebirth in Spring

The robin struts in green, his head a wind
Of worms and incoherency; the pull
Of north, and north, and north aligns his mind

Else a-twitter in green. Meanwhile, low down
Beneath a bush, half hidden, snakes and slinks
The sultry tail, convoluted, of a cat.

Only this, and the cold, canny gleam
Of incandescent eyes melting the leaves
Appear within this woodland scene. Covert

And calculating, he prepares the smooth
And soundless slithering movements to approach
The bird, his mind intent on snuffling. Watch.

In that most fatal moment, when the fowl
Meets face to face his death, he sees the face
Of his own cockly state, his regal beak

And crimson feathered elegance, shined back
In cat's-eye mirrors; and he owns himself
A body, and a legendary voice:

For first, for last, forever — and for naught —
His most imperial, sovereign self; — just as
The subtle chops make fine meat of his pomp.

[ Table of Contents ]

The American Jew Studies African Dance

Let me be among this ring
Of clapping hands and bobbing knees
And answers taking turns with calls
And four-counts piled on top of threes;

Or be in the center — the teacher — who gleams,
A counterpoint circling beneath satin skin,
Wry panther, obsidian flashing, dark wave
Of light, drawing sky from above to within.

Or let me be that drummer of fours
Thick-piled on threes, the source from in back
Behind these circles, offering up
Great waves and rings of lightness and black;

Oh, let me become that resounding itself,
That twitter and pum giving pulse to the knees,
And drifting aloft to the Orisha, gods
Whom our circles and arches and pulses please.

For what are they, but the various masks —
Glaring, or glad, with mother's hair spun
In wreaths, or warrior's spear, or stripes
Of trickster's red — but masks for the one

Who dwells before and behind them all,
Unspoken of name, who compels this beat,
This clapping of hands and shifting of feet,
This arc and swing, this bow and fall?

Was it not for that one that the youthful king
Danced with abandon before his ark,
While the princess scorned that maidens should mark
His naked joy, the prince of desire?

And when I was sent into this world,
I pulsed with such fullness of swift desire —
Surging and blind, like a snake in the reeds,
Feeding on nothing, round emptiness curled —

It turned, it sought what it could not see,
Till in fulness, it shed the world like a skin —
I woke — I knew — and slowly it waned,
Twisting round a thorny tree.

Is this what life is like, then? Waning,
Disappointment, weakening,
Until but one desire is left:
To rest, to give up, to release, not to cling?

A glance at the watch ... No! I must attend
To contractions of center and thrusts of line,
Push lightning out through ribs, arms, hands,
And make the drums' desire be mine.

Let it envelop me, let me be
Not — for now — and let drums fill
My place, the many-voiced trees that speak
Of Orisha — winds of colorful will —

The brilliant red and black, the blue
Brighter than any sky, the hands
Reaching from center, the earth, the feet
Giving and taking the light and the beat,

Until that moment when —
Eternity past, the teacher stops,
We pack our bags, wave shyly, go,
And let ourselves be what we know.

[ Table of Contents ]


He is falling out of the sky,
Like a meteor falling,
Falling headlong from the sky,
Headlong falling down.

Scholar, look out your window.
Scholar, leave your room.
No! Don't pause to choose a book
"Just to bring along"!

Board meeting is cancelled.
No more doughnuts, gents!
Projections not available:
He is falling down —

Out of the sky, falling,
Like a stone, a shooting star,
He is falling headlong,
Headlong ... down!

Father, leave your tyranny,
Your raging at the kids;
Mother, leave your martyrdom
Stewing in the pot.

Sister, leave your mirror-muse —
Get up! — Downstairs! — Outside!
No, child, I just can't answer any
Questions right now.

Rabbi, leave your pondering.
Headlong he falleth from the sky.
He cometh on the Sabbath day,
He breaketh in the house

Of prayer, yea, he breaketh in,
He turneth every eye askew,
In his hapless, helpless fall,
His headlong falling down.

[ Table of Contents ]

The Swimmer

What does he think of, tracing
broad circles in the blue
faint sweetness, slowly moving —
so soon again arrived —

and rolled and off — a hillock
of wave, and like a wave,
a gliding essence, substance-
less: the water's thought?

And is his thought all water,
clear blue and faintly sweet? —
or is it tracing circles,
as I do as I gaze

upon him, and now you do,
with me, floating above
these circles slowly moving,
and tracing waves of thought?

Or is his contemplation
perfection's bluest form,
which supple muscles ever
approach as asymptote?

Surely this flitting picture
of circling blue peace comes
from crowded calculations,
minute and agonized,

while the grey world distracts us,
the clock's glowering face,
and only half our gaze
has time to caress the wave

as he turns busily onward:
between him, clock, and us,
there floats in air — in shadows —
in words — a glowing peace.

[ Table of Contents ]

Some Swimmers

He thought, while stroking smoothly through his laps:
The physicist would wonder at the play
of forces, relative viscosities —
Reckoning vectors, levering his way.

The theorist reads her swim as allegory
Of social construct: strokes replay a mise
En abîme
— split, the subject's agency
Resists the drift of ideologies.

The painter sees the blue against the pink
Of her own arms, and notices how forms
Are lovelier, more shapely, underwater:
Even the trolls look better than you'd think.

The businessman spends laps in calculations:
How much is my time worth in constant dollars?
Is the cost of swimming less than its benefit?
Well, meanwhile, let me beat these sluggish crawlers.

The poet swims, and, swimming, he becomes
A rhythmic universe of bubbles, strokes,
Kicks drawn from pulsing buttocks, breaths, his shoulders
Rolling, and light across his arms in spokes.

But this was not the way it really happened.
The painter worried at how much it cost
To be in water, rather than in studio;
And should she have her business cards embossed?

The physicist delighted in the pink
And blue, the swaying forms, and wondered whether
His body, too, looked better under water,
The muscles taut, trunks sleek on bulges nether.

The businessman was thrilled to get away
From boring meetings, tedious buzzwords, graphs,
And, wishing that work could go so swimmingly,
He overtakes his neighbor, flip-turns, laughs.

The theorist can hardly pay attention —
Pressed for time to finish her laps quick,
Dry off, get back revising one more draft
To please that referee who was so thick.

The poet wonders how he'll get a job,
Whether to go the academic route,
MFA, one-year stints ... Nearing the turn,
He bangs his head. The lifeguard yells, "Watch out!"

[ Table of Contents ]

African Touraco at the Zoo

Ascesis, noun: disciplined spiritual exercise (cf ascetic, adjective).

Come look into this window
And see me spread before
This small earth all perfection
Of royal blue tail and crest

Of crimson, seldom flying,
But preening with gold beak
Each feather's hair — my splendor
— Sapphire — in verdure set.

I was a human gymnast
Once, some lives ago,
When all my days perfected
A tumble, lunge, and stance

All balanced — then, before that,
I was a lover once,
Who lived behind a window,
As now, but peering out,

Composed my songs of longing;
Now I am quite composed
Within this green ascesis,
This long, cool exercise.

So look! Yes, come and wonder
Close enough to the glass
To dim your own reflections,
And offer me your gaze:

A discipline for sorrow
And ecstasy of shade,
And, heard from rustling greenness,
A rare, but heady, note.

[ Table of Contents ]

III. Against Narrative

The Letter (Not the Phone Call)

Dear Applicant:

We have, just recently,
Completed our review of all the files
Of all the applicants for our position —
Excellent, all of them, quite wonderful,
Exceeding all our wildest expectations —
Amazingly well pedigreed and published —
I'd almost say, they'd put us quite to shame,
So much more they've accomplished in their years
Than we in our long decades after tenure —
But still, in fairness, we have done our share
Of toil, and won some notice, be it small —
At any rate, we were embarrassed rich;
And we have made our choices, sifting down
From great to greatest, and from greatest, best,
Have interviewed, and scrutinized, and scoped,
Debated, discoursed, dwellt, disputed, dreamt,
Turning the leaves of CVs night and day
As poets should, says Horace, read the Greeks —
And sometimes, we have felt the seismic tremor
Of enmity and departmental rift,
Potentially irreparable splits
Among us in our passionate pursuits
Of what each thought the highest good for all,
The future of our students and our school,
Long after every last of us retired —
Such squalls — a dreadful fate! — for I have heard
Of factions bringing down the whole, who durst
Defy civility and common sense —
Intestine broils and madness, ceaseless strife,
Ignorant armies clashing — I speak now
Of other institutions, not of ours,
Where peace, thank heavens, reigns — long may it reign! —
And so, as cooler tempers, after drinks,
And conversation, and distracting jokes,
Prevailed, we made our choices, invitations,
Took votes, and thought, and fought some more, and laughed
And cried, and, finally, consensus dawned
Like the warm morning after grades are due
In May, filling our nostrils with the breeze
Of freedom, as one lets oneself forget
How soon September follows with its chains —
Consensus came, and we could make an offer —
And so, dear applicant ... Dear applicant,
You know that we have given your submissions
More than their due, have read — nay, relished — pored
Upon your every syllable, have slept
Upon your CV, dallied with your dossier,
Savored your writing sample, taken notes,
Nay, memorized it all, rehearsed each word —
But applicant, you know that, after all,
This is a letter, not a call or fax.
You know full well the purpose of this letter,
So why compel us now to spell it out?
Look, applicant, I know what this is like,
I've been there, too, I feel your smarts, I know,
I was the man, once, I was there, and now
My students all are facing letters like this —
Believe me, applicant! — or ten times worse! —
Be glad that we are going on so long
About it. We could just as well insult you,
And tell you how inferior you are,
Or simply tell you nothing — would you like that?
So be a Stoic and accept your fate,
Without requiring us to say the words
That hurt us more to say than you to hear —
It's my cruel fate to have to write this letter! —
Besides, you know, you're lucky not to come here —
You'd hate it here — the students range from dumb
To clueless, and the faculty, old farts,
A hopeless bunch, the salaries pathetic,
The campus is a dump, the library
A mess, the courseload high, and travel grants? —
You must be joking! — let alone time off
For research! — that was cut off years ago.
And now professors take out their own garbage.
Personally, I can't wait to retire.
So just be glad, my friend, and count your blessings.
I'm sure, with all your excellent credentials,
You'll do much better than to waste your talents
On this place, and you'll be much happier.
In any case, we shall retain your files,
In case another opening develops
For which you are well qualified — but really,
Don't count on it, don't hold your breath. Good luck
In your pursuit of what will clearly be
A splendid, great career — and let me thank you
For showing interest in our department.
We're sure our paths will cross again, and, meanwhile,
We wish you, in your search, the very best.

Remaining very truly yours,

The Chair.

[ Table of Contents ]

Reading Antiquities

Nath'les my Lute, whom Phoebus deignd to giue,
Cease not to sound these olde antiquities ...
— Edmund Spenser, Ruines of Rome: by Bellay

... To compound the imagination's Latin with
The lingua franca et jocundissima.
— Wallace Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"

Come look into the past with me. My soul
Is clearer than the window of a boat
Glass-bottomed, showing velvet weeds afloat
Among the coral, fish of flickering gold,
And urchins gently waving sapphire fronds.
Then see, deep below, how everywhere spreads
The coal-black floor, where an old creature treads
Darkly, and to our view, it seems, responds.
On deck we sit, playing guitars. O friend,
These songs are all that we can leave the world
To follow us. See how the shimmering
Sea's surface in forgetful peace pretends
It was not yesterday embattled, whirled
In storm. Now seeing clearly, let us sing.

No longer, as of old, might one, divine,
Translated to the overcrowded skies,
Be thought to dwell with stars, and cast cool eyes
Downward to us between long sips of wine
Or nectar; now, you can, yourself, come walk
With me to hear a string quartet pour forth
Its shared soul in the street, and further north,
By park fields, see a clown, whose purple sock
Pops his big toe out; and while the sun sets,
Then, let me take you high up on a roof,
To someone else's garden, where we'll see
This glittering city and its river run
Dark, and think how the astronauts aloof
Must often hunger for this earth and sea.
Where is the Latin of the mind, or fled
Whither, O Wallace? In my dreams I hear
Sometimes a voice address me, almost clear
To sight, in classic rhythms lately read
Before sleep; and in morning I tie on
My running shoes, ready to measure out
In time to smooth hexameters the route
Of search, my private sidewalk marathon
Accompanied by lines of ghosts. Beyond
The bridge, an ancient lady calls to me —
I barely hear her — "Could you help me cross
The street?" Her brittle hair is dust, once blond,
Her cheeks and shoulders sag, and I still see
Her pearls and withered dress, the green of moss.

This wondrous singing engine, intricate,
Which generations have contrived to last
Through fire and storm, wars raging and wars past,
Heard far and wide, yet tender, intimate;
Whose fourteen strings, tuned taut with jewelled keys,
Once charmed old ghosts to rise and chant anew;
Now seldom plays where knowing hands pursue,
But bears mute spiders stringing tapestries.
Then turn, O Muse! Tune this machine of words
For harmonies not yet heard; where greyness looms,
Unleash new sparkle through time's dark expanse;
And free these chords to summon hitherwards
Old singing sparks from monumental tombs
To school a dull, prosaic world to dance.

The lovely but demented Fates still sit,
Spinning their flimsy and haphazard threads
For you and me, bobbing their dizzy heads
To the spindle's low drone, cackling a fit
Of chatter, though they hear nothing they say.
I've met them. They are dull. Oh, do not weave
Their twine to clothe your tender body. Leave
Them, though they call so shrill. Away, away!
Up the creaking stairs! In the attic, find
That robe of fabric of a texture past
Description. Slip it on. Before the fire
Flickering it will make your body shine
Barer than nakedness. It will not last
Forever, but as long as you admire.

Come join me for a mug of wine aloft
In my old treehouse, where we might repair
Among that crowd of ghosts with which the air
Of evening populates my cell — warm, soft,
And rotting with age. There, my Horace, high
Up there, embraced in oak, with ivy twined
To cover, we shall hear the spirits, wined
And warmed about the hearth, deftly apply
Transparent fingers to the harp, and tell
Their long-remembered songs to patient ears.
And you will sing the best, and hear me play
One more, and last, before some woodman fell
With avid axe our gnarled support, in years
Half-dead. Come, while long shadows yet delay.

When someday in your hand this yellowed leaf
You might hold up to view by a soft lamp,
Minding the past, imagining its damp
Green life, perhaps you'll see, in small relief,
The tiny tracks a winding creature scratched
Into its growing flesh, and trace its course
Across the veins, here pausing in remorse
For its destructions, here sleeping attached
In dreams of spring; and how it must have sought
By twisting paths its proper place of fixed
Repose, haunted by strangenesses of clime
On every side, spun in its business, caught
Up in a vortex, grown dizzy, perplexed:
All this might you read in a calmer time.

These violets we tend on windowsills
May not all live: some wither in the heat
Of sunrise, others soundless mites will eat
Like cancer, and others spiteless time kills.
Out the window, past town, on a green slope,
I see, or wish I saw, lone on a farm,
One lad winnowing grain, a golden swarm
Of chaff his halo — or is it a rope
Of laundry, hung with billowing white sheets
And yellow shirts, in some suburban yard
With mowed lawns? Far off, on the steel blue-grey
Horizon, as the early sunset cheats
My keener view, I wonder at the hard
City, lighting up to the failing day.

[ Table of Contents ]

The Story

I will tell no story,
I will string no tale.
What words would you give me
If you were to tell?

How my father robbed me
Of my birthday song.
Now my words are shadows
Darkening where they ring;

Rings on a pond's surface
Rippling in the dark
Indigo reflecting
Flocks in arrows forked;

All my words are shadows
Now, where a song rang
Like those flocks — fled, leaving
Chills with fragrance hung

Of the drifting autumn
And the ripening sod:
Far away their cooings
In the breezes fade.

Far away the breezes,
Far away the drift
Of flocks, and words, and shadows
Echoing the theft.

Will you tell no story?
Can you tell no tale?
I'll tell where I stumbled,
Show you where I fell

The day after my birthday,
Limping on the path
Between the woods and river
Where the water's smooth,

But I will tell no story,
Neither sting nor wrath:
Nothing but the current
Slowly oozing forth

Of a stream, long hindered
And dammed with piled-up stones
But shifting under beeches
And elms and splintered suns;

And I will make you follow
Where at noon a glade
Discloses songbirds chattering
In red and green and gold.

This is not a story,
This is not a tale:
A surging toward the rapids,
A pulsing of the will.

[ Table of Contents ]

Poetry as Shaggy Dog Story

The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.
— Wallace Stevens, "The Auroras of Autumn"


The scholar at his screen
Strains in the silent night
For novel strains to indite,
Like lightning, but unseen.

He shrinks into a book
By a master poet, thrills,
And soon those swallow's trills
Engulf the scholar's look —

As if that long-dead bard
In the dim room projected
Lush images inflected
With rose and spikenard.

This time the show refracts
An art historian's stroll
In a museum, her goal
Some lapse of stories, facts.

She finds between tableaux
A window to the west
And sees the sun's red rest
Whence evening music grows

Of flute and tambourine;
She sees a mystic priest
With throng to celebrate
Odes for the festive scene.

They sing of loves both new
And old, as if one's dear
Were a garden, walled with drear
Stones and moss and rue,

Where sculpted figures spake
With names like Dame Nature
And Reason, and demure
Love, like a dashing rake,

Who sang, himself, a tale
About the Cyclops' woes
And single tears, in throes
Of hapless love for a pale

Nymph — but the Cyclops, too,
Could sing, and with his bald
Tenor, his harp recalled
Orpheus, his teacher, who

Once gathered at his feet
Wild beasts, charmed by his tones,
And made the trees and stones
Rock to his mystic beat,

Until, with frenzied look,
The Bacchic women tore
Him limb from cracked limb's gore,
Like yellowed leaves from a book.


The scholar blinks at a blank computer screen,
And feels afraid. He flinches, rises, grabs
A book. The dry leaves flip like second-hands.
A poet rises from the page aglow,
A many-filamented ghost of whispers,
Disclosing pictures with a magic lantern,
A many-wended mountebank long hoarse,
Filling the night with tales and tambourines.
His show projects a woman in a gallery,
Among some canvases, pausing to read
A life beyond her own in those red flecks
And blue-green ridges, swirls of lavender.
Strange prophetess, this heroine of his show —
For she is searching for the end of tales.

Between the canvases, she finds a window
The shape of canvas, where a garden scene
Has flocks of geese circling a pale gold disk
That nearly touches myrtle-leaves, and music
Of flute accords with jangling tambourine.
A priest looms up, followed by pious folk
And heifer garlanded, and silence reigns —
She notes a greenish altar, which a chorus
Straightway surrounds and chants a decorous ode.
They hymn love for a rider all in green
Before whose hunt for deer their heart fell dead;
They sing of love surrounded as a rose,
Walled in a ring of hieroglyphic statues
Breached by a gate which Reason and Nature arched.

Dame Nature and Dame Reason brandished swords
Aflame to guard the bower, while Lord Love
Doodled a little melody on his fife
And to a hapless lover sings of oafs
In love with milk-white nymphs. But Polyphemus
Was not unschooled in harp or honeyed twang —
He sang his father's fall, from dawn to noon
And dewy eve; he sang his teacher's trills,
Of Orpheus, how he charmed the wild beasts
To sit and listen at his feet, while trees
Would rock their tops to mark the lasting beat.
So sang he, as the Cyclops told, as piped
Lord Love, while Reason and Nature watched, as told
The chorus, heard through a window a museum-

Goer peered into, who, herself, appeared
An image in the magic-lantern show
The poet shone, who, flickering like a ghost,
Flared up from the book the scholar took for refuge.
But what did Orpheus sing to charm that glade?
What glamor or what gall gladdened the host
And made them like a painting of a ring
Of peasants rushing in a country dance,
Or like the rush of Bacchus and his train,
Face up and ivy trails strewing abandon,
Like strewings of old pages from a tome
In tatters, crackling yellow, on their way
To dust, and piling in their crazy random
An end to tales and tambourines and time?


Scholar, poet-ghost,
Magic-lantern show,
Woman in museum,
Paintings and window,

Sunset and a priest,
Chorus and some odes,
Lover all in green,
Garden all enclosed,

Mr. Love who sings
Of Polyphemus, who
Sings a little, too,
Of Orpheus and things

That stood still at his song,
Ecstatic, like a dance
Of Bacchus in a trance,
Scattering leaves along,

Leaves yellow and greyed,
Dried and crisp and cracked
Out of a book, long since
Lost, torn, frayed.

[ Table of Contents ]

Against Narrative

You must not want to know what happens next,
And never want to find out how it ends.
The fates of narrative are always hexed.

Beginning is all promise. It pretends
The ending doesn't end in disappointment.
Why see the world's face warped through a fish-eye lens?

Stories provide an analgesic ointment
To make all pains seem all alike and dull.
As if the poignant point of life, the point, meant

Nothing — as if one's life were not a hull
Adrift without direction, where the pull
Of currents, shifting winds, conspire to lull

You toward a storm darkening that sea so full
Of faith — it draws and tugs you, helpless fool —
And yet you crave dark knowledge of where you'll

End, the whirling eddy, tunnelled pool;
No, do not tell that story. It depends
Too much on endings. Student, come to school

In storylessness, come to the deep ends
Of lines, and drifts, the nowhere nothing lends.

[ Table of Contents ]


He sat up by the lamplight, still,
Reading a book of history,
Hunched over the pages, late,
Of ruin, rage, and tragedy —

Confusion, strife, and misery,
Defeat, error, catastrophe —
He read until his temples throbbed
And thrummed a drumbeat in his ears.

The lines of print were layers of pain,
Bodies crushed in crusts of age;
The lines began to swarm and swim:
Wan, hunger-twisted limbs revolved.

They stood, and drifted, oozed in floes;
Their letters flew in feathered loops:
Not all the tomes of history
Could tell such choreography.

The letters flew right off the page,
Dizzying him with their temps-levés,
Balancés and renversés
He capered in their midst the while.

History and vanity,
Victory and misery,
Thrum-tee-tum, he danced the wee
Hours of morning in a trance,

And when at dawn the sun appeared,
It knelt before that master's feet,
And learned before his drumming toes
Why its own round brilliance rose.

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An Injured Man with Bradford Pears in March

The Bradford pears fringing the city street,
Loveliest of trees, hung blooms in their shy way,
Dangling the sweaty scents of longing, play,
Desire, intoxicating, acrid-sweet,
A smell that he remembered, incomplete-
Ly, his nose dulled, the damaged nerves' decay
Snowing him in with loss, as if to say
Spring never comes to you that comes to greet
Most. Yet the next week's sleet snuffed out those flecks
Of lust, leaving the trees in a bare pall,
While he retired to dreams to find the smell
And luster of spring, its radiant flare, its call,
Bright music, when soft voices die, the sex
Of trees sprouting timidly in sleep's swell.

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Wishing You Were Somebody Else

Haphazard as bureaucracy
The self gets set — assigned —
And then you're what you'll always be —
Never what you'd have planned —

To look upon yourself — and cry —
And curse your fate — is vain —
And yet — how can you not? It's in
Your genes to bitch and moan.

You could have been somebody else —
Blond — buff — well-tanned — and tall —
Celebrity — the trips — the yacht —
The penthouse with a pool —

Somebody everybody loves —
Innocent — affable —
Polite, well-mannered, and sincere —
In bed — a raging bull —

Or the female equivalent —
Svelte, famous, unassuming —
A winning smile — a brilliant book —
A marathon won — hair gleaming —

In short, you wish you were someone
Who had no problems. None.
Someone who rode the surf of life
Without once falling down

To feel those cold, wet, giant hands
Slap you in punishment
And toss you in vindictive glee —
And relish your salt end —

It is because you are just you
That the tornado tore
Your roof off — stole your manuscript
Of years — the neighbors — spared —

To you diseases must befall —
Slow nurses — needles — drugs —
Others will worry — cheer you — watch —
Then go home — on two legs —

Oh, to be someone somewhere else
Than in the driver's seat
When the truck struck — the airbags failed —
Three passengers — out late —

And not a sound of breath but yours
In the imploded car
Alone but for the drip — of red —
And screaming thoughts — like fire —

The silent sessions of self-blame —
Why did you not see
It coming? — Swerve? — Your clumsiness
Has brought you this dark day —

That used to keep you saved for last
When captains called each name
At recess — put you far afield —
Where you'd least harm your team —

Because you could not move your arms
Or legs or hands or eyes
When it was time, because you were
Condemned to cast your gaze

Elsewhere — upon what you were not —
Some other somebody —
Somebody with no problems — perfect —
Light in his victory —

And jeering at you in your grief,
Your dusty face hot, pulsing
With just one wish — to disappear —
Your senses numb — dark closing —

And in that silence in the mind
There'd be no fumbled ball,
But the mere being somewhere else —
Somebody else — a will

To be not there — forever move
From one self to another —
As, from an airplane, towns appear
Fleeing — forever — further —

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The Suburb of Hackensack

I will go rent a U-Haul, and move to Hackensack,
And a cheap condo buy there, the driveway freshly tarred,
Hard by the Jersey Turnpike, a swingset in the back,
And fire my grill in the truck-loud yard.

And I shall drive my car there, alone in my car I'll go,
Bumper to bumper creeping towards the discount malls,
TV will fill my evenings, the blue, flickering glow,
And days, talk-radio's raucous calls.

I will move out to Jersey — low taxes there, I hear —
A burglar alarm I'll get me, to guard the place I own,
The hum of trucks will lull me, and fill my sentinel ear
With braking squeal and gear-shift's groan.

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It Must Be Butch

Poetry, Madame, is a thing for men.
Thus: hunting, fishing, baseball, poetry —
No frilly matter like ... I know not what —
Like lace? I'd know if I took time to think,
But studied metaphors I leave for ladies.
The poet chews tobacco, spits it out
Onto the page, and that is poetry —
A serious business, not for fluffy minds,
And real — nothing pretended, feigned, put on.
It is the man in his full nakedness,
Cussing a prayer for his own deliverance,
Honing his craft, a real man, wielding words
Sharpened to cut the throat of a wild boar.
He talks of it in stories endlessly:
first cigarette, first blood, first kiss. He dares
To wrestle out the truth from words on paper,
The bristling darkness only poets know.
It is in poetry that the poet feels
Most like himself, as, in the woods, alone,
Grasping his hard weapon for dear life,
He matches forces with the wilderness
And finds, in fight, his own animal heart —
Unspeakable, when, safely home, he tells
The tale to fellow poets over beer.
The poet thrills to ride the dangerous rapids
To mountains where strange, lawless men obey
Only their savage lust, unless the poet
Dispatch them with the arrow of his art,
Before they kneel him down in the cold dirt ...
I see that you find something here amusing.
It's poetry. You wouldn't understand.

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Epistle of Mrs. Frances Burney to Dr. Samuel Johnson Regarding the Most Unfortunate Mr. C______ S_______.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

Patience, first, I pray,
As my unruly Fancy runs astray
So far as to attempt a Verse or two —
Something my feeble Wit can scarcely do —
Indulge this Lady Scribbler of Prose
To correspond in verse — though well she knows

What you already think of Ladies preaching —
Like dancing Dogs, their canine Kens o'erreaching —
We marvel not how well, but that they can,
You say, do aught at all that doth a Man.
I just return'd from poor, dear Mr. Smart,
Bearing a Burden heavy on my Heart
That Verse than Prose might better chance to lift.
I find, moreover, that the Visit's Drift
Of Conversation now inspires a Muse
In me, whose Strains I durst not straight refuse,
Though she might better rest restrain'd and mute
Than suffer me to trammel her Repute.
Dear Sir! The View of this ingenious Wight
Made wretched Fortune's Victim as for Spite —
'Twas most affecting! Yea, I knew the sad
Rumor that Mr. Smart was lately mad,
But I had not made ready to regard
The face of Genius so by Furies scarr'd.
His manner was now grave, now almost wild,
As if prophetick Rage his Sense despoil'd.
He would not long with any Subject stay,
But interrupt his Discourse oft to pray,
In Terms so learned and sublime, they led
Where Logick follow'd not, nor would my Head.
Intent, he hied, as, to a Race devote,
Swift Runners disappear in Paths remote.
'Twas tiring to this feeble Auditor,
I own — my Eyes did stray toward the Door.
We talk'd but half an Hour, before, o'ercome,
I fain would leave, full weary and quite dumb.
The worst was, whilst he hath been thus confin'd,
Dire Poverty hath with his suff'rings join'd.
To think, he was constrain'd to beg this Ninny
To bid my Father lend him but a Guinea! —
This Mr. Smart, who lately had won Fame
From out the hands of miserly acclaim,
Whilst even Poets, jealous, hard to please,
Admitted, privily, that, when at Ease,
They pass'd their Hours in reading o'er his Lines,
Hoping to steal some elegant Designs!
So, likewise, Sir, if you should think of aught
That one might do to help this poor Distraught,
Do tell it me, and if, perchance, you can,
Do what you might for this good, wretched Man!

Whilst I was there, he read to me aloud
From some new Verses, seeming almost proud
In Fancy's quaint and busy Wandering —
He seem'd, for Moments, to begin to sing.
They sounded strange to my too simple Wit,
'Twixt Reason and enthusiastick Fit,
Hallow'd with Cadences of Psalmistry,
With classick and new-found Sublimity —
And, most surprising for the Theme he sounded:
His Cat-Companion, Jeoffry, who had bounded
Sleekly into the Chamber just before,
Purring as loudly as a Drunk might snore,
And, as to take what Honors were new scrawl'd,
Close by his Master's feet in Langour sprawl'd —
A meagre Fellow, not in perfect Bloom,
Yet bearing some bright Spirit into the Gloom.
Still, I these curious Verses much admir'd,
And came away, though sad, perhaps inspir'd.
These Lines were but a Portion of his Work,
Praising all Things that fly or creep or lurk.
His Verse is wrought with wondrous strange Conceit,
Most learned, with Allusions quite replete —
He English'd several Sentences in Greek,
Latin, and Hebrew, for his List'ner meek —
And though forgetting most, I caught, good Sir,
Some Praises for Yourself and then — a Bur!
Devis'd of an Imagination wild,
These antick Lines belied their Author mild.

If I may be so bold, it seems the Task
May lie beyond what God of Men would ask,
To make fit Verse to magnify His Throne,
And such high Matter sing in blameless Tone:
The more, bending to hard perfection's Toil,
We strive for Truth, the more appeareth Guile;
'Tis vain to hope mere Verse God's Truth might bear,
Since Musick's Nature doth beguile the Ear.
Thus Mortals' Figures oft to Falsehood tend,
Whilst Notes divine we cannot comprehend.
I wonder, might our Poet's long Pursuit
To press in Service to the Absolute
The wanton Words of Art have tir'd his Sense,
And tried his Faith without Faith's recompense?
Alas, God's faithful Bard is thus dismay'd,
The Muse's Lover by the Muse betray'd!

No more! I wander where I durst not tread,
And warn my Fancy not to scape my Head.
Meanwhile, I hope, with all my silly Heart,
His latest Work will comfort Mr. Smart.
God willing, all his Exercise of Mind,
At least, will let him straight his Senses find;
And whilst he praiseth creatures high and low,
May God His peace on this his humble Child bestow!

[Ed.: desunt nonnulli versus.]

As I from out that dismal House withdrew,
Through Tears, I saw, in Front, a gnarled Yew,
Beneath which, in a sweet, angelick Voice,
A Boy sang out a Strain, and sang it twice.
I conn'd the novel Air as best I could;
It clos'd the Scene, as I, sole Audience, stood.
Its melancholy Conceit seem'd strangely fit —
Unwitting Sense each Sentence could admit;
To homely Words mere Hap its Genius lent,
And made weak Memory strong — for thus it went: —

Come Darkness, come! My Love is gone,
And Days have lost their Light;
The Sun doth mourn his life alone,
And weary worn hath hardly shone,
Since fled was all Delight.

Come Darkness, that of Love alone
My dreams might fill the Night;
Asleep, I'll gaze upon the one
Who once my Days did shine upon,
And dwell upon that Sight.

It seem'd a happy Chance, as I dare say,
The Song should treat of Dreams, Sight, Night, and Day,
As if to give a Gloss, the House without,
For inward Poetry, Madness, Faith and Doubt;
Behold a Figure for God's hidden Light
That most appeareth when 'tis out of Sight:
Poetick prayer, as you, dear Poet, know,
Can shine but darkly back God's obscure Glow;
Yet Poetry may spark the Soul's desire
To build — or con — or mock — God's brighter Fire. —
Belike such thoughts drove not my Singer sweet,
Who pass'd the Time 'til Latin Hour should meet.
He seem'd a likely Student of our Friend,
Whom e'en in Madness studious Youths attend.

Again, dear Friend, forgive my artless Script,
My pen too oft in Dullness' Inkwell dipt.
Should you, perchance, find Time to pay a Call
To Mr. Smart, 'twould lift his Spirits withal.
If so, I send you Godspeed on your Journey —

Your humble Servant,

Frances Burney.

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Enters a voice, steps, leaping from stage right,
And, turning, center stage, becomes a world;
Enters another, left, and as one whirled,
This other turns, and rounds the other tight;
Now partners, lightly touching in the light,
Each learns the other's part, each part is curled
Tenderly new round each; the plot, unfurled,
Surprises each, a play of glances bright;
For while they play, one in another's lift,
Their stage moves, too, and angles their arrays,
Changing the voices' facing with each shift:
All moves and nothing stays, yet love still stays;
And out of love, you made this play, this gift,
That fills the ear with wonder, thanks, and praise.

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To The New Citizens of the United States of America

Wandering on foot, at first, across land iced,
Bleak in a winter endless, night and day,
Or current-swept in fishing boats, enticed
Eastwards of the Pacific to fish, and stay;

Or later, blown by winds of restlessness
Westward from Iceland, Italy, and Spain,
And then from England, seeking God's redress,
And then, from Africa, in yoke and chain,

Layer by layer, we, Americans,
From Europe, Asia, Africa, and more,
From parts of this New World, renewed again,

Became what you, arrivals, will, with pain
And grace, become for others — hold the door,
And welcome, free, the many from their lands.

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A Generation

My child, I often long to speak with you,
Still in your womb, ears to the water.
I dream of breathing soft words on your skin,
Wrinkled with wet and red in the darkness.
I know you are a sailor, proud and wave-wise,
You who have tested all salty quarters
Round your globe: not guided by stars or maps,
Pressing your way by sound and touch,
You hear the low hear's lap, the breathing whirlwind,
Gurgling rivers and cave-ringing voices.
How brave you are to navigate that pitch-sea!
Steering your body, sure in your heart,
You take your bearings from the rosy twilight,
Resting for moments, now heaving onward.
Soon setting sail, you'll cut your final trip,
Beaching for good on this bone-dry strand.
What feast can I prepare to welcome you,
Stark on the shore beneath the white sun?
What party, bringing towels and warming blankets,
Clothing your shoulders, will carry you up
And seat you at the head of our high table,
Set on the sand-rippled plain? And what odes
To sing, to celebrate so bold a captain
Voyaging far to have sight of our land?
My child, while still you ride the waves in darkness,
Take me on board with you, there, as a guest,
And ferry me across that briney pool
Known to me once, when sail, keel, and sound
Were mine. And as you bear me through that old sea,
Help me to find the secret wet ways
Forgotten. You who drift so close to sunrise,
Show me the wash of the whispering dawn.

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Where hands have worked the barren clay,
They hold crisp shapes of life full grown.
A block of sullen white once lay
Where hands have worked the barren clay.
It loomed like cold and lifeless stone
That now has bloomed into the day.
Where hands have worked the barren clay,
They hold crisp shapes of life full grown.

Green buds wake, barely seen, in May,
When northward flocks have not yet flown;
Shy branch and twig, coy with delay,
Too slow for sight, don spring's array;
But under eye and thumb, wet clay
Stretches and spreads its pliant zone,
Inviting hands, like gods, to play,
And, in their sport, make green of grey.

Children delight in grasping clay
And crafting creatures of their own,
Leaving their herds to graze all day,
So soft, slick flesh will dry to bone.
So their original, once, they say,
Was formed by hands and breath alone,
And knew no sense for "to obey,"
But tasted, learning to atone.

These naked forms of drying clay
Must bear new colors and fresh tone.
First bake them firm to stand alone;
Then brush dark poisons, paint or spray.
The kiln glows; melts the testing cone;
Hot glaze runs; cools. Now shelves display
In green, maize, grape, café-au-lait,
A fruit whose seed was never sown.

All fruit and green things grow in clay
Wherewith our hunger we allay,
Sprouting from kernels dropped or blown
Or planted on a sweat-soaked day.
Come spring, no hand such colors gay
Could paint, but copy, take on loan.
Where hands have worked the barren clay,
They hold crisp shapes of life full grown.

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Index of Titles

Index of First Lines