This year began by continuing last year's habit of posting poetry I was not sure was quite finished. This did help me stay engaged with older and newer work throughout the year: the act of posting something on this page acts as a kind of publication, even if I am its primary (and occasional) reader. I am indebted here to the point someone made about how quickly publication happened for the Russian modernists -- before the Revolution, konechno -- who would finish a nice little collection of verse, bring it to the editor or simply arrange to publish it themselves, and feel immediately as if they could move on to some other concern or knot of concerns. I wish I remembered who wrote this, but I don't work on Blok much, I just read him.
At times, the growing habit of posting things in progress has made me reluctant to play around even when I was still paddling in the rough draft in my journal -- that thought of "publication" in the etymological sense spurring the editorial impulse before there was anything there to edit. And, of course, not being on leave leaves so little time.
The great thing about all this work
(all these works and words) is the definition
it builds, the confidence in muscle memory
wrested from focused discipline,
the precise contour of the previous move,
and that move before it, the success-
ful pirouette, the weightless double flip
and landing on the toes, arms grandly flung
into the sky. The great thing is knowing
even with my eyes closed exactly where
I can find each piece of the apparatus,
and that it can securely hold my weight.
When youíre sure, you can be patient, and
if I hesitate a moment now,
itís because I know I can.
Iíve never shrunk from the memento mori
or hoarded lock. Iíve kissed the forehead
of a chill friend, and though I never bought
one of those laughing skulls, its message
rings through me all the same: live each day
as if it were the last. Joyful and free --
what weight can drag me if death canít?
Though I see I am just making the best of a life
thatís shapeless till itís ended. The animal
in us evolved too far, conceiving of perfection,
of how things could be, ought to be for us.
Wherever and whenever that thought hits,
grief grabs my throat and crushes out
a shaken breath, sudden tears. Who cares
what epilogues one might imagine, or what
might come after? How could all this lively
joy mean anything within that frame of cold,
the aching emptiness once it is over.
Divine conception is such a capricious thing,
gestation in a trunk at the foot of the bed
or cradled in the muscles of the thigh. But this
is the most abstract and fleshless: you
swallowed whole the idea, gave birth to that
same idea. It broke straight from your noble brow.
A deity who springs forth fully-grown, bearing
all the armaments of custom and language,
is terrifying to imagine, never mind
to face here in this sudden state,
this new incarnation in the midst of life.
They stand well-armed, with sword and shield
and helm in lulling plumes, suspicious,
ready to fight you, eager to deny
the scar that links you, as it starts to fade.
This is as bad as Russia, for Godís sake!
Thick woolen layers, too many trips
to work in the same coarse boots, arms so thick
from sleeve and sleeve and sleeve and glove
that they barely bend, fingers insisting
on all those various moments of pain before
they finally submit to numbness. I used
to know what ďchilblainĒ meant only in
the stories my mother told, brought from
a land without central heating. All the joints
I had carefully stretched grow tight and resist;
my posture evolves into a turtle-pose, pulled
into a hard dark shell, hunched against
bitter persistent cold. Each day only repeats
and ices over the previous dayís despairing habits.
Thick as a sidewalkís striations of mud
and trampled snow, a fixed inflexible
mockery of lightness, and mock-frost
of industrial salt marring the car. I wish
I had chosen Italian, back in the days
of infinite possibility! All the colors
are packed into a single straw brown,
dead grass in Colorado, frozen earth.
How can one imagine casting shoulders back,
or atmosphere against the collarbone, or
the swish of silk against unshrinking skin?
The continent of the shin, lost somewhere
behind an iron curtain of fabric, and only
surviving as a rumor from ancient mapmakers,
something in a Bohemian legend.
The turtle jewel-box hides so many secrets
within, so many sediments compressed.
Perhaps someday willing to revive, if just given
an adequate dose of spring -- that Sun god
my old friend MŁller reads into every tale.
You see what happens when the rain canít rain?
When theyíve taken its land away.
Meaningless moisture adrift in space,
how can it coalesce into lasting pearls,
into crashing pealsÖ But what a tempest
will be, once I return to that country
and unleash it: what a tantrum,
what a tropical storm!
For now -- stocking up
behind the dam.
Thatís what I say:
The year has a Platonic shape
with as many and regular units of length
as we choose to measure and subdivide.
There are the crystalline angles of solstice,
the smooth facets of equinox, the tongueís
tick (tsk!) of old names in the cross
quarters. No matter what you were hoping,
it will take six more weeks. No matter
what I wanted to say, if you wait a bit
it will all be dead leaves under snow.
Why is the ninth month called the seventh,
why does the eighth month name the tenth?
Longing naturally lengthens -- weíre a mere
clockwork sphere spinning in space,
spilling degrees in slivers. To say nothing
of slowing blood, graying plaits, wrinkles
that bloom beside the eyes, vision that fades.
Just in passing time grinds possibility
as emery paper can: first it smoothes
away blemishes, then it erases features.
Perhaps the same season will return
a year from now, around the same
spiraling curve. Or I ought to be
quicker to catch the red message
of the yearís eight-sided sign.
You have to plan the day before, you canít
just sink into sweet sleep and expect
that everything will be fine: the yeast
must be fresh, and the wheat -- I know
the names of the stones that grind it.
You must wake early and willing to shape
each hour to the laws of the bowl and oven:
heat water, mix, pour flour and knead,
cover with a damp cotton cloth to rise.
Thereís a time for leaving well enough alone
and a time for the interrogative punch, time
for gentle pressure and then for three scores
of the carving knife. And itís this recurring
care sets it to bake in the proper shape,
that releases the sweet aroma, swells to fill
the whole house. Iíve heard people say
that working in a bakery you lose your taste
for that whiff, your start to doubt your appetite
for the eternal staple.
give us each day.
In my dream I searched the whole B concourse.
I avoided the escalators and the moving floors, I half ran
between the ordinary mortals walking at their slow pace,
I dodged in and out with the skirts of my long coat flying.
Everyone I asked in my broken German pointed
confidently in a different direction. You know
how the landmarks start to blur? Voices echoed
from the speakers but never called my name. At last
a sympathetic young man told me that international
flights always depart from the A concourse,
so I fled by back paths, passport in hand, past
walls of mirror and glass. I found five after all.
There they said gravely that they were sorry,
my flight had been moved to Omega.
I wish Iíd known you all my life: your high ceilings,
your marvelous reach, even the scars on your wall
and how you change from rain to sun. This earth
makes you a grimy mirror, the muddy sidewalks,
the puddles of dark water -- sharp tree branches
against a white sky, the occasional raindrop
a few degrees above zero (Celcius), ranks of wire,
massed human bodies on the stairs, dodging
hurried pedestrians, cars, the rattle of trams.
I looked from the top floor out across
the frozen river, and pondered the dim aches
of beauty that one cannot reach, visible
at a great distance, hidden if one draws close
by ranges of architectural obstacles
like the furthest height of mountains,
still pale blue and snow white in summer.
I am iced over, sleepy, wandering
through winter, holding each day
in a pinch, poised and unexpressed.
I am the Queen of Spain,
but living here incognita: no one
would know me unless they knew:
the signs are all in an arcane code.
I have the patience that befits
nobility, graciousness to those
who ask my aid: I gladly condescend
to intercede, for I have friends
in the highest places. I am
waiting for them to come for me.
Of course theyíll come: they know,
they havenít forgotten that I am here,
whiling my time, knitting with thinning
fingers. Though they instructed me not
to write, counting on my discipline,
they asked me not to call. At times
it hurts, but I donít fret. In the end,
you see, thereíll be so little of me left
that Iíll slip back into the palace unseen
as a slender strip of words, no shadow,
nothing there to detect: just
corpuscles shuffling along translucent
veins, just a hallucinated pitch,
a brief penultimate breath.
That tone from such a distance.
I part my clenching hands
to optimize the acoustics, make
myself a receptive instrument:
can science amplify a hallucination?
There must be ways to trace data
no matter how spent the cells --
I linger in that nave, pretending to care-
free idleness, body an eager antenna
hunching into shell-shape
and slow with its shushing blood.
Though I know there will be
no signal today: I am still
preoccupied, caught up within
a hundred tasks, the wallpaper hive
of inattentive organization.
Vocation might as well be on
vacation. But even so I keep
alert for the calling card, that preset
melody or insistent vibration, all physical
impossibility. I tune entirely
to a once-familiar frequency. It comes
to seem in this sounding dream
that it may listen reciprocally.
I pass slow stages between what was
and what might become, frustrated
more by the slow grade than by danger,
I step with the requisite care.
Did you read about that winner
of the Darwin Award who took a missile,
strapped it to the roof of his car, drove off,
and was found, or maybe I should say "detected,"
spread through the thin layer of metal
that had plated the other side of the canyon
just beneath its lip? He died thin as a page.
If I had that choice, Iíd have been tempted:
stupid death, but fast and spectacular!
Instead I'm treading trestles.
Something -- wind, a stream -- rushes
invisibly below. Space glowers between
the ties, the swaying must be preemptive,
wood giving so it wonít snap.
And if the train comes, Iíve got the moves --
Iíve watched enough adventure flicks
to know so many ways of dying well,
once youíve, I mean once Iíve, gambled and lost.
And if I fall, I have my theory ready:
not for nothing have I been forced to patience.
Iíll do it by half and by half -- back off, back off! --
and approach impact in a dampening curve,
philosophy being the payoff for math class.
Iíll think myself into invisibility --
my bones will hit those rocks before my skin.
Just say the magic word:
it's what the grown-ups
are hovering to witness.
You'll get everything
you ever or always wanted,
you'll get to go back
(as one never gets to go!)
and fit beneath the table.
If they seem to be frustrating
you with their waiting
and offering no hints,
that's because it counts
for much more if you guess
by yourself, if you perceive
just what they want to hear.
If you dimple up just right
with that magic word,
if you choose the perfect language.
Keep on trying dear --
they have infinite patience,
but you mustn't count on that.
Have you thought recently
of trying Please?
I should get off the wheel:
I can tell itís going nowhere,
but I love the flash and rattle,
the way my claws engage the wires.
Such a sense of speed and progress,
such a rush and such a race!
Of course I have a life
aside from the excitement,
Iíll get off, Iíll alight
but first Iíll run just one more time.
Just one more time,
just one more time
just one more time
just one more time
It was like two tin cans and a string --
but reaching straight to the deity,
and that divine voice would only flicker
a bit while moving through a bad neighborhood.
Sometimes the sound would cut out
and Iíd plunge straight into questions.
The trouble with faith is, it moves in darkness,
it follows its own night-dwelling rules,
and you canít be sure how long it will linger
unfed. There are other beasts who hunger
for its aromatic flesh; there are vivid games
that wait to grab and tangle your attention.
I didnít mean to skip religion; it left
a rent in my heart that may never heal.
But at the very same time, what relief
to be unleashed, to be released
from that most dangerous liaison:
to fall from the hands of the living god.
I was so shaken when the card didnít clear,
when I had just enough of that outer-space
currency (the Euro: half a heifer) to pay
for the ticket the man had already printed.
Guilty before his impatience and the line.
The station itself was rife with atmosphere,
besides the time Iíd already been there:
every train station soaks up as much grief
in parting as it echoes joy at arrival,
those pairs, relieved and happy, who freeze
on the escalator into an oblivious kiss.
So I had written a whole page in purple,
I put it all away but thought again
and pulled out the better pen with black ink
to add a single sentence. Silly imperfectionist --
and how could I not have slid it into its place?
Did it fall from between the pages, or did I lay it
in my lap, miss it when I stood
in the long skirt to pick up heavy bags
and run for my train with the holiday name
Oh, lost beyond imagining:
my second Pelikan, already filled with vows
that this time Iíd do better! I hope at least
it was a writer who lifted you and set
your bitterness to begin a separate story.
Words for something lovely that is gone,
something I once held but then let slip,
that I so lament and regret.
If you saw this, you would know.
Hereís a poem for you again at last:
an elaborate dance
of notice and response,
accusation and remorse
and all deliberate haste.
The forms all say Consent.
In little sheaves I gather them
to get them signed and stamped,
I pad the path of my retreat with cash.
I am the Plaintiff:
that means, I deliver,
appear and submit on time.
That means, I lament plangently:
Gradual legal euthanasia
of something we once hoped,
something that made us both.
We meet to put it down,
Since it canít be done all at once.
I check its missing vital signs
and watch the crucial clumps of time
tick by: ninety days, ninety again,
then thirty: the agony moves faster.
I wish you all the best,
at proper distance. Perhaps
weíll sign and then in time
just be friends.
(But I wonít hold my breath.)
Consider the position of the title:
if the poem is a constellation,
the title hovers there poised singly,
moon in a deserted sky.
It casts its light on everything,
silvering leaf or snow; it seems
to penetrate the sense of every crevice.
Though, if you look up from below,
you find that every object, every word
touched by its ghostly glow casts shadow,
a deep thick patch of darkness
where I can fall into forgetful sleep.
See the glitter of the fallen Optimist:
amid so little experience of grief,
she gropes her way by theory.
Here perhaps George, who so nearly had
the same birthday, could have helped,
post-traumatized as he remained
after the First World War; his tale
of brains spilled out like porridge
could put a heartache in perspective.
But no, that love has passed
into the Underworld. She wanders,
tongue depressed, saying Ah
at each newly uncovered symptom.
Gum and muscle and skin:
each flowers in complaint,
kinks and blisters and cysts.
Her body changes and wavers,
and I watch the flickering film:
for I must persist in belief
that learning Why will lift
the darkness, will bring light --
or at least reveal (flash!)
a key to the door to the stairs.
Poor translator -- so distant from the Muse!
She'd love to burrow into every word,
but they shift or desiccate, they alter
their significance on close examination.
She says "The one" and "lovely" and "I long!" --
if only she could bid it to cohere,
if only those two tongues were closer.
Why is this required of her? To bide
as though the end were certain to delight her,
while the tale itself keeps threatening
that spirit might fly, abandon the tissue
of dead letters, and not even glance back
to see them tear to shreds beneath her...
But give her time: she is consummately
patient and no stranger to pinched pacing.
She will pass through doubt and draft
and sleepless nights, to compile at last
the truest version of the Martian Chronicles
in contemporary Venusian dialect.
Even if the Muse recognizes none of it:
even if the names are changed to nemesis,
donít worry: it will function as intended,
still make the reader shudder and gasp.
How long we've been dismantling and unplugging,
concealing all the furnishings in boxes,
taming the waste with strapping tape.
I pause now in the moment before shifting:
remember taking an exam, the moment
of realization that I could lay the pencil down
and leave it there unfinished, walk away
and no one by myself would care
for the paths unchosen. I know today
I can go collect the truck, can load up
all those years of possessions,
and everyone who depends on me:
all this wealth, these weights and habits --
or I can turn my back on all of it,
walk away from it as if my life
had become a lost possibility.
Between here and the end of the world
Iím stranded out of time and space,
Iím beached in fatal greyness.
But oh as the condemned one vows
in the moment before the axe:
if I could only live again
Iíd treasure every instant,
every heartbeat would be conscious!
So it seems in my limbo,
fed so full on nothing:
if they just brought me back to life
Iíd never root back into that routine.
How I love you when youíre sleeping,
your limbs sweetly spread, your warmth,
your even breath. As mothers always say:
that crystal of your angelic essence,
your improbability, the beauty
of your poised particularity. How I love you,
how I imbibe your careless presence,
and how I hate to wake you unless
itís certainly to joy.
How I would love to flood you with love,
fill every crack and dry ravine
so you would never again walk the world
running a deficit, so much raining love
you could splash around in it,
be picky, avoid its messier puddles,
so much youíd never doubt or wonder.
I pretend that is my job.
What other job could I aspire to,
as you sleep and canít rise to object?
Erato, tares: I end the year of song
out standing in my field of wild oats.
I have made more poppies than wheat,
more goatsfoot than rye, though true
misfortune comes when there is neither one.
Erato, stare! There is so much to see,
though less perhaps to reap.
Why should beauty and sorrow
dwell in a single organ, and why
should the present bleed away
Dear Lady, I have hymned those lips,
those fingers (wonder!), light of eyes.
And once these bruises fade
will the soil lie fallow once more,
the paper blank, the voice
that used to Rose within me dead?
But thanks to you, I end the tear of song
with song at last and least: my small mosaic
and monument of love. Look back
a moment -- turn and return again:
this page is done.
Return to SF's Poetry Page.
Return to SF's Home Page.