Friday, April 07, 2006

such as i was, such as i was

I previously mentioned Ionesco. It's always a pleasure to return to this poem. I found the translation from the French in an old Iowa Review on my shelves--the poem possesses that rereadability that Bloom (or was it Frost?) suggested determines a poem's worth.


At my wits' ends,
in a haze.

So out of it, I stuck
my right foot in a pot,

neither alert: so I stepped
out with my left.

I have been traipsing, though,
light as air, through the clouds.

If the stars should make me stumble
I would pick them up like apples.

I loved myself, such as
I was; such as I was.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

heaney & joel

Heaney's an elegant alternative to that Billy Joel song Just the Way You Are: "You always have my unspoken passion, though I might not seem to care." (Yes, I've used that.)


Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


My old refrigerator & I have parted ways. Oh the memories of my roomy magic box of icy air. I kept this poem in there. Now that I've got a halfling fridge, I keep the poem over the sink. Unlike the poem next to it, this one lacks lamination. Alas, it's taken a beating. Yet there it remains.

Eating Poetry

by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man,
I snarl at her and bark,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

wm stafford, as promised

Please find your way to the audio of Stafford reading this. His voice is shot through with this present, stoic resignation. Unforgettable.

Traveling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Monday, April 03, 2006

pro wrestler, orr, elizabeth

I keep telling myself that very soon I will stop reading The New York Times Book Review.

And I think if David Orr hadn't redeemed the rag with an ardent paean to one of my heroes, Elizabeth Bishop, I'd have canceled last week when the editors decided to celebrate Thomas Hackett's Slaphappy, a "commendable" treatise on...professional wrestling.

Whew. least there's Bishop. A good poem rides on its own melting, right? Yes, yes. This, especially in her most famous and accessible poem, The Fish, is an ideal metaphor for Elizabeth Bishop's work.

And the swell that follows, at least for Orr, is tremendous; he begins his long song (this is a review of one of those dodgy collections of bits and scraps the poet never wanted published) with this: "You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79)." Oh my. Microsoft, Rachael Ray,--and Elizabeth Bishop?

But Elizabeth is what matters here. (Isn't that always the case?) From what I've heard recorded, Elizabeth Bishop had a complete lack of charisma reading her work. And this is a real shame because her words are so clarified, so intelligent, so sensory, and the significance deepens by virtue of allusion, figurative hints, shape, color. I tend to like theatrical readers -- Yeats, Millay, Auden, Sandburg. Then again, I cried when I first heard the very understated William Stafford read his Traveling Through the Dark so subtlely. So maybe the challenge here is to do what Borges insisted -- not read in a low voice. Not read silently. Read this aloud. Loud. Better than Bishop would.

The Moose

by Elizabeth Bishop

For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats'
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens' feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn't give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship's port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
"A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston."
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb's wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
--not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents' voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

"Yes . . ." that peculiar
affirmative. "Yes . . ."
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means "Life's like that.
We know it (also death)."

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it's all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
--Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus's hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man's voice assures us
"Perfectly harmless. . . ."

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
"Sure are big creatures."
"It's awful plain."
"Look! It's a she!"

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

"Curious creatures,"
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r's.
"Look at that, would you."
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there's a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

wise and otherwise

donald hall & i talked here and there at bennington, but i was too shy ever to engage him in person with anything but either quick-solve poetic puzzlements -- so i wrote him a letter instead.

even his letters are suffused with the strong hall personality -- rascally, suspect, farmy, funny.
i think it was PBS that ran a documentary on the life interrupted with his wife jane kenyon, who died too too early (not that there's an on-time or too late). he has written so much abt her and their life. elegiac stuff is so often hard for me to swallow, but i was in this auditorium early in my grad school career with all these strangers and as i watched the documentary, i just cried and cried and cried. i had to leave.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

-- Jane Kenyon

Saturday, April 01, 2006

lost in translation

Two translations of Wislawa Szymborska's poetry. These two were my awakening as to what a difference a translator makes. First the version I prefer ... translated by the omnipresent Clare Cavanagh (and Stanislaw Baranczak). I think I mucked up the the line breaks--sorry abt that.

The Terrorist, He's Watching

The bomb in the bar will explode at thirteen twenty
Now it's just thirteen sixteen.
There's still time for some to go in,
And some to come out.
The terrorist has already crossed the street.
The distance keeps him out of danger,
And what a view--just like the movies.
A woman in a yellow jacket, she's going in.
A man in dark glasses, he's coming out.
Teen-agers in jeans, they're talking.
Thirteen seventeen and four seconds.
The short one, he's lucky, he's getting on a scooter,
But the tall one, he's going in.
Thirteen seventeen and forty seconds.
That girl, she's walking along with a green ribbon in her hair.
But then a bus suddenly pulls in front of her.
Thirteen eighteen. The girl's gone.
Was she that dumb, did she go in or not,
We'll see when they carry them out.
Thirteen nineteen. Somehow no one's going in.
Another guy, fat, bald, is leaving, though.
Wait a second, looks like he's looking
For something in his pockets and
At thirteen twenty minus ten seconds
He goes back in for his crummy gloves.
Thirteen twenty exactly. This waiting, it's taking forever.
Any second now.
No, not yet.
Yes, now. The bomb, it explodes.

Then here's the one that I found by Dennis O'Driscoll...almost as if they're two entirely different poems with only the subject matter in common.

The One Twenty Pub

The bomb is primed to go off at one twenty.
A time-check: one sixteen.
There's still a chance for some to join
the pub's ranks, for others to drop out.

The terrorist watches from across the street.
Distance will shield him
from the impact of what he sees:

A woman, turquoise jacket on her shoulder,
enters; a man with sunglasses departs.
Youths in tee-shirts loiter without intent.
One seventeen and four seconds.
The scrawny motorcyclist, revving up
to leave, won't believe his luck;
but the tall man steps straight in.

One seventeen and forty seconds.
That girl, over there with the walkman
... now the bus has cut her off.
One eighteen exactly.
Was she stupid enough to head inside?
Or wasn't she? We'll know before long,
when the dead are carried out.

It's one nineteen.
Nothing much to report
until a muddled barfly hesitates,
fumbles with his pockets, and, like
a blasted fool, stumbles back
at one nineteen and forty seconds
to retrieve his goddamn cap.

One twenty
How time drags when ...
Any moment now.
Not yet.