Showing posts from April, 2011

Poem: "Eve's Fault"

Eve’s Fault

Not Eve, whose fault was only too much love
—Aemilia Lanyer, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: Eve’s Apology”

Though she has left the garden, she does not stop loving them.

God won her when he whipped out from his planetary sleeve
a bouquet of light. They watched the parade of animals pass.
He told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx, and she noted
the feathers and the killing claws, a poem, the first of its kind.
On a beach, raised from the ocean with a shout, he entered her
and she realized, in rolling waves, that love joins and separates.

The snake was a quieter fellow. He came in the fall evenings
through the long grass, his steps barely parting the blades.
Each time he showed her a different path. As they wandered,
they talked about the beauty of the light striking the birch,
the odd behavior of the ants, the fairest way to split an apple.
When Adam appeared, the serpent gave her up to happiness.

For happy she was when she met Adam under the tree of life,
still is, and Ada…

Poem: "This, Too"

This, Too

The untamed heart to hand I brought
And fixed the wild and wandering thought.
—Aphra Behn, “A Thousand Martyrs”

This, too, shall bring forth life, the pulse
conversing in a steady wrist,
the quiet hours that give the psalm,
the annual bloom, the shopping list.
This, too, is life, though it is calm.

The island is hospitable
to the largest imaginings.
On bridle paths, the trees a wall,
the walk turns up unnoticed things.
This, too, is life, though it is small.

The airplane draws the eye upward
but what goes up comes down again,
as vapors rise to fall as snow.
Light falls, how swift a fall, to land.
This, too, is life, though it is low.

Poem: "Probably Written by a Man"

Probably Written by a Man

Old is this earth-cave, all I do is yearn.
—“The Wife’s Lament,” from the tenth-century Exeter Book

The husband has to go, for a distant government post
or into exile for a violent crime or to the store for milk,
the wife is left behind, alone, as women are apt to be
through the ages, in China or England or any territory
where schools and force and money all belong to men.

I don’t like this unromantic truth. I prefer to imagine
the wife, pretty as the day of the wedding or disheveled
by the distress of not knowing where her lord will rest,
watching by the thin curtains or sprinting to the head
of the river every day to look for signs of his returning.

For, the scholars say, the woman is not really a woman.
She is the children of Israel in their Babylonian captivity
crying to God for release, or the Soul yearning for reunion
with Truth or Beauty or Goodness, those eternal verities,
confirms the footnote in my Norton Anthology of Poetry.

I thought to right th…

Poem: "Ashtrays as Big as Hubcaps"

Ashtrays as Big as Hubcaps

In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.
—Mary Oliver, “Singapore”

That woman scrubbing the big ashtrays with a blue rag,
she was my mother. Her hands were not moving like a river.
He dark hair was not like the wing of a bird, it was wispy.
When she smiled at you, she was not feeling embarrassed.
She knew the toilet bowl was a good place for the ashtrays
but guessed the work argued with your wobbly stomach.

You flew home and put her in a poem called “Singapore.”
I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life, you wrote,
I want her to rise up from the slop and fly down to the river.
She becomes, for you and your American fans, a picture
of the light that can shine out of a life, meaning, a saint,
and the picture is completed, roundly, with trees and birds.

She bused home and said nothing, for you were forgotten
in her rush to stick the laundry out of the window to dry.
She remembered you …

Poem: "Easter"


your body an arrival
you know is false but can’t outrun
—Jorie Graham, “The Geese”

The manufacturers have dropped the on button
from their machines, or else have made
the on button also the off button. Every day
is full of indignities. Light wash, normal wash.
Back to front. Push to turn.

The beautiful spring day in the park
proves the forecast wrong. It is worrying.
The perambulator threads the submerged
rocks. The tulips dazzle their beds.
They leave tomorrow, they wave.
Normal wash, heavy wash.

The woman who grew up with her grandmother
in Florida played alone.
The other children visited with the winter,
when there was no flooding.
The woman with breast cancer announces
that her medication has made her menopausal.
She is the one
who is pushing the pram and needs the bathroom.
There are only ever two women.

Heavy wash, light wash.
You remove the dirty dishes from the broken cycles.
You look up the flights to San Francisco.
You check all the cheap-fare websites and the…

Poem: "Instruction"


Then he felt himself awake in the dark alone.
—Marie Howe, “Easter”

I do not understand this light, this love.
I have not lived in darkness long enough.

The dark I know is the passing night.
The love I know is a form of flight.

God of the years, I ask for dark enough.
The hours answer, stay awake and love.

Poem: "Epithalamium"


Are we married? There are no bells. No banquets.
The mailman has no messages for us.
We keep our names.
The law of the land says no.

Yet there has been a shift,
the air is brighter, or darker, in the morning,
and it is not entirely due to the changing seasons.

The seasons changed in us.

You get up in the cold and make the same Sunday brunch,
egg and avocado on a bed of spinach and whole wheat toast,
and it is a banquet.

The alarm that wakes me to write, leaving you asleep in bed,
calls like church bells.

Why do I then wander round our apartment, questioning,
looking out the windows,
reading the women poets who passed this way?

Anne Carson says, I found myself thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon at a man who no longer cherishes me.

Louise Glück says, Then begins the terrible charity of marriage.

Marie Howe asks, Who shoved this bayonet into the man’s head? answers, His wife.

They all speak the truth, and it is not beautiful.

It is Easter tomorrow. I open…

Poem: "Royal Wedding"

In Public View

what happened did not occur in public view
—Marie Howe, “Ordinary Time”

Prince William and his bride go shopping.
He is exposing her to the cameras.
He is exposing her to a bomb
this morning, and all mornings they are together, and after.

Sure, you don’t have to be a prince to expose a lover to danger.
A poet will do the same.

It is a dangerous time for a royal wedding.
The police won’t say if they have divers in the Thames.

Poem: "What Are Years Indeed"

What Are Years Indeed

     in its surrendering
     finds its continuing
—Marianne Moore, “What Are Years”

     Seventeen cherry trees
on fire, a man’s red hair,
     but they are not men and these
are springtime leaves and flowers, not flames,
indifferent to guilt,
insensible to innocence, going
softly when their time is up.
     What is mortality?
     What is eternity?

     More representative
the cherry branches in
     a glass vase, cut but alive,
their slashed stems sipping water, their tight
royal velvet buds—
so many—unfolded in a pink faint,
clawing the air for air, more
     rage-rousing, by far
     more courageous, are,

     as is their true support,
not roots, but a table
     made from cherry wood and fought
for, with blind patience and wordless skill,
a pedestal trophy.
So present that it approaches pure good,
it is hard to imagine
     in its cunning chamber
     chafes a tree in amber.

Poem: "A Defense of Passion"

A Defense of Passion

Only to themselves are the passionate
—Marie Ponsot, “Against Fierce Secrets”

But only to ourselves are we ever ourselves.

To the seeing, we are a patch of gleaming dark.

To the searching, we are a lookout.

To the hurting, we are a pointed remark.

To the writing, we are about.

To the philosophizing, we are ignoring.

To the flying, we are unevolved.

To the boring, we are boring.

To the believing, we are mystery solved.

To the governing, we are reluctant, if not unruly.

To the watching, we are flaunting.

To the killing, we are the enemy.

To the weighing, we are wanting.

Even to ourselves, the passionate, we are more often us.

Poem: "Marianne Moore in Japan"

Marianne Moore in Japan

The weak overcomes its
     menace, the strong over-
     comes itself.
—Marianne Moore, “Nevertheless”

I don’t think I would like you very much, Marianne Moore,
if we should meet in a beach resort or poetry workshop.
It is unladylike, you advised Miss Bishop, to write water closet.
She ignored you and now the student is far more popular.
She has vulnerability on her side, and the times are partial
to helplessness, after wars, pandemics, home foreclosures.
What do you have? Another armored animal. See what I mean?
How does a reader get close to such glittering finish, how does
a lover who will smudge? It’s not sexy to be counting syllables
beneath the breath when you can write up (write it!) a disaster.
Still, I would like to know what you make of the earthquake
in Japan, the epicenter at Fukushima prefecture, when shells
broke up and we are shown up to be soft through and through.
Would you cry with us, castigate us, or terrify with visions?
Anybody’s guess, …

Poem: "We will not pass this way again, my love"

“We will not pass this way again, my love”

To see in passing you mountaine Rocks
How clad, how drest, how variant in your kind
Chearfull & sad, some shady, dark, some light
Some curl’d, some freez’d, some with their hanging locks
—from “Of the River Banks between Meziers & Liege,” attributed to Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

We will not pass this way again, my love,
although this rock has no mind to change places,
alhough this cherry will meet each spring with flowers,
my love, we will not pass this way again.

Although this rock has no mind to change places,
we do, and that makes all the difference.
Still as we may sit on this ledge, we think
to change places, although this rock does not mind.

We do—and that makes all the difference—
when we think of doing the slightest thing,
brushing your hair back, for instance, as if
that makes all the difference to what we do.

When we think of doing the slightest thing
of love, the cherry returns with a different thought.
Not d…

Poem: "Another Look at Pornography"

Another Look at Pornography

There’s nothing more debauched than thinking.
—Wisława Szymborska, “An Opinion on the Question of Pornography”

Reading the Polish Nobel Laureate’s opinion
on the question of pornography, a question
that much obsesses me, I was disappointed
by its sidestep into the airy realm of thought,
as if viewing smut has no traffic with thinking.

Wandering round a Chelsea flea market today,
I chanced upon a box of yellowed porno mags.
In one called Don, dated 1974, fully pictured
with twenty-something boys doing the nasty,
was a report on “Homosexualität in Singapur.”

Not knowing German, I could only make out
two names, New Nation and old Bugis Street.
What would the Nobel Laureate make of that
happy coincidence of knowledge, home and sex?
Or my refusal to pay $20 for that piece of luck?

Entertaining Violence and Grief

This morning spills over, with gratitude. For friends who generously hosted parties for my new book, HS last Sunday at her apartment on the UWS, and VM and JF last night at their Sunnyside house. They prepared huge amounts of food, made everyone, old friends and new, feel so welcomed, and spoke kindly about my work before I read. For the friends who took time out too, to attend the parties, I am thankful. I am especially grateful to those who attended the last party for Equal to the Earth, and then came back for more. A number told me that they now own two or all three of my books. Beyond all else, I am grateful to be read.

On both occasions, as I read the title sequence from Seven Studies for a Self Portrait, I was acutely aware of the violence and grief in the poems. I was reawakened to them, perhaps, by the violence and grief that I know have visited a number of people in the room. I had entertained the thought of not reading the Frida Kahlo poem, for fear that it would touch too c…

Poem: "Saturday"


To get out of bed, we’ve got to raise the blinds.
To raise the blinds, we’ve got to get out of bed.

Reading with a Student

I read tonight at Cornelia Street Cafe, with my student, Talia Boylan, who was part of the Middle School Poets' Circle I led. Now a high school sophomore, she gave a beautiful and hypnotic reading, her first outside of school. Kat Georges, the host of the evening, pronounced it "professional." Of the eight poems she read, my favorite is the ekphrastic poem "Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly," written after Mary Cassatt's painting. It is a poem that I would have been proud to write myself.

I read two sequences "What We Call Vegetables" and "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait," both inspired by challenges that the Poets' Circle set for itself. It was a delight to see many friends in the audience, Eric, Wendy, Orlando and Ana, his fiance, Naomi, Sunu, Betsy, Sarah, Amy, Angelo and Iris Berman. I sold five books and traded one.

Poem: "Black Cloud"

Black Cloud

My identifying features
are rapture and despair.
—Wisława Szymborska, “Sky,” translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

The very tall chimney on the very tall building
had been glumly silent all winter.
This morning, finally, it had something to say for itself.

Whatever it said
shot up so quickly that it was lost in the space
behind the sky.

The black smoke flew after it, half-heartedly,
then spread out like a net
that catches nothing but its own unknotting.

It tried to keep some kind of good form
by pretending to be a wispy cloud
but the wind, or else its own smoky nature, wouldn’t let it.

It tinged the real clouds black
for a bit
and then the description was gone.

Poem: "Almost Nothing In It"

Almost Nothing In It

The Great Mother’s visage is her bulging belly
with its blind navel in the middle.
—Wisława Szymborska, “A Palaeolithic Fertility Fetish,” translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

After we are gone for a very long time,
our archeologists will discover a tube of lubricant
in the ashes of the fireplace
while digging for the silver music discs we played.

The tube, the length of a hand, makes no sound
even when it is shaken vigorously.
It goes thud, thud when it slaps the fired bricks.
It hardly squeaks when it is rubbed.
It must be inserted into a slightly bigger cylindrical slot
in a machine like the juice maker unearthed yesterday.

Its top comes off, the plastic screw threads worn down like teeth.
It smells like adhesives.
There is almost nothing in it,
but the boys at the lab will make sure.

Then it will be cleaned and classified and labeled
in a traveling show
that will attract a heated ephebe
to compose a poem.
He will, of course, make out the tube…

Poem: "Backache"


Every part of us
alerts another part
—Kay Ryan, “Chinese Foot Chart”

When we were together,
I rubbing your shoulders,
my cock would press
against my shorts
in sympathy. My heart
would run to your fingers
caressing my scalp.
How strange that morning,
crawling out of bed,
you complained of a
backache and I felt
nothing, but helpless
to stop the two of us
from coming apart.

Poem: "For Lust"

For Lust

But for lust we could be friends
—Ruth Pitter, “But for Lust”

I want to call you back but do not think I should.
I am in love now, you see, and love must exclude
its look-alikes, its foreign gods, its counter proof.
He is so good to me and when I am not good
he gently planes away what in my soul is rough.
Approve may rhyme with love, but so does disapprove.

But oh the nights of passion you and I had shared,
the baring of the places that we thought were bared,
re-slotting what was present into what was past,
no-holds-barred, no forbidden gestures, nothing spared.
I will not call you back although I feel I must.
Trust rhymes with lust, but, my desire, so does distrust.

Poem: "The city rubs its people off"

“The city rubs its people off”

For though I gave him no embrace—
Remembering my duty—
He altered the expression of my face,
And gave me back my beauty.
—Anna Wickham, “The Fired Pot”

The city rubs its people off,
beginning at their edges,
then moving to the center of
fast-disappearing wretches.

Attaché cases swing along
without left hands, or right.
A scream can sound, as can a song,
with nobody in sight.

The news still happens at a trot,
the traffic at a trudge,
and I who stand still at this spot
is turning to a smudge

until a man, fresh to the town,
with eyes a piercing blue,
stares at me from crotch to crown,
and draws me new.

Poem: "Building Conversion"

Building Conversion

In charge of the subway stairs in the conversion
from office to condo, you broke off our conversation
on tonight’s dinner to point out, with mumbled ardor,
the wonderful many-paned old New York steel windows.
I would like to pretend that I fell in love with you then,
a spot of time, in time too, in which the essential man
peered from the opening, beauty unexpected called,
the street grew warm with the yellow lights of the fall,
but what I felt at that point was more akin to esteem
for your ambitious eye, your professional dreams,
a feeling lowering to apathy when you leave my side
again to shoot yet another set of windows you eyed.
I date my love not by one night, but by the many nights
you struggle, cursing the MTA and your oversights,
to draft two flights of stairs, unseen, underground,
user-friendly, multi-stepped, structural and sound.

Poem: To “To The Tune ‘Clear Peace Happiness’” by Li Qingzhao, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

To “To The Tune ‘Clear Peace Happiness’” by Li Qingzhao, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Year after year in the snow, intoxicated,
I have put the new plum blossoms
In my hair.
Now the fallen petals
Only depress me.
All I have gained is a dress
Wet with crystal tears.
This year I am at the corner
Of the sea and the edge of Heaven.
I am old and lonely.
My temples have turned white.
I realize that the evening wind
Is too strong for me.
It is no longer possible
For me to contemplate
The blossoming plums.

Night after night in the song, intoxicated,
I have held the young warm bodies
in my arms.
Now the averted voices
only depress me.
All I have gained is a shirt
rough with short hairs.
Tonight I am at the corner
of the bar and the edge of Hell.
I am old and lonely.
My feet have turned in.
I realize that the dance music
is too loud for me.
It is no longer possible
for me to contemplate
the shining boys.

Poem: "Baby Gifts"

Baby Gifts

This is your tumpline
to help you with your burden
when you gather kindling
—Rosa Xulemhó, “A Midwife Addresses the Newborn”

Some fairy godmother or furious hag,
I don’t know which, closed in my baby hands
a slice of glass, a wind puffed in a bag,
and curly thread, crimson, snipped at both ends.

That’s why I have grown tall and self-regarding
peering into cracked mirrors, on my toes.
That’s why I find a cozy home retarding
when the east wind, the naughty east wind, blows.

And when my blood has stopped its pleasant twitch
and suffers the deep pangs of love at last,
why I don’t know if I’d return the witch
the convoluted bondage of the past.

Poem: "Growing Old

Growing Old

My words are roses.
The rose speaks in my mouth.
—Pasakwala Kómes, “Words to Bring Down Fever”

There are no roses for my fever.
It is not the kind of fever that is brought down by a rose.

Poem: "Gorgeous Unfinished Wood Braced in Grey Iron"

Gorgeous Unfinished Wood Braced in Grey Iron

Protect us from being eaten by a vine or a stick.
Save us from being devoured by the new thatch
or the shiny nails.
—Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’, “So the New House Won’t Eat Us”

They are eating us, the lamps dangling like fruit
from curving metal stems
that sucked up days of browsing catalogues, days lost from sex,

the Sony 24” HDTV and the media console,
gorgeous unfinished wood braced in grey iron,
that cost more than thought,

the witchy bedroom blinds
that can be lowered from the top or raised from the sill
to stop envious eyes,

the kitchen cart, the black bookshelves,
the dish drainer, the shower caddy, the vacuum cleaner,
the plastic food containers that swallow each other like Russian dolls,

they are devouring us.
And our neighbors gossip, Serves them right.
Let them be eaten up, cry our friends.

Close the mouths of the envious, Kajval,
shut up the smug socialists.
Let the priest go on his way.

We will pray to the spirit in things,
we wil…

Poem: "The Xpakinté and the Drunk"

The Xpakinté and the Drunk

“The Xpakinté is not really a person,
although she looks like a woman.”
—Munda Tostó, “The Xpakinté”

The woods seems painted in different shades of black but isn’t.
The tall oak swerves into his face but isn’t.

She looks like a woman but isn’t.
She looks like his wife, her hair braided with red pompons, but isn’t.

By the bank of fog a small light shines but isn’t.
The light comes from the Xpakinté but isn’t.

She loses her shawl and skirt and is naked but isn’t.
Her cunt hides in black moss but isn’t.

One finger-snap she is there but isn’t.
He is hugging a hollow tree but isn’t.

The tree is alive with hairy caterpillars (but isn’t)
that stink like fire but isn’t.

In the morning he is found dead but isn’t.
He is home with his wife, the pretty one with red pompons in her hair, but isn’t.

Poem: "Black Threads"

Black Threads

Long ago women made threads as today we make our children:
They spun them with the strength of their bodies.
—Loxa Jiménes Lópes, from Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women

This is also the stuff of legend: a drawer that never ran out of underwear;
buttons and studs torn from shirt cuffs and trousers reattached overnight.

Fabulous until the day mother asked me, strange shy defiance in her voice,
to thread the needle, for her eyes were not as sharp, her hands as steady as

before, meaning the days of yore, meaning the body’s unmistaken sufficiency,
which is also the spirit’s kinship to the instinct of the fast self-spinning spider.

I was never one to do things on my own, nor am I now, nor will be, my love,
though I try to help build the bookcase and clean up the mess after I cooked.

Only in this, in the hours before light, leaving you asleep, wrapped tight, in bed,
when I close the door behind me, and on my laptop throw out wet black threads,

am I most like…

Poem: "Don't Go, Sweet Mother"

Don’t Go, Sweet Mother

“Once I was the most beautiful rose in my mother’s rose garden.
But now he has plucked me, and in his hands I am wilting.”
—“Edes Anyam,” Hungarian bridal lament


Don’t go, sweet Mother,
don’t open your hands

like the spring flowers,
like the rising sun,

hands that wrung
the curtains dry,

that brushed back
my feverish curls.

When did mother mean
losing a child?

The day you planted
the first roses?

The day you taught me
to say please?

Your face is a fist
but I am not in it.


Stranger, thief,
he who owns a thousand acres,

white face, secret voice,
unreadable days,

moonless night,
spreading root—

I name him
to make him familiar.

Not husband,
the name others give.

It touches nothing
in my ears,

the fear

of being disappointing
and disappointed.


Goodbye, bent kettle,
to your morning ditty,

Old clock, goodbye,
my knowing friend,

pink tiles, evening
to the feet, goodbye,

high cot, goodbye,
goodbye, crazy quilt,

bay window, goodbye,
stop looking out for…

John Updike's "Rabbit at Rest"

Rabbit eats and eats to fill the growing emptiness of his life as he ages. The taste of things, the last flickering appetite for life, is vividly described in this final installment of John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, as well as the invasion of medical technology into one's decaying body. Rabbit has an angioplasty, and the scene is humorous, terrifying and unforgettable.

Unlike Ian McEwan, who casts a coolly satirical eye on modern-day consumerism in his novel, Solar, Updike sizes up not just the meanness of greed, but also its meaning. For nothing that a human being is capable of doing is without redeeming value. Updike is not Rabbit, but at times Rabbit speaks for him. Like Rabbit, Updike "never had much use for old-fashioned ethics but their dissolution eats at him." This novel is an elegy, yes, but it addresses a dying morality as much as a decaying body.

Christopher Logue's "Kings: The Siege of Troy"

Last night watched a two-man production of Christopher Logue's "Kings: The Siege of Troy," a retelling of Homer's Iliad. Logue's "translation" is very loose, but it captures the ferocity, humor and pathos of the original well. His occasional use of contemporary expressions adds to the energy of the account. J. Erie Cook, the older of the two actors, was appropriately impressive or petty or oily as Agamemnon, Hera, Thersites, Priam, et al, while the handsome and buff Dana Watkins took on the heroes Achilles, Odysseus and Hector, and distinguished between them through subtle changes in deportment, mannerism and voice. Adapted and directed by Jim Milton, this production took place in Workshop Theater, in collaboration with Handcart Ensemble and Verse Theater Manhattan.

RB, whom I met for the first time yesterday afternoon, came for the performance as well. She grew up in Syracuse, NY, and now lives with her husband in Brisbane, Australia. She is a visiting…