Demosthenes, a wise man, filled his mouth
with pebbles before speaking,
and a stream which has run ten feet over rocks
is clear, they say, and safe to drink;
yet we forget what is owed to our failures –
blessings, to praise the stumbled on stone.
And forget what we once knew, how to properly greet
old enemies, for whose sake we practice and parry,
with singing and banners, with gladness.
(from Of Gravity and Angels)
Suddenly this defeat.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
The people who are always
I have been easy with trees
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
All this windless day snow fell
into the King’s Garden
where I walked, perfecting and growing old,
abandoning one by one everybody:
randomly in love with the paradise
furnace of my mind. Now I sit in the dark,
dreaming of a marble sun
and its strictness. This
is to tell you I am not coming back.
To tell you instead of my private life
among people who must wrestle their hearts
in order to feel anything, as though it were
unnatural. What I master by day
still lapses in the night. But I go on
with the cargo cult, blindly feeling the snow
come down, learning to flower by tightening.
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrow,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
(trans. Coleman Barks with John Moyne)
The roofless houses by the roadside drown
in sky the colour of Mercurochrome.
Greener than snow, the acres of limestone
force new beauty from a simple noun
the last of the five elements: bone.
Without a place to rest, the remnant sounds
of aftermath pray to the empty towns
for resurrection from the chromosome.
The distant roses of plutonium
make of the sky a staggering bouquet
turned in upon itself, a cranium
packed with scenes from life, a matinee
of dreams for the millennium,
the lit terrain we called the Milky Way.
Across the bulging, dusk-dark summer storm,
lightning prints a jagged, branching track.
Nostalgia’s not a longing to go back,
nor love of the world a love of form.
Not quite. We glimpse another paradise
obscured by its protective colorations,
but lose it to a flux of short durations.
All that we love, we try to memorize.
Time undermines that love. Each tense collides,
a broken storm of many blossoming.
The nets we throw out drag the wayward tides
for things lost long ago to the water’s rings.
We watch the speckled, paling undersides
of those quick fish, the vanishing evenings.
(From The Odds)
I am looking at my map
on the table in my house.
My house is a black square,
so I must be inside the map.
I fold the map and swallow.
Where am I? On the table?
Something carnivorous crawls across the table.
It eats my map inside me.
The carnivorous something
is captured and burnt
by an indigenous people.
My mother is an indigenous
person. She breathes
in the smoke. She grows
more cells. Eventually,
here I am again. Hello.
But where is the table?
Is God the table?
Please let God be the table.
I soak the clothes,
cold water a relief,
and slump in the hammock
peeling an orange, throwing the peels
into the coiled green garden hose.
The lights start up again.
We don’t need them.
A plump bird spits in the oven
dripping fat. Upstairs
you’re typing again: work noise,
the slow fan, a fine sweat
on your skin. I yell, Want anything?
but you don’t hear. From the road,
the smell of gasoline.
No one told us it was alarming,
this chafing of cold, unironed sheets,
or that the sky whips itself for us:
clean pink welts, the sting of infection.
It steeps our house in its ray-light:
the woman fixed in her hammock,
the man who pretends to himself
he comforts her,
who does comfort her.
(from Northern Spy)
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving somewhere, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages in Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end has magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
thought some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made a myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
‘Live in the layers,
not on the litter.’
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Nothing is lost. Nothing is so small
that it does not return.
that as a child on a day like this
you held a newly minted coin and had
the choice of spending it in any way
Today the coin comes back to you,
the date rubbed out, the ancient mottoes vague,
the portrait covered up with the dull shellac
of anything used up, passed on, disposed of
with something else in view, and always worth
a little less each time.
Now it returns,
and you will think it unimportant, lose
it in your pocket change as one more thing
that’s not worth counting, not worth singling out.
That is the mistake you must avoid today.
You sent it on a journey to yourself.
Now hold it in your hand. Accept it as
the little you have earned today.
that you must choose again but over less.