Steel Guitars

The world is announced by the smell of oregano and sage
in rocky places high up, with the white doves higher still
in the blue sky. Or the faint voices of women and girls
in the olive trees below, and a lustrous sea beneath that.
Like thoughts of lingerie while reading Paradise Lost
in Alabama. Or the boy in Pittsburgh that only summer
he was nine, prowling near the rusty railroad yard
where they put up vast tents and a man lifted anvils
with chains through his nipples. The boy listened
for the sound that made him shiver as he ran hard
across the new sawdust to see the two women again
on a platform above his head, indolent and almost naked
in the simple daylight. Reality stretched thin
as he watched their painted eyes brooding on what
they contained. He vaguely understood that it was not
their flesh that was a mystery but something on the other
side of it. Now the man remembering the boy knows
there is a door. We go through and hear a sound
like buildings burning, like the sound of a stone hitting
a stone in the dark. The heart in its plenty hammered
by rain and need, by the weight of what momentarily is.

Jack Gilbert

from The Great Fires

(NB the room in Kinnell just below, and Yeats hammered gold)


The Room

The door closes on pain and confusion.
The candle flame wavers from side to side
as though trying to break itself in half
to color the shadows too with living light.
The andante movement plays over and over
its many triplets, like farm dogs yapping
at a melody made of the gratification-cries
of cocks. I will not stay long.
Nothing in experience led me to imagine
having. Having is destroying, according
to my version of the vow of impoverishment.
But here, in this brief, waxen light,
I have, and nothing is destroyed. The flute
that guttered those owl’s notes into the waste hours
of childhood joins with the piano
and they play, Being is having. Having
may be simply the grace of the shell
moving without hesitation, with lively pride,
up the stubborn river of woe. At the far end,
a door no one dares open begins opening.
To go through it will awaken such regret
as only closing it behind can obliterate.
The candle flame’s staggering makes the room
wobble and shift – matter itself, laughing.
I can’t come back. I won’t change.
I have the usual capacity for wanting
what may not even exist. Don’t worry.
that is dew wetting my face.
You see? Nothing that enters the room
can have only its own meaning ever again.

Galway Kinnell

(from When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone)


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I have suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

Czeslaw Milosz

Berkeley 1972

The Stone Table

Here on the hill behind the house,
we sit with our feet up on the edge
of the eight-by-ten stone slab
that was once the floor of the cow pass
that the cows would use to get from one pasture
to the other without setting a hoof
on the dirt road lying between them.

From here we can see the blackberry thicket,
the maple sapling the moose slashed
with his cutting teeth, turning it
scarlet too early, the bluebird boxes
flown from now, the one tree left
of the ancient orchard popped out
all over with saffron and rosy,
subacid pie apples, smaller crabs grafted
with scions of old varieties, Freedom,
Sops-of-Wine, Wolf River, and trees
we put in ourselves, dotted with red lumps.

We speak in whispers: fifty feet away,
under a red spruce, a yearling bear
lolls on its belly eating clover.
Abruptly it sits up. Did I touch my wine glass
to the table, setting it humming?
The bear peers about with the bleary undressedness
of old people who have mislaid their eyeglasses.
It ups its muzzle and sniffs. It fixes us,
whirls, and plunges into the woods –
a few cracklings and shatterings, and all is still.

As often happens, we find ourselves
thinking similar thoughts, this time of a friend
who lives to the south of that row of peaks
burnt yellow by the sunset. About now,
he will be paying his daily visit to her grave,
reading by heart the words, cut into black granite,
that she had written for him, when they
both thought he would die first:
Or is he back now, in his half-empty house,
talking in ink to a piece of paper.

I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay,
to climb with you on the other evenings to this stone
maybe finding a bear, or a coyote, like
the one who, at dusk, a week ago, passed
in his scissorish gait ten feet from where we sat –
this earth we attach ourselves to so fiercely,
like scions of Sheffield Seek-No-Furthers
grafted for our lifetimes onto paradise root-stock.

Galway Kinnell

(from Strong is Your Hold)


This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Walt Whitman

The Plundering of Circe

Circe had no pleasure in pigs.
Pigs, wolves, nor fawning
lions. She sang in our language
and beautiful, waited for quality.

Every month they came
struggling up from the cove.
The great sea-light behind them.
Each time maybe a world.

Season after season.
Dinner after dinner.
And always at the first measures
of lust became themselves.

Odysseus? A known liar.
A resort darling. Untouchable.

Jack Gilbert

(from Monolithos)


I’m technically dead, they tell me,
but I remember being alive
as if it were yesterday.
I’m covered in mud, like a zombie,
swimming around
in the storms of a new grave.

I remember the world above
and what it was like up there,
thanks to a friend
who sucks my blood for me.
He keeps me alive
in the sense that memories are alive.

Hugo Williams

The Turtle Overnight

I remember him last twilight in his comeliness. When it began to rain, he appeared in his accustomed place and emerged from his shell as far as he could reach – feet, legs, tail, head. He seemed to enjoy the rain the sweet-tasting rain that blew all the way across lake water to him from the mountains, the Alto Adige. It was as near as I’ve ever come to seeing a turtle take a pleasant bath I his natural altogether. All the legendary faces of broken old age disappeared from my mind, the thickened muscles under the chins, the nostrils brutal with hatred, the murdering eyes. He filled my mind with a sweet-tasting mountain rain, his youthfulness, his modesty, as he washed himself alone, his religious face.

For a long time now this morning, I have been sitting at this window and watching the grass below me. A moment ago there was no one there. But now his brindle shell sighs slowly up and down in the midst of the green sunlight. A black watchdog snuffles asleep just beyond him, but I trust neither is afraid of the other. I can see him lifting his face. It is a raising of eyebrows towards the light, an almost imperceptible turning of the chin, an ancient pleasure, an eagerness.

Along his throat there are small folds, dark yellow as pollen shaken across a field of camomilla. The lines on his face suggest only a relaxation, a delicacy in the understanding of the grass, like a careful tenderness I saw once on the face of a hobo in Ohio as he waved greeting to an empty wheat field from the flatcar of a freight train.

But now the train is gone, and the turtle has left his circle of empty grass. I look a long time where he was, and I can’t find a footprint in the empty grass. So much air left, so much sunlight, and still he is gone.

James Wright

(from This Journey)