Like an ant carrying her bits of leaf or sand,,
the poem carries its words.
Moving one, then another, into place.
Something in an ant is sure where these morsels belong,
but the ant could not explain this.
Something in the poem is certain where its words belong,
but the poet could not explain this.
All day the ant obeys an inexplicable order.
All day the poet obeys an incomprehensible demand.
The world changes or does not change by these labors’
the geode peeled open gives off its cold scent or does not.
But that is no concern of the ant’s, of the poem’s.
The work of existence devours its own unfolding.
What dissolves will dissolve –
you, reader, and I, and all our quick angers and longings.
The potato’s sugary hunger for growing larger.
The unblinking heat of the tiger.
No thimble of cloud or stone that will not vanish,
and still the rearrangements continue.
The ant’s work belongs to the ant.
The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.
Balance is noticed most when almost failed of –
in an elephant’s delicate wavering
on her circus stool, for instance,
or that moment
when a ladder starts to tip but steadies back.
There are, too, its mysterious departures.
Hours after the dishes are washed and stacked,
a metal bowl clangs to the floor,
the weight of drying water all that altered;
a painting vertical for years
one morning – why? – requires a restoring tap.
You have felt it disappearing
from your own capricious heart –
a restlessness enters, the small leaning begins.
Already then inevitable,
the full collision,
the life you will describe afterward always as ‘after’.
What appears as a stubbornness,
refusal, or interruption,
is to is a simple privacy. It broods
its one thought like a quail her clutch of eggs.
Mosses and lichens
listen outside the locked door.
Stars turn the length of one winter, then the next.
Rocks fill their own shadows without hesitationm
and do not question silence,
Nor are they discomforted by cold, by rain,, by heat.
The works of a rock is to ponder whatever is:
an act that looks singly like prayer,
but is not prayer.
As for this boulder,
its meditations are slow but complete.
Someday, its thinking worn out, it will be
carried away by an ant.
A Mystrium camillae,
perhaps, caught in some equally diligent,
equally single pursuit of a thought of her own.
Not one of us will live forever –
the world is far too beautiful for that.
When my children ask me about the War, I’ll say:
‘I once watched as columns of retreating cloud
burned in a haar of gulls and dust, off Yesnaby;
and I survived.
It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.
The heart, that other place, its people, ever since the war,
whole continents adrift; rain falling, ash and dark: all
borders distant or forgotten, all passports burned, all leave
abruptly cancelled, all rumours true; and how small it is,
you know, that place, and so little cared for: its children
stolen, its people subjugate; and now so few, let me say, with
everywhere strangers on the move; and yet despite it all,
despite the hunger and the summary injustices, despite the
stones I threw, still they came on, wherever I went, those
ones remaining, hands lifted and empty, still they came after
me and they asked – imagine this – they asked for you.
The body is the herb,
the mind is the honey.
The heart, the heart is
The mind touches the body
and it is the sun.
The mind touches the heart
and is music.
When body touches heart
they together are the moon
in the silently falling snow
over there. Which is truth
exceeding, is the residence,
the sanctified, is the secret
close and passes into glory.
When we get beyond beauty and pleasure
to the other side of the heart (but short
of the spirit), we are confused about what
to do next. It is too easy to say arriving
is enough. To pretend the music
of the mountain needs only to be heard.
That the dance is known by the dancing,
and the lasagne is realized by eating it.
Not in this place on the other side
of desire. We can swim in the Aegean,
but we can’t take it home. A man finds
a melon by the road and continues up
the hill thinking it is the warm melon
that will remain after he has forgotten
the ruins and the sea of the summer. He tells
himself this even as the idea of the taste
is replacing what the melon tasted like.
You promised you would walk with me
In the sun
And by the river, where the trees
Are still in leaf
The trees have been in leaf
Four times since then
Days off are rare
As sun in late fall –
On our desks.
(Trans. from German Michael Hoffman)