smokers of paper :: cesare pavese

translated by geoffrey brock

He’s brought me to hear his band. He sits in a corner
mouthing his clarinet. A hellish racket begins.
Outside, through flashes of lightning, wind gusts
and rain whips, knocking the lights out
every five minutes. In the dark, their faces
give it their all, contorted, as they play a dance tune
from memory. Full of energy, my poor friend
anchors them all from behind. His clarinet writhes,
breaks through the din, passes beyond it, releasing
like a lone soul, into a dry, rough silence.

The poor pieces of brass have been dented too often:
the hands working the stops also work in the fields,
and the obstinate brows stay fixed on the ground.
Miserable worn-out blood, weakened
by too many labors—you can hear it groan
in their notes, as my friend struggles to lead them,
his own hands hardened from swinging a hammer,
from pushing a plane, from scraping a living.

He’s lost all his old comrades, and he’s only thirty.
Part of the postwar group that grew up on hunger.
They all came to Turin, to look for a life,
and discovered injustice. He learned, without smiling,
how to work in a factory. He learned how to measure
the hunger of others with his own fatigue—
injustice was everywhere. He tried to find peace
by walking, at night, down streets without ends,
half-asleep, but found only thousands of streetlamps
blazing down on iniquity: hoarse women and drunks,
staggering puppets, far from their homes, He came,
one winter, to Turin—factory lights, smoke and ash—
and he learned what work is. He accepted that work
was part of a man’s hard fate; if all men did that,
there just might be some justice in this world.
And he found new comrades. He suffered their long words,
he listened and waited for them to be over.
He made them his comrades. Families of them
in each house, the city surrounded by them, the face
of the world covered with them. And each of them
felt desperate enough to conquer the world.

They sound harsh tonight, despite all the time
he spent coaching each player. He ignores the loud rain
and the flickering lights. His face is severe,
fixed on some grief, almost biting the mouthpiece.
I’ve seen this expression before, one evening, just us
and his brother, who’s ten years sadder than him.
We were up late in the dim light, the brother studying
a lathe he had built that didn’t work right,
and my poor friend cursing the fate that kept him there,
bound to his hammer and plane, feeding a pair
of old people he never asked for.
                                         That’s when he yelled
that it wasn’t fate that made the world suffer
or made the daylight spark blasphemous outbursts:
man is the guilty one. If we only could just leave,
and be hungry and free, and say no
to a life that uses our love and our piety,
our families, our patches of dirt, to shackle our hands.

introduction to poetry :: billy collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

a quick one before I go :: david lehman

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants
red brick houses where I shall give up booze
and organized religion even if it means
despair is a logical possibility that can’t
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five
senses and what they half perceive and half
create, the green street signs with white
letters on them the body next to mine
asleep while I think these thoughts
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do
like a pronoun out of step with all the other
floating signifiers no things but in words
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

the skin’s broken aria :: jennifer chang

I cross the street
and my skin falls off. Who walks
to an abandoned lake? Who
abandons lakes? I ask questions
to evade personal statements. When you are
skinless, you cannot bear to be
more vulnerable. With skin, I
would say I am in love with
Love
as in that old-time song
crooners like to croon. With skin,
I would wear elbow-length opera gloves
of pearly satin. Protect my skin.
Hide it. There is no skin
like my skin. How I miss it —
I miss it as I would a knitted bonnet, a
pewter teaspoon to stir sugar into hot water.
My great passion was my skin. The lover
I loved. They don’t
sell skin at Wal-Mart. And really, how
could I, humanely, buy it? Would you ever
give me your skin? This is a terrible world
we live in. There are mistakes and
batteries littering a junk drawer,
where Mother would hide my house keys and Father
would store his eyeballs. Do you know
Puccini? Do you spill silk
at the gorgeous onslaught of love, of Pinkerton’s
lurking return? Butterfly had no skin either
but you could not tell from the outer left
balcony. As I lay in a bed
of my dead skin, I dream of Butterfly
and what she could have done instead:
run away to this little room
to lose her aching voice, to listen
to the hourly ringing of bells
that is really the souring birdsong
of a child, skinned and
laughing, a child that will never be hers.

tang :: bruce cohen

If I do not witness these leaves turning orange, who will?

I stir myself:
I like to think

Of myself as a reincarnated Poet from the Tang Dynasty,
Dehydrated orange drink
Astronauts gulped orbiting this planet
That became a fun ‘60’s breakfast staple,

The bitter tang of a car’s squealing tires as it peels out,
Any distinguishing characteristic that provides special individuality.

Isn’t it a very personal moment when each of us
Recognizes we are failing,
That we’re incomplete, outdated perhaps,
& need something new to make us valid,

Sobbing on the mudroom floor,
Praying hands through a broken screen door,
Begging the aftermath of someone to come back,

Or watching our planet grow
Smaller below us
That we discover it is
Impossible
To ever become
One hundred percent reconstituted?

I am not where I am right now, in this autumn.

My mind is not what it used to be either.
There is no more just-add water.

None of us can prove our previous lives.

I mean pervious: I meant disprove:

heaven for helen :: mark doty

Helen says heaven, for her,
would be complete immersion
in physical process,
without self-consciousness—

to be the respiration of the grass,
or ionized agitation
just above the break of a wave,
traffic in a sunflower’s thousand golden rooms.

Images of exchange,
and of untrammeled nature.
But if we’re to become part of it all,
won’t our paradise also involve

participation in being, say,
diesel fuel, the impatience of trucks
on August pavement,
weird glow of service areas

along the interstate at night?
We’ll be shiny pink egg cartons,
and the thick treads of burst tires
along the highways in Pennsylvania:

a hell we’ve made to accompany
the given: we will join
our tiresome productions,
things that want to be useless forever.

But that’s me talking. Helen
would take the greatest pleasure
in being a scrap of paper,
if that’s what there were to experience.

Perhaps that’s why she’s a painter,
finally: to practice disappearing
into her scrupulous attention,
an exacting rehearsal for the larger

world of things it won’t be easy to love.
Helen I think will master it, though I may not.
She has practiced a long time learning to see
I have devoted myself to affirmation,

when I should have kept my eyes on the ground.