Give me your hand
Make room for me
to lead and follow
beyond this rage of poetry.
Let others have
the privacy of
and love of loss
Give me your hand.
Give me your hand
Make room for me
to lead and follow
beyond this rage of poetry.
Let others have
the privacy of
and love of loss
Give me your hand.
Who is this fish, still wearing its wealth,
flat on my drainboard, dead asleep,
its suit of mail proof only against the stream?
What is it to live in a stream,
to dwell forever in a tunnel of cold,
never to leave your shining birthsuit,
never to spend your inheritance of thin coins?
And who is the stream, who lolls all day
in an unmade bed, living on nothing but weather,
singing, a little mad in the head,
opening her apron to shells, carcasses, crabs,
eyeglasses, the lines of fisherman begging for
news from the interior—oh, who are these lines
that link a big sky to a small stream
that go down for great things:
the cold muscle of the trout,
the shinning scrawl of the eel in a difficult passage,
hooked—but who is this hook, this cunning
and faithful fanatic who will not let go
but holds the false bait and the true worm alike
and tears the fish, yet gives it up to the basket
in which it will ride to the kitchen
of someone important, perhaps the Pope
who rejoices that his cook has found such a fish
and blesses it and eats it and rises, saying,
“Children, what is it to live in the stream,
day after day, and come at last to the table,
transfigured with spices and herbs,
a little martyr, a little miracle;
children, children, who is this fish?”
Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.
Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm
Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone you will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace
Today, let this light bless you
With these friends let it bless you
With snow-scent and lavender bless you
Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly
Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears
Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes
Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you
Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days
I have not disappeared.
The boulevard is full of my steps. The sky is
full of my thinking. An archbishop
prays for my soul, even though
we only met once, and even then, he was
busy waving at a congregation.
The ticking clocks in Vermont sway
back and forth as though sweeping
up my eyes and my tattoos and my metaphors,
and what comes up are the great paragraphs
of dust, which also carry motes
of my existence. I have not disappeared.
My wife quivers inside a kiss.
My pulse was given to her many times,
in many countries. The chunks of bread we dip
in olive oil is communion with our ancestors,
who also have not disappeared. Their delicate songs
I wear on my eyelids. Their smiles have
given me freedom which is a crater
I keep falling in. When I bite into the two halves
of an orange whose cross-section resembles my lungs,
a delta of juices burst down my chin, and like magic,
makes me appear to those who think I’ve
disappeared. It’s too bad war makes people
disappear like chess pieces, and that prisons
turn prisoners into movie endings. When I fade
into the mountains on a forest trail,
I still have not disappeared, even though its green facade
turns my arms and legs into branches of oak.
It is then I belong to a southerly wind,
which by now you have mistaken as me nodding back
and forth like a Hasid in prayer or a mother who has just
lost her son to gunfire in Detroit. I have not disappeared.
In my children, I see my bulging face
pressing further into the mysteries.
In a library in Tucson, on a plane above
Buenos Aires, on a field where nearby burns
a controlled fire, I am held by a professor,
a General, and a photographer.
One burns a finely wrapped cigar, then sniffs
the scented pages of my books, scouring
for the bitter smell of control.
I hold him in my mind like a chalice.
I have not disappeared. I swish the amber
hue of lager on my tongue and ponder the drilling
rigs in the Gulf of Alaska and all the oil-painted plovers.
When we talk about limits, we disappear.
In Jasper, TX you can disappear on a strip of gravel.
I am a shrug of a life in sacred language.
Right now: termites toil over a grave.
My mind is a ravine of yesterdays.
At a glance from across the room, I wear
September on my face,
which is eternal, and does not disappear
even if you close your eyes once and for all
simultaneously like two coffins.
translated from the chinese by austin woerner
Where the immemorial and the instant meet, opening and distance appear.
Through the opening: a door, crack of light.
Behind the door, a kitchen.
Where the knife rises and falls, clouds gather, disperse.
A lightspeed joining of life and death, cut
in two: halves of a sun, of slowness.
Halves of a turnip.
A mother in the kitchen, a lifetime of cuts.
A cabbage cut into mountains and rivers,
a fish, cut along its leaping curves,
laid on the table
still yearning for the pond.
cut into premonitions of snow.
A potato listens to the onion-counterpoint
of the knife, dropping petals at its strokes:
self and thing, halves of nothing
at the center of time.
Where gone and here meet, the knife rises, falls.
But this mother is not holding a knife.
What she has been given is not a knife
but a few fallen leaves.
The fish leaps over the blade from the sea
to the stars. The table is in the sky now,
the market has been crammed into the refrigerator,
and she cannot open cold time.
And not to feel bad about dying.
Not to take it so personally—
it is only
the force we exert all our lives
to exclude death from our thoughts
that confronts us, when it does arrive,
as the horror of being excluded— . . .
something like that, the Canadian wind
coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow
appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.
Poem for Sriram Shamasunder
And All of Poetry for the People
It’s a sunlit morning
with jasmine blooming
and a drove of robin redbreasts
diving into the ivy covering
what used to be
a backyard fence
or doves shoving aside
the birch tree leaves
a young man walks among
to my doorway
where he knocks
then stands still
brilliant in a clean white shirt
He lifts a soft fist
to that door
and knocks again
He’s come to say this
was or that
anyone of us to do
about what’s done
but prickling salt to sting
What’s anyone of us to do
about what’s done
And 7-month-old Bingo
that clean white shirt
with muddy paw
and here and there
And what’s anyone of us to do
about what’s done
I say I’ll wash the shirt
two times through
the delicate blue cycle
of an old machine
the shirt spins in the soapy
suds and spins in rinse
and spins out dry
still marked by accidents
by energy of whatever serious or trifling cause
the shirt stays dirty
from that puppy’s paws
I take that fine white shirt
the threads as soft as baby
fingers weaving them
and I wash that shirt
between the knuckles of my own
I scrub and rub that shirt
to take the dirty
At the pocket
and around the shoulder seam
and on both sleeves
the dirt the paw
prints tantalize my soap
my water my sweat
invested in the restoration
of a clean white shirt
And on the eleventh try
I see no more
no anything unfortunate
I hold the limp fine
between the faucet stream
of water as transparent
as a wish the moon stayed out
How small it has become!
That clean white shirt!
How like a soft fist knocking on my door!
And now I hang the shirt
as slowly as it needs
to work its way
A clean white shirt
nobody wanted to spoil
much cleaner now but also
not the same
as the first before that shirt
got hit got hurt
a clean white shirt
It’s hard to keep a clean shirt clean.
The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years—
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.
Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.
Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.
Look she said this is not the distance
we wanted to stay at—We wanted to get
close, very close. But what
is the way in again? And is it
too late? She could hear the actions
rushing past—but they are on
another track. And in the silence,
or whatever it is that follows,
there was still the buzzing: motes, spores,
aftereffects and whatnot recalled the morning after.
Then the thickness you can’t get past called waiting.
Then the you, whoever you are, peering down to see if it’s
Then just the look on things being looked-at.
Then just the look of things being seen.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
So many things can ruin a picnic—
mosquitoes, for instance, arriving
in a gray hum or black flies or a wind
strong enough to blow napkins
over the lawn like white butterflies,
steaks stolen by dogs, unruly fire,
thunderstorms that come on suddenly,
clouds converging over a field,
where you have just unpacked
your basket. It’s amazing, really,
that people have picnics at all
considering how many plates
have fallen in the dirt and how many
hot dogs have erupted in black blisters,
how many children have climbed hills
alive with poison ivy and how much ice
has melted before the drinks
were ever poured. It’s amazing
how many people still want to eat
on a blanket anyway, are still willing
to take their chances, to endure
whatever may fall or bite. Either they
don’t consider the odds of success
or they don’t care. Some of them
must not mind the stains on their pants,
the heavy watermelon that isn’t sweet
once it’s carved. Some must understand
the way lightning is likely to strike
an open field. Even so—they wrap up
a few pieces of fried chicken, fold
a tablecloth until it is as small as hope.
They carry an umbrella or a jacket
that they accidentally drop on the ground
where it fills with bees. They leave
the houses they built to keep them safe
and eat uncovered, ignoring the thunder,
their egg salad growing dangerously hot.
In barlight alchemized: gold pate, the bellmouth
tenor, liquor trapped in a glass. The e-flat
clarinet chases time, strings shudder,
remembering the hundred tongues. Here comes old
snakeshine, scrolls stored in the well, here comes
the sobbing chazzan. O my lucky uncle,
you’ve escaped the Czar’s army. Thunder
is sweet. Here comes the boink, boink bossa
nova slant of light. Snow-dollars
dissolve on a satin tongue. The river
swells green, concrete trembles, and we
sweat, leaning toward mikes and wires
as the last tune burns down to embers. Ash-
whispers. We were born before we were born.
Ice in the trees.
Three Queens at the Palace gates,
dressed in furs, accented;
their several sweating, panting beasts
laden for a long hard trek,
following the guide and boy to the stables;
courteous, confident; oh, and with gifts
for the King and Queen of here–Herod, me–
in exchange for sunken baths, curtained beds,
fruit, the best of meat and wine,
dancers, music, talk–
as it turned out to be,
with everyone fast asleep, save me,
those vivid three–
till bitter dawn.
They were wise. Older than I.
They knew what they knew.
Once drunken Herod’s head went back,
they asked to see her,
fast asleep in her crib,
my little child.
Silver and gold,
the loose change of herself,
glowed in the soft bowl of her face.
Grace, said the tallest Queen.
Strength, said the Queen with the hennaed hands.
The black Queen
made a tiny starfish of my daughter’s fist,
said Happiness; then stared at me,
Queen to Queen, with insolent lust.
Watch, they said, for a star in the east–
a new star
pierced through the night like a nail.
It means he’s here, alive, newborn.
Who? Him. The Husband. Hero. Hunk.
The Boy Next Door. The Paramour. The Je t’adore.
The Marrying Kind. Adulterer. Bigamist.
The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat.
The Heartbreaker. The Ladykiller. Mr Right.
My baby stirred,
suckled the empty air for milk,
till I knelt
and the black Queen scooped out my breast,
the left, guiding it down
to the infant’s mouth.
No man, I swore,
will make her shed one tear.
A peacock screamed outside.
Afterwards, it seemed like a dream.
The pungent camels
kneeling in the snow,
the guide’s rough shout
as he clapped his leather gloves,
hawked, spat, snatched
the smoky jug of mead
from the chittering maid–
she was twelve, thirteen.
I watched each turbaned Queen
rise like a god on the back of her beast.
And splayed that night
below Herod’s fusty bulk,
I saw the fierce eyes of the black Queen
flash again, felt her urgent warnings scald
my ear. Watch for a star, a star.
It means he’s here…
Some swaggering lad to break her heart,
some wincing Prince to take her name away
and give a ring, a nothing, nowt in gold.
I sent for the Chief of Staff,
a mountain man
with a red scar, like a tick
to the mean stare of his eye.
Take men and horses,
knives, swords, cutlasses.
Ride East from here
and kill each mother’s son.
Do it. Spare not one.
To the dragon
any loss is
total. His rest
if a single
in the nest
of his gold
loss is token.
A Montparnasse August
with view of the Cimetière. A yard of bones.
We wake to it. Close curtains to it.
Wake to its lanes. Rows of coffin-stones in varying light.
Walking here. Late with shade low, low, long.
We’re passing through, just passing through
neat aisles of gray mausoleums.
(From Paris. Send this postcard. This one.
Calm water lilies. Water lilies.
It’s morning. Baudelaire’s tomb.
Tree limbs casting shadow west.
This, a lot of time under a looming sky.
Nobody has time like this.
(Time to go to Le Mandarin for coffee
every day. We’re not complaining.
They bring the milk separate.
Watch the passersby on Saint-Germain.)
Nothing to ponder. This is the plight.
Pause by Pigeon in bed with his wife —
both fully dressed.
Pink flowers, pink flowers,
just beneath de Beauvoir’s name.
When she lived she lived two doors down.
Went south in August.
All of us smell of heat all the time.
We are the living. Oh dear!
There are the dead ones there.
Their thoughts more familiar, though.
Lives finished, nearly clear.
And they make it possible for us to go on living
as we do in their blue shade.
One song of Time’s swift hour,
To carve on mountain rock,
Where colorless pure air
Eludes the flying pleasure
And sculptures a clean branch
From storm and avalanche.
Only on mountain tops
Where the trout streams fall
From living rock to rock
To reach the mother stream,
Let the lost song by scattered
On heights where it was nurtured.
For so you moved and passed,
Sky cool against the mountains,
A diamond brilliant glacier
Burning upon the peaks
Your cold and steady flame
Vanished as it came;
Leaving no fires in heaven
But a superb wind-music
In the high altitude
Against a threatening wood
Where the white nights are streaming,
In storm-notes darkly gleaming.
And seen as through a fever
The detached world, burning, turning
On the stripped, cold rock
Still through your anguish smiling
(Beneath God’s blazing Eye)
To hear the wounded silence
Plead to the leaden sky.
I who flounder deep in the things of the spirit,
Deep in the things of the flesh, and deep in song.
Burn this self till I can no longer bear it,
Life frenzying my ears like a deep gong—
I, who have not learned to walk as yet
High above men, with dark peace in my eyes,
To walk wisely, knowing only to let
My wise hands covet the trees, desire the skies:
I, abandoned to things bright or ugly,
To all things living, asking, bowed or bold,
Marvel at you, wrapped securely, snugly,
In beauty and bearing. You seem strangely old—
Until I suddenly know that you have gone
Through places I have feared to tread upon.
Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,
aren’t us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.
Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Madison, Wisconsin, 1996
Here is a genial congregation,
well fed and rosy with health and appetite,
robust children in tow. They have come
and all the generations of them, to be fed,
their old ones too who are eligible now
for a small discount, having lived to a ripe age.
Over the heaped and steaming plates, one by one,
heads bow, eyes close; the blessings are said.
Here there is good will; here peace
on earth, among the leafy greens, among the fruits
of the gardens of America’s heartland. Here is abundance,
here is the promised
land of milk and honey, out of which
a flank of the fatted calf, thick still
on its socket and bone, rises like a benediction
over the loaves of bread and the little fishes, belly-up in butter.
This is the season of her dying, and you
have kept it, I find, underneath the stairs
in a box filled with photographs—her daybook
of that last year, the calendar a narrative
she did not intend to write. In the grid
of days, I see her habit had been to record
in pencil what might be erased, moved, saving
the indelible black for what could not change:
your birthday, hers, your anniversary. And in
that same decisive hand, the disease began
to eclipse this order, but she erased nothing.
Now from beneath the days the hospital claimed,
her first, latent words emerge, faint but certain
as images of ribs cradling milky lungs, the flesh forgotten
as water you can see through to the bottom.
But sometimes I forget where I am,
Imagine myself inside that life again.
Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps,
Or more likely colorless light
Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.
And when I begin to believe I haven’t left,
The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke
Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
Straining against the noise of traffic, music,
Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
And that scamper of feeling in my chest,
As if the day, the night, wherever it is
I am by then, has been only a whir
Of something other than waiting.
We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,
And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,
It’s impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you
Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they know.
Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,
the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet—too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments
of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We’re near the end,
but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring
love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.
Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.
They wanted to cut you out
but they will not.
They said you were immeasurably empty
but you are not.
They said you were sick unto dying
but they were wrong.
You are singing like a school girl.
You are not torn.
in celebration of the woman I am
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
I sing for you. I dare to live.
Hello, spirit. Hello, cup.
Fasten, cover. Cover that does contain.
Hello to the soil of the fields.
Each cell has a life.
There is enough here to please a nation.
It is enough that the populace own these goods.
Any person, any commonwealth would say of it,
“It is good this year that we may plant again
and think forward to a harvest.
A blight had been forecast and has been cast out.”
Many women are singing together of this:
one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,
one is at the aquarium tending a seal,
one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,
one is at the toll gate collecting,
one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona,
one is straddling a cello in Russia,
one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt,
one is painting her bedroom walls moon color,
one is dying but remembering a breakfast,
one is stretching on her mat in Thailand,
one is wiping the ass of her child,
one is staring out the window of a train
in the middle of Wyoming and one is
anywhere and some are everywhere and all
seem to be singing, although some can not
sing a note.
in celebration of the woman I am
let me carry a ten-foot scarf,
let me drum for the nineteen-year-olds,
let me carry bowls for the offering
(if that is my part).
Let me study the cardiovascular tissue,
let me examine the angular distance of meteors,
let me suck on the stems of flowers
(if that is my part).
Let me make certain tribal figures
(if that is my part).
For this thing the body needs
let me sing
for the supper,
for the kissing,
for the correct
One night, when
you return to your childhood
a lifetime away,
you’ll find it
paint will be
It will have
a significant westward lean.
There will be
a hole in its roof
that bats fly
The old man
at the front door
will be prepared
to give you a tour,
but first he’ll ask
Scary, or no scary?
You should say
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
At the equinox when the earth was veiled in a late rain,
wreathed with wet poppies, waiting spring,
The ocean swelled for a far storm and beat its boundary,
the ground-swell shook the beds of granite.
I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray,
the established sea-marks, felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent,
before me the mass and double stretch of water.
I said: You yoke the Aleutian seal-rocks with the lava
and coral sowings that flower the south,
Over your flood the life that sought the sunrise faces ours
that has followed the evening star.
The long migrations meet across you and it is nothing to you,
you have forgotten us, mother.
You were much younger when we crawled out of the womb
and lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline.
It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since then
and you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness,
the insolent quietness of stone.
The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars,
life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye
that watched before there was an ocean.
That watched you fill your beds out of the condensation
of thin vapor and watched you change them,
That saw you soft and violent wear your boundaries down,
eat rock, shift places with the continents.
Mother, though my song’s measure is like your
surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire,
both our tones flow from the older fountain.
At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses .
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.