Tuesday, December 31, 2013

You are the one to light your new fire

I am not there
to make hurt feelings worse—
I am not there
to fix something broken—

I am not there
to say what should happen—
I am not there
to live in your place—

Instead, I have decided this day
to be on my way—
to wander the earth—
to witness what works—

to send that news back—
to watch for a sign—
to await word of you—
to hear on the wind you are well.

You are the heart song—
the driver, the striver,
the scent in the air,
the dreamer gone dreaming.

You are the one
to choose what will work—
to pick the right path—
to love when you wish—
to embrace whom you will—
to light your new fire.

for Julie

Monday, December 30, 2013

After the Fall

Oh, my sweetheart,
this gut-twisting swamp
of dirt and piss and recrimination,
this dark side of devotion sucked away,

is not what you longed for, imagined
for yourself in the moment before
the crash and the burn.
You offered a gift

unbounded by doubt,
exuberantly generous,

In return,
the great fall,
spectators aghast
and you, a crumpled heap.

The surgeon reminded
of the time a similar sort
of thing happened to Dumpty,
a good egg,

and all the putting together,
the reassembling,
all the muttering and the neighing,
the negativity,

the sense that there would be
no next time. But here you are
between flashbacks, wavering,
feeling not quite ready

for the next pitch and catch.
Good wishes, great advice receding.
Recite your new mantra,
eye on the ball that’s coming.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Thank you, my loves,
for love.
Thank you, my friends,
for friendship.
Thank you, comrades,
for fierceness and music.
Thank you, my heroes,
for courage and dreaming.

Thank you for my full measure
of love and friendship,
music and dreams.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 14, 2013

This is my first day
outliving my father.
His birth and death,
August 25, 1921 – December 13, 1987.

Twenty-six years to the day after
his birth, my own August 25 came
along. Now, 26 years and a day
after his dying, I am still alive.

Once, I wrote about
setting out to steal
lines of poems from others
with intent to build my own,

never knowing from where or who
the thought had come, but now,
this December 14,
I’d steal or borrow

from the lives of others
to become the man
I think it best I be
and make monument

to the man I yet bring with me.
I would be part Dr. King, Jr.
tracing with my fingertips
the great moral arc under which we live.

Bernie would approve. And agree
I should be part brave Ulysses,
fated to be plaything of the gods,
and part Atticus Finch,

tender-hearted truthspeaker,
part Lord Byron, poet
and wanton and nova and young;
part girl or woman,

Katniss, perhaps, or Anne Frank,
or Ella Fitzgerald with her
very big voice.
I would be part an old gray beard,

a Timuel Black, tested
in struggle and in life,
opening the way
for myself reimagined,

young and anonymous,
a socialist in the 21st century,
dreaming egalitarian dreams.
And in me, also

a bit of Bernie,
but not his hubris or his daring,
none of his wish to be
the starlight in our eyes.

That wish might have been decisive for Bernie,
but it was not the most fundamental feature
of the man. No, I’ll not borrow
his hubris or his daring. I have my own.

I’ll not need his corruptible core,
the fatal flaw that caused him to defend
“Epton, before it’s too late,”
as though it might not message

that Harold Washington, you know,
was black, with all that might mean
to white Chicago voters in 1983.
No, I have my own corruptible core.

I have no need of his.
But this I would take:
access to the inexhaustible
spring of loyalty, of enduring affection,

the pool of love
in which he swam a life.
I remember Bernie was a man who kissed men.
And he was the man who kissed me best.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Joy Harjo writes devastatingly beautiful stuff.

It is life affirming. Aspirational. Mythic.

Who would not want to be a poet if that meant one could write like Joy Harjo? Her book The Woman Who Fell From The Sky begins with a prayer, a tribute to Audre Lorde. I'm going to run the whole thing here, because there's no place I can see to cut it:

Reconciliation  A Prayer

We gather at the shore of all knowledge as peoples who were put here by a god who wanted relatives.

This god was lonely for touch, and imagined herself as a woman, with children to suckle, to sing with–to continue the web of the terrifyingly beautiful cosmos of her womb.

This god became a father who wished for others to walk beside him in the belly of creation.

This god laughed and cried with us as a sister at the sweet tragedy of our predicament–foolish humans–

Or built a fire, as our brother to keep us warm.

This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of food enough for everyone in this whole world.

Oh sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside of god's house walk with us as we climb into the next century naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.

We sing our song which we've been promised has no beginning or end.

All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.

We gather up these strands broken from the web of life. They shiver with our love, as we call them the names of our relatives and carry them to our home made of the four directions and sing:

Of the south, where we feasted and were given new clothes.

Of the west, were we gave up the best of us to the stars as food for the battle.

Of the north, where we cried because we were forsaken by our dreams.

Of the east because returned to us is the spirit of all that we love.

for the Audre Lorde Memorial 1993

As her prayer unfolds, Harjo validates everything about us, even though we might gorge ourselves or give up "the best of us to the stars as food for the battle." I'm not sure that Harjo is really praying that "the spirit of all that we love" be returned to us. It seems to me that she's certain that is exactly what will happen. And she's sharing what she knows with us.

Harjo knows this sort of thing because she's always asking questions and getting answers back from somewhere. "Who invented death and crows and is there anything we can do to calm the noisy clatter of destruction?" she asks.

And, from precisely the somewhere to which I so recently referred, comes the answer:

When I hear crows talking, death is a central topic. Death often occurs in clusters, they say. They watch the effect like a wave that moves out from the center of the question. The magnetic force is attractive and can make you want to fly to the other side of the sky.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the gypsy Melquiades writes the history of the Buendia family, from its founder to the last Aureliano; writes in Sanskrit, I think, and then in code, writes relentlessly to chronicle the early history of the Buendias, so that he might catch up to the present and write the Buendias’ history as it unfolds, writes relentlessly so that he might go beyond the present to write the future of the Buendias as he envisions it.

Anyway, the Harjo I’m reading today seems to write our past, present and future in much the same magically competent way. But I can tell you that before this morning, I never appreciated Joy Harjo so much. Today I’m feeling her stuff deeply, not just in my brain, but in my skin and muscle, in my bones.

That sudden difference in my perception has seemed to come to me more often as I’ve begun to assume myself a poet. I was writing poetry for a good while before I experimented with the notion that I was a poet, and calling myself a poet for much longer before I realized how important other poets are to me, how much I like them, how much wisdom and grit and grace they possess, how much I want to be like them.

Maybe I had to call myself a poet before I could see that however great other poets are, they are also mostly people and can be understood on that basis. And so my appreciation has grown and I’ve bought some more poetry books and hopefully a few poets got slightly, very slightly, bigger royalty checks. One must hope.

But hope ain’t enough. Maybe the other lesson here is that the way to support poets is to first teach others to write poetry and find ways to nurture that effort in others until they begin to feel the swelling in their breasts that they, also, are poets and look around to see how many poets there are and get to hobnobbing with them, until all around it gets to feeling like a nation of poets.

Forget, a nation of individualists, forget all the old metaphors, a herd of whatevers, let’s us pass out the paper and pencils and pour or hearts out. Let’s build a nation of poets. Of good old ‘Merican poets. 

We all have a song inside. Poetry is a way to get to that song. The expression of those many songs taking shape as millions of pencilled poems on millions of paper scraps is the path to becoming a nation of poets. Joy Harjo's poetry is constantly uncovering songs and dance and drums and the profound music of silence, both inside and out.

The soundlessness in which they communed is what I imagined when I talked with the sun yesterday. It is the current in the river of your spinal cord that carries memory from sacred places, the sound of a thousand butterflies taking flight in windlessness.

                                 from Harjo's "Wolf Warrior"

Within that song was the beauty of horses. My son's name means lover of horses.

                                 from Harjo's "Sonata for the Invisible"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

To seek more magic

“Cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it,”
the man sang and a friend,
across the room said,

“Those are two of the best lines
I ever heard.” I pretended
to agree, but all the time thinking
I’m not worthy, you’re not,

we’re not worthy.
I ached to throw wide
the doors of perception,
yielded to the tears

of solitude and great notions,
dived so deep,
every breath was fraught,
every way from there was up,

and, he said, as though he knew
what I was thinking,
“That thought should give you courage.”
I cried then, anything but brave,

turned to see my lovely girl nearby,
my fingers slow and tender, a stretch
to reach her, the glow around her
leaking colors I had never seen before,

leaking colors her to me,
and then she was gone,
snake woman shedding her dress,
a relic left behind

and, he said to me, as though he knew
what I was thinking, “What remains of her,
skin and scent and visions,
should give you comfort.”

I pretended to agree,
before I told him
“I have loved you longer than I can count,
but it is time to journey on.”

He looked at me. “May that thought
give you wings,” he said.
We briefly lingered, lips to lips,
before I fell again

beneath that dancing spell
and, remembering the promise
I had made, worthy or not,
left to seek more magic.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Hammering of Earth (Revised)

Something in the heart of a poet

After I first write down a few lines for a poem, I might leave off for a bit, let thoughts percolate or agitate or free associate. But I generally push to complete a draft pretty quickly. And I rarely start another poem before I revise the one I'm working on, get past that first complete draft to a version that feels finished to me.

Once in a great while an unfinished poem I'd forgotten about will somehow resurface and I'll find that I'm interested in working on it again. When that happens, the poem usually gets better.

I've also got a bunch of poems that I've finished more than once. And I say "finished" because with many poems I thought, with something like relief that I was done and then more time of a different sort passed and I rediscovered the poem and it didn't seem finished anymore, so I finished it again. When that happens, I usually feel better about the new effort than I did about the old one.

Proceeding in my usual fashion might suggest that the poems I decide to call finished weren't ever really done. Maybe I'm just in the habit of settling for something that's okay because I'm afraid of how much work it takes to make it better than okay, to make it good. But why?

I do know that when I think about myself as a poet writing poetry, I get this immediate follow-up feeling that maybe that's not who I am and that's not what I'm writing. Maybe I'm just a dumb ass writing drivel.

Maybe what feels profound to me is simply trite. Maybe the serious or playful or loving voice I hear in my head is little more than the babble of my blood rushing by while ego presumes the sound has some universal meaning and the writer has some ability to express it.

But one thing that I rarely do is complete a poem one day and go back to it the very next day. Still, that's what I did today, worked on revising a poem that I finished and posted just yesterday. I did that one thing I almost never do. Decided immediately that what was done wasn't good enough and began to worry it and gnaw it because I had this feeling that it deserved better and that I could make it that way.

So I worked on A Hammering of Earth, the poem I just posted yesterday. Broke it apart some, and added some, and took out some of what struck me today as weaker than it had seemed yesterday. And got all the way to the new end, to the current version and finished-for-now poem. And I think it's better. So I'm going to include the new version in this post.

But I do want to say what I think I may have learned here is this:

Being a poet takes courage. I think the good ones are more consistently brave than I am. But if I really want to be a poet, I'm going to have to learn to be brave, to look at what I've done and say to myself, "you can do better."

Finishing a poem too quickly, getting to the end because it's easy, is probably punching out early, is probably being too eager for the happy hour, pretending the work is done when the drinks are poured. Celebrating too soon is not brave. And probably wouldn't be a common error made by a writer who had the courage of a poet.

Anyway, here's the new version of

A Hammering of Earth

Deep in the grave,
blind in the gloom,
a spasm of wishes,
an eruption of dreams,
a pounding and hammering
and gathering of earth.

Clawing the dirt
in tumult and temper,
a hint of desire,
a longing for more,
a pounding and hammering
and gathering of earth.

In the rough damning circle
he wandered as though
he might blow
the next minute.
Resting, then waxing,
drifting, then winging,
through space hung with shrouds.

Shadow gliding in,
a leopard at night,
she briefly stops by,
a succor of seasons,
a peak and a whisper.
Just so is he rescued,
speeded away,

a new cycle started,
a grandeur of wishing,
a flexing of dreams,
a pounding and hammering
and gathering of earth.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Hammering of Earth

In the red feeling circle
he wandered as though
he might blow
the next minute.
Resting then waxing,
drifting then winging
through space hung with shrouds.

Shadow gliding in,
a leopard at night,
she briefly stops by,
a succor of seasons,
a peak and a whisper.
Just so is he rescued,
speeded away,

a grandeur of wishing,
a flexing of dreams,
a pounding
and hammering
and gathering
of earth.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

June Jordan

For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)

Redwood grove and war
You and me talking
gender grief and ash

I say, 'God! It's all so huge'
You say, 'These sweet trees: This tree'

June Jordan's simple poem about a walk she took with Alice Walker is poignant and important. The poem gets where it's going without pretension and with a very big heart. It makes me want to be a better poet. And the poem seems like evidence that poetry can capture and express complicated feelings, evidence that I can share with people, including friends, who say they don't 'get' poetry.

Those are the two main reasons why I used For Alice Walker to introduce a section in my book Wild Once and Captured. Because I wanted to associate myself with a real poet and I wanted people who don't read poetry to think that it really can speak to them, about them, and, even, on their behalf.

I used to read Jordan's columns when she was a regular contributor to The Progressive. She was a powerful writer and an acute political thinker, though not always a subtle one. Like, here, for instance:

"Into that infamous Tuesday inferno of fire and structural collapse, a humbling number of men and women fell to a horrifying death. And now the rest of us remain, stricken by fear, stricken by grief.
We have become a wilderness of jeopardized loved ones, and terrifying strangers," Jordan wrote during the buildup to war that began so suddenly in the weeks after planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I sometimes thought her writing poetic, but I rarely thought of her as a poet. I would read her columns and move on, almost always affected, sometimes greatly moved. I can't help thinking that she affected me so often and so strongly because she was a poet, whether or not I was aware of that condition.

On an unnumbered page at the very beginning of Naming Our Destiny, a collection of her poems, there are 16 lines, untitled, that put me in mind of magic and great mystery, and of Jordan's occasional mastery of those things:

These poems
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
and are you ready?

These words
they are stones in the water
running away

These skeletal lines
They are desperate arms for my longing and love.

I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me

whoever you are
whoever I may become.

In the book the lines are italicized, but the rest of her poems are not; maybe to make those lines feel more conversational, maybe just to make me pay more attention. And I do pay attention...I mean, I am...I mean, I will...but when Jordan says she is "reaching for you, whoever you are," I start thinking about a similar set of lines from Walt Whitman:

Whoever you are
now I place my hand upon you
that you be
my poem

I love that Whitman and Jordan (both of whom frequently announced that they were "an American") reach out with "desperate arms" and lay their hands on us with such abandon. I give my absolute consent to Whitman and Jordan both. Come ahead, feel me, and let your touch linger.

The truth is, Jordan thinks about such things all the time:


revolutionary struggle

the subject tonight for
public discussion is
our love

we sit apart
apparently at opposite ends of a line
and I feel the distance
between my eyes
between my legs
a dry
dust topography of our separation

In the meantime people
dispute the probabilities
of union

They reminisce about the chasmic histories
no ideology yet dares to surmount

I disagree with you
You disagree with me
The problem seems to be a matter of scale

Can you give me the statistical dimensions
of your mouth on my mouth
your breasts resting on my own?

I believe the agenda involves
several inches (at least)
of coincidence and endless recovery

My hope is that our lives will declare
this meeting open

Jordan's poems sometimes count the dead in places like Soweto and Nicaragua and Mississippi. Rape, each time it happens, occurs over and over again, because Jordan feels each rape as though it happened to her and, she wants us to understand, it happens to the rest of us, too.

When a woman was gang raped in a notorious incident in New Bedford, Mass., Jordan felt it:

This is a promise I am making
it here
legs spread on the pool
table of New Bedford

she wrote in Poem on the Road, for Alice Walker.

The complete poem is so full of Jordan's anguish and rage, it keeps breaking rhythm and building a new one and breaking it again. It's like Jordan can hardly talk and hardly stop talking.

June Jordan puts me in mind of Walt Whitman a lot, except she never pretends to a booming pride. But around the two of them, you never know when sex might break out, or wounds might begin to bleed, or compassion well up.

June Jordan was so fierce and so loving and so passionate about the blood that flows in all of us that
we risk terrible loss if we forget her, or never know her. She's still out there for the knowing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Generosity of Poets

I don't write
     about poetry
because a poem takes
     pretty much
all the energy I'm willing
     to spare.

Still, about poetry,
     or poets,
I do have this
     to say:

I am grateful for all
     the other poets
and all the things
     they've shared.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Joy Road and Livernois

by Marge Piercy

My name was Pat. We used to read Poe in bed
till we heard blood dripping in the closet.
I fell in love with a woman who could ring
all bells of my bones tolling, jangling.
But she in her cape and her Caddy
had to shine in the eyes of the other pimps,
a man among monkeys, so she turned me on the streets
to strut my meek ass. To quiet my wailing,
she taught me to slip the fire in my arm,
the white thunder rolling over till nothing
hurt but coming down. One day I didn’t.
I was fifteen. My face gleamed in the casket.

My name was Evie, we used to shoplift,
my giggling wide-eyed questions, your fast hands;
we picked up boys together on the corners.
The cops busted me for stealing, milled me,
sent me up for prostitution because I weren’t
no virgin. I met my boyfriend in the courts.
Together we robbed a liquor store that wouldn’t
sell us whiskey. I liked to tote a gun.
It was the cleanest thing I ever held.
It was the only power I ever had.
I could look any creep straight on in the eyes.
A state trooper blew my face off in Marquette.

My name was Peggy. Across the street from the gas-
works my mom raised nine kids. My brother-
in-law porked me while my sister gave birth,
choking me with the pillow when I screamed.
I got used to it. My third boyfriend knocked me up.
Now I’ve been pregnant for twenty years,
always a bigger belly than me to push around
like an overloaded wheelbarrow ready to spill
on the blacktop. Now it’s my last one,
a tumor big as a baby when they found it.
When I look in the mirror I see my mom.
Remember how we braided each other’s hair,
mine red, yours black. Now I am bald
as an egg and nearly boiled through.

I was Teresa. I used to carry a long clasp
knife I stole from my uncle. Running nights
through the twitching streets, I’d finger it.
It made me feel as mean as any man.
My boyfriend worked on cars until they flew.
All those hot night riding around and around
when we had no place to go but back.
Those nights we raced out on the highway
faster faster till the blood fizzed in my throat
like shaken soda. It shot in an arc
when he hit the pole and I went out the windshield,
the knife I showed you how to use still
on its leather thong between my breasts
where it didn’t save me from being cut in two.

I was Gladys. Like you, I stayed in school.
I did not lay down in back seats with boys.
I became a nurse, married, had three sons.
My ankles swelled. I worked the night hours
among the dying and accident cases. My husband
left me for a girl he met in a bar, left debts,
a five-year-old Chevy, a mortgage.
My oldest came home in a body bag. My youngest
ran off. The middle one drinks beer and watches
the soaps since the Kelsey-Hays plant closed.
Then my boy began to call me from the alley.
Every night he was out there calling, Mama,
help me. It hurts, Mama! Take me home.
This is the locked ward and the drugs
eat out my head like busy worms.

With each of them I lay down, my twelve-
year-old scrawny tough body like weathered
wood pressed to their pain, and we taught
each other love and pleasure and ourselves.
We invented the places, the sounds, the smells,
the little names. At twelve I was violent
in love, a fiery rat, a whip snake,
a starving weasel, all teeth and speed
except for the sore fruit of my new breasts
pushing out. What did I learn? To value
my pleasure and how little the love of women
can shield against the acid city rain.

You surge among my many ghosts. I never think
I got out because I was smart, brave, hard-
working, attractive. Evie was brave,
Gladys and Teresa were smart. Peggy worked
sixteen hours. Pat gleamed like olivewood
polished to a burnish as if fire lived in wood.
I wriggled through an opening left just big enough
for one. There is no virtue in survival,
only luck, and a streak of indifference
that I could take off and keep going.

I got out of those Detroit blocks where the air
eats stone and melts flesh, where jobs
dangle and you jump and jump, where there are
more drugs than books, more ways to die
than ways to live, because I ran fast,
ran hard, and never stopped looking back.
It is not looking back that turned me
to salt, no, I taste my salt from the mines
under Detroit, the salt of our common juices.
Girls who lacked everything except trouble,
contempt and rough times, girls
used like urinals, you are the salt
keeps me from rotting as the years swell.
I am the fast train you are travelling in
to a world of a different color, and the love
we cupped so clumsily in our hands to catch
rages and drives onward, an engine of light.

"Joy Road and Livernois" by Marge Piercy, from Available Light. (c) Middlemarsh, 1988.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

To suffer it all again

It has always been obvious
to my lovers and children,
to comrades and friends,
that I am an angry man.

I didn’t start that way,
or mean to be like that.
I was never made by anyone
to be other than who I am.

How I got that way remains
beyond my comprehension
and expressions of regret
have been too long delayed.

Confession helps, of course,
but memory makes a better bridge
to a second life in joy and dance
and boiling blood and small victory.

Anger abides as always,
but bends before the recurring wish
to jazz it up once more,
to suffer it all again. 

Darkness at Noon

The unnamed fog that stalks by day,
is dark and deep
and flips the pencil in my hand,
erasing faster than I write.

I am pummeled and buried
and wandered away,
unable to say
how I solve this.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rich, rich as we go

I loved the moment
leaving work behind,
striding long, traveling lean,
one job done, another to come.

The way to where she was,
to where we would welcome
touch and wonder—
not right then, but coming soon—

the way to where she was
rich with byways,
forks and crossings,
some were blazed and others not.

I was fast and I was ready,
and quickly rolling through,
long and longer,
still and quiet,

alone and alone
with green leaves rustling
and winged birds soaring
and damp earth rising

In my turn,
I am rising
to move again along my path,
striding long

and traveling lean
one job done,
another to come,
and rich, rich as we go.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Glorious Day

Once I walked
on a glorious day.
Early light stroking
greens, reds, and even the yellows
to passionate fits,
birds raising
a unified chorus,
leaves and small mammals dancing
a synchronized rustle.

Walked through this
celebratory space,
tuning in slowly
until the clear message came:
This is a glorious fall day.

Monday, October 14, 2013


It is in our DNA
to dream things,
to build some version
of what we dream.

But we have moved so far
from where we started,
standing alone until someone else
stood up, someone on whose shoulders

we could stand to see further,
and see that we were
standing on the shoulders
of those who stood

on the shoulders of those
who stood—and so on and back
through all those compounded dreams,
the serial dreams of who we were

before we were ourselves,
before there were dreams
of complicated things
like wealth and justice,

back when we aspired
to a day without toil,
without torment or terror,
until all those hopes and wishes

became a dream of justice,
a very new thing compared
to how long we have been dreaming
of lesser things.

There is still
another DNA driven thing
that sees a vision of ourselves
resting when the building’s done,

resting in the thing we’ve built,
that sees ourselves
relaxing into the dream
that became the thing we built,

like some retiree
on a white sand beach
who is thrilled to spend a day
without dreaming.

Mind and boldness mix and blend
in the dream we aspire to build,
wishing along the way
to be done with this building,

to be living in the dream complete;
and wishing along the way
to seize the dream of justice,
the thing that can’t be built,

cannot be seized
or even dreamed alone,
the thing that sometimes seems,
but never is,

And there we wish to rest,
relax into the thing that can’t be built
alone, will always be unfinished.

It follows then that in the matter
of justice, it is the journey
that makes the difference,
that becomes our measure.

like she who is no longer distressed by struggle,
we must be satisfied to dream,
and to build, together.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Thanks for Writing, Jorie Graham

Mid-morning. Overcast. A brisk breeze carrying a hint of chill.

Lots of birds about. A jittery flight of starlings comes and goes.

As the breeze picks up, becomes wind, the dominant noise is a rustle of leaves so loud it makes me think, "racket of leaves."

There's a warning on that wind. "You won't be wanting to sit here, nursing your outdoor poetry shtick, when the rain on the way actually arrives."

I open Jorie Graham's book, Overlord. It's a beautiful book, a thin volume, hardcover, more rectangular than most books, but perfect for poetry. A small, evocative collage, centered against the black background of the dust jacket, features a red smear, something like an ideogram, overlaying fragments of newspapers in French and English. The book design is totally first-class. Lucky Jorie. I'm jealous.

I don't usually want to like Jorie Graham. I don't "get" a good number of her poems, which frequently seem to feature literary allusions I don't understand. I have no idea who she is really, but I always think of her as some genteel WASP lady from the East Coast, somewhere, or maybe from some college town where one of her parents was a professor of literature. But I don't actually know who she is.

And, oh boy, I really do like her poem, "Impressionism," which begins with "the silent little girl in a white frock," posed on a picturesque little bridge, imagined, perhaps, or strategically positioned in the French landscape, so that Graham's poem might begin with the kind of Victorian image characteristic of so many Impressionist paintings.

The girl, whose "hair is held by tiny yellow bows," seems to recede in the distance, replaced by a heron whose "foot uplifts in the isosceles of just a single wading-step--half-interrupted," revealing "the half-truth that can be caught."

Further along, the poet observes "eleven crabs  attached, all feeding wildly" and "clacking their armors into each other," not long before they themselves are "crushed, each, at the head by the child's hammer taken to them one by one."

As she collects her many impressions of the world around her, Graham discovers that she has moved on to a place a surprisingly long distance away.

"There's no way back believe me.
I'm writing you from there."

And, as the rain about which the wind had given warning begins to fall, outdoor poetry season is interrupted. It is the indoors for me, at least for now. But I am grateful to Graham for taking the time to write.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Thing Worth Repeating

Thinking a thing worth repeating
is part of how human we are.
Sharing that thought
with the context it needs
to make sense to the world
as it does in your head
is the work coming next,
the labor ahead;
is how you are heard saying
your thing worth repeating.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

As If We Planned It All

We remember all
or none.
There is no part way here,
no victimizer
without victims,
no Ariel Castro without

No Castro without Jocelyn Berry,
the daughter of raped Amanda.
No Castro without all the stories
of Berry and DeJesus and Knight
determined to endure.
No improbabilities here,
not once the stories begin
and grind their way to some end.

No stories without all the stories,
without knowing how Ariel Castro
became himself, without the pain he caused,
the pain from which he came.
Pain with or without the courage to flee.
End with or without the will to turn
and face the demons coming on.

About Ariel Castro
there is everything
and nothing to say.
Who will tell the story
of how Castro got that way?
Who will say how his life
was truncated and tormented
and tortured before he met
Figueroa and Berry and DeJesus and Knight
and used horror to change
the arc of their lives?

Ah, the sympathy we feel for Castro's victims,
the means by which we hide
from the way we sent
Berry and DeJesus and Knight
to twisted therapy in Castro’s home.
Who will remember
Berry and Dejesus and Knight
on their way to whatever happens next,
happens after Castro has hung himself?
Who remembers Grimilda Figueroa
and her four children?

Who remembers what we did
or didn’t do to Trayvon Martin
before George Zimmerman?
Remembers that we sent Zimmerman to meet
Martin on the street?
Who remembers James Byrd dragged
behind John King’s truck for miles?
Who remembers Matthew Shepherd,
remembers what we did?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mary Oliver's Dog Songs rule

Vick Mickunas gave me his review copy of Dog Songs, the soon-to-be-released book of poems by Mary Oliver.

He wrote a little note in the book, signed it over to me this way:

"Dear Jeff, poetry is an art. It rarely pays but it sure feels good. Vick"

On Vick's radio show, recorded over the phone while I was still in DC, I recited "The Courage All Around " and "Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian."

Then Vick recited Mary O's poem, "How It Is With Us, How It Is With Them."

It's a great poem. Everyone should read it. "The Storm (Bear)" is another good one, short and wise. It says better what I've tried to say in some of my own poems, like, say, "Ecstasy" or "The Smell of Eternity," which is also a dog poem.

But the poem from Dog Songs that I want to share here is "If You Are Holding This Book," which reads:

You may not agree, you may not care, but
if you are holding this book you should know
that of all the sights I love in this world--
and there are plenty--very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes."

There's only one thing that I'd change in Oliver's poem. I'd move the "of" at the end of the fourth line  to the beginning of the fifth and last line. How's that for picking nits?


In this moment,
the world around is a perfect space.
The hot point inside you
and the cold point there
balance the hot and cold
the whole universe around.

In this moment,
you rip loose, run
naked, unshod,
down streets and alleys,
toe and heel transforming asphalt
to sea foam, soothing your soul.

In this moment,
you stride this way,
whip arms swinging,
shoulders like easy oil,
greasing and flinging you
through damp and distance.

The darkness divides for you,
long strider stampeding by,
bearing secrets.

Like racehorses and hound dogs,
nostrils grasping and snatching
your own scent, the moist surround,
all the exuberant plants of the night.

You are hailed,
and called
to this exquisite place.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Transgressive Acts of Men

Excluded from the matrilineal ascent,
I intrude.
I am before and beyond
all my mothers,

all my daughters,
mothering the clan;
in my DNA,
the Amazonian last daughter

staring in wonder
at the brink,
holding the hand
of all my sisters,

mindful of our brothers,
among whom I once was counted;
all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Tomorrow for the second step

I’m thinking time
for the next book,
fiction or otherwise,
bio- or auto-,

titled maybe
“Misdiagnosed, self-medicated, freely
associated and so on
and so forth”

sub-titled maybe
“A memoir of traps
in place and in time”
authored by Longing to Get Out

ghostwritten maybe
by Anything for a Buck
and published maybe
by Slow to Print Books & Son

thinking maybe that if the title
and sub-title and author’s name
and ghostwriter’s credit are
long enough and clear enough

the book itself can go short.
Page one would begin
because that is what page one does,
page two would begin

with a cliché
about journeys of self-discovery
and segue into
a discussion of agoraphobia

depression and related maladies
and my favorite vegetable
treatment, a topical ointment

to get the hero out the door
where what happens next
will not be therapeutic,
but colorful maybe

 and as the train of thought
rumbles on thinking
I’ll post this on Facebook maybe
and the train suddenly derails

with a roaring and a squealing
the hero somehow avoiding injury,
dragging himself home,
suffering a few cuts,

making somehow out of all of this
a silk potholder, if not a purse,
embroidering as finishing touch
“Tomorrow for the second step!”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

If not us...

What if geography overwhelmed
history? Left us with no story
to tell? It would begin
and begin and begin.

The end, if it came,
would be a long time coming
and look like we’d seen it all before.
We wouldn’t decisively know

what we’d seen and the words
for regret would sound little
and late, if we heard them at all.
When the glaciers came,

they’d press down hard,
grinding and gravelling
our stillborn lives and,
if we could see ourselves,

we’d be so much unambitious
dust. It would begin
and begin and begin,
and when the wind picked up

the dust, it would whisper
late summer’s turn to fall,
snow yet to come,
to bury all our undreamed dreams

in mounds where our endless
undanced dances
would begin and begin
and begin

a fruitless drift,
never to arrive at the foot
of the tower,
with the faint image

of god unremarked,
and nothing but ghosts passing by
in a place no one could name.

Never to get to where
history remembers who we are,
where hope is a gift
we must work harder to give.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Two Poems

Bends for a Time as if Tame

Already begun
the slipping away,
the traveler poem comes
on the crest of a wave,
seeking two or three words, maybe four.

The flank-heaving poem
rests in our care,
bends, for a time,
as if tame.
Next the words and the writer

stand on the shore
thanking the poem
for the time,
watching the poem
roll away.

Counting on You

I wish my voice
would rumble the bones
in your ear
as it thunders in mine,
could speak the same truth
it whispers in mine,
could sing the same song
that I'm hearing.