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.