Friday, October 23, 2015

This is not a poem

This is not a poem.
However much it may be
that words may witness,
this is not a poem.

Witness lives lost, wasted,
ground to dust, witness with words,
but that will not make
this poem.

Voices may cry out,
as poems sometimes do,
for justice, for approximations
of mercy, but this is not a cry.

This is merely the soft sound
a mind may make
when it has gotten used
to the converging unquiet.

This is the moment
when you cannot hear me
and the moment
when I cannot hear me.

It is the moment
before the cry,
before the words,
before the poem.

This is the moment
when the pencil
makes the sound
of stitching wounds.

This is the moment
before healing begins,
the moment
that healing begins.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

We should not seek the peace that comes before the fight

Twenty-two veterans a day
contrive and execute
their own death.
And how many who try today
will die tomorrow?

A friend writes poems
about vets who learn
to walk again,
the first of many thresholds
he will cross.

Word comes today
that Afghan soldiers
have retaken Kunduz.
Taliban vow retaliation.
Overhead, U.S. jets breathe fire.

How many will do a warrior’s dance
in celebration of survival
while hope and meaning
bleed out of casually abused
and uncounted broken bodies?

A friend writes poetry
about the anguish of witness,
which, she says,
is really the lament
of the powerless.

She lies awake at night
counting the stumble of victims
and by day writes
rambling questions
about why she cannot sleep.

What about the Syrians,
slogging through the surf,
she asks, when they lay down
to sleep, do they count the children
who remain alive?

Word comes that the court
has ruled that guilty enough will do
and the hangman rues the day
he took this job,
his shoulders slumped by so much toil.

Word comes that the court
has ruled that the verdict
does not apply to officers
with very important jobs to do
in communities of color.

A friend writes poetry
about bombs exploding in his head,
then hikes to deep and to dark
and to where he burns
and buries all his poems.

And I write to him.
What happens after
you are done dancing alone?
And he invites me to lie with him.
Together, he says, we will count.

Count what?
Yes, exactly, count whatever.
Count victims, he says. Count children.
Count the wounded.
Count the wounded women who survive.

We should not do these things
separately, he says. We should not seek
the peace that comes before the fight.
We should witness together.
We should speak.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Dawn of Our Own Good Day to Die

We had not intended to be here.
Our goal
was change the world,
never to be merely chaperones at the end.

But defeats and retreats
transformed resilience
that often felt like revolution
into recovery that took too long.

When we stood again,
we sometimes seemed smaller
and fewer
and slipping into silence

while our world required us
to grow large and multiply
and share what we believed
out loud and lyrically.

Neither can we stand here
singing as if we were born anew;
the story that we tell
should be a long hard look
at why we lost,
how we lost,
and end with what we learned.

We are evolved
by what we do believe,
and how we have engaged,
and who we have loved along the way.
We are evolved
to continue
digging for dangerous truth,
evolved to pull on our boots,
to sally forth until the dawn
of our own good day to die.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Seasons of Hope

It is definitely an Outdoor Poetry Season kind of day here in Brookland, my cozy neighborhood in Northeast DC, where Pope Francis will arrive one day next week to say or dance (or whatever, pantomime?) a mass at the Basilica about a mile up the street. But he’s not here yet, and I cannot even dimly sense his pending presence. We are moving slowly, but with something like purpose.

I sat down under a tree to write. And wrote a poem and moved on. Now, I’m on the roofed deck built up against the side of our house, listening to Natalie Merchant while I type. Her voice disrupts nothing, seems to deepen the peace. I’m drinking a lambic—a rather unstraightforward sort of raspberry beer—from a small mason jar. It feels almost like today is another birthday and (like old Eben Flood) I’m celebrating in the middle of my crowded all-alone.

This is the poem I wrote earlier:

is coloring this day
started in the a.m. with autumn
but has since veered to the moist heat of summer.

by me, I was gonna sit here in the shade
by the Brookland Metro regardless and wait for the next
surprise to come round the corner where two streets meet square.

It won’t be the Pope
when it comes about
as surprising as yesterday
Wait—that’s tomorrow—but when it comes

I’m expecting a beautiful surprise
with spring in her step
bouquet in her hand
and me on her mind.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Arcing and the Universe

Don’t say there’s no thump,
no whomp, no beat beat beat,
no rustle and thrill in

Don’t say there’s no thump,
no whomp,
no beat beat beat,
no whisper rolling in…

We started
what we started,
got to where we got,
still hearing thump and whomp and beat beat beat…

Don’t say that you can’t hear it,
the whomping and the beating,
the heaving and the dancing
of others moving on…

There’s beat beat beat,
the rustle and thrill
and dancing feet
and tidal pull of folk and moon…

Folk are striding striding long
and pushing hard,
feet are dancing
hands are pulling…

All the loving,
all the sharing,
the rustle and thrill of catching on,
the folk and pull
and voices calling
and standing standing standing tall
and heart just beating
beating heart beat beat…

Wild Once and Captured
On hearing Annie Lennox

A whisper full of rhythms,
an echo raw with power,
a people spilling outward
in tidal flows of fever.
Here music summons silence,

here longing a language,
touching an allure,
dancing a passion play
and searching leads us
one by one

to stories all our own,
and to stories told in common.
Here smolders spirit
ripe with promise,
rich with peace and legendary reach.

There drums yammering in clearings
where we are jamming with justice
who was wild once
and captured
and has broken out again.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Three poems from Wild Once and Captured

These three poems can be found in my book, Wild Once and Captured, which is available on-line at the Teaching for Change webstore.

Depends on who you ask

Of course,
we still believe in magic,
a science of a different sort.

And our science tells us
what we have been feeling
for longer than we care to say.

Our time,
the way we used to be,
is up.

We were the light-footed imps
who danced away from the fate
that fell on dinosaurs.

But the time of our agility,
our reverently imagined beauty,
is over. Ended.

We are the ponderous
of our end of days,
industrialized humans,

lethal consumers
at the top of the chain
as we know it.

But before we ask ourselves
how to recover our dancing feet
with dancing shoes,

we have a duty
to ask
on behalf of all our victims

if they wish for more from us,
if their dreams of us
are nightmares.

Never Can Tell

She wakes and feels this past
lurking beside her,
the ghost that will not fall behind,
pummeling, insistent.

She wakes and prays,
whoever is there to hear,
get me through this day.
I’ll not ask for more.

She wakes and dresses
her bits of scattered self,
hauling scarred pieces
to proper places, endlessly preparing.

At the door, she checks for menace
in hallways, scanning streets
for fleshy threats and phantoms,
seeking her whom she always meant to be.

Out the door,
she strides ahead
as if fearless,
limitless and ready.

She arrives feeling
unreckoned power, feeling this day
pregnant with difference, this day
ready, perhaps, for what yesterday was not.

Wild Dogs of Poets

The wild dogs of poets
speak sharps and blunts,
wish the streets
to the back alleys
of emerald cities;

some singing separately
and, alive for now,
glow in the dusky,
dreaming sky,
some scratch for pennies

where there are no such
generosities. Some kill time
as though they are flush,
and some few, the chosen, die
on the barricades, hopeful and ready.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Our scars will be singing (revised)

April 29th since I last posted here. I'm mildly surprised. I've been laboring under the impression that I'm much busier than that, but I suppose there's too points about which I ought to be more mindful. 

One, I've been writing by hand, and not necessarily bringing anything to a conclusion. In fact, I've also written three letters to Julie and Dale and Emily Udell, each of them some 6,7, 8 pages long. In the process, I've transcribed the poems of others--Juan Felipe Herrera, Marge Piercy and a couple other people whose names (and poems) slip my mind. But the act of just writing, pencil and paper, resonates for me. I feel busy and accomplished even though it seems so difficult to measure what has happened. And then to stick the completed letters in an envelope and mail them off without much hope or recovery, certainly nothing so rigorous as follow up, seems like a completed process, no matter how evanescent. So, without anything particular to show for it, I've felt productive.

And, two, though I've been planning to write a particular set of essays (which I have not yet begun) and have noodled them around quite a lot, I have been writing and revising a few poems, one of which turns out to be the last poem I posted on Outdoor Poetry Season. It is hugely revised. In many ways a different poem, but as always, when I move from one version to the next, I usually quite like what has developed.

Our scars will be singing

Our scars
textured and smooth,
where we rubbed on the world
soon, fast and hard.

Our scars,
murmur and tense,
ride free on our muscle, ride far on our nerve.
Our scars, bitter at silence,
indignant, rehearsing our rage.

Innocent before the build up of wounds,
upright before we first staggered,
before we stumbled again
and again,
worthy as heroes, unsubtle, intrepid,
learning like warriors,
pretending no fear,
learning to sing no matter who hears.

Our song of ourselves, of not wearing away,
of not crouching down, of not slinking off,
running and jumping and bounding down hills,
shouting and clapping and dancing in streets,
this is my heart and I share it with you. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Our scars will be singing

Our scars
the places,
textured and smooth,
the places rubbed on the world
too soon, too fast and too hard.

Our scars,
never voiceless,
urgent with longing,
bitter at silence,
surprised by rare peace.

Our innocence nearby,
before we had wounds,
upright and real,
stands in ranks with our warrior,
pretending no fear,
and ourselves for the ages,
oracular and wise.

Choir of us,
shaking rust from our voices,
adding rhythm and tune,
giving shape to the music
we soon will be singing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Levertov’s children: The Poets in the World

Denise Levertov’s book, The Poet in the World, is her quite engaging investigation of the process by which some of her own poems came into existence. But I am deeply distracted by the title.

The Poet in the Worldsomething great implied here about poets and poetry. The ideal, the poet in the world, is transcendent. But reality lies in the pursuit of the ideal, the challenge that must be accepted, poem by poem, by poets in the world.

Levertov, a poet for change, a poet for human liberation, inspires me. In turn, what I want, more than anything else, is to inspire you because, if I am a poet, it is likely that some of the reasons why I am are also some of the reasons why you are, too.

Just the other day, a friend introduced me to Nawal.

“This is Jeff Epton,” my friend said. “He’s a poet,” which I think was a very affirming thing to say, and typical of my friend.

Nawal’s smile was brilliant and warm. Perhaps I flatter myself, but I inferred that she was happy to meet a poet.

“Are you a poet, also?” I asked.

Nawal demurred. “I write poetry sometimes,” she said.

I brushed her qualification aside. I’m sure you are a poet, I responded, reminded in the same moment of a fragment I had written recently about being surrounded by poets. (And reminded in this present moment that I read the fragment to Malik, who told me that he’s a rapper, not a poet, because he doesn’t go deep enough. But the truth is we’re all mostly just skimming the surface, only occasionally holding our breath for a deeper dive.)

In any case, Malik considered the passage and concluded that what I had written was, indeed, a poem. As it turns out, affirmations are everywhere.

I told Nawal about the poem, and about how it had been inspired by Levertov’s book. When I mentioned Levertov’s title, The Poet in the World, I could see in Nawal’s expression that the title, and all it might imply, resonated for her.

She said that she’d like to see my poem, and I asked for and received her e-mail address. I’ll send it along, I told her. But this morning I discovered the poem really was a fragment.

I hate to rush things (though Marrianne would tell you that actually I just don't like to finish things), but it has been hanging fire for too long, so I went ahead and finished it, for now. And, if later, the poem turns up again, somehow unfinished, I’ll finish it again, maybe. But in the meantime, it seems to be the case that muses, like poets, are everywhere.

And here, ushered into the world by Denise Levertov and Malik and Nawal and me and who really knows who else, is the poem, finished for now:

The Poets in the World

Am I a poet in the world?
A voice both anchored here
and cast away?
An echo dimly understood?
A whisper barely heard?

I am a poet in the world,
and when I am,
when I inhabit this place
and this place inhabits me,
I know some
of what there is
to know about the world,
how it tastes
in places, how it feels
in part, how the silence
sounds, how the noise
can sing from me,
even in the forest, in the cities,
with scattered ears to hear.

I am a poet in the world.
I want a taste,
a feel. I strain to see,
to hear the world ahead,
the lagging and the dragging world

I am a poet in the world.
I know to a certainty,
I send out words,
and words return to me.

I am surrounded.
So many voices.
So many poets.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Against Anxiety

You go in certainty that mystery
will fill your lungs.
You go with the push
of indecisive wind,
with sun a brilliance
and a sorrow,
with a drifting of older friends
and a sprouting of new.

You go beneath
the beckoning moon,
the stoic moon,
the amber moon
and the unnamed sky.

The rhythm in your ears is the tap
and drum of others’ lives,
the constant beat of yours,
and the subtle song around
of remix and renewal.

You go to dream the dreams of others
and to find that they dream yours,
and you and they are hope
and loss and joy and struggle
and the next great step ahead.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Zeroes, eights and the lively wet

This is a revised version of the poem published here earlier. I like this version much better. If anyone wants to compare the two, here's the earlier version.

The porch in summer,
wind muttering low sounds,
Aspen leaves fussing attention,
scents and sights spilling
down slope and up,
mountain spruce bend sway bend.

Chisel in his right,
beer ready to the left,
a sharpening stone sits flatly
on blue-jeaned thigh.

Lightly oiled, the round stone
lies, waiting for the beveled edge.
In a big hour,
or a shorter two,
the sun will set,
true, as always.

Entranced, he’ll still be lightly
tracing eights and zeroes on stone,
chisel edge angled just so.
Sipping at the can to his left,
sliding thumb to tip,
contemplating sharp and sharper,

Back to the beer.
Back to the stone.
Zeroes and eights,
rolling wave of oil
and grit pushed here,
there by the big hand
of this universe.

Zero, eight, sipping,
thumb test for sharp,
sharp, could be sharper to bite
the door jamb easy.
A cloud scuds blue sky.
He flatters singing birds
with compliments,

sips, watches, heeds the sentinel pines
bend crouch bend,
tests for sharp,
sun and face and trance,
zeroes and eights,
rhythm and rhythm
until the chisel’s tip,
covered with his peaceful
blood, calls him back
to its lively wet.

The thumb,
now parallel grooved, leaks blood.
Sharp. Enough.
Shuts his eyes,
low sounds and high,
catching up on what
the junipers have been saying
to the well flattered birds

and to him.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mr. Flood's Party, a poem and a bar

The Ann Arbor bar, Mr. Flood's Party, founded by Ned Duke and Buddy Jack some time during the summer of 1969, was an incredible place to hang out. One couldn't eat there, only drink, but often drinking was quite enough. And when one needed a breath of fresh air, or a toke, one only had to step outside, turn the corner onto Ashley Street and light up.

Buddy Jack was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after the bar opened. Buddy's absence and Ned's constant presence made it seem like the bar had always been Ned's. With his long dark hair and beard, overalls and gymnast's body, Ned was a confident and powerful presence. But he didn't seem to require much of anything from anybody else and his bar felt like a gift.

It also seemed a kind of wormhole, a way to enter the country lane described in the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem that gave Flood's its name. And maybe wandering that lane, or heading east (or, as Jim Florey says, "west") on Liberty after the bar closed, turning south into the neighborhood, one might even encounter Eben Flood, hanging out in Eberwhite Woods, muttering to himself and toasting old friends.

Mr. Flood's Party
by Edward Arlington Robinson

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

"Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will."

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn.
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He sat the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:

"Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!"
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
"Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.

"Only a very little, Mr. Flood--
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do."
So, for the time, apparently it did
And Eben apparently thought so too;
For soon among the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang--

"For auld lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered, and the song was done.
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below--
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Friday, March 13, 2015

I know this:

A poem, if written,
is a way in,
a way out,

a way to entangle,
a way to get suddenly unentangled,

a path through the tall grass,
a breeze through the trees,
a dryness in the swamp,

a certainty that winks and flares,
a rush that speeds and flows
and settles in
and winds its way forward
and meanders back
and on
and on

Monday, January 5, 2015

Brian Gilmore's revolution (for my father)

Brian Gilmore is a poet about whom Peter Harris is speaking when he says that he values those poets who do not elevate themselves above the work, itself. I recently had the privilege of attending one of Brian's poetry readings. He read one touching poem about his father, a different one is copied below. I wonder if Brian is capable of writing a poem that does not touch my heart.

my father was a dictator.

in 1968 dad suspended the house
instituted a state of emergency
suspended any rights television
made us think we had.
he declared tarzan a fake
nat turner important
malcolm x a brother
we must understand.

it was strange this regime
always looming like lightning
during a thunderstorm, but never
to harm, though we know the sky
is no friend of careless boys
who sometimes end up
walking home in the rain.

often my brother and I rebelled against
this totalitarian despot.
we declared civil war by
staying out until 4 or 5 a.m.

el presidente would be awake
when we returned,
calm in his demeanor, greeting us with
one of those well-prepared speeches,
like castro.

this constant pounding on our brains made us
surrender eventually, and end our unrest after
nearly 20 years of disorganized resistance.
the will of this monarch
became our will:
like, “you will go to school.”
“you will not destroy your life.”

now when I stop by my father’s house
the state of emergency is over
the revolution he declared was successful
the laws he passed are no longer in need
of enforcement.

these presidential duties
are exclusively mine now
and if
i am ever lucky enough to become
a dictator
i shall not hesitate
to crush tarzan and
give really long speeches
another language.

for Julie

My warrior ranges
without me;
moves herself onward,
before my messages arrive.

Dauntless, magnificent,
but the wounds of warriors
are never washed away
and, in time, magnify.

Dreaming, I hurry
to catch her on her way,
but often I am lagging
and her wild signs grow faint.

Still, there are the days
I come upon her;
briefly tend her wounds
and share a bit of pain.

When next she’s off again,
it will be so very long
before I can say once more
rest here, let me love you now.