Jun 072016

George Szirtes


A Bomb at the Book Launch

much happened then.
We vanished and the streets
filled up with others. Then there were
more books

and more
to read them. Books
were breath. Books were just air
in motion, words broken into

Why then
the stillness? Why
the silence after us?
Didn’t we deserve accolades
of breath?

had happened. Things
broke. Matter exploded.
We were fragment and fire and air.
We launched

our books
into the sky.
We were our own book launch,
We ourselves were the explosion.
The bomb.

It was
as imagined,
ourselves exploding, blown
like soot into corroded air,
like breath.



He had everything
and felt entitled to it.
Entitled is good.

The taxes he paid
were not the taxes he paid,
why should anyone?

People try to save.
It is natural to save.
Everyone does it.

The moon does not yield
all the sun’s light. It must save
some for its own use.

The sea’s energy
belongs to the sea. Why should
the sea not prosper?

It is natural
for the sea to salt away
salt for its own use.

Far away islands
are a natural resource.
They are resourceful.

Far away is good.
Islands that are far away
are good for business.

Wealth is natural.
The way things are is nature
being natural.

We are far away
and natural. Nature is
just and generous.



You see them perched in a row on a beam
high above the city. They have no harness,
no safety rail. They are munching sandwiches
prepared by their wives sixty storeys below
or bought at an early morning stall. From there
they survey the world like gods without power,
like flightless sparrows or shreds of windblown paper.
At school, when asked about careers, they answered:
this, this girder, this vertiginous height, this pay,
this beer, these sandwiches, are what we aspire to,
life being short, and frequently shorter,
occasionally abrupt and always dangerous. This pride
is what we master, this mustering of self and air,
this, and fatherhood or livelihood, the fight
in the bar or the alley, the triumph or disaster
of a joke told to gods on the same high beam.
We’re born for this, to this, it is our station
and pride, our working principle. The foreman
strides among us, the boss approves the plans,
the food appears on our plates. It is our domain.
It is the urban wind that blows between streets
that are yet to rise to their full stature. We hang
between floors like decorations, a rank of medals
strung to a ragged chest. It is our choice. We make it.

Then they descend, one by one, along more beams,
down steps, resisting gravity, as they’re obliged to.



The boy
I was is not
the man I am, he said,
his brow darkening with effort,
then laughed.

The boy
I was is not
anything special now.
I don’t even remember him,
he said.

You know
what you want but
something gets in the way,
he said and laughed again, then took
a drag.

It is
not just yourself.
It is some other thing
you must deny and so you do,
he said.

I knew
it from the start.
I was the bad thing there
just waiting to happen, he said
and drank.

I kept
my hands where they
could be seen. My eyes were
open and smoking. I was clean,
he said.

it gets too much,
he said, but you have to.
Speaking is useless, as are tears
and fists.

Your moods
are frightening.
You are impossible
and guilty and it’s the guilt that

Some days
I think of harm.
It’s my business I think.
At least it’s me that’s doing it,
he said.

The boy
is dead. My death
is born out of his. But
this is not death. This is just me,
he said.


Four Notes after Felicia Glowacka

They lean towards each other as if
life had bent them out of true.
Is it love? It is the very fog they breathe
and stumble through.

Weighed down by their own
lack of gravity. It’s late.
It’s there in the twisted bone.
Night’s unutterable weight.

There are people one bows to. To others
one bows lower still, averting eyes.
Few of us are born to be brothers.
One is of a moderate size.

Three drunks
emerge from a stray
thought into frozen air
then bawl and sway
and vanish into day.

—George Szirtes

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry and a roughly equal number of translations from the Hungarian. His New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in The Independent. The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013) were both short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize which he had won earlier with Reel (2004).


Jun 052016

Sharon McCartney


Susan appears agonal and preterminal.

From a neurological consult report dated September 18, 1979,
11 days before she dies.

I have to look up agonal.
Of or related to great pain.
As in the agony of death.

She was in pain.
I never thought about her being in pain.

Her long hospital records indicate her primary problem began with seizures in 1961.

A malignant glioma in the left temporal area, excised
surgically in January 1961 at the Mayo Clinic.
Rochester, Minnesota. Then, radiation. She is 11 years old,
my big sister by 10 years. I am the baby of the family.

Mother calls it “cobalt treatment.” Old black and white
zig-zag-edged photos from Rochester, before the treatment,
show Susie, grinning maniacally from behind a monstrous
snowbank and lobbing snowballs toward the camera.

We live in a small ivy-green bungalow in a new subdivision
in Sunny San Diego. Three white birchbark willows
congregate in a curved brick bed by the driveway.
I pedal my purple stingray with its glittery banana seat
and tassels to May Scott Marcy Elementary School.
Except for Susie, we are like everyone else.

She has grand mal seizures. We call them spells.
When she has a spell, we say, “Mother, Susie!”
Mother comes and strokes Susie’s brow
until the seizure passes. She kneels
and cradles Susie’s head in her lap.
This happens daily and everywhere.

In the checkout line at FedMart,
while Mother is waiting to pay, Susie
careens sideways and crumples. Fat faces
stare and I stare back until they look away.

Susie is unpredictable and often violent.
Plates and glasses are thrown. Squad cars
in the driveway are not uncommon.
Sedatives and syringes sleep in the fridge.
Mrs. Foster, the nurse who lives up the street,
comes to stick Susie when necessary.
Mother bakes a German chocolate cake for her
and dispatches me up Mott Street with it.

Rose Canyon slumps behind the house
with its iceplant, tumbleweeds and wild mustard.
While I’m in the backyard, playing horses,
there’s a ruckus indoors.
Susie is howling something
that sounds like “kill me, kill me.”
She is held down on the bed
by Mother, Daddy, Stephanie, Doug,
each with a limb.
This scene does not involve me.
I’m not even sure that I actually see it.

In private, Stephanie and I play a game
of making fun of Susie. I pretend to be Susie.
I knock on the bedroom door and say,
“Stephanie, Mother says you have to come
and get into the … dog.” I pretend that I can’t
remember the word for car. This makes us roar.

Sister Stephanie and Sharon, 4 and 7

1969, Mesa Vista hospital for “acute psychosis.”
Hydrocephalus. Pressure on the brain.

Susie is rolled in an old green army blanket
to immobilize her during one of her rages.
She is deposited on the Chevy wagon’s
middle seat to be driven to the hospital.
Daddy stands in the garage beside the car
and he is weeping.

1972, a low pressure ventricularperitoneal
shunt to drain the fluid. An infection.
The shunt requires replacement later that year.

1973, a neurilemmoma. Craniotomy.
After that, she is mute. A “neurologic cripple.”

We have a van with an hydraulic lift.
Mother ties Susie into the wheelchair
and drives to Del Taco where Mother
has a floury quesadilla and coffee with cream
in a styrofoam cup, which she drinks
in the parking lot next to the Subaru dealership.
The ridiculous sun is always shining.

Past history. Refer to old chart.

Permanent tracheostomy and gastrostomy.
Mother pumps formula into the stomach tube.

1976, Susie is hospitalized yet again
for “abdominal distention and regurgitation.”

Mother pumps food into Susie
and then Susie vomits it.

Medications: Diamox, Dilantin, Mysoline, Potassium Chloride and other medications as per her mother’s attached list. Family History: Noncontributory. Review of Systems: Noncontributory.

Agonal. She is in pain.
For years and years, pain.

Strapped upright in the wheelchair,
parked in front of the living room’s
console TV for The Wheel of Fortune,
eyes lolling, she is in pain.

She has been cared for at home by her mother, with some occasional assistance from night nurses. This admission was prompted when she seemed to be “going downhill,” according to the mother. She has had temperature, been less responsive, and has not urinated normally. In addition, she has been agitated and combative.

Her inhuman utterances,
the mouth crooked, saliva stringing.
Urine in the sofa, in the wheelchair,
in the canopied princess bed in the bedroom
across the hall from my room
where I stay up late late to watch
Johnny Carson, Tom Snyder.

The suction machine thumps and squalls.
If the trach tube is not cleared, Susie will suffocate.
Imagine a metallic hole in your trachea.
Now, a thin plastic tube going in, sucking.
I only think about how noisy it is.

The patient is unable to aid in any self-care.

Mother sleeps with her. Twin beds.
Daddy sleeps in the den as he always has.

Mother naps in the afternoon, when she can.
I see her sitting on the bed’s edge, as if
she has just woken up, her head hanging.

The house smells like pee and shit.
The floral sofa is particularly redolent.
Sometimes there’s an ambulance
in the driveway, red lights strobing.

I never think about her being in pain.

Mother bends Susie’s arms and legs twice
daily in the room with the mirrored closet doors.
Sometimes Susie makes noises.
I do not think of them as moans.
It’s just Susie.

The patient has always been in the same mental state, virtually comatose, since I have been seeing her. However, the mother continues to notice changes in the level of consciousness, noting that sometimes for periods of weeks to months she will respond, watch television, smile, and Mrs. McCartney notes that Susan has actually said several short sentences. Nonetheless, none of those have ever been witnessed by any of the medical profession and there is some question as to whether the changes are perceived to be greater by the mother than they are.


Sharon McCartney's motherMother

Mother will not put Susie in a nursing home.
Mother says, “She would be dead in a day!”

No one ever talks about it,
what has happened to our family.

She has urinary tract infections,
pneumonia, low grade fevers.
Eventually, an indwelling catheter.

I never think about her pain,
her real physical pain.

For years I have regarded her as being in a persistent akinetic, mute or vegetative state secondary to her multiple brain tumors, shunt and general debility…. It would appear to this examiner that the combination of nonreactive pupils and absent doll’s eyes, unresponsiveness, and respiratory depression can all be related to progressive central nervous system deterioration because of the effects of the numerous central nervous system insults to this poor girl.

This poor girl. No one in the family says that.

When I run away from home,
to the beach, and am returned
24 hours later by the police,
Mother chooses to converse with me
about my tribulations while washing
Susie. Arms, legs, genitalia.
I stare into the closet’s mirrored doors.
I can see Susie behind me, naked and inert.
I realize that Mother is making A Point,
but I will not bow down.

We are stubborn.

1961, the doctors say Susie will not last
another six months, but she does.

1994, Mother, in mortal pain herself,
on a morphine pump, refuses to die
until Lupe, the hospice nurse, scolds her:
“Gladys, it’s time for you to go.
Susan is waiting for you.” Mother dies.

Is there any value in exploring this?
Whatever you deny grows stronger.

Go there. Stop avoiding it.
Stop pretending it didn’t happen.

Her prostration, slack hair, flaccid arms.
Mother heaving that thin, collapsed body
onto a fresh Chux. The cyanotic limbs.

She was in pain. Imagine any one
of your children in pain. For years.

1. Occlusion distal valve of ventriculoperitoneal shunt.
2. Normal pressure hydrocephalus, controlled.
3. Grand mal epilepsy, controlled.
4. Status postoperative posterior fossa brain tumor, neurilemmoma (1973).
5. Status postoperative left temporal glioma (1961).
6. Feeding gastrostomy tube in place (1973).
7. Permanent tracheotomy in place (1973).
8. Status postoperative laparotomy for bowel obstruction (4-3-76).
9. Status postoperative scalp debridement for wound dehiscence over shunt tube (4-8-76).

Mother is a martyr, but she’s not a hero.
She gets tired and bitter and morose.
When Daddy buys a motorboat (his business
is doing well) and names it the Susie-Q,
Mother sneers, “He would buy her anything.
He would put a pool in the yard if she wanted it.”

I want a pool. I would love to have a pool.

It was Dr. DeBolt’s feeling, with which I concur, that there has been progressive CNS deterioration, from her already low level function over the past several months and that it was not unlikely that this was a central fever. In any event, it seems clear that no further medical work-up is likely to be helpful…. There was a long discussion with both Mr. and Mrs. McCartney by myself as well as by Dr. DeBolt regarding heroic measures and it was felt that because of Susan’s general condition, resuscitation should not be undertaken.

Susie dies on September 29, 1979.

Daddy is with her when it happens. After,
he waits at the hospital’s front doors to tell Mother.
Mother says, “Thank God it’s over.”
And walks back to her car.

I am away at college, but Daddy phones me
with the news. My knees goes weak.
I have to sit down. I’m thinking,
“Wow, that actually happens.”
I thought it was just a cliché.

There is a funeral, but Mother does not attend.

I come home for a visit at Christmas,
the first Christmas after Susie’s death.
I bring my laundry and Mother does it for me.
When the dryer is finished, she dumps
the clean clothes in Susie’s wheelchair
and trudges it down the hallway
to the mirrored bedroom where she irons
and folds and irons and folds.

—Sharon McCartney


Sharon McCartney is the author of Metanoia (Biblioasis, 2016), which appeared originally in its entirety in Numéro Cinq, and five other collections of poetry: Hard Ass (Palimpsest, 2013), For and Against (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Nightwood, 2007), Karenin Sings the Blues (Goose Lane Editions, 2003), and Under the Abdominal Wall (Anvil Press, 1999). She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law, and Pomona College.


Jun 042016
Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Photo by Francesco Fiondella

Tirukkural encodes the cultural intelligence of the Tamil people in its 1,330 couplets (called kurals), written sometime between the third and first centuries BCE in south India by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises on right living, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama). (More about Tirukkural can be found in my earlier essay, here on NC.)

Though ancient in origin, these verses are still alive in Tamil culture. My mother tells me that the local Indian cultural association where she lives in rural Ohio has just started a kural-memorization competition for the kids. Each participant has to start from the beginning of Tirukkural, the very first couplet, and recite as much as he or she can remember. The prizes are awarded to the top memorizers, one dollar per kural. I laughed, thinking of how much money a kid could make if she made it all the way to the section on wealth (that’s $380 for getting there).

The following couplets are from the first and third sections (virtue and love).

 —A. Anupama


Chapter 8: On possessing love

In love, what lock? Heartache
gleams on the tear tracks left in its wake.

The loveless take all for themselves, but those who love own
not even their bones.

Love unites thought and action in pure life—
a consummation to the very marrow.

Love’s thrill leads to
friendship—boundless bliss.

Love’s possessors manufacture this world’s joy,
and, by possessing joy, win glory.

Pure virtue is love’s sole fruit according to the ignorant, oblivious
that pure valor ripens alongside.

Boneless worms in sunlight burn,
as do loveless people in moral virtue.

Loveless hearts bloom in an arid waste
on parched trees, withering.

What use are the outer limbs of the body
without the inner limb?

A love-filled path is the soul,
without which the body is only bones covered over with skin.


Chapter 122: On night visions

My love’s messenger came to me: a dream.
What feast of thanks can I offer it?

Of my eyes, shaped like darting fish, I beg sleep. Then for my love
truth will pour from my suffering heart.

Awake, he never came to me, but, asleep,
seeing him preserves my life.

In dreams, I seek that fierce pleasure, which in my waking life
avoids me: I find him.

Awake, my vision and its dream
met in one sweet moment.

If waking life would cease and only sleep persist
my love would never leave my mind.

Awake, he never came near. What cruelty takes, in my sleep,
its right to torture me?

I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.

In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes.

Every day they will gossip about us and my forsakenness. But my dream
they didn’t glimpse, thankfully, these villagers.


from Chapter 123: An evening lament

Budding in early morning and unfurling all day,
the evening blooms, like this ache.

—Translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org) and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.


Jun 032016

Helwig photo



The morning kitchen catches sunlight.
Stare out past the bare branches

into the strangeness of a November day
that cold as it is, grows colder.

The air is hung with yellow,
the darkness of red roses

living on and being almost human
and wrong, the sky as bleak as a man

seeking only himself, observing light,
hungry among the dying trees.

Can you hear me thinking?

By the Clay Road

The complicated turbulence of sky
catches itself in the shining silver
mirror of a rainpool. If, only if
I bend at a perfect angle
of torso to leg and head to neck,
a delicate background of tall stems
will frame in this water the bright
circle of filtered sun, the white
unlikeliness of reflected cloud. Only if
I bend to the luminous event.



Unexpected, astonishing, as if to enlighten or reward us,
they have come
at a slow walk, three horses far off and moving toward us
as winds thrum

as hoofs crush fallen leaves. Horses, mute riders sway,
prepare to vanish
again, fading slowly far down the tall aspen perspective in sunglow
which will burnish

the present with its tint of light and shadow at the angle
particular to beast, rock, this
hour of day, then dissolve into diminished after-events as plans entangle,
miss and dismiss.

The trail of those horses speaks the locked nature of sequence,
of the past,
each horse and silent rider diminished to a notion of perfect absence,

beyond recall, restored to the space
of possible skies,
which might define some other order, precision to attain peace
and grow wise.



The chalk-blue walls shape
this afternoon of favoured ghosts,
mysterious harmonies of the heartbeat,
the many years, day by day
from the astonishment of birth
to the astonishment of death.

The man who sings will call
remembrance into time,
the personal, the vivid
hover in a nowhere, a where,
a possible now, closely
present at the end, behind glass,
the known, seen through
the mysterious rooms, the house
remembered, the house
forgotten. Keepsakes, capture
of a moment, Dickens, Tennyson
bound in green, a platter,
the Wedgwood teapot,
shaving mug from the barber’s shelf,
in an Atwood rarity, a joke
inscribed long since.

An empty vase: the elegant curve
of clay spins the click of perfect
consonance, its rhyme
the music of its being:
not will but the accord of grace.

—David Helwig


David Helwig is the author of more than 35 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction including, most recently, About Love, 3 Stories by Chekhov (Biblioasis) and The Year One (Gaspereau Press), Duet and his autobiography The Name of Things (Porcupine’s Quill). The founder of the Best Canadian Short Story Series, he has edited more than 25 books for Oberon Press. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His avocation, however, is not writing but vocal music. After abandoning this for some years, he returned to it in his forties and has sung with a number of choirs in Kingston, Montreal and Charlottetown. He has appeared as bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Mozart’s Requiem. He currently lives in an old house in the village of Eldon in Prince Edward Island.


Jun 012016



kill a dance & enjoy
your body stands
like candlelight

because this is a bag of echoes—come on,
now that you have drunk too
much silence, book

a forest, days
as recent as breath is
the only person that can carry

to your shadow. A lot
is not seawater, a lot is my journey
from birthday to languages—a

sound comes by
midnight & you say mid
night is for self, up

there, only a raven
knows my first
name; to get that

song out………………..song out
…………of black nylons



are roads
following broken
spider legs?

because her
voice no longer
enters their shoes

is the light through
with seeing inside
a raw egg? or

have the people
planted apple eyes in
their prison yards?



………….there are different colours
………….when we go out
………….of our eyes near
guitargirl: non
……………………………………….dit is a field in
………………………………time with moon
……………………light—when a tree is
…………drunk, we can
……………………………………………………place for
……….there are no
……………………………………………………his suitcase,
……………………………………….know he wore



i do not chew fruits
that i cannot pronounce


whoever made
my body, first
drank a moon


it is open & close
to fire, it will body
along midnight’s
time you will
cry, she replied


it is written on bodies
that clocks will
not age nor


& shadows
in the attic
are sisters


changes every
body from

lines to
a quiet family


—David Ishaya Osu


David Ishaya Osu (b. 1991) is an Afo native from Onda. His poetry appears in: Vinyl, Chiron Review, Cutbank, The Lampeter Review, The Nottingham Review, Spillway, Juked, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. David is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and was selected for the 2016 USA Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He was poetry editor for The James Franco Review. David is currently polishing his debut poetry book.


May 142016

IMG_0444Art work by Greg Mulcahy


Julot Calcascieu and I have not spoken in years. Estrangement between writers once friends is common; its reasons are always personal and complicated.  In this case, I’m not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps it was a long-forgotten insult given and received, or growth, or change, or life. And really the reasons don’t matter.

Calcascieu and I were first associated with Abigail Allen’s magazine, Phantasmagoria. We were both contributors, and we shared, or I thought we shared, similar views on where literature was and where it needed to go.

Perhaps my views have changed.

Perhaps his have.

A conversation that was pleasant turned unpleasant, and each of us discovered who the other really was.

As I’ve said, we haven’t spoken in years, but things find their ways to me sometimes, so I will state categorically that I did not steal from Calcascieu or cheat him out of money.  I covered our expenses for a joint reading we did in a nearby state. I asked him to reimburse me for his share. He refused. Maybe there was a misunderstanding—I grant that possibility. But there was no swindle or theft and absolutely no attempt at either.

Arguments about money are always arguments about money, especially when money is, as it was and continues to be, scarce, but they are often arguments about something else as well.

Maybe this is an argument about disappointment, both personal and professional, or about the disappearance of an imagined solidarity, or sympathy, or world.

But I can tell you this. Julot Calcascieu has a hat, a hat he wears at readings. Julot Calcascieu calls this hat a “poet’s hat” and believes it essential to his image as “poet and theorist.” Now I live in a cold climate that seems, contrary to fact, to be growing colder. Consequently, I own a dozen hats. But none are magical or empowered or definitions of my identity. Julot Calcascieu is a construct, self-constructed perhaps, but no less so for that. Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick” if that.

Maybe all poets are.

Still there are the poems.

The poems, still.

—Greg Mulcahy



Went to Lakewood
Didn’t see a swan
Or fifty-nine
Anything, but some
In a parking



Finding another
Via internet
With my name
& did his mother
call him
ti’ bijoux
or what
& how



There are times
When a
Needs a
Really sharp



I was not
The good
Always two:
The good one
The other one.



And if you did not love me
I would not mind.
The poet said.
But she
First she
Made a world
In her poem for them.
That was the difference.



Poetry has
Use as the
Movies teach—
Use it
To engage
Poor students
Poor schools.
You’ll need—
Of course—
Inspired teachers
As heroes—
Who do not
Cost too



First, there was no money.
Then the War.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Then no war and money.
Then money.
Then money and small wars.
Where did that money get to?



And the prisoner of the story
Given a page a day
A page
A day
To write on. No more.
Picture him sitting on the
Pencil and page in hand.
Looking out the dark bars
For enough.
No more.

—Julot Calcascieu

Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.


May 122016

Betsy book pics 2013 - 147



Crisp air, press of ladder rung on instep,
iiiitree sway and dappled light, then stem twist
iiiiiiand the weight of apple in hand—

reaching through that leafy light, did we ask
iiiiwhat else we were after?  Some desire
iiiiiito possess the whole splendid day, sun glint

on grass, September’s slow withdrawal,
iiiithe drying leaves sparse now, so the apples
iiiiiiwere little flames.  Strange that we make

one fruit both medicine and poison,
iiiiprescribed and forbidden, as if everything’s
iiiiiimixed, and there’s no forgetting that darker

hunger at work, blind to the damage it does,
iiiiego’s bad apple, poison in the star
iiiiiiand gravity, gravity, gravity.

But then wind-falls in wet grass—paradox
iiiiof fortune—how sweet for the bees and wasps
iiiiiiwho find the cores warmed by the sun

into a heady liquor, and sip.   Once
iiiiwe had a wooden apple made with such skill,
iiiiiimore than one person picked it up

thinking to bite, until our dog finally did.
iiiiWe found it under the couch, splintered
iiiiiiand pocked, and with stern voices banished him

to the yard.  As if once down the stairs
iiiihe wouldn’t happily enter that bright world
iiiiiiof rock and dirt, nuthatch, beetle, squirrel.



Say you’re out jogging in New Hampshire
and come across one feeding on berries

and too busy with those sweet juices,
with fattening up for winter, to bother with you,

who just wants to move along country roads
on your own two legs, between meadow and wood,

not too fast, not too slow, out for a run
before porridge.  Innocent enough,

but still an intruder, still something a bear
might sniff as trouble, bothersome

for a creature intent on moving through
her world unharmed eating berries

with her cub on an August morning—
and so a creature much like you.

But there’s that cub, and you’ve been warned:
sing, make a racket, till they shamble off.

A barroom ditty comes to mind,
all those bottles of beer on the wall, so you sing

as if a song could save you.
You wave your arms overhead to make yourself bigger—

or boorish, you begin to think,
as mother nudges cub off into the woods.

After all what did you see?
Just a glimpse of bear body through roadside scrub,

and nothing, nothing of its beauty.



The Jersey shoreline where I grew up
was hardly a cliff, but it was an edge

where we kids clamped our feet in sand
and felt the tide crisscross our ankles

pulling the ground out from under.  Before us
stretched the whole blue-gray beyond

drawing us toward the horizon’s flickering line.
Distance and dazzling surface filled our eyes,

then made me cringe at the thought of swimmers
caught in riptides.  When one caught me,

the girl I was probably could have stood
if the storm surf hadn’t kept knocking her legs

out from under, rolling her, closing over,
the slamming her breathless into black out.

Beyond shore, the great watery meadows
cared nothing for her, crabs crawling along

the stirred-up bottom couldn’t tell girl from
broken off tackle, and gulls cruising

overhead weren’t crying for her either.
Whoever pulled me out didn’t look back,

just walked off, as if angry at having to haul out
a kid who should have known better—

red caution flags out all along the shore.
Or maybe I just needed to wake up

alone in the sudden clarity of
wind-swept beach, stove-in storm fence,

one low slung wire against a quilted sky—
alive in a way I wasn’t before

the sea swallowed then coughed me back out,
before I woke on that rain-pocked beach,

sand thick in my scalp, seaweed clinging,
and sat up, and started to crawl.



meant pricey when Grandmother said it
in the grocery store, clucking over asparagus
in winter, raspberries in March.

But in Mother’s voice it meant something more
like adoration—until later,
the word turned into worried “oh dears”

as I composed my adolescent dramas,
those rough drafts of destiny.  I hardly noticed
the derelicts lined up in the doctor’s hallway

getting jabbed through their clothes
as I walked in, anemic from dieting.
I hadn’t yet taught the guys in prison

for drugs, for doing what others just dream,
hadn’t heard stories of childhood damage,
so could almost think drunks deserved their fate.

As if dogs deserve to be kicked, to be under
another’s boot, the way our neighbor
jabbed a broomstick into his great Dane

trying to turn her from sweet to vicious.
No one on our street was deaf to those cries,
her whimper and shriek as the man snarled.

Each afternoon as I read Bible stories
into my grandmother’s hearing aid box,
stories that thrive on reversals—last, first,

poor, rich, those who give, those who hold back—
I thought I knew which ones God would love.
I was young.  I thought I knew.



On the musical scale of vowels, E
is up there at the level of shriek.
Eeek, a mouse!  Seek is one thing,

Eureka! another.  So much searching
for ecstasy, endless satisfaction,
as if you could stay on Everest forever.

“Third heaven,” St. Paul talks about
in one epistle, though how he got there
he can’t say, and he can’t stay there, either.

The thorn in his flesh, whatever it was,
made sure of that. As my love says, you can
be so heavenly, you’re no earthly good.

Easy to imagine enlightenment
belonging to just the few who scale the top,
or those high flyers who thrive on extremes,

and not the little guy down below,
not the monk walking home from the river
with his bundle of reeds, but the devil

who stops him to brag, “I do all the things
you do.  You watch and I never sleep.
You fast, and I eat nothing at all.”



Dante says she’s a kind of heavenly worker,
not quite an angel but more than a force
as she turns the wheel from famine to feast,
making failure last no longer than fame.
But failure, that big red F at the top of the page,

stops me in my tracks.  Once I thought I could
just take it, not write the paper on Freud
and Buber.   But the thought so frightened me,
my whole body  felt an electric fizz.
“F—  that,” I must have muttered, then sat down

to write, living on muffins and coffee
a whole week, dropping a small fortune,
in the pay phone, crying to my boyfriend
about Freud’s money metaphor, his belief that
women spend all our psychic energy

growing up…   So that freaking little F
on our birth certificate freezes the wheel?
Our fate’s rigged, and any faith we have
is just infantile delusion, oceanic
feeling with no base in reason or reality?

Tap-water coffee and Buber all night—
how I hoped for some splendid refutation.
Against reason he tells stories:  Here is
Rabbi Isaak pacing a bridge in Krakow
because he’s dreamed a treasure hidden there.

Here’s the captain of the guards scoffing, “Ha!
If I believed in dreams I’d have to go
to the house of a Jew named Isaak and dig
under his stove.”  Well, the rabbi hurries home
and finds that treasure, as if faith—or fate—

is all detour and surprise, stepping out
to find the way back in.  With his fortune,
the rabbi builds a house of prayer—because,
Herr Doktor, what to do with such a gift,
but pour it out into more giving?

“Good grief”
says one of Dante’s gluttons, ghost-thin
on Purgatory’s Terrace six—  “good,”
because he knows his agony will end.

So, golly, Mr. Golem, you just keep
going round, gazing at what you can’t grab,
growing gaunt on your diet of hope.

Down here it gets pretty grim when I lose
sight of “Let go and let God.”  In that void
I still hear my four-year-old sophist son

telling me he can turn on the TV
and see Spiderman each afternoon, but—
significant pause—“I’ve never seen God…”

Well, not in blue tights and a red hood,
not casting webs or scaling walls, either.
Addressing that absence, all the big saints,

those holy goombahs, say faith’s in the gap
between holding on and letting go,
so to find God takes three words: “I give up.”

But they aren’t often said with soft sighs
in a well-appointed parlor, are they?
More likely it’s a groan or plea for help,

when you’re losing your grip on a cliff edge.
That’s where the old joke comes in—guy grasps
a crumbling ledge, feels his fingers slip,

cries out, hears that big tuba voice call down,
“Let go!”  Looks around, tightens his grip,
shouts back, “Anybody else up there?”


Happy, Happy, Happy!

Keats calls the figures on the Grecian urn,
never arriving but not dying either—

as if we’re always on the road, between—
truth/beauty, head/heart, heaven and hell—

or what was that recipe we found once?
Himmel und erde, mixing potatoes and apples,

mashed so the two we loved separate were fused
like healing stirred, blended into hurt,

so you can’t tell them apart—the wound,
the crack, the tear that lets in light…

But happy to me always meant arriving
at the goal, then getting to hang at poolside
after hard work, sipping a pastel drink
with its little paper umbrella.

Who wants to be stuck going round and round?
Still, if you’re Keats spitting blood,

or the bull on that urn, then the slower you go
the better.

Though it takes more than dragging our heels
to arrive where Catherine of Sienna does,

saying all the way  to heaven is heaven,
especially when it looks like hell.  The hacked up

ruins of what once was a town, the heavy weight
of the dead loaded onto carts,

the buttons, bones, shoes still in the rubble
when the survivors comb through:

against those scenes, only the smallest gestures
seem to hold—the cup of water

handed to a prisoner on a train, the shawl
wrapped around a shivering child at the border,

the last piece of bread a hungry man
breaks in two.

—Betsy Sholl


Betsy Sholl has published eight books of poetry, most recently Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin, 2014), which won the 2014 Maine Literary Award for Poetry, Rough Cradle (Alice James, 2009) and Late Psalm (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2004).

Other books include Don’t Explain, winner of the Felix Pollak Award (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), and The Red Line, which won the 1991 AWP Prize for Poetry (Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1992). From 2006 to 2011 she was Poet Laureate of Maine. She has had poems published recently or forthcoming in Brilliant Corners, Field, New Ohio Review, and Image. Also, this past spring she performed some of her jazz poems with musicians Gary Wittner and Jim Cameron.

Three earlier collections of poetry came out with Alice James Books, where she was a founding member. A chapbook, Coastal Bop, came out with Oyster River Press in 2001. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, among them Field, Image, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Missouri Review. In 1991 she won the Maine Arts Commission Chapbook Competition. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship and two Maine Artists Fellowships. She has taught in the Writing Program at M.I.T. and until recently taught at the Univ. of Southern Maine.


May 072016
Ingrid Ruthig (photo: Iwona Dufaj)

Ingrid Ruthig (photo: Iwona Dufaj)

Layout 1


Crow goes off, a gravelgullet.
An exit wound beyond the pane.
What day? Fuck fuckmonday.
Fivefifteen a.m. Wrong time.
Unholy hour. Rollover, ah—
Squawksquawk! Notetoself:
fellthatdamnedtree where crow
now Everests exhilarated as
Hillary. Here, radio goes off.
Gawd. Pop song’s off. Sloppy,
not in time or tune. My ears.
Brain’s gone off. Altered state.
Not quite sprung. Ungodly March.
Note to Nature: keep your sex
to a dull roar. SQUAWK! Right.
No sleep now. Stare at where
roof apparently is. Conjure
a silent reveal of stars. Far off.


Pangnirtung Arrivals

Never spied a white pine up here.
But time was when monster-gods
appeared to ancestors, real as fact,
to restock the story banks with fear.

Grandfathers spoke of ghostmen
with snow-bitten skin, with eyes
of a queer light, and their vessels
lodged tight in the hardfloe.

Visions now, for those not flown
to less-cloistered lives, are as strange.
Red char’s turned white, meltwater
floods out the permafrost bridge,

while north-straying jays and robins
telltale an arrival, and a departure.
Another shard of icecap cracks,
tips and, now loose, strays south

to shrink from view, while I try to
imagine how this story might end –
pines with a future here, seeding new
tales to relay beneath the Aurora sphere.


That Summer in Paris

the streets sweltered, people
prostrated nude on the floor,
prayed for release from the heat
that seized them, off guard –
privacy thrown to an awol wind
they cast the nets of windows, doors
to snag even gossip of a breeze
in Haussmann’s suffocating dream
instead had to listen to each other
bicker, suck ice chips, dissolve
like desire in hell-fired beds,
sweat, shrivel in misery,
speak of death on the phone –
given no reprieve they listened
and listened to limestone walls
heat-seek air, pavement yield,
potted plants sag, Gallic tempers
on mercurial rise, the Seine drag
its sluggish wake to the sea –
listened till they could no longer
hear a final gasp mimic a sigh
or imagine the hush of a river
slipping unnoticed into ocean.



This sombre supplicant to the whims
of living, age, genetics, and weather,

this thin fortress, the stronghold of I,
is a tension network of sensation.

On ossified scaffold, it’s a flexible
wrapping we’re packaged inside.

A billboard, too, it instills, as ads do,
desire, a bid for a genome meet-and-greet.

At night, shifting across sleep’s dunes,
with luck it’s an oasis from strain.

Shield. Splash page. A porous balloon
loosed to time’s slow deflation, it sinks

to earth. In the border and creases of
its map, hints of where we’ve been appear,

and of where from here we might still go,
charting the trip to Terra incognita.


Southbound Out

Itching to hitch a ride at Kaladar,
the old guy’s all gums and grin –
a portrait no one’s thought to paint.
He hovers at the road’s shoulder,
thumb out, dusty, trying again.
The cardinal splash of his cap
and suspenders flag his intentions
as sure as a sign would, and south
is the only direction on his map.
He blind-eyes the campers
who tail-wind the opposite way.
Leans instead into their turbulence,
a middle distance he’s set sight on,
away from blueberries, marshes,
the isolating fuss of visitors and
a fickleness that tricks them
into thinking they are at one with
this blasted nature. He’s moving on
before the hibernation sets in up here,
where earth’s a skim coat on rock,
roots creep varicose near the surface,
and shadows in a slippage
of daylight will soon enough
recoil and disappear.

—Ingrid Ruthig

Excerpted with permission from This Being by Ingrid Ruthig © 2016, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.


Ingrid Ruthig earned a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Toronto in the 1980s and practised the profession for more than a decade. Her work as a writer, editor, and artist (read the Numéro Cinq interview) has appeared widely, with poems published in The Best Canadian Poetry 2012, The Malahat Review, Descant, and many other publications across Canada and abroad. She is the author of the poem sequence & artist’s book Slipstream, the chapbook Synesthete II, and editor of The Essential Anne Wilkinson, Richard Outram: Essays on His Works, and a forthcoming volume on the work of David Helwig. Her poetry collection This Being was published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside in March 2016. Ingrid lives near Toronto.



May 052016

Denise LowDenise Low


xxxxxxx(Kenneth Lee Irby, 30 July 2015)

You no longer “care” for anything to eat
except sweet brandy

xxxxxxA last bottle,
xxxxxxyes, I bought it,
xxxxxxand I’m not sorry

You sip
slumped sideways on the sofa
xxxxxxbracket of spine tilting
fever-red cheeks
xxxxxxthe marionette lines barely
xxxxxxXXXxxholding you up

long-sleeved denim shirt
xxxxxxover skin so thin
blue veins shine
xxxxxxXXXxxbones jut the collar

xxxxxxsoon will come the morphine angel


Like a fool I bring
Japanese fairy tales—
xxxxxxmy father’s book
xxxxxxrich slick mildewy paper

Your overgrown thumbnail slits pages open

Through your hands tumble bright
xxxxxxred foxes
xxxxxxyellow-lantern moons

You tell me your mother’s last words
xxxxxx“Are the plants watered?”

And you breathe to me,
yes the breath labored,
xxxxxx“This is, as they say, a last gasp”


A round moon rises overhead

The bloody mud knot of your heart
xxxxxxloosens jagged dithyrambs.

For good-bye I lay hands
on your blanket-swaddled chest
xxxxxxfeel it, that swell
measure unspindling


Eskimo Curlew, 1891

xxxxxxxAfter a photograph by Terry Evans
xxxxxxx“I ask the curlew for cinnamon-barred feathers”

“Eskimo Curlew”
crossed legs Arctic blue, bound.

“Field Columbian Museum.
Shot over Emporia, Kansas.”

Tender down molds
the throat. The sharp-spear

beak pierces vanilla-white
wood-fiber backdrop.

A wisp of shadow
half-moons the body:

curve of lunar eclipse, folded wing,
curve of expired breath.

Past tense before I was born:
“They nested in Arctic tundra,”

says my dead father’s
Field Guide to the Birds,

the voice: “an oft repeated, soft,
mellow, though clear whistle”

or “the wind whistling
through a ship’s rigging.”

“Flocks migrated through the Plains”
when he was a young man holding

his Peterson’s and sighting “under-
wings conspicuously cinnamon buff.”


Labels from The Field Museum:  Cardinals

xxxxxxxxAfter photographs by Terry Evans

9 July 1881
xxxxxBush on this day: collector
xxxxxat Blue Island, Cook Co.
one female buff-
xxxxxand tangerine-feathered

December 11, 1883
xxxxxwithin the specimen drawer
xxxxxone iridescent crimson male
neck twisted to uncertain sight

September 16, 1893
Museum founded
to house collections assembled

25 February 1907
Mound City, Ill.
♀ female still plump
xxxxxpeach streaks across sky-gray breast

Unmarked date:
Wright at Dane Co., Ill.
another ♂ male
xxxxxwith the finest head crest

♀ female fell from nest
at Orrington and Garrett Ave.:
desiccated, ashy brown,
xxxxxa solid ghost collapsed

December 27, 1913
♂ male caught at Salamonia, Indiana
now a pressed faded feather rose

Indecipherable dates:
47 Cardinalis cardinalis specimens
xxxxxeyes sightless behind
xxxxxwhite-cotton eye sockets

July 2002
xxxxx“The loss of these living
things is tempered
by a quiet tenderness”

—Denise Low

Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, is award-winning author of 25 books of prose and poetry, including The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Delaware Survival (forthcoming from Univesity of Nebraska Press), Jackalope (short fiction, Red Mountain Press); Mélange Block (poetry, Red Mountain Press); Ghost Stories (Woodley Press, a Ks. Notable Book; The Circle -Best Native American Books); and Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press). Low is past board president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs. She blogs, reviews, and co-publishes Mammoth Publications. She teaches professional workshops nationally as well as classes for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. Her MFA is from Wichita State University and PhD is from the University of Kansas. She has British Isles, German, Delaware (Lenape/Munsee), and Cherokee heritage.






May 032016

Momina Masood

Leaving Eden

I have been
The virgin you were promised
for good behaviour,
And a sizeable body count.
But I have left Eden (some of us do get out)
Beyond unwanted pregnancies, the Sharia police,
I have finally found,
My own little patch of apple grass. The eunuchs sing
Of ancient harems and cultural constructs, while I,
Who have traded her hijab for a scandal, climax
thinking of god.



We’ve embraced the silence of the Third World,
And multiply viciously in cardboard settlements.
Our kind is unappeasable, we spread out
Like contagion, a flurry of headscarves
And religion. We’re quite popular,
And desperate for attention, you see,
There are mouths to feed, we are, after all,
Your Other. We’re necessary.
Slowly, quite unnoticed, we’ll take over the world.
A race of Frankenstein monsters,
We’ve already begun.


To Pakistan


I have wept on the cobbled floors of Lahore,
looking for the Pakistani Dream.
Furrowing through an endless trail of paper
in dimly-lit halls of alien embassies.
(My kingdom for a way out, if you please.)
Our history for a better accent
of a language we do not speak.
In plastic whorehouses, I sing
of foreign invasions, exploding lilacs,
unwanted refugees. In the arms of a dying race
peddling religion and pornography
(Whatever works, you see)
We laugh over the sound of children
coupling, drawing graffiti
of a generation’s collective unease
by the canal where the city ends
into more dust and traffic police.

We have moved on from visionaries, and opium,
to a militant sense of clarity.
Welcome to the land of the ideologically free!
Our beautiful postcoloniality.


With strawberry flesh in my teeth,
I smile up to the sky.
We have learnt to crane our necks
above the stink and the plastic,
to where Baba’s finger
draws silver triangles in the dark.
That’s the North Star, he says,
and we choose together
different cobbled floors
brighter neon signs.
We choose the possibility, Baba and I.
Our necks growing longer by the minute,
till we reach Heaven,
or fall off from the edge of the world,
or break and scatter
flushed off in the entrails of Hell,
with wailing children, and senile grandmothers.
The muezzin shrieks and the stars go out
in reverence to dead gods and false idols.
Baba tells me a story as we clasp hands under the breaking firmament,
and the weight of the dead we inherit.
We are the Magi of a brave new world, he tells me,
laced with rubber bullets and selfie sticks,
the looming towers of the metropolis, our only gifts
to the blood-soaked child, washed on seashores,
exploding endlessly, perpetually, into a sticky mass of blood and hair.
(We are ever so sorry!)
Yet we are redeemed as we stand, naked and sweaty,
looking for the North Star, for

we have learnt, after all, my dear
to crane our necks, beautifully
above the rot and the fish smell
of sins and human longing.
that might be as utopian as it gets,
for the lot of us.
The Magi stranded on a colossal waste,
chasing the sound of gunfire, the trails
of arms and outstretched fingers
pointing to an unreachable beyond.

—Momina Masood


Momina Masood is a literature graduate whose work has previously appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Missing Slate, The Bombay Review and The Bombay Literary Magazine. She is 23, lives in Pakistan, and writes for the absolute necessity of it.


Apr 102016


The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — most of us know what it looks like: God divides light from dark and land from water; God creates the Heavens, the sun, the moon; God holds his hand out to Adam’s hand and their index fingers almost touch; God creates Eve from Adam’s rib; the Snake, wrapped around The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, tempts Adam and Eve with an apple; God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; eventually, after familiar stories of Old-Testament misbehavior, God sends a Flood. Meanwhile, sibyls and prophets sit at the edges, distracted by their own concerns. We know when the frescoes on the ceiling were painted: between 1508 and 1512. We know who the painter was: Michelangelo Buonarroti, born in  1475, died in 1564 (the year Shakespeare was born) – Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer.

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalySketch of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

But do we know how the artist felt, lying on his back painting that ceiling month after month and year after year? I mean, do we know much about it beyond the imaginative retelling of it by a Hollywood director? We do, since Michelangelo himself gave us a poem about it:

A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
–bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ‘s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback’s hump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled-see?
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle round, erratic.
Up front my hide’s tight elastic; in the rear
it’s slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I’m bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
Not odd that what’s on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don’t belong!
Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.

Not many people know that Michelangelo was a prolific and accomplished poet, writing more than three hundred poems across the entire span of his creative life. He tried, near the end, to organize one hundred of his poems for publication. But one of the two friends involved in helping him with this project died before it was completed, and a first edition of the poems was not published until sixty years after the artist’s death, under the supervision (and high-minded tinkering and “sanitizing”) of Michelangelo’s grandnephew.  “Sanitizing,” according to the translator John Frederick Nims, meant taking out “anything that might have reflected discreditably on the family or fame of Michelangelo: “Love poems addressed to a signor were revamped to fit the madonna of tradition; dubious political or religious views were amended.” His poems, to put it bluntly, were “made respectable.”

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals.

What we recognize, as we read through The Complete Poems of Michelangelo is the unique physicality of the artist. He brings his knowledge of the body – it’s outer curves and inner musculature – with him, from the three-dimensional sphere into the verbal. Known to have reduced his skill at sculpting the human body to these instructive lines, “Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop,” he also gave us these thoughts about sculpting, comparing what he sees as his simple talents (calling his own hammer “botched”) to the “heavenly hammer” of God:

….If my rough hammer shapes the obdurate stone
to a human figure, this or that one, say,
it’s the wielder’s fist, vision, and mind at play
that gives it momentum – another’s, not its own.
….But the heavenly hammer working by God’s throne
by itself makes others and self as well. We know
it takes a hammer to make a hammer. So
the rest derive from that primal tool alone.
….Since any stroke is mightier the higher
it’s launched from over the forge, one kind and wise
lately flown from mine to a loftier sphere.
….My hammer is botched, unfinished in the fire
until God’s workshop help him supervise
the tool of my craft, that alone he trued, down here.

david-full-front …………Michelangelo’s David
Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop.

According to Nims, the originals were written on “whatever [Michelangelo] had at hand”: the backs of letters, records of expenses, receipts, and sketches for his buildings and for his paintings. The artist was known for his sloppy personal habits – Paolo Giovio, one of his many biographers, wrote, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him…he had a reputation for being bizzarro e fantastico.” He felt no particular restraints when he was young about criticizing the profit- and violence-driven culture that surrounded him in Rome:

….Chalices hammered into sword and helmet!
Christ’s blood sold, slopped in palmfuls. With the yields
from commerce of cross and thorns, more lances, shields.
Still His long suffering mercy falls like dew?
….These lands are lands He’d better not come through.
If He did, his blood would boil, seething sky-high,
what with His flesh on sale, in good supply.
Virtue? Cast out. NO ENTRY signs repel it.

Later in his life, he became more cautious about expressing his political views in public. But his love poems remained vital; he is described over the years by many poets, including Italy’s own Nobel laureate, Eugenio Montale, as one of the great lyrical poets of the High Renaissance.

No one translates Michelangelo’s poetry as well as John Frederick Nims – in fact, Nims’s essay about his translations engage the reader almost as much as the poems themselves. Nims had this to say about his own efforts:

I intended, at first, to [translate] only a few…. But when I had finished those few, the momentum carried me on through all eighty. Those done, there were the hundred or so madrigals, which showed another side of the poet’s temperament. They came next. Then there remained another hundred poems in various meters -but it seemed too late to turn back….What had kept me going, for a year or more, was the fun of it. “Fun” is a word that Robert Frost often used of poetry. If it offends anyone when used in the aura of the divine Michelangelo, as Vasari called him, we could retrieve from ancient Greece the favorite motto of Valery…which he translates as pour le plaisir. I kept translating for the pleasure of it.

Not all translation is word~for~word “literal,” rich in the pleasure we call “fun.” Dictionary~scavenging can be dreary work, like a piece of assigned homework we resent having to do. The fun comes in when, by imposing obstacles, we introduce the element of sport or game, with its hurdles, wickets, sand traps, baselines, strike zones, bull’s~eyes. So, in translating poetry, we have to cope with such tricky features as rhythm, sound, wordplay, connotation, and all the other enrichments that lift prose to a resonant and more allusive level. Incorporating as many of these features as the terrain allows is the goal of the translator: born of such fun is what we call fidelity.

Nims chooses a modern voice (“I don’t belong! / Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong”) which some critics object to. The poet Mark Jarman, in his review of the book for The Kenyon Review (Summer/Fall 2001) says that, as a translator, Nims “tends to heat up Michelangelo’s poetry, making it more inventive and slangier than it appears in Italian, closer respectively to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nims himself.” But in his introduction to the book, Nims points out the unappealing high diction of previous translators  such as Wordsworth, Longfellow, Emerson, Santayana, Symonds and Rilke, all of whom overloaded the “rough language” of Michelangelo’s youth with too much elevated diction. He goes on to explain that previous translations had “a totally different effect on our ear today than Michelangelo’s would have had on the Italian ear of his time.” Despite their “complexity of content” the poems contain language that shows Michelangelo “spoke and wrote like the Florentine he was.”

The poems of Michelangelo surprise us. They do just what surprises should do: they wake us up and keep us marveling. To the list of his accomplishments – painter, sculptor, architect, engineer –  we need to add the words “and poet.” Though publicly arrogant at times, in the privacy of his own poems Michelangelo doubted his own worthiness, his own talent, and he struggled with the uncomfortable fit between his creative energies and his more spiritual existence. Not only his back ached – so did his soul. The poems often sound like they come from a worried, tempestuous modern mind. See if you can get a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (translated by Nims) and read it through. And while you do, keep this image in mind:

laocoonMichelangelo’s Laocoon

—Julie Larios

.May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numéro Cinq over the last few years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.


Apr 092016

Portrait of Cy Twombly by Fielding DawsonPortrait of Cy Twombly, Fielding Dawson


Fielding Dawson Portrait of Cy Twombly

your chair looks kinda wobbly
cy twombly

I think you’re an anomaly

you’re practically
sliding off the chair
the window’s
broken by lines in a grid
it’s time to stand–
but sit for another minute
give us your specifics
wait — you don’t care
what you get across
or to whom

large, your hands
rest beside each other whitely,
parallel like piano keys

your shirt’s white
the window behind you is kinda’
sketchy in 1951

yet precise
a small face
full of interest
and grungy

a black button
on a worn blue jacket

you might jump up
and draw squiggles
your body’s both curvy and angular

a bit of white sock
usual blue pants
a blue jacket  bits of
brown butcher paper
showing through

your collar’s upturned and
your hair’s a bit of tweedledee and tweedledum

the wood floor is what you were
born for

guess that’s a watch on your left wrist
your shoelaces and the
stripes of your collar–
you were about
little things like that
employing house paint
colored pencil and string
among other things

your acrylics are bright
what did you do at night I wonder
you give us just a smidgen of
what’s in that head of yours

fielding dawson
lifelong socialist
socialized with you
no separation between
the art and the doing
the art and the life

remaining unnoticed you were happy

you broke things down to
build them up again
cy means baby in greek
master in english
which is what you speak

the british family twombly
had a coat of arms which
you may have found alarming

a hands-on man
plain so you could
put it all in the work

triangles all around–
your face
your collar
your crotch
your right leg forming an
acute angle with the chair

things one might not notice
at first–your sagging belt
the pocket on your jacket

legs apart
feet turned slightly outward the way
a man’s supposed to sit

eyes closed or just looking down

the lines of the floor drive the painting forward
as if thrusting you towards us
colorful cartoony one

your shoes shaped and colored violins

bits of purple and green
far away barely seen
make the blue less flat
the painting works against the
flat canvas though it’s semi-abstract

it’s an impression and makes an impression
of cy twombly

will you have coffee with me?
no? you want to get back to your studio…
stand up, walk away, the day awaits

dawson chose the colors of nature for you
you’re off in your head to
a greek isle
a sumerian temple
a grouping of flowers

part of progressive art, you said,
is the complete expression of one’s personality–
you drew in the dark to develop your line
a wobbly line     a kid’s kind of line

I saw you as a baseball player before I knew
your father named you after
cy young
and was
a chicago cubs pitcher

you married a baroness and called your son cy
grew up in virginia     hopped over to rome
in between relocated twice a year
your sculptures as talismans to
guard you on your way

edwin parker cy twombly jr  hey
you influenced basquiat, kiefer, clemente and schnabel–
very cool–
keats and mallarmé appear in your work
rilke and virgil as well
space in your huge canvasses
for them all

influenced by giotto
you painted a blue sky
on a ceiling in the louvre
with sun and planets perhaps
painted over with names of greek sculptors

dawson painted you with
2/3 blue wall behind you
1/3 yellow floor
it’s right proportionately

for your blackboard paintings you
‘sat on the shoulders of a friend who shuttled back and forth
along the length of the canvas, thus allowing the artist to create his fluid continuous lines’

work as a cryptographer for the army influenced what–
your scripts and  pictography?
amazingly, charles olson worked in washington, too

cambodian-french artist rindy sam was arrested after kissing one
panel of your triptych phaedrus, which she smudged with red lipstick.
at her trial she defended her gesture:
‘J’ai fait juste un bisou. C’est un geste d’amour, quand je l’ai
embrasse, je n’ai pas reflechi….’
‘It was just a kiss, a loving gesture, I kissed it without thinking; I
thought the artist would understand….It was an artistic act provoked
by the power of Art.’
‘[ms] sam was fined and compelled to take a citizenship class.’

a frenchwoman stripped in front of your
orpheus’ trip to the underworld
saying, that painting makes me want to run naked.
you were delighted, who else? you asked,
could have that effect? I might add,
especially in houston, texas.

—Ruth Lepson



Ruth Lepson has been poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music for 20 years and has often collaborated with musicians. Frank Carlberg, Noah Preminger, Simon Willson (2 l’s) & she will be making an album this spring of musical settings of her poems. Her new book is ask anyone, from Pressed Wafer, and musical settings of some of the poems will be available on the Pressed Wafer website and on her new website, ruthlepson.com. She’s had poems in Jacket2, Agni, Let the Bucket Down, Big Bridge, spoKe and many other publications.


Apr 072016

IMG-20160223-WA0005Photo by Sonia Quiñones

I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado  (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.

Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan

Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”

Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.


Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico

for Enrique González Rojo

From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres

and so many more stones,
so many more trees that

I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St.
………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten,
and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
swinging batons
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust
Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks
…………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
the binmen,
the schoolkids,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
this train,
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
I arrive
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them:
they’re the same age I was when I first met them,
………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it
…………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists
…………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
or myself.
So I can keep on rising and falling.

Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe


Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México

A Enrique González Rojo

De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros

mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,

que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca
………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
el cráneo;
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos

por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;

y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó,
ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
parecen decirnos
la realidad son estos puños,
este tren,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes
………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
frenando bruscamente
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.

Para continuar ascendiendo y descendiendo.


Su Garrido Pombo Sings the Poem


Su Garrido Pombo via sugarridopombo.com



Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”   

It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.


For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers:
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.

You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head,
…………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism
………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.

I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.

I would have liked to have been there in my doorway
……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting
……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!

Now then, I am writing these words down before
……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks
……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty
…………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world
………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
Palace, Tuxtla,
because you know very well that all that I’m saying
………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.

Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow
………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians
…………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas
……………………………….will not know who you are.

I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up
………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla,
………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.

What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings
…………………………………………and prisons?

I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening
……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.

……………………………………………………Safe journey home.

—Translation by Dylan Brennan


Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez

En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos:
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.

Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí
………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano
………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.

No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.

Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa
………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando:
…………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”

Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes
………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate
………………………………………….por los canales de televisión
………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien
………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo
……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo
……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.

Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán
………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios
………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas
…………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.

Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará
……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla,
……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.

¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas
…………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir
……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado.
…………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.


Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”

No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.


Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys

There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.

Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?

To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours

to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just
………….stripped naked for love?

Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.

Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?

You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine

or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.

…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?

Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?

We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return
………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?

There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.

They run with so much strength.

………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.

Translation by Dylan Brennan


Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa

No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.

¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?

A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas
……….se habían desnudado al amor?

Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.

¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?

En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.

………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?

¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?

No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!

No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.

Corren con demasiada fuerza.
…………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014

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Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”

I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.


A Ballad for François Hollande

Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’
………….by Boris Vian

don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud

I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?

as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill

my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem
……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing

you and the terrorists you and the terror
………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes

………………………………………….let us
go into the cafes
the arenas
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell

I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps
………….on his horse

don’t make war
don’t make war
at home

I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian
………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
Mr. President
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu

all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen

I slip this ballad through your window.

–Translation by Keith Payne


Balada para François Hollande

Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor”
………….de Boris Vian

no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas

lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?

por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar

mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no
…………………………sé qué sobre nada

usted y los terroristas usted y el terror
tener los tres sueños de Descartes

entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa

mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme
………sobre su caballo

no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa

soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta
……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
señor presidente
que no llevo armas
camino desarmado
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
de geolocalización
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu

por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible

dejo esta balada en su ventana


Óscar Oliva: Final words

I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.

— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne

Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.


Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan


Apr 022016

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author photo

It really is a thrill to feature three poems from Mahtem Shiferraw’s debut poetry collection, Fuchsia, here at NC. Longtime readers may remember Mahtem from our production masthead many moons ago, and now she rejoins us having received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Fuchsia is a thrilling debut, and, as Yusef Komunyakaa praises, it “captures mysteries of the heart and mind alongside everyday rituals.” Enjoy this small slice of a beautiful book. — Benjamin Woodard


Talks about Race

I have dark skin, dark face, and darkened eyes –

the white resides only outside the pupil.

I don’t know how to think of this –
I wasn’t taught to notice one’s colors;

under the sun, everyone’s skin bounces streaks of light.

Which do I claim? It is difficult to explain
the difference between African & African American
the details escape me, thin paper folding the involucre of a burning fire.

I am “other”; it is such
an indistinguishable form, beyond the construct of the proper self.

Sometimes I am asked
if I am Indian, Middle Eastern, or Biracial;

I don’t know what to say to these people
who notice the shape of the eye before its depth
the sound of the tongue before its wisdom
the openness of a palm before its reach.

And what to those who call me, “African”?
Don’t they know I can count the years spent back home
wishing I knew I was “African”?

And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is
rekindled whenever someone does NOT know
my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.

I don’t know how to fit, adjust myself within new boundaries –
nomads like me, have no place as home, no way of belonging.


E is for Eden

It lasts a while. The bitter aftertaste of sorrow
and something sweet. Like honey waves soaked

in lemon juice, it creates hollow spaces between
moments of unabridged whiteness. Glance over

once and the skies have a different story to tell.

You were created with a purpose:

a land of all lands, neither heaven nor earth
suspended between the blue wings of oceans
and their unoccupied gaze.

Once there were creatures here, inhabiting
your luscious corners, and they prodded and swiveled
and flew to please you.

You were made in somebody’s image,
but you have forgotten.

What remains now is the aftermath –
even that stripped of all its glory.

The eyes of men are saddened by the sudden
shadows unveiling in women’s eyes. Your breath

was once dirt, ash, tangible and ugly. Your face
did not exist. The contours that shape your smile,

your hairline, the timid dimple on the left cheek, they
were all ash. Here is what was: only the thought of

being loved and rejected, being loved and birthed,
being loved and destroyed. Your breath does not have

the apple’s acrid taste; it smells of something wild and
unadorned, it says do not fear, it is I, it whispers at night

when you are cold and shivering and alone in this world.

This breath is not yours to take:
mend it and oceans will flow once again.



White is a color,
black is art. Nod to those before you.
Brown is a sense of being, and dark hovers
only beneath the shadows of necks –
those who fear it most. Here is to fear.

Red are the tip of shoes of the woman
who waited in the bathroom patiently when I was
only three – to steal my mother’s ruby earrings. White

is the unsafe silence of bathroom walls, and their
morbidly cubic nature. White is water running under
my feet, the innocent screams of school children
at lunch hour.

Brown is the anomalous texture of curtains from my
childhood. Brown is also the parched wood
of a small coffee-grinder my mother used. Brown as in
the intimate angles of sharply cut ambasha my grandmother
made, flour and water, lemon skin and cinnamon shreds, the
dark heads of raisins, while on a cargo plane back to Ethiopia,
the tired eyes of war-victims and their slow recovery. Brown
is also the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it then.

Blue are the waters embedded in my grandmother’s eyes. Blue is
the whisper of the Nile, Abbay. Blue is the color of the brave. Blue
are the walls of empty neighbors houses and the insides of their
living room. Blue is skimmed milk tearing the sky.

White sometimes comes back at odd hours. White are stranger’s eyes
drenched in sadness. White is the uniform of doctors, the smell of
alcohol and something mad. White is absence. Purple comes back

as shoes, American shoes. Sky and blood under a quiet shadow. The
shadow of a young tree planted in memory of a murdered teacher in
high school. And the milky paste of over-ripe figs spurting prematurely,
spiking insides. Purple is warmth in mid-July, when rain hails on corrugated
tin roofs and the leaning green arms of lonely corn plants.

Yellow is crying; it’s a bell, a cathedral in Asmara? A school? Or the
shriek of a mass funeral. Yellow is dead. But listen to black. Listen to
black notes, black heart, listen. Black is art. Not of the artist, the art of
being. The painful art of memory. Here’s to remembering.

— Mahtem Shiferraw

Excerpted from Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu

Mahtem Shiferraw
is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. Her work has been published in The 2River ViewCactus Heart PressBlood Lotus Literary JournalLuna Luna MagazineMandala Literary JournalBlackberry: A MagazineDiverse Voices QuarterlyThe Bitter Oleander PressCallaloo Literary Journal and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full-length poetry collection, Fuchsia, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poetry chapbook, Behind Walls & Glass, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College.


Apr 012016
Rick Jackson

Richard Jackson

Robert Vivian

Robert VIvian

From Traversings, by Richard Jackson and Robert Vivian (Anchor and Plume, New Orleans, publication imminent).



When Dante finally arrived there he had no words
for it. The frog giggers in the river must think
their spotlight is their way to revelation. The dam’s
been broke for years, the mills broken wheels turn back
to a time before time, if they turn at all. The evening sky
still leans down over the ridge line as if it wanted to be
water. The river rubs against the ledge rock. Here we are
far from beheadings and crucifixions in what was once
the land of paradise, a word that came from the Persian
meaning an enclosed park. They must have had this place
in mind. One trout tries for but misses the Jesus bug
that skates away. At night the bats will take what the fish have
missed. Plato thought we are born with a memory of Paradise.
Imparadise’d in one another’s arms is what Milton said.
I think that owl wants to be the moon. He knows
Paradise is the life you’ve hidden from yourself.


Frog Light (BV)

I, too, was king of the frogs, king of the night palpitant of shadows and king of the white hot spotlight that kills with its stare in the sweeping net of a searching full moon, myself dazed between water and earth on the brink of paradise as the gigger closed in on me with his bamboo spear and beer brewing alchemy in his veins, and what will do you with your vast immortal longings and amphibious wishes deep in the Ozarks before I am speared and the angels pin back their wings and lean in closer to listen to the murder of my race. They say we taste like chicken but the whole world sings in our swollen throats. Before the light freezes me I tell the river I won’t let a window kill me.



There’s no telling how many worlds live inside our windows.
Each breath raises that question. Each question is a ladder
that has nothing to lean against. Above it, the full moon reveals
the torn paper edges of clouds it hides behind. Tonight it is
just cool enough to stop the insects’ singing. Look the other way
and a distant storm silhouettes the far hills. We have to live on
the rim of these dreams. We make, from a cluster of stars, shapes
they would never agree to be a part of. No one knows what to make
of the solar dust that may or may not explain our origins. When
you lose your sense of smell, they say, your chances of dying
increase exponentially. Why is another question. We name things
to stop them from changing. These are not windows, but mirrors.
This evening, I swear, I saw a stone learning to become a star.


When Stones Abandoned The World (BV)

All at once they picked themselves up from the barren fields and started walking toward the horizon, silent, solemn march going to the stars even as they tried to become them and rose the thrust and the warbler and the startled robin and I could see that the stones were naked but unabashed and unashamed wanting only to be rinsed again and rose the wind and the dust and where were the stones going but to another place not of their keening and to watch them go I felt abandoned and I did not ask the stones why they were leaving everything behind and rose other birds and still others, starlings and crows and turkey vultures and smoke from a distant fire and if you could see the stones moving, if you could see them turning away you would wonder if home is a dream we tell ourselves to keep from dying though death is with us always in the smallest things, a moth on the windowsill with its paper wings full of dust, old, faded pictures of loved ones long since gone into the ground, but the stones wouldn’t say for they had lain prostrate long enough and the whole earth seemed to tremble and shimmer in the wake of the their passing rife with jewel fire of beauty—I mean the way the ground burned after them in variegated flames, I mean the heart and quake of it that had its equivalent somewhere inside me as I was left behind and there was nothing I could do but watch the stones go on their steadfast journey and vault of sky above them, changing itself with every passing cloud to show them how it was done.



Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.


Day Is A Word (BV)

How are we to make the shadows whole wherever they fall or the sound of rain that comes sweeping down then timpanies away and the moth trapped in a jar, oh, the holy fluttering like a heart skipping a beat wanting to keep on forever and how is the shadow of a doorway absence unto itself that seeks not its own fulfillment but the vision of a door as a dream the shadow loves more than itself for it carries its darkness as a reckoning and the stillness of an empty church at the foot of a mountain and the devout ear of the teacup whose reign of openness is here to stay and the moth again so light against the glass even its desperation carries a stroke of sweetness into the land of bottled oxygen and because the moth is quiet in its doom somehow the whole world is blessed and the shadows again, partial, shifting and reverent in their silence that belies the night they come from and day is a word, a cry and a candle flame as somewhere else on another page the moth is free and flies imperfectly for all of us in a delirium of loops, writing its impossible verses in the air.



Wenceslas Cathedral, Olomouce, Czech Republic

Sometimes our dreams flutter with the moths against
the window in their desperate attempt to reach the darkness.
I don’t know what drives them. The universe inside us
spins along as if it knew where is was going. It is the same
with our rudderless words. By now the storm that has been
crawling along the mountain tops has begun to show itself.
The sounds of individual drops of rain on the window are
really one sound. The other day an asteroid, a rock from
some world we’ll never see, passed, as the astronomers say,
nearby. Stevens called this the odor of stars that links us to
whatever is beyond us. St Francis knew it and talked to trees
and stones, to birds and stars, to the world he loved because
it was a world inside this world. Tonight the news is enough
to put the heart is a sling. The hands of the rain are empty.
The moth doesn’t know which way to turn. The night sounds are
padlocked in their stalls. In the morning the sunlight will judge
what the night has left. To think of love is not the same as having it.
Today it is a Cathedral and its famous carved door for Saints
Cyril and Methodius that has traveled all over Europe looking
for a home. You have to imagine where that door might
lead you. Outside the word for fog creates its own world
as it wraps itself around the campanile. There must be a name
for that empty space between the fog and the ground. A couple
of squirrels disappear down its whitening aisle. Inside, a woman
tapes a prayer to a wall with other prayers, and hopes it will
find its way to a love that lies beyond the wall.

Tomorrow will be
Chattanooga where the gypsy moths, who are never anything
like angels, have left their tattered webs in the trees that, like
so many Sybils, have started to deal out their leaves. A friend
once said the leaves are the souls of everyone who has been
forgotten. They fall to meet their own lost shadows. Who has
an answer we can believe in? We have put so many padlocks on
our dreams. Every word should be a door, though our words
last longer than what they mean. Or, every word should be
a prayer, a kind of love to open again our lost or forgotten loves.


Dream Book (BV)

The hour just now and the holy stillness in rapt awakening, and see how the chair waits for the body and the table upright for the books and the hand that would turn the pages, fingers on paper, leaf after thoughtful leaf while outside other leaves fall from the book of a tree, each one a poem unto itself and so bright in its glowing as I dream of a book or it dreams me and mysterious words within and here are scales of music and a whole cathedral of choir and the love of pure sound in the valley of throat, that hollow chute where emptiness is fulfilled so the book is also my heart wanting so much it can’t be said, maybe the stars or mice out in the fields, maybe the unplowed furrows, the lonely rows and the train tracks beyond stained with creosote and the long moaning of many miles and the crushing burden of coal cars moving brothers of earth across the earth and away from this moving caravan a butterfly, so light no train could bear it nor any human heart though mine will try by saying simply yes to it, go, my gentle friend who cannot see me.

Richard Jackson has published over twenty books including thirteen books of poems, most recently Retrievals (C&R Press, 2014), Out of Place (Ashland, 2014), Resonancia (Barcelona, 2014, a translation of Resonance  from Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003), and Heartwall (UMass, Juniper Prize 2000), as well as four chapbook adaptations from Pavese and other Italian poets. Traversings (Anchor and Plume), an exchange in poems and lyric prose with Robert Vivian, will appear in April 2016. He has translated a book of poems by Alexsander Persolja (Potvanje Sonca / Journey of the Sun) (Kulturno Drustvo Vilenica: Slovenia, 2007) as well as Last Voyage, a book of translations of the early-20th-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, (Red Hen, 2010). In addition, he has edited the selected poems of Slovene poet, Iztok Osijnik. He also edited nearly twenty chapobooks of poems from Eastern Europe. His own poems have been translated into seventeen languages including Worlds Apart: Selected Poems in Slovene. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry and Poetry Miscellany, a journal.. He is the author of Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). He was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia for his work with the Slovene-based Peace and Sarajevo Committees of PEN International. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, and two Witter-Bynner fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award, and the Crazyhorse prize, and he is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Best American Poems ‘97 as well as many other anthologies. Originator of VCFA’s Slovenia Program, he was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia and returns to Europe each year with groups of students. He has been teaching at the Iowa Summer Festival, The Prague Summer Workshops, and regularly at UT-Chattanooga (since 1976), where he directs the Meacham Writers’ Conference. He has taught at VCFA since 1987. He has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and VCFA. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret Award for teaching and writing.


Robert Vivian’s most recent collection of prose poems, Mystery My Country, will be published in 2016, along with Traversings, a new book co-written with Richard Jackson. He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy—The Mover of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom, in addition to the novel Water and Abandon. He’s also written two books of meditative essays, Cold Snap as Yearning and The Least Cricket of Evening. Several of his plays have been produced in New York City and his monologues have been published in the Best Monologues series. His essays, poems, and stories have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Quarterly, Ecotone, and dozens of other journals. He teaches at Alma College in Michigan and has taught several times at various universities in Turkey, especially in Samsun, Turkey.


Mar 072016

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024Sam Savage photo by Nancy Marshall

Part One: 1981-1989


By unexpected paths we have come
to a clearing at the end of the day,
there are only grownups on the swings.
Though the daylight lingers on
like a house where there is room
and a cloudy green phrase is being read to us,
there’s a feeling of leaves in the car.
The people are still looking for their surprises,
they’re holding their radios up to their ears,
but the birds fly over like different pieces of music.
The magic light falls like ordinary
string on the calmly strolling couples.
We know how our lives will go on,
our homes are so much like our cars.
From night filling stations the phoners
are calling into recesses of loneliness
and Baby is waving from the rumble seat.


Lines of Flight
………………………for Kate Manheim

The future doesn’t have any pockets.
Close your eyes and see for yourself
a reservation with no Indians.
Above the traffic in the cloudy street
an extremely blue window floats.
But what are we going to do about
the silent piling up of little shoes?

Across the street the house is late.
We don’t wear those kinds of clothes anymore.
We should have kept our child-sized
dreams for the real dark.
We should have stayed
like in the old movies.

Where we walked in the friendly air
our footsteps are still standing by the car
and trees have grown into our pictures.

We stand like country people looking at clouds
while an umbrella folds the universe,
with the balloon Forever floating off over the roofs
and a rustling of falling mail
between us in the pleasant light.




What should have been
a journey out
has become a journey back.

The hand that held
railroad schedules
holds a candle
and a tiny pick.

We taste in our mouths
the rust of our cars
the rest of our lives.


The explorers sit
by their bushes,
the exiles have only
their scissors.

Over the wreath-green
clocks the future grows
without passengers.


Soon it will be
bye-bye from the porches of the air.

A life is a minute of pieces,
a confusion of trees
through each of the windows.


Are those mountains in the distance
or an impression of hats?

From a wire across the street
a portrait of the moon swings to and fro.


I have lost my resemblances.
The one who went
by my name is missing.

I don’t know how
to make out of words
a plan for living.


Far from the flashing chrome
of the longed-for cities,
wooden boats knock
at the sea-wall,

empty air
piles itself over the harbor.

McClellanville, S.C.



Time passes,
the light leaves,

we weep something,
but there is nothing.

of armies,

of swallows.

Shoes walk
and feet follow.

Movies close,
cafes open,

night falls
on retreating horses.

Impressions of longing
shape of a bird

on the dusty panes of desire
faint as regret.


Rhapsody on a Gone World

I remember her first shy tortoise-shell
appearings white and beautiful neck
and emeralds, she desperately was
her body’s romantic servant and loved
the bleakest things she could imagine
with a tranquil addiction to white frost
and snow and subtraction as a way of life,
a method of abstraction, until the alien
became at last what was most familiar,
coolness became her warmth, and her sun
was shadow. Her acrobat was the sky,
the clear blue dark and high sky
above the streets and avenues of New York.
The nothingness of love gave her entrance
to exits reserved for the old, it was the dark
she followed like a light.

A shadowy tinsel smile handed me its presents
in the weightless glow of a lead-gray dawn.
Wrapped in the glass panes of a tattered coat,
her wide mouth streaked with loud beaches
and crowded bars, she was photogenic
as a freak in her pageants and panicles
of ribbons and bells. In the infancy of ice
every bubble she touched with her softest
black floated like a plastic moon above
the delicate cisterns of her longings and desires,
and the unyielding fictions of a desperate
innocence held us. An Asian sorrow hung
on the fringes of the air, and the moon’s effigy
holed up in the cool sky like a trance.

LBJ woke in our dark in a bed as vast
and lonely as Texas.
He sat with his sleepless advisors
and made paper planes
that flew over the sad and jungle-green
jungles and killed the people,
who were also made of paper.

Vietnam rose out of Asia into dog days
of benzedrine and acid, hallucinating smells
of mushrooms floated on the yellow breath of summer,
as she burned the last years of her fire
in the dissatisfaction of her difficult desires.
Pinned like a butterfly to a palette of sleepless colors,
her face painted in moody mimicry of an ashen flower,
she gathered the sifting dust of bar lights,
the ice in her glass melted in her silences,
her mind was a pale shanty in which she spun
in anguish, a small-town girl gone wild in the city.
Talking in multiple voices, yellow with trailing speech,
fearing fields and wide streets, she walked her killer monkey.
The lies of politicians wronged the air
and acid drifted like evening through her.

She ran out of beaches, cinnamon candy, snow,
the circus of her wants repeated itself like laundry.
Daylight seeped without motion into monochrome rooms,
cardboard boxes for furniture, bare bulbs in the hall,
she stood at the window listening to faint machine guns
hammering at the broken jukeboxes of memory
and her eyes ate street.

Time plunges right through women
and turns their sea-green hair to grass.
Her used-up tomorrows floated off
like mist from her, her open mouth
wandered in silence, her famished white face
was scribbled with the hieroglyphs
of a life gone wrong. She could not
rise clear of her litter. Smaller and smaller
horses assembled on the prairies of her solitude,
toilet booths opened their semitones
to receive a wraith pissing morphine.

A plaintive moon hung upside down
in the street, and we each woke asleep
beside the wrong thing dying.
Wind was blowing in the chasms out there,
in the dust in the halls.
We heard it in strangeness, in
crevices, in hostile rocks cry.


Think of night

as a decorous animal with enormous ears
sitting quietly behind you,
or as a man traversed by fields
walking to the horizon
or sitting beside the animal
playing tricks with a handgun.
From time to time it opens fire;
an old man in a park
clutches his side
and looks into the eyes of his footprints.
See it in the bureau mirror
exhaling your face;
with a very quiet pencil
the night is drawing lines;
in the forest of inexplicable ink
the enemy soldiers are pointing.
Think of death as a river without water,
drying our eyes by drowning them,
or as a powdery destitute rain falling.
Yellow hands thread dried fruit,
yellow smell of damp beds.


A Simple Mechanism

I have made the journey
of old clothes without you,
the journey named A Bench in the Park.
Now snow is falling
on thousands of years
in a corner I can’t find,
a gray dog is passing.

Emptiness is stalking
a bird through the apartment,
a piano is playing
the solitary rocking of a chair,
the cars are running over their sounds.

I can’t master the disappearing ink
of the art of the threshold.
When our acrobats
exchanged epilogues at the airport
a vacuum was created,
a long tube, a pipe or cylinder.


If and So

Abandoned to bending over bridge rails
watching water, where a woman If
waves in circles, shadow green,
the virid plumes of a banana tree,

the man with cello plays with moon,
wipes his tears with floating trash,
bits of headlights and broken buildings,
because he loves the woman So.



I recall that foursquare
and seven gears ago
our Uncle Remuses brought forth on this continent
a hand crank
and got it going for a drive,
and I recall (or rather I remind)
that our 1967 Buick is broke (as we are)
and has been (have been)
for years in the driveway
which isn’t a driveway anymore
and isn’t peach ice cream
anymore, it never was
peach ice cream
or the little girl eating it in the laundromat
next to the woman with the newspaper
where I read about a man trapped
for three days in his house by a pet dog.
And we can’t do anything about
the broken crank shaft
and the rotted tires anymore
or against the honeysuckle
covering the car up,
except let the dog go live in it with the little girl
and try to imagine a world where we can have peace
from the decrepitude of our too-human machines
and the berserk antics of our intimate animals
and be happy with the taste of ice cream.


Dr. Roentgen Get His

They do it right.
They dress you in the white
grave-clothes of another epoch
and lay you out on a slab.

Don’t move, they say,
and they mean,
Lie still in your body,
don’t wiggle your bones.

Don’t move,
and you know something
painful and dreadful
is about to happen.

A terrible eye is about to look.
What will it see?

Bleached bones
bathed in something black
and thinner than light,
and the ghosts of organs.

And nothing,
…………is there nothing else?

Oh yes, says someone
you don’t know, pointing to a bird-wing-like
blur behind the white bars,

…………There’s this.

A darker deeper bird rises,
and as it falls
it leaves you faceless
behind this graceless
portrait of yourself,

stripped of your skin
and ready for the plunge.


Luxemburg Gardens

We look up, it
is suddenly evening,
it is

happening without us.
The long pictures

the figures
stand by their shadows,
the light

turns its head
and does not see,
the silence

opens its mouth.
I wanted
to tell you something

out of myself,
but a conversation
of gray doves

drowned me out.
the dark ascends.

We look up, it
has entered,
it has emptied

the benches
and closed the gates
to the park.


An Essay on Marriage

We used to have
memories in common,
now each remembers
his own life.

Fixed in our old
frustrated stone-
cut friezes
we reminisce desire.

We are broken
somethings, wrong
hearts with clouds.

Our pupils
are icy prison places
for our faces
close together.

Our sad animals
pace the raggedy
circles of our souls

as we sit helpless
with television
in the funeral
of its little light,

in the meager desolation
of a vaguest prison,
the commonplace calamity,
the complex disaster
of marriage.

Let us spread
if we can,
if you will,
the clasped misery
of our hands

and ask forgiveness
on bended needs
of Our Lady Aphrodite
and the barman
and ourselves

for everyone
who has lost heart
in the effort of loving
and drifts or drowns.

Let us compose
what we can
with what is left.

Let us crash
again by night
for love at each other

and lay our bleak
scalps side by side
under the never-cringing
leopard stars.,



I mean by reason
an intellectual fury,
an axe whistling in the air.

I mean by passion,
a house built of rage,
a raft against the current

that holds all
and takes all.

I mean by love
a howling by the road,
turning back to the empty cabin,
facing what it has to face.

The way people who live in the path
of an advancing desert
look out on their own fields and say,
This is the enemy land.


The Age of Discovery

Though at the end of the watercolors
the darkness is complete
and full face separates from profile

and footsteps in reverse,
receding but coming closer,
cross to the wrong side of the room,

and from the roofs of the trees
the windows are dropping
the last of the nasturtiums,

and the auction of vases
has infiltrated the villages,
though it is later forever —

inside the nightmare it is
the weekend of the mind. We love each other.
The beaches are crowded.

Though the president sings in his nose
and the roses in the rose garden
are driven insane by the noise

and the oculist turns in panic
from the eye that sees —

behind crumbling walls
tonsured paleontologists assemble
skeletons of angels.

Though a noise that is not any sound
lies in the wake of the china horses
and a rain of deserted flowers

announces an encroachment of twigs
until our minds are treeless

and the forgetters have gone off with their notebooks
into the margins of the afternoon
and the lesson is lost among moth wings

an adventure is waiting in a room
for a shadow to move from the door.



This is the last
weekend the lovers have.
The moon wanders
like an absent mind.

There is yesterday
like a fallen horse.
You won’t ride that
one again. Bang.

And tomorrow will not
be any place to meet.
Somber moths
in swift eclipse.

Death comes over
the capricious hills
and far in the heart
grows whole.

Bravo. Bravo. All
the little hooks
clap their hands,
clap their hands.


Zero Gravity

…………………………death would be a lovely long journey
…………………………and an endless vacation from flesh structure and bones
…………………………………………………………………….—Tristan Tzara

Death is light, a tinge
of yellow gentle
on the sleeves of coats,
a pollen of silent vowels

on our conversations,
floating at an angle
to the points of interest
like a weightless stair,

it is a strange direction,
a pavement
on which the grass is dying
in our minds.

We have our cars
but nowhere to drive them.
I try to tell you
about the town I saw with my eyes closed

but no way to find it.
Do not be afraid,
death is a sky
in which no one is swimming,

it is a frame of mind,
a point of view,
a pond afloat on our reflections,
the light of evening filling the air

with a sadness of rooms.
It is the orphanage of dreams,
an enormous mural painting
of a tiny park at night,

the flowers folded at the feet
of the statue of the hero
the walks stretched out beside the benches.
The trees are tired of flight.


April of the Beautiful Sleeves . . .

April of the beautiful sleeves,
you are like Saturday
coming down the stairs
as you open a plastic bag
looking for something
or move your things in
from the horizon.
In the shelter of trees
the house has come to rest,
the green of a field means “perhaps,”
a window arrange a cat,
the mountains make us wave.
…………………….Wherever we go
through the quiet woods
a raft has been set adrift.
Someone with a razor
is opening a glove.
Spring is like a newspaper
opening in the trees.
…………………….Let’s dance or not,
the world is where it can.
The farms slant down
the perfect hills,
a rip starts up the sleeve,
an arm emerges
…………………….waving back.



Thunder, far at first, then near, and the sky
darkens and the white crash of sun
on the shade trees becomes a new grim river
pouring over the branches and over the delicate frogs
poised on the twigs like small glittering birds.
Their jostled eyes half lit with pain, they cling
with painfully small desperate feet to a crust
of intricate shadow or look down centuries
as though listening. Abandoned by God
they cling in melancholy muteness to memory,
as the rain comes floating to them like knowledge
and the branches are swayed by uneasiness.
They dream their inapprehensible lives out
without hope, the filmy petroleum eyes staring
above the huge clownish mouths, and the gaze
does not flicker because pain does not flicker,
as the bleared transparencies darken
until there’s no other light than recollection
and no other sound than the beat beat of water.


Self-portrait while Sleeping

The flatness of a human
being lying down,
sleeping or dead,
is touching in its
a nugatory gadget
over which even
a table lamp towers.
You behold in this
horizontal tube
something that once
walked erect among the animals,
except when standing still,
or kneeling loose-hinged
to pray,
or falling.

How sad it is,
exhausted by drinking,
by drifts,
by drowning,
and who thanks what
if it lives,
and who thinks what
if it dies,
so ridicule
its molecule,
so monochrome
its speck is.


My Winter in New Hampshire

People have names
like headstones
and graves
like beds made for them
and addresses,
even the stars
have places.
That was mine
that winter
in the shadow of failure,
opening a door
and closing it
every day in the snow,
every day the same
perfectly white
black desert of snow.



Do you know that room?
It has no walls.
Walking in it,
it walks with you.

Do you understand?
You try to say what you mean
but the words say
what they mean.

There’s no bottom to it
and the top is shoved down
hard and locked.
Can you picture that?

No air in there
and no walls.
If you have never been there,
how can you know?

If you have never
had words snap and crumble
like dry sticks in your hands,
how can I tell you?


A Tremulous Rain

A tremulous rain,
unkindly falling,
luminously softening
the trees across the field

opens the door.

Syllable by syllable
you remember slowly
until the afternoon
is grief and forever

afraid of the futility
of another gesture.

The shabby rain descending
the trees give a tired
prehistoric shake.

It could be wind or
curtains blinds shutters.


The Death of my Sister Helen

not her

not here

not hear


Moon, Little Sister

Moon, little sister,
on the water
house on the shore.
Misfortune on the house.
Darkness on the map
of darkness. Cup
on the table.
Time on my hands.
Hands in my lap.
Cars on the minds
of the horses.
Hitchhikers on the highway.


The Way

Stack the furniture
and go, draw lines,
stick pins, do
whatever maps desire.

Go from where trees
bend in the wind
to where they break
in no wind,

down paths leading
between rocks
onto the rocks themselves
where there are no paths.

And come back lost,
go live in trailers.
Sit on the window-
side of silence,

grown-up children
left with grass.
Look at the enormous
way the moon is out,

how it emerges
from behind the neighbor’s trailer
like another beach
or a drifting oar.

Quiet Day at the Seashore

Today the sea exhibits rest,
exhibits desert.
Yesterday a ranting beast,
and the day before that
a machine processing white paper,
but today it is something
painted on your window.

And the day before
the day before that
it was rattling a can of nails,
but today it is wearing silence,
leaning hushed against the shore.

It used to understand
what you shouted to it,
but today that is forgotten.
Today it’s vague smile
is for God and gulls.
Through the spotless glass
of the hotel window
it is quiet as entropy,
as if someone
had stopped speaking
or was falling slowly.
Only the white-foaming
breakers suggest the effort of saying,
the distant rumble of empty barrels.

It used to forgive,
and once in Cassis
it tried to explain.
The orbiting fish under the hull
fluttered like white moths.
The light threw stones at them.
Now part of that same water
is parked in front of you,
its engines off.

In Maine it was against rocks.
In Bodega they were cliffs.
In one place
it was chemical blue,
in another it was pistache.
In Revere in November
it was the color of the sidewalks.
But today it is a field under glass,
a green woman melting.
Without hands
its hands keep spreading,
without fingers
they climb the beach,
crumple at your feet
or roll indifferently from you.

Once it was an avalanche of keys,
today it is blank with secrets.

One day soon the sky will paint it cruel.
You will look up and see
the undersides of drownings
Wailing children
will lug it up the beach.
But today it is floating on its back.
Listen to it reading softly to itself.




There are only
two truths we can live by:
God is good and
all men are brothers,
and both are lies.

The only hope is despair,
the only poverty
is money. The guns
weep in their turrets.

The playground leaps
with flowers, the children
stand still in time,
move their heads in circles,
talk in squares.

Their eye-wheels turn
to watch me watching,
they smile at the quizzical
map of the world.

They know the truth,
they tell the lie.




Of the field
there is only
the one bird left.

It’s life
is a story
the size of a day.

Its eyes
are bright with the effort
of courage.

Its wings
beat laboriously
deep in thicket.

Its voice
seems to say
Take this path.



A Little Face

A little face stands back and watches
softly the evening burst and the sun
fail and darkness fall into
a dust-empty corner of the year–
and faces the year,
listening to the hour.

And behind the little face’s eyes
closing, other eyes open
and someone remembers
how an hour’s rubbish
becomes a lifetime without yourself,
in a house of cold trash,
in an instant.

An instant is needed
to add to the landscape just
out of sight of memory
a ragged tree–
and another lap to the journey.



It Started Out

It started out as a hand,
became a continent and then
a sea, it was drawing a map,
it was coloring the map it had drawn.

It started out as a sun
climbing octaves of glass,
it became a moon
riding in through the panes.

It started out as November
and became May as the trees
passed from disconsolate to berserk
and back again.

It started out as the peaceful gaze
of an archival cat,
it became the maneuvered eyes
of a cyclist in traffic.

It started out as a well-behaved park
with laundered birds in the trees,
it became an hexagonal path making circles
in several jungles.

Oh, it began as a sky
and became a window
on which the printed scenery
is as indelible as mind.

The life it has become
is holding a hand to its mouth,
the window is open, the voices go on,
and the maps go on and on.




In the interchange

between the mirror
and its client

I am forgotten

between the face
and its expression.

I walk shoeless

between the feet
and their journey,


between my life
and its direction



Goodbye, 1972

On highways falling across the earth,
out of an immensely leafless city,
all night through small towns with lawns
like rafts flung out on the darkness
and main streets like throats of light
and mill towns mourning
the lost tracks of abandoned railroads
through receding Alabamas of dawn,
the wide skirts of the fields swirling
over the motionless land,
under the humped backs of dark clouds
or in the warm sunshine of people talking while I slept,
the car dragged its long sound past,

the trunk filled with blowing curtains
and slogans in rotting nets
and passages from the Great American Poets
and hope like the ghosts of flags,

to a dirt road scribbled over with rain
and heavy books in shacks
and tin sheds full of bullet holes
and cars parked under the trees
and sand blowing through the screen doors.

………………………………………….And also this:
a yard like a field of birds
and a path vanishing in togethering weedstalks and vines
and a sort of peace
and a bucket waiting on the well cover.

…………………………………………..It was an aching stroll.

We’ve come to what we heard,
the creaking of a gate, the echo
of a search. Youth is gone.
Who we are has happened.
Happened all the little deaths
and all the big deaths
and the flooded eyes
and the mothers and the fathers.
It happened
in immensely leafless cities
and in tiny settlements of vast dust
and in cars dragging huge flags;
in sunlight through the slats in a blind,
among the tall yellow flowers,
and in the rain-darkened foliage.
Happened the exchangeable
smiles in the glare of ceiling lights
after the lecture on trees,
after the floating dances.
Happened the tourist cabins and the song cycles
and the movies’ famous scenes.
The unrest, the vanished beasts, the fear.
It happened at the root of us
and in the leaves and branches,
to the smoke that lies across the road
and to the moon’s veneer on the pond,
to gaunt men turning gritty knobs,
opening the doors to shacks of clouds,
and to the infiltrated beauty of the loved surface.
And what was it worth?
It happened to days like flights
of wings across a street
and to the horse moving slowly
dragging a rope in the clay.
Happened all the days of impulse.
Happened the cool mineral dust
and the chalky ticking in the air.
It happened to the sunflower
on the refuse pile—will the pile sing?—
and to the young girl thinking, “Soon I’ll be old,”
to the swollen gray tongue of the dead horse
—is this the new sign given?—
to the wind filling the post holes with leaves
and to the gliding entrances of the good skaters.
Happened the far embraces, the ardor of peace,
the remote unreachable plain,
the love, the ladders, and the war.

Now the upper corner of the day is gone.
The mailman has become
the father of the leaves.
A bundle has been abandoned in a washroom.
A nation has stalled in a slime-filled ditch.
Sunlight is falling dappled on the piano keys
and everyone is leaning on a door or portal.
Somewhere beyond these paintings
are colors we can’t see,
a sky beyond this roof.
But here the angels are ordinary
and being itself the blessing.
In broken mirrors
images are made whole.
Here is the startling rainbow
under the unturned stone
and the muscular rose
growing from fatigue’s endless sand.
In the grateful village
saved from giants
names are natural features
like the trees. Briefly
time moves at a slower rush.
The air says, “I am air,”
and the grass murmurs, “rich, rich.”
Suddenly the future opens,
it is the corner where we always stood.
For whatever drifts
drifts to its own place.
Truth is error deepening
deep enough.
When the crescent of loss is complete,
a full moon rises.
A rich man is entering into heaven.
I go as one
who feels the touch of some leaves,
as one who says to himself,
“the swaying branches,”
to stand in the evident light,
breathing out, and into all the rest,
surrounded by just being here.

McClellanville, S.C, 1989



Part Two: Poems 1990-2015


At Fifty

At fifty, one feels the process.
One looks into age as into a yellow mirror.

The heavy folds of the eyelids,
the slow metabolic fire burning down the mind.

The stone sinks,
why don’t we say dives?

I want to say waiting
but I’m not waiting at all.

At midnight the clocks clench their little hands
but no one else is angry.

As the erasures of illumination grow.

Soon they’ll refer to us as “men of another century.”

Who were here, tremendous, on this plain;
to vanish utterly.

Without remembrance of everything perceived
everything endured. All the news

is imagining this.

November, 1990, McClellanville, S.C.




Autumn being thorough,
dead leaves
being shoved about,

bare branches, etc.,
and the dried-out grass of the rest of it.

Bright sun on the houses
and the woods dark
with trammels.

Here (now) is where everything
gets dumped, shadows
leaves, all
the equipment of going.

Though we drive without stopping

in ourselves the fragility
of the edge makes a sharp
end, a clean hole, the precise
place it has penetrated.



Moon over McClellanville

A pale piece
of curve
set against
a barely visible

yellowing as it goes down
through the cables and hoisted
outriggers of the boats.

Diesel throb
peaceful across the water.

The drunks at the boat landing




Pittsburgh Steel

What a day,
though not beautiful or nice,
a handsome day,

sun sailing over
several blocks
of Pittsburgh,

earth turning,
great ship
slicing the air,
the blades of the buildings.

City of concrete
rising out of
the wash of traffic,

the light scrapes
it all clean
down an avenue
of boarded storefronts.




I look and you look.

The same light enters
two pairs of eyes.

Nothing will be the same again.

Holes to be dug
and cars driven
and borders crossed
to go the distance

and the goal obscure
and the meaning of it
all escapes us.
Goodbye, my jaunty sparrow.

I tried twice to tell
you the story of my life.
First it was too long,
now it’s too short.

Turning around in the road,
then turning around again.

Then turning round and round.

This really is the end.




You said, “There’s no more interesting music.”
I said, “The wet leaves smell of treason.”

You said, “I’ve lost the feeling of myself.”
I said, “When I close my eyes it roars.”

You took the names from all the trees.
I took refuge in the difficulty of painting.

You said, “Curses,” I said, “Curtains,”
though for a long time we lodged among the lucky ones.

Out in the street the light fell obliquely.
The taxis had their roof lights on.

The feeling was clouds, earth tones, and leaf.
The back of the air was contralto and Mahler.

Indeed, the evening was like a giant standing up
to count his strides. We fled in two directions.



The Return

The same motion returns,
the same hand, the same pencil
traces the same pattern.

Each day rising
and setting each
day climbing the stairs.

Each hesitant hand
turning a knob,
each dragging dance
starting and stopping.

Love accomplishes nothing.
The same motion returns.
Autumn falls on water
down and down.



A Life

We deserve death as we
deserve life — that much,
that little.

The cradle rocks to another
beat, the child lives
in another time.

Out of the flesh
grew the culm
of spirit, a column
of dust with eyes.

In the heart of the poem
a form collapsed
and the voice read
on in silence.

Then the sparrows
fluttered in
and propped the gate
with their bones.

From under the ground
a boat came sailing —
without sails,
without flags.

Lift the cup,
pause to think.
Something has stopped.
The way is lost.

My name is Weary.
As a young man
I knew both a feeling of abandonment
and a sense of “from this moment on.”

Now I’m holding
both ends of a long scarf.
I turn from the bathers
and cover my face on the shore.



My Father’s Death

The sun had just come up
when all the light of my father died.

A lizard in its crept place opened one eye.
Ants climbed in spiral motion a stem of tall grass.

In that instant an instant was given.
It was shining as on the first day.

Birds sang brightly from the trees
and nothing was left that was obscure.

McClellanville, 1990




The expanse of memory:
like a field beyond a field

where people are walking, talking,
not needing to care

what is happening in this one.

And under those hills buried forever
lies an old and famous plain
where a city once stood

around whose unbreachable walls
a hero was dragged by horses

over the plain, over the plain!

Dogs bark and stars sway
above a road where a late traveler

makes his way along the lines of a legend
toward a century he cannot hope to reach.

In the country
a year has passed
but in the city
nothing has changed.

The emperor’s eyelids are pressed with darkness
and all the blood has flowed.



Before the Mirror

We travel on our faces.
Lower, lower

than we can crawl
crawl our faces

under all their travels.



View from Northeast Point, McClellanville

The world is so ingloriously
pervade with exits,
so overcrowded
with elevators down,

it’s porous. Eternity
leaking through
makes walking hard
at the edge of the Atlantic slag,

by the piggish thuds,
under the dirty clouds
of an icy autumn.

The ocean is sending
us rumors of bad times, of
mortal plummet

and expunge: it
would suck our refuge under.



For Emily Hope, Aged Six

This is our way
down through the candelabraed
asters, the child
talking and reaching.

A child and a man
under the sky.
The wings of the grass
swift on the hillside.

Not to be tarried
by simple verse,
the prose of time

Mitchell County, NC, 1991


Desert Sunrise

The hours converge
on an instant.

Eternity cavorts,
the infinite abounding.

Avalanche of alas,
transience indeed,

and anger hot
and dry in the dawn



The Sound you Hear

The sound you hear
like lapsing handles

or a vast propeller
turning in a church

is lichen moving
in waves over rocks.



Living Alone in the Mountains

Each poor soul
without another — solitude’s
bad breath.
November clouds
whine and clang.
Autumn hills
like palomino haunches.
A long way to neighbors,
their whiskied talk.

Mitchell County, NC, 1992




Shades drawn
ruminating dusk.
Fate’s wires
looped and tangled.

Earth near death,

the plum tree
dipping iced branches.

I bring in wood to the fire
and brace myself against the dull
miseries of the homestead,

lacking the discipline
and strength of my father.




The pickup in the mire
sunk to its axles,
the hounds not leaping the fence
but crawling under,
the pregnant hog’s belly
nearly dragging the ground,
the wind has circled
the pear with blossoms.



Pawley’s Island, South Carolina

I have become
a fierce old man,
not at all companionable.

I pray,
but expect nothing.
Each moment, a precipice;

with each word
I weigh in my hand
the stone of my fall.

My mind’s
a frozen instrument
bent to the groove,

in bondage to abstract symbols
of intersecting desolation.
Unfed and hungering

I weep like Alice
by the doll-faced door.
Who will make me small again?

I have entered
like a bather
the element of absence.

Like a hunter
I lie in wait
to surprise what I feel.

Till pushing in line
among shoppers
a phrase

uncurls from memory:
“Between the white houses,
blue wings of the sea.”



Bridge over a Small River

Two men leaning
on a bridge rail
form a peaceful figure
above the wonderful


of a drifting boat

and one pushing
a bicycle

seems bent with yearning.



A Gift

The romantic leans on an elbow.

The builder, sitting in a car,
sweeps an arm
as if by this the building rises.

Who can say how long
lovely stands?

In the yard, my pear tree blooms
for itself alone,

though the city by this flourish
achieve a partial summer.



On the Eve of War

Flow, rapid future
(war is more rapid),

dazzle, moment.

In the parks and cemeteries
of Charleston
the buds are great
with infolded petals,

the sky is destination blue.

A gull flashes
in the big empty brightness,

a windshield flashes back.

Diesel rainbows
glisten on the trash-bearing
water swirling at the pilings.

Advance of enigmas,
triumph of the merciless,

wherever we turn
the age is upon us

holding all there is
in the opaque energy of its concentrated drag.

In darkness and turmoil
the heart opens out
to the life of this city,

luminosity of
shiny metal view
difficult to describe.

And the graceful yachts at ease on their hawsers.

The sun rolling in from the harbor
rolls out
the masses of the visible

that we call days
and go among
our many ways,

existence after all.

Charleston, 2003



Son, My Son
………………..for Jeremy, aged ten.

I look at the child,
thinking how the beginning labors to end.

He reads, lost in his book,
the hooks of his eyes
tear at the pages.

Along the edge of the young day
a horse pacing proudly over the great earth.

He rests his world on mine,
but never again
will they speak of “renewed generations.”

The world-wheel turns,
axled on terror. What is one child?



A Reckoning

Out of the narrow
into bright
familiar world,

wide radiance
of wide kitchen windows
in which I greet
my own shape,

make coffee, oatmeal,
call the children down.

A day that holds no other light. . .

Old refrigerators stoves old tires
in the stream. The road
the town the city

darkening under
the wheels of the traffic.

Strands of wire
pole to pole
between the small
houses, the trailers.

The roads go everywhere they don’t
go anywhere,
hard, resilient,
a massive web, a huge nation,
they weave no pattern,
smoothing the way, moving metal,

they are the signs
of the breaking of the pattern,

enigmas of interconnecting energy,
channels without issue
in the pulse and crash of our time.

Nothing speaks out of things,
they lie in themselves, and we
in ourselves. What

are we good for out there?
We cannot impose tenderness.
The weight of indifference

presses us into the pavement.

Heart manacled to heart love
happens against us. All
else is boulder boulder and sand.



Rush Hour on the Cooper River Bridge

Driving out
over the bridge to Mt. Pleasant,
buildings, people,
pieces of a city
in process,

in morning
sunlight sharp
on long files
of glittering traffic,
and confrontation,

and violence

as churning
engines toil
at the definition
of an era

as concrete.
In opulent surge
and flash
reflections flow
over hubcaps and bumpers,

heads and eyes
in the frantic
stampeding cars,

out of the city tumult tumult,

into the convergence,
the spin.



From the Notebooks


Wind, and a branch scrapes a tin roof,
an empty drawer waits,
water runs under a rotting pier,
darkness sucks at the mind.

So things become narratives of the soul,
so truth occurs.
A rusty machine also “reflects the real.”



Those were the days
when we could say,
“Fountains dry,
temples thrown down.”

Now we say,
“Under the noon sun
asphalt is melting in empty
parking lots.”



You ask for keys
but there are no doors
of things that open to keys

but to a verse of precise
and studied step,
accurate and not sweet.



“Not deafness,”
he shouted as he
stepped into the surf,

that with which
the ocean smashes
whispers on a beach,

the way stillness
in the poem
moves against movement
its own movement.



I wanted no smooth
stone of artifice
but rough uncut rock
found by chance
to which I gave no other
shape than purpose.



Resurrection and Death of a Chair

The old lady has died
and it’s all going,
………every stick of furniture,
………………even the baby carriage,
………even the black-and-chrome gas-fired barbeque grill,
………………even the wheel chair.
Three men, four hours,
………the dreck of a lifetime
………………down three flights of stairs
into the truck.
………………………Here comes an armchair,
he has it on his head,
………he looks like a turtle,
it’s lime green,
………………it’s huge,
………………………it’s made for giants.
They set it down on the sidewalk
and go on working.
………………Every stick of it
into the van.
………………They stand at the rear of the truck,
they drink water from paper cups,
………they crush the cups,
………………and toss them in the truck.
They climb into the cab,
………………they drive away.
The chair is on the sidewalk,
………how could they forget the chair?
It is lime green, it is huge,
………it takes up half the sidewalk,
………………people have to swerve around it.
All afternoon it sits on the sidewalk.

Night falls,
………the chair is strangely beautiful,
………………under the streetlight
it looks like a theater set,
………a chair for Willy Loman
to kick back and dream.

Morning comes,
………two little boys stop to look.
What a sight!
………A gigantic armchair in the middle of the sidewalk!
They glance up and down the street,
………they throw themselves into the chair,
they sit side by side,
………they kick their legs,
………………they look at each other and laugh.
What pleasure on a bright spring morning
………to sit in an overstuffed lime-green easy chair
………………that stands in the middle of the sidewalk for no reason!
What a wonderful chair!

Another day goes by,
………and another,
the chair is in exactly
………the spot where the movers left it.
On the third day,
………on the fourth floor of the building,
someone has left a window open.
A little girl
………is leaning out of it,
………she wants to see what is happening in the street below.
And I think how amazing it would be
………if she tumbled out the window
………………and landed safely in the chair.
That would be a true miracle,
………it would be on the news,
………………it would make people happy just to hear about it.
It doesn’t happen, though.
No miracle occurs.
………A young woman pulls the child back
………………………and shuts the window.
What occurs instead is garbage day,
………they pick up the chair,
………………they heave it into the bin
………………………and crush it,
so life can go on as before.



An Egyptian Statue

The shape of time,
the face of time,
is work, the mind’s work.

Live wood becomes stone,
stone leaves and branches,
the mind chips at the frame.

Multitude of shadows,
multitude of figures
over the sharp, the arched field.

Hardness beyond rock,
the musical thought, its
successive shapes are art.

Out of the cooling frenzy,
above the cries of impulse,
this is the light among us

drifting and springing.
Muscled body, body of dreaming,
its secret is not bogus.

A dirt clod fallen
back into dirt
made this stone statue

to stand a natural
stranger among us,
enemy of the normal day,

the dingy life, and light
upon us, though it cannot
save even one man.

Its mineral gaze turns everywhere,
always. And the actual
enters consciousness

as consciousness-in-stone
not broken by bitterness,
renders the eye able.



For Poetry


Yesterday a thousand imagined deer
stood drinking at the pond.

Today one unimagined drop
would slake our thirst.

The oaks are still wearing their promises
but the tree of words is bare.

The prophet has jumped from the tower
into the valley of the Interstate,

where we buried him like a sack of blood,
by a sagging fence, in the fold of the year.

We have lingered at the grassy mound
and raised two crossed sticks.

I speak of it without irony,
amazed that I can speak of it at all.



The sun, the moon, are two eyes
rolling in the skull of time.

The world began in the skull’s shadow
and ends at twilight in a trailer park.

Sunset on the Emerald Motel,
and footsteps scrunch on the gravel.

The ocean has dried to a scum-coated pond,
a nation died out to a village.

Everywhere chaos, and everywhere calmly
people are taking bicycles apart.

Without equipment to construe,
without a single bell to defend us,

we have entered a new earth,
of a different sort of dust.



I stand at the rimless edge and hear
distances falling on deserted roads

as quiet as writing.
A beggar by a vanished stream,

rattling a cup of names,
my mind is a box of memory held with tape.

All the ghosts are here.
Verlaine, tous tes amis sont ici!

And morning glories turning out along the fence,
a tree planting another like itself.

I keep track of such omens and emblems,
though I know my skills are not wisdom.

I work stones
and let them roll off into the creek bed.

And the fragrance of the old way
is an unbearable sweetness.



I remember a ship detained by veils
and the many-skirted waves

unfolding the wrinkled pages of an antique island
on which our fantasies were broken like lyricists.

Now the conversations about it
are too long even to begin.

The shadow of bread stirs

only the memory of hunger.
We’ll be reborn only as we are.

All answers dissolve into poundings at the gate.



Clouds of steps. Fire loose
and wind rising. Typewriters squeal and shit.

Libraries of empires sink
under highways darkened by blowing dust

rattling the metal hoops of wagons
crossing a prairie

past a secret concealed in a wall
and a deep pond lost in the suburbs

and Walt Whitman saying goodbye at the Exxon,

past a greenhouse floating above Saginaw
where the horticulturist of loneliness bred roses,

over asphalt intangible arches of longing
hung from the cables of a marvelous bridge

where a bedlamite still weeps on a parapet,
Emily Dickinson’s letters falling from his eyes.



To where a man steps down on another coast,
his memories around him like children,

aghast in the glare of arrival.

The waves that splash here
have come all the way from the beginning.

He picks up a stone: before the grass,
before the mountains.

Rustle of silence and rush of words;
eternity gleams along the rim of his losses.

A sentry at the border between an eon and an eon
and a viewer in the wind,

he rocks on his heels.
He is not mute but neither can he speak.

Though the materials are present.

In the lightness of one hand,
in the clarity of one string.

Far far a little sun more black expands,
the shivering bells caw.

Magicians, in whom brightest I still believe,
let down your ladders!



Spring Again

Spring, a headlong
vault, slap-bang,
but tender, green.
How strange again.

In the unearthed life
of plant and animal
wild and cunning
information and reflex.

In more than friendship
comes forth the Other,
a few steps
a different way together.



How it Is

The tumult of life, I suppose it is,
the throes and pangs
of enthusiasm and regret,
go on apace,
and might well continue
to go on apace,
interrupted by hours of oblivion,
by sleep, by moments
of distraction, by fun,
though that rarely now,
for years possibly, still,
but not by peace,
there is no peace.
The soul, for one thing,
never gets weary,
no matter how battered,
no matter how chock full
of misery and hunger,
it’s always ready for more.
The animal, on the other hand,
meaning the fleshy thing
the soul is buried in,
or burdened with,
wears down, wears out,
and dies, becomes dirt,
or gray ash and smoke.
There is a point,
a position in life,
where the fences have all come down,
the world rushes in
and everything hurts.




Lord, what shape
of animal will you
assume when we meet —
barnyard or zoo?
And how will I
know you? Fear
weighs my ways
down, and pain
will stain my last hours
most likely, most like
a lion stains
the lamb. Will it
be you?
A loud ruin, Lord,
is dying to love,
his heart hardened
to every sound
but the scratch
of tiny cruciform
fingers clawing
and nagging
at the door.
Shall I open it
and let the dark in
like a dog,
or go out
to greet it
by choosing night?
Night, you know,
is the wall I always
In it are the gates
through which
I think I see
tossing pale lights.
Will it take a lot
of courage, Lord,
to go out and
sidle up to that
aggrieved and
wounded lamb
that struggles there?



At the Memorial

Mounds of boots, piles
of steel helmets,
dead wings over the waves;

severed branches,
a massive wheel,
a coat leaning against nothing.

Ribbons and medals
thrown over a fence,
mist in envelopes.

Men on the damp
ground at perpendiculars
to themselves,

and words like “country” and “hero,”
the shoddy merchandise.



First Love

A van cruising the streets,
mouth to my mouth.

An event so small
among the great events,

copulating flies.

A machine following the one
out on the Interstate
painting the dividing lines,

a machines spreading its yellow wings.



Two for the Morning

1. 6 AM

A not-to-be-
spoken wisp
or rose
as a wren levers
the sun up,
morning rush
of world’s


2. 8 AM

And now it
all over the city’s
many cars,
tenement violence,
infant life
the day’s

intermeshing teeth of gears.



The sky’s a gray
like something
the streets imagined.

The Interstate’s
hysteria held down
by the weight
of truck tires.

aridity. A hard
edge like a metal
flange in the air.

Who wants to say love
says stone. Existence
is bafflement
against the obduracy.

An angry sea,
steel-gray waves,
rolls over
glimpsed islands.



A Village Was

A village was, besides
a few huts and streets,
the return of what they knew,

an actuality of belief.

Then town, then city
crowded the banks of the river,
an event that has happened,
frozen at the end.
Stairways in office buildings,
scarred doors, baffled

Not the earth’s slow heaves and cyclical
exchanges but powerful engines

mark the progress of our motionings.

We have come from: What is separate is wrong,
to: Everything beautiful is separate.

And the emptiness is everyone’s.
In this decaying light we are free.

Towards us slouch in attitudes of sloth
and degradation

the gods of the periphery, the lesser ones.

Over all, everywhere, rolls the rock of history,
the moving rock,
a thicket moving itself. We can’t
find our residence there.

For it is necessary to see
whatever happens as an answer,
though we know this civilization
had been better not built.

So we achieve bewilderment.



Don’t Bicker

Don’t bicker with death.
Invite it in
as guest, as teacher,
your friend, your enemy.

Body shot
and mind fabulating,
you’re at the end
of a long corridor,
barefoot on a cold floor.

Step easy, as off a curb,
through the mud gate
into the racing void.

Though still by human fire,
though still in need of touch,
embrace the dark embracing you,

don’t bicker with it.



Fair Evening, Charleston County

Behind a filling station at the edge of town
cattle drink from a ditch,
swing their heads down, their horns.

Across the field a kitchen light
goes on: fidelity and shelter.

A gun lies in pieces
on a table covered with newspaper,
a child studies it.

A man in baggy trousers beside the highway
thumbing a ride, gropes for the dream.

Yellow light floods the pine tops
above the dense stillness of the horses.

I run my hands along the sad edges,
the wings of the day,
and the stars up there after,

and the tired feet of the animals
walking forever onto the ark

and the water moving in the rushes

and the coon creeping on the quail clutch
and the cat pausing in the rifle sight
and the fat convict crawling frantically in mist.

I think the only real failure is the failure to be brave,
and to cringe like an animal driven over.



In Fall

The end with all
its beginnings.
A stairless man
climbing down

bone by bone
and loss by loss
and hand to mouth,
the words die

as we say them,
the gate bangs.
The descent
to the dirt roads.

The moon
is a deaf color
we cannot hear
any farther than ourselves

time passing
in camouflage,
birds falling
from the trees.

The seasons turn
on the cylinders
of our faces,
the circle

spreads its numbers
across the garden
and kills the flowers.

Hands that had
drawn back, touch.
Voices fallen silent
cry out.



Till Death Do us Thunder
…………..for Nora

These flesh-masked bones
are my disguise.
Next year will bring
your summer stripped of my parks.
Our life was this chain
with its links,
these words
with their rhythms,
that poem.
Beginning there
you’ll start back
these steps with your feet
in those shoes without laces.
From my mask
you’ll save face,
from my prints
you’ll make tracks,
from my words
you’ll take flight.



Rivers Avenue, North Charleston

We move among
people everywhere
the constant numerous

the abstract calming
expected movements

of cashiers.

Bits of news
bits of dirt and rivets

cars in ranks

of repetition, of structure.

And beyond
that the forest “history”

and beneath our feet
the solid pavement.

The moth circling
the lamp is trapped
in the moth-system

and the blossoming twig
by the all but gone
silent stream




Independence Day

In masses, in multitudes,
we move restlessly, relentlessly

across the vast republic of indifference,

over the bare ground of horror,

what the traffic rolls on.

It is motion, it is process,
accumulation, waste.

In the phantasmal, the toxic
cities of the plain, the spectacle
thickens and clots.

Frozen gantries, vacant shop floors,
black rags stuffed in the drain holes.

We are harmful, we are
acid to each other,

though no one ever died of tenderness
and emptiness was no one’s choice.

Isolated by our velocity,
we are ajar, adrift
in the wash of empire.

What scales will we use to weigh,
who were weighed and found wanting?

How can we exhaust the bitterness?

Aghast, afloat
on the current of history,
at the frontier of the times we live in,
that we’ve been tossed up out of,

we put out more flags.

We came here by error
and the error holds us.

The epoch is everywhere,
it is all there is,
and we are crazed by it.




Pressure of memory against the mobility of life,
forgetfulness bricking the mind.

An indifference shrouding us from within,
the metal fences spreading,

blunt fingers attaching
wire loops
to steel posts.

An old man who is again a child
stirs the dust that was the child.

No future, and no idea how to live as a “last man,”

he walks alone by the river
through crowds of others walking by their rivers,

the hard, the masculine and feminine others.

Time has given to each a depth of world
impossible to renounce or rectify,

the uncanny, the unique person.

Circles of isolation interlocked to form a chain.



Out in California my Brother is Dying

August, and he can already feel
the failing of the vegetable impulse.

The materials of summer are all around him
but he can see what the trees are planning

when the leaves have fallen
the birds have flown
the branches rattle bare empty cages

meadow grass collapses under wind and frost
chirr chirp babble and drone pitch into silence.

Seated on a sagging porch he watches the clouds
turn their pages complaining and sighing.

Sometimes on a still-warm evening
he drags a chair out into the orchard.

There among the velvet shadows of the apple trees
the mind empties its crowds

the once so emphatic present grows thin
as the kingdom of bright days crumbles.

Above the mountains to the west
a steep and frantic shape

hauls at the cables of the sun,
and the air is frail with flight.


Part Three: The Kiffler Poems

1. Kiffler Fails to Fly

Today Kiffler is learning to fly.
He has developed a technique.
He does it in the kitchen first for his family.

Fists in armpits,
he flaps the mighty stubs.

Wugh wugh wugh

The sound of wingbeats
strum the air.

Once around the room,
he soars above the refrigerator.
Kiffler is flying the Hump.
He is sailing above it all.

The kitchen,
…………..his family,
……………………..his life


They are the size of fleas.

Now he is going to do a barrel roll.
(Impressive, but irrelevant.)

He is just fluttering up there to avoid his responsibilities.

He crumples once more upon a chair.

‘You don’t have anything it takes,’
observes Thelma.

Does she mean wings?

From Molly’s box of Jungle Crunch
a tiger recommends that Kiffler crunch life.

He would, he would.

‘I leap up to my God, who pulls we down?’
said Dr. Faustus in that play.

And who is Dr. Kiffler leaping up to?


Then what drags him down?

His heavy heart.


2. Kiffler Sets to Work

Six long weeks he strove to cut it.
Thirty mornings at the awful hour
Kiffler stood panting at the door.

Climb aboard, they said.
He climbed aboard. He hauled,
he hammered.
They called him Kiff.
His heart warmed.

Six weeks he did it.
At the end of each
lay money. Kiffler
was bringing home the bacon.

That was on the surface.

upon a barren piece of windblown prairie,
Kiffler was recoiling.

From ladder tops he surveyed
the passages of clouds.
Under houses in the cool
he contemplated joists.

He was happy there.
The word “deadbeat” fluttered in the air.
It lit on Kiffler’s head,
and stayed.

He let his mind drift.
Day by day the name Kiffler
grew synonym with slacker.

Six weeks he strove to cut it.
To what avail?

Down the street by Jimmy’s Bar and Grill
flies the answer.

That rakish figure of springing step
is Kiffler fired.

Home again, he creeps
into the warm familiar lair.
He wags.

With Thelma, though, that does not cut it.
I put up with shit, she says,
why can’t you put up with shit?

Why can’t Kiffler put up with shit?

A flaw within.



3. Kiffler Takes a Walk

The young ones are everywhere. They are
falling from the trees. They are leaping
from rooftops.

They are not doing anything. They do it
The park is full of them.

Overhead the vastness reverberates.
A huge orb is loose in space.
Someone has let Spring out
and the dogs are at it.

Alarmed, Kiffler roams.

Tiny leaves on the willows.
Tulips and daffodils.
Gnats vibrate in columns.

A mallard, green aglitter,
pursues a drab wife,
all dignity undone by the waddle.

See Kiffler smile.
His teeth are quite yellow now.

At the lake’s rim he sits,
knees drawn up to his chin.
(The body hinges,
the mind unhinges.)

He read this morning,
“Poet Alan Ginsberg Dead.”
That news is now writ large
in Kiffler’s head.

Once, hunkered in Asia
Kiffler heard a temple
gong so loud the whiskey
frolicked in his glass.

Now he looks to windward.
From across the lake
towards him and towards him
tiny ripples race.

If tomorrow Kiffler
woke up as a duck
that would be all right with him.



4. Kiffler Takes a Sort of Stand

Beached upon a sofa, mighty Kiffler rests.
His eyes are shuttered against a sea of troubles
even as trouble creeps upon him.
Into a quiet-breathing nostril
Molly jabs a note from school.

Kiffler unfolds, and reads.

Molly has (it is written there)
refused to pledge allegiance to the flag.
She has alleged “parental strictures.”
She has quoted Kiffler to the class:

“You will not kiss their fucking rag.”

Here Kiffler beams.
She has his vent verbatim.

Though he knows it’s a skirmish only
(a footnote merely)
in the Kiffler Wars,
he swells with pride.

Propelled by wrath
he hauls himself erect.
Up from the well of resentment
he lifts a bucketful
and spews a bilious stream
down on Molly’s hapless dome:

the misery of his schooldays.
the shame of his nation.
the stupidity of power.
the fragility of justice. . .

thoughtless thoughtless

Here Molly weeps

and Kiffler tumbles back.

Time tumbles forward,
carves Kiffler a narrow space
in which to rue and mend.

With ice cream in cones
and her small hand in his,
father and daughter amble now
beneath the flowering trees.

Cunning Kiffler
has made his escape again.

He bears a cone before him like a torch.

He’s back where he belongs at last.
He never should have left.
He has his feet on the dog again.
His eyes are closed.

He is waiting for Armageddon
to be announced on the news.
He can hear Thelma singing in the kitchen.
The days are very long.

After a while, he rolls a joint
and wanders out to the yard.

He stands among the things of April,

the tiny leaves that swarm the ash,
sudsy clouds bouncing in the sky,
daffodils, of course.

He takes a long toke,
coughs once, and pledges.


5. Kiffler’s Nice Day

A nice day again.
Sun-speckled sidewalks,
flowers, and so forth.
Kiffler can’t get over it.

An amazing coincidence,
himself and the world
here together.

Amazing just to shirk. If he had anything
to shirk from. Or off.
There’s an itchy buzzing
sort of bounce to the atmosphere.

Kiffler takes Vachel to scope it out.

A slow turn around the neighborhood
and then amble on to the park,
and the lake, and ducks probably.

People have planted all sorts of flowers
between the house fronts and the sidewalk.
Thelma does that. Kiffler himself would not,
though he is grateful.

He doesn’t know even the names of many.
Zinnias, roses. But what are those
yellow spotted ones
like tiny shoes hanging from strings?

Vachel meets others of his kind
on the way. He wags and means it.
And Kiffler meets others of his.

Does he wag? He does.
The doggy virtues do not elude him.
He bobs and nods.
He flashes a ragged grin.

That is just Kiffler being devious.

The sign says


But there goes Kiffler.
He’s walking Vachel right past it.

At the leafy shore, eager
paddlers gather round.
They know their man.

Deliberately adjacent a sign that says, in effect,


scofflaw Kiffler tosses bread.

Minor crime is Kiffler’s crutch.
Leaning on it he hobbles home
with head held high, high-domed

forehead slicing the soft air,
a man of backbone and gall,

unlulled by weather.


6. A Laborious Story

This is Kiffler as a large fat beaver.
Fat flat tail. Nice sturdy teeth. Incredible house.
Underwater entrance and other defenses.
Nice airy rooms. Roof deck with retractable awning.

Never a wasted moment, that’s Kiffler.
Works hard. Strong as a mule. Never touches sugar.
Here he is singing “Down at the Pond”
while stripping off some fresh bark for the winter.

“There’s no such thing as too soon,”
he likes to say, “and the busy bee has no sorrow”

Naturally, the other good-for-nothing beavers don’t like him much.

They spend a lot of time just lying around chewing twigs and sunning themselves
and they don’t feel good about it.

So they organize a meeting to throw Kiffler out.

They accuse him of being an Eager Beaver.

“Yea, I’d call him that.”

“Some kind of militant self-starter probably.”

“Well, I did peek inside his lodge once, and lemme tell ya, it was neat as a pin.”

“With him it’s always go go go. I say, when’s it gonna’ stop?

He hasn’t a chance. The case
is stacked against him from the outset.

They are out for Kiffler’s pelt.

When his turn comes, he stands to speak.
He invokes the Beaver Way.
Industry, Self-reliance. The ideals
of the bluff plain dealer.
The sturdy yeomanry of yore.

He goes on, and on. His speech is extremely boring.

They drive him out with sticks.

Now here he is out in the big world.
It is a thinner, sadder Kiffler,
scrounging nickels in the street.
He is selling little wooden carvings of beavers
and singing “Down at the Pond.”
He is in constant danger from dogs.

He has certainly travelled a long way from the old oomph and pizzazz days.

At night he drags himself home
to a hovel of planks and tarpaper.
The only light is from a flickering screen.
Hunched over the keyboard,
He is composing the story of his life
and an indictment of his times.

(Beaver or no beaver, it’s the same old Kiffler.)



7. Kiffler Has Mechanical Problems

Here is Kiffler hard at work.
Today he is an automatic high velocity envelope stuffing machine with bulk feeder.
He is amazingly efficient.
He is making up for gazillions of hours he has twiddled away.

He likes being a machine.
Effortless labor. Respect.

Buoyed by the warm chatter of office girls
he is humming along.
Envelopes are piling up.

Thanks to Kiffler thousands of deserving Americans
will have a shot at a free lawn tractor.
Just mail back the coupon.

Who does he think he’s kidding?

Already he is losing his concentration,
he is drifting into orbit.
He is orbiting 1978.

Uh oh. Something’s not right.
Looks like a paper jam.

Here comes Janine to the rescue.
What a babe. She is fooling around inside
his very delicate mechanism
(long red nails like talons).

Hey, girl, not so rough.

Kiffler grabs, holds on.
Her shrieks merely excite him.

Oops! There goes the fabric.

“You’ve done it this time.
Out you go, buddy.”

Here is Kiffler being unceremoniously tossed.
He lies in the alley on his side.

He breathes. He hears the unpleasant
clatter of some loose parts.
He rolls over, studies how blue the sky.
Soon the bars will open.

Hands in pockets, he strolls to one.
“Hey, Kiffy, what’s up, man?

Sly Mona Lisa smile.

He must be hatching another goofy idea.

When Kiffler was younger
he was troubled by the meaning of life.

He felt there ought to be one.

He has gotten used to things as they are.
If one day they start to make sense
he will be completely bewildered.



8. Kiffler Tries to Sleep it off

Kiffler is back on the sofa.

What a deadbeat.

Kiffler Bonaparte
is retreating from something bigger than Russia.

He does it with his eyes closed.

Outside lurks the work world.
(One more thing to be baffled by)

It’s a busy business out there,
he thinks, even the birds sound busy,
and Kiffler Doolittle hears it all.

He does not want to.

He turns, snuffling, to snout the pillow.
Deep in feathered folds he grubs for sleep.
Eyes shut tight, it is dark in Kiffler’s head,
but sounds leak in.
From high in some leafy top
a small bright bird is shouting

phoo-ee phoo-ee phoo-ee.

He wishes he had earlids.

It’s a busy busy world
and Kiffler Bumstead is tired of listening to it.
He is tired of traffic and the busy buzz of people going places
in cars,
………… ..buses,
………. ….planes.

He hates business
and business people
and the phrase ‘travel allowance.’
He hates the words ‘busy’ and ‘buzz.’
He hates the reliable industrious
steps of the mailman
and the racket made by the painters across the street
ratchetting their eternal ladders up and down.

Their names are Ken and Laura.

Kiffler knows.
When they first started
he strolled over to find out.

Ken, Laura, and yellow.

Ken, thin and balding,
Laura, short and pudgy.
Laura does not actually paint.
She works as ballast. When Ken
is up high on the ladder
Laura sits on the bottom rung
and keeps him from falling.
All day she sits, eating potato chips
and smoking. That’s her job
and she’s good at it.

Kiffler thinks of slim Thelma
sitting on the bottom rung of his ladder.
She has kept him from falling
all these years.

But what is he doing up there anyway?

He ponders. His shield is down.
Wormish thoughts, tentacled and fanged,
wiggle into his half-sleeping head.
He wishes he had a mindlid.

And now another familiar tread.
No baleful mailman this.
The lighter brighter steps of Thelma
are at the door, and through,
and across the room to him.
She looms above.
His eyes will open to behold.
O Thelma.

Has she brought bread?

Once she lavished
sex and praise upon him.
Now she returns
bearing, he hopes, money.

Kiffler needs some.

To sit with coffee,
pastry, perhaps a book
on a café terrace
and so stalk the world in spring.
That a need so small
should loom so huge
amazes Kiffler. Amazes also
that gentle lovely Thelma
should labor so for such as he.

Baffled Kiffler doesn’t get it.

When, Thelma asks, as she peels
away two lovely green ones,
will he face up to his responsibilities.

He ought to cry out, ‘Never, never, never, will I,’

but answers instead, ‘Tomorrow.’

(And means it.)


9. Kiffler Treed

Bent beneath a long metal ladder,
there is Kiffler trudging across the lawn,
an ant bearing a wasp wing.

The summer trees are full of leaves.
Kiffler, below, has seen a better world up there,
a tranquil peace house afloat in the treetops.

He wants to go live in it.

Though he does not like ladders
he scurries up.
The vast maple waves its leaves gently to him
as he climbs.
His ant-heart thumps.

Now that he is in the branches
he starts to feel better.
Looking down, he is feeling high.

He climbs from limb to limb.
He is really way up there.
He perches near the peak.
Nevermind how it sways,
he is going to make a roost of it.

But what’s happening now?

Looks like his arms have gone furry.
Chest and face too.
Perplexed, he scratches a hairy ear.
His hand is huge.

Poor hopeful Kiff,
he imagines he’s beginning a new life-story.
He wants to call it From Ant to Ape.

When he left, the news of the earth was grim.
High above the demented present
Kiffler is cutting loose from his species.

What will he miss?

Thelma and Molly, his sofa,
movies, his dog Vachel,
cigarettes, wearing a hat when it’s cold,
cappuccinoen on Cafe Zoma’s terrace.

Kiffler is getting ready to rough it.

Now Thelma and Molly are standing beneath him in the yard.
They are quite low and stubby.
Kiffler is so high he can’t tell if they are pointing or waving.

From within his greeny nook
he peers out over the rooftops.
He has never seen the neighborhood
from this angle before. He likes it better.

…….. ……Meanwhile
below him on the lawn
dwarfs are multiplying. They are wearing
their faces on top of their heads.
Friends and relations, all the neighbors,
his brother Bill, his sister Maud.

That’s too much of many for Kiffler.

They are moving into a huddle.
Uh oh. It might be a family council.

Put a cork in that!

Kiffler hurls his shoes down,
first one, then the other.

The dwarfs unbunch and scatter,
then regroup out of range.
They are hatching plans to get him down.

Kiffler studies his new feet.

He is up there
because it looked so nice from below
and he couldn’t think where else.
Now he discovers
that sitting on branches is not comfortable.

The life of an ape man,
has turned out to be uncomfortable and boring.

………. … .(There goes another illusion.
…….. ……How many more can Kiffler have?
Zillions, probably.)

The sirens arrive, trailing red trucks,
to die away at the curb. At the end
they give off a deep very final moan.
If Kiffler could open his mouth and say that
everyone would understand.

Firemen swarm below.
Big hatted, short legged, barrel chested,
they are running around with their fireman equipment.


But why aren’t they setting up any ladders?

The fire captain is explaining to Thelma:
when she called, they thought “Kiffler” was a cat.
They don’t rescue lunatics.

They have a special team for that.

 —Sam Savage



“Evening Sun”: Southern Poetry Review

“A Simple Mechanism, Zero Gravity, Think of Night”: Ambit (in England)

“Lexicon,” “Pawleys Island,” “For Emily Hope,” “In Luxembourg Gardens”: 45/96 (an anthology of South Carolina poets)

“Goodbye, 1972”: Chattahoochee Review

“Climbing in Teotihuacan”: Moth (in Ireland)

Sam Savage is the best-selling author of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, The Cry of the Sloth, Glass, The Way of the Dog, and It Will End with Us. A native of South Carolina, Savage holds a PhD in philosophy from Yale University. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


Mar 052016

adrian and matthew
It was a cold Friday afternoon, last December, the 18th. By the fire in my front room in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Canada), I called, via Skype, father and son tag team poets, Adrian and Matthew Rice. Adrian answered from his home in Hickory, North Carolina and Matthew from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was particularly interested in the father-son poetry connection and how much influence they had upon each other’s work, whether their writing processes were similar or not and how the poems unfolded for them. We spoke about their influences, why poetry was important to them and what advice, if any, Adrian would give to Matthew about the writing life. I also asked Adrian about Abbey Press, a poetry press he co-founded in 1997 which published critically acclaimed work from Irish poets such as Michael Longley, Gerald Dawe, Brendan Kennelly, and the late Hungarian poets, Istvan Baka, & Attila Jozsef among others. But first I wondered how a young boy from the Rathcoole housing estate, north of Belfast got interested in poetry and how he eventually found his way to North Carolina.

While the joys of technology made this international video-interview possible, the pains (or my lack of understanding) of this same technology resulted in my external microphone only working intermittently. My solution was to edit my voice out of the recording and allow Adrian and Matthew to speak for themselves which you will soon realise they are more than competent in doing.

Following the interview are four poems from Matthew and four from Adrian (the first two are from his collection, The Clock Flower, and the last two from his recently published book, Hickory Station. Adrian is also one half of  ‘The Belfast Boys’, an Irish Traditional Music duo – in between their two sets of poems, you can listen to The Belfast Boys’ rendition of The Blue Hills of Antrim)

—Gerard Beirne

YouTube Preview Image



Darkness was dwindling
As we arrived back at your house
At dawn, late summer ghosting
The curtained rooms,

To find two sparrows flying a frenzy
Around the place, having tumbled
Down the throat of the chimney,
Spewed into domesticity.

While you set about freeing the one
Downstairs, I followed the other
Up above and cornered it
Against the window in the study,

Butting frantically against the glass –
Hope as a symbol with all hope lost.
And it was then that I thought
That losing all hope was a renewal,

Like the petering-out of a season.
So, I offered it the last of my hope;
I opened the study window
And watched it disappear into sunlight.


The Hedge

in memory of Billy Montgomery

I’m a youngster
Led by the hand, as
The steam coming off the hob
Casts a cloudless shadow

Across the kitchen floor –
The smell of it like some old shanty
Billowing out its breath
Into the night,

Filling my field of vision
With a plume-tailed epiphany,
Holding the soul open
For the briefest moment,

Ebbing gently like the aftermath
Of passing through a rain-soaked hedge
Under falling cherry blossom –
As the window is opened

And the room restored.


Atreus and Thyestes

in memoriam Zbigniew Herbert

Wet-eyed and begging,
Thyestes’ sons are put under their uncle’s
blade. Clean-edged vengeance-giver,
Atreus separates them into pieces,
aiming carefully at the wrists
to make a clean sever,
and, at pains to preserve the dignity of the young faces,
makes a good stroke at removing their heads.
The heads and hands he’ll cauterise
and keep, holding in a single thought reason and grief.

And look, what a lavish feast he’s laid on
for his brother, who sits across
eating under the illusion of truce,
who, later, will take the long walk
to the Oracle, red-eyed and sickened,
through the honeysuckle hedges
and high-sided hollows,
stopping briefly along the way
to tickle his throat with a feather;
vomiting up his beloved children
amid the indifferent, dipping swallows,
the sweet scent of summer –
how cruel the life that continues on.
The cooling breeze and carefree sway
of high branches make playful shapes
in the setting sun.


The Gardener

It’s cool before the sun comes up
over Gethsemane, a single bird
singing like a wayward fan
during a minute’s silence.

The man out for an early morning stroll,
taking a piss under the drooping trees,
wonders briefly why the gardener in the distance
is not moving and is down on his knees.

—Matthew Rice


YouTube Preview Image


The Clock Flower

As far as the rest of the universe is concerned,
Maybe we’re like the feather-fluff of the clock flower,

The ghostly snow-sphere of the dying dandelion
That the child holds up in wide-eyed wonder,

Which the mother says to blow on to tell the time
By how many breath-blows it takes before the airy seed

All flies away, leaving her child clutching a bare stem.

And where our humanness might go, who knows?
And when it lands – takes root – what grows?


from ‘Eleventh Night’
XIX. Budgie

Drive the Demon of Bigotry home to his den,
And where Britain made brutes, now let Erin make men!
from ‘Erin’ by William Drennan (1754-1820)

It seemed like every single house had one
Except us, though we had an aquarium,
The other housed comfort of the working class,
One behind the bars, the other behind glass.
I thought it odd that the underprivileged
Would happily keep something tanked or caged,
Considering our hard human condition.
I guessed it was our identification
With creatures as poorly predestined as we
Often believed our hand-to-mouth selves to be.
Keeping birds in seed is a real kind of love,
And sprinkling fish-flakes like manna from above.
………….Now by a strange quirk of imagination –
Some new light from within, something gene-given –
Every time I saw a map of Ireland
I rebelled against the usual notion,
The birds-eye, map-driven visualization
Of Ireland backed to the masculine mainland,
Her leafy petticoats eyed-up for stripping,
Her feminine fields ripe for penile ploughing.
Even as a child, I refused to see it
As a victim, back-turned towards Brit-
Ain, inviting colonial rear-ending.
I saw it as a battling budgie, facing
The mainland, proudly, prepared for what might come
Winging over the waves from the gauntlet realm.
Though couched by Drennan to properly provoke
His fellow Irishmen to throw off the yoke,
It was no ‘base posterior of the world’,
Arsehole waiting to be slavishly buggered
By a foreign foe even our side flinched at.
No more servile hung’ring for the ‘lazy root’,
But male and broad-shouldered as The Hill of Caves –
Where the United Irishmen first swore slaves
Would be set free by jointly overturning
The home-based kingdom of the sectarian –
Our bold-hearted budgie had come of age,
Had climbed the ladders and looked in the mirrors,
Then ignored the dudgeon doors and bent the bars,
Self-paroled, assuming independent airs.
………..So turned towards the royal raven of England,
To my mind, our Irish budgie was crowned
With the head of Ulster: the tufty hair of
Wind-blown Donegal, the brawn and brains of
Radical Belfast, the ‘Athens of the North’,
With the clear blue eye of Neagh, and beak of Ards,
Heart, lungs and Dublin barrel-bulge of Leinster,
The fiery feet and claws of mighty Munster,
And thrown-back western wings of mystic Connaught.
Four provinces, four-square, forever landlocked,
Friend of brother Celts, but full of righteous rage
Against the keeper of the keys to the cage,
The Bard’s ‘blessed plot’, his ‘precious stone set in
The silver sea’, his ‘dear, dear land’, his England.
Yes, no Catholic cage, nor Protestant pound,
Could hold my dissenting ideal of Ireland.
For in spite of spite, it was Drennan’s Eden,
‘In the ring of this world the most precious stone!’
His ‘Emerald of Europe’, his ‘Emerald Isle’
Which no vengefulness would finally defile.



What is death,
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock-cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those futtery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
in the least draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
a perfect bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breaths into her mouth.

What is life,
but a drawing in
of breath?



On an unseasonably
warm afternoon
I am back on the porch,
and the little wasps
are trying to build
in the hollow arms and legs
of my aluminum chair.

They’re determined,
as they are every spring,
to inhabit my chosen seat,
but I have soaked
their sought for portals
with gasoline, being equally
determined to stay put.

But on they come,
at regular intervals,
in one’s and two’s only,
as if one sometimes needs
the second as witness to carry
the story of occupation back
to the others, to be believed.

I wonder what they think of me,
and feel sorry for them,
almost guilty, even imagining
the dark openings they seek
as being cave mouths
in which they wish to store
some valuable scrolls.

So I am kind to myself,
reminding myself
that it’s my chair, my porch,
though I can hear them protesting
But we were here first!
Fair enough. But no matter.
For I have a porch thirst.

Gasoline will win the day,
for another year, anyway,
and I will sit safely and securely
behind my slatted battlements,
scratching the pale page
hoping, as always, to be
stung by poetry.

—Adrian Rice


Matthew Rice was born in Belfast in 1980. He has published poems widely in reputable journals on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as having his work included in the CAP Anthology, ‘Connections’. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his first collection of poetry entitled ‘Door Left Open’. He was long-listed for The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing 2016. He is studying for his BA Honours degree in English Language and Literature. He lives, works and writes in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.”

Adrian Rice was born just north of Belfast in 1958, in Whitehouse, Newtownabbey, County Antrim. He graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA in English & Politics, and MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature.. His first sequence of poems appeared in Muck Island (Moongate Publications, 1990), a collaboration with leading Irish artist, Ross Wilson. Copies of this limited edition box-set are housed in the collections of The Tate Gallery, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Lamont Library at Harvard University. A following chapbook, Impediments (Abbey Press, 1997), also earned widespread critical acclaim. In 1997, Rice received the Sir James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary for Emerging Artists. In autumn 1999, as recipient of the US/Ireland Exchange Bursary, he was Poet-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC, where he received ‘The Key to the City’. His first full poetry collection – The Mason’s Tongue (Abbey Press, 1999) – was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Literary Prize, nominated for the Irish Times Prize for Poetry, and translated into Hungarian by Thomas Kabdebo (A Komuves Nyelve, epl/ediotio plurilingua, 2005). Selections of his poetry and prose have appeared in both The Belfast Anthology and The Ulster Anthology (Ed., Patricia Craig, Blackstaff Press, 1999 & 2006) and in Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets (Ed., John Brown, Lagan Press, 2006). A chapbook, Hickory Haiku, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press, Kentucky. Rice returned to Lenoir-Rhyne College as Visiting Writer-in-Residence for 2005. Since then, Adrian and his wife Molly, and young son, Micah, have settled in Hickory, from where he now commutes to Boone for Doctoral studies at Appalachian State University. Turning poetry into lyrics, he has also teamed up with Hickory-based and fellow Belfastman, musician/songwriter Alyn Mearns, to form ‘The Belfast Boys’, a dynamic Irish Traditional Music duo. Their debut album, Songs For Crying Out Loud, was released in 2010. Adrian’s last book, The Clock Flower (2013), and his latest, Hickory Station (2015) are both published by Press 53 (Winston-Salem).


Mar 052016

Karen Mulhallen

xValete Seu Morimi
Be Strong or Be Extinguished


Mad about you, deep in me
Can’t Help It.



Everything you said
you truly meant
at the moment
I fell into the spaces in between
Il dolce fa niente
Can’t Help It!



The last words I spoke
imagining we would take one of those trips
only lovers take
two great cities, Paris, Istanbul—
nights by water, walking  in the moonlight
as the nightingale begins to sing
and the dervish whirls and the hookahs are
lit aromatic of apple and tobacco and flame
and then I said  no, I will not
torment myself, drive us both crazy
with imaginary scenarios
Can’t Help It!



Well this time I thought I got lucky
(and thought he had too)
I met this person
(a real person)
someone from years ago,
and I thought I’m clear of debris
over the catastrophe,
just a plain old mudslide,
ready for love—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCan’t Help It!



I need to write it out,
hope my words scrawled on paper,
tiny band-aides,
little sutures on the scratches,
the small lines of blood
everywhere on my body­—
Can’t Help It.



We’ve had thirty-five years to get this right
and now you’ve bailed
left me with the leaky boat—
Can’t Help It.



If you came through the door
like that hawk’s landing
I would just say can’t help it,
Can’t Help It!



Can’t Help It,
I believed everything he said—
he’s an actor—really—
the embodiment of truth
at that moment.


You know you can only
lead the horse to water.


Nothing ventured, nothing gained:
Hey, just a minute, it was everything ventured,
only wreckage gained



It can’t be helped
I wasn’t ready, or maybe I was really ready
ready for love
had no defenses
wasn’t prepared
just jumped in
and now
the undertow is
taking me down.



Hook up with an actor—
a real true professional—
take the high road to truth,
which of us will take the witness stand now,
speak the truth and nothing but the truth
so help me God.



Four months ago I fell in love
and didn’t know whom to tell
and now, now
it’s just old news.



It isn’t complicated
I must have lied to myself
saying I don’t want to own you
when I really just wanted
to gobble you up,
and I never thought
after that first night
when you said ‘Who would ever leave you’,
that you really meant to say  no one
but me would ever go away.
Can’t Help It!



That’s the thing about acting,
about actors,— it’s one sincerity after another
—which one is real—
Trust me, Right Now!



I called you rascal, alitros, to my friends
signaling that like Odysseus you were changeable,
mercurial, abandoned Kalypso
after eight years in her arching caverns
and could defeat
even the goddess Kirke herself.



I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal
drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace at El Trompo
and I realized that’s precisely
what you have done to me.



I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal, drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace of El Trompo
and I realized that hecho un trompo
is just what I’ve done,
eaten to excess
every bit of you—
Can’t Help  It.



I was sitting in the Kensington Market
with my friend Cal
drinking mango margaritas
on the terrace of El Trompo and
I realized El Trompo is what I’ve become
spinning around like a kid’s top—
you push the spindle
and around I go
over and over and over



I thought you didn’t like animals—
I don’t, you said, but when they go nuts
around me I have to respond
—just like people—
Can’t Help It.



Only yesterday, Canada Day,
you delivered the death notice,
‘A train wreck’ you called it,
and you were driving the engine,
always in charge,
Raptor Electric coming through, derailed.
The news was sudden, abrupt—
nothing convenient in a death—
and now I sit shiva, torn black ribbon
tourniquet for my bleeding heart.
xxxEvery four minutes I weep,
every ten  minutes I wail.
Every hour I slip, sleep, slide
down a bumpy passage.
xxxBrief summer made humid,
xby the tsunami of tears—
Can’t Help It!



I called you alitros, rascal,
because like Odysseus you were wily,
shape-shifting, powerful, never contained.
You spent untold hours telling the contours
and crevices of my arching caverns.
xxxWhere are you now, my rascal,
my alitros,
xxxIn whose caves do you now dwell.
Can’t Help It!



And if in a future time perchance
with some girlfriend or other
you should happen on one of my dresses
on display at some museum or other,
you might recall my glance at you
there over my right shoulder,
the black panties draped over the scotch bottle
on the island counter,
and you holding yourself leaning
against the north counter staring at the woman
who glances over at you over her right shoulder,
xxxAnd you can have that secret moment,
xjust for yourself, there in that public place,
with some other woman or other.
Can’t Help It.

—Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen’s latest poetry book is Code Orange Emblazoned Suite, featured here first on Numéro Cinq, published by Black Moss Press (Fall 2015), and translated into French by Nancy Huston. The book launched in Toronto at the Café Pamenar in the Kensington Market and in Paris at Shakespeare and Company in September 2015.



Mar 032016




What we call the soul
the space between out there

& in here—a life
cut itself in two gradually

joins in the middle, a beetle clung
to the grid of the wire screen

clicking merely flesh—



No experience song enough
like the warm skin of peaches
what we’re marked by
light or the ground beneath
an arcade of trees
holds together precisely
a world neither of us can move



As bright as each of us stands below the sparrows’ gifted

noon, our being here nothing but time’s abrupt

dissolve however swallowed—I ask you

remember for me how we are able to heal from

everything that pains us

wore down to desire

paid heed—what makes us more aware or grateful for

rain-soaked streets no more vanished than

youth’s certain toll—distance drawn out

over the hand come to rest on our shoulders

replays the handsome music we carry to the dogs—



If the dead cry out our memory’s voice

thrown down on muddy banks the river itself

skirts, if washed over stones the son recovers

the father shook to rage the son’s smallest song

lay under, say something, said was it light run

over us the way to the greenhouse, was it light

inside goodbye, old stones and the flowers

push their breath through me, went cold

the way it would feel asking for more than

my gorgeous scuttle beneath him, hid

behind rows of elms he planted further from

the roses along the old bed, if the earth was soft

enough, if married his hands, if it was winter

ended through the clear air I could hear him—



The earth turns along the scented irises
along the birches the body moves
nearer the fire in a deep grove
a kind of music each ear bore with it
our hiding our spit our having known
more than evenings sailed against our ribs
other bodies not us against the full light
a mangled bird raises her one speaking wing



A morning difficult to walk across
the slain crocuses a song
or a silent movie
a memory of a wound
floated out to sea
at the beginning of the war
the fields covered by searchlights
at the edge of a garden before we were born
the shades drawn against
what shook the walls of the house
while the soldiers played cards
moved farther away from the coast
the lid rolled closed over the keyboard of a piano
the facts of history which we do not believe
for a moment we are among friends

—Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr.


Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr.‘s poems have appeared in Cutbank, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Pleiades, Sukoon, and other journals, and his essays in PopMatters. He teaches writing and Literature courses at Webster University and Florissant Valley Community College in St. Louis, MO.


Feb 112016

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition


THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”


I don’t know what the guiding principle of scholarship is but I feel that coincidence is what dictates the novel and the epic poem alike, since it is what sets the direction of the plot. I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.


I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”


That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.