Friday poem: To Waiting

29 01 2010

Bit behind in bloggin’, but Friday bails me out: poetry!

Who this week?

It turned out to be less about the who than the what; subject, not author (although I do like this author).

So: I have been unsettled all week. Ending one job, starting another, looking ahead to starting yet another. I’m pleased to have the ‘yet another’, but uneasy as to how it will go, how will I adapt to a FT 9-5 position. And, given that it is only temporary (tho’ long-term), uneasy as to what I will do, after.

It’s good to be able to pay the rent, but, as always when I’m not writing, I think Is this what I came to New York for?

Unsettlement, unease, and restless, always restless.

Thus, this poem by WS Merwin:

To Waiting

You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
someone else
always someone
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you

meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
lights changing
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself

with whom as you
recall you were
never happy
to be left alone for long


Friday poem: Wakefulness

22 01 2010

I am wary of John Ashbery.

I used to distrust him entirely, consigning him to the word-babblers entirely too self-pleased with their speech. Watch me play this game! Watch! Are you looking?

Paugh. You’re a grown man, and you’re trying to impress with how pretty you can be?

But then he changed or I changed or he and I changed and I was willing to see or could finally see the meaning behind the theatre.

I’m still hawkish when I read his poems, ever on the lookout for mere cleverness, but now I notice how he keeps his conditionals under control, moves things along with hard verbs and nouns.

I used a few of the ending lines from the following poem to open a chapter of my dissertation. It wasn’t bad, the dissertation, but not great, either, stuffed as it was with Arendt and Foucault and Heidegger, and charged with pleasing the committee with my speech.

Still, it had its moments, as does Ashbery. This is one to remember.


An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History natters on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleep car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all
been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter
how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.

Friday poem: Not All, Only A Few Return

15 01 2010

Yes, another ghazal.

I had great difficulty finding a poem for this Friday. I pulled out Kay Ryan, WS Merwin, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery—but, again, returned to Ali.

Haiti on my mind, I guess, although wrongly so: I was thinking of water, not earth; flood, not quake.

Still, the notion that these sorrows will repeat pulled me to the ghazal and its repetitions. Again, however, it is not strictly the same: each moment demands its own attention.

And so it is this time, with this people.

*Note:  Mirza Ghalib was a 19th-century Sufi, and ghazal poet; his poems remain popular among Urdu readers today.

Not All, Only A Few Return
(after Ghalib)

Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses.
What hopes the earth forever covers, what faces?

I too could recall moonlit roofs, those nights of wine—
But Time has shelved them now in Memory’s dimmed places.

She has left forever, let blood flow from my eyes
til my eyes are lamps lit for love’s darkest places.

All of his—Sleep, Peace, Night—when on his arm your hair
shines to make him the god whom nothing effaces.

With wine, the palm’s lines, believe me, rush to Life’s stream—
Look, here’s my hand, and here the red glass it raises.

See me! Beaten by sorrow, man is numbed to pain.
Grief has become the pain only pain erases.

World, should Ghalib keep weeping you will see a flood
drown your terraced cities, your marble palaces.

Friday poem: Today, talk is cheap. Call somebody.

8 01 2010

So I had this here rebate card from Verizon. Fiddy bucks.

That would buy alotta kitty litter. Toilet paper. Cheese.

So did I spend it on household urgencies (and yes, in this household, cheese is a requirement)?

Hah. No.

With that card in my frosty little mitts, I headed for the Strand and feasted on books. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, The Mapmakers, The Failure of Political Islam, and two books of poetry: Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River, and Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite.

Thassright: I scored the collected poems of Ali.

Jealous, aren’t you?

I did, regretfully, put back Mary Oliver’s Thirst, her meditation on the death of her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook; another day, I said.

Still, I’m very happy with the Ali. I haven’t had a chance, really, to do more than scan the pages; what follows, then, is  one I simply plucked out.

And then I cheat, and add another, a ghazal, for no other reason that the repetition which nonetheless moves you as well as returning you to where you have and hadn’t been before, moves me and returns me to where I have and hadn’t been before.

Yes, there’s a telephone in each poem, but what binds them is more the tone: the lighting upon the humorous and then the tragic, the surface slice and the deep thrust to something below.

*Sigh* I may have to add a Friday ghazal in addition to the regular Friday poem, lest I ignore all other poets in my lust for Ali.

From Bell Telephone Hours

Today, talk is cheap.
Call somebody.

I called Information Desk, Heaven,
and asked, “When is Doomsday?”
I was put on hold.

Through the hallelujahs of seraphs,
I heard the idle gossip of angels,
their wings beating rumours
of revolts in Heaven.
The I heard flames, wings burning,
then only hallelujahs.

I prayed, “Angel of Love,
please pick up the phone.”

But it was the Angel of Death.
I said, “Tell me, Tell me,
when is Doomsday?”

He answered, “God is busy.
He never answers the living.
He has no answers for the dead.
Don’t ever call again collect.”


Here’s what Ali himself had to say on the ghazal:

The ghazal can be traced back to seventh-century Arabia. In its canonical Persian (Farsi) form, arrived at in the eleventh century, it is composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous couplets that are united by a strict scheme of rhyme, refrain, and line length. The opening couplet sets up the schemes by having it in both lines, and then the schemes occurs only in the second line of every succeeding couplet—i.e., the first line (same length) of every succeeding couplet sets up a suspense, and the second line (same length but with the rhyme and refrain—the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain) delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding.

See how he runs. . . .

Of It All

I say This, after all, is the trick of it all
when suddenly you say “Arabic of it all.”

After Algebra there was Geometry—and then Calculus—
But I’d already failed the arithmetic of it all.

White men across the U.S. love their wives’ curries—
I say O No! to the turmeric of it all.

“Suicide represents. . . a privileged moment. . . .”
Then what keeps you—and me—from being sick of it all?

The telephones work, but I’m still cut off from you.
We star in America, fast epic of it all.

What shapes galaxies and keeps them from flying apart?
There’s that missing mass, the black magic of it all.

What makes yours the rarest edition is just this:
it’s bound in human skin, final fabric of it all.

I’m smashed, fine Enemy, in your isolate mirror.
Why the diamond display then—in public—of it all?

Before the palaver ends, hear the sparrows’ songs,
the quick quick quick, O the quick of it all.

For the suicidally beautiful, autumn now starts.
Their fathers’ heroes, boys gallop, kick off it all.

The sudden storm swept its ice across the great plains.
How did you find me, then, in the thick of it all?

Across the world one aches for New York, but to long
for New York in New York’s most tragic of it all.

For Shahid too the night went “quickly as it came”—
After that, old friend, came the music of it all.

(for Anthony Lacavaro)

Friday poem: Wild Geese

1 01 2010

Mary Oliver is lately known as a nature poet, not merely chronicling ‘the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground’, but tuning her sight into it.

Lately: She’s been writing for over forty years, the last twenty or so which light on the natural world.

This is when I came to Oliver, in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and watched as she picked up flowers and mice and (figuratively) bears and skunks and turned them over in her hands.

Taken one by one, these poems are a wonder, a pause in the rush of life.

I admit that I prefer her poems this way, one by one, rather than piled up one after the other. The images fade into a kind of nature-walk report, losing the distinctiveness of her attention, of that pause.

I offer two poems this week, the one meant for Friday, the other for a friend.

The Friday poem appears in a kind of fulcrum period of Oliver’s writing. Her early works are full of people and direct questions of the world; those later works take in all creatures except the human, drawn around owls and egrets and hermit crabs.

But in the middle is the mix of humans and animals and questions pointing toward answers. She is still attached to the specifically human world, but beginning to loosen us from our own centrality.

I went back and forth between this poem and another, finally deciding on the one below because it was the one I said Yes to first.

As with other poems by other poets, the one I choose is not necessarily the poet’s ‘best’ poem, the one with the most precise rhythm or exact language or most indelible imagery. But, as with those other poems by other poets, something about this poem snagged my attention, today.

Perhaps it is the new year, which yesterday I disdained as any kind of marker (even as I marked it). The poem is a bit more incantatory than I usually like, but the juxtaposition of a specific life mattering in the general disinterested universe, well, that works for me, today.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on you knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild gees, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


The second is a poem for a friend. I hadn’t been thinking of her as I thumbed through the pages, but when I scanned it, then read it again, slowly, I thought of her. So, for you.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

Friday poem: Second Space

25 12 2009

I don’t want to cast aspersions, but:

Viruses are evil.

Do I exaggerate? Is it possible that not all viruses, are, in fact, evil? Do I moralize on a subject which has little to do with morality? Could I be taking this cold just a mite too personally?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.

Thus the cause (proximate and otherwise) for the lacunae in posting, tho’ there is always, head befogged by cold or not, more to be said.

Saved, then, by the Friday poem: sayings on another’s words.

Today is Christmas, and while I doubt that Jesus was born 2009 years ago on this date—I’m among those who think the early Church bogarted the pagan celebration of solstice for its own purposes—I’m not much bothered by the bad timekeeping.

After all, I’m neither pagan nor Christian, and tend to think of time as a useful construct rather than a moral force: that we may be wrong about times and dates  may cause chagrin scientifically, historically, but philosophically? A mere oops will suffice.

In any case, if Jesus of Nazareth was born, he had to have been born some time, so why not late December or early January (for all you Orthodox readers)?  Jesus-the-Capricorn: why not?

This is all a long prelude to a poem by a poet who is rather more unsettled by God than I am. Blake? Auden? Ah: Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz, the Polish poet tormented by Polish history, by all the blood and ashes so recently spilled in his land. He struggled with God, with his fellow Poles, with his fellow humans, with himself, breaking beauty against the hard and tumbling facts of existence.

In his early poems Milosz is easier with God, with his nearness and apart-ness; then again, in his early poems Auschwitz had not yet been called forth by the Germans,  was still Oœwiêcim, a small town southwest of Krakow.

This is one of his later poems, overtly yearning for God, in mourning for his absence. If he had been a sign or symbol early on, by the end of the century God was, for Milosz, a bruising reality—one  necessary for mortal life.

So I the unbeliever in search of something more give this space to a believer in the something more. Peace, in all things.

Second Space

How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers there is an up.
And there is a down.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?

Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss.
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.

Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.

Friday poem (Sunday): Of Snow

20 12 2009

A Friday poem on Sunday?

Why not?  The point is the poem, not the day.

In any case, the Blithes were in town on Friday, and the day began disconcertedly early—the three delightful children lacked the capacity to sleep in—and lasted late. I fell into bed shortly after Mrs. & Mr. pointed their rental car toward New Hampshire, and, waking Saturday, felt the need for a second sleep.

I was knackered, in other words. I did manage to attend a birthday party (which the birthday girl herself did not attend) in a non-Upper East Side bar on the UES, but even then, was merely contentedly slow and warm.

In any case, C. asked if a Friday poem were forthcoming. Something to do with snow or friends, I said.

It snowed here, by the way: big midwestern flakes, floating and whirling and shooting down. A proper storm

So this, a poem by by Agha Shahid Ali, an Indian poet who worked in ghazals, poems composed of thematically-similar couplets, and which are a common form across Iran, India, and Pakistan. Although he died young—at 52—in his too-few decades he wrote and published well, and opened the United States to the beauties of the ghazal.

When I wrote poetry I rarely worked in formal structures, preferring to concentrate on the sound and rhythm over the particularities of meter and verse. I didn’t disdain such formalities (at least, not once I got beyond my eighth-grade Beat phase), but considered them something to work up to. The movement toward these forms ceased along with my poetry writing.

I was introduced to the ghazal and Ali through The Nation and The New Yorker, and, while thoroughly intimidated by the rigors of the ghazal, was nonetheless swept up by Ali’s poetry. There is a gracefulness in how the words become the structure, and in so doing, simultaneously transcend and fulfill the promise of the ghazal.

See for yourself, on this day in the aftermath of the storm:

Of Snow

Husband of Water, where is your Concubine of Snow?
Has she laced your flooded desert with a wine of snow?

What a desert we met in—the foliage was lush!—
a cactus was dipped into every moonshine of snow.

One song is so solitaire in our ring of mountains,
its echo climbs to cut itself at each line of snow.

The sky beyond its means is always beside itself
till (by the plane) each peak rises, a shrine of snow.

Snowmen, inexplicably, have gathered in the Sahara
to melt and melt and melt for a Palestine of snow.

Kali turned to ice one winter, her veins transparent—
on her lips blood froze. A ruby wine of snow!

If Lorca were alive he would again come to New York,
bringing back to my life that one Valentine of snow.

Do you need to make angels, really, who then vanish
or are angels all you can undermine of snow?

I who believe in prayer but could never in God
place roses at your grave with nothing to divine of snow.

When he drinks in winter, Shahid kisses his enemies.
For Peace, then, let bars open at the first sign of snow.