Church bells toll
like a Roman soldier’s hammering.
The ring you kissed
in the sea.
on the anvil
a seal as strong as death.
God Save the Queen
The first time you met
at the bus stop,
he acted as if he knew you
and when you asked,
“Have we met?”
“I just introduced myself.”
As he began to expound
on his admiration for all things English,
you understood he’d mistaken your language
for your country,
and you let it slide,
not dispelling the illusions he held
with a reference to Cromwell.
Throughout the years
you’d run into him on occasion,
but definitely not one
you’d expect to engage
in a conversation that played by rules
Now after years,
you saw him,
and reflected how age
seems to take its toll on some
and not so much on others.
He was sitting at a café,
gray stubble covering his face,
and as you passed,
you swore you heard him mutter,
“God Save the Queen.”
The sound of the sea surf
could be heard
as the Caribbean sun
and you walked along
the fairway with your boss,
whose golf ball
always seemed to disappear
before being found
in the best place possible,
aided by a hole in his pants.
Mother and Son
After the arrest,
not a word is said of her,
and he is sent away
to an orphanage
he eventually escapes,
a stowaway on a steamer
that brings him back,
lice-infested in tattered clothes
with a rash that makes the skin crawl.
After his return,
he’s told she’s away on business,
and he is sent back
until another escape
finds him living in the ventilation shaft
of a railroad station
outside of which he begs and steals.
After being caught,
the orphanage where he returns
has lost all patience
and sends him to a military school
where they discover
a problem with his heart,
and he is forced instead to work
in a factory breathing in toxic fumes
and eating wallpaper paste to stave off hunger
until he flees at night
across the Gulf of Finland.
In the middle of the night
you sit together
and though they stand
you are calm in each other’s presence
as they try to make sense of the world
like that inhabitant of the isle
where are you soon to dock.
His appearance must have put the
hiring committee off
as did his accent
and place of origin.
All the questions put to him
No, not suitable at all.
He intricately mapped his way
about the ancient streets
But when he lost
what had meant the most,
he could no longer find his way
among the shadows.
The New Year
In that spacious house
near where the gangster dwelled,
America’s most wanted in
a Fedora hat,
the two of you sat,
the new year having earlier been ushered in
and from your treasure chest
you both took a few,
and with the music
the resolutions sworn off,
you watched the wind
blow snow about
the frozen lake.
For those who are interested, join us in our reading of Sappho.
” And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
From Fragment 1
“And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing.”
From Fragment 2
Anne Carson’s If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho
The First Thing We Do
Jack would do
you were told.
So you waited
in his lobby
interested to hear
he might provide.
From a plaque on the wall
a Bible verse stated
obedience to God
would bring about good governance.
A painting of Washington
kneeling on the banks
of the Delaware
As for your mother,
she’d already crossed
her father, too,
was suffering from
and had expressed such
told you coldly,
“He can’t see you.”
No jot and tittle
in short supply.
The Tiger by William Blake
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Color of Movement
A university student
spent the summer cycling
with a controlled substance in his
At a bar on Route 66
he had a drink
with a local man
with the gift of gab
before going outside with him
to the alley.
They talked and joked
until a cop car peeked round
He quickly put away
all incriminating evidence
and stood perfectly still
convinced of his constitutional right
against unlawful search and seizure.
His newly-found friend, however,
was less convinced,
sprinting off like
a bolt of lightning.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
A Late Walk by Robert Frost
When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.
And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words.
A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.
I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.
“A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights?”
(James Joyce -Finnegans Wake)
Ireland is a beautiful country. Its luscious green landscape can calm the troubled soul.
As an English speaker, there’s the added advantage that you’ll never struggle to communicate or make yourself understood. There’s also that lovely Irish lilt. It’s been a favorite of mine since I can remember and one I heard my grandmother use growing up. I always try to include a shan’t here and there in honor of her.
My grandmother and her sisters had left the poverty in Ireland for a better life, and while before their marriages they worked as domestic help in the home of one of the U.S.’ greatest railroad barons, that was the closest they would ever come to wealth; their lives were a struggle to get by.
When their parents, who had not come with them, fell ill, Mary, the oldest sister, returned to Ireland. In the meantime, WWI broke out, and she was unable to return to America. It was her son and family I visited.
I had not warned them I was coming, and when I arrived at the doorstep, he was not exactly sure who I was, but a little explaining convinced him, and I was welcomed into their home, where they fed me well.
One day we took a trip to see what remained of my grandmother’ s house:
The view from it was absolutely gorgeous:
Their idea of America was greatly influenced by the movies they saw, and they just assumed everyone had a gun. Now this was in 1984 when I’m sure everyone didn’t have a gun. If they were to ask me now, what would I tell them? I know what the NRA would like me to tell them – no, but if they did, everyone would be a lot safer.
They believed in spirits – no, not the Holy Spirit, formerly known as the Holy Ghost, which they no doubt did believe in. But other ones you might have read about. While on the side of the materialists without their rigid arrogance stance that everyone is in error and could see right if they’d just listen, I could understand as we drove through the mist like I understood on those windy roads in Germany’s deep forests how Grimms’ fairy tales had come to be.
They asked me what my parents’ reaction would be if I married a Protestant. Their Catholicism obviously meant a lot to them in a way that it had never or would ever for me. They took me to a place called Martyrs’ Rock where the Catholics had prayed when their religion had been forbidden under English rule.
After a few days, they drove me into the city of Sligo where I would take the train, but not before I thumbed a ride to Yeats’ grave.
I also thought to drop in and see what The Yeats Society was up to. I can only guess they didn’t know what to make of me. Very unlike Copenhagen a few weeks later where at the tourist bureau they put me on the phone with a Danish professor whose expertise was Kierkegaard and who was willing to meet up for a drink to talk about the great Dane:
All roads, and train tracks for that matter, lead to Dublin.
“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”
(James Joyce – Finnegans Wake)
By all means enjoy the pubs:
Whether or not Guinness is actually the emperor of malted liquors I can only say if you do drink it, you will not forget it.
If you find a place with live music, by all means indulge. Irish music has a real soul to it. In case you doubt me:
Enjoy both the city and the country in this lovely enchanted isle.
As those of you who visit on a regular basis know, every month (okay, nearly every month) I write a little background on one of the poems in my first collection, Watercolors. If you haven’t got it, it’s free. You can download it at Smashwords by clicking on the cover on the right or here at Barnes & Noble. By all means, write a review.
Anyway, our poem this month is The Final Embrace. It’s about learning of the illness that would eventually take my dad’s life and journeying back to him.
Before I got the news, I was sitting in my apartment, which had a wonderful view of the sea and listening to James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. Because I didn’t have a phone (At the time, the waiting list for one was something like eight years.), my mom had called my next door neighbor.
Living in a relatively small city, I had to fly out from a larger one about two hours away. It was before the days of the Internet so I had booked my tickets through a travel agent. Unfortunately, I had found a very greedy one. While in the street with my suitcase waiting for my taxi, someone from the travel agency told me they’d made a mistake in the pricing and needed more money. I thought I’ll give you whatever you want – I’m not going to argue. And I thought how I would give all the money I had if only my dad would be well again.
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Walt Whitman’s Caution by Walt Whitman
To the States or any one of
them, or any city of The
States, Resist much,
Once unquestioning obedience,
once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation,
race, city of this earth,
ever afterward resumes
its liberty. –
Children of the Light by Robert Lowell
Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;
Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,
Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,
They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;
And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock
The riotous glass houses built on rock,
And candles gutter by an empty altar,
And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.
“Tendrils of ivy curled around the cave’s mouth,
The glossy green vine clustered with berries.
Four separate springs flowed with clear water, criss-
Crossing channels as they meandered through meadows
Lush with parsley and blossoming violets.”
“When the sun is at high noon, the unerring
Old Man of the Sea comes from the salt water,
Hidden in dark ripples the West Wind stirs up,
And then lies down to sleep in the scalloped caves.
All around him seals, the brine-spirit’s brood,
Sleep in a herd. They come out of the grey water.
With breath as fetid as the depths of the sea.”
The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
God’s Grandeur by Gerald Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
There’s a Certain Slant of Light by Emily Dickinson
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘T is the seal, despair, —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.
“My beautiful streams are clogged now with dead men’s bodies,
and I cannot pour myself into the shining sea,
choked as I am with the dead. Enough of this brutal
slaughter, Achilles. Stop now. I am appalled.”
In Book 18 we read of Achilles’ grief over his friend’s death.
Any of us who have known loss will understand. Another powerful book.
“A black cloud of sorrow enfolded Achilles. He stooped
and with both his hands he picked up some soot and dust
and poured it over his head, and his handsome face
was filthy with it, and black ashes fell all over
his sweet-smelling tunic.”
Since Book 16 deals with Patroclus dying, and Book 17 with the fight over his body, I’ve included them together.
“And so they continued to fight, like a blazing fire.
You would not have thought that the sun and moon still existed,
so thick was the darkness that covered all the brave men
who had taken their stand around Patroclus’s body.”
Wonderful notion, “Sleep and Death, those twin brothers.” (16.618)
“But when they came to the ford of the swirling Xanthus,
they lifted him out, laid him upon the ground,
splashed water over his face, and he came to
and opened his eyes and got up onto his knees
and coughed up dark blood, then sank back to earth, and night
covered his eyes, for the mighty blow still overwhelmed him.”
I was struck by the horses in Book 8.
“And the Seasons touched the beautiful manes of the horses,
unyoked and tethered them at their celestial stalls,
and leaned the chariot against the bright wall of the courtyard.”
“A thousand watch fires were burning upon the plain,
and around each, fifty men sat in the glow of the firelight,
and the horses stood alongside the chariots, munching
white barley and oats, and waited for dawn to arise.”
“The sun was just now beginning to light up the fields
as it rose from the slow, deep-flowing stream of Ocean
to climb the sky, when the armies met on the plain.
It was hard to know whom the corpses belonged to, covered
with gore as they were and mangled, until the soldiers
with buckets of water washed off the clotted blood;
and they lifted them onto the wagons, shedding hot tears.”
“No we must leave not a single
Trojan alive, not even the baby boy
that his mother still holds in her womb-not even one
must slip from our hands now. All the males must be slaughtered,
every last male in Troy, unmourned, unburied.”
That expresses things fairly succinctly.
It brings to mind examples in the Old Testament such as I Samuel 15:3 in which Saul is told by the Lord to “kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
It’s interesting to note that a little later in Book 6 (6.216-240) Diomedes and Glaucus although on opposite sides are not able to kill each other since their grandfathers were friends.
We are told Athena infuses Diomedes with strength and bravery.
“He swept across the wide plain like a winter torrent
whose rushing water has bursts its embankments; the thick-built
dikes cannot hold it back, nor can it be halted
by the walls of the flourishing vineyards, when heavy rains
suddenly make it spill over, and farmers watch
as their beautiful fields of grain are destroyed beneath it;”
We start off with a council of the gods. If you don’t find that delightful, I swear there’s no hope for you…
At any rate, I liked it quite a bit, and it builds nice and slowly and to my mind reaches its climax with these spectacular lines:
“As when the sea’s swell keeps pounding against the shore,
wave after wave, hard driven before the west wind –
far out, it rises into a crest, then it breaks
on the land with a thundering roar, and around the headlands
it arches and comes to a peak and spits out the salt foam:
just so, on that day, did the Argive battalions move,
row after row, unceasingly, into battle.”
There are more lines to the poem, and from line 428 until the end we get the names of the killed, who killed them, and how they were killed. While it’s a lot better than Book 2’s The Catalogue of Ships, there is certainly a degree of repetitiveness.
I really liked Book 3.
“Quickly, my dear – come look at the wonderful thing
that is happening on the plain. Achaeaens and Trojans
are no longer killing and dying. Look: they have halted
this dreadufl war; they have stopped their fighting; they stand
and lean on their shields, with their long spears stuck in the ground.”
On reading this section, I was reminded of the time when as a young boy I decided to read the Bible. Neither my family nor I were religious. It was more out of curiosity than the feeling my soul was in jeopardy.
The only Bible available was the one that sat unread on a shelf in my parents’ closet. It was very old, and the pages were brittle. I started with Matthew. Unfortunately, I was unable to get past all the names to line 18 where the story actually begins. If you think that’s bad, I challenge anyone to read Chapter One of First Chronicles and enjoy it. One reads dreaming of an oasis, each name another sand dune. When you encounter, “he began to be mighty upon the earth” or “in his days the earth was divided” it as if you’ve found a resting place and fresh cool water and shade. I had nearly the same feeling reading this section of Book 2 and seeing:
“…he stood in their midst,
preeminent, splendid in armor of gleaming bronze,
the greatest of leaders.” (2.540-542)
It started off briliantly, and I was certain it was going to be a glorious replay of Book 1. But then a little after the halfway point came The Catalogue of Ships.
Here are a few lines from the first part:
“And as the west wind sweeps through the high-standing grain
with its violent blast, and the ears all shudder and bow:
just so was the army shaken, and in the uproar
men rushed toward the shore, and the dust from beneath their feet
rose high and hung in the air.”
What struck me most about Book 1 was that Achilles would have killed Agamemnon had Athena not intervened (1.195-205), and later Nestor telling Achilles not to defy the king as he was his superior and that Zeus had granted his kingship. (1.276-281)
Was Nestor’s view of kingship granted by Zeus the prevailing one?
How rigid was the social order?