18 October 2016

The great hunger

                                                      by Sheenah Pugh

Chocolate from the Famine Museum
Strokestown, Co Roscommon

Reading numbers on a wall,
so many thousand evicted,
exiled, starved,

soon palls. The boys are looking
for buttons to press,
and Sir’s at a loss

how to bring it alive. He tries
to give them the reek
of peat smoke and lamp oil

in a cramped turf cabin,
wishing there was a replica
they could crowd into.

At every turn, language
fails him. Starving
means wanting dinner,

not boiling boot-leather
till you can chew it,
hoping it stays down.

They sailed to America,
he laments, to lads
who’ve flown there

on holiday, who make nothing
of oceans. They fidget
through the video,

dying for their reward:
the gift shop.
Their faces light up,

for the first time, at sheep
in green hats, penny whistles,
toy blackthorn sticks,

and the chocolate. Praline,
ganache, mint, mocha, truffle,
they’re spoiled for choice,

their day flavoured
for ever with the velvet
dark in their mouths.

From the Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 2016.

25 September 2016

I keep looking for what has always been mine

                                                             by W. S. Merwin

Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud

          Because I do not hope ever again
to pass this way I sing these
notes now in silence
each in its own time
one morning near the end of spring
among the invisible unheard stars I sing
this one time with the hope that is here
in every breath
may these notes be heard another morning
in another life
in another spring together

          Because I do not hope ever to pass
this way again
one morning late in spring
in the cold rain above the valley I sing
in the old house I came to in my youth
on the ridge looking over the river
a house that had been left to its own silence
for half a century
home for bats and swallows and patches
of sunlight wandering across the floors
under holes in the roof on the day
I first saw it
and recognized it without knowing it
above the same river

          Because I do not hope to see again
this spring morning with its cloud of light
that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill
from the house I came to long ago
when I was young and the silence
was a summer day
that first summer that I would see
from these windows
I came to see
the plum trees flowering on the slope below
the snow swirling outside the kitchen
I will not see this morning fill
with light again along the green field
under the walnut trees those silent ancients
I reach out to it with words
it never hears

          Because I do not hope ever to find
my way again
to the moments of pure
single fortune and the unrepeated mistakes
that led me here
I look back in wonder
at how I found you and we came to be here
where has it gone
never was there one step backward

          Although I do not hope to know again
what I have known since the beginning
not for a moment has it left me
I keep looking for what has always been mine
searching for it even as I
think of leaving it
my love was always
woven with leaving
moment by moment leaving
the one time

From W. S. Merwin, Garden Time, 2016.

25 August 2016

Voices full as goblets

                                                     by Anne Sexton

Faustus and I

I went to the opera and God was not there.
I was, at the time, in my apprenticeship.
The voices were as full as goblets; in mid-air
I caught them and threw them back. A form of worship.
In those vacant moments when our Lord sleeps
I have the voices. A cry that is mine for keeps.

I went to the galleries and God was not there,
only Mother Roulin and her baby, an old man infant,
his face lined in black and with a strange stare
in his black, black eyes. They seemed to hunt
me down. At the gallery van Gogh was violent
as the crows in the wheat field began their last ascent.

Three roads led to that death. All of them blind.
The sky had the presence of a thousand blue eyes
and the wheat beat itself. The wheat was not kind.
The crows go up immediately like an old man’s lies.
The crimes, my Dutchman, that wait within us all
crawled out of that sea long before the fall.

I went to the bookstore and God was not there.
Doctor Faustus was baby blue with a Knopf dog
on his spine. He was frayed and threadbare
with needing. The arch-deceiver and I had a dialogue.
The Debble and I, the Father of Lies himself,
communed, as it were, from the bookshelf.

I have made a pact and a half in my day
and stolen Godes Boke during a love affair,
the Gideon itself for all devout salesman who pray.
The Song of Solomon was underlined by some earlier pair.
The rest of the words turned to wood in my hands.
I am not immortal. Faustus and I are the also-ran. 

From the Times Literary Supplement, 8/23/2016.

14 August 2016

Just as an olive seedling

                                           Jan Kochanowski

from Laments (no.5)

Just as an olive seedling, when it tries
To grow up like the big trees towards the skies
And sprouts out of the ground, a single stalk,
A slender, leafless, twigless, living stick;
And which, if lopped by the swift sickle’s blade
Weeding out thorns and nettles, starts to fade
And, sapped of natural strength, cut off, forlorn,
Drops by the tree from whose seed it was born –
Growing before her parents’ caring eyes,
She’d barely risen above ground when Death
Felled the dear child with his infectious breath
At our very feet. Hard-eyed Persephone,
Were all those tears of no avail to me?

Trans., Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney (1995)

17 July 2016

If I were a bull penguin right now

                                              by Tony Hoagland

Romantic Moment

After the nature documentary we walk down,
into the plaza of art galleries and high end clothing stores
where the mock orange is fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.
It is just our second date, and we sit down on a rock,
holding hands, not looking at each other,
and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved
and if I were a peacock I’d flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.
If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck
and inject me with a rich hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sac to my thoracic undercarriage,
and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby tree limb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.
And if she was a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and
pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.
Instead we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,
human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don’t receive
enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests that it is time for us to go
to get some ice cream cones and eat them.

10 July 2016

A letter in panic

                                          by Tomas Tranströmer

Answers to Letters

In the bottom drawer of my desk I come across a letter that first arrived twenty-six years ago. A letter in panic, and it’s still breathing when it arrives the second time.

A house has five windows: through four of them the day shines clear and still. The fifth faces a black sky, thunder and storm. I stand at the fifth window. The letter.

Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.

Was the letter ever answered? I don’t remember, it was long ago. The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating. The heart went on leaping from second to second like the toad in the wet grass of an August night.

The unanswered letters pile high up, like cirro-stratus clouds presaging bad weather. They make the sunbeams lustreless. One day I will answer. One day when I am dead and can at last concentrate. Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again. When I’m walking, newly arrived, in the big city, on 125th Street, in the wind on the street of dancing garbage. I who love to stray off and vanish in the crowd, a capital T in the mass of the endless text.

Translated by Robin Fulton.

03 July 2016

The waves whisper like bureaucrats

                                             by Margaret Atwood

War Movie II

At last we believe in something:
this is the source of our pain.
We no longer drink gin
and sleep in,
we no longer bargain.

We clamber over stony Greece,
we slink through Polish forests,
it is winter, our toes freeze,
we gnaw on stolen turnips,
we retreat from Moscow
burning everything.

I hide the food and rifles
under my filthy shawl;
I wear a skirt,
I’m less likely to be suspected;
you are a spy, you are the commander,
your name is Sir,
everyone does what you say
because it is the only way.

The others are honed and clean,
their heads are signals,
we stab them without mercy,
we switch clothes with their steel torsos.

The sun bestows rewards:
we are allowed to cry,
we are given background music
where there was none, we are finally emblems,
we are finally credible,
we are finally single-minded.

Near the end there is a huge
explosion, a gun
shaped like an enemy, shaped like a dungeon
topples into the sea.

In the backwash, the waves
whisper like bureaucrats;
they are planning the peace,
the peace we fight for,
deciding which of us
to kill, who to sell.