29 September 2013

The words that shadow us

                               by Natasha Trethewey


It rained the whole time we were laying her down;
Rained from church to grave when we put her down.
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.

When the preacher called out I held up my hand;
When he called for a witness I raised my hand --
Death stops the body's work, the soul's a journeyman.

The sun came out when I turned to walk away,
Glared down on me as I turned and walked away --
My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay.

The road going home was pocked with holes,
That home-going road's always full of holes;
Though we slow down, time's wheel still rolls.

          I wander now among names of the dead:
          My mother's name, stone pillow for my head.


In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong -- mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulker's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33, my father said, It's your Jesus year -- you're the same
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name --
though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.


I have lain down in to 1970, into the bed
my parents will share for only a few more years.
Early evening, they have not yet turned from each other
in sleep, their bodies curved -- parentheses
framing the separate lives they'll wake to. Dreaming,
I am again the child with too many questions --
the endless why and why and why
my mother cannot answer, he mouth closed, a gesture
toward her future: cold lips stitched shut.
The lines in my young father's face deepen
toward an expression of grief. I have come home
from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us
in the small Southern town -- peckerwood and nigger
lover; half-breed and zebra -- words that take shape
outside us. We're huddled on the tiny island of bed,
quiet in the language of blood; the house unsteady
on its cinderblock haunches, sinking deeper
into the muck of ancestry. Oil lamps flicker
around us -- our shadows, dark glyphs on the wall,
bigger and stranger than we are.

From Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard: Poems, 2006.

22 September 2013

Fires of artifice

by John Hollander


                            And Adam gave names to all cattle, and
                            to the fowl of the air, and to every
                              beast of the field . . . Gen 2: 20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
   Glurd; though whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; though pliant-footed,
   Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
   Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
   Not yet sunk to primitive.

Though, verdle; though, McFleery's pomma;
   Thou; though; thou --- three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket; though, kabasch; though, comma-
   Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
   Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
   Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
   Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
   Naming's over. Day is done.


Fire is worst, and fires of artifice thirst after more than
             Water does and consume
  More than the world: the night within which the world
      Turns more brightly than we can even
          Guess burns out, while tears in a black
          Retina spurn hope of repair and
              Flare into smoky whisps.

Whispered desire for firing darkness with history, fleeing
            Lights that are strung along
  Mirroring darkened waters, hissing itself
     Upward, dying in aspiration,
         Quenched in night; declaring themselves,
        Candles burn down, rockets burn up in
            Moments they will outlive.

    No light can outlast darkness. But light
Is all we have to live by. Fire plays over creation
              But fireworks must do more
          Than remind. Out of the earth's heart
          Flaming salts fly upward into
          Pieces of darkness and spark,
      Silence of spaces tha ttrusting, following,
              Faces expect them to die in.

                   High in that night
         The end comes in a cottony silence,
And then the painful crack begotten of all the unquietness
      Yet to be: a death too much like life.
O! like white needles in the mind's dark forests, thrust
           Up against the ear-drummed brain
           O see, O hear the rocket die!
      (Whorls and realms of light leap out, leap
  Upward to color, to traces of shape, to life)

                  Darkness was first
          And fire followed in violet, white and
Astonishments of orange, shot at the rim of emerging time,
        Widening, as still it is: around
The full moon, nigh above this wide pavilion, hangs
          An interior unpierced
          Until the bunched homunculus
       Head of one high-arching squib rakes
   Down at the sphere, penetrates and escapes inside

            The moon,
     To the light that bleaches its fire
With the inaudible big bang,
The sudden thudding of shock when created
Pain, reflected in rings of thunder
     Becomes an eternal remembrance.

We who have been burned, we who have watched
The sights of firing life, still celebrate
   Fire with fire. Bright times
      Are remembered in heightened nights
For benched spectators, awaiting streaks of light
   Above the grandstand, in the park
   In the darkness of wild July. When the past
Burst, erupting into event, the flames
           Came hard upon
   The explosion, but burnings of celebration
Flare up before the crash. The cranium
   Of the world's darkened bowl seems now to crack.

We who have returned, guarding our hearts
From burning memory will not again become
   Children bewildered. Wild eyes
      Are forgotten, and frightening lights
Are quenched in blanketing darkness. Sheets of fire
   And screaming whitenesses of dream
   Are redeemed from fear of life by the black
Night of generation itself, by flights
          Of upward love,
   Into your most interior hollows, O my
Sole light, my muse, my mind's uranium
   In whose star-pierced urn all my ashes die!

       For half of life
   Nights came so that I might burn
   Like a Roman candle, high inside
      The blacknesses of summer.
   Then there were fireworks. Flesh
      Learns of its half
   Of death from the mind's flashbulb white
       Coming into being, seeing
Something that must come of all this burning,
All this becoming something other than darkness.

from John Hollander, Selected Poetry, 1995

15 September 2013


by Claire Trevien

The weather's gained weight,
sags its pebbled belly against the tips
of the city's horns. 
I've slumped, waiting for it to decide,
grotesque piñata, whether to burst
or rapture itself away.
The world has ended, or, at least,
most people have. I am no Avenger:
I have found wine spared
in collapsed cellars; it tastes of hills
now plucked out of reach. Grapes
have been crushed, made to sour
for my pleasure. Unwaged fingers
now mingle with the vines
while the wine runs down my throat.
Broken bottles, broken sky: red rain
heaves out of the cracked world.
I open my mouth for communion.

From Claire Trevien, The Shipwrecked House, published by Penned in the Margins.

08 September 2013

The desire to show you to everyone I love

                      Selections from TWENTY-ONE LOVE POEMS

                                                by Adrienne Rich

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you've been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I've been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You've kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.

I can see myself years back at Sunion,
hurting with an infected foot, Philoctetes
in woman’s form, limping the long path,
lying on a headland over the dark sea,
looking down the red rocks to where a soundless curl
of white told me a wave had struck,
imagining the pull of that water from that height,
knowing deliberate suicide wasn’t my métier,
yet all the time nursing, measuring that would.
Well, that’s finished. The woman who cherished
her suffering is dead. I am her descendant.
I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me,
but I want to go on from here with you
fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.

Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into sun.
It’s not my own face I see there, but other faces,
even your face at another age.
Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us --
a watch of old gold, a water-blurred fever chart,
a key. . . . Even the silt and pebbles of the bottom
deserve their glint of recognition. I fear this silence,
this inarticulate life. I’m waiting
for a wind that will gently open this sheeted water
for once, and show me what I can do
for you, who have often made the unnameable
nameable for others, even for me.

Sleeping, turning in turn like planets
rotating in their midnight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we’re not alone in the universe, even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, almost address each other.
I've wakened to your muttered words
spoken light- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoken.
But we have different voices, even in sleep,
and our bodies, so alike, are yet so different
and the past echoing through our bloodstreams
is freighted with different language, different meanings --
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation. 

From Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language, 1978.

01 September 2013

A Song for Occupations

by Walt Whitman, 1855

A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find
the developments,
And find the eternal meanings. 
Workmen and Workwomen!
Were all educations practical and ornamental well display'd out of
me, what would it amount to?
Were I as the head teacher, charitable proprietor, wise statesman,
what would it amount to?
Were I to you as the boss employing and paying you, would that satisfy you?

The learn'd, virtuous, benevolent, and the usual terms,
A man like me and never the usual terms.

Neither a servant nor a master I,
I take no sooner a large price than a small price, I will have my
own whoever enjoys me,
I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.

If you stand at work in a shop I stand as nigh as the nighest in the
same shop,
If you bestow gifts on your brother or dearest friend I demand as
good as your brother or dearest friend,
If your lover, husband, wife, is welcome by day or night, I must be
personally as welcome,
If you become degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake,
If you remember your foolish and outlaw'd deeds, do you think I
cannot remember my own foolish and outlaw'd deeds?
If you carouse at the table I carouse at the opposite side of the table,
If you meet some stranger in the streets and love him or her, why
I often meet strangers in the street and love them.

Why what have you thought of yourself?
Is it you then that thought yourself less?
Is it you that thought the President greater than you?
Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

(Because you are greasy or pimpled, or were once drunk, or a thief,
Or that you are diseas'd, or rheumatic, or a prostitute,
Or from frivolity or impotence, or that you are no scholar and never
saw your name in print,
Do you give in that you are any less immortal?)

Souls of men and women! it is not you I call unseen, unheard,
untouchable and untouching,
It is not you I go argue pro and con about, and to settle whether
you are alive or no,
I own publicly who you are, if nobody else owns.

Grown, half-grown and babe, of this country and every country,
in-doors and out-doors, one just as much as the other, I see,
And all else behind or through them.

The wife, and she is not one jot less than the husband,
The daughter, and she is just as good as the son,
The mother, and she is every bit as much as the father.

Offspring of ignorant and poor, boys apprenticed to trades,
Young fellows working on farms and old fellows working on farms,
Sailor-men, merchant-men, coasters, immigrants,
All these I see, but nigher and farther the same I see,
None shall escape me and none shall wish to escape me.

I bring what you much need yet always have,
Not money, amours, dress, eating, erudition, but as good,
I send no agent or medium, offer no representative of value, but
offer the value itself.

There is something that comes to one now and perpetually,
It is not what is printed, preach'd, discussed, it eludes discussion
and print,
It is not to be put in a book, it is not in this book,
It is for you whoever you are, it is no farther from you than your
hearing and sight are from you,
It is hinted by nearest, commonest, readiest, it is ever provoked by them.

You may read in many languages, yet read nothing about it,
You may read the President's message and read nothing about it there,
Nothing in the reports from the State department or Treasury
department, or in the daily papers or weekly papers,
Or in the census or revenue returns, prices current, or any accounts
of stock.

The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the drift of them is
something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness,
And that the enclosing purport of us here is not a speculation or
bon-mot or reconnoissance,
And that it is not something which by luck may turn out well for us,
and without luck must be a failure for us,
And not something which may yet be retracted in a certain contingency.

The light and shade, the curious sense of body and identity, the
greed that with perfect complaisance devours all things,
The endless pride and outstretching of man, unspeakable joys and sorrows,
The wonder every one sees in every one else he sees, and the wonders
that fill each minute of time forever,
What have you reckon'd them for, camerado?
Have you reckon'd them for your trade or farm-work? or for the
profits of your store?
Or to achieve yourself a position? or to fill a gentleman's leisure,
or a lady's leisure?

Have you reckon'd that the landscape took substance and form that it
might be painted in a picture?
Or men and women that they might be written of, and songs sung?
Or the attraction of gravity, and the great laws and harmonious combinations
and the fluids of the air, as subjects for the savans?
Or the brown land and the blue sea for maps and charts?
Or the stars to be put in constellations and named fancy names?
Or that the growth of seeds is for agricultural tables, or
agriculture itself?

Old institutions, these arts, libraries, legends, collections, and
the practice handed along in manufactures, will we rate them so high?
Will we rate our cash and business high? I have no objection,
I rate them as high as the highest--then a child born of a woman and
man I rate beyond all rate.

We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand,
I do not say they are not grand and good, for they are,
I am this day just as much in love with them as you,
Then I am in love with You, and with all my fellows upon the earth.

We consider bibles and religions divine--I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth,
than they are shed out of you.

The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who
are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them,
The Congress convenes every Twelfth-month for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of States, the charters of cities, the
going and coming of commerce and malls, are all for you.

List close my scholars dear,
Doctrines, politics and civilization exurge from you,
Sculpture and monuments and any thing inscribed anywhere are tallied in you,
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records
reach is in you this hour, and myths and tales the same,
If you were not breathing and walking here, where would they all be?
The most renown'd poems would be ashes, orations and plays would
be vacuums.

All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it,
(Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of
the arches and cornices?)

All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the
beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing his
sweet romanza, nor that of the men's chorus, nor that of the
women's chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.

Will the whole come back then?
Can each see signs of the best by a look in the looking-glass? is
there nothing greater or more?
Does all sit there with you, with the mystic unseen soul?

Strange and hard that paradox true I give,
Objects gross and the unseen soul are one.

House-building, measuring, sawing the boards,
Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering, tin-roofing,
Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks by flaggers,
The pump, the pile-driver, the great derrick, the coal-kiln and brickkiln,
Coal-mines and all that is down there, the lamps in the darkness,
echoes, songs, what meditations, what vast native thoughts
looking through smutch'd faces,
Iron-works, forge-fires in the mountains or by river-banks, men
around feeling the melt with huge crowbars, lumps of ore, the
due combining of ore, limestone, coal,
The blast-furnace and the puddling-furnace, the loup-lump at the
bottom of the melt at last, the rolling-mill, the stumpy bars
of pig-iron, the strong clean-shaped Trail for railroads,
Oil-works, silk-works, white-lead-works, the sugar-house,
steam-saws, the great mills and factories,
Stone-cutting, shapely trimmings for facades or window or door-lintels,
the mallet, the tooth-chisel, the jib to protect the thumb,
The calking-iron, the kettle of boiling vault-cement, and the fire
under the kettle,
The cotton-bale, the stevedore's hook, the saw and buck of the
sawyer, the mould of the moulder, the working-knife of the
butcher, the ice-saw, and all the work with ice,
The work and tools of the rigger, grappler, sail-maker, block-maker,
Goods of gutta-percha, papier-mache, colors, brushes, brush-making,
glazier's implements,
The veneer and glue-pot, the confectioner's ornaments, the decanter
and glasses, the shears and flat-iron,
The awl and knee-strap, the pint measure and quart measure, the
counter and stool, the writing-pen of quill or metal, the making
of all sorts of edged tools,
The brewery, brewing, the malt, the vats, every thing that is done
by brewers, wine-makers, vinegar-makers,
Leather-dressing, coach-making, boiler-making, rope-twisting,
distilling, sign-painting, lime-burning, cotton-picking,
electroplating, electrotyping, stereotyping,
Stave-machines, planing-machines, reaping-machines,
ploughing-machines, thrashing-machines, steam wagons,
The cart of the carman, the omnibus, the ponderous dray,
Pyrotechny, letting off color'd fireworks at night, fancy figures and jets;
Beef on the butcher's stall, the slaughter-house of the butcher, the
butcher in his killing-clothes,
The pens of live pork, the killing-hammer, the hog-hook, the
scalder's tub, gutting, the cutter's cleaver, the packer's maul,
and the plenteous winterwork of pork-packing,
Flour-works, grinding of wheat, rye, maize, rice, the barrels and
the half and quarter barrels, the loaded barges, the high piles
on wharves and levees,
The men and the work of the men on ferries, railroads, coasters,
fish-boats, canals;
The hourly routine of your own or any man's life, the shop, yard,
store, or factory,
These shows all near you by day and night--workman! whoever you
are, your daily life!

In that and them the heft of the heaviest--in that and them far more
than you estimated, (and far less also,)
In them realities for you and me, in them poems for you and me,
In them, not yourself-you and your soul enclose all things,
regardless of estimation,
In them the development good--in them all themes, hints, possibilities.

I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise
you to stop,
I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,
But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for
another hour but this hour,
Man in the first you see or touch, always in friend, brother,
nighest neighbor--woman in mother, sister, wife,
The popular tastes and employments taking precedence in poems or anywhere,
You workwomen and workmen of these States having your own divine
and strong life,
And all else giving place to men and women like you.
When the psalm sings instead of the singer,

When the script preaches instead of the preacher,
When the pulpit descends and goes instead of the carver that carved
the supporting desk,
When I can touch the body of books by night or by day, and when they
touch my body back again,
When a university course convinces like a slumbering woman and child
When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the night-watchman's daughter,
When warrantee deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly
I intend to reach them my hand, and make as much of them as I do
of men and women like you.