27 December 2015

The musical fountain is here

                                               by Grace Schulman

Crossing the Square

Squinting through eye-slits in our balaclavas,
we lurch across Washington Square Park 
hunched against the wind, two hooded figures 
caught in the monochrome, carrying sacks
of fruit, as we’ve done for years. The frosted, starch-
tiff sycamores make a lean Christmas tree
seem to bulk larger, tilted under the arch
and still lit in three colors. Once in January,
we found a feather here and stuffed the quill 
in twigs to recall that jay. The musical fountain 
is here, its water gone, a limestone circle
now. Though rap succeeds the bluegrass strains
We’ve played in it, new praise evokes old sounds. 
White branches mimic visions of past storms;
some say they’ve heard ghosts moan above this ground, 
once a potter’s field. No two stones are the same,
of course: the drums, the tawny pears we hold, 
are old masks for new things. Still, in a world 
where fretted houses with façades are leveled 
for condominiums, not much has altered
here. At least it’s faithful to imagined
views. And, after all, we know the sycamore
will screen the sky in a receding wind.
Now, trekking home through grit that’s mounting higher,
faces upturned to test the whirling snow,
in new masks, we whistle to make breath-clouds form 
and disappear, and form again, and O, 
my love, there’s sun in the crook of your arm.

Grace Schulman, “Crossing the Square” from Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems. 2002.

20 December 2015

Inside the common hazards and orders of things

by W. S. Di Piero
Chicago and December
Trying to find my roost
one lidded, late afternoon,
the consolation of color
worked up like neediness,
like craving chocolate,
I’m at Art Institute favorites:
Velasquez’s “Servant,”
her bashful attention fixed
to place things just right,
Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait,”
whose fishy fingers seem
never to do a day’s work,
the great stone lions outside
monumentally pissed
by jumbo wreaths and ribbons
municipal good cheer
yoked around their heads.
Mealy mist. Furred air.
I walk north across
the river, Christmas lights
crushed on skyscraper glass,
bling stringing Michigan Ave.,
sunlight’s last-gasp sighing
through the artless fog.
Vague fatigued promise hangs
in the low darkened sky
when bunched scrawny starlings
rattle up from trees,
switchback and snag
like tossed rags dressing
the bare wintering branches,
black-on-black shining,
and I’m in a moment
more like a fore-moment:
from the sidewalk, watching them
poised without purpose,
I feel lifted inside the common
hazards and orders of things
when from their stillness,
the formal, aimless, not-waiting birds
erupt again, clap, elated weather-
making wing-clouds changing,
smithereened back and forth,
now already gone to follow
the river’s running course. 

June 2006.

13 December 2015

I was born

by Gregory Pardlo

Written by Himself

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I born an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain't I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.

From The New York Times Magazine, 8/9/15.

06 December 2015

Maria Elvira discovered she had a pretty mouth

by Manuel Bandeira


...Misael, civil servant in the Ministry of Labor, 63 years old,
...Knew Maria Elvira of the Grotto: prostitute, syphilitic, with ulcerated fingers, a pawned wedding ring and teeth in the last stages of decay.
...Misael took Maria out of "the life," installed her in a two-storey house in Junction City, paid for the doctor, dentist, manicurist .... He gave her everything she wanted.
...When Maria Elvira discovered she had a pretty mouth, she immediately took a boy-friend.
... Misael didn't want a scandal. He could have beaten her, shot her, or stabbed her. He did none of these: they moved.
...They lived like that for three years.
... Each time Maria Elvira took a new boy-friend, they moved.
...The lovers lived in Junction City. Boulder. On General Pedra Street, The Sties. The Brickyards. Glendale. Pay Dirt. On Marques de Sapucai Street in Villa Isabel. Niteri.
Euphoria. In Junction City again, on Clapp Street. All Saints. Carousel. Edgewood. The Mines. Soldiers Home ...
...Finally, in Constitution Street, where Misael, bereft of sense and reason, killed her with six shots, and the police found her stretched out, supine, dressed in blue organdy.

Translated by Elizabeth Bishop.

29 November 2015

Something about the heat this year

by James Grinwis

Snapshot with Wolf

Wolf made of gems.
Wolf made of alligator scales,
pine wood, and gems.
Like a length of gristle,
a lanky cartilage, loveliness,
the wolf. A strand of grit
attached to bone, a heart made of
love-pulp encased in a boot. Something
about the heat this year, the way
it curdles the armpits
and the spaces between fingers,
other spots. Something about
losing the whole of one's work
because of an accident
and feeling no desire at all
to embark on it again,
opening the skull
to a fullness of missing.
Inside the wolf's belly,
it is warm: yellow adobe
covered with small, colorful sculptures,
Klezmer and Bedouin music,
the little booths occupied by,
in alternating time,
heavy drinkers, emaciated
insomniacs, desperate office workers,
pipe fitters, tea afficionados. Those with
massive schedules and those
with no sensitivity to such.
A little crate full of toys
occupies one corner,
on a shelf far above the others,
the old shotgun full of buckshot
which has not been used for years;
a museum piece, a lichened rock.
The landscape melts.
I am feeding on small things
scurrying along dusty canals in the landscape,
to become an appendage
of the wolf, placentally attached,
waiting for a sun spike
to nudge all the plants and stuff
up from frozen sleep.

From The American Poetry Review, November/December 2015.

22 November 2015

The world begins at a kitchen table

by Joy Harjo

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

            From "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” 1994.

15 November 2015

Would I have seen a white bear?

                                                      by Lawrence Sterne

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one. Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I have seen a white bear (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? – described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved?

Is he wild? Tame? Rough? Smooth?

Is the white bear worth seeing?

Is there no sin in it?

Is it better than a 

from Tristram Shandy, 1759-66.

08 November 2015

The Joseph my parents were thinking of in naming me

by Carl Dennis

Joseph's Work

In the great scheme of things, my job --
Overseeing the prduce at Sunshine Market,
Maintaintaining quality in the bins – can't be listed
Among the jobs of first importance,
I realize, but it does require some talent,
The same displayed on a larger scale
By the Joseph my parents were thinking of
In naming me, the favorite son of Jacob,
Who ended up as the overseer
Of all the Egyptian granaries.

It's true my work doesn't use all my gifts,
But neither did Joseph's work use all of his.
His gift for interpreting dreams, for instance,
Though it won him his place, wasn't required
Any time afterwards. If he used it then,
He used it at home, on weekends, the place and time
I use for playing my trumpet or teaching friends
Stretches for easing aches in their backs and knees.

And his work didn't ask him to use his talent
For forgiving wrongs. He would have been free
To spurn his brothers when they came from Canaan
In the time of famine to buy grain, those culprits
Who'd stolen his coat of many colors
Ten years before and thrown him into a pit,
Enraged that their father loved him the most.

Instead, he hugged them, weeping with joy,
Just as I, at moments less dramatic,
Have forgiven my brothers their bullying,
Though none of them has ever apologized.
And I've forgiven my fahter for not intervening.

Every Sunday when the weather's good
I sit for at least an hour on a bench in the graveyard
A block from my house and wonder how many
Of the dead around me might have been happier
If they's managed to put away thoughts of blame,
How many, if they couldn't managed to wish
Their enemies well, managed at least
Not to wish them ill, which is still worth something.

Friends or enemies, if they visit my store on Monday
To finger and sniff the fruit, let them find,
In a mound of pears or plums within their budget,
A few fit to be served at any feast.

From The American Poetry Review, November/December 2015.

01 November 2015

Open up this obsidian skin

                                                        by Emi Mahmoud


I was walking down the street when a man stopped me and said,
Hey yo sistah, you from the motherland?
Because my skin is a shade too deep not to have come from foreign soil
Because this garment on my head screams Africa
Because my body is a beacon calling everybody to come flock to the motherland
I said,
 I’m Sudanese, why?
He says, 
‘cause you got a little bit of flavor in you,
I’m just admiring what your mama gave you
Let me tell you something about my mama She can reduce a man to tattered flesh without so much as blinking
Her words fester beneath your skin and the whole time,
You won’t be able to stop cradling her eyes.
My mama is a woman, flawless and formidable in the same step.
Woman walks into a warzone and has warriors cowering at her feet
My mama carries all of us in her body,
on her face, in her blood and
Blood is no good once you let it loose
So she always holds us close.
When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman who the hell are you?

The last time we went home, we watched our village burn,
Soldiers pouring blood from civilian skulls
As if they too could turn water into wine.
They stole the ground beneath our feet.
The woman who raised me
turned and said, don't be scared 
I'm your mother, I’m here, I won’t let them through.My mama gave me conviction.
Women like her
Inherit tired eyes,
Bruised wrists and titanium plated spines.
The daughters of widows wearing the wings of amputees
Carry countries between their shoulder blades.
I’m not saying dating is a first world problem, but these trifling moterfuckers seem to be.
The kind who’ll quote Rumi, but not know what he sacrificed for war.
Who’ll fawn over Lupita, but turn their racial filters on.
Who’ll take their politics with a latte when I take mine with tear gas.
Every guy I meet wants to be my introduction to the dark side,
Wants me to open up this obsidian skin and let them read every tearful page,
Because what survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?
Don’t talk about the motherland unless you know that being from Africa
means waking up an afterthought in this country.
Don’t talk about my flavor unless you know that
My flavor is insurrection, it is rebellion, resistance
my flavor is mutiny
It is burden, it is grit and it is compromise
And you don't know compromise until you’ve rebuilt your home for the third time
Without bricks, without mortar, without any other option
I turned to the man and said,
My mother and I can’t walk the streets alone back home any more.
Back home, there are no streets to walk any more.

YaleNews, 26 October 2015

25 October 2015

St. Crispin's Day

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin's day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

18 October 2015

The sun sets on the back of a wild goose


The willow shoots long, the spring rain lightning
beyond the flowers, the water-hourglass
drips, distantly,
flushing the wild geese at the frontier
and the birds on the city wall,
but not the golden partridge painted on the screen.

The thin mist of the incense comes
through the embroidered curtain.
Overlooking the pond, her room is wrapped in solitude.
Against a red candle,
behind the brocade valence hung low,
her dream is long, unknown to him.
            Wen Tingyun (812-870)

Broken Lotus Root

Young, we threw away the pastoral years.
Now like a broken lotus root it is
impossible to join the present and the past. Then,
we waited for each other,
standing by the vermilion-railed bridge.
Today, I search for the traces, in vain,
along the deserted path buried under yellow leaves.

Through the mist all the peaks
seem to be highlighting the blue.
Setting on the back of a wild goose,
the sun turns into a dark red.

You left, like a cloud drifting away,
across the river. The memory of
our passion is like a willow catkin
stuck to the ground, after the rain.
            Zhou Bangyan (1057-1121)

Husband-Watching Rock

Where she stood looking out for her husband,
the water of the river flowed on
to the horizon. Now
she's turned into a rock, which
continues to look out
without ever turning back, day in,
day out, against the wind and rain
on the hill . . .

When he comes back,
the rock should speak out.

            Wang Jian (766-830?)

From Treasury of Chinese Love Poems, trans. & ed. Qiu Xiaolong.

11 October 2015

People with beautiful teeth

                    by Eileen Myles

An American Poem

I was born in Boston in 1949.
I never wanted
this fact to be known,
in fact I’ve spent the better 
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
and have a life that
was clearly just mine
and independent of
the historic fate of
my family. Can you
imagine what it was
like to be one of them,
to be built like them,
to talk like them
to have the benefits
of being born into such
a wealthy and powerful
American family. I went
to the best schools,
had all kinds of tutors
and trainers, traveled
widely, met the famous,
the controversial, and
the not-so-admirable
and I knew from
a very early age that
if there were ever any
possibility of escaping
the collective fate of this famous
Boston family I would
take that route and
I have. I hopped
on an Amtrak to New
York in the early
70s and I guess
you could say
my hidden years
began. I thought
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
While holding this ignominious
pose I have seen and
I have learned and
I am beginning to think
there is no escaping
history. A woman I
am currently having
an affair with said
you know  you look
like a Kennedy. I felt
the blood rising in my
cheeks. People have
always laughed at
my Boston accent
confusing “large” for
lodge,” “party”
for “potty.” But
when this unsuspecting
woman invoked for
the first time my
family name
I knew the jig
was up. Yes, I am,
I am a Kennedy.
My attempts to remain
obscure have not served
me well. Starting as
a humble poet I
quickly climbed to the
top of my profession
assuming a position of
leadership and honor.
It is right that a
woman should call
me out now. Yes,
I am a Kennedy.
And I await
your orders.
You are the New Americans.
The homeless are wandering
the streets of our nation’s
greatest city. Homeless
men with AIDS are among
them. Is that right?
That there are no homes
for the homeless, that
there is no free medical
help for these men. 
And women.That they get the messageas they are dying—
that this is not their home?
And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?
How high is your rent?
If art is the highest
and most honest form
of communication of
our times and the young
artist is no longer able
to move here to speak
to her time…Yes, I could,
but that was 15 years ago
and remember—as I must
I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.

Eileen Myles, "An American Poem" from Not Me, 1991.

04 October 2015

I'm trying to set these paths in stone

                                  by James Lasdun


I’m trying to solve the problem of the paths
between the beds. A six-inch cover
of cedar-chips that took a month to lay
rotted in two years and turned to weeds.
I scraped them up and carted them away,
then planted half a sack of clover seeds
for a “living mulch”. I liked that: flowers
strewn along the stars, the cupid’s bow
drawn on each leaf like thumbnail quartermoons,
its easy, springy give – until it spread
under the split trunks framing off each bed,
scribbling them over in its own
green graffiti . . . I ripped it out
and now I’m trying to set these paths in stone.
It isn’t hard to find: the ground here’s littered
with rough-cut slabs, some of them so vast
you’d think a race of giants must have lived here
building some bluestone Carnac or Stonehenge,
us their dwindled offspring, foraging
among their ruins . . . I scavenge
lesser pieces; pry them from the clutches
of tree-roots, lift them out of ditches,
filch them from our own stone wall
guiltily, though they’re mine to take
(at worst it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul),
then wrestle them on board the two-wheeled dolly
and drag them up the driveway to the fence,
where, in a precarious waltz, I tip
and twist them backward, tilting all their weight
first on one corner, then the other
and dance them slowly through the garden gate.
The hard part’s next, piecing them together;
a matter of blind luck and infinite pains:
one eye open for the god-given fit –
this stone’s jagged key to that one’s lock –
the other quietly gauging how to fudge it:
split the difference on angles, cram the gaps
with stone-dust filler; hoping what the rains
don’t wash away, the frost will pack and harden . . .
A chipmunk blinks and watches from his rock,
wondering if I’ve lost my mind perhaps.
Perhaps I have; out here every day,
cultivating – no, not even that;
tending the inverse spaces of my garden
(it’s like a blueprint, now, for Bluebeard’s castle),
while outside, by degrees, the planet slips
– a locking piece – into apocalypse,
but somehow I can’t tear myself away:
I like the drudgery; I seem to revel
in pitting myself against the sheer
recalcitrance of the stones; using
their awkwardness – each a cupped or bulging face,
every cockeyed bevel or crooked curve,
each quirk of outline (this one a cracked lyre,
that one more like a severed head) –
to send a flickering pulse along the border
so that it seems to ripple round each bed
with an unstoppable, liquid grace:
“the best stones in the best possible order”
or some such half-remembered rule in mind,
as if it mattered, making some old stones
say or be anything but stone, stone, stone;
as if these paths might serve some purpose
aside from making nothing happen; as if
their lapidary line might lead me somewhere –
inward, onward, upward, anywhere
other than merely back where I began,
wondering where I’ve been and what I’ve done.  

from the Times Literary Supplement, 22 September 2015.