I love poetry and have been deeply moved by more poems than I could ever begin to count. At this stage, it seems impossible for me to post here every poem that has gripped me. Following, however, is just a small sample of poems that made it into my quotes books. More poems will be posted here as I retrace my steps through volumes of poetry and reacquaint myself with long-treasured, and often forgotten, poems. In particular, I will include poems from my favorite poets (George Seferis, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Rainier Maria Rilke, and others). Note that some additional poems and poem fragments appear on other quote pages, primarily on the Sex/Love, War, and Broken Hearts quotes pages.
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
–Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”
You’ve been a long time making up your mind,
O Lord, about these madmen
Running the world. Their reach is long
And their claws must have frightened you.
One of them found me with his shadow.
The day turned chill. I dangled
Between terror and valor
In the darkest corner of my son’s bedroom.
I saw with my eyes, You in whom I do not believe.
You’ve been busy making the flowers pretty,
The lambs run after their mother,
Or perhaps you haven’t been doing even that?
It was spring. The killers were full of sport
And merriment, and your divines
Were right at their side, to make sure
Our final goodbyes were said properly.
–Charles Simic, “Psalm”
In Spanish he whispers there is no time left.
It is the sound of scythes arcing in the wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco’s hands on the inside, touching
the walls as he walks, it is his wife’s breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country.
There is nothing one man will not do to another.
–Carolyn Forché, “The Visitor”
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and Ive shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
Ill keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and thats a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
–Maggie Smith, “Good Bones”
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
–WS Merwin, “Thanks”
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
Drunk on music,
who needs wine?
let’s go dancing
still got feet.
–David Budbill, “Tomorrow”
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably
fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes
have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight
the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high in here, and
I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street,
the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my
wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to
pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and
then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m
I am living, I remember you.
–Marie Howe, “What the Living Do”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East, and West.
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
–WH Auden, “XX” (note: this peom is popularly known as “Funeral Blues”)
After I came back from Iceland,
I couldn’t stop talking. It was the light,
you see, the light and the air. I tried to put it
into poems, even, but you couldn’t write
the waterfall on White River, blinding
and glacial, nor the clean toy town
with the resplendent harbour for its glass.
You couldn’t write how the black lava shone,
nor how the outlines of the bright red roofs
cut the sky sharp as a knife; how breathing
was like drinking cold water. When I got home
to Heathrow and walked out into Reading,
I damn near choked on this warm gritty stuff
I called air; also on the conjecture
that we’d all settle for second best
once we’d forgotten there was something more.
–Sheenagh Pugh, “After I Came Back from Iceland”
My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.
They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.
I want you to see this before I leave:
the experience of repetition as death
the failure of criticism to locate the pain
the poster in the bus that said:
my bleeding is under control
A red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths.
A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.
To do something very common, in my own way.
–Adrienne Rich, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.
This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.
La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this
is what it is like, or what it is like in words.
–Carol Ann Duffy, “Words, Wide Night”
My grey sheets were flecked with bits of lobster dust,
a gift I gave you quite often: my warm blood,
collected in the folds of my thighs like rain in a spring gutter.
The moist air was hot and close the day we walked the wharf
and sucked the sky for romance just beyond our grasp.
We held that love like slime in fishy claws.
Hearts, are they like those broken claws?
I remember them in the road that day, crushed by cars to lobster dust.
I thought of them the night you lashed me to your grasp,
feeling power when you drew my blood.
It fell in drops upon he sheets, heavy as sea-mist on the wharf,
heavy as the pull of all that dirty water through the gutter.
Dont know why you always tried to pull me to the gutter.
The lobsters have the wooden thorn of a beg closing their claws
and I have had you in the summer, in the drumming air along the wharf
when all my plans were tangled in sheets stained with lobster dust.
Too late I realized the need of cherishing my blood
keeping some of that mystery cloistered beyond your grasp.
It ends in paralysis, this I know, no matter where or what we grasp.
No matter how pure, it flows naturally to the gutter.
We could have gone on much longer-except for the blood
that crushed me sure as tires grinding over those claws,
ground me down to bright powder, vermilion dust
on the sticky street tar that led to the wharf.
It runs in slow motion, this I know, like just after dawn on the wharf
when the fishing boats are slipping away on the sea, out of your grasp;
they slide into a sunrise that's thrown across the sky like lobster dust.
When the wind blew the night and the dark back into the gutter
we followed eagerly, loose like the joints on cut claws.
We hungered to abandon that slow blood.
Yet in the end it was only I who suffered a loss of blood,
only my hands cutting through the thick mist down by the wharf,
in the night, hooking stars on my fingers; my hands were such claws!
I thought perhaps to peg the sea-mist secret onto my grasp,
but only rolled on sticky thighs toward the gutter.
I opened my mouth to speak but could only spit lobster dust.
But now that the claws of passion have loosened their grasp
I lose the need to pour your blood into the gutter.
And mist on the wharf kisses away the lobster dust.
–Wendy Tariff, “Sestina for a Lost Passion”
It has been so wet stones glaze in moss;
everything blooms coldly.
I expect you. I thought one night it was you
at the base of the drive, you at the foot of the stairs,
you in a shiver of light, but each time
leaves in wind revealed themselves,
the retreating shadow of a fox, daybreak.
We expect you, cat and I, bluebirds and I, the stove.
In May we dreamed of wreaths burning on bonfires
over which young men and women leapt.
June efforts quietly.
Ive planted vegetables along each garden wall
so even if spring continues to disappoint
we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain.
I have new gloves and a new hoe.
I practice eulogies. He was a hawk
with white feathered legs. She had the quiet ribs
of a salamander crossing the old pony post road.
Yours is the name the leaves chatter
at the edge of the unrabbited woods.
–Lisa Olstein, Dear One Absent This Long While
For surely whiteness
is best described through greyness
bird through stone
in the past love poems
described this and that
eyelashes for instance
should be described
sun through rain
poppies in November
lips at night
the most telling
description of bread
is one of hunger
the damp porous centre
the warm interior
sunflowers at night
breasts belly thighs of Cybele
is the description of thirst
it conjures up a mirage
clouds and trees enter
is the description of love
the contemporary love poem.
–Tadeusz Rózewicz, “Draft for a Contemporary Love Poem”
the sky before the sun wakes up the morning.
The eyes of animals in cages.
The faces of women mourning
when everything has been taken
Don’t ask me about empty.
Empty is a string of dirty days
held together by some rain
and the cold wind drumming
at the trees again.
Empty is the color of the fields
along about September
when the days go marching
in a line toward November.
Empty is the hour before sleep
kills you every night
then pushes you to safety
away from every kind of light.
Empty is me.
Empty is me.
–Rod McKuen, “Empty Is”
as late winds
–Mike Wilkin, “For Jean”
It is not necessary to whistle
To be alone,
To live in the dark.
Out in the crowd, under the wide sky,
we remember our separate selves,
the intimate self, the naked self,
the only self who knows how the nails grow,
who knows how his own silence is made
and his own poor words.
There is a public Pedro,
seen in the light, an adequate Bernice,
underneath age and clothing,
we still dont have a name,
we are quite different.
Eyes dont close only in order to sleep,
but so as not to see the same sky.
We soon grow tired,
and as if they were sounding the bell
to call us to school,
we return to the hidden flower,
to the bone, the half-hidden root,
and there we suddenly are,
we are the pure, forgotten self,
the true being
within the four walls of our singular skin,
between the two points of living and dying.
Pablo Neruda, It Is Not Necessary
As our bloods separate the clock resumes,
I hear the wind again as our hearts quieten.
We were a ring: the clock ticked round us
For that time and the wind was deflected.
The clock peels everything to the bone.
The wind enters through the broken eyes
Of houses and through their wide mouths
And scatters the ashes from the hearth.
Sleep. Do not let go my hand.
–David Constantine, “As our bloods separate”
Most of us will settle for fine.
Most of us will stream mp3s instead of asking a friend to play the guitar.
Most of us will run on a treadmill at the gym instead of going to the park.
Most of us will watch 10-second videos on a computer instead of going to a play.
Most of us will eat something we can throw in the microwave instead of learning to cook.
Most of us will aspire to being known, to being famous for just a little while.
Most of us will be willing to be embarrassed, to hurt ourselves, if it means being known.
Most of us will be more concerned with that, with being known, than being remembered by anyone special.
Most of us will decide that its too soon or too late in life to go after what we really want.
Most of us will never actually sit down and think about what we really want.
Most of us will spend more time reading status updates than we spend reading books.
Most of us will take pictures of ourselves instead of actually looking at the world around us.
Most of us will take the one unique and precious life weve been given and spend it being, just ok.
Most of us will make do.
And you will meet most of us and when you do, remember this.
Be the few.
Be the few.
Iain S. Thomas, The Life and Death of Most of Us
I hope that in the future they invent
a small golden light that follows you
everywhere and when something is
about to end, it shines brightly so you can know its about to end.
And if youre never going to see
someone again, itll shine brightly and
both of you can be polite and say, It
was nice to have you in my life while
I did, good luck with everything that
happens after now.
And maybe if youre never going to
eat at the same restaurant again, itll
shine and you can order everything off
the menu youve never tried Maybe,
if someones about to buy your car,
the light will shine and you can take
it for one last spin. Maybe, if youre
with a group of friends wholl never
be together again, all your lights will
shine at the same time and youll
know, and then you can hold each
other and whisper, This was so good.
Oh my God, this was so good.
Iain S. Thomas, The Light That Shines When Things End
A deep happiness
has seized me
My Christian friends say
that I have received
the Holy Spirit
It is only the truth of solitude
It is only the torn anemone
fastened to the rock
its root exposed
to the off-shore wind
O friend of my scribbled life
Your heart is like mine
will bring you home.
Leonard Cohen, A Deep Happiness
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of womb and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wood.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.
It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.
I dont want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
I dont want so much misery.
I dont want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.
Thats why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on it sway like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.
And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.
There are sulfur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.
I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels, and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.
Pablo Neruda, Walking Around
Dont worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesnt matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole worlds harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
from a slow and powerful root
that we cant see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
Rumi, Where Everything Is Music
The night that preceded his death
Was the shortest of his life
To know that he still existed
Set the blood in his wrists on fire
The weight of his body sickened him
The strength of it caused him to groan
And then from the uttermost depths
Of that horror he was smiling
He didn’t have ONE comrade
But millions of them and millions
To avenge him he could be sure
And the day was dawning for him.
–Paul Eluard, “Warning”
Youre sitting here with us, but youre also out walking
in a field at dawn. You are yourself
the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.
Youre in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet youre wind. Youre the divers clothes
lying empty on the beach. Youre the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those, those veins
that are lute strings that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.
Rumi, The Divers Clothes Lying Empty
From resonance come numbers,
drying numbers and dung-covered ciphers,
dampened thunderbolts and dirty lightningflashes.
From resonance, growing, when
night comes out alone, like a recent widow,
like a dove or a poppy or a kiss,
and her marvelous stars expand.
In resonance light takes place:
vowels are drowned, weeping falls in petals,
a wind of sounds crashes like a wave,
it shines and cold elastic fishes dwell in it.
Fishes in sound, slow, sharp, moist,
arched masses of gold with drops on their tails,
scaly sharks and trembling foam,
bluish salmon with congealed eyes.
Tools that fall, vegetable carts,
rustles of trampled flowers,
violins filled with water, fresh explosions,
submerged motors and dusty shadow,
around me sounds the night,
the day, the month, the time,
sounding like sacks of wet bells,
or frightening mouths of fragile salts.
Sea waves, landslides,
fingernails, sea steps,
coiled currents of destroyed animals,
whistle blasts in the raucous fog
determine the sounds of the gentle dawn
waking in the abandoned sea.
To resonance the soul rolls
falling from dreams,
still surrounded by its black doves,
still lined with its rags of absence.
To resonance the soul rushes
and celebrates and hastens its swift wedding.
Husks of silence, of turbid blue,
like flasks from dark, shut drugstores,
silence wrapped in hair,
silence galloping on legless horses,
and machines asleep, and airless candles,
and trains of dejected jasmine and of wax,
and overladen ships filled with hats and shadows.
From silence the soul rises
with instant roses,
and in the morning of the day it collapses
and plummets into the sounding light.
Brusque shoes, beasts, utensils,
waves of harsh roosters overflowing,
clocks running like dry stomachs,
wheels unrolling on downcast rails,
and white water closets awaking
with wooden eyes, like one-eyed pigeons,
and their sunken throats
make sudden sounds like waterfalls.
See how the molds eyelids lift
and the red lock is unchained
and the garland develops its affairs,
things that grow,
the bridges crushed by the big streetcars
creak like amatory beds,
night has opened its piano doors:
day runs like a horse in its courts.
From resonance comes the day
of increase and degree,
and also of cut violets and curtains,
of expanses, of shadow recently fleeing
and drops that from the heart of heaven
fall like celestial blood.
–Pablo Neruda, “One Day Stands Out”
After this life here, were to be awakened one day
by the terrible screams of trumpets and bugles?
Forgive me, Lord, but I trust
that the beginning and the resurrection of us, the dead,
will be announced by the crowing of a rooster
Well lie on for a little longer
The first one to rise
will be mother Well hear her
quietly making the fire,
quietly putting the kettle on,
and cozily taking the coffee grinder out of the cupboard.
Well be at home again.
Vladimir Holan, Resurrection
The afternoon is all fallen plaster, black stones, dry thorns.
The afternoon has a difficult color made up of old footsteps halted in mid-stride,
of old jars buried in the courtyard, covered by fatigue and straw.
Two killed, five killed, twelveso very many.
Each hour has its killing. Behind the windows
stand those who are missing, and the jug full of water they didnt drink.
And that star that fell at the edge of evening
is like the severed ear that doesnt hear the crickets,
doesnt hear or excusesdoesnt condescend
to hear our songsalone, alone,
aloe, cut off totally, indifferent to condemnation or vindication.
Yannis Ritsos, Afternoon
Like our bodies imprint,
Not a sign will remain that we were in this place.
The world closes behind us,
The sand straightens itself.
Dates are already in view
In which you no longer exist,
Already a wind blows clouds
Which will not rain on us both.
And your name is already on the passenger lists of ships
And in the registers of hotels
Whose names alone
Deaden the heart.
The three languages I know,
All the colors in which I see and dream:
None will help me.
Yehuda Amichai, Like Our Bodies Imprint
Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.
When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.
Do not let your head deny
any memory of what passes through them
nor your eyes
nor your heart
everything can be useful
except what is wasteful
(you will need
to remember this when you are accused of destruction.)
Even when they are dangerous
examine the heart of those machines you hate
before you discard them
and never mourn the lack of their power
lest you be condemned
to relive them.
If you do not learn to hate
you will never be lonely
to love easily
nor will you always be brave
although it does not grow any easier.
Do not pretend to convenient beliefs
even when they are righteous
you will never be able to defend your city
Remember our sun
is not the most noteworthy star
only the nearest.
Respect whatever pain you bring back
from your dreaming
but do not look for new gods
in the sea
nor in any part of a rainbow.
Each time you love
love as deeply
as if it were
only nothing is
Speak proudly to your children
wherever you may find them
you are the offspring of slaves
and your mother was
–Audre Lorde, “For Each of You”
Give me your hands, give me your hands, give me your hands.
I have seen in the night
the sharp peak of the mountain,
seen the plain beyond flooded
with the light of an invisible moon,
seen, turning my head,
black stones huddled
and my life taut as a chord
beginning and end
the final moment:
Sinks whoever raises the dead stones;
I’ve raised these stones as long as I was able
I’ve loved these stones as long as I was able
these stones, my fate.
Wounded by my own soil
tortured by my own shirt
condemned by my own gods,
I know that they don’t know, but I
who’ve followed so many times
the path from killer to victim
from victim to punishment
from punishment to the next murder,
the inexhaustible purple
that night of the return
when the Furies began whistling
in the meager grass—
I’ve seen snakes crossed with vipers
knotted over the evil generation
Voices out of the stone out of sleep
deeper here where the world darkens,
memory of toil rooted in the rhythm
beaten upon the earth by feet
Bodies sunk into the foundations
Of the other time, naked. Eyes
fixed, fixed on a point
that you can’t make out, much as you want to:
struggling to become your own soul.
Not even the silence is yours
here where the millstones have stopped turning.
–George Seferis, Part 2, “Mycenae,” from “Gymnopaidia”
Our love was not other than this:
it left came back and brought us
a distant eyelid lowered far away
a stony smile, lost
in the dawn grass
a strange shell our soul
insistently tried to explain.
Our love was not other than this: it groped
silently among the things around us
to explain why we don’t want to die
And if we’ve held on by the loins, clasped
other necks as tightly as we could,
mingled our breath with the breath
of that person
if we’ve closed our eyes, it was not other than this:
simply that deep longing to hang on
in our flight.
–George Seferis, “Flight”
Like a bird with broken wing
that had traveled through wind for years
like a bird unable to endure
tempest and wind
the evening falls.
On the green grass
three thousand angels had danced the day long
naked as steel
the pale evening falls;
the three thousand angels
gathered in their wings, became
and searches for its master
or the Second Coming
or a bone.
Now I long for a little quiet
all I want is a hut on a hill
or near a seashore
all I want in front of my window
is a sheet immersed in bluing
spread there like the sea
all I want in my vase
is even a false carnation
red paper wound on wire
so that the wind
the wind can control it easily
as much as it wants to.
The evening would fall
the flocks would echo descending to their fold
like some quite simple happy thought
and I would lie down to sleep
because I wouldn’t have
even a candle to light,
–George Seferis, Part 1, “Hampstead,” from “Five Poems by Mr. S. Thalassinos”
War, illness, and famine will make you their favorite grandchild.
You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.
You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart
into the same hot skillet.
Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.
Your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were two gravestones.
Already the crows are grooming themselves
for you and your people.
Your oldest son will lie with flies on his lips
without smiling or lifting his hand.
You’ll envy every ant you meet in your life
and every roadside weed.
Your body and soul will sit on separate stoops
chewing the same piece of gum.
Little cutie, are you for sale? the devil will say.
The undertaker will buy a toy for your grandson.
Your mind will be a hornet’s nest even on your
You will pray to God but God will hang a sign
that He’s not to be distrubed.
Question no further, that’s all I know.
Charles Simic, What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl
in red letters
you will scream
will dip your finger
into the stream
and write your
on your back
up at the stars
will run home
through the dark
and sit alone
by the fire
comes to your side
Most of my friends and all of my past
lovers wait for news of one kind or another. Waking
in separate rooms, our breath warms laceworks
of frost. One died four days before Hallowe’en,
nearly weightless. I think of metaphors
for marking time: windows, the torn pockets
of winter coats and what falls through, lost
for good. Tomorrow, you leave
for the merciless country, that place where no one
dies (or so I imagine). I don’t know
who we meant to be in different lives
though, once, the ground beneath planes seemed
a window we’d learn to fall through, given
the chance. Now, we move through these rooms
slowly, sit by windows and address
the reverberating light outside,
wishing prayer were more than a collection
of beautiful words: I am poured out
like water…Once, in a graveyard north
of Pittsburgh, we stood before
a cinderblock chapel with smoke-
glass doors and Jesus fixed to the outside wall;
Mary looked up from his terrible feet
to his stainless steel ribs, thin as the blades
of pocket knives. It wasn’t pity written
on her face. I want to tell you
that I’m dying, I don’t know who we’ll be
when you return, or if January will hold together
the bones of need. Last winter, you carried me
north on Seventh Avenue,
my arms around your shoulders and my legs
around your waist, the two of us drunk enough
to wake in a movie house where the gorgeous
fucked on screen and the desperate between reels.
And none can keep alive his own
soul…Out of grief comes rage,
as, years ago, I watched the power lines
around my father’s house burn, flames
shot through with electric sustenance.
I stood on the lawn and waited for the danger
to pass. The danger never once
came close enough, until now. This morning,
after waking enough for the world,
I walked the markets of Hell’s Kitchen,
gathering our dinner. Home again
and short of breath, I climb the stairs,
reach for the door as though for grace.
The stock boils now, a landscape of fervent air.
The sliced flesh of vegetables goes into the pot
and we wait. Once more, the bare December
trees beneath this window bend,
their living branches greet one another
and bend. Tonight we’ll bow our heads
over steaming bowls of late abundance,
whisper our separate graces for the living, the dead—
blessed, the gift we receive.
–David Craig Austin, “The Gifts”
As we made love for the third day,
cloudy and dark, as we did not stop
but went into it and into it and
did not hesitate and did not hold back we
rose through the air, until we were up above
the timber line. The lake lay
icy and silver, the surface shirred,
reflecting nothing. The black rocks
lifted around it into the grainy
sepia air, the patches of snow
brilliant white, and even though we
did not know where we were, we could not
speak the language, we could hardly see, we
did not stop, rising with the black
rocks to the black hills, the black
mountains rising from the hills. Resting
on the crest of the mountains, one huge
cloud with scalloped edges of blazing
evening light, we did not turn back,
we stayed with it, even though we were
far beyond what we knew, we rose
into the grain of the cloud, even though we were
frightened, the air hollow, even though
nothing grew there, even though it is a
place from which no one has ever come back.
–Sharon Olds, “Ecstasy”
I’ll show you
I’ll give you
a ruined world
I’ll give you lonely people
I’ll give you
where thin dogs walk
and steal the bread from beggars
I’ll give you
old and sooty buildings
where families live
without a father
without a decent mother
I’ll give you
thieves aged 14
and murderers aged 18
And you, girl, give me your body
and your hair
give me your breath
close, close to my face
give me your eyes
and the smell of your skin
I’ll give you
and beheaded children
I’ll give you
hunger and wanderings
fear and sufferings
I’ll give you
and concentration camps.
And you, give me
I’ll give you
garbage heaps in city streets
rivers of sewage streaming to the sea
cats, hungry and ferreting,
mice carrying diseases
and black plagues
which spread mercilessly,
taking their victims
from all of woman born
I’ll give you madmen
who lead nations
And you, give me
I’ll give you a God
who’s cruel and cold
I’ll give you
and crucified apostles
I’ll give you Jobs
and Abrahams and Moses
I’ll give you promises
written on tablets of stone
And you, give me
I’ll give you
Obelisks and pyramids
built on the bodies of thousands of slaves
I’ll give you flourishing gardens
and green groves
which have sprouted over vales of slaughter
I’ll give you charred earth
I’ll give you snows
which one day will melt
and will flood our land
and your people.
I’ll give you black clouds
carrying terror and fear
I’ll give you Inquisitors
I’ll give you creatures of Satan
And you, give me
I’ll give you oil wells
which sprouted in place of tepees
I’ll give you blocks of houses
which sprouted in the place of sloping vineyards
I’ll give you fenced-in camps
which sprang up in the wilderness of ice
I’ll give you crematoriums
which were born out of the young green grass
I’ll give you tanks and planes
fire machines and bombs
created to glorify the names of
leaders and victors
at the expense of the pure souls
who are no more
And you, give me
I’ll give you
the polished offices
where are buried alive
your parents, your acquaintances, and your friends
I’ll give you
the murderous mechanism
which leads us all
to a future that's frozen,
of computers and machines
and pilotless planes
But you, keep for me your body
and your hair
keep for me your breath
close, close to my face
keep for me your eyes
and the smell of your skin.
Keep for me this pure corner,
the last in the world:
give me your smile
That is all I can give you now
And you won’t want me this way.
Will you want me?
–Ron Adler, “Untitled Poem (him to her)”
The next day, I am almost afraid.
Love? It was more like dragonflies
in the sun, 100 degrees at noon,
the ends of their abdomens stuck together, I
close my eyes when I remember. I hardly
knew myself, like something twisting and
twisting out of a chrysalis,
enormous, without language, all
head, all shut eyes, and the humming
like madness, the way they writhe away,
and do not leave, back, back,
away, back. Did I know you? No kiss,
no tenderness—more like killing, death-grip
holding to life, genitals
like violent hands clasped tight
barely moving, more like being closed
in a great jaw and eaten, and the screaming
I groan to remember it, and when we started
to die, then I refuse to remember,
the way a drunkard forgets. After,
you held my hands extremely hard as my
body moved in shudders like the ferry when its
axle is loosed past engagement, you kept me
sealed exactly against you, our hairlines
wet as the arc of a gateway after
a cloudburst, you secured me in your arms till I slept—
clasped, fragrant, buoyant, that was
the morning after love.
–Sharon Olds, “Last Night”
Heres what our parents never taught us:
You will stay up on your rooftop until sunlight peels away the husk of the
chainsmoking cigarettes and reading Baudelaire, and
you will learn that you only ever want to fall in love with someone
who will stay up to watch the sun rise with you.
You will fall in love with train rides, and sooner or later you will
realize that nowhere seems like home anymore.
A woman will kiss you and youll think her lips are two petals
rubbing against your mouth.
You will not tell anyone that you liked it.
It is beautiful to love humans in a world where love is a metaphor for lust.
You can leave if you want, with only your skin as a carry-on.
All you need is a twenty in your pocket and a bus ticket.
All you need is someone on the other end of the map, thinking about the supple
curves of your body, to guide you to a home that stretches out for miles
and miles on end.
You will lie to everyone you love.
They will love you anyways.
One day youll wake up and realize that you are too big for your own skin.
Dont be afraid.
Your body is a house where the shutters blow in and out
against the windowpane.
You are a hurricane-prone area.
The glass will break through often.
But its okay. I promise.
a stranger once told you that the breeze
here is something worth writing poems about.
–Shinji Moon, “Heres What Our Parents Never Taught Us”
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open French window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storms wash the plates.
–Edwin Morgan, “Strawberries”
You are the future,
the red sky before sunrise
over the fields of time.
You are the cock’s crow when night is done,
You are the dew and the bells of matins,
maiden, stranger, mother, death.
You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days—
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.
You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.
–Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Book of Pilgrimage, II, 22”
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
–Jane Kenyon, “Let Evening Come”
Two bodies face to face
are at times two waves
and night is an ocean.
Two bodies face to face
are at times two stones
and night a desert.
Two bodies face to face
are at times two roots
laced into night.
Two bodies face to face
are at times two knives
and night strikes sparks.
Two bodies face to face
are two stars falling
in an empty sky.
–Octavio Paz, “Two Bodies”
I wanted you in the kitchen of my heart;
and there, after many cold lunches,
I found you; and there, like herbs
undressing in soup, I came to love you;
and there, like a delicate tea
of mangoes and marigolds your mouth
opened, and your words, flecked with gold
and the eroticism of your Latin blood,
flowed, like the blood I long for, into me.
And how could I lose you among these cups
and spoons, among these golden candles,
these jars of honey lined along the window?
And what forget-me-nots in winter
tie me to you still? I could die in this bread
I have made without you. For you I would burn
this dry brain for incense; I would
serve you the wine inside the night; I would
drink the sea to give you salt.
–James Tipton, “I Wanted You in the Kitchen of My Heart”
Do you know how much pain is left
in the world? One tiny bit of pain is left,
braised on one cell like a toothmark.
And how many sorrows there still are? Three sorrows:
the last, the next to last, and this one.
And there is one promise left, feeling
its way through the poison, and one house
and one gun and one shout of agony
that wanders in the lost cities and the lost mountains.
And so this morning, suffering the third sorrow
from the last, feeling pain in my last gene,
cracks in the struts, bubbles in the nitro,
this morning for someone I’m not even sure exists
I waste tears. I count down by fractions
through the ash. I howl. I use up everything.
–CK Williams, “After That”
This is where we were
when the moon
nipped at us.
I’ve marked the bed-
room with a cross.
we were cheap, we were
in heaven, we were
forgetting how to lie.
Wish I was here. Love
–Alison Fell, “postscripteard”
My reason for not sitting down
to write is the same as yours
for choosing not to live;
we are believers that nothing
will ever get better.
This is not to minimize your crisis
or maximize mine. It is just
my way of sorting the puzzle
of shattered glass into coherence.
I’m tired of failure, of spitting
at the porcelain-palated journals.
I hate the taste. I am angry
with god who greases out no’s
and chokes on the brittle crusts of yes.
I am angry with you
for the pills, the gin, the fountain of blood
pumped from your wrists onto the tiles.
I hate that your mantra of hopelessness
fires this poem. See my
toothed black wings shade
your hospital bed, a whore
preying for power, a healer
singing softly Miserere, amen,
while you, victim of your shame,
sink away from the white fleet of nurses
hovering at your head like angels.
–Lisa Wamsley, “The Politics of Failure”
Do not suppose that I do not fear death
Because I trust it is no end. You say
It must be a great comfort to live with
Such a faith, but you don’t know the way
I battle on this earth
With faults of character I try to change
But they bound back on me like living things.
It is most difficult to rearrange
Your life each day. I have known barren Springs
And death in summer. Strange
Intimations come with Autumn. I
Would like, in certain moods, to die as leaves
Do, go back to Earth. I watch the sky
Mellowing and find my strict beliefs
Who doesn’t regret Lazarus was not
Questioned about after-lives? Of course
He only reached death’s threshold. I fear what
Dark exercises may with cunning powers
Do when I am brought
To my conclusion. I have been where two
Or three died, only one of them a close
Friend. I mourn for him but he can’t throw
A rope to me when that dark boatman rows
Me to what none can know.
–Elizabeth Jennings, “The Fear of Death”
The smell of him went soon
from all his shirts.
I sent them for jumble,
and the sweaters and suits.
held more of him; he was printed
into his shoes. I did not burn
or throw or give them away.
Time has denatured them now.
There will never be
a hair of his in a comb.
But I want to believe
that in the shifting housedust
minute presences still drift:
a hard crescent cut from a fingernail,
between the folds of a curtain
or the covers of a book
a flake of his skin.
–Pamela Gillilan, “Four Years”
Never shall I forget that night,
the first night in the camp
which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the little faces of the children
whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames
which consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence
which deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments
which murdered my god and my soul
and turned my dreams to dust.
Never shall I forget these things,
even if I am condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
–Elie Wiesel, “Never Shall I Forget”
as black as a hook,
took, at 8.00 a.m., a baby
and sautéed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.
Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.
Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say these things aloud.
I beg the Lord not to hear.
–Anne Sexton, “After Auschwitz”
Blood transforms the warm bath water
and, in it, I see weakly
that this was a mistake.
The razor’s cut is not deep, nevertheless
the blood rushes out happily in the warm
water as if kin to it, the same
a new person
transformed with an icy
sense of error
I go to the sink and turn on cold water
which is not friendly to blood.
The cut is deeper than imagined.
Splashes on the pale gold tile,
bright red bursts like sunlight,
like exclamation points—Another Error!
I wrap a small towel around my wrist.
A small towel indicates a small error.
the towel’s gold is tarnished.
There is an innocent joy in the blood’s
flow that the towel and I cannot absorb.
These spurts, worth twenty dollars a pint
on the market, sense themselves unmarketable now.
Another towel wrapped tight in terror
slows everything down. On a blue velvet
love seat from which love has wandered I
sit waiting. I am an angel with an alert
backbone. I am purified from the business
–Joyce Carol Oates, “Passing an Afternoon”
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the
Beneath all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eys from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
–Philip Larkin, “Wants”
A leaf says,
Sweetheartsdont pick me,
For I am busy doing
I am lowering my veins and roots
With buckets tied to them
Into the earths deep
I am drawing water
That I offer like a rose to
I am a singing cleaning woman
Dusting all the shelves in
With my elegant green
I have a heart.
I can know happiness like
Hafiz, A Singing Cleaning Woman
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
Youre covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that youve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
How does a part of the world leave the world?
How can wetness leave water?
Dont try to put out a fire
by throwing on more fire!
Dont wash a wound with blood!
No matter how fast you run,
your shadow more than keeps up.
Sometimes, its in front!
Only full, overhead sun
diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you!
What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.
I can explain this but it would break
the glass cover on your heart,
and theres no fixing that.
You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.
When from that tree, feathers and wings sprout
on you, be quieter than a dove.
Dont open your mouth for even a coooooo.
When a frog slips into the water, the snake
cannot get it. Then the frog climbs back out
and croaks, and the snake moves toward him again.
Even if the frog learned to hiss, still the snake
would hear through the hiss the information
he needed, the frog voice underneath.
But if the frog could be completely silent,
then the snake would go back to sleeping,
and the frog could reach the barley.
The soul lives there in the silent breath.
And that grain of barley is such that,
when you put it in the ground,
Are these enough words,
or shall I squeeze more juice from this?
Who am I, my friend?
Rumi, Enough Words?
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
of the forest, the edge of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
–Margaret Atwood, “Habitation”
The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it, it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy,
some joy not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
–Denise Levertov, “The Ache of Marriage”
Your hair lost in the forest,
your feet touching mine.
Asleep you are bigger than the night,
but your dream fits within this room.
How much we are who are so little!
Outside a taxi passes
with its load of ghosts.
The river that runs by
Will tomorrow be another day?
–Octavio Paz, “Last Dawn”
All night I have slept with you
next to the sea, on the island.
Wild and sweet you were between pleasure
between fire and water.
Perhaps very late
our dreams joined
at the top or at the bottom,
up above like branches moved by a common
down below like red roots that touch.
Perhaps your dream
drifted from mine
and through the dark sea
was seeking me
when you did not yet exist,
when without sighting you
I sailed by your side,
and your eyes sought
bread, wine, love, and anger—
I heap upon you
because you are the cup
that was waiting for the gifts of my life.
I have slept with you
all night long while
the dark earth spins
with the living and the dead,
and on waking suddenly
in the midst of the shadow
my arm encircled your waist.
Neither night nor sleep
could separate us.
I have slept with you
and on waking, your mouth,
come from your dream,
gave me the taste of earth,
of sea water, of seaweed,
of the depths of your life,
and I received your kiss
moistened by the dawn
as if it came to me
from the sea that surrounds us.
–Pablo Neruda, “Night on the Island”
I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream
so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it
to disunite again.
I look at the eyes: neither open nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I hold the cheeks which have broken through the skin.
I don’t have any more strength.
My hands disappear and come toward me
–George Seferis, Part 3, “Remember the baths where you were murdered,” from “Mythistorema”
Just when it seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving
someone or something, the world shrunk
hand-size, and never seeming small.
I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet...
Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low
and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief
until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road
to come so far, to taste so good.
–Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness”
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But its not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.
Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes
is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying
that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesnt want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
its best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.
Rumi, The Reed Flutes Song
A Poem for Three Voices
Setting: A Maternity Ward and round about
[Note: Voice 1 had a normal pregnancy; Voice 2 had a miscarriage; Voice 3 is young woman whose pregnancy is accidental and who gives the baby up for adoption. –JB]
I am slow as the world. I am very patient,
Turning through my time, the suns and stars
Regarding me with attention.
The moon’s concern is more personal:
She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.
Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so.
She is simply astonished at fertility.
When I walk out, I am a great event.
I do not have to think, or even rehearse.
What happens in me will happen without attention.
The pheasant stands on the hill;
He is arranging his brown feathers.
I cannot help smiling at what it is I know.
Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.
When I first saw it, the small red seep, I did not believe it.
I watched the men walk about me in the office. They were so flat!
There was something about them like cardboard, and now I had caught it,
That flat, flat, flatness from which ideas, destructions,
Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed,
Endlessly proceed—and the cold angels, the abstractions.
I sat at my desk in my stockings, my high heels,
And the man I work for laughed: ‘Have you seen something awful?
You are so white, suddenly.’ And I said nothing.
I saw death in the bare trees, a deprivation.
I could not believe it. Is it so difficult
For the spirit to conceive a face, a mouth?
The letters proceed from these black keys, and these black keys proceed
From my alphabetical fingers, ordering parts,
Parts, bits, cogs, the shining multiples.
I am dying as I sit. I lose a dimension.
Trains roar in my ears, departures, departures!
The silver track of time empties into the distance,
The white sky empties of its promise, like a cup.
These are my feet, these mechanical echoes.
Tap, tap, tap, steel pegs. I am found wanting.
This is a disease I carry home, this is a death.
Again, this is a death. Is it the air,
The particles of destruction I suck up? Am I a pulse
That wanes and wanes, facing the cold angel?
Is this my lover then? This death, this death?
As a child I loved a lichen-bitten name.
Is this the one sin then, this old dead love of death?
I remember the minute when I knew for sure.
The willows were chilling,
The face in the pool was beautiful, but not mine—
It had a consequential look, like everything else,
And all I could see was dangers: doves and words,
Stars and showers of gold—conceptions, conceptions!
I remember a white, cold wing
And the great swan, with its terrible look,
Coming at me, like a castle, from the top of the river.
There is a snake in swans.
He glided by; his eye had a black meaning.
I saw the world in it—small, mean and black,
Every little word hooked to every little word, and act to act.
A hot blue day had budded into something.
I wasn’t ready. The white clouds rearing
Aside were dragging me in four directions.
I wasn’t ready.
I had no reverence.
I thought I could deny the consequence—
But it was too late for that. It was too late, and the face
Went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready.
It is a world of snow now. I am not at home.
How white these sheets are. The faces have no features.
They are bald and impossible, like the faces of my children,
Those little sick ones that elude my arms.
Other children do not touch me: they are terrible.
They have too many colors, too much life. They are not quiet,
Quiet, like the little emptinesses I carry.
I have had my chances. I have tried and tried.
I have stitched life into me like a rare organ,
And walked carefully, precariously, like something rare.
I have tried not to think too hard. I have tried to be natural.
I have tried to be blind in love, like other women,
Blind in my bed, with my dear blind sweet one,
Not looking, through the thick dark, for the face of another.
I did not look. But still the face was there,
The face of the unborn one that loved its perfections,
The face of the dead one that could only be perfect
In its easy peace, could only keep holy so.
And then there were other faces. The faces of nations,
Governments, parliaments, societies,
The faceless faces of important men.
It is these men I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are jealous gods
That would have the whole world flat because they are.
I see the Father conversing with the Son.
Such flatness cannot but be holy.
‘Let us make a heaven,’ they say.
‘Let us flatten and launder the grossness from these souls.’
I am calm. I am calm. It is the calm before something awful:
The yellow minute before the wind walks, when the leaves
Turn up their hands, their pallors. It is so quiet here.
The sheets, the faces, are white and stopped, like clocks.
Voices stand back and flatten. Their visible hieroglyphs
Flatten to parchment screens to keep the wind off.
They paint such secrets in Arabic, Chinese!
I am dumb and brown. I am a seed about to break.
The brownness is my dead self, and it is sullen:
It does not wish to be more, or different.
Dusk hoods me in blue now, like a Mary.
O color of distance and forgetfulness!—
When will it be, the second when Time breaks
And eternity engulfs it, and I drown utterly?
I talk to myself, myself only, set apart—
Swabbed and lurid with disinfectants, sacrificial.
Waiting lies heavy on my lids. It lies like sleep,
Like a big sea. Far off, far off, I feel the first wave tug
Its cargo of agony toward me, inescapable, tidal.
And I, a shell, echoing on this white beach
Face the voices that overwhelm, the terrible element.
I am a mountain now, among mountainy women.
The doctors move among us as if our bigness
Frightened the mind. They smile like fools.
They are to blame for what I am, and they know it.
They hug their flatness like a kind of health.
And what if they found themselves surprised, as I did?
They would go mad with it.
And what if two lives leaked between my thighs?
I have seen the white clean chamber with its instruments.
It is a place of shrieks. It is not happy.
‘This is where you will come when you are ready.’
The night lights are flat red moons. They are dull with blood.
I am not ready for anything to happen.
I should have murdered this, that murders me.
There is no miracle more cruel than this.
I am dragged by the horses, the iron hooves.
I last. I last it out. I accomplish a work.
Dark tunnel, through which hurtle the visitations,
The visitations, the manifestations, the startled faces.
I am the center of an atrocity.
What pains, what sorrows must I be mothering?
Can such innocence kill and kill? It milks my life.
The trees wither in the street. The rain is corrosive.
I taste it on my tongue, and the workable horrors,
The horrors that stand and idle, the slighted godmothers
With their hearts that tick and tick, with their satchels of instruments.
I shall be a wall and a roof, protecting.
I shall be a sky and a hill of good: O let me be!
A power is growing on me, an old tenacity.
I am breaking apart like the world. There is this blackness,
This ram of blackness. I fold my hands on a mountain.
The air is thick. It is thick with this working.
I am used. I am drummed into use.
My eyes are squeezed by this blackness.
I see nothing.
I am accused. I dream of massacres.
I am a garden of black and red agonies. I drink them,
Hating myself, hating and fearing. And now the world conceives
Its end and runs toward it, arms held out in love.
It is a love of death that sickens everything.
A dead sun stains the newsprint. It is red.
I lose life after life. The dark earth drinks them.
She is the vampire of us all. So she supports us,
Fattens us, is kind. Her mouth is red.
I know her. I know her intimately—
Old winter-face, old barren one, old time bomb.
Men have used her meanly. She will eat them.
Eat them, eat them, eat them in the end.
The sun is down. I die. I make a death.
Who is he, this blue, furious boy,
Shiny and strange, as if he had hurtled from a star?
He is looking so angrily!
He flew into the room, a shriek at his heel.
The blue color pales. He is human after all.
A red lotus opens in its bowl of blood;
They are stitching me up with silk, as if I were a material.
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let go.
There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so.
There is the moon in the high window. It is over.
How winter fills my soul! And that chalk light
Laying its scales on the windows, the windows of empty offices,
Empty schoolrooms, empty churches. O so much emptiness!
There is this cessation. This terrible cessation of everything.
These bodies mounded around me now, these polar sleepers—
What blue, moony ray ices their dreams?
I feel it enter me, cold, alien, like an instrument.
And that mad, hard face at the end of it, that O-mouth
Open in its gape of perpetual grieving.
It is she that drags the blood-black sea around
Month after month, with its voices of failure.
I am helpless as the sea at the end of her string.
I am restless. Restless and useless. I, too, create corpses.
I shall move north. I shall move into a long blackness.
I see myself as a shadow, neither man nor woman,
Neither a woman, happy to be like a man, nor a man
Blunt and flat enough to feel no lack. I feel a lack.
I hold my fingers up, ten white pickets.
See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks.
I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.
I shall be a heroine of the peripheral.
I shall not be accused by isolate buttons,
Holes in the heels of socks, the white mute faces
Of unanswered letters, coffined in a letter case.
I shall not be accused, I shall not be accused.
The clock shall not find me wanting, nor these stars
That rivet in place abyss after abyss.
I see her in my sleep, my red, terrible girl.
She is crying through the glass that separates us.
She is crying, and she is furious.
Her cries are hooks that catch and grate like cats.
It is by these hooks she climbs to my notice.
She is crying at the dark, or at the stars
That at such a distance from us shine and whirl.
I think her little head is carved in wood,
A red, hard wood, eyes shut and mouth wide open.
And from the open mouth issue sharp cries
Scratching at my sleep like arrows,
Scratching at my sleep, and entering my side.
My daughter has no teeth. Her mouth is wide.
It utters such dark sounds it cannot be good.
What is it that flings these innocent souls at us?
Look, they are so exhausted, they are all flat out
In their canvas-sided cots, names tied to their wrists,
The little silver trophies they’ve come so far for.
There are some with thick black hair, there are some bald.
Their skin tints are pink or sallow, brown or red;
They are beginning to remember their differences.
I think they are made of water; they have no expression.
Their features are sleeping, like light on quiet water.
They are the real monks and nuns in their identical garments.
I see them showering like stars on to the world—
On India, Africa, America, these miraculous ones,
These pure, small images. They smell of milk.
Their foot soles are untouched. They are walkers of air.
Can nothingness be so prodigal?
Here is my son.
His wide eye is that general, flat blue.
He is turning to me like a little, blind, bright plant.
One cry. It is the hook I hang on.
And I am a river of milk.
I am a warm hill.
I am not ugly. I am even beautiful.
The mirror gives back a woman without deformity.
The nurses give back my clothes, and an identity.
It is usual, they say, for such a thing to happen.
It is usual in my life, and the lives of others.
I am one in five, something like that. I am not hopeless.
I am beautiful as a statistic. Here is my lipstick.
I draw on the old mouth.
The red mouth I put by with my identity
A day ago, two days, three days ago. It was a Friday.
I do not even need a holiday; I can go to work today.
I can love my husband, who will understand.
Who will love me through the blur of my deformity
As if I had lost an eye, a leg, a tongue.
And so I stand, a little sightless. So I walk
Away on wheels, instead of legs, they serve as well.
And learn to speak with fingers, not a tongue.
The body is resourceful.
The body of a starfish can grow back its arms
And newts are prodigal in legs. And may I be
As prodigal in what lacks me.
She is a small island, asleep and peaceful,
And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye.
The day is blazing. It is very mournful.
The flowers in this room are red and tropical.
They have lived behind glass all their lives, they have been cared for
Now they face a winter of white sheets, white faces.
There is very little to go into my suitcase.
There are the clothes of a fat woman I do not know.
There is my comb and brush. There is an emptiness.
I am so vulnerable suddenly.
I am a wound walking out of hospital.
I am a wound that they are letting go.
I leave my health behind. I leave someone
Who would adhere to me: I undo her fingers like bandages: I go.
I am myself again. There are no loose ends.
I am bled white as wax, I have no attachments.
I am flat and virginal, which means nothing has happened,
Nothing that cannot be erased, ripped up and scrapped, begun again.
There little black twigs do not think to bud,
Nor do these dry, dry gutters dream of rain.
This woman who meets me in windows—she is neat.
So neat she is transparent, like a spirit.
how shyly she superimposes her neat self
On the inferno of African oranges, the heel-hung pigs.
She is deferring to reality.
It is I. It is I—
Tasting the bitterness between my teeth.
The incalculable malice of the everyday.
How long can I be a wall, keeping the wind off?
How long can I be
Gentling the sun with the shade of my hand,
Intercepting the blue bolts of a cold moon?
The voices of loneliness, the voices of sorrow
Lap at my back ineluctably.
How shall it soften them, this little lullaby?
How long can I be a wall around my green property?
How long can my hands
Be a bandage to his hurt, and my words
Bright birds in the sky, consoling, consoling?
It is a terrible thing
To be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.
Today the colleges are drunk with spring.
My black gown is a little funeral:
It shows I am serious.
The books I carry wedge into my side.
I had an old wound once, but it is healing.
I had a dream of an island, red with cries.
It was a dream, and did not mean a thing.
Dawn flowers in the great elm outside the house.
The swifts are back. They are shrieking like paper rockets.
I hear the sound of the hours
Widen and die in the hedgerows. I hear the moo of cows.
The colors replenish themselves, and the wet
Thatch smokes in the sun.
The narcissi open white faces in the orchard.
I am reassured. I am reassured.
These are the clear bright colors of the nursery,
The talking ducks, the happy lambs.
I am simple again. I believe in miracles.
I do not believe in those terrible children
Who injure my sleep with their white eyes, their fingerless hands.
They are not mine. They do not belong to me.
I shall meditate upon normality.
I shall meditate upon my little son.
He does not walk. He does not speak a word.
He is still swaddled in white bands.
But he is pink and perfect. He smiles so frequently.
I have papered his room with big roses,
I have painted little hearts on everything.
I do not will him to be exceptional.
It is the exception that interests the devil.
It is the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill
Or sits in the desert and hurts his mother’s heart.
I will him to be common,
To love me as I love him,
And to marry what he wants and where he will.
Hot noon in the meadows. The buttercups
Swelter and melt, and the lovers
Pass by, pass by.
They are black and flat as shadows.
It is so beautiful to have no attachments!
I am solitary as grass. What is it I miss?
Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?
The swans are gone. Still the river
Remembers how white they were.
It strives after them with its lights.
It finds their shapes in a cloud.
What is that bird that cries
With such sorrow in its voice?
I am young as ever, it says. What is it I miss?
I am at home in the lamplight. The evenings are lengthening.
I am mending a silk slip: my husband is reading. How beautifully the light includes these things.
There is a kind of smoke in the spring air,
A smoke that takes the parks, the little statues
With pinkness, as if a tenderness awoke,
A tenderness that did not tire, something healing.
I wait and ache. I think I have been healing.
There is a great deal else to do. My hands
Can stitch lace neatly on to this material. My husband
Can turn and turn the pages of a book.
And so we are at home together, after hours.
It is only time that weighs upon our hands.
It is only time, and that is not material.
The streets may turn to paper suddenly, but I recover
From the long fall, and find myself in bed,
Safe on the mattress, hands braced, as for a fall.
I find myself again. I am no shadow
Though there is a shadow starting from my feet. I am a wife.
The city waits and aches. The little grasses
Crack through stone, and they are green with life.
–Sylvia Plath, “Three Women”
Where you begin
I have never seen
but I believe it now
later when I lived where
you went past
already you were black
moving under gasses by
I shrank from you.
on girders of your bridges
told to be afraid
the arches never touched you the running
and black ice never
stopped ringing under foot
lived alone in the stained buildings
in the streets a smoke
an eyelid a clock
a black winter all year
like a dust
melting and freezing in silence
you flowed from under
and through the night the dead drifted down you
all the dead
what was found later no one
told to be afraid
I wake black to the knees
so it has happened
I have set foot in you
too long I was ashamed
at a distance.
–WS Merwin, “Lackawanna”
Fine clouds open their outfits
and show us their buttons.
Moonlight widens the waves.
Step on your own song and listen to mine,
Not bitter like yours,
not flicked raw by lashes of dust.
Already, over Italy, the cold sun rises.
How I would like a mountain
if I had means enough to live as a recluse.
I would like to renounce it all
And turn toward the ash-gold of flame
Mullioned between the palm fronds.
That constellation, with its seven high stars,
is lifting its sword in the midnight.
I love you, dog, I love you.
Remain here and lengthen your days,
Fame is a mist of grief on the river waves…
The low, wet clouds move faster than you do,
Snowed moon, your jade hair sleet
and grown thin.
All night I ask what time it is.
Stories of passion make sweet dust…
Sunset like a girl’s robe falling away long ago…
An old song handles my heart…
Outside the side door, a luck-spider,
huge in the flashlight’s lamp,
Rappels down the air
to single a stitch and make her starred bed.
In the dark past the hemlock, something with small,
Has come from a great distance, and is tired
and wants to lie down.
Night spreads its handful of star-clusters and one eclipse
Above the palm tree.
There are shuddering birds and dead grasses
Wherever I turn my face.
The ten thousand starfish caught in the net of heaven
Flash at the sky’s end.
Gulls settle, like grains of dust, on the black sand.
Lady of Light, Donna Dolorosa,
you drift like a skeleton
Through the night clouds.
The surf comes in and goes out like smoke.
Give me a sign,
show me the blessing pierced in my side.
This wind that comes in off the Pacific,
Where the color of mountains both is and is not,
ripples the distant marsh grass
And the gray doors of the sea.
The evening begins to close like a morning glory.
Like fear in a little boat,
the light slips under the sky.
When the mind is loosened and borne up,
The body is lightened
and feels it, too, could float in the wind,
A bell-sound between here and sleep.
A water egret planes down like a page of blank paper
Toward the edge of the noon sky.
Let me, like him, find an island of white reeds
To settle down on, under the wind, forgetting words.
–Charles Wright, “T’ang Notebook”
There is a time between losses,
days with blank pages, when clapping
is permitted and singing and dancing,
even the kind of madness
that tells you to wear fireflies in your hair.
I am talking about the time
when no one is dying
and journeys are something to be planned for.
It is nothing like your dreams
which only remind you
of the strangeness of things,
I mean the dreams of the night,
not the dreams you are born with.
Sometimes it takes awhile
before you can say the names of the ones
who have left, before you can be sure
nobody else is thinking of turning away.
This morning you slide in beside me
and as I listen to you breathe
I think of our wedding
and the two young people
who ran down the steps of my parents’ house.
We thought that day was a conclusion.
Nobody told us it was simply a time
between losses, when rice was something
to be held in the hand
before letting it fly for the camera.
–Judy Goldman, “Between Losses”
Westward the sea merges with a mountain range.
From our left the south wind blows and drives us mad,
the kind of wind that strips bones of their flesh.
Our house among pines and carobs.
Large windows. Large tables
for writing you the letters we’ve been writing
so many months now, dropping them
into the gap of our separation to fill it up.
Star of dawn, when you lowered your eyes
our hours were sweeter than oil
on a wound, more joyful than cold water
to the palate, more peaceful than a swan’s wings.
You held our life in the palm of your hand.
After the bitter bread of exile,
at night if we remain in front of the white wall,
your voice approaches us like the hope of fire;
and again this wind hones
a razor against our nerves.
Each of us writes you the same thing
and each falls silent in the other’s presence,
watching, each of us, the same world separately
the light and darkness on the mountain range
Who will lift this sorrow from our hearts?
Yesterday evening a heavy rain and again today
the covered sky burdens us. Our thoughts—
like the pine needles of yesterday’s downpour
bunched up and useless in front of our doorway—
would build a collapsing tower.
Among these decimated villages
on this promontory, open to the south wind
with the mountain range in front of us hiding you,
who will calculate for us the cost of our decision to forget?
Who will accept our offering, at this close of autumn?
–George Seferis, Part 7, “South Wind,” from “Mythistorema”
All night the bodies pile up.
Withered arms cradle
withered pieces of flesh.
All night I have wanted to throw
bricks through windows, drench
funeral pyres with springtime
blooms, offer breath. My breath.
Yours. All night these teeth ache
from worry. In my house the stove
leaks steady tears of gas, counting
our dead. The car ran away to become
a hearse out of loneliness. And how
is it in your house? And yours?
All night the leaders say, dont worry,
we have oxygen, vaccines, beds.
Look how one world collapses
while another rises. Morning returns
like an echo, insistent, bright.
Squirrels rampage across the roof.
Hoopoes toss and catch prey in their beaks.
You would have expected the clocks
to freeze. You would have expected
not to feel this deep hunger.
–Tishani Doshi, “Are You Awake Yet?”
(This poem is about the COVID spike that pummeled India in spring 2021.)
And I with only a reed in my hands.
The night was deserted, the moon waning,
earth smelled of the last rain.
I whispered: memory hurts wherever you touch it,
there’s only a little sky, there’s no more sea,
what they kill by day they carry away in carts and dump
behind the ridge.
My fingers were running idly over this flute
that an old shepherd gave to me because I said good-evening
The others have abolished every kind of greeting:
they wake, shave, and start the day’s work of slaughter
as one prunes or operates, methodically, without
sorrow’s dead like Patroclus, and no one makes a mistake.
I thought of playing a tune and then I felt ashamed in front
of the other world
the one that watches me from beyond the night from within
woven of living bodies, naked hearts
and love that belongs to the Furies
as it belongs to man and to stone and to water and to grass
and to the animal that looks straight into the eye of its
So I continued along the dark path
and turned into my garden and dug and buried the reed
and again I whispered: some morning the resurrection will
dawn’s light will blossom red as trees glow in spring,
the sea will be born again, and the wave will again fling
We are the seed that dies. And I entered my empty house.
–George Seferis, “Memory I”
Cold on my narrow cot I lie
and in sorrow look
through my window-square of black:
figured in the midnight sky,
a mosaic of stars
diagrams the falling years,
while from the moon, my lover’s eye
chills me to death
with radiance of his frozen faith.
Once I wounded him with so
small a thorn
I never thought his flesh would burn
or that the heat within would grow
until he stood
incandescent as a god;
now there is nowhere I can go
to hide from him:
moon and sun reflect his flame
In the morning all shall be
the same again:
stars pale before the angry dawn;
the gilded clock will turn for me
the rack of time
until the peak of noon has come
and by that glare, my love will see
how I am still
blazing in my golden hell.
–Sylvia Plath, “To a Jilted Lover”
I am the love killer,
I am murdering the music we thought so special,
that blazed between us, over and over.
I am murdering me, where I kneeled at your kiss.
I am pushing knives through the hands
that created two into one.
Our hands do not bleed at this,
they lie still in their dishonor.
I am taking the boats of our beds
and swamping them, letting them cough on the sea
and choke on it and go down into nothing.
I am stuffing your mouth with your
promises and watching
you vomit them out upon my face.
The Camp we directed?
I have gassed the campers.
Now I am alone with the dead,
flying off bridges,
hurling myself like a beer can into the wastebasket.
I am flying like a single red rose,
leaving a jet stream
and yet I feel nothing,
though I fly and hurl,
my insides are empty
and my face is as blank as a wall.
Shall I call the funeral director?
He could put our two bodies into one pink casket,
those bodies from before,
and someone might send flowers,
and someone might come to mourn
and it would be in the obits,
and people would know that something died,
is no more, speaks no more, won’t even
drive a car again and all of that.
When a life is over,
the one you were living for,
where do you go?
I’ll work nights.
I’ll dance in the city.
I’ll wear red for a burning.
I’ll look at the Charles very carefully,
wearing its long legs of neon.
And the cars will go by.
The cars will go by.
And there’ll be no scream
from the lady in the red dress
dancing on her own Ellis Island,
who turns in circles,
as the cars go by.
–Anne Sexton, “Killing the Love”
Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.
Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I liked it and danced in a circle.
Music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.
They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
and was not afraid.
–Anne Sexton, “Music Swims Back to Me”
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root;
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it.
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, the big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin white, like arsenic.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?
I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?
Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.
–Sylvia Plath, “Elm”
Not easy to state the change you made.
If I’m alive now, then I was dead,
Though, like a stone, unbothered by it,
Staying put according to habit.
You didn’t just tow me an inch, no—
Nor leave me to set my small bald eye
Skyward again, without hope, of course,
Of apprehending blueness, or stars.
That wasn’t it. I slept, say: a snake
Masked among black rocks as a black rock
In the white hiatus of winter—
Like my neighbors, taking no pleasure
In the million perfectly-chiseled
Cheeks alighting each moment to melt
My cheeks of basalt. They turned to tears,
Angels weeping over dull natures,
But didn’t convince me. Those tears froze.
Each dead head had a visor of ice.
And I slept on like a bent finger.
The first thing I was sheer air
And the locked drops rising in dew
Limpid as spirits. Many stones lay
Dense and expressionless round about.
I didn’t know what to make of it.
I shone, mice-scaled, and unfolded
To pour myself out like a fluid
Among bird feet and the stems of plants.
I wasn’t fooled. I knew you at once.
Tree and stone glittered, without shadows.
My finger-length grew lucent as glass.
I started to bud like a March twig:
An arm and a leg, and arm, a leg.
From stone to cloud, so I ascended.
Now I resemble a sort of god
Floating through the air in my soul-shift
Pure as a pane of ice. It’s a gift.
–Sylvia Plath, “Love Letter”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your 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 geese, 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.
–Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
Once you called at midnight
to talk about Hindemith,
to tell me how his overtones connect each bar,
invisible thread, sounds we can’t hear.
These harmonics guide us through the music, resolve
the twelve tones like mist in a valley,
the reflection of sky in water,
the illusion that what’s unnamed remains unformed.
Our voices connected by black wire,
words carried on waves.
We are the strain and stress of a line,
the poem’s tension singing in each black wire
of words, and between the first line and the last.
We are the angle of light that burns water,
the point of intersection that creates perspective.
You have lived Brecht’s parable of the Chalk Circle.
When I was caught in the middle, you let go
so I wouldn’t be torn to pieces.
Your actions have taught me what it is to love—
that it’s holding back, as well as holding.
For the first time I’m going
where you can’t join me. I know that home
is the one place you won’t come.
But first of all people must understand—
the need to hear my language in every mouth.
I can’t think in America.
I’ve never let myself describe you
and now that there’s no time left
your meaning spills out of me
like the essence of an atom cracking
on the edge of speed’s bowl,
liquid in its longing to become part of something else,
Flesh moves to become spirit.
You were the only one to understand my conversion.
Many people have asked me about God;
my proof is manifestation,
that God can be called
“getting over fear.”
I wanted badly that truth be a single thing;
now I know it won’t be measured.
It wasn’t Heisenberg or Hindemith, but you
who convinced me
that nothing can be unravelled to its core,
that truth is a field, a cage, a cloud of sound.
How else to reconcile the faces of those running away
with the faces of those turning away,
with the faces of those in uniform—that hair-shirt
that says more about a man than his eyes
because you can’t tell the parts of his face
that are his.
How else to encompass both that crying and those
orders; the sound of my own voice
begging, and my voice telling jokes to the man
without shoes beside me on a train;
how else to encompass the moon’s chilling scream
as it calls out in its bad sleep above the earth
and your voice on the phone,
waking me in Paris, Los Angeles, New York.
–Anne Michaels, from “Sublimation”
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than those miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5am. All these worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
–Fleur Adcock, “Things”
oh, yes, let me tell you of love. (I know
all that there is to know about love and death and hate.)
love is staring at another, praying for a miracle
(though you know it just won’t happen) while
your heart screams within you like an animal caught in a trap
gnawing at itself in pain-maddened panic, bleeding
from wounds made by its own teeth.
don’t you see?
love is lying awake at night
crying hurting longing silently in your head
love is pain deeper than the deepest ocean, sharper than the
…thorns that grow from roses red and beautiful
love is hate death fear pain and loneliness
(but after all,
…love is just a mirror into your soul.)
–Dennis Taylor, “Valentine’s Day”
After a while you learn the subtle differences
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open,
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build your own roads
On today because tomorrow’s ground
Is too uncertain for plans, and futures have
A way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn that even sunshine
Burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate
Your own soul, instead of waiting
For someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure,
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn
With every good-bye you learn.
–Veronica A. Shoffstall, “Come the Dawn”
I am the scorpion
born in the cold month
the youngest in the grade
water sign, I drown in air
cold, cold like the November day
my mother got a present
I wish to sting
watch poison fill veins
watch bodies electrify
fire quenched in scorpion water
bitter, fresh, and cold
I am pure
alone I clutch my blanket
kiss my own fingers
as I bite hard
evil pointed teeth
I will be shorn like a sheep
I prepare for the slaughter
I am cold as November
an M with a point
that spells my old name.
dear allen ginsberg
can i howl anymore
(like you, trapped in the fifties, did)?
crouched in my cold basement,
staring at white concrete walls,
what is there left for me to do?
go to college and work for IBM and die?
when i run out of ideas
why do i open the fridge and not scream?
you dressed in garments of resistance
and changed a defiant om over Vietnam.
now i sit paralyzed in front of my holy TV
watching a rerun called Nicaragua,
what can i do (my homework?)
what is there for me to do with this poem?
xerox it and pass it out
to brain-dead youth wearing headphones?
hang it in an empty room and call it art?
is my poem reckless
for not having one idea?
(i have not had one idea for five minutes
for as long as I can remember.)
perhaps these words are already dead,
lunatic ravings somebody will come along
and put their cigarette out on.
(it was only his first draft, they will say.)
and now I CUT LOOSE here
I disrobe at the speed of light
like Superman in his telephone booth
i am bleeding now
what good does it do to rephrase myself?
what else can I add?
is now the time in the poem
to bring up cows and paper
and cities and men with straw hats
and silent children i have seen
by the roadside?
i don’t know how to say it anymore
immortalize my own uncertain love
with stale beauty lines?
it is 10:59, i’m going back to sleep.
–Tom Cleary (capitalization inconsistencies are intended)
Meeting you at your parents’ gate
We will tell you what to do
What you have to do
Leave the rotten towns
of your father
Leave the poisoned wells
& bloodstained streets
Enter now the sweet forest
–Jim Morrison, “The Crossroads”