“Herman Melville” — W.H. Auden

“Herman Melville”

by

W.H. Auden


Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.

Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge.
His terror had to blow itself quite out
To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him
Past the Cape Horn of sensible success
Which cries: “This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.”

But deafened him with thunder and confused with lightning:
–The maniac hero hunting like a jewel
The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex,
The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare–
All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple.

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day,
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,
But wears a stammer like a decoration:

And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

For now he was awake and knew
No one is ever spared except in dreams;
But there was something else the nightmare had distorted–
Even the punishment was human and a form of love:
The howling storm had been his father’s presence
And all the time he had been carried on his father’s breast.

Who now had set him gently down and left him.
He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened:
And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood
“All, all is vanity,” but it was not the same;
For now the words descended like the calm of mountains–
–Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish–
Reborn, he cried in exultation and surrender
“The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.”

And sat down at his desk and wrote a story.

“Abecedary” — Tom Disch

“Abecedary”

by

Tom Disch


A is an Apple, as everyone knows.
But B is a …. What do you suppose?
A Bible? A Barber? A Banquet? A Bank?
No, B is this Boat, the night that it sank.
C is its Captain, and D is its Dory,
While E – But first let me tell you a story.
There once was an Eagle exceedingly proud
Who thought it would fly, in the Form of a cloud —
Yes, E is for Eagle, and F is for Form,
And G is the Grass that got wet in the storm
When the cloud that the Egale unwisely became
Sprinkled our hero and all of his fame
Over ten acres of upland plateau.
So much for that story. Now H. Do you know?
H is the Hay that was made from the Grass,
And I’s the Idea of going to Mass,
Which is something that only a Catholic would do.
Jews go to Synagogue. J is a Jew.
K is for Kitchen as well as for Kiss,
While L is for all of the black Licorice
You can eat in an hour without feeling ill.
M is for Millipede, Millet, and Mill.
The first is an insect, the second a grain,
The third grinds the second: it’s hard to explain
Such a process to children who never have seen it —
So let’s go to the country right now! YEs, I mean it.
We’re leaving already, and N is the Night
We race through to reach it, while P is the Plight
Of the people (Remember?) who sailed in that Boat
That is still, by a miracle, somehow afloat!
(Oh dear, I’ve just nocied I’ve overlooked O:
O’s an Omission and really should go
In that hole – do you see it? – between N and P.
No? It’s not there now? Dear O, pardon me.)
Q is the Question of how far away
A person can travel in one single day,
And whether it’s worth it, or might it be better
To just stay at home and write someone a letter?
R’s are Relations, a regular swarm.
Now get out of the car – we’ve arrived at their farm!
S is the Sight of a Thanksgiving feast,
And T is the Turkey, which must weight at least
Thirty pounds. U is Utopia. V …
V simply Vanishes – where, we can’t see –
While W Waves from its Westernmost isle
And X lies exhausted, attempting to smile.
There are no letters left now but Y and then Z.
Y is for You, dear, and Z is for me.

“Lincoln Theatre” — Langston Hughes

 

“Lincoln Theatre”

by

Langston Hughes


The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skin bleached
blonde
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
De man I loves has
Gone and done me wrong …
While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.

“Why I Might Go to the Next Football Game” — Denis Johnson

“Why I Might Go to the Next Football Game”

by

Denis Johnson


sometimes you know
things: once at a
birthday party a little

girl looked at her new party
gloves and said she
liked me, making suddenly the light much
brighter so that the very small

hairs shone above her lip. i felt
stuffed, like a swimming pool, with
words, like i knew something that was in
a great tangled knot. and when we sat

down i saw there were
tiny glistenings on her
legs, too. i knew
something for sure then. but it

was too big, or like the outside too
everywhere, or maybe
hiding inside, behind
the bicycles where i later

kissed her, not using my tongue. it was
too giant and thin to squirm
into, and be so well inside of, or
too well hidden to punch, and feel. a few

days later on the asphalt playground i
tackled her. she skinned her
elbow, and i even
punched her and felt her, felt

how soft the hairs were. i thought
that i would make a fine football-playing
poet, but now i know
it is better to be an old, breathing

man wrapped in a great coat in the stands, who
remains standing after each play, who knows
something, who rotates in his place
rasping over and over the thing

he knows: “whydidnhe pass? the other
end was wide open! the end
was wide open! the end was wide open . . . ”

“The Death of Santa Claus” — Charles Harper Webb

“The Death of Santa Claus”

by

Charles Harper Webb


He’s had the chest pains for weeks,
but doctors don’t make house
calls to the North Pole,

he’s let his Blue Cross lapse,
blood tests make him faint,
hospital gown always flap

open, waiting rooms upset
his stomach, and it’s only
indigestion anyway, he thinks,

until, feeding the reindeer,
he feels as if a monster fist
has grabbed his heart and won’t

stop squeezing. He can’t
breathe, and the beautiful white
world he loves goes black,

and he drops on his jelly belly
in the snow and Mrs. Claus
tears out of the toy factory

wailing, and the elves wring
their little hands, and Rudolph’s
nose blinks like a sad ambulance

light, and in a tract house
in Houston, Texas, I’m 8,
telling my mom that stupid

kids at school say Santa’s a big
fake, and she sits with me
on our purple-flowered couch,

and takes my hand, tears
in her throat, the terrible
news rising in her eyes

“December 24, 1971” — Joseph Brodsky

“December 24, 1971”

by

Joseph Brodsky


For V.S.

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
a star.

“Radio” — Tom Clark

“Radio”

by

Tom Clark


Don’t hurt the radio for
Against all
Solid testimony machines
Have feelings
Too

Brush past it lightly
With a fine regard
For allowing its molecules
To remain 100% intact

Machines can think like Wittgenstein
And the radio’s a machine
Thinking softly to itself
Of the Midnight Flower
As her tawny parts unfold

In slow motion the boat
Rocks on the ocean
As her tawny parts unfold

The radio does something mental
To itself singingly
As her tawny parts unfold
Inside its wires
And steal away its heart

Two minutes after eleven
The color dream communicates itself
The ink falls on the paper as if magically
The scalp falls away
A pain is felt
Deep in the radio

I take out my larynx and put it on the blue chair
And do my dance for the radio
It’s my dance in which I kneel in front of the radio
And while remaining motionless elsewise
Force my eyeballs to come as close together as possible
While uttering a horrible and foreign word
Which I cannot repeat to you without now removing my larynx
And placing it on the blue chair

The blue chair isn’t here
So I can’t do that trick at the present time

The radio is thinking a few licks of its own
Pianistic thoughts attuned to tomorrow’s grammar
Beautiful spas of seltzery coition
Plucked notes like sandpaper attacked by Woody Woodpecker

The radio says Edwardian farmers from Minnesota march on the Mafia
Armed with millions of radioactive poker chips

The radio fears foul play
It turns impersonal
A piggy bank was smashed
A victim was found naked
Radio how can you tell me this
In such a chipper tone
Your structure of voices is a friend
The best kind
The kind one can turn on or off
Whenever one wants to
But that is wrong I know
For you will intensely to continue
And in a deeper way
You do

Hours go by
And I watch you
As you diligently apply
A series of audible frequencies
To tiny receptors
Located inside my cranium
Resulting in much pleasure for someone
Who looks like me
Although he is seated about two inches to my left
And the both of us
Are listening to your every word
With a weird misapprehension
It’s the last of the tenth
And Harmon Killebrew is up
With a man aboard

He blasts a game-winning home run
The 559th of his career
But no one cares
Because the broadcast is studio-monitored for taping
To be replayed in 212 years

Heaven must be like this, radio
To not care about anything
Because it’s all being taped for replay much later

Heaven must be like this
For as her tawny parts unfold
The small lights swim roseate
As if of sepals were the tarp made
As it is invisibly unrolled
And sundown gasps its old Ray Charles 45 of Georgia
Only through your voice

December, 1919 — Claude McKay

Screenshot 2019-12-17 at 5.42.38 PM

“To a Chameleon” — Marianne Moore

chameleon

“Values in Use” — Marianne Moore

values in use

Oriana — Frederick Sandys

Oriana 1861 by Frederick Sandys 1829-1904

Oriana, 1861 by Frederick Sandys (1829–1904)


“Ballad of Oriana”

by

Alfred Tennyson


She stood upon the castle wall, Oriana:
She watch’d my crest among them all, Oriana:
She saw me fight, she heard me call,
When forth there stept a foeman tall, Oriana,
Atween me and the castle wall, Oriana.

The bitter arrow went aside, Oriana:
The false, false arrow went aside, Oriana:
The damned arrow glanced aside,
And pierced thy heart, my love, my bride, Oriana!
Thy heart, my life, my love, my bride,Oriana!

Oh! narrow, narrow was the space, Oriana.
Loud, loud rung out the bugle’s brays, Oriana.
Oh! deathful stabs were dealt apace,
The battle deepen’d in its place, Oriana;
But I was down upon my face, Oriana.
They should have stabb’d me where I lay, Oriana!
How could I rise and come away, Oriana?
How could I look upon the day?
They should have stabb’d me where I lay, Oriana
They should have trod me into clay,Oriana.
O breaking heart that will not break, Oriana!

“I May, I Might, I Must” — Marianne Moore

mm (1)

Jiří Kolář’s A User’s Manual (Book acquired, some time in late October)

z

I’ve been slowly enjoying the poems and collages that comprise Jiří Kolář’s collection A User’s Manual (in English translation by Ryan Scott). There are 52 poems and collages here. Each poem is a kind of surrealist recipe, a set of commands that I’ve been trying to follow (in my imagination, I mean).

Capturea

The book itself is beautiful—hardback with full color and black and white illustrations, it fits perfectly with the aesthetic that its publisher Twisted Spoon has been developing for ages now.

Capture

Here’s Twisted Spoon’s blurb:

Written in the 1950s and ’60s, the “action poems” comprising a A User’s Manual were published in their complete form in 1969 when they were paired with the 52 collages of Weekly 1967, the first of Kolář’s celebrated series in which he commented visually on a major event for each week of
the year. Taking the form of directives, largely absurd, the poems mock communist society’s officialese while offering readers an opportunity to create their own poetics by performing the given directions. The collages on the facing pages to the poems are composed of layered documents, image cutouts, newspaper clippings, announcements, letter fragments, reports, or decontextualized words, oftentimes forming concrete patterns or the outlines of figures, to create a sort of “evidential” report on the year. Text and image taken together, the volume displays Kolář’s enduring interest in extracting poetry from the mundane to demolish the barrier separating art from reality, or even to elevate reality itself through this dual poetics to the level of art. What art historian Arsén Pohribný wrote about Weekly 1968 equally applies to Weekly 1967: it “shocks with its abrupt stylistic twists” and is “a Babylonian, hybrid parable of multi-reality.” The volume also includes the complete Czech text as an appendix.

“Ode to Dirt” — Sharon Olds

“Ode to Dirt”

by

Sharon Olds


Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
It’s as if I had loved only the stars
and not the sky which gave them space
in which to shine. Subtle, various,
sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,
you’re our democracy. When I understood
I had never honored you as a living
equal, I was ashamed of myself,
as if I had not recognized
a character who looked so different from me,
but now I can see us all, made of the
same basic materials—
cousins of that first exploding from nothing—
in our intricate equation together. O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.

“All Hallow’s Eve” — Dorothea Tanning

“All Hallow’s Eve”

by

Dorothea Tanning


Be perfect, make it otherwise.
Yesterday is torn in shreds.
Lightning’s thousand sulfur eyes
Rip apart the breathing beds.
Hear bones crack and pulverize.
Doom creeps in on rubber treads.
Countless overwrought housewives,
Minds unraveling like threads,
Try lipstick shades to tranquilize
Fears of age and general dreads.
Sit tight, be perfect, swat the spies,
Don’t take faucets for fountainheads.
Drink tasty antidotes. Otherwise
You and the werewolf: newlyweds.

 

“The Witch’s Life” — Anne Sexton

“The Witch’s Life”

by

Anne Sexton


When I was a child
there was an old woman in our neighborhood whom we called The Witch.
All day she peered from her second story
window
from behind the wrinkled curtains
and sometimes she would open the window
and yell: Get out of my life!
She had hair like kelp
and a voice like a boulder.

I think of her sometimes now
and wonder if I am becoming her.
My shoes turn up like a jester’s.
Clumps of my hair, as I write this,
curl up individually like toes.
I am shoveling the children out,
scoop after scoop.
Only my books anoint me,
and a few friends,
those who reach into my veins.
Maybe I am becoming a hermit,
opening the door for only
a few special animals?
Maybe my skull is too crowded
and it has no opening through which
to feed it soup?
Maybe I have plugged up my sockets
to keep the gods in?
Maybe, although my heart
is a kitten of butter,
I am blowing it up like a zeppelin.
Yes. It is the witch’s life,
climbing the primordial climb,
a dream within a dream,
then sitting here
holding a basket of fire.

“The King of Owls” — Louise Erdrich

“The King of Owls”

by

Louise Erdrich


It is said that playing cards were invented in 1392 to cure the French king, Charles VI, of madness. The suits in some of the first card packs consisted of Doves, Peacocks, Ravens, and Owls.

They say I am excitable! How could
I not scream? The Swiss monk’s tonsure
spun till it blurred yet his eyes were still.
I snapped my gaiter, hard, to stuff back

my mirth. Lords, he then began to speak.
Indus catarum, he said, presenting the game of cards
in which the state of the world is excellent described
and figured. He decked his mouth

as they do, a solemn stitch, and left cards
in my hands. I cast them down.
What need have I for amusement?
My brain’s a park. Yet your company

plucked them from the ground and began to play.
Lords, I wither. The monk spoke right,
the mealy wretch. The sorry patterns show
the deceiving constructions of your minds.

I have made the Deuce of Ravens my sword
falling through your pillows and rising,
the wing blades still running
with the jugular blood. Your bodies lurch

through the steps of an unpleasant dance.
No lutes play. I have silenced the lutes!
I keep watch in the clipped, convulsed garden.
I must have silence, to hear the messenger’s footfall

in my brain. For I am the King of Owls.
Where I float no shadow falls.
I have hungers, such terrible hungers, you cannot know.
Lords, I sharpen my talons on your bones.