by Anthony Hecht
In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once – though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante’s, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm sunlit piazza
In the early morning. A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn’t troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
Hecht fought in Europe in World War 2, and saw the aftermath of the holocaust close up:
THE BOOK OF YOLEK
Wir haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.
The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail, it doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.
You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home;
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.
The fifth of August, 1942.
It was morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.
How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.
We’re approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.
Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.
(Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” appears in his “Collected Later Poems.” Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
Great political poem about El Salvador:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Tears flowed at the chapel funeral,
more beside the grave on the hill. Nevertheless,
after the last autumn ploughing,
they crucified her old flowered print housedress
live on a pole.
Marjorie and Emily, shortcutting to school,
used to pass and wave; mostly Gran would wave back.
Two white Sunday gloves
flapped good luck from the crossbar; her head’s plastic sack
would nod, as a rule.
But when winter arrived, her ghost thinned.
The dress began to look starved in its field of snowcorn.
One glove blew off and was lost.
The other hung blotchy with mould from the hedgerow, torn
by the wind.
Emily and Marjorie noticed this.
Without saying why, they started to avoid the country way
through the cornfield. Instead they walked
from the farm up the road to the stop, where they
caught the bus.
And it caught them. So in time they married.
Marjorie, divorced, rose high in the catering profession.
Emily had children and grandchildren, though,
with the farm sold, none found a cross to fit their clothes when
Emily and Marjorie died.
by Anne Stevenson
CAROL OF THE BIRDS
Feet that could be clawed but are not …
Arms that might have flown but did not …
No one said ‘Let there be angels!’ but the birds
Whose choirs fling alleluias over the sea,
Herring gulls, black backs carolling raucously
While cormorants dry their wings on a rocky stable.
Plovers that stoop to sanctify the land
And scoop small, roundy mangers in the sand,
Swaddle a saviour each in a speckled shell.
A chaffinchy fife unreeling in the marsh
Accompanies the tune a solo thrush
Half sings, half talks in riffs of wordless words,
As hymns flare up from tiny muscled throats,
Robins and hidden wrens whose shiny notes
Tinsel the precincts of the winter sun.
What loftier organ than these pipes of beech,
Pillars resounding with the jackdaws’ speech,
And poplars swayed with light like shaken bells?
Wings that could be hands, but are not …
Cries that might be pleas but cannot
Question or disinvent the stalker’s gun,
Be your own hammerbeam angels of the air
Before, in the maze of space, you disappear,
Stilled by our dazzling anthrocentric mills.
by Anne Stevenson
In the pull-out bed with my brother
in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment
my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,
pulsing so hard they kept me awake—
or was it the Metro North train cars
flying past the apartment, rocking the walls,
or was it the sound of apartment front doors
as heavy as prison doors clanging shut?
Was the Black Nation whispering to me
from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor, or
was it my brother’s unfamiliar ions
vibrating, humming in his easeful sleep?
Tomorrow, as always, Grandfather will rise
to the Spanish-Town cock’s crow deep in his head
and perform his usual ablutions,
and prepare the apartment for the day,
and peel fruit for us, and prepare a hot meal
that can take us anywhere, and onward.
Did sleep elude me because I could feel
the heft of unuttered love in his tending
our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing
that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake
as my growing bones did, growing larger
than anything else I would know?
by Elizabeth Alexander
3 SECTIONS FROM MISS CRANDALL’S SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES AND LITTLE MISSES OF COLOR
It wasn’t as if we knew nothing before.
After all, colored girls must know many
things in order to survive. Not only
could I sew buttons and hems, but I could
make a dress and pantaloons from scratch.
I could milk cows, churn butter, feed chickens,
clean their coops, wring their necks, pluck and cook them.
I cut wood, set fires, and boiled water
to wash the clothes and sheets, then wrung them dry.
And I could read the Bible. Evenings
before the fire, my family tired
from unending work and New England cold,
they’d close their eyes. My favorite was Song of Songs.
They most liked when I read, “In the beginning.”
The mother who packs her daughter’s valise,
tucks a Bible between the muslin layers.
The father who shoes horses and fixes
clocks and other intricate things that break
saves coins in their largest preserving jar
’til the day for which they have waited comes.
See Mother wash and oil and comb and braid
Daughter’s thick brown hair for the very last time.
Does “good-bye” mean we hope or mean we weep?
Does it mean remember all you know, or
come back as soon as you can, or do not?
Does it mean go now, or I do not know?
Good-bye, Daughter, says Mother. She watches
the horse and buggy ’til it fades from view.
Teacher is bewildered when packages
and letters come from far to say how brave,
how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast
is Prudence Crandall of Canterbury.
Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right.
We crave radiance in this austere world,
light in the spiritual darkness.
Learning is the one perfect religion,
its path correct, narrow, certain, straight.
At its end it blossoms and billows
into vari-colored polyphony:
the sweet infinity of true knowledge.
by Elizabeth Alexander
Matins: James Brown and His Famous Flames Tour the South, 1958
by David Wojahn
“Please, Please, Please” on the charts permits
Four canary yellow sequined suits
And a hulking Coupe de Ville–bought on credit
For the Alabama-Georgia roadhouse circuit.
Half last night they drove from Athens, taking turns
At the wheel. The radio hissed National Guards
In Little Rock, static filling Jackie Wilson’s
“Lonely Teardrops.” Parked near Macon in a soybean field,
They sleep with heads in towels to protect
Their kingly pompadours, and as the pre-dawn
Mist burns off, they wake to knocks against
The windshield. A cruiser with its siren on
Dyes the fog bright red. Don’t you niggers know your place?
A billy club, a face, the windshield breaks.
To see David Wojan’s poem “Jimmie Rogers’ Last Blue Yodel, 1933” click here
NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Mr. Over is dead
He died fighting and true
And on his tombstone they wrote
Over to You.
And who pray is this You
To whom Mr. Over is gone?
Oh if we only knew that
We should not do wrong.
But who is this beautiful You
We all of us long for so much
Is he not our friend and our brother
Our father and such?
Yes he is this and much more
This is but a portion
A sea-drop in a bucket
Taken from the ocean
So the voices spake
Softly above my head
And a voice in my heart cried: Follow
Where he has led
And a devil’s voice cried: Happy
Happy the dead.
by Stevie Smith (1950)
by Stevie Smith
There is a face I know too well,
A face I dread to see,
So vain it is, so eloquent
Of all futility.
It is a human face that hides
A monkey soul within,
That bangs about, that beats a gong,
That makes a horrid din.
Sometimes the monkey soul will sprawl
Athwart the human eyes,
And peering forth, will flesh its pads,
And utter social lies.
So wretched is this face, so vain,
So empty and forlorn,
You well may say that better far
This face had not been born.
Stevie Smith, “The Face” from New Selected Poems. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Source: The New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1998)
IN THE PARK
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
by Gwen Harwood
So the light falls, and so it fell
on branches leaved with flocking birds.
Light stole a city’s weight to swell
the coloured loaf of stone. Your words
hung weightless in my ear: Remember me.
All words except those words were drowned
in the fresh babbling rush of spring.
In summer’s dream-filled light one sound
echoed through all the whispering
galleries of green: Remember me.
Rods of light point home the flocking
starlings to wintry trees, and turn
stone into golden ochre, locking
the orbit of my pain. I learn
the weight of light and stone. Remember me.
by Gwen Harwood
‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’
pity this busy monster, manunkind, not. Progress is a comfortable disease: your victim (death and life safely beyond) plays with the bigness of his littleness --- electrons deify one razorblade into a mountainrange; lenses extend unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself. A world of made is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this fine specimen of hypermagical ultraomnipotence. We doctors know a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go by E. E. Cummings
“next to of course god america i”
by e e cummings
“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
Dorothy Parker’s poem, “Symptom Recital”, read by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) about the poet’s life and the days of Algonquin Round Table:
“I do not like my state of mind;
I’m bitter, querulous, unkind.
I hate my legs, I hate my hands,
I do not yearn for lovelier lands.
I dread the dawn’s recurrent light;
I hate to go to bed at night.
I snoot at simple, earnest folk.
I cannot take the gentlest joke.
I find no peace in paint or type.
My world is but a lot of tripe.
I’m disillusioned, empty-breasted.
For what I think, I’d be arrested.
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.
I shudder at the thought of men….
I’m due to fall in love again.”
My own dear love, he is strong and bold
And he cares not what comes after.
His words ring sweet as a chime of gold,
And his eyes are lit with laughter.
He is jubilant as a flag unfurled—
Oh, a girl, she’d not forget him.
My own dear love, he is all my world,—
And I wish I’d never met him.
My love, he’s mad, and my love, he’s fleet,
And a wild young wood-thing bore him!
The ways are fair to his roaming feet,
And the skies are sunlit for him.
As sharply sweet to my heart he seems
As the fragrance of acacia.
My own dear love, he is all my dreams,—
And I wish he were in Asia.
My love runs by like a day in June,
And he makes no friends of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
In the pathway of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.
Dorothy Parker, “Love Song” from The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Brendan Gill. Copyright 1926 and renewed 1954 by Dorothy Parker. Reprinted with the permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Source: The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Books, 2006)