20th Century Poets-6

POETS ON THIS PAGE:

RHINA ESPAILLAT * SHERMAN ALEXIE * THOMAS MCGRATH * GARY SNYDER * JOHN CROWE RANSOM * JEAN TOOMER * MARIA de los SANTOS * JAMES TATE * WILLIAM JAY SMITH * TED KOOSER * RICHARD WILBUR

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Bilingual/Bilingüe

My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was—his memory, his name
(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

by Rhina P. Espaillat, “Bilingual/Bilingüe” from Where Horizons Go (Kirksville, MO: New Odyssey Books, 1998).

BRA

What a good fit!  But the label says Honduras:
Alas, I am Union forever, yes, both breasts
and the heart between them committed to U.S. labor.

But such a splendid fit!  And the label tells me
the woman who made it, bronze as the breasts now in it,
speaks the language I dream in; I count in Spanish

the pesos she made stitching this breast-divider:
will they go for her son's tuition, her daughter's wedding?
The thought is a lovely fit, but oh, the label!

And oh, those pesos that may be pennies, and hard-earned.
Was it son or daughter who made this, unschooled, unwedded?
How old?  Fourteen?  Ten?  That fear is a tight fit.

If only the heart could be worn like the breast, divided,
nosing in two directions for news of the wide world,
sniffing here and there for justice, for mercy.

How burdened every choice is with politics, guilt,
expensive with duty, heavy as breasts in need of
this perfect fit whose label says Honduras.

by Rhina P. Espaillat

“WHY PUBLISH?”  

Dusty and brown on some forgotten shelf
a century hence—or two, let dreams be grand!—
this wry and slanted gloss upon myself
has slipped into some stranger's browsing hand.
A woman, maybe, growing old like me,
or a young man ambitious for his name,
curious about my antique prosody
but pleased to find our motives much the same.
He cannot know—nor she—what this one life
from the late twentieth craved, or cost, or found;
he will forget my name; but mother, wife,
daughter, has struck a chord, sings from the ground
a moment to his ear, as now to yours,
for what is ours in common and endures.

 

by Rhina P. Espaillat

 From Where Horizons Go, New Odyssey Press,

© 1998.  Reprinted by permission of the author.



POWOW AT THE END OF THE WORLD

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must 
     forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by 
     that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive 
     and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I 
     shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will 
     teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

by Sherman Alexie


From “The Native American Broadcasting System”

Part 9

I am the essence of powwow, I am
toilets without paper, I am fry bread
in sawdust, I am bull dung
on rodeo grounds at the All-Indian
Rodeo and Horse Show, I am

the essence of powwow, I am
video games with with braids, I am spit
from toothless mouths, I am turquoise
and boootleg whiskey, both selling
for twenty bucks a swallow, I am

the essence of powwow , I am
fancydancers in flannel, I am host drum
amplified, I am Fuck you 
don't come back and Leave me

the last hard drink. I am 
the essence of powwow, I am the dream
you lace your shoes with, I am
the lust between your toes, I am
the memory you feel across the bottom
of your feet when ever you walk too close.

by Sherman Alexie



REMEMBERING THE CHILDREN OF AUSCHWITZ

We know the story. The children
Are lost in the deep forest --
Though it is the same forest
In which we all are born.

But somehow it has changed:
A new kind of darkness,
Or something they never noticed,
Has colored the pines and the larches.

And now appears the Bird,
(Bird of a strange dreaming)
To lead them, as tales foretold,
Over the little streams

Into the garden of order
Where trees no longer menaced,
And a little house was protected
Inside its candy fences.

And all seemed perfectly proper:
The little house was covered
with barbwire and marzipan;
And the Witch was there; and the Oven.

Perhaps they never noticed --
After all that disorder
Of being lost -- that they'd come
To the Place named in the stories.

Perhaps there was even peace --
A little -- after disorder,
Before they awoke into
A dream of deeper horror.

And now the Bird will never
Take them across the river
(Though they knew how to walk on water).
They become part of the weather.

They have become the Ascensions.
When we lift up our eyes,
In any light, we see them:
Darkening all our skies.

by Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990

 

SUCH SIMPLE LOVE

All night long I hear the sleepers toss
Between the darkened window and the wall.
The madman’s whimper and the lover’s voice,
The worker’s whisper and the sick child’s call—-
Knowing them all

I’d walk a mile, maybe, hearing some cat
Crying its guts out, to throttle it by hand,
Such simple love I had. I wished I might—-
Or God might—-answer each call in person and
Each poor demand.

Well, I’d have been better off sleeping myself.
These fancies had some sentimental charm,
But love without direction is a cheap blanket
And even if it did no one any harm,
No one is warm.

by Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990

from The Movie at the End of the World: Collected Poems, published by Swallow Press/Ohio University Press. Copyright © 1972 by Thomas McGrath. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.R RESISTER’

WAR RESISTER’S SONG

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove—
Or such as presidents may spare
Within the decorum of Total War.

By bosky glades, by babbling streams
(Babbling of Fission, His remains)
We discover happiness' isotope
And live the half-life of our hope.

While Geiger counters sweetly click
In concentration camps we'll fuck.
Called traitors? That's but sticks and stones
We've Strontium 90 in our bones!

And thus, adjusted to our lot,
Our kisses will be doubly hot—
Fornicating (like good machines)
We'll try the chances of our genes.

So (if Insufficient Grace
Hath not fouled thy secret place
Nor fall-out burnt my balls away)
Who knows? but we may get a boy—

Some paragon with but one head
And no more brains than is allowed;
And between his legs, where once was love,
Monsters to pack the future with.

by Thomas McGrath, 1916-1990

 


The Bath

Washing Kai in the sauna,
The kerosene lantern set on a box
outside the ground-level window,
Lights up the edge of the iron stove and the
washtub down on the slab
Streaming air and crackle of waterdrops
brushed by on the pile of rocks on top
He stands in warm water
Soap all over the smooth of his thigh and stomach
"Gary don't soap my hair"
–his eye-sting fear–
the soapy hand feeling
through and around the globes and curves of his body
up in the crotch,
And washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus,
his penis curving up and getting hard
as I pull back skin and try to wash it
Laughing and jumping, flinging arms around,
I squat all naked too,
is this our body?

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines-out
sierra forest ridges night–
Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath
And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of
shoulder, breast, and belly,
Washes deftly Kai's head-hair
as he gets mad and yells–
The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle                  a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

The hidden place of seed
The veins net flow across the ribs, that gathers
milk and peaks up in a nipple–fits
our mouth–
The sucking milk from this our body sends through
jolts of light; the son, the father,
sharing mother's joy
That brings a softness to the flower of the awesome
open curling lotus gate I cup and kiss
As Kai laughs at this mother's breast he now is weaned
from, we
wash each other,
this is our body

Kai's little scrotum up close to his groin,
the seed still tucked away, that moved from us to him
In flows that lifted with the same joys forces
as his nursing Masa later,
playing with her breast,
Or me within her,
Or him emerging,
this is our body:

Clean, and rinsed and sweating more, we stretch
out on the redwood benches hearts all beating
Quiet to the simmer of the stove,
the scent of cedar
And then turn over,
murmuring gossip of the grasses,
talking firewood,
Wondering how Gen's napping, how to bring him in
soon wash him too–
These boys who love their mother
who loves men, who passes on
her sons to other women;

The cloud across the sky. The windy pines.
the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow

this is our body.

Fire inside and boiling water on the stove
We sigh and slide ourselves down from the benches
wrap the babies, step outside,

black night & all the stars.

Pour cold water on the back and thighs
Go in the house–stand steaming by the center fire
Kai scampers on the sheepskin
Gen standing hanging on and shouting,

"Bao! bao! bao! bao! bao!

This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,

Laughing on the Great Earth

Come out from the bath.

by Gary Snyder

from No Nature: New and Selected Poems, Pantheon
Books, 1992.

 

 Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
"When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off."
And I say this to Kai
"Look: We'll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with–"
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It's in Lu Ji's Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. "Essay on Literature"–in the
Preface: "In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand."
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

by Gary Snyder

from No Nature: New and Selected
Poems, Pantheon Books, 1992.



Captain Carpenter

Captain Carpenter rose up in his prime
Put on his pistols and went riding out
But he got well nigh nowhere at that time
Till he fell in with ladies in a rout.

It was a pretty lady and all her train
That played with him so sweetly but before
An hour she'd taken a sword with all her main
And twined him of his nose for evermore.

Captain Carpenter mounted up one day
And rode straightway into a stranger rogue
That looked unchristian but be that as it may
The Captain did not wait upon prologue.

But drew upon him out of his great heart
The other swung against him with a club
And cracked his two legs at the shinny part
And let him roll and stick like any tub.

Captain Carpenter rode many a time
From male and female took he sundry harms
He met the wife of Satan crying "I'm
The she-wolf bids you shall bear no more arms."

Their strokes and counters whistled in the wind
I wish he had delivered half his blows
But where she should have made off like a hind
The bitch bit off his arms at the elbows.

And Captain Carpenter parted with his ears
To a black devil that used him in this wise
O Jesus ere his threescore and ten years
Another had plucked out his sweet blue eyes.

Captain Carpenter got up on his roan
And sallied from the gate in hell's despite
I heard him asking in the grimmest tone
If any enemy yet there was to fight?

"To any adversary it is fame
If he risk to be wounded by my tongue
Or burnt in tow beneath my red heart's flame
Such are the perils he is cast among.

"But if he can he has a pretty choice
From an anatomy with little to lose
Whether he cut my tongue and take my voice
Or whether it be my round red heart he choose."

It was the neatest knave that ever was seen
Stepping in perfume from his lady's bower
Who at this word put in her merry mien
And fell on Captain Carpenter like a tower.

I would not knock old fellows in the dust
But there lay Captain Carpenter on his back
His weapons were the old heart in his bust
And a blade shook between rotten teeth alack.

The rogue in scarlet and gray soon knew his mind
He wished to get his trophy and depart;
With gentle apology and touch refined
He pierced him and produced the Captain's heart.

God's mercy rest on Captain Carpenter now
I thought him Sirs an honest gentleman
Citizen husband soldier and scholar enow
Let jangling kites eat of him if they can.

But God's deep curses follow after those
That shore him of his goodly nose and ears
His legs and strong arms at the two elbows
And eyes that had not watered seventy years.

The curse of hell upon the sleek upstart
Who got the Captain finally on his back
And took the red red vitals of his heart
And made the kites to whet their beaks clack clack.

by John Crowe Ransom

from Selected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

 

Bells For John Whiteside’s Daughter

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

by John Crowe Ransom

 



Reapers

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds.
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

by Jean Toomer

From Cane. Copyright 1923 by Boni & Liveright, renewed 1951 by Jean Toomer.

November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

by Jean Toomer

Georgia Dusk

The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
   The setting sun, too indolent to hold
   A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
   An orgy for some genius of the South
   With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
   And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
   Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
   Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
   Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
   Race memories of king and caravan,
   High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise . . the pine trees are guitars,
   Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain . .
   Their voices rise . . the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars . .

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
   Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
   Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.

by Jean Toomer

From Cane. Copyright 1923 by Boni & Liveright, renewed 1951 by Jean Toomer.

HER LIPS ARE COPPER WIRE

whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes

telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

by Jean Toomer



Perfect Dress

It’s here in a student’s journal, a blue confession
in smudged, erasable ink: “I can’t stop hoping
I’ll wake up, suddenly beautiful,” and isn’t it strange
how we want it, despite all we know? To be at last

the girl in the photograph, cobalt-eyed, hair puddling
like cognac, or the one stretched at the ocean’s edge,
curved and light-drenched, more like a beach than
the beach. I confess I have longed to stalk runways,

leggy, otherworldly as a mantis, to balance a head
like a Fabergé egg on the longest, most elegant neck.   *
Today in the checkout line, I saw a magazine
claiming to know “How to Find the Perfect Dress

for that Perfect Evening,” and I felt the old pull, flare
of the pilgrim’s twin flames, desire and faith. At fifteen,
I spent weeks at the search. Going from store to store,
hands thirsty for shine, I reached for polyester satin,

machine-made lace, petunia- and Easter egg-colored,
brilliant and flammable. Nothing haute about this
couture but my hopes for it, as I tugged it on
and waited for my one, true body to emerge.

(Picture the angel inside uncut marble, articulation
of wings and robes poised in expectation of release.)
What I wanted was ordinary miracle, the falling away
of everything wrong. Silly maybe or maybe

I was right, that there’s no limit to the ways eternity
suggests itself, that one day I’ll slip into it, say
floor-length plum charmeuse. Someone will murmur,
“She is sublime,” will be precisely right, and I will step,
with incandescent shoulders, into my perfect evening.

by Marisa de los Santos (b. 1966)

*Fabergé: Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920) was a Russian jeweler renowned for his elaborately decorated, golden, jeweled eggs.



The Lost Pilot

                             for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot

like the others—it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their

distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive

orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,

with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not

turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You

could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what

it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.

by James Tate

From Selected Poems. Copyright © 1991 by James Tate. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.

 

Failed Tribute to the Stonemason of Tor House, Robinson Jeffers

We traveled down to see your house,
Tor House, Hawk Tower, in Carmel,
California. It was not quite what
I thought it would be: I wanted it
to be on a hill, with a view of the ocean
unobstructed by other dwellings.
Fifty years ago I know you had
a clean walk to the sea, hopping
from boulder to boulder, the various
seafowl rightly impressed with
your lean, stern face. But today

with our cameras cocked we had to
sneak and crawl through trimmed lawns
to even verify the identity of
your strange carbuncular creation,
now rented to trillionaire non-
literary folk from Pasadena.
Edged in on all sides by trilevel
pasteboard phantasms, it took
a pair of good glasses to barely see
some newlyweds feed popcorn
to an albatross. Man is

a puny thing, divorced,
whether he knows it or not, and
pays his monthly alimony,
his child-support. Year after year
you strolled down to this exceptionally
violent shore and chose your boulder;
the arms grew as the house grew
as the mind grew to exist outside
of time, beyond the dalliance
of your fellows. Today I hate
Carmel: I seek libation in the Tiki

Bar: naked native ladies are painted
in iridescent orange on velvet cloth:
the whole town loves art.
And I donate this Singapore Sling
to the memory of it, and join
the stream of idlers simmering outside.
Much as hawks circled your head
when you cut stone all afternoon,
kids with funny hats on motorscooters
keep circling the block.
Jeffers, ...

 by James Tate

from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1991 by James Tate. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.



AMERICAN PRIMITIVE

Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,
His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.

The screen door bangs, and it sounds so funny--
There he is in a shower of gold;
His pockets are stuffed with folding money,
His lips are blue, and his hands feel cold.

He hangs in the hall by his black cravat,
The ladies faint, and the children holler:
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.

by William Jay Smith

INVITATION TO GROUND ZERO

Into the smouldering ruin now go down:
And walk where once she walked and breathe the air
She breathed that final day on the burning stair
And follow her, beyond the fleeing crowds,
Into the fire, and through the climbing clouds.

Into the smouldering ruin now go down:
And find, in ashes bright as hammered tin,
A buried bone-white naked mannikin
That flung from some shop window serves to bind
Her body, and its beauty, to your mind.

by William Jay Smith



ABANDONED FARMHOUSE

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

by Ted Kooser

From Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1980 by Ted Kooser.  Reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

by Ted Kooser

 

Ted Kooser reading his poem “Spring Plowing”:

SPRING PLOWING

West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.

by Ted Kooser

 

DEPRESSION GLASS

It seemed those rose-pink dishes
she kept for special company
were always cold, brought down
from the shelf in jingling stacks,
the plates like the panes of ice
she broke from the water bucket
winter mornings, the flaring cups
like tulips that opened too early
and got bitten by frost. They chilled
the coffee no matter how quickly
you drank, while a heavy
everyday mug would have kept
a splash hot for the better
part of a conversation. It was hard
to hold up your end of the gossip
with your coffee cold, but it was
a special occasion, just the same,
to sit at her kitchen table
and sip the bitter percolation
of the past week’s rumors from cups
it had taken a year to collect
at the grocery, with one piece free
for each five pounds of flour.

by Ted Kooser

From Delights and Shadows. Copyright © 2004 by Ted Kooser. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271



Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day
And cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."

by Richard Wilbur

From Collected Poems 1943-2004, Harvest Books,
2006.

MUSEUM PIECE

The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.

by Richard Wilbur

From Collected Poems 1943-2004, Harvest Books, 2006.

 

PICCOLA COMMEDIA

He is no one I really know,
The sun-charred, gaunt young man
By the highway's edge in Kansas
Thirty-odd years ago.

On a tourist-cabin verandah
Two middle-aged women sat;
One, in a white dress, fat,
With a rattling glass in her hand,

Called "Son, don't you feel the heat?
Get up here into the shade."
Like a good boy, I obeyed,
And was given a crate for a seat

And an Orange Crush and gin.
"This state," she said, "is hell."
Her thin friend crackled, "Well, dear,
You've gotta fight sin with sin."

"No harm in a drink; my stars!"
Said the fat one, jerking her head.
"And I'll take no lip from Ed,
Him with his damn cigars."

Laughter. A combine whined
On past, and dry grass bent
In the backwash; liquor went
Like an ice-pick in my mind.

Beneath her skirt I spied
Two sea sea-cows on a floe.
"Go talk to Mary Jo, son,
She's reading a book inside."

As I gangled in at the door
A pink girl, curled in a chair,
Looked up with an ingenue stare.
Screenland lay on the floor.

Amazed by her starlet's pout
And the way her eyebrows arched,
I felt both drowned and parched.
Desire leapt up like a trout.

"Hello," she said, and her gum
Gave a calculating crack.
At once from the lightless back
Of the room came the grumble

Of someone heaving from bed,
A Zippo's click and flare,
Then, more and more apparent,
The shuffling form of ED,

Who neither looked nor spoke
But moved in profile by,
Blinking one gelid eye
In his elected smoke.

This is something I've never told,
And some of it I forget.
But the heat! I can feel it yet,
And that conniving cold.

by Richard Wilbur

 

YEAR’S END

Now winter downs the dying of the year,   
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show   
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,   
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin   
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell   
And held in ice as dancers in a spell   
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;   
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,   
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns   
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone   
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown   
Composedly have made their long sojourns,   
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise   
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze   
The random hands, the loose unready eyes   
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.   
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause   
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

by Richard Wilbur

from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Inc.



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