POETS ON THIS PAGE: E. A. ROBINSON * T. HARDY * C. MEWS * E. BISHOP * R. LOWELL * J. BERRYMAN * R. HAYDEN * W. STEVENS * D. JUSTICE * P. LEVINE * M. STRAND
E. A. Robinson’s “Eros Turannos” read by Robert Pinsky:
She fears him, and will always ask What fated her to choose him; She meets in his engaging mask All reasons to refuse him; But what she meets and what she fears Are less than are the downward years, Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs Of age, were she to lose him. Between a blurred sagacity That once had power to sound him, And Love, that will not let him be The Judas that she found him, Her pride assuages her almost, As if it were alone the cost.— He sees that he will not be lost, And waits and looks around him. A sense of ocean and old trees Envelops and allures him; Tradition, touching all he sees Beguiles and reassures him; And all her doubts of what he says Are dimmed with what she knows of days— Till even prejudice delays And fades, and she secures him. The falling leaf inaugurates The reign of her confusion; The pounding wave reverberates The dirge of her illusion; And home, where passion lived and died, Becomes a place where she can hide, While all the town and harbor side Vibrate with her seclusion. We tell you, tapping on our brows, The story as it should be,— As if the story of a house Were told, or ever could be; We’ll have no kindly veil between Her visions and those we have seen,— As if we guessed what hers have been, Or what they are or would be. Meanwhile we do no harm; for they That with a god have striven, Not hearing much of what we say, Take what the god has given; Though like waves breaking it may be, Or like a changed familiar tree, Or like a stairway to the sea Where down the blind are driven.
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
I heard one who said: "Verily, What word have I for children here? Your Dollar is your only Word, The wrath of it your only fear. "You build it altars tall enough To make you see but you are blind; You cannot leave it long enough To look before you or behind. "When Reason beckons you to pause, You laugh and say that you know best; But what it is you know, you keep As dark as ingots in a chest. "You laugh and answer, 'We are young; Oh, leave us now, and let us grow:' Not asking how much more of this Will Time endure or Fate bestow. "Because a few complacent years Have made your peril of your pride, Think you that you are to go on Forever pampered and untried? "What lost eclipse of history, What bivouac of the marching stars, Has given the sign for you to see Milleniums and last great wars? "What unrecorded overthrow Of all the world has ever known, Or ever been, has made itself So plain to you, and you alone? "Your Dollar, Dove, and Eagle make A Trinity that even you Rate higher than you rate yourselves; It pays, it flatters, and it's new. "And though your very flesh and blood Be what the Eagle eats and drinks, You'll praise him for the best of birds, Not knowing what the eagle thinks. "The power is yours, but not the sight; You see not upon what you tread; You have the ages for your guide, But not the wisdom to be led. "Think you to tread forever down The merciless old verities? And are you never to have eyes To see the world for what it is? "Are you to pay for what you have With all you are?"--No other word We caught, but with a laughing crowd Moved on. None heeded, and few heard.
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy” as read by Tom O’Bedlam:
Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain” read by Ken Follett:
During Wind and Rain
Richard Burton reads Hardy’s “Channel Firing”:
Two lectures on Bishop in the Yale course Modern Poetry (ENGL 310) with Langdon Hammer:
Elizabeth Bishop reads:
For Grace Bulmer Bowers [Elizabeth Bishop’s aunt]
From narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea, home of the long tides where the bay leaves the sea twice a day and takes the herrings long rides, where if the river enters or retreats in a wall of brown foam depends on if it meets the bay coming in, the bay not at home; where, silted red, sometimes the sun sets facing a red sea, and others, veins the flats’ lavender, rich mud in burning rivulets; on red, gravelly roads, down rows of sugar maples, past clapboard farmhouses and neat, clapboard churches, bleached, ridged as clamshells, past twin silver birches, through late afternoon a bus journeys west, the windshield flashing pink, pink glancing off of metal, brushing the dented flank of blue, beat-up enamel; down hollows, up rises, and waits, patient, while a lone traveller gives kisses and embraces to seven relatives and a collie supervises. Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in. Its cold, round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens’ feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles; the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences. One stop at Bass River. Then the Economies— Lower, Middle, Upper; Five Islands, Five Houses, where a woman shakes a tablecloth out after supper. A pale flickering. Gone. The Tantramar marshes and the smell of salt hay. An iron bridge trembles and a loose plank rattles but doesn’t give way. On the left, a red light swims through the dark: a ship’s port lantern. Two rubber boots show, illuminated, solemn. A dog gives one bark. A woman climbs in with two market bags, brisk, freckled, elderly. “A grand night. Yes, sir, all the way to Boston.” She regards us amicably. Moonlight as we enter the New Brunswick woods, hairy, scratchy, splintery; moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb’s wool on bushes in a pasture. The passengers lie back. Snores. Some long sighs. A dreamy divagation begins in the night, a gentle, auditory, slow hallucination.... In the creakings and noises, an old conversation —not concerning us, but recognizable, somewhere, back in the bus: Grandparents’ voices uninterruptedly talking, in Eternity: names being mentioned, things cleared up finally; what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; deaths, deaths and sicknesses; the year he remarried; the year (something) happened. She died in childbirth. That was the son lost when the schooner foundered. He took to drink. Yes. She went to the bad. When Amos began to pray even in the store and finally the family had to put him away. “Yes ...” that peculiar affirmative. “Yes ...” A sharp, indrawn breath, half groan, half acceptance, that means “Life’s like that. We know it (also death).” Talking the way they talked in the old featherbed, peacefully, on and on, dim lamplight in the hall, down in the kitchen, the dog tucked in her shawl. Now, it’s all right now even to fall asleep just as on all those nights. —Suddenly the bus driver stops with a jolt, turns off his lights. A moose has come out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road. It approaches; it sniffs at the bus’s hot hood. Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house (or, safe as houses). A man’s voice assures us “Perfectly harmless....” Some of the passengers exclaim in whispers, childishly, softly, “Sure are big creatures.” “It’s awful plain.” “Look! It’s a she!” Taking her time, she looks the bus over, grand, otherworldly. Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy? “Curious creatures,” says our quiet driver, rolling his r’s. “Look at that, would you.” Then he shifts gears. For a moment longer, by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there’s a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.
I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely. Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age. He was speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny white sea-lice, and underneath two or three rags of green weed hung down. While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen — the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly — I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, the big bones and the little bones, the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny entrails, and the pink swim-bladder like a big peony. I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass. They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. — It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light. I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip — if you could call it a lip grim, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish-line, or four and a wire leader with the swivel still attached, with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth. A green line, frayed at the end where he broke it, two heavier lines, and a fine black thread still crimped from the strain and snap when it broke and he got away. Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw. I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange, the sun-cracked thwarts, the oarlocks on their strings, the gunnels — until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.
by Elizabeth Bishop, 1911 – 1979
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Bishop. Reprinted from Poems with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Vassar professor reads Bishop’s “One Art”:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
by Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.
For Bishop’s long poem “Roosters” click here
Oh, but it is dirty! —this little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match! Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him (it’s a family filling station), all quite thoroughly dirty. Do they live in the station? It has a cement porch behind the pumps, and on it a set of crushed and grease- impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy. Some comic books provide the only note of color— of certain color. They lie upon a big dim doily draping a taboret (part of the set), beside a big hirsute begonia. Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? (Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.) Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant, or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: esso—so—so—so to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.
by Elizabeth Bishop
“Filling Station” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Elizabeth Bishop.
For Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” click here
PBS program about Robert Lowell:
FOR THE UNION DEAD
The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry. Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back. I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile. One morning last March, I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake. Two months after marching through Boston, half the regiment was dead; at the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. Its Colonel is as lean as a compass-needle. He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy. He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die— when he leads his black soldiers to death, he cannot bend his back. On a thousand small town New England greens, the old white churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier grow slimmer and younger each year— wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets and muse through their sideburns . . . Shaw's father wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son's body was thrown and lost with his "niggers." The ditch is nearer. There are no statues for the last war here; on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages" that survived the blast. Space is nearer. When I crouch to my television set, the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons. Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble, he waits for the blessèd break. The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
By Robert Lowell
From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning, I hog a whole house on Boston’s “hardly passionate Marlborough Street," where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is “a young Republican.” I have a nine months’ daughter, young enough to be my granddaughter. Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear. These are the tranquilized Fifties, and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statement, telling off the state and president, and then sat waiting sentence in the bull pen beside a negro boy with curlicues of marijuana in his hair. Given a year, I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short enclosure like my school soccer court, and saw the Hudson River once a day through sooty clothesline entanglements and bleaching khaki tenements. Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz, a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”) and fly-weight pacifist, so vegetarian, he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit. He tried to convert Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood pimps, to his diet. Hairy, muscular, suburban, wearing chocolate double-breasted suits, they blew their tops and beat him black and blue. I was so out of things, I’d never heard of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird. “No," he answered, “I’m a J.W.” He taught me the “hospital tuck," and pointed out the T-shirted back of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke, there piling towels on a rack, or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full of things forbidden to the common man: a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm. Flabby, bald, lobotomized, he drifted in a sheepish calm, where no agonizing reappraisal jarred his concentration on the electric chair hanging like an oasis in his air of lost connections. . . .
by Robert Lowell, 1917 – 1977
From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.
Paul Muldoon reads John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14” and a sonnet:
Dream Song 29
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart só heavy, if he had a hundred years & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time Henry could not make good. Starts again always in Henry’s ears the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime. And there is another thing he has in mind like a grave Sienese face a thousand years would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly, with open eyes, he attends, blind. All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears; thinking. But never did Henry, as he thought he did, end anyone and hacks her body up and hide the pieces, where they may be found. He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. Nobody is ever missing.
From The Dream Songs by John Berryman, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1959, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by John Berryman. Used with permission.
He was reading late, at Richard's, down in Maine, aged 32? Richard & Helen long in bed, my good wife long in bed. All I had to do was strip & get into my bed, putting the marker in the book, & sleep, & wake to a hot breakfast. Off the coast was an island, P'tit Manaan, the bluff from Richard's lawn was almost sheer. A chill at four o'clock. It only takes a few minutes to make a man. A concentration upon now & here. Suddenly, unlike Bach, & horribly, unlike Bach, it occured to me that one night, instead of warm pajamas, I'd take off all my clothes & cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff into the terrible water & walk forever under it toward the island.
John Berryman 1972
The Moon and the Night and the Men
On the night of the Belgian surrender the moon rose Late, a delayed moon, and a violent moon For the English or the American beholder; The French beholder. It was a cold night, People put on their wraps, the troops were cold No doubt, despite the calendar, no doubt Numbers of refugees coughed, and the sight Or sound of some killed others. A cold night. On Outer Drive there was an accident: A stupid well-intentioned man turned sharp Right and abruptly he became an angel Fingering an unfamiliar harp, Or screamed in hell, or was nothing at all. Do not imagine this is unimportant. He was a part of the night, part of the land, Part of the bitter and exhausted ground Out of which memory grows. Michael and I Stared at each other over chess, and spoke As little as possible, and drank and played. The chessmen caught in the European eye, Neither of us I think had a free look Although the game was fair. The move one made It was difficult at last to keep one's mind on. 'Hurt and unhappy' said the man in London. We said to each other, The time is coming near When none shall have books or music, none his dear, And only a fool will speak aloud his mind. History is approaching a speechless end, As Henry Adams said. Adams was right. All this occurred on the night when Leopold Fulfilled the treachery four years before Begun – or was he well-intentioned, more Roadmaker to hell than king? At any rate, The moon came up late and the night was cold, Many men died – although we know the fate Of none, nor of anyone, and the war Goes on, and the moon in the breast of man is cold.
by John Berryman
Robert Hayden reads his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
by Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980
Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Ruby Dee reads Robert Hayden‘s “Frederick Douglass” (misidentified below as “This Man” Monologue):
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole, reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
by Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980
“Frederick Douglass.” Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From Collected Poems of Robert Hayden by Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
The old woman across the way is whipping the boy again and shouting to the neighborhood her goodness and his wrongs. Wildly he crashes through elephant ears, pleads in dusty zinnias, while she in spite of crippling fat pursues and corners him. She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling boy till the stick breaks in her hand. His tears are rainy weather to woundlike memories: My head gripped in bony vise of knees, the writhing struggle to wrench free, the blows, the fear worse than blows that hateful Words could bring, the face that I no longer knew or loved . . . Well, it is over now, it is over, and the boy sobs in his room, And the woman leans muttering against a tree, exhausted, purged-- avenged in part for lifelong hidings she has had to bear.
by Robert Hayden
PBS program on Wallace Stevens:
Wallace Stevens reads his poem “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
Text to the poem above:
The Idea of Order at Key West
She sang beyond the genius of the sea. The water never formed to mind or voice, Like a body wholly body, fluttering Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, That was not ours although we understood, Inhuman, of the veritable ocean. The sea was not a mask. No more was she. The song and water were not medleyed sound Even if what she sang was what she heard, Since what she sang was uttered word by word. It may be that in all her phrases stirred The grinding water and the gasping wind; But it was she and not the sea we heard. For she was the maker of the song she sang. The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew It was the spirit that we sought and knew That we should ask this often as she sang. If it was only the dark voice of the sea That rose, or even colored by many waves; If it was only the outer voice of sky And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled, However clear, it would have been deep air, The heaving speech of air, a summer sound Repeated in a summer without end And sound alone. But it was more than that, More even than her voice, and ours, among The meaningless plungings of water and the wind, Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres Of sky and sea. It was her voice that made The sky acutest at its vanishing. She measured to the hour its solitude. She was the single artificer of the world In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, Whatever self it had, became the self That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, As we beheld her striding there alone, Knew that there never was a world for her Except the one she sang and, singing, made. Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, Why, when the singing ended and we turned Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, As the night descended, tilting in the air, Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, And of ourselves and of our origins, In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
by Wallace Stevens
From Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
I Among twenty snowy mountains, The only moving thing Was the eye of the blackbird. II I was of three minds, Like a tree In which there are three blackbirds. III The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. It was a small part of the pantomime. IV A man and a woman Are one. A man and a woman and a blackbird Are one. V I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after. VI Icicles filled the long window With barbaric glass. The shadow of the blackbird Crossed it, to and fro. The mood Traced in the shadow An indecipherable cause. VII O thin men of Haddam, Why do you imagine golden birds? Do you not see how the blackbird Walks around the feet Of the women about you? VIII I know noble accents And lucid, inescapable rhythms; But I know, too, That the blackbird is involved In what I know. IX When the blackbird flew out of sight, It marked the edge Of one of many circles. X At the sight of blackbirds Flying in a green light, Even the bawds of euphony Would cry out sharply. XI He rode over Connecticut In a glass coach. Once, a fear pierced him, In that he mistook The shadow of his equipage For blackbirds. XII The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying. XIII It was evening all afternoon. It was snowing And it was going to snow. The blackbird sat In the cedar-limbs.
by WALLACE STEVENS
Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Donald Justice reads poems and discusses his poetry:
The walls surrounding them they never saw; The angels, often. Angels were as common As birds or butterflies, but looked more human. As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe. Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw In all of Eden: this was the first omen. The second was the dream which woke the woman. She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw. As for the fruit, it had no taste at all. They had been warned of what was bound to happen. They had been told of something called the world. They had told and told about the wall. They saw it now; the gate was standing open. As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.
by Donald Justice
Mule Team and Poster
(Mule Team and Poster, 1936 by Walker Evans, photographer and writer)
Walker Evans (1903-1975) was a photographer who took both realistic and abstract pictures of American life as he went from city to town to rural communities and farms.
To see a picture of the photo click here.
During the Great Depression, he worked for the federal Farm Security Administration in the South. In the summer of 1936, he recorded the lives of three cotton sharecropping families. (Those photographs, together with words by James Agee, were published in 1941 to great acclaim in a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Later that year, he took this picture in Demopolis, Alabama, of two mules standing in front of a poster left over from a show from New Orleans that had come to town two months before.
Donald Justice’s poem continues the story:
MULE TEAM AND POSTER
Two mules stand waiting in from of the brick wall of a warehouse, hitched to a shabby flatbed wagon. Its spoked wheels resemble crude wooden flowers pulled recently from a deep and stubborn mud. The rains have passed over for now and the sun is back, Invisible, but everywhere present, and of a special brightness, like God. The way the poster for the traveling show still clings to its section of the wall, It looks as though a huge door stood open or a terrible flap of brain had been pealed back, revealing Someone’s idea of heaven: seven dancing-girls, caught on the upkick, All in fringed dresses and bobbed hair. One wears a Spanish comb and has an escort . . . Meanwhile the mules crunch patiently the few cornshucks someone has thoughtfully scattered for them. The poster is torn in places, slightly crumpled; a few bricks, here and there, show through. And a long shadow — the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama — Stretches beneath the wagon, crookedly, like a great scythe laid down there and forgotten.
by Donald Justice
Men at Forty
Men at forty Learn to close softly The doors to rooms they will not be Coming back to. At rest on a stair landing, They feel it moving Beneath them now like the deck of a ship, Though the swell is gentle. And deep in mirrors They rediscover The face of the boy as he practices tying His father’s tie there in secret, And the face of that father, Still warm with the mystery of lather. They are more fathers than sons themselves now. Something is filling them, something That is like the twilight sound Of the crickets, immense, Filling the woods at the foot of the slope Behind their mortgaged houses.
by Donald Justice
Phillip Levine reads:
for Ichiro Kawamoto,
humanitarian, electrician, & survivor of Hiroshima
They spoke of the horse alive without skin, naked, hairless, without eyes and ears, searching for the stableboy’s caress. Shoot it, someone said, but they let him go on colliding with tattered walls, butting his long skull to pulp, finding no path where iron fences corkscrewed in the street and bicycles turned like question marks. Some fled and some sat down. The river burned all that day and into the night, the stones sighed a moment and were still, and the shadow of a man’s hand entered a leaf. The white horse never returned, and later they found the stableboy, his back crushed by a hoof, his mouth opened around a cry that no one heard. They spoke of the horse again and again; their mouths opened like the gills of a fish caught above water. Mountain flowers burst from the red clay walls, and they said a new life was here. Raw grass sprouted from the cobbles like hair from a deafened ear. The horse would never return. There had been no horse. I could tell from the way they walked testing the ground for some cold that the rage had gone out of their bones in one mad dance.
by Philip Levine
Why does the sea burn? Why do the hills cry? My grandfather opens a fresh box of English Ovals, lights up, and lets the smoke drift like clouds from his lips. Where did my father go in my fifth autumn? In the blind night of Detroit on the front porch, Grandfather points up at a constellation shaped like a cock and balls. A tiny man, at 13 I outgrew his shirts. I then beheld a closet of stolen suits, a hive of elevator shoes, crisp hankies, new bills in the cupboard, old in the wash. I held the spotted hands that passed over the breasts of airlines stewardesses, that moved in the fields like a wind stirring the long hairs of grain. Where is the ocean? the flying fish? the God who speaks from a cloud? He carries a card table out under the moon and plays gin rummy and cheats. He took me up in his arms when I couldn't walk and carried me into the grove where the bees sang and the stream paused forever. He laughs in the movies, cries in the streets, the judges in their gowns are monkeys, the lawyers mice, a cop is a fat hand. He holds up a strawberry and bites it. He sings a song of freestone peaches all in a box, in the street he sings out Idaho potatoes California, California oranges. He sings the months in prison, sings salt pouring down the sunlight, shovelling all night in the stove factory he sings the oven breathing fire. Where did he go when his autumn came? He sat before the steering wheel of the black Packard, he turned the key, pressed the starter, and he went. The maples blazed golden and red a moment and then were still, the long streets were still and the snow swirled where I lay down to rest.
by Philip Levine
Philip Levine reads his poem “They Feed They Lion” to music by Benjamin Boone:
TO SEE THE TEXT OF PHILIP LEVINE’S POEM “I CAUGHT A GLIMPSE” CLICK HERE.
Mark Strand reads his poem “The Way It Is”:
for Judith and Leon Major
When the shoals of plankton swarmed into St. Margaret’s Bay, turning the beaches pink, we saw from our place on the hill the sperm whales feeding, fouling the nets in their play, and breaching clean so the humps of their backs rose over the wide sea meadows. Day after day we waited inside for the rotting plankton to disappear. The smell stilled even the wind, and the oxen looked stunned, pulling hay on the slope of our hill. But the plankton kept coming in and the whales would not go. That’s when the shooting began. The fishermen got in their boats and went after the whales, and my father and uncle and we children went, too. The froth of our wake sank fast in the wind shaken water. The whales surfaced close by. Their foreheads were huge, the doors of their faces were closed. Before sounding, they lifted their flukes into the air and brought them down hard. They beat the sea into foam, and the path that they made shone after them. Thought I did not see their eyes, I imagined they were like the eyes of mourning, glazed with rheum, watching us, sweeping along under the darkening sheen of salt. When we cut our engine and waited for the whales to surface again, the sun was setting, turning the rock strewn barrens a gaudy salmon. A cold wind flailed at our skin. When finally the sun went down and it seemed like the whales had gone, my uncle, no longer afraid, shot aimlessly into the sky. Three miles out in the rolling dark under the moon’s astonished eyes, our engine would not start and we headed home in the dinghy. And my father, hunched over the oars, brought us in. I watched him, rapt in his effort, rowing against the tide, his blond hair glistening with salt. I saw the slick spillage of moonlight being blown over his shoulders, and the sea and spindrift suddenly silver. He did not speak the entire way. At midnight when I went to bed, I imagined the whales moving beneath me, sliding over the weed-covered hills of the deep; they knew where I was; they were luring me downward and downward into the murmurous waters of sleep.
by Mark Strand
[from Strand’s Selected Poems (1990)]
Elegy for My Father
(Robert Strand 1908-1968)
1 THE EMPTY BODY The hands were yours, the arms were yours, But you were not there. The eyes were yours, but they were closed and would not open. The distant sun was there. The moon poised on the hill’s white shoulder was there. The wind on Bedford Basin was there. The pale green light of winter was there. Your mouth was there, But you were not there. When somebody spoke, there was no answer. Clouds came down And buried the buildings along the water, And the water was silent. The gulls stared. The years, the hours, that would not find you Turned in the wrists of others. There was no pain. It had gone. There were no secrets. There was nothing to say. The shade scattered its ashes. The body was yours, but you were not there. The air shivered against its skin. The dark leaned into its eyes. But you were not there. 2 ANSWERS Why did you travel? Because the house was cold. Why did you travel? Because it is what I have always done between sunset and sunrise. What did you wear? I wore a blue suit, a white shirt, yellow tie, and yellow socks. What did you wear? I wore nothing. A scarf of pain kept me warm. Who did you sleep with? I slept with a different woman each night. Who did you sleep with? I slept alone. I have always slept alone. Why did you lie to me? I always thought I told the truth. Why did you lie to me? Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth. Why are you going? Because nothing means much to me anymore. Why are you going? I don’t know. I have never known. How long shall I wait for you? Do not wait for me. I am tired and I want to lie down. Are you tired and do you want to lie down? Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down. 3 YOUR DYING Nothing could stop you. Not the best day. Not the quiet. Not the ocean rocking. You went on with your dying. Not the trees Under which you walked, not the trees that shaded you. Not the doctor Who warned you, the white-haired young doctor who saved you once. You went on with your dying. Nothing could stop you. Not your son. Not your daughter Who fed you and made you into a child again. Not your son who thought you would live forever. Not the wind that shook your lapels. Not the stillness that offered itself to your motion. Not your shoes that grew heavier. Not your eyes that refused to look ahead. Nothing could stop you. You sat in your room and stared at the city And went on with your dying. You went to work and let the cold enter your clothes. You let blood seep into your socks. Your face turned white. Your voice cracked in two. You leaned on your cane. But nothing could stop you. Not your friends who gave you advice. Not your son. Not your daughter who watched you grow small. Not fatigue that lived in your sighs. Not your lungs that would fill with water. Not your sleeves that carried the pain of your arms. Nothing could stop you. You went on with your dying. When you played with children you went on with your dying. When you sat down to eat, When you woke up at night, wet with tears, your body sobbing, You went on with your dying. Nothing could stop you. Not the past. Not the future with its good weather. Not the view from your window, the view of the graveyard. Not the city. Not the terrible city with its wooden buildings. Not defeat. Not success. You did nothing but go on with your dying. You put your watch to your ear. You felt yourself slipping. You lay on the bed. You folded your arms over your chest and you dreamed of the world without you, Of the space under the trees, Of the space in your room, Of the spaces that would now be empty of you, And you went on with your dying. Nothing could stop you. Not your breathing. Not your life. Not the life you wanted. Not the life you had. Nothing could stop you. 4 YOUR SHADOW You have your shadow. The places where you were have given it back. The hallways and bare lawns of the orphanage have given it back. The Newsboys Home has given it back. The streets of New York have given it back and so have the streets of Montreal. The rooms in Bel?m where lizards would snap at mosquitos have given it back. The dark streets of Manaus and the damp streets of Rio have given it back. Mexico City where you wanted to leave it has given it back. And Halifax where the harbor would wash its hands of you has given it back. You have your shadow. When you traveled the white wake of your going sent your shadow below, but when you arrived it was there to greet you. You had your shadow. The doorways you entered lifted your shadow from you and when you went out, gave it back. You had your shadow. Even when you forgot your shadow, you found it again; it had been with you. Once in the country the shade of a tree covered your shadow and you were not known. Once in the country you thought your shadow had been cast by somebody else. Your shadow said nothing. Your clothes carried your shadow inside; when you took them off, it spread like the dark of your past. And your words that float like leaves in an air that is lost, in a place no one knows, gave you back your shadow. Your friends gave you back your shadow. Your enemies gave you back your shadow. They said it was heavy and would cover your grave. When you died your shadow slept at the mouth of the furnace and ate ashes for bread. It rejoiced among ruins. It watched while others slept. It shone like crystal among the tombs. It composed itself like air. It wanted to be like snow on water. It wanted to be nothing, but that was not possible. It came to my house. It sat on my shoulders. Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. I have carried it with me too long. I give it back. 5 MOURNING They mourn for you. When you rise at midnight, And the dew glitters on the stone of your cheeks, They mourn for you. They lead you back into the empty house. They carry the chairs and tables inside. They sit you down and teach you to breathe. And your breath burns, It burns the pine box and the ashes fall like sunlight. They give you a book and tell you to read. They listen and their eyes fill with tears. The women stroke your fingers. They comb the yellow back into your hair. They shave the frost from your beard. They knead your thighs. They dress you in fine clothes. They rub your hands to keep them warm. They feed you. They offer you money. They get on their knees and beg you not to die. When you rise at midnight they mourn for you. They close their eyes and whisper your name over and over. But they cannot drag the buried light from your veins. They cannot reach your dreams. Old man, there is no way. Rise and keep rising, it does no good. They mourn for you the way they can. 6 THE NEW YEAR It is winter and the new year. Nobody knows you. Away from the stars, from the rain of light, You lie under the weather of stones. There is no thread to lead you back. Your friends doze in the dark Of pleasure and cannot remember. Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing. You do not see the rain falling and the man walking away, The soiled wind blowing its ashes across the city. You do not see the sun dragging the moon like an echo. You do not see the bruised heart go up in flames, The skulls of the innocent turn into smoke. You do not see the scars of plenty, the eyes without light. It is over. It is winter and the new year. The meek are hauling their skins into heaven. The hopeless are suffering the cold with those who have nothing to hide. It is over and nobody knows you. There is starlight drifting on the black water. There are stones in the sea no one has seen. There is a shore and people are waiting. And nothing comes back. Because it is over. Because there is silence instead of a name. Because it is winter and the new year.
by Mark Strand
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