20th Century Poets

E. A. Robinson’s “Eros Turannos”

read by Robert Pinsky:



Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride”

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”:

 

PBS program about Elizabeth Bishop:

 

Elizabeth Bishop reads:

 

THE MOOSE

by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

 

 

Roosters

By Elizabeth Bishop

 

At four o’clock

in the gun-metal blue dark

we hear the first crow of the first cock

 

just below

the gun-metal blue window

and immediately there is an echo

 

off in the distance,

then one from the backyard fence,

then one, with horrible insistence,

 

grates like a wet match

from the broccoli patch,

flares, and all over town begins to catch.

 

Cries galore

come from the water-closet door,

from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,

 

where in the blue blur

their rustling wives admire,

the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare

 

with stupid eyes

while from their beaks there rise

the uncontrolled, traditional cries.

 

Deep from protruding chests

in green-gold medals dressed,

planned to command and terrorize the rest,

 

the many wives

who lead hens’ lives

of being courted and despised;

 

deep from raw throats

a senseless order floats

all over town. A rooster gloats

 

over our beds

from rusty iron sheds

and fences made from old bedsteads,

 

over our churches

where the tin rooster perches,

over our little wooden northern houses,

 

making sallies

from all the muddy alleys,

marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:

 

glass-headed pins,

oil-golds and copper greens,

anthracite blues, alizarins,

 

each one an active

displacement in perspective;

each screaming, “This is where I live!”

 

Each screaming

“Get up! Stop dreaming!”

Roosters, what are you projecting?

 

You, whom the Greeks elected

to shoot at on a post, who struggled

when sacrificed, you whom they labeled

 

“Very combative …”

what right have you to give

commands and tell us how to live,

 

cry “Here!” and “Here!”

and wake us here where are

unwanted love, conceit and war?

 

The crown of red

set on your little head

is charged with all your fighting blood.

 

Yes, that excrescence

makes a most virile presence,

plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence.

 

Now in mid-air

by twos they fight each other.

Down comes a first flame-feather,

 

and one is flying,

with raging heroism defying

even the sensation of dying.

 

And one has fallen,

but still above the town

his torn-out, bloodied feathers drift down;

 

and what he sung

no matter. He is flung

on the gray ash-heap, lies in dung

 

with his dead wives

with open, bloody eyes,

while those metallic feathers oxidize.

 

St. Peter’s sin

was worse than that of Magdalen

whose sin was of the flesh alone;

 

of spirit, Peter’s,

falling, beneath the flares,

among the “servants and officers.”

 

Old holy sculpture

could set it all together

in one small scene, past and future:

 

Christ stands amazed,

Peter, two fingers raised

to surprised lips, both as if dazed.

 

But in between

a little cock is seen

carved on a dim column in the travertine,

 

explained by gallus canit;

flet Petrus underneath it.

There is inescapable hope, the pivot;

 

yes, and there Peter’s tears

run down our chanticleer’s

sides and gem his spurs.

 

Tear-encrusted thick

as a medieval relic

he waits. Poor Peter, heart-sick,

 

still cannot guess

those cock-a-doodles yet might bless,

his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness,

 

a new weathervane

on basilica and barn,

and that outside the Lateran

 

there would always be

a bronze cock on a porphyry

pillar so the people and the Pope might see

 

that even the Prince

of the Apostles long since

had been forgiven, and to convince

 

all the assembly

that “Deny deny deny”

is not all the roosters cry.

 

In the morning

a low light is floating

in the backyard, and gilding

 

from underneath

the broccoli, leaf by leaf;

how could the night have come to grief?

 

gilding the tiny

floating swallow’s belly

and lines of pink cloud in the sky,

 

the day’s preamble

like wandering lines in marble.

The cocks are now almost inaudible.

 

The sun climbs in,

following “to see the end,”

faithful as enemy, or friend.

 

Elizabeth Bishop, “Roosters” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. Copyright © 1980 by Elizabeth Bishop. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.

Source: The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983)

 



 PBS program about Robert Lowell:

 

 

FOR THE UNION DEAD

By Robert Lowell

 

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.

 

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

Robert Lowell, 19171977

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. . . .

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

John Berryman, 19141972

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.

 

HENRY’S UNDERSTANDING

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

 



 

Robert Hayden reads his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:

 

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 19131980

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?

Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Frederick Douglass

Robert Hayden, 19131980

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.

“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 WHIPPING

 

by Robert Hayden

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.

 

 



 

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

By Wallace Stevens

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.

 

Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” 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)

 


 

Donald Justice reads poems and discusses his poetry:

The Wall

by Donald Justice

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 and 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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Tourist from Syracuse

by Donald Justice

One of those men who can be a car salesman or a tourist from Syracuse or a hired assassin.
— John D. MacDonald

 

You would not recognize me.
Mine is the face which blooms in
The dank mirrors of washrooms
As you grope for the light switch.

My eyes have the expression
Of the cold eyes of statues
Watching their pigeons return
From the feed you have scattered,

And I stand on my corner
With the same marble patience.
If I move at all, it is
At the same pace precisely

As the shade of the awning
Under which I stand waiting
And with whose blackness it seems
I am already blended.

I speak seldom, and always
In a murmur as quiet
As that of crowds which surround
The victims of accidents.

Shall I confess who I am?
My name is all names, or none.
I am the used-car salesman,
The tourist from Syracuse,

The hired assassin, waiting.
I will stand here forever
Like one who has missed his bus —
Familiar, anonymous —

On my usual corner,
The corner at which you turn
To approach that place where now
You must not hope to arrive.

 

Mule Team and Poster

http://ghpoetryplace.blogspot.com/2010/10/mule-team-and-poster.html

(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.

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.

 

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:

 

“The Horse” by Philip Levine

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.

 

ZAYDEE

 

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.

 


 

Mark Strand reads his poem “The Way It Is”:

 

“The Way It Is”

 

Shooting Whales

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.

[from Mark Strand’s Selected Poems (1990)]

 

 

“Elegy for My Father,” Mark Strand

(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.