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Randall Jarrell recently described a school of prosperous, mild-talented poets as seeming to have come out of the lining of Richard Wilbur's overcoat. The poets of another school, who appear to get into print pretty easily, strike me as having their home at the bottom of William Carlos Williams' laundry hamper. You cannot recognize Robert Sward's poems by any such affinity. They come out of original experience and they exist in language that the experience discovered. And if that is the least that can be said of any book of real poems, it means more when a book presents experience as odd as this one does. I was tempted to the impertinence of this introduction because I was curious to see if I could say why these poems have delighted and puzzled me for six years.
From reading Robert Frost I have learned to look for giveaway lines in poems, hidden lines that tell the sly reader some of the secrets by which a poet works. "The bird would cease and be as other birds / But that he knows in singing not to sing," in "The Oven Bird" are two such lines. With Sward these secret lines are not only hidden but often apparently in the negative, recounting apparent creative errors. "My examples are all myself," he says, implying that that's wrong. But the poem "For Charlie," where the line occurs, shows that in fact it's right: that once you get a good fierce look at the example of self-- the only example any of us will ever have--you can see the world in it. I think Sward believes that.
And he writes (in "All for a Day"):
All day I have written words; My subject has been that. Words. And I am wrong. And the words.But there are a hundred lines in this book which seem to have found their sweet, eccentric selves in this very preoccupation. Certain entire poems like " In Cities" (and perhaps "All for a Day" itself) take life from a fierce intensity of verbal attention.
And here is a stanza that can probably be taken at its face value as poetics, although I'm not saying it will make the problem of writing poems a whole lot easier for any of us:
I am fond of death-and/or The self-contained. This poem may not be said to be About souls. But of things. Feathers and leaves. Leafless trees and the featherless bodies of crows. Finally, let us say, I have been asked to write simply.
As nearly as we can ever know these things about one another, I know that Robert Sward works long and hard on his poems. I have asked myself, What does he work on about them? I mean, they don't rhyme or scan, like some of my glossy works, and they don't allude to American History. I have come to the conclusion that when he works on them he is paying perfect, slightly mystical attention to the things he's tipped us off to above: (l) him-self as an example of a man; (2) his vocabulary as a but-terfly net to catch the experiences the man has; and (3) a passion for simplicity. His simplicity is not that of Zen (now there's a gamy laundry hamper to breed poets in) or of Thoreau, but something more like that of Blake or Emily Dickinson. If you look at things long enough with this kind of attention they sometimes resolve themselves into pure creation: you find yourself using italics, and they're not yours‹ they're created italics. Here is a section of a poem called "Scenes from a Text," which has the fairly hair-raising epigraph "'Several actual, potentially and/or really traumatic situations are depicted on these pages.' -_"Transient Personality Reactions to Acute or Special Stress (Chapter 5) ."_
PHOTO II The house is burning. The furniture Is scattered on the lawn (tables, chairs TV, refrigerator). Momma-- There is a small, superimposed white Arrow pointed at her-is busy Tearing out her eyes. The mute husband (Named, arrowed) stands idly by, his hands Upon his hips, eyes already out. _The smoke blankets the sky. _ And the scene, Apart from Momma, Poppa, the flames . . . Could be an auction. Friends, relatives Neighbors, all stand by, reaching, fighting For the mirrors, TV, sunglasses; The children, the cats and speechless dogs.
Like other good works of art, these poems have the air of having been made for people rather than for other artists. They contain high-toned gossip rather than aesthetics, or the aesthetics are hidden and acted out like charades. A lot of the poems are unpleasant in places, like life itself, but none of them contains any fashionable despair. No claim is advanced that our time is more terrible or hopeless than another or, on the other hand, that you and I don't have experience as the poet has experience. There is that humility about them that comes from paying a blasphemous attention, God's own attention, to oneself. I myself couldn't work that way, and I couldn't have written this book, but I think I will soon be in good company when I say I much admire it.
I did not want to be old Mr. Garbage man , but uncle dog Who rode sitting beside him. Uncle dog had always looked To me to be truck-strong Wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford Of a dog. I did not want To be Mr. Garbage man because All he had was cans to do. Uncle dog sat there me-beside-him Emptying nothing. Barely even Looking from garbage side to side: Like rich people in the backseats Of chauffeur-cars, only shaggy In an unwagging tall-scrawny way. Uncle dog belonged any just where He sat, but old Mr. Garbage man Had to stop at everysingle can. I thought. I did not want to be Mr. Everybody calls them that first. A dog is said, Dog! Or by name. I would rather be called Rover Than Mr. And sit like a tough Smart mongrel beside a garbage man. Uncle dog always went to places Unconcerned, without no hurry. lndependent like some leashless Toot. Honorable among scavenger Can-picking dogs. And with a bitch At every other can. And meat: His for the barking. Oh, I wanted To be uncle dog-sharp, high fox- Eared, cur-Ford truck-faced With his pick of the bones. A doing, truckman s dog And not a simple child-dog Nor friend to man, but an uncle Traveling, and to himself- And a bitch at every second can.
I still heard Auntie Blue After she did not want to come down Again: she was skypaper, way up Too high to pull down. The wind Liked her a lot and she was lots of noise And sky on the end of the string: And the string jumped hard all of a sudden, And the sky never even breathed, But was like it always was, slow and close Far-away blue, like poor dead Uncle Blue. Auntie Blue was gone, and I could not Think of her face; and the string fell down Slowly for a long time. I was afraid to pull it Down. Auntie Blue was in the sky, Just like God. It was not my birthday Anymore: and everybody knew, and dug A hole, and put a stone on it Next to Uncle Blue's stone and he died Before I was even born; and it was too bad It was so hard to pull her down; and flowers.
What it was, was this: the stars Had died for the night, and shone; And God, God also shone, Up, straight up, at the very Top of the sky. The street Was one of the better suburbs Of the night, and was a leaf, Or the color of one in the Moonlit dark. She, my mother, Went to the window; it was As late as night could be To her. She looked at the wind, Still the wind, . . . never having blown. And in the morning now of sleep The stars, the moon and God began Once more, away, into the sky. -And she, my mother, slept . . . In her window, in her sky.
It is there. And we are there. In it. Walking in it, talking, holding hands. The nickel postcard-the glossy trees; The waterfalls, the unsuspecting Deer. A scene shot from a car window A slowly moving car, with many Windows, and a good camera. And we are walking in it. We tell Ourselves, quietly, perhaps screaming, . . . Quietly, _We are walking in it._ And our voices sound, somehow, as if We were behind windows, or within. We embrace, and are in love. The deer That we are watching at the same time (Through cameras, binoculars, eyes . . . ) Are so perfectly wild, and concerned -With the scene they are, their glossy fate Silence, Nature, their rotogravure pose- That they remain, not watching; rather, Staring away from us, into the Earnest, green and inoffensive trees.
I lie down in darkness beside her, This earth in a wedding gown; Who, what . _ she is, I do not know. Nor is it a question the Night Would ask. I have listened- The woman Beside me breathes. I kiss that, A breath or so of her, and glow. Glow. Hush now, my shadow, let us _Day breaks- _ depart. Yes, and so we have.
She enters a room exuding displeasure strewing bits of string, grievances bottle caps hairnets law books like largess to all corners. From the seams of her change purse leak Travelers Cheques, Photos of used-car salesmen (dear brothers-in-law), strychnine, ragged old horoscopes And gifts of broken glass. Daughter to the planet Saturn Mother to my wife- Her courtiers, we direct her, Mix martinis for her Find causes for her, lost umbrellas and carkeys Even at the gates of hell.
There are many underground things in cities, things like sewers, that run for miles, lengths and widths, across cities under all. Then there are the basements of large stores houses and hotels, and often these basements run for twenty feet and more out, around the buildings; and coal, garbage and all kinds of food are sent up and down into the basements, or out, from the side- walks and the alleys and streets, by chutes, corrugated elevator- stands, iron platforms, sewertops . . . round, rectangular or square. And these metal things in the sidewalks, streets, are always rather warm; and in the winter, to comfort and unbitter their sittings, haunches and tails, and to avoid the asphalt ice and cold, cats and dogs, stray squirrels and so forth, come at night and from miles around, rest and together partake. And from some distances, they and their live optic green, brown congregations of eyes appear as islands, still yellow large, oval, gray or opalesque. And no dog bites no cat, nor squirrel, and all is quiet, idle, until the sun comes up and chases them out of the night, off the warmth and good of the sewers to their parts and tails. Then without a look at the sun, itself, they run, trot walking, no, no business into the snow.
1. THE WAI-WAI lNDlANS _British Guiana, thirty-seven Hundred pygrny aborigines, A group shot._ Faces, the New England Autumnal, Kipling-Kodachrome shade Of nipples. They gape and seem about To drop: like leaves. Stare. Faces. The faces Stare. And breathe, breathe. Their breasts (the tribe Is composed wholly of women) stand Out like twigs, gnarled, like rotten, thick Knotted bra-wire. Monkey-teeth are embedded In the tips and glisten, they glisten In the white, eye-dot "flash," like jewels; _In the flash, in what makes the flash . . . _ Faces. The faces are intent, still, And gape. They are leaves, miraculous, Savage, maple leaves. Sentient. Like coal, Like death, like both; like leaves. The faces Grin for an instant, grin and then fall, In an instant -thirty-seven hundred leaves. 2. THE AUTHORS EAT AS WAI-WAI DO Spitted, twelve hundred Yaka-Yaka villagers, Men, women and children, constitute The evening meal. ( The Yaka-Yaka, Pygmy-pygmies are as chicken to the Wai-Wai. ) The author and his wife, Mrs. Flash, In Yaka-Yaka moccasins, share A leg, while the thirty-seven hundred Wai-Wai Pass among themselves ribs, entrails . . . With fingers (and toes) for the chief. WAI-WAI DINNER SONG _Queen's Monkey-teeth:_ Eat, we eat, little people; Mmm. Eat, eat little people. Fingers, toes; eyes and hair; Good to eat and bones to wear. Eat, we eat, little people; Mmm. Eat eat little people. Neck and brains, sugared tongues; Good to eat, as good as lungs. _Mrs. F.'s Flash Bulbs:_ Eat, we eat, little people; Mmm. Eat, eat little people. Juicy, tender, pygmy boys; Mothers, fathers, spitted toys. Eat, we eat, !little people; Mmm. Eat, eat little people. Eat their mouths, eat their faces; Eat their skin, eat the traces. Chorus: Yaka-Yaka, Yaka-Yaka; Yaka-Yaka, Yaka-Yaka. 3. PHYSICAL MEASUREMENT TEST The little Wai-Wai chieftain, Forty-one pounds, three-foot nine Stands upon a bathroom scale, A nude, encircled silhouette In the great, white island moon. Her monkey-tooth gleams, as if It were the moon, behind her, Within her, shining through her. And she stands there, a small, black _National Geographic _ Anthropological queen . . . Still. She stares. "A leaf-like face; A driftwood piece of trunk, With limbs, twigs- upon the scale, In the embracing, fluorescent Newly BRILLlANT! inched, notched Calibrated moon. She sways . . . 4. TYPHOON THREATENS EXPEDITION: A SEQUENCE _The moon goes out, melts and is absorbed Into the air; becomes a heat, Night, Coolness, a humid stillness, a breeze _.. . It breaks, gray- the wind becomes a gale; Palm trees, coconut fronds, pink parakeets, Splash across the sand. Yaka-Yaka, Wai-Wai, Mr. and Mrs. Flash. _Teeth. _ Night, the night opens, and is darker Than before, Night, the night lightnings black And is a sea, falling from the sky. Calm. The authors bind together trees, Buoyant Wai-Wai, coconuts, flash bulbs; Life preservers, parakeet feathers . . . The sprightly, befeathered raft sets out, Mr. and Mrs., Yaka-Yaka; Leica, new bulbs and film; Wai-Wai breasts and leaves, Vaguely fluorescent, bubbly, still. Stone. It sinks. Like stone, stone into the sea. * * * Wai-Wai, thirty-six hundred Ninety Wai-Wai, huddle together, Shuddering, glancing at, nibbling _National Geographic _ leaves, leaves The photos, the faces of themselves.
The inflected apteryx (or kiwi) would appear To be a rudimentary, an essentially Webster-bird. The apteryx (from the Greek a + _Pteryx) _does not fly and, in fact, Lacks all regard (and need) for flight. Flat-breastboned, hen-sized and scratchy The apteryx stands on two declining And unlikely chicken-legs. It ooou's for food Through a long, thin reed-like beak: Insects, snails crippled fleas and berries. The nostrils of the apteryx Are at the last half-inch of its beak. And the bird-not quite extinct-survives Under government protection. It reproduces Slowly, and in public, burrow-hiding. If its hairs were feathers, ocellated Aphrodisiacal, the sleepy marginal, asterisk-eyed Apteryx could (conceivably) strut, cock And play the peacock; however, with its one hint Of a tail, and grayish, short shag-brown hair The apteryx would seem content to ooou. And, Its beak alone, apt and straight, endears one To it; but when it curls itself, extinct Within its sleeping back (by day), Enwhiskering its ooou, the apteryx returns Upon the government and Webster of it all.
Let us suppose the truth: I am an owl by virtue Of my belief in owls. The owl swoops, like a hawk; Is still, like a rock; shrieks, Meditates, like God, like air. I believe in owls. And, What is more, what is in fact The exact same thing, as you Will by now have guessed, I am Hawk, rock, rodent, wail and God. Which troubles me, which makes Of me, myself. An owl.
_For Diane, who dances_ Song is not singing, the snow Dance is dancing, my love On my knees, with voice I kiss her knees And dance; my words are song, for her I dance; I give up my words, learn wings instead We fly like trees when they fly To the moon, which on occasion They do; there, there are some now The clouds opening, as you, as we are there Come in! I love you, kiss your knees with words, Enter you, your eyes your lips, like Lover Of us all, words sweet words, learn wings instead.
Down hill, the elm trees In the sunlight, Their trunks darkish Under branches, under leaves. Higher up the hill In this woman's arms I see through to the other side As into another season, The sun suddenly all On one side of the leaves.
By the swimming The sand was wetter The farther down you dug; I dug: My head and ear on top Of the sand, my hand felt water . . . And the lake was blue not watching. The water was just waiting there In the sand, like a private lake. And no one could kick sand Into my digging, and the water Kept going through my fingers slow Like the sand, and the sand was water too. And then the wind was blowing everyplace, And the sand smelled like the lake, Only wetter. It was raining then: Everybody was making waxpaper noises, And sandwiches, kicking sand And running with newspapers on their heads; Baldmen and bathinghat-ladies, and nakedpeople. And all the sand turned brown and stuck together Hard: and the sky was lightning, and the sun Looked down sometimes to see how dark it was And to make sure the moon wasn't there. And then we were running: and everybody was under The hotdog-tent eating things, spitting very mad And waiting for the sky, and to go home.
_Exercise: EEC_ Mert was a moron . . . plainly decently, kindly, honestly and with his whole heart, Mert was a moron, and a good one. Mert did just what he did, often forgot, it's true but did as long as he did and remembered to do. Mert smiled without a thought, without a muscle dumbed down in his face; Mert laughed with his entire tongue, entire throat, and every one of his teeth: and with his hands as happy as a million hundred seals. Mert did in a minute! more than a fox more than a bear more than a maybe (-r); Mert met a girl, a mother kind of girl. And the girl said, Mert- and Mert said, Yeah? and the girl said and said and said and said And Mert smiled without a muscle, without a thought; and went away with a with a with a without a did without a do.
We fight. I am clubbed from behind. They pin me And take turns, forearm feet fists to face Forefinger and thumb opening eyelids, press Graze with the nail, touch with the palps Squash, the Jew's eyes seeing eye, sand Sprinkle, candlewax, cigarette ash, Cigar smoke. It is necessary to see this Against a backdrop of _ For four miles west of it one can smell The lake; further, it being July, the water Tastes of chlorine stale fish breath snail-dew Sharks Even at nine or ten o'clock, the buildings Give off an unexpected heat; it has rained This day, and the night before. I have spent them At the movies, watching Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Weary stark flat slapstick, but offering conditions Questions, occasions for grieved analyses. Do you not laugh, do you not cry? What is real? cried the oyster, glob of spit In a pane of glass.
We are in Chicago's Waldheim cemetery. I am walking with my father. My nose, my eyes, left pink wrinkled oversize ear My whole face is in my armpit. We are at the stone beneath which lies My father's mother; There is embedded in it a pearl-shaped portrait. I do not know this woman. I never saw her. I am suddenly enraged, indignant. I clench my fists; I would like to strike her. My father weeps. He is Russian; he weeps with conviction, sincerity, enthusiasm. I am attentive. I stand there listening beside him. After a while, a little bored, but moved, I decide myself to make the effort; I have paid strict attention; I have listened carefully. Now, I too will attempt tears; they are like song. they are like flight. I fail.
The trees bend, the colors run- Reds into yellow, greens, grays Into white. The bark, birch-bark, Slips from its tree; September, (Wet leaves, the sun falling still, Compost, the hush of things burning, birdsong . . . ) pine trees white, white night light Steaming, all cool in a mist.
I walk by the used river Each day past an old attic (No house, the attic only Beech trees growing through it) In a field. The river smells Of barges, rotting timbers waterskiers' boats, lovers The very sun upon it. Rivers age in Connecticut, Grow feeble, irritable And complain like old women. The charred attic, too, complains Bears ill-will toward people, weeps And cries, and talks aloud On certain evenings to the sea.
John liked ceilings; he liked them very high in the morning, and then low at night. At dawn he liked a distance to rise to; and in the evening a closeness to sleep to. John was indifferent to floors, walls dazed even in his walking gazing, upon them. In the afternoon he liked a quiet ceiling, damp and darkening later, as the sky. John passed from ceiling to ceiling; and when it was very dark, he'd turn on the light, open the window and look at the night.
DEAR GEORGE-There was this sound. It was leaves. It was outside the windows, outside The house I live in, the house that is Inside two other houses. And leaves. It was just leaves. And the wind was leaves. And there was the sound . . . someplace in it There was silence. Something that can kill you. Worse than kill you. Make you into leaves. Leaves in the leaves. Wind. Or the thing _fear_ Must always want, when there is nothing. -I kept hearing it, the leaves against Themselves. And the houses empty. Myself And the sound. And my gun.-I went out, Then, and shot the leaves. The trees. The wind. I shot the wind, it was almost flesh, It was leaves. It fell down on the lawn, The uncut lawn. I shot it again. And put it in my pocket. And walked In the trees. And shot moths. And fireflies. And my shadow, in the moonlight. Leaves . . . * * * And then my wife was there, George. Calling. Talking to me. Begging. But her voice- It was not her at all. It was sound, The sound of death in the sound of life. Yet the voice, there was a voice. The leaves. The night moths. It was _her _ voice. Only, As one must hear it, from the ghosts, the thing-ghosts She felt she would become. Leaves. Of sound, Of darkness, fire; of leaves, gnats and stones. A voice like the single sound of death Rapt, nun-toned, voiceless; and without sound . . . Mindless. Incredible. Selfless. Fixed. And she claimed she loved me. And loved me. But as a ghost. As a _thing. _ A thing That must say, that must sound, all things Alike, in the one way. And that must Be heard as it is, by all the death That is within one. That listens, speaks Without surprise. And that is the ghost That was one's flesh. Divorced into death.
DEAR GEORGE-George, I have just bought a house, An eighty-seven-room house. Also, A twenty-one-room house. And many Little houses. And eighteen trailers, And nineteen cars (six with beds in them); And wives for all the rooms, the trailers The little houses, and the six cars With beds in them, . . . and they all love me, All my wives love me. They do, George. They Write to me. Every day. They write To me. And they are perfect, concise And beautiful letters. They say- Yes and they say it eighty-seven times. And then sign their names. I taught them how, George, Myself. How to read and write. How to _ In houses. How to love, and how to Write perfect, concise and beautiful Letters. Yes, and how never to die; How to live forever, for me, for Me, even though I will die. And how To make me feel as if I won't, even Though I will, will feel as if I will. And they are very good at it. Anyway, They are all pregnant, George, all my wives Are pregnant. Even the parakeets. Because some of them are parakeets. And some are goldfish, silverfish, ants Rats, goats, skunks . . . and all have borne me children, Parakeet, silverfish, ant, rat goldfish Children. And I'm happy, George. I like Marriage, really like it; wives, bedbugs And getting mail every day. And I feel I have a place to go. It feels good. The only trouble is I don't have any money, or even Any silverfish or rats or bed sheets A newspaper, or a place to go. I mean, why don't I, George? I live alone In an old upright typewriter, with but One dog and two cats to work To cook, to drink beer with me. It's sad, George. We cry ourselves To sleep. We are so alone. Now and then Dog sings to us- Woof, woof; pale cats, pale man you shall have houses, you shall have wives; _night falls_ Woof, woof; beer for you, milk for you; sleep for you, dreams for you; Sleep my children sleep my children sleep. Woof, woof. It is a lovely song, George, And Dog sings it well. We sleep. Witches, Nightmares big as houses, wives Warts, mushrooms, they are all there is. Night-things. Things- pressing all the keys Around us. Wanting what? To kill us; To put us into jail. Dog, Dog barks, he barks songs at them. They type _Death _ onto his back, Onto his tail, his ears, his tongue. Fleas and lice! We dance to avoid The keys; we do not dance well. We are typed into dreams, into wives; Into mansions and swans; old bed sheets, Death-sheets; bedbugs pushcarts and poems.
All the mornings, always pennies Of my life Nickels, dimes shafts of light, clouds Have begun over things-an alley, Bushes, pawnshops, people. It is a part of fish, rent- stench Curtain smells, tenements to be three, four Five flights above the street, Over what in the good years Of a good war one falls on now and then, dreams on, dies, a park. All the evenings, always streetlights Buildings, trees sculptured out of stone Moon Nickels, dimes I'm falling, slowly Quite slowly, now, down Into the shafts of light.
After it was quiet, the dust reflected on the dust. There was an end to doubt. The stars were shown reflected in the stars, in the brackish, white, bleeding triangles of light. There was an end to doubt. And all things, men and the moon, men and the remainders of men, Cried out And the stubbly, now overgrown sea- All, all things a part of the dust, not dead.
People glow. At certain times They all come into themselves And glow. It can be beheld. It is a glorious thing; To see it even is to glow. And to speak of it well, that is To cherish it, and glow. Two still people in a still room. It is of them that they have wings; It is the thing of them that glows. It is of us that we love And dream, and are of stone. I believe in stones, and am And have ever been in love.
More and more one is aware in one's friends Of an affection for stones. Indeed, there are, of late, serious shortages, A run on stones. And some persons, it is said, Have formed "attachments" to them. By special decree, Several have been executed. Others are due soon to suffer that same fate. Such measures are necessary. Who would deny it? Things being what they are, the enemy Approaching, the penalty foretold. Surrender your stones. Lend us your support!
The clock. Bonging away at midnight. The moon a still, white, bent second hand, -at the peak of the spire. The sky. The face of a black, stopped clock.
There is no reason why not to look at death. A good poem, also, is also death-contained. I once pulled out all the business feathers Of a crow; he became better: godcomplete: black. Nothing makes barely looking haste to put away The dead: except the "dead" involved: in business. The earth, the seasons, the poets, before they become Poets, make no haste to put away the dead. Nor God The Lord giveth, and He taketh away-by and large Slowly. And without haste. Crow-bombs are here Not my concern, nor ordinary bombs. But plain decay (The proper autumnal process subsequent to life). Emphasis need not be placed upon the soul. My point Involves the leaf (as an example), and the unplumaged Crow. Nor is my point one with flesh, and no blood . . . But one of death. I am fond of death-and/or The self-contained. This poem may not be said to be About souls. But of things. Feathers and leaves. Leafless trees and the featherless bodies of crows. Finally, let us say, I have been asked to write simply.
"Several _actual, _ potentially and/or really traumatic situations are depicted on these pages." _Transient Personality Reactions to Acute or Special Stress (Chapter 5)._ PHOTO I The car, a '39 Ford, Lies on its side, windshield smashed Doors off, bodies strewn, blood, brains And tow-truck. A boy, perhaps A girl, rushes about on fire, And appears to have been so, Now, for several moments.-Small, Hairless, and with a face like Sleep. In his bare, smoking arms He carries a woman's head. She is smiling, and her hair Is all on fire. She too Appears to be asleep. And the boy Suddenly presses his head down, _hard _ Into her neck, twists, and wears the head backwards. PHOTO II The house is burning. The furniture Is scattered on the lawn (tables, chairs TV, refrigerator). Momma- There is a small, superimposed white Arrow pointing at her-is busy Tearing out her eyes. The mute husband (Named, arrowed) stands idly by, his hands Upon his hips, eyes already out. _The smoke blankets the sky. _ And the scene, Apart from Momma, Poppa, the flames . . . Could be an auction. Friends, relatives Neighbors, all stand by, reaching, fighting For the mirrors, TV, sunglasses; The children, the cats and speechless dogs. PHOTO III The scene is an illuminated Hole. Soldiers, firemen, are descending (With axes, helmets) the nine ladders. The moon watches over the shoulders Of the crowd. Menninger, Murrow, wear earphones. Unseen, asleep, awake, eighteen hundred feet Down (where she has fallen, descended to Willingly, confusing "up" and "down"), With an NBC tape recorder, -Instantly, specially lowered to her- And companionable microphone, The woman is rhythmically, for the Moment, cursing, annihilating Us all . . . the thick, dream-, lost, echoing voice That one hears as one would hear one's own (Oneself in a pit, cursing, pleading Asleep, one's mind become as the earth, Raging, damning, still, still, still, still, still, An hysterical stone upon one) -With indifference, interest, wonder Or death . . . the scene stills, and is a photo. PHOTO IV Three men in a canoe, in a flood; Houses floating upsidedown, children, Dogs, car-roofs, visible just beneath The surface of the water. The men Are dressed in raincoats, hats, faces, eyes: All of which are composed of water. _Shadows. Water. Black and white water. _ The sky, the floating, clapboard houses, Are also composed of water. A scream! The man's mouth is the sound of water; The silence, swirling, the look of it. It disappears, merges with his face. And the leaden, still, almost churning Wake, separate, identical with the flood, Extends from the canoe back, ten, Twenty, a thousand yards, to a house Floating, still, in the distance. Shingled, White, wooden water, a house of water. (Like no, like all other houses, _death.)_ -A man, the one man with a paddle, Begins drinking the scene, the water . . . The other men, their raincoats, hats and eyes. He becomes them, and the entire scene. And all there is, is water, shadows Water-or what might appear to be Sleep, water, the inside of one's head.
Black November holy valley trees, Spires, churchstones Cowbells -It is Evening. I am hanging, upside Flaking, slowly the snow having watched, having watched THE WEATHER down.
All day I have written words; My subject has been that. Words. And I am wrong. And the words. I burn Three pages of them. Words. And the moon moonlight, that too I burn.-A poem remains. But in the words, in the _words _ In the fire that is now words. I eat the words that remain, And am eaten. By nothing, By all that I have not made.
It is after midnight. Another noon And I'll be back in class, teaching midnight. All the lunched-up faces. And me, a moon Without a tie. They leave my class looking For death. My examples are all myself. The fluorescent lights are ghouls, I tell them. Never smile beneath them. They eat teeth. And last week I brought a body into class, And nailed it to the blackboard-with three-inch Lengths of chalk. Standing, then, in front of it, I managed to murder their attention. It was like the first time I called the roll: And the dead all came to life. My zombies. Without attention.-I put them to death. Yes, you were right, Charlie: I'll never stand Before them, and let them see themselves: taught, By me.
It is them. I jump up and down hard Very glad to see them. Jesus Christ. They whistle, hoot, applaud, proud of me. Then for hours, days, semesters, weeks I do not say anything. It happens Early in September. I break off In the middle of something. And I stop. I have nothing more to say to them. They accept the fact. And are patient. Meanwhile, I allow them to smoke. At any time I may start in again. I sense Their faith in me. And the Word is not yet, Will not take hold, is not upon me.
1. "The Greek islands, Mykonos, Tinos, Siros, yes, yes," said the blowfish, conferring momentarily with a stone, with an octopus and a whale, "natural things come from the world!" * * * _They are composed, in the north, of limestone, gneiss, schist and marble; in the south, of eruptive rock, lava, basalt and trachyte . . ._ 2. Lying awake after billiards (pocket billiards), having lost, having lost I attempt again the "break"; I neither make, nor see it made (nor try) but hear it, clearly, and lie entranced as, moving, coming off the cushions, ceaselessly, uncontrollably, never dropping, the balls await, in motion some miracle of will. 3. Pink cat, skin only in the white street, lizard bones twitching mule slop, church bells Mobil (and olive) oil cans, rusting; it lives, blinks, blind crawls (gnats and flies) umbrella frames licking like life the earth. 4. Two old men, brothers the oldest in Piraeus, sailors part-time thieves, smugglers, and uncles to my wife, appear one upon the shoulders of the other, midnight at a daughter's _Taverna _ drunk O gloriously drunk upon the family mule. Introductions completed, we observe the mule (an enormous fish, perhaps an elephant, two other uncles or a unicorn) sipping beer. 5. Spidery-legged in sunlight on dusty duty rock, sentry the red ant runs sand grain web-thread _that _ thin knives (the blades) all around him. The time: 9: 30 A.M. * * * I observe this on my way (squinting, bemused mildly dysenteric), on a guided tour through Delos. 6. _Statue _ Front view, tall very thin marble, white nude a sort of pillar stone-like only glowing, Woman rigid, arms straight and straight down; the Cycladic Mother Goddess One, stylized highbreasted dimensional perfect! nose only, Big, wedge-shaped and those, her gigantic feet- no eyes or mouth or hair. 7. "Chryssoula Koramidou, 45, yesterday. gave birth to twins in a Xanthi-Melissa bus without being noticed by any of the twenty passengers." -The Athens News, Saturday, August 5, 1961 8. Twelve years later, on a fig tree near Sounion, we observe (blooming), three hundred and eighty-four edible white baby bonnets; and the bruised, plum-colored fruit. * * * Black Greek goat ("time is memory"), six-inch eyelashes- blinking. 9. Death this time in the uniform of an American naval officer, black armband sunglasses guidebook camera pilot's wings and a live rose (white) in each hand; Death in mourning for whom? for what? and why?
. . . before firing in machine-gun practice, we hesitated for the butterfly who came . . . I fed a Browning-burst of fifties and he who squeezed and I who fed looked at sparkles resting in the silent air.
It is a jet-delight for me, today to stand flown to you, friends, over the body of this . . . a well-known soldier. Firing a volley (FIRE!) through the flag, and into his death we note just how little this boy has passed beyond us. _The body spurts, black against the flag; and all peer down into its holes. _ Notice how little blood he sheds: this is one of the finer restraints of soldierhood. It is for us to stand and to applaud over this well- (FIRE!) volleyed corpse -and now, plunging our tongues into the flag, let us delight in his presence here today.
DEAR GEORGE-Seven of your years to one Of ours. You were six, less than a year, And I was five, when that Buick got you. I threw snowballs at every one I saw, that winter. They'd stop sometimes And I'd run, screaming for you, I don't Know why. It was twenty years ago. My mother said you'd gone to heaven. St. George. And you were a good saint, George. Only you never answered when I Wrote to you. Only prayers. You were good About prayers. The other George we got, And George the third, George the fourth (the cat) And George the fifth. By then I'd married And that was the end, I thought, of saints And dogs, and praying to dogs, to get dogs. But now I have to write you, George, again. The thing is this, I'm in a madhouse. Not like ours. The other kind, like where We used to hunt for rabbits, where you Made the spaniel pregnant, and ate snakes. And I've been telling them about you. And they said to write you. No one Would say what, or how. Just "Write to him . . ." So how are you, George? I'm well, but sick. It's snowing here today, black and white: When it doesn't melt, it's white. It's hard To tell what it's going to do, falling. People bet on black, and white by flakes. And when they've fallen, things fall on them. What is God like? My nurse says he's green Like she is, and that he's a dog. Is it You, George? Is that why you're so good on prayers? Does what the weather is make any Difference to you? And why, George, why? Or the times l've written you? George, Who are you, George? Do I disappoint You? Why do they want me to write you? Are you them? or are you me? or God? Do you mind about the other dogs? I've asked. No one here seems to think so. That you wouldn't have let me have them Otherwise. I love you, George. You're good. You don't say anything, even when I'm not like I was before. I change. I can't help it. And I think you've changed Too. Though I have no way of knowing. I can only guess. And eat snakes, and pray.
The oblique, who look at you The direct, who look away. In all cases one senses The eye at some right distance To mind, to self-to nothing. And it is this sense perhaps (Along with some "flash" of fright) That helps make the faces one, One, in an anthology Of faces. Moments, extremes Occur rarely. At least for me. And yet I have watched, have gazed At all these faces, not drunk Not sick, not dreaming, writing Or even bored, and thought, thought Them poems: and embarrassed Turned to the faces, themselves.
The hundred dollar cats, the sixty Dollar dogs; the lions, the tigers; The six miniature, white, snake-eating Fish; the snakes, the monkeys (with grins like Gelded poodles); the parakeets; owls Flamingos, pink pigeons and the small, headless Proprietor, silky, creeping and jeweled.
She began to blow away, and put her soft Kernel lace starch of a palm to her hat; It was soon against a cloud, and she Blew beyond the highest stalks, beyond it. The wind was as if it were the sky, wanting To get blue back about itself, up up Up, and away . . . d'Iowaed she went, higher Than the highest tassels ever reached. How-dee'do? bowed God, as the harmonicas Were polkachomp-reeded forth, together With an old gee-tar (chaw! Oops!!), In the sweetcorn-tune . . . softstrummed silk.
It was a hole, a leveled, paved, black, white hole A green hole, a blue hole, grass, sky, billboards, air And we were in the hole-into the air, trees Grass . . . into what were the trees, the sky, in us. And we were in the air, the hole that went through Itself. All around us there was what we were Passing through, inside, inside, inside ourselves. And the hole was humming, clear, laned, green and paved With black stripes. And there was nothing, the minutes Miles when you thought of them, when they made you them, The Buick, the speed, the dead skunks at the skunk- Crossing, the deer _-I pressed down on the horn, My hand became a fist, became a sound, a hole , At the end of my wrist, _ braked _and the thing was dead._ * * * _So, _ said Death, the deer, sitting there, between us, With the great, white butterfly-and we were off, Riding through air, through trees, through grass . . . and we were In the hole, and over the hole, and the hole Went on forever, into the trees, grass, the sky That was there, within us, paved, black, white, a rock A ghost, a Buick-thing, turnpike . . . a token.
The journey is forever inward, Through marriages, past divorce suits Diabetes, dentures, horny toenails. Outside I see elm trees and think aloud Of elm trees. To hell with poetry, I have given up on it. Becalmed, Preoccupied, I am moving inward.
Married twice now, I've had two Mothers-in-law. One visited us And required, upon departure, The services of three gentlemen with shoehorns To get her back into her large black Studebaker. The other, Momma-law the Present, Is (with the exclusion neither of that other, my wives nor the fathers-in-law of either marriage), that Studebaker.
Where do people go when they go to sleep? I envy them. I want to go there too. I am outside of them, married to them. Nightgown, wife's gown, women that you look at, Beside them-I knock on their shoulder blades Ask to be let in. It is forbidden. But you're my wife, I say. There is no reply. Arms around her, I caress her wings.
The darkness, night, that that all encloses Air, who what where then is not the sun? here Jesus on his knees. Can that be right? No, Reader, I enjoin you to forget this. One does not come out where one intended. Enters in. I am mistaken. Exits babbling.
CLASSIFIED-PETS For adoption. Regretfully offer dog. Dog. Black, tan markings. One quarter cat. Apartment-size, mature, spayed, a good watcher. Barks (woof!). Healthy, vegetarian. _SATURDA Y REVIEW_-CLASSIFIED; PERSONAL MAKE MELLOW MUSIC! Immediately . . . With an exotic Imported rosewood Recorder. Perfect Intonation. Not A toy! Tuned to the Spheres. Free telescope, And attachments . . . _See them twinkle! _ Audience, instruction Guaranteed! Poetry (Why not you . . . ?) Aspires to the state Of music, mellow Rosewood. Listen! Mmm. PANPIPES. Box 139. "THE VERY AIR HE BREATHES" She lies upon a tawny mat of effluence-and leopard spots. And he _(he's hers and she knows it!)_ Can but barely be seen, crouched and to the left of her. One ear, an eyebrow, and a bit of cheek are all that show of him. The caption (again) suggests that it is fun _(fabulous fun)_ being female _At a time like this! _ And, indeed, it looks like fun. Her eyes are huge and subtly closed as leopard spots; and her lips are spread. She is, in fact, a deodored leopardess about to take the male. But again, the caption: _Youare the very air _ _he breathes _ (the male is hard upon her). She appears to be undisturbed by this; and with both shaved armpits bared, she arches For him. One is inclined to think of her as being altogether without fear; she smiles, And takes the male. Neither deodorant, nor effluence, could do more. She smiles, and she lies there, the very air he breathed.
Of Love, my friends (after such sophistry And praise as yours), may one presume? Well, then, Let me begin by begging Agathon: Good sir, is not your love a love for me? And not a love for those who disagree? _Yes, true!_ And what is it that Love, again, Is the love of? Speak! _It is the love again_ _Of "Socrates."_ Love, then, and the Good, are me. _Explain!_ Is Love the love of something, or The love of nothing? _Something!_ Very true. And Love desires the thing it loves. _Right._ Is it, then, really me whom you adore? Or is it nothing? _O Socrates, it's you!_ Then I am Good, and I am yours. _Agreed!_
Three-toed, one-headed, its wings the size Of chicken-feet-and largest (next to The ostrich) of all existing birds . . . The emu stands, colossal, ratite Six feet high its god enplumaged, dark Hidden in the dismal, drooping, soft Brown hair. _Its hips, hunp, its bulge, perhaps Of flightlessness, or sky-appear as speed; The stunted cause, the befeathered, round Sloping, still embodiment of speed._ The emu runs, swoop-skims, a two-shanked One-humped, egg-hatched camel: the bird most Like a camel. Avoiding deserts However, the emu inhabits Open fields and forests where, keeping In small companies, it feeds on fruit (Of the emu tree), herbage and roots . . . Now and then booming, with subsequent, And peculiarly hurried efforts, At breeding. Extinct, in Tasmania On Kangaroo, King and Wing Islands, The bird is found, and in small numbers, In Southeastern Australia. IT BREEDS. Its nest, as if it had been rolled in And humped (in reverse), is a shallow Sandy, green-egg-filled pit, the eggs of which, all Nine (to thirteen), are incubated By the cock, an earnest familial Type of ostrich. The young, at birth, bear thin Length-striped down, are wattleless, and walk; Cursed, crane-necked, blank, dull adult-eyed _Baby, camel, ostrich-ducks _. . . in file Swift, point-beaked, _mothered, three-toed, one-headed _ -an image, but for the stripes (and down), Of itself, in age. Its booming note, god And size, are at rest in it, in its Conspicuous state of egglessness. _It screams, booms, bounds_ . . . BECOMES IMMENSE, FLIES Extinct, shaggy, stripeless (in age) FLOATS Its head in the camel clouds, the hump The bulge, the sandlessness that is God.
The dodo is two feet high, and laughs. A parrot, swan-sized, pig-, scale-legged Bird. Neither parrot, nor pig, nor swan. Its beak is the beak of a parrot, A bare-cheeked, wholly beaked and speechless Parrot. A bird incapable of Anything-but laughter. And silence: A silence that is laughter, and fact, And a denial of fact (and bird). It is a sort of turkey, only Not a turkey; not anything.-Not Able to sing, not able to dance Not able to fly, not able to . . . Cook. The Dutch called it the "nauseous bird," _Walguogel, _ "the uncookable." lts existence (extinct as it is) Is from the Portuguese: _Doudo, _"dumb," "Stupid," "silly." And the story of its Having been eaten, in the genus Of the solitaire (on Rodriguez Island), by hogs, certain sailors and monkeys: _Didus ineptus. _ A bird that aided Its own digestion, of seeds and leaves, By swallowing large stones. It has been called, Though with birds (extinct or otherwise) Crosses are a lie, a cross between A turkey and a pigeon. The first, It is claimed, won out; and, having won, Took flight from flight (its wings but tails, gray- Yellow tufted white). And for reasons As yet unknown. Its beak is laughter And shines, in indifference, and size. It has the meaning, for some, of wings: Wings that have become a face: embodied In a beak . . . and half the dodo's head . . . _It laughs-silence, its mind, extends from its ears; Its laugh, from wings, like wrists, to bill, to ears._
The snow began to fall and, pleased With its falling, and the thick Light effect of itself, blackwhite Against the summer, frozen Town, it gathered in momentum Independent of the wind And let itself tumble, with a Quick, sensual uncontrol . . . Like some unmiraculous _white_ Of a woman, stripped and gathered Into the lightest freezings Of herself -pleased by her being And the thick of herself, as such, Upon the dead spread of streets, steeples And the noon hour of the night.
"We are about to overtake our gods." What will the gods do? There is No place to hide. And how are We to bear them? After all The photographs are taken, All the images recast (Into rather more useful forms), The ancient saints, priests, choir- Boys (and girls) destroyed (organs, The formerly holy stars, The musical spheres . . . ), Who will care for them, cleanse them, Feed them? _What will the gods do?_
-For W.D. 1. They were spraying 7-up and moth juice On the fire. The mosquitoes, lawn-flies And moths dove, flashed and were painlessly Consumed. There was applause . . . we entered. And while my wife was kissed, they clapped Me on the back. They wanted to know That I was there; and then I kissed them Down their throats, choked and knew that they were there. And after I had kissed those who had Kissed my wife, and after they kissed me, We sprayed one another, scratched and dove After the moths. We flashed, painlessly, And emerged to munch the ashes, coals To sip moth juice, 7-up and gin. And again we clapped one another Laughed, kissed, sipped, puffed and swallowed cigarettes. 2. When the Ginns arrived, they were pounded On their backs. Our fists came out their mouths (We all took turns laughing hands that way, And toasting with one another.) Poor Wrist-throated Mrs. G.! She was mad. Her breasts were ferocious olives. She Wouldn't smile, or sip-and we all Took turns mixing drinks through her (and Mr. G.) 3. The cat-girl would not believe in it And crouched there pained, purring with the pups; (Their tails were remarkably alike And neither pronounced upon events With them.) From time to time they'd lick one Another, or the cream-dip, but otherwise Were still . . . though one of the pups had tried The fire, and the cat-girl sleekly swallowed gin. 4. Someone found Lil, the wife of no one, Buried beside the spit. She wanted A martini; we obliged, and then Reburied her. Fran nibbled at the Charcoal in Bernie's fingernails. They'd Expelled her from Home Economics. And Bernie dove in after the moths Only to be buried, topped, beside the spit. 5. The sky was rainbow strips of chrome, clouds And the sun, the great, archetypal Ford: pork-sauced and on the suburban Spit of heaven. And Lil's angel waved Free, fulfilled and married now, to chrome . . . sipping gin and tonic. We all stared, Climbed upon our spit, and then dove In after the moths. -The fire attained to Lil. Unfortunately, the rest of us Did not. And we had to try to tell Again whether or not we were there. _The fire was a Ford, without chrome, pure As gin, as cream-dip, rnoths or spray, death_ And we sang to it: its attaining To heaven, to Lil, to space, ourselves And the archetypal Ford. The Ford honked, then Backed off its spit, and began to set. In the other distance, in the space The consuming that is east, the night Beyond where the moths take form, beyond What we flash for when we die, we sense The white-walled dawn, time and tomorrow's Ford. The cat-girl vomited, and there was Mars, The suburban star of barbecue. 6. The party had somehow failed. The cards- And there was Rummy, large as Lil, four'd The evening star. It was time for gin And time for light! No one would admit That he was there; we hid in front of One another's wife. The women hid Beside the flames-the way they flickered Through their eyes. I kept trying to put my tongue Into their cards, into their eyes, ears Throats, between their teeth; but theirs were there Between mine. I bit them. And they cried With half their tongues munching diamonds and spades. And the bushes had begun the moon, Ending "gin," martinis and marriage. Suddenly the women screamed. The moon Burst through, revealing their husbands, the pup-girl Themselves. The bushes became the lawn; The night, the earth; and the moths, the sun. The men became their wives; and the wives Became the men, for the most part re- Marrying themselves. The men were asleep Beside their wives, smiling, spitted, still Illicit.-Morning. My wife and I Sipped gin; I was Bernie, and she the moths.
Some of the poems in this volume also appeared in _Uncle Dog and Other Poems _(London, 1962), and are here reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher, Putnam & Co., Ltd., London, England
Finally, I wish to thank the Corporation of Yaddo and the Edward MacDowell Association for affording me an opportunity to complete this book.