There seems no reason he should’ve died. His hands
are pierced by holes too tidy to have held,
untorn, hard muscles as they writhed on spikes.
And on the pink, scrubbed bottom of each foot
a bee-stung lip pouts daintily.
No reason he should die–and yet, and yet
Christ’s eyes are swollen with it, his mouth
hangs slack with it, his belly taut with it,
his long hair lank with it, and damp;
and underneath the clinging funeral cloth
his manhood’s huge and useless with it: Death.

One blood-drop trickles toward his wrist. Somehow
the grieving women missed it when they bathed,
today, the empty corpse. Most Christs return.
But this one’s flesh. He isn’t coming back.

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Last night, I caught my last hour in Iraq.
I wrapped it in a black burka
and stuffed it in my rucksack,
next to a copy of A Farewell to Arms.

When I get home, I’ll go in the kitchen
and place that beating hour on a cutting board,
put an edge on my cook’s knife,
and slice that bleeding hour in two.

I’ll grill the halves with olive oil,
red skin potatoes, Michigan asparagus, and a pinch of salt.

We’ll share a bottle of valpolicella on the patio.

*

My friend Murray has been rounding out his last days in Iraq. I aim to go see him in Vicksburg this summer, hear him give a reading, and share a bottle of something expensive. I’m crazy about his recent work, which I’ve found not only to cut close to the bone of my own experience, but to resist classification. His lines are unselfconscious. They speak their mind without apology. They do not look back, not even to wink. If a door is said to close with a poem’s ending, it fails to latch. There’s no click, just the screen door’s crack on its frame, and a boy’s shadow disappearing in the woods, and the wind rocking the hinges.

He’s kept a blog during his tour where he posts poems, photos, drawings, and other miscellany. See http://murrayshugars.blogspot.com/.

We try to be discreet standing in the dark
hallway by the front door. He gets his hands
up inside the front of my shirt and I put mine
down inside the back of his jeans. We are crazy
for skin, each other’s skin, warm silky skin.
Our tongues are in each other’s mouths,
where they belong, home at last. At first

we hope my mother won’t see us, but later we don’t care,
we forget her. Suddenly she makes a noise
like a game show alarm and says Hey! Stop that!
and we put our hands out where she can see them.
Our mouths stay pressed together, though, and
when she isn’t looking anymore our hands go
back inside each other’s clothes. We could

go where no one can see us, but we are
good kids, from good families, trying to have
as much discreet sex as possible with my mother and father
four feet away watching strangers kiss on TV,
my mother and father who once did as we are doing,
something we can’t imagine because we know

that before we put our mouths together, before
the back seat of his parents’ car where our skins
finally become one-before us, these things
were unknown! Our parents look on in disbelief
as we pioneer delights they thought only they knew
before those delights gave them us.

Years later, still we try to be discreet, standing
in the kitchen now where we think she can’t see us. I
slip my hands down inside the back of his jeans
and he gets up under the front of my shirt.
We open our mouths to kiss and suddenly Hey! Hey!
says our daughter glaring from the kitchen doorway.
Get a room! she says, as we put our hands
out where she can see them.

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

*

In his daybook, George Oppen writes, “Surely there are situations in which it’s absurd to write poetry!” He had the worst of our collective capacities in mind–the slaughter of innocents, for example–to which poetry has no answer. Similarly, one is tempted to question his own happiness, that daily pursuit of delight, in the face of human suffering. Gilbert’s poem is an unusual defense of delight, even the kind of delight one finds in poetry. It takes stubbornness, he tells us, to accept our own enjoyment notwithstanding the world’s ills.

Revenge

At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

*

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

*

Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbours he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.

*

But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

*

If only more came to light, were soon made clear! Poetry, of course, is meant in part to bring about such clarity, unveil such light. Too often it does the opposite. Taha Muhammed Ali is among our living poets–though he lives far away, in Nazareth, running a souvenir shop with his sons–committed to the kind of emotional directness I find myself drawn to in poetry, the only kind of poetry that stands a chance of reawakening a general interest. There’s a nice piece by Gabriel Levin on the poet here, where you can also find a few other translated poems.

Among many tasks
very urgent
I’ve forgotten that
it’s also necessary
to be dying

frivolous
I have neglected this obligation
or have been fulfilling it
superficially

beginning tomorrow
everything will change
I will start dying assiduously
wisely optimistically
without wasting time

(Trans. from the Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

*

“The dance of poetry” ended, Rozewicz has said, after the concentrations camps. One of the preeminent Polish poets of the last century, Rozewicz’s poetic career has been in many ways a response to the aftermath of World War II. His poems are aesthetically straightforward, with little ornament. He has been called a “poet of silence,” but I don’t really know what that means. I had never thought about dying as a task one takes up, and with urgency. One among many others, it seems, and like so many other failed tasks, one feels compelled to begin over and over.

There where you live it is late winter,
The earth still sleeping
Beneath the ghostly ambiguities
Of that other hemisphere.
Here, it is phlox-time
With swallowtails too big
For the blue scilla of spring poems.
This summer’s calculus of lost angels
Dance their pure choreography
On a chance wind,
And I can almost feel
That stop-action hummingbird
Dip his entire body
Into the scarlet trumpet
Of my thoughts.

*

I asked Bob Murphy to make an appearance last week as “Guest Poet” for the literature class I teach at the Art Academy. He read this poem and a few others, and spoke with such eloquence and feeling about the tension between seeing and being seen, the wonderfully complex reciprocity our bodies are engaged in with the world around us. The poem comes from his extraordinary collection Life in the Ordovician (Dos Madres Press, 2007).

Do not seek too much fame,
But do not seek obscurity.
Be proud.
But do not remind the world of your deeds.
Excel when you must,
But do not excel the world.
Many heroes are not yet born,
Many have already died.
To be alive to hear this song is a victory.

For more than a hundred years
it has clenched the candle of its spire
in a hard white fist,
waiting for thunder to light the short wick
of its cross. But the clouds pass by,
leaving no more than a flash
on the cracked and dusty panes.
The fist’s weight is firm on the lid
of this rough old box of Nebraska
in which all the relics are kept,
the skulls, the sermons, the prayers,
and a scatter of buffalo nickels
from the last collection.

*

This poem first appeared in Smartish Pace in 2004, and I’m not sure which book of Kooser’s it landed in, but I found an edited version online with a couple recognizable alterations. The online version reads like this:

The fist’s weight is firm on the lid
of this rough old box of rock and sod
in which all the relics are kept,
the sermons, the prayers, the gossip.

By giving up “Nebraska” for “rock and sod”, it seems Kooser is willing to sacrifice specificity to gain a greater music. And perhaps replacing “skulls” with “gossip” makes the line more plausible. To be honest, I don’t know which version I prefer. It’s the buffalo nickels that carry the poem anyway. Only the bison remain faithful, offering their tithe to the Church of Rock and Sod.

Piss, Etc. (Richard Hague)

January 26, 2010

Younger, among
lean Jesuits and
hard-knuckled
working Irish,
I was told time was
better spent than
in pissing around,
shooting the shit,
screwing off.
Now, reading a poem
by someone still as green
as I was then,
I pause and smile
over the word
“piss” in a line.

How homely
it is, how
loosely belted,
like snot on a pretty
girl. How it
stands along a road
somewhere hot and
distantly in country,
shaking itself dry,
swept up in a
blaze of daylilies,
nothing but
sky overhead,
nothing on its
schedule
but Now:
good work.

Way to go.

*

This comes from Richard Hague’s Public Hearings, sent to me early this morning by a friend, “Comic Relief” in the subject line. A reminder not just that word play is good fun, but that I have friends awake earlier than I with my own need for relief–of whatever kind–in mind.