She used to
pack poems
in her hip pocket.
Under all the
gray old lady
clothes she was
dressed for action.
She had hair,
in certain places, and
believe me
she smelled human
on a hot summer day.
Stalking snakes
or counting
the thousand notes
in sunlight
she walked just
like an Indian.
She was New England’s
favorite daughter,
she could pray
like the devil.
She was a
two-fisted woman,
this babe.
All the flies
just stood around
and buzzed
when she died.

* * *
I like this brief tribute to Emily Dickinson (how could one possibly write a long-winded one!) very much, especially its ending, which I think she would have appreciated. I have a quote on my white board at the Adult Probation GED Program classroom, which my friend Matt reminded me of just last week. It’s from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “I do not box as one beating the air.” After reading Nelson’s poem again this afternoon, I looked up and saw that quote and thought, neither did two-fisted Emily.


[Version 2]

Poetry like love is made in a bed.
In her messed-up sheets the sun rises.
Poetry lives in deep woods.

She has all the rooms she needs.

One whole side of the universe

     Is ruled by a hawk’s gaze,
     By the dewdrop of a furled fern,
     By the memory of a sweating bottle of Fume Blanc on a silver tray,
     By a thin bue vein down an obelisk poised over the sea.
     And the road of mental adventure, which peaks abruptly–
     One pause and it’s weeded over.

No need to spread this around.
Wouldn’t want to frighten the horses.

      Shoals of salmon, hedges of songbirds,
      Rail-flanks opening before the approach of a railhead.
      Reflections from two banks of a river,
      The valleys baked into a loaf,
      The odd and even days of the calendar.

The act of love and the act of poetry
Are incompatible
With reading the news at the top of one’s voice.

      The way the sun shines,
      The blue blur that binds the arc of the woodman’s axe–
      The reach of a kite string,
      The measured beating of a beaver’s tail,
      The diligence of lightning,
      Someone tossing candies down from the top of an old staircase.

A good address is not necessarily part of the action–
Nor a corner office.
No, gentlemen–nor gin, leather, and cigar smoke.

      Dance steps footed on a summer’s night,
      The shape of a woman’s body delineated by throwing-knives,
      Blown ephemeral smoke-rings,
      The curls of your hair,
      Slippery flutters of wettest flesh,
      Ivy slithering into ruins.

The embrace of poetry,
Like love’s impossible, perfect fit,
Defends while it lasts
Against all the misery of the world.

* * *
This poem comes at the end of Breton’s last major poetic contribution, a book called Poèmes, and could serve as a coda to his life’s work in poetry. While he is perhaps more notorious as art theorist, cultural and political agitator, and Surrealist impresario, Breton’s poems–the best ones anyway–echo something he said once about poetry that I really like: “Poetry, which is all I have ever appreciated in literature, emanates more from the lives of human beings–whether writers or not–than from what they have written or from what we might imagine they could write.” Breton was less interested, it seems, in a writer’s work than in the life driving it. Interested too in the kind of unwritten poetry that is everywhere present in the world, as this poem seems to attest. In an earlier poem he writes of achieving “the overwhelming poetry of staircase landings.” Perhaps it is here, upon the forgotten in-betweenness of a staircase landing (or of any place, one place or thing or vision as good as the next) that poetry makes its defense against the misery of the world.

Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a seller of bread in Algiers
     That I might sing with a rebel.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a herdsman in the Yemen
     That I might sing to hte shudderings of time.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I were a cafe waiter in Havana
     That I might sing the victories of sorrowing women.
Don’t say to me:
     Would I worked as a young laborer in Aswan
     That I might sing to the rocks.

My friend,
The Nile will not flow into the Volga,
Nor the Congo or the Jordan into the Euphrates.
Each river has its source, its course, its life.
My friend, our land is not barren.
Each land has its time for being born.
Each dawn a date with a rebel.

* * *
Darwish’s poems are informed by his life long exile, beginning with his family’s flight from their Galileean village during the War of 1948. In his early thirties, he joined th PLO and became the editor of it’s scholarly journal. Despite his ongoing political involvement, Darwish has claimed, “I have never been a man of politics. I am a poet with a particular perspective.” That perspective finds its centering in what J.D. McClatchy has called a “plangent nostalgia,” which I take to mean a loud lament for his displaced homeland. While anger and frustrations over hypocrisy arise in many of his poems (the handful I’ve read anyway–e.g., “…if I were to become hungry / I shall eat the flesh of my usurper”), he seems to remain undeterred, almost hopeful (e.g., “You have your victories and we have ours, / We have a country where we see / Only the invisible”). In “On Wishes,” we hear not only the strength of one rooted to the ground under his feet (even if he cannot call that ground home), but the vision of one able to see new births, not in Havana or Yemen or Aswan, but among forgotten stones, in the very place one finds himself.

On the day that the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edges of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellowed-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits the rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.