Up here on the forehead of the world, it’s always
cold. On the other hand, there’s very little crime.

My wife and I live in a cave way above the snow
line. It’s a simple life with no distractions to

speak of. There’s lots of foraging. Otherwise
we practice nonchalance. For fun, we leave

footprints and sometimes intriguing scat
a cameraman has to take a close-up of.

There’s always a cameraman, part of a team:
one in a Nessie baseball hat and this time

ardent Nora who wants to be the first woman
to photograph us. She thinks the men have

gone about it all wrong and her notes, pinned
to a glacier, are charming: Help me believe!

And I have fire. Really. In her journal, which I
pilfer while they sleep or hike, Nora’s worried

about her hair. She’s planned an assignation
with a man she met on the plane. Well, well.

Someone handsomer than I, no doubt. Still,
I like her, so I grunt into a tape recorder

before I leave and urinate in a hat, not the one
she planned to wear for her rendezvous in Bhutan, I hope.

*

A son of the north, I grew up fascinated by Bigfoot, and was an early believer. I still have reason to suspect dogmen haunt several counties of western Michigan (Wexford County with some certainty), and that Mishosha once walked the same thin, mosquito-swarmed beaches of Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks lakeshore I walked as a kid. Koertge, of course, knows there is great fun in all this. His abominable snowman is not only domesticated, but funny. To risk oversimplification, I like to think Koertge preserves–usually through irreverence and humor–something wonderfully childlike in an otherwise adult world. In his short poem “First Grade,” he writes:

Until then, every forest
had wolves in it…

So who is this woman with the gray
breath calling out names and pointing
to the little desks we will occupy
for the rest of our lives?

And yet I can almost hear Koertge writing another poem revealing the surprising inner life of “this woman.” Who knows, maybe he has, or will. Anyway, I thought it appropriate to end a heavy year on a lighter note. Happy New Year! And if you’re out in the cold, watch your hat!

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found — of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it —
      devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
      and guarded the Child in the dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary —
      to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

A chance ray of light struck the crown of the head
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing. He blew drowsy bubbles;
      old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
      he said : ‘ Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring, this Child —
in him thy salvation, which thou hast made ready,
      a light to enlighten the face of all peoples

and carry thy truth to idolatrous tribes;
bring Israel, thy people, its Glory in time.’
Then Simeon paused. A thick silence engulfed them,
      and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,
Like some soaring bird that flies constantly upward
      and somehow is caught and cannot return earthward.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange and uncanny as Simeon’s speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing —
      so strange had his words been. The holy man, turning

to Mary, continued: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
and rising again of the many in Israel;
      a source of dissension, a sign to be spoken

against. The same weapon which tears at his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well.
Thy wound, Mary, like a new eye, will reveal to
      thy sight what in men’s deepest hearts now lies hidden.’

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, gazed after him, perfect in silence.
      He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
      and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was audibly firm.
He slowed his step slightly when Anna began
to speak, far behind him. But she was not calling
      to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and touched his cool brow, while the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
      beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.
      He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child —
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory —
      aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,
where never before until this point in time
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
      The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

February 16, 1972 / trans. by George L. Kline

*

Joseph Brodsky, if you’re not familiar with him, was a Russian poet who later learned, and wrote in, Polish and English. He was famously arrested in 1963 for being a menace to society, and was exiled internally to a remote region of Russia for five years. He was later expelled from Russia, came to the U.S., and eventually won a Nobel Prize for literature.

I found an excerpted transcript from his trial (on Wikipedia, imagine that!) which is telling of his poetic disposition throughout his life, one of openness to mystery.

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge: Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it … comes from God.

Brodsky’s famous liturgical poem Nunc Dimittis describes Simeon’s movement (found in Luke chapter two) from the physical to the metaphysical realm, as well as the Biblical transition from Old to New Testament. I was particularly struck by the image of the Christ child as a torch held high to press back the black shadows of Death. The poem tells us that Simeon was the first human to bear Christ’s image–his light–into that other world.

I shall never know what it meant: the broken tractor,
the horses against the sky, the split moon,
one bent lance of light leaning out of the skull on the desk
in a house in the country with over forty rooms.

I shall never know who sent it: the sun’s caress
on my face when I swam to the lid of the lake, the locusts grinding
out their flying saucer psalm of Ezekiel wheels-
within-wheels, the startling, stretching palms of the flowers.

I shall never decode your words, when we sit idly
pulling the onion grass sobbing from the soil, or when we
gazed at the Appalachian dusk, the blasted cornfield,
hexpaint, vodka, the Bible, the hourglass.

I shall wonder beyond my own death, I shall wander
across the earth’s face, grabbing people’s lapels and speaking in fevers.

(from Terrible Woods: Poems 1965 – 2008 from Dos Madres Press)

Thank you for the gifts my pretty angels.
Thank you for a wonderful Father’s Day.
Thank you, Pumpkin, for the tie you purchased
With your allowance. You helped clean dishes
And gathered clippings from the flower beds.
I watched you store half your coins in a porcelain
Pig because you want to go to college.
And the other half, you saved for my tie.
I’m so proud of you. And thank you, Sweet Pea,
For the other tie. You found it
Buried deep in my closet as you scrounged
For something else. You wrapped it with duct tape
And newspaper all by yourself. I like
It better now than when Grandma gave it
To me. I’m so proud of you. And thank you,
My Little Pistol, for the fish. We live
Nowhere near water, and yet, on my lap
Is a dead fish. What magnificent stripes.
And the scales are so shiny. I’m going
To get that chain you gave me for Christmas,
The one you found in the neighbors’ backyard
Hooked to their dog, and I’m going to wear
My fish on casual Friday. I’m proud
Of you too. I’m so proud of all of you.

*

I lifted this from the latest Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, and Light Industrial Safety. I’m not familiar with J.M. Green’s other poems, but I liked this one because of the strange balance he establishes and maintains between irony and praise. One cannot read this without immediately sensing a tonal irony. Poems just aren’t written with phrases like “my pretty angels.” But there is also a whimsical quality to this, a kind of baffled praise running through the poem–the affectionate names he gives to his children, keen memories of Father’s Days past, the almost foolish appreciation (if you allow it) for the fish, dead, but with “magnificent stripes.” The fish and the little phrase “casual Friday,” I think, provide a doorway outside of irony. A dead fish is a gift only a “Little Pistol” could think of. And it is the speaker’s appreciation for such madness in his youngest that he is able to respond with his equally mad intentions for Friday’s work attire. This regression from tie to worse tie to dead fish, commensurate with each progressively younger child’s capacity to give gifts, perhaps fixes praise securely within the home where among his pretty angels “unconditional patience” holds sway, while the subtle phrase “casual Friday” locks irony outside it in the dead-fish world of corporate Fridays.