Last night I was coming back home alone.
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder
as good friends do sometimes.
I turned around cheered up
but there was no one there.
Only on top of my shoulder glowed
the ruddy palm
of a single
huge
heavy
chestnut leaf…
…I was jolly all evening.
So my mother started an argument
looking at me from under a heavy eyebrow:
“You’ve met old friends again, eh!…”

*

Levchev is one of Bulgaria’s most prominent and popular poets. As “Last Night” demonstrates, he writes in a vein both romantic and accessible, with a light footed, almost youthful vigor. And yet there is also a sense of some drama at play outside of time, beyond description. “Poetry,” Levchev writes in aother poem, “is a criminal attempt/ to translate/ the pulsations of the universe/ into the simple mortal language of our hearts.” Why criminal? Because, as the poem resumes:

     Poetry permits
     the gods
     to assume
     human shape
     and simultaneously brands humans with divinity.

A romantic vision too large, perhaps, for contemporary American readers, and yet Levchev does not fail to moor his vision to life’s inherent difficulties. In another poem, addressing “three billion stars,” Levchev admits:

     I was telling the stars, I think,
     how it is that man rises like a sun.
     And how difficult it is for him to shine all life long.
     Especially with his own light.

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I

On the road we met a blackman,
But no one else.

II

Dreams are reunions. Who has not
On occasion entertained the presence
of a blackman?

III

From brown paper bags
A blackman fills the vacancies of morning
With orange speculations.

IV

Always I hope to find
The blackman I know,
Or one who knows him.

V

Devouring earthly possessions
Is one of a blackman’s excesses.
Exaggerating their transiency
Is another.

VI

Even this shadow has weight.
A cool heaviness.
Call it a blackman’s ghost.

VII

The possibilities of color
Were choices made by the eye
Looking inward.
The possibilities of rhythms
For a blackman are predetermined.

VIII

When it had all been unravelled,
The blackman found that it had been
Entirely woven of black thread.

IX

Children who loved him
Hid him from the world
By pretending he was a blackman.

X

The fingerprints of a blackman
Were on her pillow. Or was it
Her luminous tears?
…An absence, or a presence?
Only when it was darker
Would she know.

XI

The blackman dipped water
From a well.
And when the well dried,
He dipped cool blackness.

XII

We are told that the seeds
Of rainbows are not unlike
A blackman’s tears.

XIII

What is more beautiful than black flowers,
Or blackmen in fields
Gathering them?
…The bride, or the wedding?

XIV

When it was finished,
Some of the carvers of Destiny
Would sigh in relief,
But the blackman would sigh in intaglio,
Having shed the vain illusions in mastering the stone.

XV

Affirmation of negatives:
A blackman trembles
That his thoughts run toward darkness.

XVI

The odor of a blackman derives
No less from the sweat of his apotheosis,
Than emanation of crushed apples
He carries in his arms.

XVII

If I could imagine the shaping of Fate,
I would think of blackmen
Handing the sun.

XVIII

Is it harvest time in the brown fields,
Or is it just a black man
Singing?

XIX

There is the sorrow of blackmen
Lost in cities. But who can conceive
Of cities lost in a blackman?

XX

A small boy lifts a seashell
To his listening ear.
It is the blackman again,
Whispering his sagas of drowned sailors.

XXI

At the cradle of Justice were found
Three gifts: a pair of scales, a sword,
And a simple cloth. But the Magi had departed.
Several who were with us agreed
One of the givers must have been
A blackman.

XXII

As vines grow towards light,
So roots grow towards darkness.
Back and forth a blackman goes,
Gathering the harvest.

XXIII

By moonlight
We tossed our pebbles into the lake
And marveled
At the beauty of concentric sorrows.
You thought it was like the troubled heart
Of a blackman,
Because of the dancing light.

XXIV

As the time of our leave taking drew near,
The blackman blessed each of us
By pronouncing the names of his children.

XXV

As I remember it,
The only unicorn in the park
Belonged to a blackman
Who went about collecting bits
And torn scraps of afternoons.

XXVI

At the center of Being
Said the blackman,
All is tangential.
Even this laughter, even your tears.

*

There are very few poems that leave me feeling almost as if I had no right to have read them, to have entered the sacred spaces of their utterance. Patterson’s masterpiece is one. Seldom does a poem speaks so philosophically on the one hand, and can make you laugh out loud on the other. This contemplative testament to the interior life of black men is as root-dark as it is whimsical and celebratory, and I think it should be taught beside Stevens’ famous blackbird. I feel blessed–deeply, strangely blessed–each time I read it.

A Miner (Blas de Otero)

January 13, 2009

He’s sitting there, sitting
on top of his acid shadow,
on his right, god, on his left, head bent,
the son. And the holy ghost drifting around in the air.
Who has fitted on this face
like a dead man’s? Who has eaten from his hunger and raised
      a glass
with his thirst? Even god does not shelter him.
There you have his son, a deafmute,
and Teresa, his daughter, in a rest home or
putting it crudely, the nuthouse.
                                                                God-
damned mine! The heaven,
under the ground, of some mastermind somewhere.

His woman, they say, was lovely when she was a girl.
Now she’s a broken umbrella. She
doesn’t want to hear anything about heaven
and doesn’t want to talk about it. What she has seen
and sees right here in front of her is enough.

*

Otero’s poems began appearing in the 1940s when Spain was still suffering the crippling effects of its cival war. While many other Spanish poets were returning to pre-war “religious” stuff, which amounted to comfort food, Otero couldn’t ignore the suffering and injustices he had witnessed. Throughout his life he was haunted by God, and found human love wanting. His early poetry deals primarily with his search for God and human love, and his failure to find satisfaction in either.

Otero’s later poetry, while no less pained or powerful, is more subtle, more intimate. The poem “A Miner” comes later, in a volume called All About Spain, 1964, and is representative of both his early and late impulses, I think. In an interview with his translator Hadie St. Martin, Otero says there is often an “interplay of different themes in one and the same poem and a fusion of the individual with the collective or the historical.” This seems particularly true of this poem which bears both the physical and spiritual weight of an entire historical moment, siphened down to a single family’s suffering.

We have the picture of you in mind,
when you were young, posturing
(for a photographer) in scarves
(if you could have done it) but now,
for none of you is immortal, ninety-
three, the three, ninety and three,
Mary, Ellen and Emily, what
beauty is it clings still about you?
Undying? Magical? For there is still
no answer, why we live or why
you will not live longer than I
or that there should be an answer why
any should live and whatever other
should die. Yet you live. You live
and all that can be said is that
you live, time cannot alter it–
and as I write this Mary has died.

*

Williams is a master of word play within the limits of common speech. His lines are so tight, so perfect, they almost shimmer, the way a new wheelbarrow at the hardware store shimmers. He writes an “elevated” line without using elevated or “poetic” diction, which is part of what makes him so masterful.

A lot could be said about this poem, particularly its play with numerology, its unusual rhyme structure, or its surprising ending, but I’m drawn to the phrase “Yet you live.” Notice how it stands alone, fixed between two seemingly broken sentences; and yet, on second or third reading, one begins to hear and see the descending repetions of “should live” and “should be” and “should die,” followed by three consecutive “you live” beats which serve as responsive echoes, a kind of call and response to these “should” phrases.

Yet you live. Three words, like three women who together comprise a strength of being, an emphatic statement which defies the uncertainties of the previous lines (with their three plus three questions), defying mortality itself. Or almost.