I have sown beside all waters in my day.
I planted deep, within my heart the fear
that wind or fowl would take the grain away.
I planted safe against this stark, lean year.

I scattered seed enough to plant the land
in rows from Canada to Mexico
but for my reaping only what the hand
can hold at once is all that I can show.

Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields
my brother’s sons are gathering stalk and root;
small wonder then my children glean in fields
they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.

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When a white butterfly appeared in the garden
carnations grew inflamed with passion
water lilies looked at their reflection
fearful that they aren’t beautiful enough,
tulips kept bending their necks
(who can resist their exotic lips?)
but the butterfly chose a cabbage.
It has a family to support.

(translated by Regina Grol-Prokopczyk)

*

When I was in Chicago a couple months ago, my good friend Stephen bought me this beautiful little book of Koziol’s published by Host Publications. Koziol’s indiscriminate trust in the image to carry her poems into what I can only call the sacred is what has drawn me to her poems, and to the poems of her contemporaries. The Polish poets I have read seem to have an ability to render a kind of sacred reality less by an appeal to the metaphysical than to the Earth where even cabbages and butterflies have histories worth recounting.

If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,

the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:

the match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.

Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,

and the lyrics asking: How long has your door
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows

of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song

in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love

watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit

and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-

house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic

than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.

*

One of the great gifts black poets give to us is their long acquaintence with the blues. Not that being black grants some kind of special access the rest of us are denied, but rather black poets recognize in the blues a passageway out of a certain poetic propriety. As the blues does homage to our helplessness before Love, it can also strip away the need for poetic artifice. It is this recognition that allows Hayes to repeat the word “romantic” three times in five lines–a veritable sin in contemporary poetry. For as much as a poem might dress up love in fine ornaments, Love can also strip us down to bone. When the poem’s speaker says he’s “doggone lonesome, Baby,” we believe him, and grant him permission to honor a tired word.

[“The Blue Terrance” can be found in Wind in a Box from Penguin Books.]

In that town,
across the water
where all has been seen
and the bricks are cherished like sparrows,
in that town like a letter from home
read again and again in a port,
in that town with its library of tiles
and its addresses recalled by Johannes Vermeer
who died in debt,
in that town across the water
where the dead take the census
and there are no vacant rooms
for his gaze occupies them all,
where the sky is waiting
to have news of a birth,
in that town which pours from the eyes
of those who left it,
there
between two chimes of the morning,
when fish are sold in the square
and the maps on the walls
show the depth of the sea,
in that town
I am preparing for your arrival.

*
I first discovered John Berger through a collection of his essays on art called Sense of Sight. At the time I was working for a law firm, and I think my only fond memory of those nine months was reading Berger on my lunches in some vacated office with only window light to see by. I think I learned more about poetry from reading Berger on art than I have learned from any book about poetry. That Berger is both a painter, poet, and novelist probably explains it. I guess I have always enjoyed those moments when, by peering through the lens of one discipline, I have seen into another with new eyes.

My friends murmur in my ears
that I’m not compatible with you, poetry.
They say I should walk out on you.
You’re a beauty queen–
both a virgin and a whore.
Your lashes flutter in the wind, northbound,
like wild geese.
I’m the slave driver–
I plod after you even this summer,
drenched with mud.
It’s true: there was no street, no house
no fine moss-lined hotel
where you waited for me.
There was no city where you’d fall in my arms,
wall white, staggered by human blood
that rains on roofs.
I did run after you
from Warsaw to Havana
with the memories of tanks, saxophones
and throbbing, wild movies.
I wanted to seduce you
but I only saw your veil of iron,
your veil of ocean.
I think of you with the shame
and rage of a life
that has been half-eroded
like a shoe worn down on one side.
I’m jealous but I don’t accuse you.
Go and flaunt your bare, dark loins.
Your feverish thighs that could send
less deserving boys than me to heaven.
Your linden-blossom scent will do for me
and the leaf-veined sky
that your breath drives in my face.

(translated by Nicholas Kolumban)

*

Poets frequently address poetry in one way or another, often as if it had a body, as if it walked among us. The frequent appearance of such poems may or may not prove that it does, but whatever poetry is, it is always just out of reach. The poet’s medium, language, is not equal to what poetry asks of the poet–it can’t quite get him there, wherever there happens to be. Csoori’s vision of poetry as ever elusive is useful, and I think true. Those who think they have found her, have had her “feverish thighs,” discover it is not poetry they have found. “Go and flaunt your bare, dark loins,” he says finally, “Your linden-blossom scent will do for me,” even as he has just recounted his mud-shod plodding after her. I like this seemingly half-hearted confession, because, on the one hand, it seems honest with a certain juvenial relinquishment. We are all boys in poetry’s presence. George Oppen captures this in his poem “Boy’s Room”:

A friend saw the rooms
Of Keats and Shelley
At the lake, and saw ‘they were just
Boys’ rooms’ and was moved

By that. And indeed a poet’s room
Is a boy’s room
And I suppose that women know it…

On the other hand, it points to something important about the nature of poetry, or to be more exact, about the relationship of the poet to poetry. To put it bluntly, the poet can’t have her. At least not like those “less deserving boys” who, once sent to heaven, are forced immediately back to earth.

Too much contemporary poetry, it seems to me, is intent on plumbing experience for subject matter only in order to make something like poetry. Older poets, conversely, sought to use language only in the service of truth-telling. Which is why, as Wendell Berry tells us, they invoked the Muse. Berry: “The truth the poet chose as his subject was perceived as superior to his powers…” Csoori’s ultimate shyness before poetry (his half-hearted, though beautifully rendered, contentment in the last few lines) places the poet where he belongs–always walking toward her, into her breath, but never finally reaching her.