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

I have neglected this obligation
or have been fulfilling it

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.