How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.


Haiku (Matsuo Basho)

January 11, 2010

The temple bell stops —
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

(trans. by Robert Bly)

Love (Robert Creeley)

January 11, 2010

There are words voluptuous
as the flesh
in its moisture,
its warmth.

Tangible, they tell
the reassurances,
the comforts,
of being human.

Not to speak them
makes abstract
all desire
and its death at las

At eight in the morning I am drinking wine
from an improbably long stemmed glass.

My brain is floating, suspended
in a bottle of new dreams.
A recall of your kindness
could not live
in a more reduced circumstance.

Outside the cold has set in.
Snow falls.
Dearest, it’s so hard
to keep my stick on the ice.


Karoly sends me a holiday greeting every December from Vancouver, always admonishing me to take care of my loved ones. He is kind and generous, qualities that also come through in his poetry. His last email reminded me of this poem (and others I wish I could share, including a set of fine translations of Hungarian poets) which originally appeared in Smartish Pace a few years back, but I think I have lived some version of it once or twice. Indeed, it is hard to keep one’s stick on the ice!

If you’re interested, Stephen Reichert did an interview with Karoly several years ago which you can read here.

Heart (Gregory Orr)

December 23, 2009


Its hinges rustless,
restless; opening
and shutting on trust.


We guard it;
it guides us.
Gods lack it.
Vacant their gaze.


Doctors listen
to its cryptic
          From sacred
to sacred–a few
beats skipped,
a letter slipped.


Cavity and spasm;
a spark can start
it; parting stop it.

Such a radiant husk
to hive our dust!


This is the first poem in Gregory Orr’s The Caged Owl (2002), a book I received in the mail yesterday from my good friend Stephen in Baltimore. There is nothing nothing nothing quite like receiving a box of books in the mail. The surprise, the expectation, the bright covers and crisp pages fluttering off the thumb. To send books to a friend is a high gesture of the heart (that radiant husk!).

You can hear Orr read the poem at Penn Sound, or watch him read at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore last year at a Smartish Pace sponsored event.

I had no idea the elf owl
Crept into you in the secret
Of night.

I have torn myself out of many bitter places
In America, that seemed

Tall and green-rooted in mid-noon.
I wish I were the spare shadow
Of the roadrunner, I wish I were
The honest lover of the diamondback
And the tear the tarantula weeps.
I had no idea you were so tall
And blond in moonlight.
I got thirsty in the factories,
And I hated the brutal dry suns there,
So I quit.

You were the shadow
Of a hallway
In me.

I have never gone through that door,
But the elf owl’s face
Is inside me.

You are not one of the gods.
Your green arms lower and gather me.
I am an elf owl’s shadow, a secret
Member of your family.


I couldn’t possible explain or measure the affection I have for Wright’s poetry. He is always hitting all the right keys at just the right times. His arms again and again lowering and gathering me into mystery.

Distance (Andrea Zanzotto)

December 9, 2009

Now that your distance surrounds me
I stand unarmed inside a lone evening

The honey is fragrant on the table
and there is thunder in the valley,
much anxiety between the one and the other

I am frequented space
deserted by your sun.

Come. Ask me where
shout solitude at me

And this sky tainted with dismay
with mountain lights
has learned me by heart forever.

(trans. from the Italian by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann)


Born in 1921, Andrea Zanzotto taught in the public schools in Italy for many years, and wrote poems rooted in the landscape and local culture. I love poems–and Zanzotto has written many of them–that seem to renew, in their own shy, plodding way, the pastoral.

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.


Wendell Berry has a new collection of poems out called Leavings which contains this poem. I leafed through the book a few weeks back, struck as always by his uncompromising politics and sense of personal responsibility. Kristin heard him read the poem on NPR yesterday, and last night I was able to listen to most of the program myself. A treat, if you have the time. You can find the interview here. He reads several poems from the volume, this one at the close of the interview.

When he pressed his lips to my mouth
the knot fell open of itself.
When he pressed them to my throat
the dress slipped to the floor.
So much I know, but when his lips
touched my breast, everything,
I swear, down to his very name,
became so much confused
that I am still unable, dear friends,
to recount (as much as I would care to)
what pleasures were next bestowed
upon me, and by whom.

John Dickson (1916 – 2009)

November 18, 2009

But when the big bell bongs its twelve
the coach becomes a pumpkin and the coachmen mice.
Her sequined gown regains its tatters
and morning becomes a memory of magic gone.
And the young prince who has been
so trim in his britches, belt and buckler,
so shining in his epaulets and his smile
lopes through his palace halls
reverting to the paunch of his life
a cigar grafted to his lips
flesh slipping from the pinions of his face
and one glass slipper in his hand.

I have not been reading much poetry lately, but I picked up the November issue of Poetry Magazine tonight at the bookstore and found this tribute to the late poet John Dickson on the inside flap. There was no title, and I’m not sure where the poem came from. I scribbled it quickly into my notebook, so I may not have all the punctuation right. In any case, Dickson lived to 93. I dedicate it to you, my aging friends, ever returning to the paunch of your lives! Save me a cigar; I’m not that far behind.