THE PRESENT

January 1, 2017

One New Year’s Eve when I was seven or eight my parents had a few friends over to to celebrate.  I was the only child there, passing cookies and Ritz crackers with cheese slices.  I was thinking about the strangeness of one year ending and another beginning, when I was suddenly overcome with the sense that time was running out to write the year we were in in the present.  What was true now soon would be in the past.  I put down the plate I was carrying, dashed into my bedroom, and opened my notebook.  I wrote the year over and over: 1951, 1951, 1951, 1951, until the page was covered.  Nothing stays time, but I felt better for having marked it.  That was all I could do–when I woke up it we all would have sailed beyond it, no going back.  I still feel that mix of dread and anticipation.  Here are two poems that speak to that:

 

                                                                                                                                                                 

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
*
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainier Maria Rilke

trans. Stephen Mitchell


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Ha Ha

November 20, 2016

I’m reading poems that make me laugh out loud.  Since they’re poems, the laughter always has other layers and edges, of course, but the laughter comes first.  If you have The Oxford Book of American Light Verse, take a look at William Cole’s “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses.”  Two of the poets I always rely on for this are James Tate and Frank O’Hara.  James Tate’s second book is titled The Oblivion Ha-Ha (you’ll want to look up ha-ha if you only know one meaning),  and you can cheer yourself up just by reading through a list of his poems titles: “The Blue Booby,” “The Distant Orgasm,” “To my Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry,” The Hostile Philharmonic Orchestra,” “Nausea, Coincidence,” “Man with Wooden Leg Escapes Prison.”  Or book titles: Hottentot Ossuary, Riven Doggeries, and a collaboration with Bill Knott: Are You Ready Mary Baker Eddy?”

Here are two poems that make me laugh.  Please, please suggest others.

 

POEM [Lana Turner Has Collapsed]

 

Frank O’Hara

 

Lana Turner has collapsed!

I was trotting along and suddenly

it started raining and snowing

and you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head

hard so it was really snowing and

raining and I was in such a hurry

to meet you but the traffic

was acting exactly like the sky

and suddenly I see a headline

lana turner has collapsed!

there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Lana Turner we love you get up

 

 

TEACHING THE APE TO WRITE POEMS

James Tate

 

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
‘You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?’

 

 

 

The Unconscious

November 17, 2016

I’m not willing or equipped to live in the world of politics and “news” right now, so I’m living in music (Bach, Dylan, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen–talk about earworms– Janis, Etta James, etc.) and poems I think of as great escapes.  But the mind knows what it knows, including what it would rather not, and as I read through some of them I was also struck by their timeliness.

from Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End:

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.

And:

My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play.
We met many others who were just like us. They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.

*

 

MUSHROOMS

Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

*

I KNOW A MAN

Robert Creeley

As I sd to my

friend, because I am

always talking,—John, I

 

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

 

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

 

drive, he sd, for

christ’s sake, look

out where yr going.

*

And one not so unconscious, one of the first that came to mind last week, by Emily Dickinson:

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

 

 

Despair

November 9, 2016

Maybe, sometime in the future, hope will return.  For now, this is the poem speaks to me.

 

The Second Coming

W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Scary Poems

October 26, 2016

There’s a wide range of scary poems, beginning with the ones that register the pleasure of being a little scared, like Dickinson’s responding to “a narrow fellow in the grass…with “a tighter Breathing/ And zero at the bone.”   The ferocity of anger can be both funny and frightening, as it is in Margaret Atwood’s four-line poem:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

 

And in the last stanza of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

 

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

 

Her hallucinatory poem “The Bee Meeting” gives me nightmares.  If you think Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness” is terrifying, take a look at “All Hallows.”   Many of Frost’s poems disturb the deepest levels, like “Design” and “Out, Out–,” for example.  In the first one, Frost pushes the implications of the argument from design for the existence of god to its logical conclusion: Do you really want to believe in a god who pays attention to every detail of life and death?  When I first read “Out, Out–” I went back again and again, hoping I was wrong about what happens–but I wasn’t.  There’s something far more deeply frightening to me about seeing through the words to the terrifying events beyond them than seeing the events directly.  It’s the delayed realization, the double take, the oh no.   Robert Morgan’s poem “The Mountain Bride” loops back to Dickinson’s narrow fellow in a terrifying scene.

So what are some of your favorite frightening poems?  Post the poems or the links.