March 6, 2018

I was talking to a friend about moments of magic in poems, a kind of conjuring that goes beyond craft and is inexplicable.  The first example that came to mind was the ending of Frank O’Hara’s’ “The Day Lady Died,” which brings tears to my eyes and makes me suck in my breath every time I read it.  It’s something about the way past and present are simultaneous, but it’s more than that, more than the sum of the parts.  Then I thought of an Alice Oswald poem, “Body,” that does something similar.  I was going to add two or three more poems that leave me awestruck, but then I noticed that both of these poems are about the border between life and death and I decided to include just the two of them in conversation with each other.

I hope you’ll add poems whose magic takes your breath away, whatever their topic.



Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing





Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase
towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
(as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape


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  • Reply Fredric Koeppel March 6, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    James Merrill, “Charles on Fire”

    Another evening we sprawled about discussing
    Appearances. And it was the consensus
    That while uncommon physical good looks
    Continued to launch one, as before, in life
    (Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
    Still, as one of us said into his beard,
    “Without your intellectual and spiritual
    Values, man, you are sunk.” No one but squared
    The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
    Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
    Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
    He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
    “Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France,
    They do it this way”–bounding to his feet
    And touching a lit match to our host’s full glass.
    A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
    Above the surface. In a hush that fell
    We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
    As who should step down from a crystal coach.
    Steward of spirits, Charles’s glistening hand
    All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
    The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
    Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
    He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
    Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
    He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 6, 2018 at 5:37 pm

      Ooh, yes. I love a lot of his work, but I don’t remember this one. Thanks.

  • Reply Mee Ok March 6, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    Monet Refuses the Operation

    Lisel Mueller

    Doctor, you say there are no haloes
    around the streetlights in Paris
    and what I see is an aberration
    caused by old age, an affliction.
    I tell you it has taken me all my life
    to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
    to soften and blur and finally banish
    the edges you regret I don’t see,
    to learn that the line I called the horizon
    does not exist and sky and water,
    so long apart, are the same state of being.
    Fifty-four years before I could see
    Rouen cathedral is built
    of parallel shafts of sun,
    and now you want to restore
    my youthful errors: fixed
    notions of top and bottom,
    the illusion of three-dimensional space,
    wisteria separate
    from the bridge it covers.
    What can I say to convince you
    the Houses of Parliament dissolve
    night after night to become
    the fluid dream of the Thames?
    I will not return to a universe
    of objects that don’t know each other,
    as if islands were not the lost children
    of one great continent. The world
    is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
    becomes water, lilies on water,
    above and below water,
    becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
    and white and cerulean lamps,
    small fists passing sunlight
    so quickly to one another
    that it would take long, streaming hair
    inside my brush to catch it.
    To paint the speed of light!
    Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
    burn to mix with air
    and change our bones, skin, clothes
    to gases. Doctor,
    if only you could see
    how heaven pulls earth into its arms
    and how infinitely the heart expands
    to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 6, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks for this. How wonderfully odd that both examples so far include blue vapor.

  • Reply michael s oliva March 6, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    the Mueller!! a wonderful conceit….

  • Reply Lloyd Schwartz March 7, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Along with “The Day Lady Died,” those magical poems that choke me up at the end are Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (“What did I know, what did I know/Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”), Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” (“In the black mirror,/a woman’s trying to erase names:/no, she’s brushing a boy’s hair”), and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem”:

    Life and the memory of it cramped,
    dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
    dim, but how live, how touching in detail
    –the little that we get for free,
    the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
    About the size of our abidance
    along with theirs: the munching cows,
    the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
    still standing from spring freshets,
    the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 7, 2018 at 10:47 am

    Thanks, Lloyd. I totally agree. These are all exactly what I’m talking about.

  • Reply July March 7, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    “A public private space” by Bob Hicok

    You can’t trust lesbians. You invite them

    to your party and they don’t come,
    they’re too busy tending vaginal
    flowers, hating football, walking their golden
    and chocolate labs. X gave me a poem

    in which she was in love with a woman
    and the church but the church
    couldn’t accept four breasts in one bed.
    When I asked if our coworkers knew,

    she dropped her head and I said nothing
    for years until this morning I realized
    no one reads poems: my secrets and hers
    are safe in verse. I knew she’d have enjoyed

    the Beaujolais and I want to meet Dianne,
    Mona Lisa, Betty, Alice,
    the name’s been changed
    to protect women who can’t stand in a room
    holding hands because you can’t trust
    heterosexuals to love love, however
    it comes. So I recorded

    the party for her, for them, the mic
    a bit away from the action
    to catch the feel of waves touching shore
    and letting go, the wash of moods
    across the hours of drink and yes, some grapes
    were thrown and I breathed
    the quickening revelation
    of a cigarette, someone said “I gave up
    underwear for Lent” and I hope

    they play the tape while making love.
    As if finally the world’s made happy
    by who they are, laughing with, not at
    the nipple lick clit kiss hug
    in bed and after, the on and on
    of meals and moons and bills
    and burning days of pretending
    they don’t exist. “Who’s she? Just

    a friend.” And oceans are merely dew
    upon the land.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 7, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      Perfect example. That last sentence!

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