Sunday, December 30, 2012

The year winds down.... This poem is from EMBLEM:


All my undone actions wander
naked across the calendar,

a band of skinny hunter-gatherers,
blown snow scattered here and there,

stumbling toward a future
folded in the New Year I secure

with a pushpin: January’s picture
a painting from the 17th century,

a still-life: skull and mirror,
spilled coinpurse and a flower.

Monday, October 08, 2012

A poem from EMBLEM for Columbus Day:


Columbus thought he had discovered the Indies so he called the people he encountered Indians, but he was wrong; he had discovered the working class.

He took their sage,
not their advice;
it smoldered like rage
but smelled nice.

One of the Santa Maria's crew, avaricious and schooled in flattery, suggested to Columbus that he try calling them "the middle class." They seemed to like that just fine. They smiled. Why not? Sure. Sounds good.

Columbus ordered them given naugahyde and vinyl. Then he watched to see what they would make of it. It stuck to sweaty skin in summer and in winter it was cold as metal. It cracked, and several cut their buttocks on it.

Eventually they came around, though, when the buffalo were shot to hell, the beaver damned, and the deer and the antelope played out.

Like the real Indians, the real middle class was a world away.

Soon after his return, Columbus was imprisoned for his errors. The King and Queen concurred that these new subjects must forget their names, and never know their purpose to the empire. Thus, an edict went forth that there were no classes in the New World because

in the New World, everyone is Middle Class. Everyone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy 78th Birthday, Leonard Cohen!

If I remember correctly, we were talking about his friend and mentor, the poet Irving Layton, whose work I encountered as a young man at a time when I really needed it. His poems of grief and anger showed me a way forward in a dark time. And of course Cohen's poems, which represented an alternative to the canonical modernists on the one hand and the Beats on the other, whom I found overbearing and loud. We talked a good while about poets and poetry and later about being grandfathers.

This photo was taken by Rick Friedman and belongs to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

I've recently reread Cohen's The Book of Mercy to see if it would still move me as it once did. It does.

(Layton's work, admittedly older, often feels dated to me, as if arising from a cultural context, especially with regard to masculinity, that has passed.)

Look at Cohen's hands in the photo: time and again, in The Book of Mercy, head and heart come together in just that way. I close that book not with an urge to paraphrase or otherwise talk about it, but with gratitude.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Today's wood s lot has a good deal more depth in its treatment of Robert Bringhurst. Thank you to Mark Woods. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I want to dedicate this post to the work of the Canadian poet, Robert Bringhurst. It is either the perfect example of our xenophobic poetic culture in the US, or else my own narrow-gauge attention to what is — in this case so gloriously — being written elsewhere in North America that I had not heard of him until recently. Now I am reading his Selected Poems from Copper Canyon, and I am completely in thrall to this body of work: serious and playful, political and spiritual, formal, lyrical, learned, and sublime. Here is his “These Poems, She Said”

These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
who would leave his wife and child because
they made noise in his study. These are the poems
of a man who would murder his mother to claim
the inheritance. These are the poems of a man
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. These are the poems of a man
who would rather sleep with himself than with women,
she said. These are the poems of a man
with eyes like a drawknife, with hands like a pickpocket’s
hands, woven of water and logic
and hunger, with no strand of love in them. These
poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,
and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.
These poems, she said....
                                       You are, he said,
                That is not love, she said rightly.

According to Kate Kelloway, writing in The Observer, Bringhurst “has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”

You can find him reading on YouTube here and here.

Bringhurst is, as it happens, also the foremost typographer of our age, and his Elements of Typographic Design is considered mandatory reading for book and, now, web designers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Here are three poems of mine from the most recent Manhattan Review:


The body,
six feet

six days
to break down.

Bulbs must wait
in warming loam
six months

or more. And so
the earth is vast,
love urgent.



He is out of work.
We are out of money.
My mother's patience
makes him feel worse.
He has lost his temper
again and he is sorry.
Priests have told him
ever since he was a boy
to stop touching himself.
He hides the magazines,
thinks himself weak.
In the doorway of a plane,
you jump, you do not
shake and shit yourself,
kicked into the flak-lit
night the stench of you
like a thing already dead.
It is a long way down.
A lot can go wrong, so
he pretends to know
what a man and death is,
nothing under his feet
as percussive waves
of light explode around him
like shots of whiskey.
Later he makes believe
he is still the man he
can't remember, the boy
he can't remember.
Maybe there is another
life he was to have.
Maybe he was lazy
and missed his chance.
He wants to be the man
he imagines his wife
loves, the god his father
was to him, the god
he hopes his sons think
him. Complexion: Ruddy
it says on his license.
A doctor diagnoses him
with hypertension.
He loves but still believes
he is pretending.


A son might hold a father
to account for certain
memories, for certain
understandings, to desire
anyone, or anything at all.
A lot can go wrong, so
he pretends to know
what a man and love is.
He may have to help himself
to his father's shame
for a time to understand.
Sometimes a long time.
And then, even if he turns,
if he rises and bathes
and dresses and shaves
and takes up his life at last,
he cannot say if that is
or is not forgiveness.
The much he must learn
becomes his life. There is
no might have been, no
otherwise or if only, only
the ground under his feet.
Elsewhere men continue
falling from the sky.


See them before the door
closes, doing their jobs.
Papers to sign. Making
laws making money.
Changing the names
of streets, buildings, bridges.
Writing plausible tales.
Quick before the door closes.

Word is he’s back,
baptized in our amnesia.
Cain. Cain.
Wasn’t he one of Eve’s boys?
Yes, I heard that. Which
is his cubicle? He might be
a good man to know sometime.

Friday, June 29, 2012

This from Chris Lydon today. Reposting it here. These are conversations that shed light, serious inquiries into what has befallen us and speculations about how we might survive with our humanity intact.

Dearest Ones:
The ghost of Tony Judt, historian and prophet, hovers over the best conversations we've recorded this spring -- for all the reasons that Ill Fares the Land, Judt's parting sermon, hovers over the 2012 campaign and American life this Fourth of July.
The connecting thread that Tony Judt spun brilliantly is the common dread underlying both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. It's an unfamiliar, almost unnameable anxiety -- that we don't recognize our country any more; that our imperial illusions are crashing and we're the last to get the joke; that the rough-and-tumble egalitarian premises we grew up with are being mocked by legislated inequality that must get worse; that the public conversation has died, and that all the semi-private buzzing on the Web doesn't make up.
"We cannot go on living like this," Judt wrote, and worse: "We simply do not know how to talk about these things any more."
Three main points stick out of the Judt diagnosis: (1) the enfeeblement of "social democracy" in the American Dream -- the slashing of taxes that enabled a distributed prosperity; (2) the old cult and social disease of private wealth which has infected the culture and the curriculum of the rising generation; and (3) the collapse of a reasonably inclusive and "ethically informed public conversation." Most people, he wrote "don't feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance."
Judt's prescriptions were all over the place. He said we must "theorize our better instincts," but also: "we need to act upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe." We need to recast our public conversation around measures of human well-being, and we need a new crop of defiantly self-reliant dissenters to keep it honest.
Ill Fares the Land -- from Oliver Goldsmith's couplet: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay" -- reads to me like the missing manual of the malaise in the land, a perfect outline for the Obama-Romney debates. On the chance that we won't hear these angles on the stump, we're taking Tony Judt's themes as a framework for conversations about the American condition in 2012 --
Happy Fourth!
Yours ever and ever,
Chris Lydon

Saturday, April 21, 2012

These are my remarks from today's panel on "The State of Poetry" at The Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem. Several people asked me for a copy of the talk so I promised I would post it here.

Good afternoon. Let me start with a poem I wrote for a fellow poet, Baron Wormser. Baron and I are about the same age and have been writing a long time, and for a number of years we were teaching together in Maine, right next to a cow pasture. This is called AT WOLFE’S NECK FARM:

Some days a poet
is like a cow, a yellow
tag: N365 affixed
to a twitching ear,
shit on its haunches,
flies on its eyes,
who thinks, “If only
I’d been born
in India I’d be a god.”

And so, “The State of Poetry.” Looking out at this room full of people, I’d say that the state of poetry, the interest in poetry, is pretty healthy. The fact that we are here at a three day poetry festival speaks for itself. And so I really want to talk about poetry, not “the poetry business.” I warned Jennifer that I would do this. I hope you will also indulge me, because the fact is that I am the wrong person to give any advice about a career in poetry. I am not a successful poet, at least not in the usual sense. Like most poets, my books are published by a small press, seldom reviewed, and never in those few publications that seem to matter. You won’t find my work in anthologies or in discussions of contemporary poetry. This is not a complaint, only a way of offering you my credentials for NOT talking about a career in poetry: I don’t have one.

But I have a life that is largely made of poetry, of the poetry of others, both the dead and the living, and the poetry I try to write. I would not exchange that life, that ongoing education, that continual growth, for anything. Poetry returns to me the things I know and have forgotten, and among those things there dwells the deepest and oldest and least distorted version of myself: that consciousness that first looked for the right words, the right nouns, verbs, adjectives — the right sounds — to make sense of the world.

ALL the words that I utter,
   And all the words that I write,

Must spread out their wings untiring,
   And never rest in their flight,
 Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
    And sing to you in the night.

                              --W. B. Yeats

I don’t quote these lines to suggest that poems are merely personal communications; they are that, at least often they are, but there is a larger social and political dimension to that intimate exchange. I believe it is this special kind of colloquy — one author to one reader, one heart and mind to another— that Czeslaw Milosz meant when he wrote that poetry is the last rampart against tyranny. It is this exchange that affirms us as individuals. In the words of Max Horkheimer, a German social critic of the 1930’s, later put to death by the Nazis: “To organize people as objects, you must first disorganize them as subjects.”

Another way of putting it is to think of the poet’s work as peeling people one at a time from the mob, steering them by the elbow to a table where, just the two of you, you find the radical quiet to honor that desire to be understood, that yearning to communicate one’s experience of being alive to another, which is the antidote to the massive, poisonous, ongoing objectification sweeping the planet today.

Poets are as archaic as candles to some people. Still, they’re useful when the power is out. Poetry is a handmade art, one that doesn’t require wealthy investors, costly materials, tools, and equipment. And so it has the potential, requiring no agreement from the powers-that-be, to say what must be said – to bring us back to the truth, to a consciousness of what we need, to those deep desires for justice and meaning, for respect and commonality, for freedom from debt, from the monomaniacal ideology that creates the plantation and calls it the world. I believe it can be the foundation for a real culture, an alternative to the pseudo-culture around us that is only a by-product of corporate profit-seeking.

Poetry is also a living tradition, a deep broad river of other human voices who have lived and thought about and felt life before us. An ongoing tradition that, if you are a poet, or a reader of poetry, you are a part of. It is full of agreements and arguments, celebrations and misgivings, blessings and curses and laments. It is a tradition that does not require belief, or ideological purity, or even reverence. Respect for its complexity and variety is all that is required, and that is only, after all, a respect for one’s own humanity, one’s own human potential to live life fully and fully aware. To drink from this river, whether as reader or writer, is to be refreshed by the reunion of head and heart, if only for one thirsty moment, and to be returned to a state of wholeness which we all feel was ours once as children when thought and feeling, mind and body, head and heart, did not feel separate, before the demands, legitimate and inexorable, of ego and socialization, required us to learn how to use first one then the other.

There are moments when I’m writing a poem — when a poem is coming to be on the page and I am trying to assist it — when the language, which has been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, calls forth that part of me that has also been evolving for millenia in order to better engage the complex world as it is, and those moments are powerful, rejuvenating, and reassuring on the deepest level.

Poetry, both reading and writing it, can keep the spirit supple and viable in a time of rigidity and despair and helplessness, insisting on the importance and integrity of the individual consciousness in a time of mass delusions and sociopathic politics, clearing a little quiet space in the din for that singing in the night that I, for one, with my sad, sad heart, could not live without.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

And here is the final poem in the book:


Say I was filled with regret
because I always fell for the future,
and that I learned that hope, like the rain,
can make the wrong things grow.
Explain I would have mourned
much longer if the world had let me.
Say that I hope to be remembered,
and that I wish I had forgotten less.

Set right the rumor I was ever
a believer: a story was told to me
as knowledge and I loved it once,
an arrangement of premises on which
I learned to build all you recall of me.
Belief has nothing to do with faith.
The first I lost early and all at once,
the second later, one loss at a time.

Tell them that, a sailor, I knew fog
was no excuse and certainly no comfort.
Assure them that when I had nothing
to say I said nothing, kept still,
and let things come clear in their time.
Because I spoke clearly does not mean
I remained unlettered, simple, or naïve:
tell them I saw all there was to see.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Just a little taste... the first poem in EMBLEM, published in December.

adapted from Alciati's Book of Emblems[1]

Emblem 89


Avarice in check, the country at peace,
does not please everyone. Those who fish

for eels, for example, who know how to slice
one into segments thin as paper dollars

for sushi or paste, must find some way
to roil the placid water and churn the bottom

to be successful. (To stir the muck religion
makes a good long stick, or bogus history

wed to rhetoric.) They know just how.
They have fished for eels a thousand years.

[1] Andrea Alciati's Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems, a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems,
was first published in 1531, and was expanded in various editions during the author's lifetime.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Trees are Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven."

                   — Rabindranath Tagore

My neighbor across the street wants to cut down the tree in the front of her house; she says its roots are compromising her foundation, and besides, she wants more sun so she can grow flowers in her front yard. I try to talk with her about it, but find I am surprisingly emotional. A few years earlier my neighbor next door took down a row of white pines between our houses because they were dripping sap on his car in the driveway. I loved them for the way they held the snow in the winter; the windows on that side of the house were like Hiroshige snowscapes. I tried to argue with him when the arborist’s truck pulled up and I saw what they were about to do, but I lost. The trees were on his side of the property line, if only by a foot, and he had made up his mind. I steamed about it for a couple of days, but we’re a tight little urban neighborhood and holding a grudge was never an option. But here I am nearly begging my neighbor across the street to spare the red maple in front of her house, and I’m surprised at the strength of the feelings that have been stirred in me. I get on my bike and head for the park nearby where I can sit by the lake under a favorite willow and think about it.
            The truth is I was feeling a little embarrassed by the whole thing. It was undeniably sentimental; what was the point of arguing about a single tree? I had enjoyed the pines next to my house; I understood my reasons for wishing they’d been left standing. But the truth is that I never really paid the tree across the street much attention. Still, it seemed worthwhile to try to figure out why I felt so desperate on this one little maple’s behalf.
            Our relationship to trees is a conspiracy, literally. We breathe together. It is symbiosis on a grand scale. Every schoolkid knows this. We take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. In comes the good air, out goes the bad. Trees are our very life support, and we, along with the other animals, are theirs. We sustain one another, we conspire for the common good of carbon based life. It only remains to be said that the “spire” in conspire is, etymologically, spirit, the breath without which we would die, and not only metaphorically.
            So I see the relationship of people to trees as a conversation that involves quiet, attention, listening. What people have always done with breath, with spirit, is make stories, and I have no reason to believe that trees don’t similarly shape their breathing. Trees listen, then they tell their side of the same survival narrative. We have this conversation continuously on the molecular level. When the trees speak they tell me of course of water (they even sometimes make the sound of it quite convincingly.) They also talk about light. When I breathe in deeply in a forest, a light brightens just behind my eyes as surely as I see a canoe when you say the word canoe or conjure my daughter when you speak her name. Trees tell me other things as well; they seem to know me. Sometimes they tell me things that I don’t know I’ve heard until a long time after. Our breathing, I imagine, tells the trees of joy and desire, anger and injury, and is often shaped into the long sighs of sorrow. We tell it all, in every chemical flavor, storytelling virtuosos who by now, after a couple of million years, know how by heart.
            It may be that trees have given us language itself. According to Robert Graves, our alphabet, descended from ancient runes, derives from the patterns of branches against the light of the moon; Anglo-Saxon runes were called by the names of trees: elm, beech, birch, locust. I am unwilling to dismiss the idea — it occurs to me too often — that trees are a superior species. According to Andreas Feininger, there are trees on the planet right now more than four thousand years old! Trees may have been the presences who called us from the waters long ago, breathing life into our brachiating lungs, then as now our beckoning siblings, body to body, need to need, gift to gift.
            This is why, when I am dispirited, I like to sit in the woods.
            And yet, I know that others find this essential conversation elsewhere. My wife prefers to walk the beach in colloquy with water, waves, and tides. She is someone who finds her renewal in motion. “I’m exhausted,” she says, “I need to go for a walk.” She can walk the sand by the waterline for miles and return somehow unburdened, happy. I suspect this has to do with the years she spent in Sicily as a little girl, and on ships in the Mediterranean, and crisscrossing the Atlantic (her father is a retired ship’s engineer); the first whiff of salt and she gets that half-smile on her face and the look of a woman listening carefully for something she can almost but not quite hear.
            And under the willow, there by the lake, in the moment just before the feelings are right there with me, fully now, a surge of mourning, a hot splash in my chest, I get it: my spirited defense of my neighbor’s tree is not about my metaphysics, but my grief.
            The house where I lived, with my parents and three younger brothers, until I was thirteen, was a narrow brick rowhouse that still had one of the old slate sidewalks. The slate was heaved and cracked by the roots of a huge tree that shaded the front of the house. My brother Bobby and I, along with our gang of kids from up and down the street, had always enjoyed it as a challenge, first on our tricycles — you had to get up a good head of steam and you had to lean hard as you crested and bumped over the crack or you’d spill over sideways — and later on our roller skates. My father called it “that damned hemlock” because the roots were working their way into our cellar, threatening the foundation.
            So I grew up thinking that the tree was a hemlock, but it could not have been because a hemlock is an evergreen, and this great tree, home-base for all our streetgames, was deciduous. I realized this only in adulthood, and many years after the tree was cut down. It made me wonder what kind of tree it was that I had leaned against so many times, forehead against the rough bark, hands over my eyes, looking into the dark and counting backward.
            The bark was deeply furrowed, coarse enough to tear your knuckles on, and black, but if you broke off a piece it was a burnt orange color and light in your hand like cork. I went to the arboretum. I went to the library. From what evidence I could gather, I decided it was a black walnut. I remembered the hard shrivelled nuts and the twigs with their pith like white styrofoam that I carved with my thumbnail. I remember using a hammer to smash open the nuts and more often than not finding the cases mysteriously empty inside. I remember the thrill of discovering, later and all by myself, that a little hole in the shell meant a worm had bored its way inside to eat the nutmeat. Then it was fun to bet with Bobby, for a baseball card, or five penny candies from the corner store, and shatter the nut with a hammer, find it empty, and collect.
            But it turned out I was wrong. The black walnut I had remembered was somewhere else on the block. The tree in front of our house, whose roots wormed their way into our cellar, was a linden.
            I discovered my mistake years later, using a handbook to identify a tree that grew by the house where I lived then. It was the shape of the leaf that changed my mind. Two memories convinced me. The first was of the branch outside the bedroom Bobby and I shared: the leaves were not the walnut’s pinnate frond, but crooked hearts, simple and sawtoothed, that had fixed themselves in my consciousness, bobbing and tossing in the wind through years of now forgotten daydreams. The second memory was of the rusty imprint of a leaf on the smooth slate sidewalk when the ice that had trapped it there melted, a kind of snapshot fossil.
            One day I came home to find it had been cut down. I believe I was nine because Bobby, a year younger than me, had just been diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, the reason he had become so weak, the reason he fell down all the time and why we couldn’t play together outside anymore, why he had been moved from our bedroom downstairs to the first floor, and why he would die before we could be adults together. The stump was nearly two feet across, with a six-inch hole in the middle filled with water and ringed by darker marrow-wood. My feelings surprised me. My father had mentioned it would be cut down. He wanted to be rid of it. “It busts up the sidewalk and that’s all we need is for some old lady to fall on her ass and sue us.” No doubt I had shrugged.
            But seeing the stump, surrounded by sawdust and woodchips, was a different matter. It was shocking and sad at a time when I believed, for reasons it has taken me decades to understand, that it was a betrayal of my family to feel sorrow. I almost cried. I almost mourned. I would have if I had let myself look up to see the blank sky and the looming eaves and the black wires lined with bewildered sparrows.
            When the tree was gone, the slate was taken up, the offending roots were cut and removed, and a concrete sidewalk poured. The stump remained, darkening and softening, rainwater held in its hollow center, black as the pupil of an eye. In that dark mirror you could stare directly at the sun, moving among gray clouds, a dull coin pale as the moon.

            “Well, you don’t have to worry, Rich,” my neighbor calls across the street to me while I’m putting out the trash. “The tree belongs to the city. They sent a guy out here, a watchacallit, an arborist, who says I’ve got to live with it.”
            What would she think if I told her to try listening to it?