Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Our Dead Do by Zbigniew Herbert

What Our Dead Do

Jan came by this morning
—I dreamed of my father
he says

he rode in an oak coffin
I was near the procession
and father says to me:

how fine you’ve got me up
and this funeral is splendid
flowers at this time of year
it must have cost a fortune

don’t worry about it dad
I say—let the people see
that we truly loved you
we’re doing you proud

six men in black livery
go grandly alongside

father ponders a moment
and says—the desk key
is in the silver inkwell
in the second drawer on the left
there’s still a little money

we’ll use the money—I say—
to buy you a gravestone dad
big and made of black marble

no need son—says father—
rather give it to the poor

six men in black livery
go grandly alongside
carrying lit lanterns

again as if pondering
—watch the flowers in the garden
cover them properly in the winter
I wouldn’t want them to go to ruin

you are the eldest—he says—
take the genuine pearl cuff links
in the pouch behind the picture
may they bring you good luck
I was given them by my mother
when I graduated from school
he didn’t say anything else
but fell into a deeper sleep

so this is how our dead
look after us
admonishing us in dreams
returning our lost money
trying to finagle us jobs
mumbling lottery numbers
or when they can’t do that
tapping fingers on the pane

and we in infinite gratitude
invent them an immortality
snug as a mouse’s burrow

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

He Fumbles at Your Spirit by Emily Dickinson

He Fumbles at Your Spirit

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool, --
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy

The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin! 

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place. 

I shot him dead because--
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although 

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like--just as I--
Was out of work--had sold his traps--
No other reason why. 

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The City by Constantine P. Cavafy

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

(Translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

Friday, May 23, 2014

The House Was Quiet on a Winter Afternoon by David Young

The House Was Quiet on a Winter Afternoon

Someone was reading in the back,
two travelers had gone somewhere,
maybe to Chicago,

a boy was out walking, muffled up,
alert on the frozen creek,
a sauce was simmering on the stove.

Birds outside at the feeder
threw themselves softly
from branch to branch.

Suddenly I did not want my life
to be any different.
I was where I needed to be.

The birds swirled in the dusk.
The boy came back from the creek.
The dead were holding us up

the way the ice held him,
helping us breathe the way
air helps snowflakes swirl and fall.

And the sadness felt just right,
like a still and moving wave
on which the sun shone brilliantly.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Biology Teacher by Zbigniew Herbert

Biology Teacher

I cannot remember
his face

He towered over me
his long legs spread
and I saw
a gold chain
an ash-colored vest
and a scrawny neck
with a dead bow-tie
pinned on

he was first to show us
the leg of a dead frog
touched with a needle
it contracted violently

he led us
through golden binoculars
into the intimate life
of our ancestor
the paramecium

he brought in
a dark kernel
and said: ergot

on his insistence
I became a father
at the age of ten
when after a tense wait
a chestnut sunk in water
released a yellow shoot
and everything around
burst into song
in the second year of the war
our biology teacher was killed
by history’s schoolyard bullies

if he went to heaven—

perhaps he now strolls
along long rays of light
wearing gray stockings
with an enormous net
and with a green box
happily banging behind

but if he didn’t go up—

when on a path in summer
I meet a beetle clambering
over a mound of sand
I go up to it
make a bow
and say:
—good day Sir
permit me to assist you—
I transfer him gingerly
and watch him go off
until he has vanished
into his murky professor’s office
at the end of an avenue of leaves

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Margaret by Spencer Reece


I remember she rented a room on the second floor from Jenny Holtzerman, an Austrian widow. The two women lived on Girard Avenue South, in Kenwood, an elegant suburb of Minneapolis. Any promise of husbands had disappeared long ago. From the kitchen I often remember the jelly smell of a linzer torte. I was in high school and often I eavesdropped. Once, quietly, she said to my mother, “I never knew the love of a man.” She had mentioned having a husband, but during the war they were separated in the chaos of Budapest, and later she lost track of him. Once she showed me her room: the walls were bare with cracks. Her daybed was narrow, barely slept-in. Her room resembled hundreds of scant little rooms around the world, the way it accepted blue and purple-violet detail—on her bureau, no family photographs, instead, playbills autographed by cast members, a calendar tattered, crossed, marked, no jewelry, some coins. Her window sashes warped, her wires shorted and the paint around her doorframe kept chipping off—“like in The Cherry Orchard,” she said, “by Chekhov.” She told a joke in Hungarian to Hannah Tamasek and even I, not knowing a word, laughed. She bowed gently in a mannerism distinctly Viennese and spoke on occasion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She loved the Guthrie Theater, where curtains rose on miniature worlds, preferring memorized dialogue and costumes to something truer. Five feet tall in orthopedic shoes, she limped. Time has a way of rearranging things and I could have most details wrong now, but there was this: during the war, she met a man, whom she gave money to, she did not know the man well, but had trusted him to smuggle her father across the border, the man pocketed the money, bought chocolates for his mistress from Belgium, and placed Margaret’s father on a train to Auschwitz. So it makes sense to me now that simple decisions baffled Margaret. It makes sense to me now that when news reached us of Primo Levi’s suicide, Margaret did not blink. It makes sense to me now that when Dr. Sikorski spoke of fighting in the Warsaw sewers, Margaret said, “I do not believe in God.” Those who saw what they saw grow fewer. Margaret has been dead a long time now. But perhaps you will understand why I chose her, why I have smudged the slow waltz of her smile and added only a few modest blue strokes—here and here. As you leave Margaret behind and turn the page, listen as the page falls back and your hand gently buries her. This is what the past sounds like.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Trees by Philip Larkin

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mother's Day by David Young

Mother’s Day

        —for my children 

I see her doing something simple, paying bills,
or leafing through a magazine or book,
and wish that I could say, and she could hear, 

that now I start to understand her love
for all of us, the fullness of it. 

It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,
a modest lamp.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bliss and Grief by Marie Ponsot

Bliss and Grief

No one 
is here 
right now

Monday, May 12, 2014

One of Their Gods by Constantine P. Cavafy

One of Their Gods

Whenever one of Them would cross Seleucia’s
marketplace, around the time that evening falls—
like some tall and flawlessly beautiful boy,
with the joy of incorruptibility in his eye,
with that dark and fragrant hair of his—
the passersby would stare at him
and one would ask another if he knew him,
and if he were a Syrian Greek, or foreign. But some,
who’d paid him more attention as they watched,
understood, and would make way.
And as he disappeared beneath the arcades,
among the shadows and the evening lights,
making his way to the neighborhood that comes alive
only at night—that life of revels and debauch,
of every known intoxication and lust—
they’d wonder which of Them he really was
and for which of his suspect diversions
he’d come down to walk Seleucia’s streets
from his Venerable, Sacrosanct Abode.

(Translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Learning to Read by Franz Wright

Learning to Read

If I had to look up every fifth or sixth word
so what. I looked them up.
I had nowhere important to be.

My father was unavailable, and my mother
looked like she was about to break,
and not into blossom, each time I spoke.

My favorite was The Iliad. True,
I had trouble pronouncing the names;
but when was I going to pronounce them, and

to whom? 
My stepfather maybe?
Number one, he could barely speak English -

two, he had sufficient cause
to smirk or attack
without prompting from me.

Loneliness boredom and fear
my motivation
fiercely fueled.

I get down on my knees and thank God for them.

Du Fu, the Psalms, Whitman, Rilke.
Life has taught me
to understand books.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Atlas by Kay Ryan


Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can’t
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Waking by Theodore Roethke

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Forgiveness by Fady Joudah


He was in Iwo Jima
now at home hospice for emphysema
on oxygen with lower-limbs edema

I’m your one and only
Arab Muslim friend I said
He said pour Gold

Label on my grave quench my thirst
through your kidneys first
and laugh and laugh we did

Monday, May 5, 2014

Thorns and Roses by Zbigniew Herbert

Thorns and Roses

Saint Ignatius
pale and fiery
passing by a rose
flung himself on the bush
mutilating his flesh

with the bell of his black frock
he wished to stifle
the beauty of the world
which gushed from earth as from a wound

and lying at the bottom
of the cradle of thorns
he saw
that the blood flowing from his brow
was clotting on his lashes
in the shape of a rose

and the blind hand
seeking out thorns
was pierced through
by petals’ soft touch

the defrauded saint wept
amid flowers’ mockeries

thorns and roses
roses and thorns
we seek happiness

Halston by Randall Mann


Roy Halston Frowick, 1932–1990

He kept his middle name, the pick of   the lot,
he thought, and mispronounced himself: Hall-stun.

At Bergdorf’s he acquired an accent and referred
to himself   in the third person, every bird he flayed

wrapped in Ultrasuede. He lit a True with a True,
smeared his hirsute muse with sequins. There were air-

kisses, Capote’s new-cut face at Studio 54, that Baccarat
flute of ejaculate. Never too late, he ordered in

meat and potatoes, and a trick.
He called it “dial-a-steak, dial-a-dick.” He appeared

on The Love Boat, Halstonettes in tow,
maybe the high, maybe the low, watermark.

When his pupils betrayed him at work, on came the shades.
And a well-cut blazer, paranoia. He had signed away

the rights to his name, for options. When he tried
to reclaim them from the conglomerate,

he excused himself to the toilet, just a sec —
white dust on a black turtleneck.

His block started to look a lot like sickness.
Even his beloved orchids, the sickness.

Just like that, the eighties were gone.
New York, New York, the eighties were no one.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Circle Drawn in Water by Franz Wright

Circle Drawn in Water

I think somewhere there is a room
in which I am living
an old man

in the future,
in a windy
room where I'm sitting and reading

trying to make out
bent over a three-legged table

these words I'm now writing—

in what will then be
passing for the present,

trying to read to remember
the room
the light the time of day
when I first set them down

What a pile of shit, I'll say

and What was her name
What the hell
was her name

I will slowly get up then
and walk to the window, this time

this place dear to me

even in the muteness

the absolute unsayableness
of the simplest thing in pain
the way it was, exactly
as it was
when I began

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Mirror in the Entrance by Constantine P. Cavafy

The Mirror in the Entrance

In the entrance hallway of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor's assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor's assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.

(Translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ballad of Infanticide by Cathy Park Hong

Ballad of Infanticide

Near starved, we find a fort of teetotalers
who begrudge us their succor.
While we eat up all their salt pork,
Our Jim sings for them in his strange high voice
of an Injun killing ranger who hitches up
with his Comanche guide.
She bears him a strapping son and is ramped
with another, when the ranger hives off
with a fair-haired sheriff's daughter.
He then banishes his squaw and his sons
like they're prairie beeves.
But she won't go quietly:
she poisons his new wife with a malarial dress,
and that ain't the worst of her sins, that tar-eyed witch
strangles her own newborn,
and the other son flees—
The ladies cry: enough of this devil song.
Then it done occurs to us, looking at his dusky skin—
Our Jim's a two-bit half-breed.