Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On Forgiveness by Destiny Oshay Birdsong

On Forgiveness

It’s a simpler matter when you’ve known
The feeling of bringing nations of men to their knees. 

When you’ve emptied entire nurseries of firstborns; 
Fed years to the locusts, then locusts to the lips of John—

Carcasses of the surplus scuttling across desert
Sand like chambermaids in David’s castle. 

I too could cast a man’s deeds into the Sea
Of Sin No More; drop stones like roses at his feet. 

Power makes one gracious. Power makes one
Easy. Even Lionel could rise from his bed

Of charms unharmed; Al would never learn
To loathe the smell of grits like burning flesh.

Yes, I’d lay down the knife and wipe my eyes
As if I were slicing onions for a meal;

Dance daintily across a kitchen floor
To the tune of “Let’s Stay Together.”  No,

I would not begrudge my lover’s trip to Damascus
If I could blind him on his way there.  


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Heartsong by Khaled Mattawa


A bird sings from the tree. The birds sing
sending waves of desire-- and I stand on my roof
waiting for a randomness to storm my days. I stand on my roof
filled with the longing that sings its way out of the bird.

And I am afraid that my call will break me,
that the cry blocked by my tongue will pronounce me mad.

O bird mad with longing, O balancing bar,
tightrope, monkey grunting from a room. Fortunate bird.

I stand on my roof and wave centuries of desire.

I am the Bedouin pondering the abandoned campsite
licking the ashes of the night fire; the American walking
walking miles of dresses, blouses, and skirts
filling them with infinite lovers;
the mystic feeling the pull swirling in his chest,
a desert of purpose expanding and burning and yellowing
every shade of green. And I stand on my roof.

And I say come like a stranger, like a feather
falling on an old woman's shoulder, like a hawk
that comes to feed from her hands, come like a mystery,
like sunlight rain, a blessing, a bus falling off a bridge,
come like a deserting soldier, a murderer chased by law,
like a girl prostitute escaping her pimp, come like a lost horse,
like a dog dying of thirst, come love, come ragged and melancholy
like the last day on earth, come like a sigh from a sick man,
come like a whisper, like a bump on the road, like a flood,
a dam breaking, turbines falling from the sky,
come love like the stench of a swamp, a barrage of light
filling a blind girl's eye, come like a memory
convulsing the body into sobs, like a carcass floating on a stream,
come like a vision, come love like a crushing need,
come like an afterthought. Heartsong. Heartsong.

The pole smashes and the live wires yellow streaks
on the lush grass. Come look and let me wonder.
Someone. So many. The sounds of footsteps, horses and cars.

Come look and let me wonder. And I stand on my roof
echoing the bird's song and the world says: Do not sleep.
Do not sleep now that you have housed your longing
within the pain of words.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Season of Phantasmal Peace by Derek Walcott

The Season of Phantasmal Peace

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
the net rising soundless as night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
                                                     it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Royal Gate by Marie Ponsot

The Royal Gate

Little Jacqueline Pascal played with Blaise
re-inventing Euclid (Papa told them to).
While he made up conic sections, she wrote plays
& got papa out of jail when Richelieu
liked her long impromptu poem in his praise.
I haven’t read her verse. Its not in print.
Blaise invented: the wristwatch, a kind
of computer, fluid mechanics, the hint
for digital caiques, probabilities,
the syringe, space as vacuum, the claims of lay
theologians. He thought (he thought) at his ease.

In her convent Jacqueline kept the rules.
On or under every desert there are pools.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp by Zbigniew Herbert

Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp


Truly my infidelity is great and hard to forgive
for I do not even remember the day or the hour
at which I abandoned you my childhood friends

first I address you humbly
pen with a wooden holder
painted or finely lacquered

in a Jewish shop
—creaking steps a bell over the glass door—
I picked you out
in the shade of indolence
and before long you bore
on your body
my pensive teethmarks
traces of school’s angst

O silver nib
outlet of the critical mind
courier of consoling knowledge
—of the fact the earth is round
—of straight and parallel lines
in the shopkeeper’s box
you were a fish waiting for me
amid a school of other fish
—I was amazed there were so many
objects ownerless and completely
forever mine
I put you piously in my mouth
and felt on my tongue
the long taste
of sorrel
and the moon

O ink
honorable Sir Encaustum
of a distinguished lineage
as the evening sky
slow to dry
and very patient
we turned you
into a Sargasso Sea
drowning blotting paper
hairs flies and curses
in your wise depths
to mask the odor
of a gentle volcano
the call of the abyss

who remembers you now
my fond fellows
you disappeared quietly
behind time’s last cataract
who remembers you gratefully
in an era of harebrain ballpoints
of arrogant objects
without grace
or past

if I speak of you
I’d like to speak
as if I were hanging an ex voto
on a shattered altar


Light of my childhood
blessed lamp

sometimes I come upon
your dishonored body
in a secondhand store

yet once you were
a shining allegory

spirit stubbornly battling
against gnostic demons
given over to the eye
transparently plain

at the bottom of your reservoir
kerosene—elixir of primeval forests
a wick’s slippery snake
with a head of flames
slim maidenlike glass
and a silvery tin shield
like Selene at full moon

your princessy moods
O beautiful and cruel
hysterics of a prima donna
not sufficiently applauded

a cheerful aria
summer’s honey glow
above the glass mouth
a fair braid of sunlight
and suddenly
dark basses
ravens and crows alight
invective and swearing
prophecies of destruction
a fury of smoke bombs

like a great playwright you knew the tides of passion
and the swamps of melancholy black towers of pride
blazing glow of fires rainbows the unleashed oceans

effortlessly you summoned out of nothingness
landscapes cities gone wild mirrored in water
at a sign from you the crazy prince of the island
and the balcony in Verona appeared obediently

I was devoted to you
O luminous initiation
lever of knowledge
under night’s hammers

and my other
flat head cast on the ceiling
looked down menacingly
as if from a box of angels
at the theater of the world

I thought then
I should save
from the flood

yes so it might go on living
and we inside it as in a shell


I have never believed in the spirit of history
a puffed-up monster with a murderous eye
a dialectical beast kept on a torturer’s leash

or in you—four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Huns of progress galloping across the steppes of heaven and earth
destroying on your way everything honorable old and defense

I wasted years learning history’s simplistic workings
the monotonous procession and the unequal struggle
between the thugs at the head of addled crowds
and a handful of the righteous and reasonable

not much is left
not much at all

and compassion

lightly we leave the gardens of childhood the gardens of things
scattering manuscripts oil lamps dignity and pens on our flight
such is our deluded journey along the cliff side of nothingness

forgive me for my ingratitude O pen with your archaic nib
and you inkwell—you still contained so many good ideas
forgive me oil lamp—you die out like a deserted campsite
I paid for my betrayal
but then I didn’t know
you were gone forever
and that it would be

(Translated by Alissa Valle)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Old Fools by Philip Larkin

The Old Fools

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke

Archaic Torso of Apollo

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.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

As Is by Marie Ponsot

As Is

Objects new to this place, I receive you.
It was I who sent for each of you.
The house of my mother is empty.
I have emptied it of all her things.
The house of my mother is sold with
All its trees and their usual tall music.
I have sold it to the stranger,
The architect with three young children.

Things of the house of my mother,
You are many. My house is
Poor compared to yours and hers.
My poor house welcomes you.
Come to rest here. Be at home. Please
Do not be frantic do not
Fly whistling up out of your places.
You, floor- and wall-coverings, be
Faithful in flatness; lie still;
Try. By light or by dark
There is no going back.
You, crystal bowls, electrical appliances,
Velvet chair and walnut chair,
You know your uses; I wish you well.
My mother instructed me in your behalf.
I have made room for you. Most of you
Knew me as a child; you can tell
We need not be afraid of each other.

And you, old hopes of the house of my mother,

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Waving Goodbye by Gerald Stern

Waving Goodbye

I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Identification by Wisława Szymborska


It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary—

(Translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Among School Children by W. B. Yeats

Among School Children

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sonnet V by Mahmoud Darwish

Sonnet V

I touch you as a lonely violin touches the suburbs of the faraway place 
patiently the river asks for its share of the drizzle 
and, bit by bit, a tomorrow passing in poems approaches 
so I carry faraway’s land and it carries me on travel’s road  

On a mare made of your virtues, my soul weaves 
a natural sky made of your shadows, one chrysalis at a time. 
I am the son of what you do in the earth, son of my wounds 
that have lit up the pomegranate blossoms in your closed-up gardens  

Out of jasmine the night’s blood streams white. Your perfume, 
my weakness and your secret, follows me like a snakebite. And your hair 
is a tent of wind autumn in color. I walk along with speech 
to the last of the words a bedouin told a pair of doves  

I palpate you as a violin palpates the silk of the faraway time 
and around me and you sprouts the grass of an ancient place—anew

(Translated by Fady Joudah)