More Temperate

Most trees have leafed out for two or three days.
Each leaf unfolding in place to fill its space, green;
But the trees that flowered are wilting now,
Bold blooms shrinking to leave more space between,
Dwindling to stipples along each bough.
Superimposed: a lacy screen, damascened,
Patches on a slate background--the dripping sky--
Grey except at some hidden place where a break
Must let the sun flood up to certain high
Shingles, a wire, a spire that's a streak
Of brilliant white. All silent, a still sheen,
Sheer, stretched thin to fade or end in a blaze.

tangled beauty

Let us be glad for tangled things--
   For soiled fingers raking thick-stemmed grass;
     For matted fur on long, warm ears;
Or child's hair idly twisted in rings.
   A thatch of ganglia fires in the brain's wet mass:
     A thought--electric--splits, connects, adheres.

All things rooted, snarled, or tensed,
   Whatever needs some mesh to form its mass,
With loops, forks; twists, knots; ends, tears.
   Let's give thanks for things that are soft and dense. 

See also: for Gerard Manley Hopkins; and Pied Beauty, illustrated.

when the lotus bloomed

I was so distracted, tense, and busy
That I missed the lotus bloom.
Though preoccupied and hasty
I sensed something in the room—
Caught that subtle scent of longing,
That mute yearning to be still—
But I hadn’t yet an inkling
That the flower was my will.

(Answering Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own English translation—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”)

anxieties of influence

Emerson, Lowell, cummings, and Plath,
Stevens, Roethke, Frost, MacLeish, and Hall,
Ashbery, Bishop, Eliot and Rich–

I write them down in verse, shuffling their names
To fill my lines, making them my material,
They who took all the words I want to use.

(Longfellow, his house a federal shrine,
Is too “historic” to trouble me much.
Phyllis Wheatley, too, but all honor to her;
And grey Amherst is a world apart.)

My adopted city is still more theirs than mine,
Though they have settled into matte darkness
While I still walk the prosaic blocks,
Narrow sidewalks, double-decker homes,
Gingerbread, brutalism, and maple leaves,
And belligerent drunks who own their spots
Until the streetlights dim and the town stirs.

— Cambridge, MA, November 2018

self help: a short story

Political prisoner K. was sentenced to solitary, with only cement walls, a cot, a stinking bucket, and a food slot for company.

One day, on his way back from interrogation, he saw a tattered paperback on the floor. The guard let him take it with him. It turned out to be Letting Your Inner Boss Shout by Dr. Bradford P. Bradley, PhD.

K. was enraged at first by its solecisms, trivialities, cliches and lexical trespasses. Anything would be better than this! After reading it several times without finding any value in its Six Winning Strategies for Asserting Your True Needs in an Office Context, he began selecting fragments from the pages. The rule was to leave chosen words in place but hide the rest. For instance:

Another game: rearranging all the words of a sentence to say something better:

The Six remember. Strategies, always.

True, winners: their real minds speak.

These activities engaged K’s. attention for several days, but something kept intruding. Or rather, someone. Dr Bradley, PhD.–Brad Bradley–just Brad. Was he raggedly bearded and balding, with spots on his head and long speeches to give? Or a young guy, bored out of his mind, looking for new life though writing? A pseudonymous woman, quiet observer of her office culture? An ironist, chuckling as he typed?

K. couldn’t quite tell. Alternatives multiplied into a whole community of Brads.

The real author, whoever it might be, seemed to deserve the respect of attention. Maybe Brad really had only five strategies in mind, but the book was too short and he’d wracked his poor brain until he came up with a sixth to pad the pages. Or maybe Brad knew that eleven strategies were necessary for achieving your life goals, but the cheapskate publisher forced him to cut five of them, and now he was worried to death about his misinformed readers.

It was good, in any case, to have a companion. The six strategies had been meant as gifts; perhaps it would be better to accept them as such. With thanks, even.

Prisoner K. and Dr. B. Just the two of them, in solitary but not solitary. Shouting their inner bosses. Hearing the other’s shouts. Having someone to walk with blindfolded to the final wall.

(Chicago, Sept. 20)

The Anachronist in the Florida Review

(Korcula, Croatia) I am in Europe for a mixture of work–in Ukraine and Germany–and vacation. Meanwhile, the Florida Review has published The Anachronist as a multimedia feature. It begins:

The Argument

A woman is bound to the stake to be burned:
No hope of using the secrets she’s learned.
A sagacious doctor awaits his fate,
Captive in the Tower behind Traitor’s Gate.
His student could strike to make justice prevail.
Righteous is he, but his judgment may fail.
Over the sea comes a painter who sought—
Not the dark cellar in which he is caught.
In the midst of these four, a lady is torn.
She must choose just one, leave the rest forlorn.
Time’s arrow flies; let us find where it lies. 

A woman stands to her waist in a mound of logs and neatly bundled furze kindling. The split logs beneath her feet cut into her bare soles. A rope winds around her body from her thighs to a triple knot at her chest. The stray hairs on the knot’s surface shake in the wind.

She thinks: You watch small, harmless things like this every day of your life. If I were a child, I would play with this rope, pull its strands apart, or drag it behind me like a tail.

The words she hears in her head are Dutch, her native language. Although her body is trussed, she can turn her face. On her left she sees seated clergymen and dignitaries. The name “Thomas Lucy”—“Sir Thomas”—comes into her mind as she identifies a bearded, red-faced gentleman with a heavy gold chain over his furs. Look how calm he seems now, she thinks. Look at his fat hands, how relaxed they are, clasped over his fat belly. When he questioned me in the castle, those hands were always twitching, scratching, accusing ….

what it looks like to live

She’s all cheekbones, lashes, emotions
Conveyed in rapid succession, practiced.
Cut to his reaction, the impact on his famous
Face, bathed in a warm and flattering light.
Then they’re running athletically away,
Silhouettes diving before the fireball.
This is living. This is doing something.
It plays on long rows of screens suspended
Above the welded seats, the wall-to-wall,
The strewn paper bags and strewn human forms.
Slumped, plump, pursued by a slower fire,
None watch the screens deployed for our relief.
We find darkness in that old space behind our lids,
Or gaze out, or stare down at smaller screens
Where more looks and loves, kisses and missiles
Remind the living what it looks like to live.

(Dallas, June 4)

Philip, Hannah, and Heinrich: a Play

“[Philip] Roth, who passed away last week, will be spending a lot of time with Arendt now, as he will be buried near her in the Bard College cemetery. According to an anecdote related by Bard’s President, Leon Botstein, Roth requested to be buried in the Bard cemetery so we would be able to talk to Arendt in perpetuity.” — Roger Berkowitz 

Philip: Hannah? Hannah? Dr. Arendt? Let’s talk about Irving Howe, can we? I was thinking maybe we could start with him. In 1972, he accused me “thinness of culture, … of ressentiment [and] freefloating contempt and animus.” He said that your Eichmann book demonstrated “surging contempt” and “the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down” on others. Now, was that fair? Where did he get off accusing us of contempt in such a contemptuous way?

Heinrich [Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, buried to her right]: Wer spricht das? Wer ist da?

Hannah: English, please, Heinrich. You still need to practice your English. It’s just Philip. Philip Roth–the young novelist? Although he actually doesn’t look so young any more. He’s buried on the other side of me now.

Heinrich: What? Forever? Did you agree to this?

Philip: How about Gershom Scholem, Hannah? He accused us both of being self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews. Who made him the arbiter?

Heinrich: Could we talk to Leon about getting this fellow moved somewhere else?

Philip: Hannah, tell me about Berlin in the twenties. [Wistfully] You guys didn’t have to wait ’til the sixties for the sexual revolution, did you? Talk about putting the id back in Yid–you Weimar intellectuals already took care of that. Cafes, cabarets, it must have been great. But Heidegger? What did you see in that old Nazi?

Hannah: Ach, please, both of you. “Death not merely ends life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness, snatched from the hazardous flux to which all things human are subject.” Can we try a little of that silent completeness for a while?

(See also: The House of Atreus: A Play; and for Gerard Manley Hopkins)

echoes

In home movies and fading Polaroids,
They look funny, their lapels wide and garish,
Their facial hair risible, movements jerky.
They look naive–fools, ignorant of what came next.
But I report: the grass felt just the same
When you raked your fingers though its crisp stems.
On a suddenly warm January day,
Wafting over sodden drifts, the air smelled
The same, and laughter sounded the same
Filtered through traffic thrum and cicadas.

[edited on Feb. 4, 2018]