General Poems

To Kim, for His Poem on Trees and Us as Kin

to Kim Stafford

I like your poem on trees and us as kin;
I found it in a damp brochure beside
The campus center. As I slowly walked
The path prescribed, you made me think of new
Perspectives till the campus vanished, gone
In misty greens and browns, a sylvan fog
Clouding my eyes, taking my thoughts beyond
My job here till just poetry and trees
Remained. I thought about your poem and how
You lead the mind to link the trees to books,
But we do other things with trees as well:
Like building little bridges to connect
Us, crafting homes to keep us safe and warm,
Or, conversely, crucifying those
Poor people who disturb us. Also we
Have tossed a noose or two on branches when
We disagree with some complexions. Christ!

Some say the trees have spirits and can think.
If that is true, I bet our kin the trees
Can find no use for us and want us off
The family tree. Alas, I must point out
To them a simple fact: While I can pick
An apple off of any apple tree,
My kin, you cannot pick your family.

General Poems

Kelly and John, On Your Wedding

Kelly, you and John are a delight.
You make us happy individually;
Together it is always better. So
It’s only fitting to officialize
The thing and get your rings, your flowers, bows, and
Dresses, tuxes, drunken distant cousins,
Rented chairs and tables, and champagne –
Yes, all the goodies of the idiom
We call The Wedding Day (all rights reserved,
Walt Disney Corporation). Yet despite
The hype and cost, it does not last; it’s just
One day, you know. So stop to take a breath
And look around; enjoy it while it’s here,
And soon that other thing begins, that thing
We call The Lives We’re Leading (copyright
2004 by Halliburton). If
I were a writer, I would say it’s now
Your tale begins, your great adventure starts,
But Kelly, you’re the writer, so I’ll save
Such words for you, although it’s certain you
Will write great novels of your courtship, yes,
Some doodled pamphlets of canoodling,
And screenplays of your love with characters
Who are yourselves disguised a bit by names
Like Juan and Melly. John, you will create,
It’s sure, an architecture of your bond,
A sprawling structure of relationship
With porticoes of passion, vestibules
Of veneration, cupolas of keen
Connection, though do not forget your house,
Your posh Palladian palace, will include
A writer’s room tucked in some corner – right? –
And you could also have out front a sign
With words like “Morgan and Olivia
Are welcome anytime to visit here.”

General Poems

For Freud

“Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say.” – Todd Dufresne, LA Times, 2/18/04

One rainy morning over breakfast, yes,
I read it in the LA Times that you
Were wrong on everything you ever did
Or said. I had to stop and let that thought
Sink in; I wondered, as I dropped my spoon
Into my bowl of cereal, just what
It means to fail on such an epic scale,
Herr doktor. You’ve been laughed at, loved,
Revered, reviled, mocked and worshiped. Life
Was never dull for you in Austria;
Today your name still conjures up a host
Of raw emotions in its hearers, which
Astounds me every time. How can a man
Of nothing but some strange and plodding prose
You sprinkled with some strange and plodding talk
Of sex, society and God still get
Us always fired up? Can such a man
Be wrong on everything? I think you must
Be on to something. Maybe not. My toast
Grew cold, and milk was sogging through my flakes
Of raisin bran. I’d have to leave for work
Quite soon, but wasn’t in a hurry now.
I put my foot into a sock and put
That foot into a shoe. I puffed big rings
Of smoke; my morning cigarette was two,
Then three, today. I watched the wretched sky
And asked: how will my life ever compete?
Your level of achievement, good and bad,
Seems more than I could ever reach,
Although I’d like to think I could be right
About at least a thing or two perhaps!

General Poems

Wild Noise of Madrid

Oh, the wild noise of Madrid is louder, more
Full of life than any individual,
No matter how frenetic. Streets all shake from cars
And trucks, but most of all there is the force of feet,
Pedestrians, those endless, rolling waves of them,
The sounds they make, the voices of the city. It
Is mad, a chaos yet a harmony, as there’s
A chorus to it all, and while a single voice
Cannot be registered, those crowds together hum
And howl and so can’t help here but be heard; they roar,
And, singing day and night, they hold their single parts
Together in amalgamation. People come
To merge their voices in this chorus, being one
With it to lose themselves, the winding of their souls
A perfect mirror to the winding of the streets,
Those narrow calles at the center of Madrid,
All spiraling out from Puerte del Sol, a thrashing squid’s arms.

July rolls by. Thermometers read 41.
We pant like dogs and wander round the stony ways
From shade to shade, as weights of pasts on pasts push down
On us more than the scorching air, from recent days
With clumsy bombs of northern separatists that light
The night when eyes are tightly closed and show us now
The Fascists’ shadows rest on every army guard
Who leans against a government building wall, as well
As every tourist bus that leaves the city for
The Valley of the Fallen, ice-cold monument
To nation-love gone wild, near in every way
Except in time to El Escorial, where grand inquisitors
Spewed hate to save their faith four centuries ago,
Which brings us further back to yet another war
Of Spanish Christian soldiers swirling scepters, flags
Unfurled, while burning walls of alcazars to make
A nation out of tribes… Now all these memories
Rumble past us, go down streets, up walls, through thoughts
To join the chaos like the rest of us; they join
This city’s wild noise, to shimmer in the white
Hot light that is all colors mixed as one, then fade
Like all of yesterday’s now fading goodbye kisses.

General Poems

To Carlos, on His Marriage and My Gaining a New Sister-In-Law

Carlos, we are truly brothers. Despite
The lack of blood between us, despite the miles
Apart we lived for years and years, despite
The different vanished fathers, other bonds
Persist. A mutual disdain to wait
For deus ex machina is the first
To come to mind: Why wait for others’ work
To save your skin when you can save yourself?
Yes, a mutual imperative
We share for one to be oneself, to act
Alone… ironic then that we are friends
And further still that now we celebrate
Your joyous union to Ninnette today;
But life is often built on paradox
It seems, and who are we to question it
When beauty showers down around
And fills our happy hearts to overflowing
Passion songs for sated souls? For I
Now have a brother and he now has a wife!

General Poems

God and Job Once Had a Talk

God and Job once had a talk.
Actually, one talked and one
Listened, as the other spun
Round and round above his head
In a violent tempest. “Dead,”
Job could only say, “I wish
I were dead.” Then, like a hawk
Swirling over him, our great
God amusedly began
Talking all about the rain,
Lions, and gigantic fish.
“Job,” He asked, “did you create
Earth and all its many wonders?
So, you have no right, dear man,
None at all, to question Me.
It’s another of your blunders.
Hubris, as the Greeks will call
It, and they’ll be experts. Pain,
Torture, rage against their lot
Make them feel as though they ought,
As it were, to challenge life.
You are like this too. A small
Bit of wisdom, listen here
As I whisper in your ear:
Do not challenge Me. A knife
In your heart would surely be
Better than your soul on fire,
Boiling over, end to end.
Put aside your mortal ire.
Learn to see Me as your friend.
Anger is divine and so
Should be left to Me alone.
Next time, think of Me as though
I am here to help atone
Sins of human flesh, and not
Causing flesh to clot or rot.
When you want to look for Me
Turn away from tempest gales
And ignore the lightning’s strike.
Gentle as the doves and snails,
I, your God, am, if you like,
Chopping wood in Galilee.”

General Poems

A Winter’s Tale

for Will Shakespeare

The statue of the queen has come to life
Before the king who stunned to silence stands
In awe, his withered hands outstretched.

This amazing scene! The scene at court
We’d all become accustomed to from years
Of repetition was its opposite:

It was the king who moved; the queen was still.
Now all is turned around, and rightly so
In my opinion, if the words of such

A humble courtier are worth your time.
Shrieking suddenly, the king returns
To consciousness and whispers fiercely, “Gods

Above, my wife alive again? My life
A waste no more? But all those wasted years!
Gone away, they’re gone and who’s to blame

But me alone, a hopeless, wasteful fool?”
The queen begins to weep, seeing tears
There on her husband’s cheek. “Enough,” she says,
“You will not be hopeless anymore.”

General Poems

In a Time of Illness

for Ann

Aunt Biddy, yes, we are all “lovely, limited creatures.”
We have such strength together that we think we can
Accomplish anything alone. We can’t. Yet each
Of us aspire to individual heroics,
Destined for a failure. Learning this, it is
At first a terrifying knowledge, and we ask
Ourselves, as Goethe’s Werther did, “How can I go
On living without going mad?” The terror must
Be turned around to calmer thoughts of coalition.
Otherwise, a suffocating loneliness
Encases mind and soul in living tombs, cut off
From all communication. Bonds of friendship turn
These mausoleums into monuments of hope.

This afternoon we sit beside my monument,
My Taj Mahal, and watch the crowds of tourists stroll
In circles, taking pictures, telling jokes. They wave
To me and mimic cutting motions with their hands,
As I lean forward, snipping blades of cool, green grass
With ornate scissors you once found in Chinatown.

General Poems

“Love Songs”

I’m writing love songs to the world,
Writing, writing everyday.
It’s a process, sure, slow, and steady,
Like love itself never is.

Sure as the bond between brothers
Who argue over the smallest things
But never really argue,
Who as boys, twins, rumble over dirt mounds
In vacant lots near their house
Finding fantastic treasures buried beneath
That no one else is ever allowed to see
(You know, there used to be pirates here; They buried things all over And forgot where they dug)
And who under autumn porchlight
Plot out the grammar and vocabulary
Of a new, private language.

Slow as a school class
When you’re 17
And there’s so much more to life
You’re dying to see it all right now.
So you’re coming out of your skin
Just to get the world to move.

Steady as the wind that always blows
On the deck of my apartment here in Boston,
Looking over the water where the winds come in,
The gray water, the gray cumulus clouds racing,
Angry at the sun, wanting the city gray too.
It’s all someone’s metaphor somehow,
But you can never tell what for,
But the wind stays steady.

I have gotten lost in Boston,
Came here and can’t get out,
Trapped in its icy winter prisons
More dangerous than all the prisons in my mind.
Came to write my metaphors,
But this city’s a metaphor too, I guess.
Streets tangle round, buildings roll over hills.
Surely it all means something, but not to me.
Confusion is my muse these days.
I ought to go north,
Chase down Robert Frost’s ghost
In the villages where the leaf tourists stop to get gas
And I’ll be a tourist too, a stranger,
Just as I am in this city,
And waiting by a road, I’ll be writing with my pen
Some silly lines to fit the strange occasion:
But I go on writing here,
Typing out my love songs to the world
Until the tapping of the keys
Becomes a beautiful rhythm all its own.
Sing to me, keys.
Sing me your beautiful love songs,
Whose words are not words at all,
Whose language of sound
Speaks through all languages,
Or rather seeps through,
Whose rhymes are always perfect
In their completion,
Whose similes, stanzas, and stresses
All could make a critic cry,
Whose love is for the true palindrome
Of abstract rhythm.

I’m singing songs, loudly, all across our globe,
Songs to the humble and the wise, to all houses
And houses’ shadows, to those souls without a home,
Songs to those forgotten by other songs
In their cardboard world beneath the light of day,
And songs to all those souls who have been serenaded
10,000 times before I was even born,
To all the souls of love or overflowing scorn.

To them, and more, I sing my songs, which belong,
As all songs do, to all the traveler gods
Swirling round the globe with winds from hurricanes,
Their eyes alive in tropic summer heat that smolders
In flat, dead air until the storms arrive to blast
The very ground awake from ancient soil-slumbers,
As they’re screaming, “The time for sleeping’s past!”

My songs will scream this message too, until the words
Shed off their ink revealing their foundations
Of asbestos, concrete, chicken wire, not words at all
But things, a mesh behind the message, with a message
Of its own. It says to think beyond the world
Of ink and find the language of our bodies, not
Of our voices, not of our pens; there is in flesh
And earth a higher dialogue, or lower
If you will, which asks us bluntly: Can you try to be?

General Poems

The Dissertation

The work runs on and on, a steady stream,
A constant feel of flowing and of force,
The strength to fight the current. It
Reminds me of that Chinese legend
Of the man who trapped a dragon
In a waterfall. It took him 30 years
Without a rest. The dissertation fights
Me like that dragon. Neither it nor I
Can rest. We tire to exhaustion, but
Our struggle lumbers on to nothing I
Can see. In rivers, lakes, and waterfalls
Of work I’m swimming night and day. The air
Is damp with work’s humidity, which rests
Atop the bookshelves, endless, endless shelves
That wrap around the house and block the world
Outside, a language wall of bookbricks crammed
With long forgotten voices, brittle words
All yellowed by the choking damp. My soul
Is lost in esoteric texts, the tail
The dragon whips at me to blind my eyes.
My dreams are shaken to a frenzy. Hope
Of daylight lights my plodding steps through night
To morning’s dragon-nightmare lull.
No rest, no rest…. The Rosicrucians once
Compiled 1,000 books on alchemy,
10,000 miracles producing gold
From dirt, from iron, even from the dew
Collected off the church roofs after dawn.
I look at them and ask: Can’t I complete
This one book of a lesser alchemy,
Turning pages into pages? I
Am ready for the fight to end. It brings
To mind one version of the Chinese tale
In which the man who trapped the dragon, he
Returns from fighting only to discover that
A tiger has destroyed his house and now
Prepares to kill his family. He has
No weapon but the dragon’s tooth. The fight
Goes on for 40 years. I think of this
Amazing tale with laughter, tears, and sighs
That only weary souls can make who know
No rest will soon be found. I’ve almost trapped
My dragon, but my tiger still is waiting
At my hearth, with heaving chest, with panting
Mouth of fangs. He purrs for my return.