“I have heard of this book already,” said Don Quixote, “and verily and on my conscience I thought it had been by this time burned to ashes as useless . . . .”
High Wire Man . . . .
High Wire Man • To a Woman, Singing • Under Construction • In Durham, Living on the Margin • Wittgenstein’s Lion • Fuđark • Homunculus • Philosopher • Murder Sonata • Vocalise • No Thanks • Bach’s Retraction • Symposium • Take the Hard Road Home • Heart of Flight
“These . . . ,” said the priest, “do not deserve to be burned like the others . . . , being intellectual books that can hurt no one.”
American Pie • Autumn Catalogue • Train to Dallas • Reading Evening Prayer in an Empty Church • Flatbush Waltz • The Echoing Green • Obiter Dictum • Pressmen • Salvationists Escaping • From a Farther Room
Janis Joplin was a tough
little Texas girl, you said
who busted her butt to be a star
but if there was ever any music it disappeared.
Maybe we never heard it anyway.
If there was ever any music
I lost it at the Eagle café
where lunch was Theresa Brewer
and my friend Jack Benny Cunningham’s yellow boot
came down on the neck of a little Mexican
we’d called a wetback–
we could have killed him.
The week before, we’d killed a deer
trapped him in the headlights, bird-dogging
in my granddaddy’s old Dodge. Then we were
on him with pocketknives, and the more he
struggled the more we cut, until
But I think Janis Joplin died of hype
and when the music disappeared behind
night-slapping windshields from Newark to Saigon
we didn’t understand. All we ever wanted
was to get there.
Have you outstripped the rest?
Are you the President?
Out on the road
You’ve got nothing left to lose, born again
and amplified, faster than Richard Petty
drop-kicked through the goal posts of life.
[First published in New Texas 1998, 1999]
as the light flies
I tell you how my heart breaks
for one red maple
on a hill in South Carolina
and for a redtail hawk
how autumn tramped that country
in dirt feet, keening
like an old song. I reason
that things are most themselves
in autumn when at four o’clock
the sun from high cirrus cuts
Their yellow hands holding the blades
they abide the time
and country roads. My hand
translucent as I
write by this window–
tendons slide along the knuckles
gently lift the net of veins
where the life goes home, and I recall
how soft your eyes are sometimes. If
my character likewise
should be exposed
it would be found a somewhat overbloomed
perpetual. But if found at best
I think I could hollow out my bones
wait with the redtail hawk
in a known spiral upwards, all
utterance suspended. Glaciers snap
my hair is white, a hawk cries
[First published in Weymouth:An Anthology of Poetry Edited by Sam Ragan, 1987]
Train to Dallas
As I have moralized it
we rode through grey
of our coach revealed
black against them here and there
mesquite, post oak, scrub cedar. I
nodding into Lear, as Kent
into wheels turning, kept the
season in the stocks.
Dead father, please come back!
I, too, would lead you by the hand–
Look there! cried the old mad king
closing Cordelia’s eye, a door
to tombs in Leicester whence he went
that day the rails beneath me throbbed
as though they were the joists of heaven.
There is a grief of old men, saturnine
as Texas winter towards the solstice–
my grief too, borne inward as the death of God.
The oldest have borne most, been comfortless
incapable; my grief to search for fathers I had wronged
by too much love.
[First published in Pembroke Magazine 1978]
Reading Evening Prayer in an Empty Church
It’s good to be here, Lord,
even if you’re not, even if all
that’s behind the crucifix
is the eastern wall.
Chrysostom says it takes two.
I’m never sure that angel on the back bench
knows anything, sitting there with his big square
wings folded, reading the editorials.
I’ve seen his kind streak across the sky
now and again, bound for races or baseball,
thrown a few high thoughts their way,
but I don’t really want their life.
Not that here is an easy place.
My clothes are too tight. I worry. Sometimes
I get depressed. But what if I stopped
in this place just to get my messages?
This here, this room into which I speak
is quite enough height for me, and maybe
someday we’ll all of us get the message. Home,
this is home, with its not very permanent light.
Here or nowhere, me or nobody–
[First published in Windhover, January 2001]
In a book he called Thad Stem’s First Reader, the author
recalls his first love, a young woman named Rose Blatz,
who taught him a few words of Yiddish, and whom he
characterizes fondly as the ninth candle of the Hanukkah
menorah. Of the ninth candle, Leo Rosten observes that it
stands taller than the rest, being the candle from which the
other eight candles are lit, one for each day of the feast,
and symbolizing that one can give love and light to others
without losing any of one’s own radiance. Jessica is Shakespeare’s
Jessica, in The Merchant of Venice, who might have had Andy
Statman’s Flatbush Waltz in mind, when she said, "I am never
merry when I hear sweet music . . . ."
[In a doggerel rhythm, like a slow waltz]
Kings and queens in their limousines,
like these in their threadbare velveteens
were pearls that we stitched da da dum
da da dum
and now our dance is plain as boards
but our feet still turn as we sway, da da dum
we are sober as sawdust, flat as shirts
but we flame as we step, we shine, da da dum.
Dum da da dum two three dum each tink
of the mandolin drums to the fiddler’s tune
curling and sad and sweet da da dum
like Hanukkah candles or wine from a spoon.
When in sweeps Jessica nee Rose Blatz
ninth of the candles, or first, da da dum,
she shines in full measure, out-darking the time,
the fiddle bow stitching up skeins of pearls
to the music she steps, da da dum da da dum.
Come along you squires, you easy riders
madonnas with chutzpah and pizzazz,
put an ear to the witness, eye to the shine,
put your foot, mark the music, it droppeth
This sad sweet waltz is a journey somewhere–
beyond some long march, out past the last prayer,
the last mitzvah waiteth with Jessica there.
Dance is commanded, no wallflowers here,
they shall dance in Jerusalem all, next year.
[First published in Windhover, January 2001]
The Echoing Green
As many times upon the running lawn,
The spangled night of Iris-fragrant Spring
Was the various and populated town
Of our souls’ sensing of our God and King–
There were no tigers in our Father’s world,
No spiders in the singing Lotus there;
Around our rose-tree house the Serpent curled
Benign and fructed sleeper, centered fair.
We played creation round about his head
And Magicked friendship from the tuneful skies;
Thus being spectral, chaos shrank and fled
And found the cosmos deep as we were wise.
So, having lost the fathering gift of play
We strain at fallen love in common day.
[First published in The Sewanee Review, Spring 1972]
It was five a. m., the papers say
when you slipped away in your sleep.
It must have been a quiet departure
unlike you, who were seldom at a loss for
words. I’m damn sorry I missed your funeral,
sorrier to have missed your conversation
all these years.
Not that you were unquiet–
you held it in and wept, if you wept,
in a place apart (not unlike the rest of us either
wearing charity like a millstone). I often found
you behind your old Underwood at the paper
banging away with two fingers at that old devil
language. I learned from you never to use the
word rue or to put a comma at the end of a line,
learned to value some common truths, like the
way you always asked, “How you feelin’?”
and probably meant it. I miss you no more
today than during ten years silence
though the thought of you grows hollow.
You were a sociable man. I found it
easy to love you
and knew you loved me because I knew you to hate me
once. I had seen a weakness you couldn’t abide–
the circumstance no longer matters, but the truth
can’t be left out. Like the memory of torn pride
whatever we carry of others in us,
[First published in New Texas 1998, January 1999]
It is late. I sit at a long deal table
in an upstairs cafe across from the paper
and watch the pressmen come in from their shift.
We will drink coffee for a while. Again I will think
I know why they wear those squat little hats
folded from newsprint, why they do not
take them off–then we will go.
The hats are a disguise to make themselves
pressmen, like gunnery sergeants or stevedores–
a disguise and a badge. “We are men,” they say,
“who tend a machine, feet sunk in fifty-foot rock
and long as a football field, that rips words from air
as it whirrs like a saw, eats ink, tree trunks, arms.”
Most have fingers missing, some have more.
One tips back his chair and tells a story about his son,
pushes the hat back on his balding head and scratches;
another tips the hat forward, tells of an argument
with his wife, as if to say, “You know how women are.”
Here, at the end of their shift, they still need to wear the hats–
even as they wrap the arms of their minds around each other,
because they are men with stories they do not
entirely wish to tell.
And that is because they aren’t really pressmen at all.
One is a breaker of horses, who carries a fire in his belly
that drives him to make subjects of hammers, automobiles,
his lawn mower. Another is drunk on God. In the dark
hours away from the press, God visits him. They smoke
a calumet together, tell lies and love the lies they tell
as though they were incense drifting up from sacrifice.
The central one, he to whom others defer, will one day be buried
with his weapons. When centuries lift the broadsword from his ribs,
they will find him to have stood seven feet tall. And the small
one at the fringe of the group, the dark one who smiles a lot–
no one knows he loves a woman who sang to him once in Greek.
A luthier, he sleeps in the grain of true and high harmonics
a sheet of spruce thin as a plectrum crushed to his ear.
[First published in Windhover January 2001]
The crisis is always the same.
What if, after collecting coats and toys
TV sets, gratuitous old shoes, we should slip
broke and walking out of Sherman’s Atlanta
barely ahead of gangrenous caissons and burning?
And suppose the children were not
the same every year with surprised grandmothers
getting canned goods and hand me downs, but refugees
with swollen bellies begging the roadside
and sooty fingers plucking our penniless sleeves.
It has somehow to start elsewhere.
The world I make love to has always
had your skin. Its roots and contours
swim in your sea, telling each other touching
all the things that are told.
Yet there is always that other, sometimes
so much of it we die for a while or a lifetime
(once as a child I caught the same
tiny fish forty-seven times). In Sherman’s fires
we swim, tiny fish in buffalo grass.
Love because you must before the world wakes
to the dead city and everything gone but smoke.
Tug at each other’s coatsleeves. Do not let go–
as though there were someone to forgive the burning
as though there were someone to love us but ourselves.
[First published in New North Carolina Poetry, The Eighties, Edited by Stephen E. Smith, 1982]
From a Farther Room
—for Dona and Rob Anderson
“But is it really
music?” you complained.
We were talking of Stan Rogers, coming out
with new tunes even though he’s dead, music
(or not) mostly made at the engineer’s board.
I thought of dour old Mennonite women
on hand at the fair in Iowa City
like my Swedish grandmother, long since moved away.
New music made them stiff last year. ‘I’m here,
but I don’t like it,’ their demeanor seemed to say.
New gospel, slick as TV, gave them nothing to pat their
Earlier, we had talked of your new house in Door County,
seen photos of friends on a friendly beach. Rob mused, “We
wrote three books together,” pointing out one of them. Then
we talked some more about land and trees and water,
I still thinking of “Paradise” and saying
fretfully how we blow whole mountains away
and think to make it good by planting grass.
If new music fails perhaps it lacks something
of the earth we know. Gordon Bok sings of weather
I can only imagine, being southern; yet his voice, recorded
fills a room, sonorous as woodsmoke. Listening, I almost think
I’ll be a Maine man too. Rogers, doubly absent, sings of Nova Scotia
—but the rhythm is a Texas two-step.
So if music pegs us to known earth, maybe new music
reminds us how we are sometimes tied to objects of desire
we don’t understand. A damsel with a dulcimer
in a vision once I saw . . . heard melodies are sweet,
but those unheard are sweeter, as once in Taos
I watched a young woman dance alone
in herself, complete—
taking, as she did, space meant for a hundred.
New music surprises us, arrives all at once in the air
from nowhere we had ever expected to go. Sometimes
we don’t like it, but this year the Mennonites rocked
to the strains of “I’ll Fly Away”—
and perhaps all music is new,
like sleep on the westbound porch
at my Swedish grandmother’s house in Las Cruces
where the Santa Fe whistled hollow and high.
Nuzzled as close to some heart of it as we can get,
we sometimes write books, cook risotto, argue—
take naps in the moonlight while somebody
not present calls the tune.
[First published as a broadside by Backroom Press, 2011]
High Wire Man
He starts at dawn.
From a hill above a tiny
French village a wire stretches up
over cottages parti-colored, harlequinesque
a single steeple, tall beeches swaying.
He walks at first like a tumbler, leaping
and changing his feet, turning cartwheels
about the pole that balances–one false turn
but he catches himself last instant before
dead weight–and then the long stride
over the housetops, each step centered
Do we really hope he falls–
Isn’t it the overcoming that thrills
each step an overcoming not of death
but of something like slavery, on the wire
to fail beyond shame? We imagine fear of
broken bones and agony, death of deaths
by violence, but ask him and he’ll tell you
he is at home on the wire. Think of the pole
the balancing, the purity of it. Any life
he loses isn’t his own.
From his heart stretches another wire
tugging towards the hard planet–
what he risks is loss of height, but in
the end the heart implodes, wires run to ground
over a little stile, step foot in a field of folk.
We cheer and weep–ask and he’ll tell you
he was at home on the wire.
–at the MoMA in 1983
What did Rilke mean
«you must change your life»
that a dead god speaks
through a broken statue?
or that the statue, mutilated, is
the god, absences noted–
here in the MoMA the issue is
simpler, most of the galleries closed.
A rope separates me from The Starry Night
whose “careful use of line, space, and spiral
. . . creates a sense of reckless speed.” It is
nonetheless a small canvas. The cypress
in the foreground enflames less than
observes, a lonely spectator almost outside
the rope with me. Van Gogh needed a wall.
Nearby trois demoiselles, huge and histrionic
scandalize the room, its neutrality, its spotless
temporariness. The heavy brushstrokes of their thighs
are brass fists–the flat planes of their faces slap the air.
What absence teases here? Art deco furniture
Bauhaus models, an Escher drawing or two
return to book–Van Gogh returns to book.
Only the bawdy demoiselles disturb the silence.
I turn to them, smug as if
to say: Be still! We are in charge–
see, we have shouted these others down
and nothing will ever be the same.
Wittgenstein . . . made the most interesting
mistake about animals I have ever come across.
At the end of the Philosophical Investigations he
says that if a lion could talk we wouldn’t be able
to understand him.
If some lion were to speak
(to say nothing of lions at large)
that one would be a failed beast
thin-maned and ugly, lacking among its kind
any familial tie to the king of
A hearer of voices, that
one would scheme of poetry–
in the desert would invent
riddles that slouched like athletes
thick muscled, gigantic.
Of course, the lionist culture would fail
its pretensions exposed by a skinny Algerian.
A postcard mailed from a desert town
requesting copyright, would be returned
because it arrived without a stamp
but think of the romp they would have.
Lionish translations would burgeon–
Imagine the Nicomachean Ethics roared
the Iliad’s great periods hugely purred
the New Testament conceived
as an antelope hunt.
Soon would arise a tradition
of lionist conversation, courtesy having
its Leoniglione, politics its Leonavelli
verse a Leonighieri, a dolce stile
a sprezzatura of the leonine.
In the new lionist Aeneid
the hero remains in Carthage
to wed the African queen.
Having conquered the interior
the lovers found instead of Rome
a belletrist academy
teaching all subsequent history
to keep a civil tongue.
I made nothing–
that has to be said
at first, not the little
klavierstücke so loved by parents
(hated by children) not a cantata
toccata, passion, chaconne,
not the great fugue, none of it
Nor, and this is hard,
was I its instrument–not one breath
in the pipes that caused these hands
and feet to dance on burnished wood
was mine. I felt that breath,
thought it, I suppose, like Pascal’s
reed, knew it even for what it was
«soli deo gloria» but I never . . .
better to say, my God,
that it made me.
And the great fugue?
I laid it out, signed it, sought
to perfect it, failed; but the heart
of it, peace to men of good will–
good will the highest good of all
sublime above all other–some profess
they were taught it by a philosopher;
I forget his name, a pietist I think,
no matter. That was the great
fugue, not mine but God’s.
Had I been its instrument
I should have died sooner, incarnate
lost in its incarnation, surviving
only as long as memory lasts;
but we know that God’s music (there
is the word) sheds its skin like cicadas
I used to find as a youngster in Eisenach
choristers whose thousand juicy voices
thronged high summer nights. Nor was
the what the wonder, more nearly the whence–
brilliance of silence unfolding with jeweled speech
(don’t believe the philosophers, music is sound)
and oh my Lord my God the rush of it, sometimes
not to be borne, the organ bench my only safety,
only calm in the wind that made me crazy!
The muse first sought me out in the church
at Arnstadt; we made music weekdays
until the council discovered us.
An angelic flute she was, in the antique
style, God’s voice a violone,
wheeling like the planets–I had been
to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play
overstayed my time, neglected my choir . . .
I’m no good for philosophy. Give me black
and white keys, wood diapason, reed diapason,
gut, tin, or brass, handy, homely things: I am homesick–
always was homesick–the great fugue
took me home.