So by the book you’re fifty-five.
I think you look like porno live.
The massive axis of your shoulders
Draws gasps of fear from all beholders.
The hairy barrel of your chest
Renders your nudity well-dressed.
The ill intention in your eye
Makes love abide and virtue fly.
Too smooth of grip to bruise a grape,
Too strong for lions to escape,
Oh be you glad and be you merry,
My beautiful voluptuary.
the sun lights down on the hood for us
at the end of every westward-driving day:
the fourth such sun will find us there
I have looked at my first tumbleweed,
seen desert soil, and the hide-and-seek of mesas,
truths not known since childhood:
that the sky is a blue mixing-bowl inverted
that the clouds hang there by magic and do not fall
that the stars of night are not three, nor twelve, but myriad
that the sky enclosing these is black
I have gained this much: that I saw New Mexico blue
and the land still bright with flamecolor—vistas
that spun and bounced off mountainsides to the valleys below them—as, counting myself twenty-three years old and soon twenty-four,
I crossed through Texas real
and Oklahoma physical
to the certainty of California
my first West, and the world’s last
FREDERICK DOUGLASS: AN INVOCATION
Douglass, speak to us once more.
How urgently we need to hear
That voice, more like the ocean’s roar
Or like a great cathedral choir
Than any now that reach our ear.
You shone the light of reason on
That which was palpably insane
To see what sense could be derived.
You simply did that to survive.
Your wrath was rich, your hatred nil.
You did that to survive as well.
Douglass, we really need you back.
We just don’t seem to have much luck
At separating wrath from hate,
Being able to cooperate,
Or even able to coexist
Across the barbed wire of mistrust.
Also, our speakers are a bore,
A cloud of smog from ear to ear,
A glut of undifferentiated tongues
No Frederick Douglass is among.
Douglass, you must come back today.
Of course, you won’t like what you see.
But please, we haven’t got a clue.
In sheer despair we turn to you.
We too are palpably insane.
Tell us, what does our madness mean?
If not you, who can make it plain?
Speak to us again.
When you’re a proofreader, errors leap out at you,
Springing right off of the page.
Oh, how improvident! Oh, how conspicuous!
Oh, how too ghastly to gauge!
No, not accomodate! No, no, not seperate!
Spare me the worst: supercede.
Don’t even mention the grammer and calender.
Leave me alone while I bleed.
When you’re a proofreader, errors leap out at you:
Such is the proofreader’s plight.
Please, when you’re writing stuff, think of us proofreaders:
Try to get everything right.
*Proofreaders will note the nonstandard usage in this poem.
A FEW THINGS STRAIGHT
The love of men for men is hot and strong:
It won’t be satisfied for long.
The love of men for men is seen in public places
Where gay guys show their frisky faces.
The love of men for men is friendly and warm:
A hearth during a thunderstorm.
The love of men for men is from the heart:
Sometimes it rips a guy apart.
The love of men for men is from the soul:
Men who love men need men to make them whole.
The love of men for men will never die:
You cannot kill us if you try.
A TRIAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Like others, he chopped his food into bits and burnt it,
Being as he was a fire,
And no sweet brushfire either,
But burning carrion of hogs and cattle.
His table manners were learned by observation from a dog.
What the secondhand stores couldn’t sell, they gave to him for clothes.
In the turbulence of his youth, he turned to homosexuality and drugs.
It was to be a long collaboration.
Lord knows you were kind of in trouble if he liked you:
I mean, some found it sickening,
The way he hopped around you like an ingratiating rabbit;
Others were more pleased with the attention.
There was also one woman he particularly liked,
Who chose, for reasons of her own, to put up with him—for a while.
He took it philosophically enough
When he first found he had lost his power to shock,
But his calm soon turned to panic
When he beheld forgiveness closing in on him from all sides.
Still, he went on,
Bearing his adolescence high like a cross before him…
He was good in the role of the old blind poet, toward the end,
Evoking pity and fear;
And he died, fortunately for our remembrance of him,
Before his hospital bills wore out his welcome.
When the last square inch of dirt had covered the last square inch of his coffin,
The mourners all joined hands,
And everyone heaved a sigh: “WHEW!
We’ll miss him and all,
But at least NOW we can stop being polite about his so-called ‘writing.’ ”
BECAUSE I FEEL…
Because I feel
And cannot tell,
My heart is full,
Loving your soul
And keeping still
As bears a priest,
Close to his breast,
The Blessed Host,
The Sacred Guest,
The body of Christ,
DAYS TILL DEPARTURE
In the days remaining
wings, ships, an overhead light and gone
In the days remaining
edge from a color of sound
In the days remaining you walk through rooms
fish, ships, and follow them through the sea.
Guitars and shadows will weave more tightly than calico thread and thread
Strings of guitars will tangle lightly as golden hair
As hair on a golden head
while white into gray, the gray sky.
In the days remaining you overhang me
grass on the upland pasture brown
I watch your feet, that turn and are planted
seed from the earth to the sower’s hand
And thinking that even Love…
My hands would rise of themselves to shape you
only for fear
and the light from eyes.
I can see the color of these days: it is brown through green.
The sounds are voices heard in the morning,
Asking each other if I have wakened.
The walls, these pale green walls, need help: they are shrinking.
The windows, that looked out, look back in and are frightened.
And thinking that even Love…
I would fasten you roughly, gauging my need
and the lights and ships and sky.
Consider the food shortage. What is a food shortage?
The world can produce its food, and we have vehicles.
So there can’t be a food shortage, only an organization shortage,
Or a cooperation shortage, with tariffs and frontiers,
Plus a language barrier, plus an education gap.
In short, these food shortages of which we continue to speak,
because people die of them,
Are ulceratingly real and wholly a mental creation:
The infant gnawing on garbage bones
Has failed to make a dent in a heart in corporate Michigan;
And those that die thirsty and unwashed
Needed the revivifying rain that never fell
On some poor Washington DC cerebrum.
FOR A FRIEND ON LATELY COMMENCING HIS LOVE LIFE
for John and Holly Bailey
Jumbled in body and in mind,
Slumped to your shoulders, extruding beyond the chair,
You sit obtusely.
Love’s such a simple blind;
A wonder that no one figures it out beforehand!
But this is your first time.
The cognoscenti among the passersby,
Remembering your long semesters and your caution,
Stop and applaud before they pass.
Long overdue, they mutter, long overdue;
But here at last. They speak at some length of her and you;
But none of them speak of love in abstract terms
Who have seen your big, slow heart, beating so strong.
FROM THE WINDOW
The sister siren up the street—
“Oh human children, what has happened now?”—
Fading from voicetop only to repeat,
It makes me wonder how
I could be brought to that impasse,
To yank the stopcocks on my tanks of fear,
Loosing in seven-colored clouds the gas
That lights on striking air.
You minstrelbird, you nightingale,
Injury, death, and sickness have removed
Your every holding-back; yours is a wail
That Greeks would have approved.
Could I be sent a grief so wide,
My voice would rise, irreparably unbound,
The future would fall away like a buildingside,
And men would jump from windows at the sound.
GOING TO THE PRINTER’S: A DIDACTIC POEM
for all the Helminskis
To measure the geography of paper,
You need small measures: a tad and a hair’s-breadth.
The tad is a pica, six picas to the inch.
The hair’s-breadth is a point, 72 points per inch.
Now then: the type-style, with dozens or hundreds of fonts to choose from,
Some with serifs and some without.
Serifs? The hairline strokes that complete
The top and bottom of certain letters.
Look at a capital I, for instance:
One stroke or three?
Sans-serif type makes bolder headlines,
But serif type is more legible text.
How big are the letters? That’s point-size, in points.
Look at some samples, see what looks right.
The space between lines, or leading (rhymes with “bedding”)
Is not measured in half lines or lines.
It’s any space you specify, measured in points
From one baseline to the next.
(Hint: if you’re setting 12-point type,
You’ll need at least 12 points space between lines.)
Finally, how wide a column do you need?
That’s line length or measure, in picas and points.
If you take this poem to the printer,
I’d like it set preferably in Palatino,
Or else in Garamond or Baskerville,
In 10-point type, with 12-point linespacing,
In a column 30 picas, 6 points wide.
Oh let my poems move as in first gear
And never rush nor speed, and stop but never stall.
Let the first line gently push and feed
The motor starting. Let the last line fall
As dying motors fall. Let it be a poem
Like an old car on a cold day
That was never out of danger but got you safely home.
LINES WITH FOUR FEET
The day goes blah, the day becalms;
The hands on the clockface twiddle their thumbs;
The chair and the footstool sit on their hams;
But then—an end of a string unwinds
And dangles down my mind.
Catthoughts paw at the string and miss
Three times on purpose before they hook:
Skirdily, skirdily, skirdily, chook!
But big-dog thoughts with four feet flush
Leap at the cats and yap and spit.
No one around to break it up,
And there would never be peace except
That thoughts of you, like pandabears,
Come padding in. Hi, bears.
When I have fears that we may cease to be,
I think that I would gladly die.
I mean will, or will try to try.
But then, when Death shall eat me
And void me into black space utterly,
What will the difference be how green a world has disposed of me?
When the last singer of my songs
Has sold his guitar and no longer goes partying,
What do I care whether player and instrument
Are or are not to be holocaust-harvested?
There in the void, will I feel an additional layer of nothingness?
Why, in my dreams, so often and so soon—:
Our history, the whole idea of us.
ON A PHOTOGRAPH
It goes to the heart. It couldn’t have happened again.
And it’s all there.
The beard is part of it, and the full gaze,
But speak any further and I realize
What would have been lost in speaking,
And only was preserved because
Some way, some way or other,
In a random yard, in an off season,
This one-time flower,
This transcendental still, recalled to paper
What each of us in his room alone will see:
You as you might have been;
You as, in spite of everything, you are.
RESPONSE TO A CRITIC OF MY SONGWRITING
The rhymes that I use
Are the ones that I choose,
Often funky and quite unconventional.
You may think they sound good,
You may think they sound bad,
But the sound that they make is intentional.
SLEEP IS RAINING DOWN FEATHERS…
Sleep is raining down feathers.
My fogbound head
joggles through minutes, muttering
What will the ship be? Where was the music?
Sometimes a madcap thought overplays its hand, and
I come to my senses.
Sleep barrages my head with bubbles
blown by familiar voices.
One floats close to my ear until
I can hear the words that are in it;
it spins in place like the earth
and pops—I’m alone.
Time to be off. At last there swim in my eyes
comforting bodies, known and imagined,
aroused with signs of surrender,
assuring me there’s no evil done in dreams.
SONATA IN R
This morning I tried to open the door.
The results were poor.
You see, I wasn’t quite sure
Which of the three keys there were
Went with which door.
Perhaps, if I’d been,
I’d have gotten in.
But as things were,
I stood and tried the key in the door,
And it went in the lock, but no more.
It didn’t respond to the oaths I swore!
But that was the key, I was almost sure.
Almost…but no, not certain quite,
And so, by the ill-placed windowlight,
I looked through all of the keys I had,
Like a man gone mad,
Telling with my two eyes the story
Of each incursion and promontory,
Until, beyond the shadow of a gnat,
I’d distinguished this one apart from that.
In fact, the key I had was right.
This time, first time I tried,
The door opened wide.
Why didn’t it do that the time before?
It’s weird: almost as if the key
Needed something from me.
Well yes, I guess the answer’s there:
That is how things are.
Once you don’t doubt the key any more,
Once you’re sure,
It opens the door.
THE MAD POETASTER
The sadness unseen, it is little and green,
But it riddles the ether with riddles obscene.
When it swells brittle bells
Toll the saraband service of sadness unseen.
On the plaza I pace, and I ponder once more
The embarrassing odor of rot at the core.
And I feel myself bound for the dustful demesne
Of the cyclical sickness of sadness unseen.
—Which is little and green,
But it crunches its cud with a cunning unclean.
And it hits and it spits
Out a sequence of sequins of sadness unseen.
The seraphim, even, have inwardly sinned,
Circling by ones in the westering wind.
Baptism balks; can I clutch for a screen
From the slithering slopes, from the rapid ravine?
The falling from faith where the scavenger skims,
The doubting of dawn when the daffodil dims—
My heart has lost harbor; I think it must lean
On the silicate scepter of—
Sadness unseen…it is little and green,
But it murmurs to meadows of aquamarine.
Let us whisper let us whisper
The insistent encystment of sadness unseen.
Cleaning my wallet out, there’s your card…
God, how long has it been?
That phone sure won’t work. You’re not at that address.
and email doesn’t go there either.
Perfectly useless, and totally hard to toss,
the same way it’s hard to throw away old keys,
knowing they were important once, and opened something.
“Oh! I’m so sorry!” But SPLAT went the cone on the ground.
I fried in my shame.
He took no offense.
He was black. He shrugged, and smiled, and was off.
He probably made a full and complete recovery.
I never did. I’ve been embarrassed for the rest of my life.
In heaven I get to buy that man an ice-cream cone.
THE HIGH ROAD AND THE LOW ROAD
Hauling the Mistress Logic’s cart,
Scrambling on with never a stop,
Checking at every step the chart
To fold it immaculately up,
I start to doubt, till I cannot keep
My eyes on the road, I cannot help
But squint, from a corner of eye, just a squint at the sky.
And what do I see but you, aloft like an angel.
I look for your jets, or props; and so does the woman behind me.
Those curves, I feel how you turn them; I am abashed.
You smile on me as you see me,
And sing to me as you climb:
“Above the clouds there are no more clouds;
Blue, nothing else but blue,”
Through which your course designs itself in real time.
THE WORLD PASSES FROM UNDER OUR FEET…
the world passes from under our feet helminski
by the time we’re thirty-two we’ll have disappeared
but I’ve got our next life all planned out
we’ll be on bali playing in the same gamelan
I’ll be furious with you because you’ll make so many mistakes
but the hash will be good, and the shy and sun-bronzed island girls
will burn for you like hibiscus
We all knew John, his talent and his troubled mind.
We knew he was in great pain and seeing a shrink.
He used to tell us sometimes what his shrink told him:
That we are not actors but victims, all of us,
Victims of each other, victims of circumstance;
And what we call love is no more than two selfishnesses
Striking a temporary bargain.
That’s what his shrink said, and he must have believed him,
Cause he jumped out the window of the Howard Johnson’s
Twenty-three stories down to the roof of the bar next door.
I’ve often wondered if I could have talked with him…
I’m sure a lot of us have.
I know what I would have liked to say:
That love, at least sometimes, is delightfully better than that,
And the will is urgently more real.
TWO BIRTHDAY HAIKUS
you’ve broken your own
record for consecutive
years of loveliness
you come through the door
heart dances on its hind legs
like a dog for joy