Soft Shadows in Hard Places
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Welcome to "Here and Now" in the 8th month of its second year.
We have a lot of good work this time around, poems from 15 poets as well as several pieces of my own. Most of the poets you will read here this month you will likely not have read before. I hope you share my sense of discovery as you read them for the first time.
My bookstore haunt this week was especially successful, leading me to several poets new to me who are now on my list of favorites.William D. Barney is one of those.
Barney, a retired postal worker and former president of the Poetry Society of Texas, moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1928 and has been writing poetry since, serving as Texas Poet Laureate and receiving numerous awards, including being handed the Robert Frost Memorial Award by Frost himself in 1962. In addition to his own eight books of poetry, he has been included in numerous anthologies.
This poem is from his ninth collection, A Cowtown Chronicle: William Barney Poetry, published by Browder Springs Books in 1999. He was 80 years old when the book was released, so I don't know if he's still active.
Canticle for a Cutting Horse
Dun as an oak leaf dead, triggered and taut
upon wind is the mare, the palomino.
She dances upon tanbark, a ballerina, a blade
of exquisite balance;
her flesh is a furious woman,
a blend of desire and dissent, and of power
and delicate motion;
chastely the saddle begirds her,
and the rider bestride bends like a whip
as she pivots.
Relaxed in her sensitive step, patient yet
wholly alert, the mare,
the palomino, walks the tight-rope of the
Shall I say she is merely animal, creature of
instant, instinctive precision,
the flower of bestial blood?
She is spirtuelle, she aspires toward flame,
to the fools' fire in dark pastures.
Her skin is pumpkin smoke,
a smoldering satin, the dust of an evening
In her sleek strength the mare shall, as men,
but in her responsive heart let her rejoice.
She is poised as a fencer's foil,
she stalks her prey like a tigress;
like a spider she weaves the kinetic web of
she throws her great breast as a shuttle.
Make her a symbol for mind, a talisman
in her tawniness
for any who praise pursuit
of the quick metaphor, the well-cinched
word, the honest, honorable tone,
the summer within the seed.
Make her a ballad seeking right speech,
a strophe kindling to song,
Yet none of these you make her.
She herself is sufficient, the palomino,
the perfect, the slim-legged mare;
leave her to the high mesas,
to the rust-rimmed llano, her proper
stage, let her dance
her tango of intricate measures.
Nothing shall match her image, nothing
shall rightly encompass
her competence, her brute beauty.
It is the question of the day and, I'm sorry to say, probably the next several years. Having stupidly gotten ourselves involved in an illegal, immoral war, how do we get out less stupidly and more morally than we got in.
the question that confounds us
once in the
to get out
Julia Alvarez was born in New York City, but spent her early years in the Dominican Republic. She has been a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and has won an American Academy of Poetry Prize, and the Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Lectureship in Creative Writing from George Washington University.
This is the title poem from her first collection of poems, Homecoming, published The Grove Press in 1984. Alvarez is another of my finds from last week's used book foraging.
When my cousin Carmen married, the guards
at her father's finca took the guests' bracelets
and wedding rings and put them in an armored truck
for safekeeping while wealthy, dark-skinned men,
their plump, white women and spoiled children
bathed in a river whose bottom had been cleaned
for the occasion. She was Uncle's only daughter,
and he wanted to show her husband's family,
a bewildered group of sunburnt Minnesotans,
that she was valued. He sat me at their table
to show off my English, and when he danced with me,
fondling my shoulder blades beneath my bridesmaid's gown
as if they were breasts, he found me skinny
but pretty at seventeen, and clever.
Come back from that cold place, Vermont, he said,
all this is yours! Over his shoulder
a dozen workmen hauled in blocks of ice
to keep the champagne lukewarm and stole
glances at the wedding cake, a dollhouse duplicate
of the family rancho, the shutters marzipan,
the cobbles almonds. A maiden aunt housekept,
touching up whipped cream roses with a syringe
of eggwhites, rescuing the groom when the heat
melted his chocolate shoes into the frosting.
On too much rum Uncle led me across the dance floor,
dusted with talcum for easy gliding, a smell
of babies underfoot. He twirled me often,
excited by my pleas of dizziness, teasing me,
saying that my merengue had lost its Caribbean.
Above us, Chinese lanterns strung between posts
came on and one snapped off and rose
into a purple postcard sky.
A grandmother cried: The children all grow up too fast.
The Minnesotans finally broke loose and danced a Charleston
and were pronounced good gringos with latino hearts.
The little sister, freckled with a week of beach,
her hair as blonde as a movie stars, was asked
by maids if they could touch her hair or skin,
and she backed off, until it was explained to her,
they meant no harm. This is all yours,
Uncle whispered, pressing himself into my dress.
The workmen costumed in their workclothes dance
a workman's jig. The maids went by with trays
of wedding bells and matchbooks monogrammed
with Dick's and Carmen's names. It would be years
before I took the courses that would change my mind
in schools paid for by sugar from the fields around us,
years before I would begin to comprehend
how one does not see the maids when they pass by....
- It was too late, or early, to be wise -
The sun was coming up beyond the amber waves
of cane, the roosters crowed, the band stuck up
Las Mananitas, a morning serenade. I had a vision
that I blamed on the champagne:
the fields around us were burning. At last
a yawning bride and groom got up and cut
the wedding cake, but everyone was full
of drink and eggs, roast pig, and rice and beans.
Except the maids and workmen,
sitting on stoops behind the sugar house,
ate with their fingers from their open palms
windows, shutters, walls, pillars, doors,
made from the cane they had cut in the fields.
Martha Galphin returns with this poem on a solution to the communication failures of lovers. Martha is a regular on the Blueline Forum's poem a day workshop, so I get to read a lot of her poems.
Now That We Are Dead
Now that we are dead
can we talk to each other?
I felt as if ...
continue in force
for a period
of five years
from this date,
five year terms,
unless and until
"by one year
....as if it had
Pain spoke, and there
were times when
I didn't want to stay.
But I could not write it,
sign it, nor say it.
Could not give notice.
I hadn't anger to fuel
such an untruth, just
sadness and bewilderment.
No, you weren't that way;
you didn't speak legalese.
But I felt....as if
I were in the courtroom.
Sometimes you ridiculed me.
A good man,
an honest man,
an intelligent man
you loved me,
you loved the children,
you provided for us.
But....what happened to us?
May I ask you something?
Do you think....
now that we are dead,
we can talk to each other?
Here's another poet I'm ready to add to my list of favorites, discovered in my used bookstore foray this past week.
Wendy Barker has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Davis and currently teaches English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of Lunacy of Light, a study of Emily Dickenson, and another book of poetry, Let The Ice Speak. I've never met her, but would certainly like to someday.
This poem is from her book Winter Chickens and Other Poems, published in 1990 by Corona Publishing Company of San Antonio.
Cub Scouts and Yellow Corn
We figured they might run out of food
by the time our turn came,
but no, a drumstick and wing, skins
crackling fat, and bright yellow
ear of corn on styrofoam plates.
Award night for the Cubs
at Braun Station elementary School.
Neckerchiefs folded, sleeves pressed crisp,
the members of Den 4 have earned
their transformation into bears,
Den 6 into wolves, small white teeth
stripping the rows of corn.
The boys have not grown fur, only
tufts of hair that poke
and tangle under their caps.
No more woods in this neighborhood.
The few cedars left will be cut down -
rough, shaggy tree, they don't bend
to garden plans. This past summer
a bobcat came through these hills,
maybe driven down by the drought,
killed a Golden Retriever.
When he last raffle ticket has been drawn
from Frank Vargas' blue and gold cap,
we scrape back our chairs,
drive home in the cold blue night
with our boys who are wolves, who are bears.
We ask if their homework is done
before we make sure the dogs are in,
before we turn out the lights.
We sleep on clean sheets
and dream of corn - fields, miles
of corn, stretching, chattering
under the moon, tassels spilling
feathery, yellow fur.
I felt myself in need of some comfort food earlier this week, so I went down to the supermarket and picked up one of those Wick Fowler 2-alarm chili packets. I made up a big pot of it in the afternoon while Dora was at work, then ate about half of it before she got home.
The result, in addition to major heartburn, was this poem.
I like food
I like food
in a bowl
I'll even go
cream of wheat
about a thick
this is real
of that foo foo
stuff you get
on a plate,
with some kind
of green weed,
I mean real food
that I can
cup in both hands
and bring up slowly
to savor the flavor
vapors that rise
up curl around
the sides of the bowl
to waft gently
into my nostrils
activating all my
taste sensors even
before the first
spoonful is blown
cool then sipped
what I'm saying
if it's in a bowl
I'll like it
and come back
Now, part 3 of the continuing story of Giraffe On Fire, the poem by Juan Felipe Herrera from his book by the same name.
Newcomers to the story can refer back to last week and the week before for parts 1 and 2.
Giraffe On Fire
Hold up the right corner of the sea, pleated. Lift it and find pleasure
snoring, cut open by crystal and stone. Look down at your shadow by the
sands, by the gilded whiteness of your legs.
a wrapped hydrogen scarf, an ink cactus stuck to the dry galaxy below the
sky veils. Touch down. Come to the ground, the talc, this desert - peeled
and washed by distant clouds? The perfume is solar. My nakedness is
simplistic. As the sleeper searches, I find America rising on his back,
mottled, brownish. Above the water, the stone folds, clutches itself, peeks
through holes and rivets. We are playing. All of us, then just one. The sand
has been swept with a wide brush. The girl - pensive as she lifts the folds of
the water. One hand. One arm and on the other the conch shell waits.
I know the stone is the secret. The secret in the shut mouth. When I was
five I cut my fingers. I cut off my thumb. I delivered ice on the back. Wolves
sang from the mountains. Julian, the violin man next to us, in the Mexican
village paced his floor. Julian knew his wife, Jesus, was shaking and another
man was raising her hair.
Bernard Henrie lives in the Mojave desert and can be read frequently on the Writers Block workshop forum using Mohave as his screen name.
Bernie says his fish poem was inspired by Mark Doty's poem, A Display Of Mackerel which begins: They lie in parallel rows,/on ice, head to tail,/each a foot of luminosity/barred with black bands,/which divide the scales/radiant sections/like seams of lead/in a Tiffany window.
Not Enough to Say They are Green
Fish flip as though writing calligraphy,
currents buoy their gills as they swim
in water that must all look the same.
Their green idleness, their stillness eerie
like a body placed in a receiving room
or white statuary in a closed museum.
They are fish Buddha. Their reclusion
is not possible to express in words.
Their capacity for vast indifference
is thrilling. Date and time mean nothing.
When we return home from waterfalls
they circle in vast cascades of space.
Fish fountains and fish tanks
are the same to them as the Black Sea.
They are overlooked as parents overlook
a nearby child that has stopped his play.
In their scornful serenity they float
know nothing and have nothing to forget.
In the preceding weeks we've gone from the beginning through part 5 of the anti-Vietnam war poem The Teeth Mother Naked At Last by Robert Bly.
The reason I wanted to do this poem has nothing to do with Vietnam (on that subject, I find Bly's thinking shallow and simplistic), but, instead, on the applicability of much of the poem to our new war. And, of course, because it's a great poem.
This week we finish it.
from The Teeth Mother Naked At Last
But if one of those children came near that we have set
came toward you like a gray barn, walking,
you would howl like a wind tunnel in a hurricane,
you would tear at your shirt with blue hands,
you would drive over your own child's wagon trying to
the pupils of your eyes would go wild.
If a child came by burning, you would dance on your
trying to leap into the air, digging into your cheeks,
you would ram your head against the wall of your
like a bull penned too long in his moody pen.
If one of those children came toward me with both hands
in the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go back to my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours screaming;
my vocal cords would turn blue; so would yours.
It would be two days before I could play with one of my
own children again.
I want to sleep a while in the rays of the sun slanting over
Don't wake me.
Don't tell me how much grief there is in the leaf with its
Don't tell me how many children have been born with
all those years we lived in St. Augustine's shadow.
Tell me about the dust that falls from the yellow daffodil
shaken in the restless winds.
Tell me about the particles of Babylonian thought that
still pass through the earthworm every day.
Don't tell me about "the frightening laborers who do not
The mad beast covered with European hair rushes
towards the mesa bushes in Mendocino County.
Pigs rush toward the cliff.
The waters underneath part; in one ocean luminous
globes float up (in them hairy and ecstatic men);
in the other the Teeth Mother, naked at last.
Let us drive cars
the light beams
to the stars....
And return to earth
and live inside the drop of sweat
that falls from the chin of the Protestant tied in the fire.
A very useful thing about the poem-a-day workshop on th Blueline Forum is that it forces us to write something everyday, whether we want to or not. Sometime we strike out and sometimes we hit one over the fence, but every day we go to bat.
Since everyone else is writing a poem a day, the workshop allows me to read new poems everyday, poems written under the same production pressure as my own. Lots of times, I find my inspiration coming from the new poems others are writing.
Thane Zander wrote a very good poem last week, a remarkably good poem, one in a series of very good poems he's been writing daily for some time now.
His poem, touching on the subject of global warming, led me to this poem, not so much about global warming itself, but more about my perplexity at how, given incontrovertible scientific evidence, the fact of global warming continues to be denied by people who seem otherwise intelligent.
the most knowing
that it is real
that it is just
that it is the product
that in the end
the works of man
are at risk
the most unknowing
because of politics
because of debts
owed to the profiteers
because of in-
that shame a
because of desperate
to the pleasures of
in the end
will not allow
that this earth
and the universe
that surrounds it
can get along
Now, the poem from Thane Zander that triggered my poem. Although Thane wrote this poem before I wrote mine, he gets the last word on the subject, mainly because his is a better poem than mine.
The Glacial Degradation Theory
You sit at your work desk
as the day rolls on
the light of electric glow
as the heat
melts your mood
the lady in Pink
onto a computer keyboard
designed for soft touch typing.
You drive home air con on
the heat of the traffic
the steering wheel sweaty
from wringing wet hands
the day wanes
and glaciers survive
to live another eon, ancient
the last podocarp forest
as global warming
crumbles under the weight
of oxygen regeneration
the ladies inside
for children thirsty.
Sea levels rise and fall, the tides
the wash eroding beaches
on houses moved to sate owners
to provide air con and sweat
to changing changelings
a glacier growing
is both fact and myth
a recycling event from eons old.
John Ashbery was born in 1927 and, over the course of his years, has won nearly every major American award for poetry. He is recognized as one of America's most important, though still controversial, poets.
This poem is from his sixteenth volume of poetry, And The Stars Were Shining published in 1995 by The Noonday Press.
Just For Starters
Charges about this unhappiness:
They would run out and stay a minute,
exhibit the requisite stinginess,
roll up in a blanket.
That's how they and she looked to you and me.
But, of course we were vendors of a sort,
tied to no actual drift, and so
when it became poorer and spoons were put up for sale
we stood in our back alleys, chagrin
painted brilliantly on our faces.
I don't know what got me to write this poem
or any other (I mean, why does one write?),
unless you spoke to me in my dream
and I replied to you waking
and the affair of sleeping and waking began.
No matter how hard I try
I can't get back on the tricycle.
Look, a fish is coming to save us.
A sail nods gallantly in our direction.
Maybe unimportance isn't such a bad thing after all.
Blackbird Bye Bye, the first book of poetry by April Bernard, won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.
This poem is from her third book, Psalms, published in 1992 by W. W. Norton & Company.
Psalm of the Spit-Dweller
The wavelets hot against my toes, the distinctive smell: of groper,
washing bloated carcasses along the sand
Where the log has charred from beach fires, where the grass
has scorched from sun, and the dogs that trotted down the line
together and they said last year they age a baby
White fish jump frantic into the air, white terms dive frantic
upon them, lozenges of white deserting their elements
Come down upon me now, O wrath implicit in that wall of black
that looms quickly, almost comically, from the north:
But now it is like a lid closing over the greasy white
and snow-blue eye
of the sky: the lid will close forever
But the wrath is plain, unamused, as is apparent
once it has passed,
and the spit is two miles shorter than two ours ago
Meanwhile, crazy cottages stuck like bird houses above
the shifting sand
tell their own Pentateuchal comedy, as it will
someday also please the storm to laugh out loud
Here's Gary Blankenship again, with the next in his series of poems inspired by Allen Ginsberg's Howl.
After Howl IV
Wish You Were Here
who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall,
- Allen Ginsberg, Howl
under the boardwalk
down by the sea
when we play
all the lines in the penny machine
the monkey appears
to spin the prayer wheel
for the bonus round
the world's largest ball of string
largest bat and ball
(left over from a VFW parade
urging a boycott of RJ Reynolds
for selling smokes made
in communist Albania)
for 50% off
two for one
another for a penny more
six for five
a baker's half dozen
a group of preppies
sneak under the boardwalk
with a handful of French postcards
half pack of Kools
Mark's hard cranberry
as I hit the jackpot
while you pray
for a bonus round
We haven't done Langston Hughes in a while. Here's a remedy to that, two poems from the book Selected Poems of Langston Hughes published in 1987 by the Vintage Books division of Random House.
She was young and beautiful
And golden like the sunshine
That warmed her body.
And because she was colored
Mayville had no place to offer her,
Nor fuel for the clean flame of joy
That tried to burn within her soul.
Sitting on old Mrs. Latham's back porch
Polishing the silver,
She asked herself two questions
And they ran something like this:
What can a colored girl do
On the money from a white woman's kitchen?
And ain't there any joy in this town?
Now the streets down by the river
Know more about this pretty Ruby Brown,
And the spinster shuttered houses of the bottoms
Hold a yellow girl
Seeking an answer to her questions.
The good church folk do not mention
Her name any more.
But the white men,
Habitues of the high shuttered houses,
Pay more money to her now
Than they ever did before
When she worked in their kitchen.
And a second one from Hughes. He does tend to make you want seconds.
Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia: 1942
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!
In the cotton fields,
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
West Virginia poet Sara Zang is back with us this week. She posts on The Peaceful Pub, which I visit every week or so, on the lookout for good poems like this one.
I wear the night
like a shawl,
Star fringed and misty
it settles over my shoulders.
raises a graceful head
I open my basket
of wine and cheese
How comfortable this communion
with the willow,
the meringue moon
a just dessert
Photo by Chris Itz
I started going through some old stuff the other day and found a bunch of crappy old early poems begging to be to worked on (I almost said "fixed," but I not sure that's possible).
This poem, like the one I used last week, was originally written forty years ago after returning from military service. Both the poem last week and this one have been retitled and extensively rewritten.
graze their sheep
in the afternoon sun
as men in the village
in the shade
of a large banyan tree,
the murmur of their voices
drifts through the silence
of the dusty street, whispers
on the weak desert breeze
I went used book store shopping again and picked up Neither World by Ralph Angel. The book was published in 1995 by the Miami University Press.
Angel teaches in the writing program at the University of Redlands in California. He has published in numerous journals and magazines, including The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Poetry. He also published a previous book of poems, Anxious Latitudes. His awards include a Fulbright Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin Prize.
This is a poem from Neither World.
Summer has its way
around here. People kind of
cave in, weary
with the certainty of nighttime,
how it draws even these last
illusory shimmers of tropical ice
into its own oblivion.
And all the flowers
have withered away. The animals
too, are forgotten.
Now the pavement
keeps getting hotter.
City lights churn.
And out in those parking lots
and behind iron doors
your neighbors stare into their
billion broken mirrors.
perhaps to blame them,
to give them all new faces,
the ones you've painlessly
selected-brisk and cheerful-
until each prisoner's
freed from his imagined
demands and all your hope
becomes your nature, out
among the lush foliage
of the future.
A desire to be noticed
perhaps, by the old guy
who rants in the stupid
glow of his icebox,
to show your scars
to the scowling landlady,
of lifting the lid of the dumpster,
to point them out,
to brush them aside with a laugh
and a wave of the hand
for the boy who
wanders these rooftops
each night, envying everyone
who can walk well enough
on the ground, even though
they're obvious and ordinary
what you'll finally speak of
does not belong to,
and longer resembles,
I like the rain, but not so much the aftermath
defoliate and pave
I keep pushing
and the damn grass
just keeps on growing,
right behind me,
of waiting until
it's out of my sight
and I'm back
in the house
with a cold Carta
the lesson is
the wages of rain
is sweat on a job
that will almost
need to be done
time to mull
the advice of the good
General Curtis LeMay,
by the better minds
of his time, but then
none of his critics
ever had to face
the jungle that is
my backyard -
the poor general
had the right solution,
he just never found
the right problem
I've been missing my weekly shot of Bukowski. Here's my first step in catching up.
At The Edge
a smoky room at the edge, it's always
been a smoky room at the
the edge never goes away.
sometimes you understand it
sometimes you even talk to it, you might
say, "hello, old friend,"
but it has no sense of humor, it slams you in the
"this is a serious business, I’m here to
kill you or drive you mad."
"all right," you reply, "I under-
tonight this room is smoky
and I am alone
listening to the silence.
I am tired of waiting on life,
it was so slow to arrive and so quick to
the streets and the cities are
love is on the damned cross
and death laughs in the back
at the edge, the edge, the edge.
it's so sad: the flowers are still trying
to please me,
the sun shouts my name,
but my courage fails
as the animals look on with large
this smoky room.
a stained rug.
a few books.
a painting or two.
a broken chair.
and empty pair of shoes
a tired old man
I had some stray thoughts last week, driving downtown to one of my coffee hangouts, resulting in this poem.
I'm much better
at other things
this is what
I do now
this for nearly
I hardly ever
of those other
Well, we've come to that bridge and it's time to cross it.
Thanks for stopping by. Come again next week.