Greatest Hits

The best posts, based mostly on author preference but influenced also by reader reaction.

From the other side of the world, the Buddha’s mother
texts on her cellphone: How r u? I hope you pray for me
like I pray for all of u. I am an old woman now, I am taking
my supper by myself. I wish to c u all and embrace each of u.

He’s facing a particularly trying day at the office:
sales reports overdue, job interviews for a new team
of young upstarts he secretly fears are already after
his job; and his wife is on line 1, frantic about the busted
water heater, their insurance agent’s call about a premium
adjustment, plus their son’s dropping out of college.
Just a few minutes ago, all he could think of was five
o’clock and happy hour with a dish of deep-fried calamari
in the depths of a smoky bar, where he will stare
at the muted TV on the wall until his mind feels empty.
But now he pauses, pushes back his swivel chair, opens
the corner window to let in draughts of air. One hand
on his throbbing temple, he breathes first into one
nostril then exhales out the other, repeating this
for a full cycle. How has he come to live this long
with more or less all his faculties intact, with a heart
buoyed up and down by the vagaries of everyday destiny;
with the instinct to wash his face in the morning, brush
his teeth and hair, button his shirts neatly, cut the meat
on the plate with a knife and fork? How does it seem
like just yesterday that he came home plastered
from a frat party to throw up in the hallway then
collapse in his own vomit? Or the time he surreptitiously
took the family car and rammed it into the barrier wall
coming back from a midnight joy ride, nearly killing
himself and his friends but miraculously surviving?
Oh the face of his mother when she opened the door
in her bathrobe; oh the fountain of her magnificent
and sputtering anger, the scalding tears of her unmasked
frustration: May you know someday what it’s like to suffer
the pains of a parent! May you stay up late transfixed
by the unhelpful transparency of hours moving from dark
to dawn! May you know the simultaneous gnashing
of teeth in the thousand and one gears of worry, all
because you have thought of no one but yourself.

*

 

“Sancta Mater, istud agas
Crucifixi fige plagas
Cordi meo válide.” ~ Stabat Mater; Missale Romanum

[“At the cross, your sorrow sharing,
All your grief and torment bearing,
Let me stand and mourn with you.”]

 

In response to Via Negativa: Stabat Mater.

standing dignified in your threadbare coat
at the wintry intersection of City Hall
Ave. and the exit of the mall
parking lot, holding up

a cardboard sign that reads Thank you
for any help for the homeless
, a rucksack
at your feet filled with what might be
your only worldly possessions—

And I love you who peered at the man
behind the wheel inching slowly forward
toward the barrier: you, random stranger
who recognized the violinist playing
months ago near midnight in a cafe,

ice and dirty snow piled outside
on the sidewalk and all the people
crowding indoors for beer and wine
and warmth, no one really listening—
But for you, the music issued

from the wood, strings that pulled you
out of yourself into a time and place
before this one— And I do not know
the story of your particular
impoverishment, nor the list

of who or what you may have lost
and how; but it is my purse
and every last unlined pocket
of my heart that fills
when you pull out the few

creased dollar bills you have
and thrust them into the hands
of someone who made for you,
for us, one night sometime ago,
a little space wounded with beauty.

* ~ with thanks to my youngest daughter G. for the line that reeled off the rest of this poem

 

In response to Via Negativa: Funny tastes.

At the center of an unnamed European city, a large park doesn’t open its gates until noon. People line up to get in and sit at round tables drinking wine, eating small cakes or playing accordions. Our friend who lives in the city says if they would only open at a reasonable hour — 7:00 or 8:00 — hikers could start their journeys there, setting off on one of ten long-distance trails, which were once the routes that pilgrims took to visit all the lost fingers of the national saint. It’s crucial, he says, to begin at the right place, like a ball that must be thrown from behind the head. I go in search of a conference dedicated to a book they claim I wrote, though I have no memory of it. By the time I find the venue at the far end of the park, the last paper has been delivered and they are pushing the tables back to dance. A tall, thin woman insists on showing me the steps, walking behind me, raising my arms as high as they’ll go. Slower, she says, slower! Let the steps find you. Eventually we are almost motionless except for a slight twitching of the hands. I turn around to face her and find she’s somehow slipped away, leaving in her place an elm tree full of sparrows.

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2013

“…so hard to hear the music of what happens. Every day some poet dies from the strain.” ~ D. Bonta

Did you slip away when we weren’t looking,
did you see a white wading bird? Did you hear
the water arguing with itself, its longest

and most faithful lover? Did the branches
hang low over the water, did the reclusive
fish lift their heads to see? Did the dry

circle in the middle of the field burst
into flames at noon? Did the flood
rise step by step through the halls

and cathedrals of our towns?
Did you feel the warmth of fingerprints,
faint florets of breath so recently left,

it seems, by those who peered
momentarily through the glass
before turning and moving away?

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 40 of 55 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Spring 2012

One tagline for the first Basic Instinct movie reads, A brutal
murder. A brilliant killer. A cop who can’t resist the danger.

That’s the one where every reviewer went to town about the scene
where it’s obvious the actress, crossing her legs, is sans underwear.

Will she do that at her own trial and cross-examination? Her
former nanny (oops, pardon me, her children’s former nanny)

is suing the actress for harassment and labor malpractice: the racial
slurs, the overtime pay she didn’t intend to give. As live-in nanny

(she kept her that long? four years?), she must have done more
than feed them meals and snacks: see them off to school and back,

pick up the debris that children are wont to make, their soiled
laundry (I bet, including underwear), tuck them in bed at night.

So when the news runs the litany of the actress’s complaints—
the paid help’s ethnic food (it’s fishy? it smells?), the heavy

foreign accent (didn’t want her kids to sound like her),
I think, Oh please, not effing again. This is why the first

peony, which opened in the garden today, can’t be cast
as bitch: too small to topple from the weight of rain,

it merely tilts its flushed face toward the woods
—its unbleached craft and intense color, that of survival.

 

In response to Morning Porch and Sharon Stone's Ex-Nanny....

This entry is part 8 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12

And afterwards? Didn’t the air carry a burnt sugar and cinnamon smell, even as the cinders stopped falling? You came out relatively unscathed, dammit. Which is more than can be said for others like you. Did you stop to give a thought about whose bones lay about in the cage or under the table where you crouched, where they thought you could be kept until you burst out of your skin from boredom or angst or misery, or all of the above? The hunger hasn’t gone away, has it? I’m not talking about cheap fashion made in China or Bangladesh, or shiny new electronics. The witch always wants what makes the music. Not the heart but the fire in the belly. Let me tell you about the rivers that rose beyond their jelly-colored banks to drown everyone in the sleeping town. Sweet children at the breast. Grandmothers in their hammocks. Under the sheets, fathers’ gnarly hands reaching for something softer than the handle of a hammer or the back of a plane. Watch that cardinal in the bush, sitting nearly motionless for a good ten minutes now. Even in that thimbleful of time, the instinct to take panicked flight is stilled: bright firecracker, urgent red of its triangle cap like a post-it note on a branch— You could read it from a mile away. And when it flies off, give thanks because you can.

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 7 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”
— “The Merchant of Venice”,  Shakespeare

Before snow blew sideways, scattering
crystalline fragments, we held up metal

wires dipped in magnesium, ferrotitanium.
Held to a match, rich white and golden yellow

sparks branched off into the dark. Don’t lend
out any money today, the feast of Niños

Inocentes. Or if you do, don’t count
on getting any of it back. For a second,

think back to the story of soldiers scouring
the countryside for infant boys to slaughter

in their sleep. There is a difference between
naivete and the purely diabolical. Insist

on the former as an undeveloped state
that might yet lead to grace. The deer

might come to lick at lumps of packed
salt you’ve placed at the far end of

the garden. When they do, sit still, just
watch them. I know it’s hard, but hold

your face up to the fading light, mouth
rehearsing the ancient shapes of wonder.

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 6 of 73 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2011-12

What’s that burning smell, that rattling like sleet on the roof of the garden shed? Or is it the woman tumbled into the oven, flailing her arms against sleeves of darkening crust? Why is it her and not the woodcutter, the paterfamilias whose task it is, supposedly, to raise healthy children as future citizens, maintain the moral propriety and well-being of his household, honor his clan and ancestral gods? Pass the salt, skip the pepper. There’s nothing but sausage casing in the house to eat. It’s the membrane that wraps the minced ground pork or veal, that makes a farce, a shape that holds in the fire though all are torn from their origins. Pass the paprika, pass the pickling lime. What do they know? Who do you really think tried to hold it together, made paste out of boiled rice and water? Who read to them of stone soup and fed them stories to make the scraps seem sweeter? The law can punish for even the intent to abandon. But whose is the burden of proof? The bony finger that swims in the poorest gruel is the same one that polishes the moon, that hangs its dollar store corpse from the trees. Someone has confused the spelling of “desert” for a house of confectionery located in the woods. This is where they left us, or left us for dead. This is where they wanted us fed, then eaten alive. Well, I’ve got news for you, daddy-o. It’s your days that are numbered. I’ve found a bitch’s stash of balisongs and Ka-Bars that cut through both the softest bread and the hardest glass. Eat your last sweetmeat, kiss your dumpling wife and child. Not bothering with the cork, I’ll lop off the top of a bottle of champagne. It’s customary to offer a toast, a roast, on the eve of the new year.

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 34 of 37 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
eludes me.
But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
for ten of her places, for certain people,
ports, pine forests, fortresses,
for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
for several of her historical figures,
for mountains
(and three or four rivers).


Alta traición

No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
es inasible.
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
montañas
(y tres o cuatro ríos).

* * *

José Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets. I had posted the Spanish original of this poem, along with somebody else’s translation, to Facebook back in 2009. I forgot all about it until I switched to Facebook’s new Timeline view a couple days ago, which for the first time gave me access to older posts and updates there. After re-acquainting myself with the poem and the substantive comments it elicited from Alison Kent, Miguel Arboleda and Ray Templeton, I decided to post this new translation — in part because I’m fascinated by what the process of translation does to a poem like this.

Already on Facebook there was disagreement over how best to translate “una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa.” The English translation I’d posted put it as “a run-down city, gray, grotesque,” but Alison objected that, in the poet’s native Mexico, this most likely referred to a pre-Columbian ruin. Ray, by contrast, felt it might equally apply to a run-down industrial city in his native U.K. To me, as a country dweller, most cities seem gray, monstrous and dilapidated, though I’m not sure I’d give my life for any of them. At any rate, the point is that our reception of the poem depends very much on whether we read it as a specifically Mexican poem or a more general statement about love of country.

And even the general proposition will strike people differently depending on where they’re from. Here in the U.S., where it’s quite common for ordinary citizens to display the national flag year-round, saying that you don’t love your country is guaranteed to shock and dismay people from across the political spectrum, with the exception of segments of the far left. Even strongly libertarian types will say things like, “I love my country, but I hate my government.” (It’s nearly always O.K. to express contempt for the government here, despite the reverence paid to the Constitution, which famously equates the government with the people.) In many other countries, I gather, displays of the national flag by private citizens are extremely rare.

To me, love of an abstraction is a dangerous thing, and I react to it with I think much the same loathing which the ancient Hebrews reserved for idol-worship. A worshipped fatherland demands blood sacrifice and gives little in return but the sort of “protection” one purchases from gangsters at gunpoint. I find it telling that the kind of super-patriots who treat any questioning of the war machine or the surveillance state as tantamount to treason all too often do not hesitate to condone the despoiling of their country’s land, air and water. “Drill, baby, drill!” they chant at political rallies, and without irony advocate the construction of a massive pipeline across the country’s midsection, to bring Canadian tar sands to Texan refineries, as necessary to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Here in Pennsylvania, we’re in the early stages of a hydrofracturing shale-gas boom that threatens to poison groundwater across the state and destroy some of our last remaining wild places, but those who object on environmental grounds are derided as effeminate tree-huggers at best and anti-American troublemakers at worst. I could go on. But the point is that in this case, as in so many others, destruction of the actual, literal country is licensed by lip-service to the abstract Country.

Translating Pacheco’s poem into English, I recall that there are in fact people who put their lives on the line for mountains and pine forests: the brave souls who chain themselves to cranes at mountaintop removal sites or sit in old-growth trees threatened by clearcutting. This makes me think of the Occupy movement, and then the far longer struggle of those whose country — or countries — my ancestors came to occupy. And having lived in one place for most of the past 40 years myself, I can tell you that becoming attached to any one mountain, river or forest is nearly always a recipe for heartbreak, as you witness the cumulative effects of ecological degradation. No doubt the residents of cities like Detroit or New Orleans feel much the same kind of helpless sorrow these days. The life of a drifter — that quintessential American individualist — becomes more attractive with each passing year.

ice feathers

Every angel is falling—not like a skydiver
rushing toward reunion
but like a fish leaping above the calm surface of a lake,
entering a new universe of knives & eyelids.
Imagine being born at the height of your powers.

force field

One rainfall & your chalk outline
disappears from the curb.
One hurricane and half the population
of your migratory species
vanishes over the Atlantic.

ice island

I don’t believe in angels, but I believe in their falling,
their helplessness against evil.
Nobody is watching over us except
for the blessed satellites, most of which
are in stable orbits.

green birch polypores

We point our dishes at the farthest stars,
searching for any crumb of meaning.
Who but the most downwardly mobile,
undocumented aliens
would turn unjaded ears toward the earth?

__________

The first line is of course a riff on the opening of Rilke’s second Duino Elegy, “Every angel is terrifying.”