We saw a raven in the fork of a tree
spreading its wings: taut and dark
in the shadow of the belfry—
Even this far in the city, it is
a wild thing. It won’t come,
it won’t eat from your white hand—
Not snow but frost, says my friend the photographer, looking at slides of cabbage farms in La Trinidad: row after row speckled white, and in the distance a cluster of tin-roofed houses, an idling jeepney. Farmers shake their heads over penciled sums in dog-eared notepads: not enough to bring to market. In the next frame, the shocking brightness of carrots thicker than your wrist, baskets of purple yam; in another, a grandfather sitting on his haunches in the doorway, smoking his eternal cigar.
The poet’s daughter wrote: Only now, years after my father’s death, do I think I understand a little of what he must have felt, unable to feed his heart, unable to write his poems, because he worked so long for the machine that fed us, clothed us, kept us under one roof.
Sometime before he passed away, he cautioned as he sat in weak sunlight in the garden, checkered afghan over his knees, jacaranda blossoms fallen across the driveway: Don’t let the world take away that which allows you to burn— no matter what.
Yours, mine, others’— What can I do with a poem, Carlos, what do I do with poems?
And yet, to certain audiences who cut their teeth on the workshop model practically from babyhood, I am a fraud, not a real contender, a lightweight, someone with aspirations to those revered and most holy of names: writer, poet; or am I dilettante, gatecrasher, someone not invited to the party?
Step into this line. Credentials, please? And who is your patron? your escort?
A colleague once said he did not think I should “advertise” the fact of my National Book Awards (4, given by the appropriate award-conferring body in a closely refereed process, in a country that used to be a colony of the United States) because No American writer has won but one National Book Award in his or her lifetime. (Subtext: how could any of these possibly be real?)
Say the word “poet” in ___, and in at least two linguistic cases, you will have been perceived to have said the word “butt.”
Choose the best poet accessory: (a) Flowy sweater; (b) Flowy vest; (c) John Fleuvog T-strap pumps; (d) Notebook; (e) Moleskine notebook.
Do you remember that year-end party? (a) Only two in that group of writers did not skinny dip in the hot tub; (b) Only one in that group of writers did not skinny dip in the hot tub; (c) The wife of one of the writers in that group found out about the hot tub and ordered him to pack up and come home; (d) Only one of the writers in that group is a real star; (e) All of the writers in that group are stars.
Stars are a higher category of being. Why should they be governed by rules coming from any useful idiot’s office?
My friend returned from the ___ weekend writing institute. Her class waited for famous writer ___ to return their critiques. Maybe she forgot? However, they did remember what the famous writer ___ said in the cafeteria during the farewell meal: “Good poets write; great poets steal.”
Choose the best answer: (a) Poets know no other work except sitting on their butts; (b) Your butt is calling; (c) Your butt is your calling; (d) None of the above; (e) All of the above.
Verse is cheap, lives are cheap, plastic is cheap, cardboard is cheap. (Have you seen the twee desk accessories in Ikea’s new spring catalog?)
Often, I am the one that gets thanked last, if at all.
The big themes are still “Recycle,” “Buy Local,” “Diversify.”
A UK “poet” made the news recently when it was discovered “the poem he wrote” that had been awarded a prize was plagiarized.
Hurry along out of here, now. The useful idiot has to draw up schedules for the next group.
Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss the clerical types, the ones that mind the boring archives or change the lightbulbs in the storage room.
Since when did we care about red carpets? Since when did we perfect the sound of catalogues and couplets rolling down the conveyor belt?
Blow on the stones,
clap wood and flint
to parry cold and
bleakest night; plant
decoys before sprinting
off with real fire—
What boldened rush,
what streak through
burning brush? A duty
bidden by the moon:
to steal the secret
of the buckle’s gleam—
O birdling, o almost
the branch on which you
teeter is alight: come
now to bridge the air,
no vertigo or fear—
And the poem: does it hold you,
welcome you, swallow you whole?
Does it burrow in you like a secret,
wind the key a little tighter
in the lock, unravel like a bright
string of yarn plucked from a sleeve?
Does it send down the night like a maw
or use the silhouettes of trees for fringe?
When nothing stirs, it’s easy to think
the mountain’s cold heart won’t thaw.
In the brass section at the inaugural,
the cold is a mouth full of teeth
knocking against a fleshy cage,
trying to avoid the frozen graft
onto the mouthpiece—
On the corner, in the abandoned
church, the beautiful door
with ornate carvings that summer’s
high heat had held so close,
can finally be pushed open—
Who has not in childhood laid
upon their tongues the salty iron
taste of keys abandoned in the backs
of drawers? I can see them even now,
a row of skeletons beneath the alcove—
Leave it; you don’t want to dwell there, you don’t want to know what might have happened if it didn’t happen the way it did.
At times it is impossible to tell intention from intervention, the thorny stalk from the hedge, floss from the papery husk. In the dark, you might think it hardly matters, but it does, it does.
And the bud? It might have been white, red, or yellow; a bird might have plucked it from the stalk.
Say happenstance, say accident, say unthinking. But no matter, someone decreed that you had to pay.
Sentiment costs; nostalgia’s a big cottage industry, especially when there are poets locked up in cells, beasts that pace the ramparts worrying about deflation and capital gains in the real world.
Under the eaves, wind mingles with the sounds of haunted things: mouth harp, train whistle, gypsy cutting through the woods.
Once, at a writers’ retreat, I slept in the tower room. Toward the end of the week, near dawn, a weight, a shape, sat on my chest and refused to move. For a few seconds I struggled toward the light-pull. Was it a dream, or had there been too much salt on the baked salmon at dinner?
I cannot live your lives again, o ghostly ones. But I can walk to the balcony and look down at the river where your faces occasionally swim up under moonlight. I can collect your delicate ululations like pearls, one by one on a line.
those bits we found
like careless kindnesses
flung, refusing requiem
of swell and surf—
And I cannot part
with strips of drift-
wood tucked into shelves
and drawers, cannot quite
give up the habit
of probing whorled
things for what they hide
of salt or seed—
Already, the year cracks its spine further open
and the leaves let in more phosphor, more light—
Already, dreams turn down the alleys and shed
their delirium of pink petals on stone—
I’ve set into motion the ball that strikes
another at the end of a silver string—
And what will be will be, says the poem
that grows word by word into lines—
So eat, grain by pearled grain, of the pulp
that glistens and clings to the rind—