Marooned in motel rooms for five days with a single, well-thumbed book of poetry, I pored over the words of Paul Zweig – his Selected and Last Poems, edited by C. K. Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1989 – like a shipwrecked survivor hoarding pieces of driftwood. I began thinking about a new experiment in close reading or exegesis wherein I would write poems of my own in response to poems by some of my favorite writers, beginning with Zweig. I have no idea whether I’ll be able to carry through with it or not; even stating the aspiration here violates a personal taboo against articulating an ambition for a writing project before undertaking it. So it’s more than likely that this post will be a one-off. In any case, my intent is not to match Zweig’s effort – a near-impossibility – but simply to respond to it using the most exact and exacting language I can muster.
Here’s the poem C. K. Williams chose as the opener; it originally appeared in the book Against Emptiness. As always, merely typing out the words of another poet enforces a more intimate kind of reading than I am used to…
On Discovering a Thighbone under a Heap of Stones
by Paul Zweig
I’m waiting for the Druid to claim his bone
In the woodshed. I have dusted and cleaned it,
But the stain of earth remains….
[Remainder of poem removed 8-18-05]
* * * *
On Discovering a Poem by Paul Zweig
I have grown too accustomed to the terms
of surrender, the unconditional so-called
human condition. In the crawl-space
under my house, dust where no rain
has fallen in a hundred & fifty years
preserves not merely bones but hide
& hair of rat, raccoon, groundhog.
A porcupine flat as a punctured balloon
still bristles with the nibs of dry pens.
Every few years when I have to repair
the insulation around the heating ducts,
I uncover the remains of my fellow inhabitants
with a shock of recognition:
that I have never been here before, as long
as I have traveled in this one place.
Perennial wonder that we & the dead
should possess such durability. Aside
from the body’s moist exudates,
what passes? Earth, bone, these fossils
under our faces: consonants in
some ancient Baedeker
dehydrated for easy portability –
add vowels & serve.
I ask no more of you than what you wanted
from yourself, Zweig. The opening poem
in your posthumous book almost begs
the well-traveled reader to pass by.
Blood, stones, field – the shibboleths
of every workshop poet. But I am hardly
a sophisticate myself; what better place
to begin than the common gate?
We spell each other, then. The dry bones live.