Them bones

This entry is part 1 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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.

The pure distance

This entry is part 2 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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Northern true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia)

What does it mean to bring one’s full attention to a text? Medieval Christian mystics pioneered a form of deep reading, lectio divina, which they viewed as indispensable to clear thinking, prayer and contemplation. As one present-day Benedictine monk puts it,

The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of our hearts” as St. Benedict encourages us in the Prologue to the Rule…. [This] is very different from the speed reading which modern Christians apply to newspapers, books and even to the Bible. Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe. We are listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally – not loudly, but intimately.

(For more on lectio divina, see Slow Reads blogger Peter’s review of Sacred Reading: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, by Michael Casey.) Could something of this technique be carried over into secular reading? After all, every truly inspired text is full of silences and caesuras, places where the incommensurability of word and world appears to be a source of energy rather than an obstacle, like the gap in a spark plug. The goal would be a bit more modest: rather than Christian contemplation, I’m after little more than the meditative trance brought on by immersion in creative work. That’s the logic behind this experiment in writing poems prompted by the poems of others, beginning with Paul Zweig: more antiphony than lectio, I suppose. My intent is not to try and equal – or even really to imitate – the original poem, but simply to respond to it out of my own experience, using the most exact and exacting language I can muster. I don’t expect every response to be a resounding success. But I am hoping that the effort will lead me to listen more attentively to all the sounds and layers of meaning in the original texts.

Here’s the second piece included in Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, edited by C. K. Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. (After a week or so, I’ll remove his poems from the posts in order to avoid copyright infringement.)

Walking over Brooklyn
by Paul Zweig

Black smoke trails from the incinerators,
Bits of cardboard flaming in the cage
On top of tall chimneys….

[Remainder of poem removed 8-21-05]

* * * *

Eye to Eye

In the story of my childhood I am
usually elsewhere, a thin presence to myself,
mumbling from a script of my own devising.
It never occurs to me to wonder
how my opposite number the hero
might really feel: Hey, it’s hot up here!
I’m tired of coming to the rescue of girls
you’re too scared to say one word to.
And how can you call yourself a pacifist
& expect me to avenge all wrongs
with my infallible fists?

Of unscripted moments, I remember few.
I wreck every kite I ever try to fly
in the mountaintop’s sideways wind.

Late summer of my 40th year, I catch
an echo of my childhood in the nightly
chorus of katydids, their camouflaged
leaf-bodies falling out of & back into unison
like a concert audience that continues its rhythmic
clapping during a break in the music.
I float on that throbbing: sleep is the only time
I get to dream now. By day, I tread
the high wires of the cicadas’ whine
& press a cold watermelon to my belly –
one sightless eyeball to another.
Soon enough, all distance will dissolve
into a single arc of spent sugar.
The half-moon will rise a lurid red.


This entry is part 3 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the third poem from his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See the introduction to yesterday’s post for details.

God’s Ledger
by Paul Zweig

You gave me what I didn’t want
And taught me to love it. You fed me
Sweet food, and killed each painful cell…

[Remainder of poem removed 8-23-05]

* * * *


The Lord is my venture capitalist; I shall not wonder.
My mouth scarcely shapes itself into an Owe
& His pen is already busy adding zeroes.
He underwrites my need for better reception.
Who knew I harbored such complex involucres?

He asks for nothing difficult in return:
there’s no soul in receivership, no pain that doesn’t pass —
hard currency of that heaven they harp about.
I am full, full. Beggars get fat on my crumbs.

He gives me something to quench the flames
well in advance of setting me on fire.
He asks for nothing, believe me.
He takes a loss.

Becoming grass

This entry is part 4 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fourth poem from his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

A Sadness from the Old Philosophers
by Paul Zweig

I plant my stick in the loose earth,
And now my father lies down beside me….

[Remainder of poem removed 8-23-05]

* * * *

A Wryness from the Old Wives

Click, clack says my walking stick,
& the soft buzz of a rattlesnake
shivers from the rock.

You go for water & bring back a strange new lover:
that’s how it is in the tales the old wives
used to roll between their palms.

One long noodle of clay made a bowl, a mirror
you could drink from. Coiling or uncoiling,
something always gets loose.


This entry is part 5 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fifth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

On Possessions
by Paul Zweig

Burning what I own,
Burning this fuel of nerves and money . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-25-05]

* * * *

On Possession

The Gothic cathedral at Burgos, in northern Spain,
was too much: all that colored light
flooding in around the apse
where the monstrous symbolic god was expected
to lay his thorn-pillowed head.
I couldn’t see it.

Cathedrals are best on days when wind & rain
beat their wings against the glass.
Outside, the stone shell darkens
& one longs to pull it tight against the skin
like a frogman’s wetsuit.
Inside: revelation. That a blue drop
should hide a molten core!

The lords of this world reach as far as they need to.
Their fingertips smell of oil & wet ashes
from the crematorium.
We are all possessed, say
the bells of wherever.
This very poem gutters in its wax, poor thing.

The university library commissioned a sculpture
to mark the dedication of a new wing:
in white marble, an open book
with a flame rising from the page, tall
& sinuous – a lap dancer
in the seat of what, we are solemnly
given to understand, represents knowledge.
The room vibrates with the hum of computers.
Sunlight slants through the high windows
above the milling crowd of students,
smooth faces glowing,
from the firing of each split-second synapse,
that light-drenched gap.

The fears and pleasures

This entry is part 6 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the sixth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

Afraid That I Am Not a Poet
by Paul Zweig

Afraid that I am not a poet,
Yet willing to write
Even about that . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-25-05]

* * * *


Outside of a poem, I have never seen
such a seemingly everyday thing as
an empty mirror.

I think of the fear I would feel if
I came face to face with
the absence of myself
& shiver with longing & delight.

Ah, that the mere thought of a thing –
an outline, an image – can open
a window in my chest
& make my tongue dance about
for words!

Ukiyo-e, which refers to a genre of pre-modern Japanese woodblock prints depicting scenes from the demimonde, literally means “Picture(s) of the Floating World.”

Written by the vanquished

This entry is part 7 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the seventh poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. Zweig’s poems will be removed after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Anyone who has been following this project should be especially interested in today’s effort, which I think showcases my first serious failure of imagination so far. I am not sure whether this is due to the length of Zweig’s poem making sustained focus difficult, or some other factor, but I am struck by the contrast between his lines, which seem so urgent and necessary, and mine, which strike me as dilettantish and ultimately disposable. I’m not fishing for compliments here, and you’re welcome to find things to like in my poem (or to dislike in Zweig’s). I simply want to remind myself that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, as long as one is clear about the design and honest about the results.

The Natural History of Death
by Paul Zweig

I decided at birth to go on living,
Not even my parents convinced me I was wrong. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-26-05]

* * * *

Life History of a Stunt Double

      …Those who were in no hurry to live. – P. Z.

I used to have such a horror of turning back.
The about-face offered two
equally frightening alternatives:
that everything would be the same,
or that it wouldn’t.

Thus muttering, I fix my gaze
a few inches in front of my feet.
While the real actor is off somewhere
rehearsing his lines or stroking his little double,
I strap myself to that perpetual
motion machine they call the horizon.

Even in the womb, I refused to turn.
When my mother tried to evict me, I mooned the world
& the doctors had to pull me out by my ankles.
I started to wail & didn’t stop
for twelve years – or so they tell me.
It sounds like the kind of melodrama
I’ve since come to hate.

But the bad actor in my skinny frame
loved the feel of warm saltwater
coursing down my cheeks, the way it dissolved
the hard outlines of things,
& in the belly, that twist of heat.

The first nonfiction book I read on my own
swarmed with monsters – the kind
that stalked around in scientific skeletons
dragging heavy Latin names through the swamps.
The book had a green cloth cover
& taught a stark, almost Biblical lesson:
that the dinosaurs went extinct because they were slow,
they lived too slowly.
Our quick-thinking ancestors the rats ate all their eggs.

The book’s barbs pointed
in one direction: we can’t go back.
But that summer, my brother & I made a periscope
by mounting mirrors in a cardboard tube,
& we stuck it through a hole in the side
of a huge, empty carton. We crayoned in
all the necessary knobs
& sat in that box for 200 million years,
going back & back
while my brother described everything he saw.
My job was to believe it.

Lush jungles on the other side of history
hid reeking punji traps on legs.
A twig snaps & skyscrapers with teeth
roar into motion.
Where? My god! Where?
My vision seems permanently blurred –
not that I would’ve noticed on my own.
My brother administers a homemade eye exam.
In the next frame, I’m sitting
in an optometrist’s waiting room
squinting at pictures in a magazine
about the fall of Saigon.

Later comes the idea that one big collision
could’ve finished them off – I don’t know.
At the close of the Mesozoic, all over the earth,
flowers open their sexual faces
& for the first time the sun itself has shadows.
I want to believe all that unthinking growth
could be eclipsed by filigree: petals,
feathers. The delicate leather
of a bat’s wing.
A sea of grass.

In the meantime, I have settled
into my body like a stone
at the bottom of a pond.
Sometimes there’s wind, but the leaves
don’t talk. I lie on my back with
my toes chastely touching
& fold linked fingers over my gut.

In the Middle Ages, before
the Black Death teased the skeleton out
of its cage of flesh, & before
that grinning scythe grew wide enough
to split the laugh from its belly,
the mean time was thought to be reached
at the age of thirty-three.
Anyone who could afford it paid for a portrait then
so that when they died, whoever carved their tomb
could capture for the ages
their closest approach to
that fragile equilibrium the Church called Christ.

Churches were true sanctuaries then, beyond
the reach of the state. One knelt
irredeemably on the flagstones, which were also a roof
for the temporarily vacated bodies of one’s predecessors.
But here in the middle of the woods,
in the dead center of my life,
I’m napping. The action is elsewhere.

Growing up on an isolated farm, no TV
meant that I never learned from Mr. Rogers
how to get along.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Is this what you really think, or merely
what you think you should think?
Are you digging a root cellar here,
or a hole for a privy?

I also skipped Kindergarten, reputed source
of everything one really needs to know.
So instead I consider the lilies of the field,
which having escaped their former confines
in the now-abandoned dooryard garden,
extend their dominion up & down the slope.
Each summer their rhizomes double
& double again, strangling the sunlight
in a few more square yards of meadow.
Velvet petals that close after a single day,
pliant leaves that weep mucilage when bruised:
they are part of a clone that might live –
who knows? – forever.
Its loving hope is to make the world

I went wild with obedience, I believed
everything & nothing until belief itself seemed
the most heretical of self-indulgences.
I stopped talking to ghosts, including my own.
Maybe that’s what happened.

Once rid of the madness called youth,
I begin to relish the return journey
as much as the beginning, because
things seen from one side only
seduce the eye. There’s no contest any more
between depth & surface. Let the bones
stay housed, the seed incipient in the bloom.
To hell with life.

I want whatever comes
in its own time, translucent
or wholly opaque, here
& gone.

Waiting for the detonation

This entry is part 8 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eighth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

America at War
by Paul Zweig

I work at night, carried
By conveyor belts from one sex to another…

[Remainder of poem removed 8-30-05]

* * * *

The Servant

Even the godless
generals speak
of mission. The way
maples spread their
seeds, we
scatter love:
by helicopter.
Our transmitter has to battle
sandstorms, weather
terrorist strikes.
Each night,
I tune out the filth
& jabber – which
otherwise make
all my follicles
pucker up – & press
my ear to the radio’s
D-cup speaker.
Try it:
in the empty stretches
between stations
you can
just hear
the whisper of dry
sticks being rubbed
together. The crackle
of that
first flame, its
parched little tongue.
I am the light,
it sings.
Nations that knew
thee not shall run
unto thee.

if you need
more fuel, say
the Word.

Green plague

This entry is part 9 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the ninth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Pastoral Letter
by Paul Zweig

I will name nature’s poisons. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-31-05]

* * * *

Pastoral Spell

I dreamed I drove a sprayer truck
slowly along the berm of a road
in prayerful silence.
Behind me, the red letters of sumac leaves
turned brown
& my rubber gloves shone
like the udders of a cow,

all for the crown vetch
& its hateful pink.

I name the invaders:
buffel grass, barberry, knotweed,
kudzu, privet, leafy spurge.
Cursed be houndstongue & snakehead,
stiltgrass & tree-of-heaven.
A plague on every scourge
of purple loosestrife, hemlock
woolly adelgid, cane toad;
the European rabbit down under,
demonstrating its fabled gift
for multiplication in the wrong abode;
Australian eucalypt in California
stretching resinous leaves toward
the redwood’s portion of the sky;
medusahead rye.

Far from their native countries,
free of restraints, the immigrants
do not swarm; they mob.
They lodge in the earth like shrapnel.
When they sprout,
they are already in full uniform.
The Greeks called them Spartoi,
the Sown.

The only way to get rid of them
was to pit them against each other.

I dreamed of skinning feral cats
& selling their meat at auction:
Fresh mutton, I chanted.
They were slick with the fat of tanagers.

That great invention

This entry is part 10 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the tenth (and title) poem of the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

I am trying to refrain from critical/appreciative comments here, but folks, I think you’ll agree that is one magnificent f—ing poem. I might risk leaving this one up permanently.

Against Emptiness
by Paul Zweig

Whatever surrounds the raw body of wind
And rolls over me in silence;
Whatever I am this screaming body for . . .

I want to climb to you, foot by foot,
Along the prayer ladder:
Dusky flower,
Gloom tree in the nerves,
And then my body rigged with magic,
Crying to fill that great invention, your emptiness,
Your tricky silences between stars.

The prophet casts his life upon the water;
Upon the waking fish and those, asleep,
Who interpret their solitude without end.
They ascend by their teeth,
By the cell rot of unaccomplished days,
Each small death tidied into words, until
The walls of death enclose them, and they are
Grateful to be remembered by their failures.

Know these words: demon, angel,
And they will follow as you climb
From pit to pit, leaving behind each day
A cell of your rage, a life,
Until, exhausted into wisdom,

Your face will ease you into death;
Your wise face, shedding its peacefulness
Like a lie upon your angry children,
Your patient devils, and the intricate
Joy of the angels you never named.

* * * *


I leave the house, & right away a mosquito finds me & starts weaving a nest for my ear with her shrill petition. This time of year, I can hardly take an unencumbered step. Piles of bear shit, pudding-full with half-ripe black cherries, litter the path. A garter snake turns my airborne leg rubber with vertigo six inches from the ground. Caterpillars rappel from the treetops, & spiders – legions of the solitary – work to enclose every last cubic foot of open space. My hands are in constant motion, wiping the silk from my face & clothes, but no exorcism holds against the hob-nailed micrathena, her collection of mummies & her soft yellow nebula of eggs. Emptiness is a mirage; an architect would go mad. The other morning I fled to the former clearcut, where deertongue & panic grass dripped with dew. My feet were soon swimming in my boots. Where is this outside, this fabled refuge? Home for lunch, I gaze inquiringly into a bowl of steaming soup.

Sky-blue petals in
the wet grass. I crouch down,
my mind blank as a cloud.

Back home, I look it up, chagrinned: