The Telephone Project is a poetic sequence stretching across aesthetics and identities. Each poet writes an original poem in response to the preceding poem, with just one parameter: we ask that writers be respectful of the poets that precede them.
The sequence’s two threads begin with the same poem, which is a response to translations of two fragments from Sappho.
The project is ongoing, and we will update it periodically.
TELEPHONE PROJECT 2
these toys [
after and with Sappho
The hope gets hold of me that I won’t share
anything that the blessed gods [themselves desire—
no lending those toys that smell of clay or graphite
however much apportioning was thrust
into tissue, gray or pink. I’m sick
of placating them with string or wax—
after all I have to work.
I look toward the beekeeper keeping bees at home
that she knows damn well will sting and swarm.
elegy for the beekeeper
How dazed the body after stinging, how drunk
with death & venom. We wear our good shoes
to the funeral. & our black eyes, fat
with hallucination, hold the image of the swarm
& take it everywhere: the streetlight, to church, the coffin.
Even now, the air is wild with the fever-pitch of wings.
Our girl, small graveyard of marks & stings—
We leave her to sleep outside like a cat.
We climb into our houses & our beds, & we miss her.
For years, we dream our deaths little
as the bee’s.
Bee at the Beekeeper’s Funeral
When they say “swarm”
What they mean is us.What they mean is blackMass of wings, a thousand
Thousand chanters. Unison.What they mean is body.What they miss is brain
Born of lifetimes, mindMade of centuries. SackedCatacombs and tenements
And what is most sweetIs what they both breedAnd box us for. Swarm,
What they call swarm,Is the imperceptibleRumble in the gut,
Years inside of otherYears, the stinger’s acheTo break free the abdomen.
What born warriors knowAs Noble Death. And thereIs me, the dreamer drawn
By a laughing daffodilAway from the others,Brothers and cousins,
That massacre afternoon,Away from glory, nowWith only this to do:
To witness, to tell againWhat the eulogizer said,The beekeeper dead,
And of these wreaths,Their raucous stinkAnd hues. I’ll tell how
I put my face deep in the bellOf each and every blossomAnd breathe deep. Oh, child,
I breathe so deep.
The poet translated the poem with fear and trembling,
as if somehow unworthy of the source text.
His writer friends thought his suffering ridiculous,
and perhaps they had a point.
Hardly difficult, this poem. A simple narrative
in modern Persian. For setting, the clichéd garden.
Basically, as two lovers kiss on a bench
a bee stings the man on his thigh.
He’s allergic, so the ambulance arrives.
The woman can’t find the key. (Fearing exposure
they had previously locked the gate). One paramedic
hoists the other over the wall.
On the verge of anaphylactic shock,
the semi-conscious Romeo gets injected
in the same spot of the sting. He survives.
Afterward, the key’s found in his pant’s pocket.
“Perhaps,” says the poet’s shrink, “it’s too accessible;
It opens your heart to love, which means danger.”
As she’s talking, the poet unconsciously clicks and unclicks
a ballpoint pen into his thigh.
“You have a point,” says the poet,
“but I can’t see how the lines could hurt me.”
Ball Point Pen
I had never meant to take the ball point pen apart
and yet the spring leapt away, the coiled metal
leaping into the lap of the football player next to me
in Algebra II, the class I walked to the High School
for, where I was widely considered a math prodigy
despite merely being a year ahead. He could have
destroyed me. I had done something terrible. Allowed
myself to explode into his lap. Allowed the pen
to dissolve into its component parts, each a platonic
ideal. The ink pure inkiness. The spring pure springy-
ness. I wish there were more here. A story about
how he turned to me and fell in love. A story about
how later on he kicked my ass. But this is the end.
He put the spring back on my desk and returned
to his own, hunched in his letter jacket until the bell.
Inside me: don’t think
this. If inside is a place
then I am thinking in the suburbs
in the mud/grass
but I hate driving and pizza.
I’d consider mine:
“the boy is mine!” Or, “before,
mine was mine.” (This is
my head. Where is your head?)
Before…I can’t remember.
Before one tree was touched
before another and this
was a lovely diagram
for putting together
a plan for making it a-ok.
If I allow myself an inside,
I find component parts (coiled
metal, archaic weaponry,
plumb line). Some are
for me and some for him.
How generous! But no:
inevitable metal. Shoot
into water the find a lost
bridge. Or there might be
someone. Instead: we walk.
No one saw her but me
As she stumbled through the living room
Whispering to herself in tongues
I’d not heard
Before, limned, here,
by the streetlamp’s spare
light, her hushed words
now become a song
I think she was giving to the moon:
Why, why me?
Why not you?
He will think he has given you the moon.
He will think you owe him a song
with words like hushed lights,
light from a streetlamp muted
by mist and limbs and sheer curtains.
Anything he ever says he will say only to himself
if the first time he stumbles through the living room
your only word to him is no.
Anything He Ever Says He Will Say Only To Himself
As if talking could cure a slammed door,
you follow, walking through like an apparition
from an old relationship. And what else does
an apology hold other than the mist of mistakes
from the past, rearing their past addictions?
But you follow not with your feet
but with your words, writing
a letter from this downtown café.
In the background, a voice
talks over your written words
with a mouth like a sunflower
breaking from the concrete,
but you keep writing to him,
in the spirit of this voice.
Look, you say, people are living
all around me and I want in on it;
children are walking like families
of ducks led by their teachers;
couples have a hand in each other’s back
pocket; a woman is carrying her laundry
in her arms. I’m sure any one of them
would say they want more: The children
don’t want to trail behind a teacher;
the couple wants more than passion;
the woman wants the comforts
inside her home. But I’d take it
all. Sometimes, I just want to step
off the curb of the past onto whatever will stay
beneath me. But, over time, I wonder
if asking for nothing, when all is said
and regretted, too much to ask for?
—A. Van Jordan
Apparition from an Old Relationship
What dark/men you aroused in your young man’s veins. —from “The Third Duino Elegy”Rainer Maria Rilke
Ancestors gathered to the pulse of hate
generations past still drum in their heirs’ veins.
Those who had guns and gold, those who had naught,
those who were pushed aside, those who wore chains:
their histories continue to divide
neighbor from neighbor, like the ghosts of love
turned cruel. How long memories take to fade.
And those we can’t forget, we must forgive.
(Unbuttoning her shirt…)
Unbuttoning her shirt in the second dream, she pointed to the hole in the center of her chest, mouthed Look.
I am not any closer to saying what I mean.
Kneeling, with my hands on her hips, I closed one eye and peered into her chest, which was filled with water.
Love has made itself so quiet, a few red fish moving in slow circles.
I want to say like blood.
I want to say like forgiveness, this obedience, looking inside her on my knees.
I mean to cease to feel, to cancel, to give up all claim to—
At some point, she rested her hands on my shoulders and I thought this is my face housed underwater.
This is a death letter.
Every word but mouthed erased.
—Allison Benis White
If I had unbuttoned your blouse
as you lay in your coffin, I could have seen
how the tumor that killed you had grown
overnight into merely benign.
I marveled instead at your lips,
the red kept within proper borders.
(The first time in how many years?)
Unlike you, whoever applied it
acknowledged the edges
that blur in a woman your age.
The edge between living and dying
began to blur weeks before you wandered
over the finish line. No celebration
except for that party-girl red
on your lips, no doubt chosen
to match the coy flowers
that bloomed on your silk blouse.
Now I want to name it a shade
that says more than mere red,
which end-rhymes too quickly with dead,
the quick of which I’m still a part
and you dead, which I cannot escape.
Better dead than red,
I grew up hearing patriots bluster,
but came to prefer Better red
than dead. Give me better
than red, give me Raising Hell Red.
Better yet, Everlastingly Red
till the last trumpet blares
and you wake up,
your lips mouthing,
“How do I look?
Do I need rouge?
(So long in the grave,
the voice shrivels to wind
down a drainpipe.)
I open my poem-sack,
and lift out the golden tube
wherein a scarlet nib waits
to inscribe on your lips
a shade conjured from sheer
disbelief and indelible dread,
and infused with no more
than the balm of a name.
but this gleam
of Wide Awake Red.
–Kathryn Stripling Byer
Calcium’s Slender Embrace
Now I see that red means nothing
in this winter landscape
with flurries of snow
across the unfenced graveyard.
Don’t stare into my ruby lips,
My Love; color is wasted on the dead—
a mockery, a hush, a denial
of what the body has become.
I have no use for a dress
drenched in prismed memory.
Say “here lies” if you must.
Wish for one last impossible word
to sum a lifetime. Pretend you knew
me — I was always a field of wild flowers,
more than this patterned dress could ever say.
I was the roots and insects and the dew,
the wind shaken stalks, the bones.
Now I have a new name for shadowed snow
that is more than the crunch and crackle,
a metered response for the end of life.
The slow grinding down, erosion, entropy,
I know as bone and ash scattered on frost,
Or calcium’s slender embrace.
No fanfare for me. I am given to the whisper
wind and then back to the field
like seed. My voice
is the rasp of flake and dust,
the low thrum
of repeated soft impact,
so long in the field
it condenses to shell
the frozen ground.
This body no longer holds
my voice. I can never be written
or captured again. The words fall
and skitter like shrouds and veils
across the sparkled ice.
My name is no longer
I am calm.
I am moving
toward the promise
–J.P. Dancing Bear
Sung (Lacking Words)
I stood where a street ravels dirt
Where green leaves clamor
When somehow in spring
My love came stumbling from a broken house:
Someone with hand flourishes and yelling
Shoved him onto a stretcher.
Ruin of handkerchief his head was bound in,
Blue shirt stained.
I raced to his side, but a child clad in blue–
Why so much of that color?–
Shaved head in a bonnet, dress flowing at her ankles,
Clutched at my thigh
Crying to be taken home.
Nothing I could spell or summon up
For language is always a something else,
A furrow beyond, a yard elsewhere
A fracture in the sensed,
No snapline here, nor portamento of touch.
Hands grasp at dew
Which is what my flesh turned to
When a child held me in dream’s clear light
As somehow in spring
My love came stumbling from a ruined house.
A Bird in Hand
Unclasped, will soar
eventually. Kept, would have soured
surely, on the flesh-clothed
bones a hand is. Spoiled as raspberries do when we
un-tend them, leave too many
for the birds,
birds as hand-
sized fires, extinguished
season to season.
A reasonable sentence.
But the Lord spoke
through a burning bush once and gave
Proof that fire has a mouth
and a will? With birds our angels on earth.
To say, I spent most of the day in bed
sleeping is difficult.
Love-making would have made
a less ashen replacement.
Un-held, in dreams, birds fleck and swoon—
silvery, coppery, gold. In harrowing
diving flocks. Like sparks.
The sky, an invisible cage that fetters
air with toxic bars bent from acronyms,
opens and pulls back its lone lip
while blackbirds assume a mining canary’s fate.
Fumes creep into lungs small as walnuts,
nip the alveoli, roll the eyes into
final descent—a chorus tumbling on land,
not just a clutch of folded feathers,
but diving flocks, like sparks.
There is no bullet fragment to extract
from flesh, just unseen parts per million,
a kind of counting most don’t fathom
unless playing the lottery, don’t they know
this is another ticket, a borrowed breath?
Ours to make: sparks; edges; a device
for cutting pictures out of light. We filled
tin trays with water in the backyard
and slowly dipped the paper in. Having
is accomplished not so much by attention,
but by habit. Still, we made lists: cedar,
smoke, the rabbits racing fast across
the grass. Also, the fence to slice the light
into white scissors while we pushed
the paper flat for trimming beneath the water.
She spoke through the window to say
she had planted them herself—still
we forced our way under the branches to wait
while the sun did what breathing does, but loudly.
And always shadows anyway: the junipers bent
to blue beneath our fingers cut, too, lengthwise
where the pictures made sharp frames
of our hands for holding them. We knew wood grows
like trees do, so we watched the tables
all afternoon to see our pictures lifted nearer
to that sun like a hole in the sky, burning.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley
Like prehistoric petroglyphs they astonish us,
So many photos, from Aquarius
To New Wave to Grunge,
All those million gold cubes:
Sierras of snaps! Saharas of forced smiles!
Proud mullets, handlebar mustaches, muscle shirts, miles of cleavage and biceps!
Gleaming ice cream cones! Look at them.
Kodachromes and Polaroids, curled at edges,
As ancient, suddenly, as vellum, stylus, and parchment.
What fate befell those strange tribes?
A billion harvested emulsions, mulled by time,
Pent for decades in musty drawers
Voracious magnet pulled them
Like iron filings—
Spent fashions sprint away and speed back again—
Hairstyles three times new and pants gone ironic
Return refreshed to chilly malls
And teeming high school halls.
Whole solar systems of style squandered on unsuspecting kids!
Why is everyone so happy? How could they be?
Or is that unbridled glee merely a try at posterity,
An aching “say cheese” rictus aimed at eternity?
Each gangly pose hints at some mystery, some dream, some clue just out of frame
That will glue the scene together somehow, show us more.
There is always so much more.
Everyone pretending to be sexy
In murky dad-fashioned dens or hot silver of mountain sunlight.
They pose and pose, tongues out, eyes crossed, head-banging to riffs unheard,
Doubled at jokes forgotten,
All the hairspray in the world holding it together,
Parting bangs like waves of the Red Sea!
Observe Venus perched in her pearl-white Pontiac scallop!And the sweaters! Like farm belts seen from the sky,
Jagged patches of cork and olive.It all seems so sad, so graceless, so heartbreaking, the triumph of naïveté.
And that milk-wet flash, constantly caught in car windows and eyeglasses,
A quasar, an exploding star, bleaching half the scene.It detonates in the mirror behind the prom couple in powder blue,
And they squint, impatient to be released burning into their summer evening.
It keeps going! We are powerless before it.
Those downy orange kittens died long ago,
Mischievous mutts gone under grassy yards,
Scarf-tailed goldfish gulped by porcelain—Forest-green shag rugs ripped up and rolled away,
Squat walnut televisions, big as tombs, hauled off!
Bermuda shorts like kaleidoscopes and toucan Hawaiian shirts! Velcro!
Zebra tights, tabby purses, Star Wars pajamas, and pillbox hats!
Water skis wielded like broad swords!
Nightmare Halloween Gorillas and, O, frowning holidays with the folks!
Such animation! Cartwheels suspended for all time, mascara’d winks,
Rabbit ears rising from perms,
Ditzy headstands, sudden kisses, icy beer-chugs,
So much to forget.
Phalanxes of sophomores, acres of acne, greasy floss of waist-length hair,
Sweat-licked volleyball stars, dirt-bikers muddy as barbarians,
Silver radios the size of suitcases, weighted with depth-charges of D batteries!
Pastel sprays of bridesmaids, arrays of such uncanny silk confections!
Cloudy pyramids of wedding cake, Crayola-hot cummerbunds—
Velvet flares of bellbottoms, misty sheen of Christmas lights,
And all that wood paneling: In rec rooms,
On the flanks of barge-wide station wagons.So auburn, so golden, so gone and lonely those years!
Up the BB-pocked water tower, into the murky lake,
Down to the foggy shore at dawn, away, away, away!
Those moments seem so happy, but possibly, on reflection,
After all this time, were no more than more wasted time,
Hours blissfully wasted on waves of blue smoke and sunsets,Or else mere remnants, meaning nothing, flash cubes discarded,
Depleted ammunition, all wasted, all trash. . . .
And yet here, after all this time, forever floating
In his one small happy moment,
Everyone’s fat friend, you knew him too,The one who made everyone laugh until ribs were raw,There he is above the mouthwash-blue
Spangle of warm swimming pool,Like a boulder hurled by a blinded Cyclops,
Yes, he’s still there, cannon-balling
For all time in that affectionate air,
All for us, eyes clamped shut,
Clasped in fetal position as everyone flinches,
Waiting for the splash.
I have a home I don’t like to go home to.
Stupid people have placed a ban on stupid.
They’ve all slowed down to savor what they missed.
What you wished for is pretty much what happened.
She has amassed important memories.
He fought so long he lost the sense of fighting.
What revelations have come have come too soon.
Despite large changes nothing much has happened.
I have no memory of that conversation.
Inside the seed the full-grown flower is wilting.
Finally we can see over the falls.
My opposite is not your opposite.
Of the five women each one had her reasons.
The mathematician disproved his own proof.
I love the stars but can’t name hardly any.
Let’s say for instance this is what we said.
The Electric Dress
—at the premier of Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956)
Let’s say, for instance, that when she wears the dress
she becomes the most ductile, malleable, circuited,
and encircled of all women. Let’s say she
doesn’t know what 4,000 watts will do
when she inserts the cord into the socket
because, in the end, she doesn’t, and in truth,
she’d rather be electrocuted like this
than merely vanish like the man caught
on the bank’s front steps on the day of the attack,
his radioactive shadow hovering for years
after the end of the war. In this dress, she is
more intricate than the criss-cross dress pattern
that seared the back of one small girl,
more powerful than the after-effects of vomit,
hair loss, skin burns, and radiation clinging
to the soil. Tonight, she is her own power source,
her own attempted suicide, her own
emergency response. She is all progress,
all future, all technology, no past,
the brightest living object in the room.
The Dress-Maker of Galilee
He wears himself
Down and becomes wild uncertain
Circles the frayed opening
With his tongue
He wants to know as well
What the body and its covering
Will teach him about genres
Of thought, genders of flesh
The druze have a secret book
Some know what’s in it
No one minds
His voice falls
To pieces when he claims
For himself spaces
Of flowers or silk
The druze have a shouting hill
Across the border they must
To their families in the other nation
Declaim all the news
At the silver thread of the border
Between what was and what wasn’t
Some druze know
We are all about to switch genders
With eyes of smoke
In the globe of barbarous heat
They trace yet unknown instructions
Onto their skin
He stakes his claim in stitches
He never learned how to behave
Only to kill every teacher
And spike heaven sense
Feasting outdoors we may speak of parts
silver threads to keep the face together
what is lip and what is snout
circles in the frayed opening
spreading the newspaper out
wild uncertain spaces
in the globe of barbarous heat
no one asks the gender of meat
prized out the secret book of the tongue
a shouting hill traces its unknown
instructions to body and its covering
grotesque yes but let me perhaps sing
some longer clattering thing
the syrup of goodwill and aside from
the main machine intact for approaching
tongue that says everyone is finally asleep
the old voices come out
uneasy sleep and dream wet lovers, spring friends
tongue that says I’m rain then says rain
The rains came last night around sunset,
after a day of grill-heat, a day of persistent
Code Orange air-quality warnings.
Here, there is always a rainbow.
It is slightly biblical, like the yellow bus
that comes every morning to take my son.
I assume he arrives at school, a building
with no interior walls. Mama can you come
make a giant skyscraper? he asks,
while I’m writing this. He has inserted
our cat into his family tree, though the teacher
said she doesn’t belong there. Or he says
she said that. He is not a reliable witness.
My cousin posts a story on Facebook
as a status: Yet another neighbor’s dog
started barking excitedly at me and the family
as we strolled down the street. But this time
the dog had a seizure mid-bark and died.
I have nothing profound to say
about pets. I have very little to tell you,
except that everyone is not finally asleep.
They are bracing themselves for the start.
We’ve been watching the Olympics,
and the crickets and rains have been violent.
Look at that face—completely placid,
completely relaxed. The announcer
is speaking about the runners. There is a bell.
One falls, has fallen on the final lap.
Someone moves to take over the lead.
The man with no legs is running as anchor.
His face is like the sun, and his legs
are pillars of fire. Another man
who had been shot in both legs runs
the start of the relay for our country.
He has to keep the baton from falling
to the ground. We are on our third rainbow
this week. And when I saw it, I fell on my face,
and I heard the voice of one speaking, said Ezekiel,
who witnessed the fulfillment of his prophecies.
The single most important factor contributing
to wrongful conviction is eyewitness
misidentification, which is to say that
I think I hear my son calling, wakeful,
but it’s only the whine of the air conditioning system,
mechanical, almost-human. Everyone
is up tonight to watch a rover land on Mars,
while upstairs, the Lego skyscraper project
is in progress. A sign of the covenant it’s not,
but if there is a traumatic event, Legos will survive it.
My son is the cleanup crew in a shaky empire.
Somebody’s got to do it. He says, I don’t see
a battle going on anywhere, then picks up a small hammer.
Before we knew it, the entire building was gone.
Too Young to Slice Peppers
Too young to slice peppers,
our niece points whenever
a hummingbird finds the feeder.
Glass doors explain the balcony,
apartments named for an orange grove,
mistranslated into Spanish.
If sleep is one-sixtieth of death,
what percentage of life is memory,
a globe of sugar water, a glass
bowl to check eggs for blood,
wash lettuce? Again the grandfather
she calls forgetful cups his palm
into a nest, whistles to the bird
he just named until she laughs.
O little one, O my forever.
O little one, O my forever
as another dead poet passes by
the boy is growing every day
Le Balcon or Les Nègres of Genet
every day a dream of words
like darts hitting the bull’s-eye
then I wake up and I’m married
to the floor sorrow a shaft of body
the other side of what I mean
every day the boy eats the fruit
of screaming once I saw
a Dutch painter after waiting
in line for two hours he was
older than Manhattan what
was his name he drew the light
it was winter the Frick look
gray lucent fields an unadorned
profile plain as the sun and now
maybe the boy is dying or another
word for not quite living is waiting
inside of me there should be
so much more it is March it is April
garbage trucks percuss the spring
is it not wisdom to explain hello
cold pussy willow solemn Ohio
get out from behind the tree you
are not an orphan stop crying
you echo of a poem I am guilty
and the sky is blue the sky is blue
He pleads with me
to climb the steep banks of loess
to the canyon’s promontory.
We hold to fistfuls of nameless grass.
My shadow shadows his
in the lean light.
He stops only
to peer at succulents
or high desert blossoms,
and were his voice
not coiled around me I would
I find a phrase or two to offer
when he pauses or presses
for my reply
because he needs no answers.
He is not waiting to be right –
he has learned to call
the thistle something slightly else,
to put meadowlark
in repose with lizard.
What have I taught him worth more
than the cirrus clouds
imposing their stratospheric pace
on each grounded thing?
He is the one in these vast surroundings
speaking with love.
The view from the outcrop
earns his silence.
Humbly I wait,
as I have come to wait for life
to take me to the charged point
he finds now
without doubt or deprecation,
darting from one to the next
He and I gain nothing if I say
in some future
this landscape will be cold
and unsparing, posed
in such fine shapes as we see now,
emptied of grace.
Better to clutch in words
a sample of what moves you
and hurry back.
Better to make a facsimile
that calls to leaf and dirt,
bone and weather
as fluently as anything here
and display it,
pinned under fixed light
Make and make one world
beside the other,
never fail to stay between them
my full-hearted boy,
my good luck.
is all parentheses and semicolons,
we’re told. His erudition punctuates
the hemoglobins, sickle-celled, I’d guess,
his blood drawn thin from craning over books.
In Rome the newlyweds grew distantly,
the superannuated scholar lost
in Rome’s stupendous fragmentariness,
his amanuensis adrift in art
and its light mitigating power, her vow
grown chilled from recognizing what she married:
a body constituted by inked marks,
a mind a blotting book. No shock she sobbed.
It’s a small wonder how much one can count
the toll a year takes on one’s fleshly body
when dedicated to reading books: the pounds,
warts, wrinkles, grey hairs, and all those lost hours
from months of pre-mature ejaculation.
With poetry these days we beg to see
a life behind it, some small smirch a source
that promises the scribbling hand once lived.
What if wordplay has overtaken sense
enough that words—mere words—have wrested this
away from what just happened so to call
this true, I can’t say? Why not say what happened
(another pilfered banner, unacknowledged)?
To make of what just happened words—brute words—
means saying merely what could’ve happened then.
“Who is that? I don’t recognize this boy,”
Mary cooed, opening a photograph
from two months into our relationship,
from nine ago, zooming in on a smile
once regularly praised as perfect, now
crooked and chipped from bruxism a year old,
the two top front teeth once an opaque white
ground to a sepia translucence—
WhatI saw could only be a simile
for my past self, I fear. Casaubon’s blots
bleed toward the margins, we are to believe.
Romney Leigh’s too—the source for Casaubon’s,
but not old Lippo Lippi’s, Romney’s source.
From a well-meaning world to man the blot
bleeds through, then man to woman-written man.
“Smile for me?” Mary asked when I came homefrom school two days ago. A forced smile drawn.
“Ha—I have my old Gerald back!” “Say what?”
“You haven’t seen your teeth yet?” The tired nurse
didn’t offer me a mirror when I left
the teeth cleaning that brought me onto campus.
I turned the corner to catch the bathroom mirror,
saw pearly whites, and felt bereft. She said,
“those grindy brown spots are gone.” Those brown spots
some eighteen lines up, written months ago,
gone. Specious permanence now blank. Those spots
to which I gave such metaphysical weight
the masked hygienist, dental tools aglint,
scraped clean within the hour. For ruin I yearned—
still do–too much, my needle bearing toward Rome,
city of ruins, shape of happiness
the old philosopher and dying poet
hazard to seek. Imagination runs
wild in an unintelligible past
we search for to explain away the force
of accident. For Casaubon too seeks
order, or the idea of it, confined
to understand that endless murmur through
our readings or our lives. When I say “our”
I mean just “his” and “my,” don’t I? You know,
I keep misspelling it as Causabon
—cause. Interpret that however you will.
It’s only a mistake by hand for me,
just something to be understood through words.
From mind to hand to pencil, from the eye,
from the old mouth, an active sympathy
could do no worse than order all the things
I know I like. I pray for memory,
the grace of accuracy, when I sit
to read and read and read to find like, is.
Pastoral (High Lonesome)
We the human never expect
what can happen will ever
to us, so I’m happy
reading some Virgil aloud
in cold thin air and fine
juniper shadows when
Liz stumbles, coughs
and pukes hard off the ridge.
And the river spellbound
stood still listening.
And the sun that had been
all afternoon joking of goats
soon flexed and cursed.
My book jacket suggests
Ferry’s translations bring
“a vigorous edge of reality”
to the ancients, but nothing
of what every apple eventually
becomes inside us, a sign
for how in love the shepherds
of blood remain with oxygen,
translating it cell by cell
into amble and thought.
When did the rocks over
which we trip begin to grow up?
Here and again I carry you
down past the clean elk bones
and lonely bees, past each
pinecone holding its own
future close as this breath,
and the next, for decades.
The Lost Colony
When threat of the Spanish Armada
pressed every seaworthy vessel into English service,
the settlers at Roanoake vanished.
There were always more settlers
clothed in opportunity, the appetite voracious
for cotton, tobacco, against every horizon.
Drive out past the lumber mills,
past the clapboard shacks and deep culverts,
past the fifteen mailboxes with fading names of residents.
Drive past the Road Closed sign,
where the sedge grasses shorten,
until asphalt and tar surrender to fescue.
Night presses down like blacktop
on hills that ripple outward for miles
like an ocean frozen in mid-gale.
Of course, there was never a road here,
just the dream of one.
The great American dream of the road.
There was never a colony at Roanoake,
and no one chiseled CROATOAN into a post.
When they are over, all dreams vanish.
The unroaded expanse—the flatlands that yield to mountain,
the mountain that yields to nighttime horizon—
is more than the failure to pave over everything.
The settlers, forcing down hardtack,
unsealed these instructions:
If you are untroubled, let there be no sign in the world.
But if you carve the Maltese cross into a tree,
we will know you have come to harm,
and we will raze the world in your rescue.
The rescuers could hardly contain their muskets,
their enthusiasm for sacking the settlement,
flattening paths in every direction.
Never was a Maltese cross carved,
but the passes they cut their sons paved with stones,
dragging carts with hoes and scythes.
The swaths they cleared their sons seeded into fields
and built grain silos, built clapboard barns,
the dream made gravel, pitched with tar.