Book Reviews

Poems Index

Found poem 1

Manhattan Haiku

Sibelius at Starbucks

Ideographic Landscape

The Buddha and the Onion


Matter in 3 States

Metropolitan Corridor

Two Rivers

Postcard:  Lover's Leap

Virginia Street




Saverton 1956



Nails and Stones

The Waves in the Cove

Thompson's Point, 1 a.m.


I don't know where it comes from—

Trail of TearsEastern Terminus

Historical Entomology

Beneath a fortunate moon

My father rose early that morning


No Answer

The urgency of light

In the western room

The flatness of the landscape

3 places I have lived

His Glass Eye Kept Him Out of the Draft But Now His Half-Brother's on the GI Bill

5 Lines

Consider an idealized experiment

Garbage cabbage Babbage


Thirteen Ways to Waste Time in the Western Hemisphere

Garden View

I Forgot …


Snap, Whirr

Found in Translation

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Found poem 1

at Jamaica
for the Patchogue

(found in Penn Station, New York, 7/27/96)

Manhattan Haiku The bronze light of 6 p.m. Flashes off the brick buttes and concrete mesas of Seventh Avenue. After twelve days of rain a great flood of tourists washes over the curbsides of Times Square.

Sibelius at Starbucks Chair legs clatter across the floor The bow glides across the strings The poinsettias are red The lake waters are blue Muskrats meander among pine needles and spars of rotting spruce The violin plunges head first through the ice Real-estate lawyers bark into cell phones beyond the plate glass The violin soars to the topmost branch of a bare-limbed birch Cheap white china yields up the dregs of a double espresso And chocolate-brown vans haul away the day's done deals.

Ideographic Landscape Walk this way, she said Around the triple dagger and Into the peak-roofed house Where the man with four swords Thrust through his torso Pleads for mercy from the Ancient couple who care for The stiff-backed trumpet player. Through the window Beyond the door Across the open space Between the columns of black ink Where the one-eyed dog is winking At the three pigeons as they Lift their wings all at once And flee the small black spot That marks the midpoint Of the night.

The Buddha and the Onion Take this onion, said the Buddha. Discard the wan green stalks. Remove the parchment husks. Then peel it carefully, One translucent layer at a time. Be patient. Work slowly. Keep peeling. Find out what's inside. Years pass. So many layers, so wan and translucent. Until nothing at all. No fruit, no core, no kernel. Just tears.

Cosmology Strewn on the tabletop among the hundred red sequin stars Are four potato-shaped pebbles — decrepit comets — And a dessicated clove of garlic like a burnt-out quasar. The comet whose trajectory the astronomers disputed Veers away into the post-cataclysmic dust as Betelgeuse, warped red giant, pulses toward supernova Like Lenin in his cloth cap and goatee just before His brain exploded and he plunged into the black hole of 1924.

Matter in 3 States Tiny ivory mussel shell bound by black cotton thread to pitted surface of grey-brown igneous pebble. Stone the extrusion of volcanic fire Shell the artifact of living tissue Thread the processed product of industrial revolution. These earthbound items all forged from star-stuff yet ineluctably here: tangible, orderly and durable.

Metropolitan Corridor Neither urban nor rural but an in-between sort of place where everything used to happen. Telegraph lines and steel rails; long pine poles steeped in creosote capped with glass insulators and strung with copper wire. In the days before cell phones and satellites Words and journeys were etched into the landscape. Every town had some consequence—— a junction, a switchpoint, a place to change trains.

Two Rivers You there, gazing from the car window through the cypress leaves and across the Burlington tracks as the green Nash climbs from bottomland to bluffs: Come away from the River Road a little while, and join me here beneath this granite hill beside another river of these States. The River Road is long since closed, you know- the floods of '93 washed out the last remaining stretch. Sons and fathers take a different route on Sunday afternoons. But we could find our way back down there, you and I, go on foot amid the crumbling shards of tar and gravel, past abandoned kilns and docks, the pond behind the greenhouse, the keeper's cottage at the lock and dam. For now, though, let's just mount these hundred steps, walk past blazing tulips to the old Fort's battlements and watch the sunlight fade beyond the Palisades. Even from this eastward perch, might we not glimpse the time and place where we were one, not two?

Postcard: Lover's Leap The man in the red shirt stops two yards back from the cliff-edge and gazes past the twin stacks of the old electric plant toward the lighthouse on Cardiff Hill. Two bridges, no clouds and one old switch engine in the Burlington yards below.

Virginia Street White wooden backyard fence with a gate. Tire swing on a hickory tree. Piles of autumn leaves from Helen Carstarphen's yard ——I set them on fire once. Going to funerals in Illinois. Picking crabapples and wild grapes along the roadside by the levee so Grandma could make jelly. Looking for persimmons and not finding any except once or twice. Eating roast beef every Sunday. Listening to the radio next door with Uncle Tom Robinson. Watching the ants on the peony bushes. Burning trash in the backyard oven. Admiring Grandma's morning glories— Waiting forever for them to bloom. Hammering nails on the new garage roof. Running up the back porch steps, Crashing into a post and getting two stitches in my forehead. Not crossing the street for months after Ricky's dog bit me. Selling lemonade on sidewalks Where no one ever walked by.

Thornwood My son is nearly nine: he never goes outdoors on his own. But when I was eight I could tramp in solitude all summer in the woods behind Virginia Street, dodging the black thorn branches and following the creekbed to its source on the hillside below the Cunningham place. I'd take off after lunch, return near sundown when the house windows along the eastern ridge turned golden and my father came home bearing coils of wire and old telephones for me to take apart. After supper, Grandma laid aside her thornwood walking stick and we sat down to play double solitaire until bedtime. But then I couldn't fall asleep because the shadow of the telephone cord cast on the wall by the moonlight looked too much like the blacksnake my father killed with a stick the year before in the attic behind my aunt's bedroom.

January Toward sundown I knelt on the purple patterned cushions of the overstuffed sofa And gazed through the sheer ivory curtains, Searching the skies for snow. The mercury dropped The clouds gathered The first flakes fell: My spirits soared. That night, the same dreams— Suspension on long steel cables over a bottomless abyss; Under the yellow light bulb, The man with no face about to open the back-porch door. The next morning, Sixteen inches— No school!

Knots Two flights up from my Aunt Georgia's office A troop of Sea Scouts kept their knots upon display. Bowline, sheepshank, two half-hitches—— Intricacies of rope that seemed arcane to my eight-year-old fingers. A few years later I would learn to tie such knots myself. By then it seemed a rather pointless craft to one so landlocked.

Saverton 1956 Bright summer laugh, dark cake studded with six candles. A barge floats downstream, slides silently through the locks and moves on down the river. Beached, becalmed, stranded; waiting for a wave to wash you back into the channel. The riverbank's dark cake holds the river but the river still runs like a wild lost angel.

C x H = W(g) + F(s) Wheat and barley. Oats and rye. Amber waves of grain. The bumper harvest of 1957 Overflowed the elevator and heaps of excess wheat Filled the street at the foot of Pine Street hill. But grain can only be piled so high Before it spills into a broader heap. Where once the odd seedlet Meandered off from the edge alone, All now collapse and fly apart at once. An equation might describe some sort of limit: The size and shape and weight Of the individual grains, The friction of the surface, The number of grains in total, The height and circumference of the pile ... Add it all up and calculate How many layers of seed on seed Before the whole thing falls apart. Jefferson and Madison thought they had it figured out: With the proper checks and balances The Republic could keep on growing. Wayward grains would amble back into the pile. But the Founders never reckoned with The laws of chaos The rules of disorder The enormous effects Of minuscule perturbations. The least little seed at the far edge Shifts imperceptibly and The whole thing tumbles down.

Reds Candle, clothespin, sled and drum Objects from a child's book of colors. They're all red, or Have a little red in them. I was a Red once myself—— Still have a little red in me, I suppose. Uncle Alfred didn't, though—— He smoked those big cigars With the little red and gold band. Were they Cuban cigars? Was that why he hated Reds? Summer of '63——he took me to Washington We stood in line for the White House tour Saw all the monuments Visited the Smithsonian. But he had to get us out of town fast Before the Reds showed up. The next time I went I went with the Reds. Uncle Alfred stayed home.

Nails and Stones   Russell reads this poem In the last week of the last summer of his life Charles Barton bent over the old wooden dock pounding twenty-penny nails into the thick pine boards. Nearby, his grandson Russell, four years old, Cast small smooth stones into the black waters of the lake.

The Waves in the Cove The waves in the cove that make music all night Crescendo at dawn as the wind turns north. The wind turns north, pushing the gulls Off their course and bringing the cool rain. The cool rain drums on the windows and roof While the chipmunks chatter of death beneath the eaves. The wind turns south and the rain relents. Light fades from the water, the chipmunks disperse and fall asleep. Then the waves in the cove again. (After William Stafford, "The Light by the Barn")

Thompson's Point, 1 a.m. Beyond the rough plank bench at the edge of the cliff where Sarah nearly slipped through the fence the quarter-melon moon hurries through the haze and disappears behind Hurricane peak. There is no wind. No waves are lapping in the cove, and the children are sleeping on the second floor. Only the faint chuffing of an oil barge on the New York side as it passes Split Rock Mountain where the Abenaki held off the Iroquois before Champlain came to claim the lake.

Thunder My mother always hated thunder and lightning. It was thrilling, though——waiting and watching for a funnel to appear so we could run for the basement and huddle in the southwest corner. It wasn't the wicked witch but the tornado that scared the bejeezus out of me in the Wizard of Oz. Thunderstorms sweeping out of the southwest descending on the river towns—— Thunderstorms as we traveled home from Illinois, through the black-soiled bottomlands between Kinderhook and Hull. Thunderheads mounting high over Kansas City, the airplane bounced through the clouds. Thunderheads mounting high over the Pampas, borne toward Buenos Aires by the Santa Rosa winds, harbingers of spring. Three unbelievers setting off on a pilgrimage to Lujan as the skies opened. A lot of death that year—— Carol's miscarriage at the decrepit old hospital out by Parque Patricios, near the Riachuelo, on the way to Avellaneda. And all the tombs of Recoleta where history rests, not quite in peace—— Lavalle and Dorrego, Rosas and Sarmiento, Evita Perón and Aramburu. Washing dishes at the sink in the ill-lit kitchen of Jeremy's flat in the Calle Chacabuco, I sliced my finger open on a shard of glass.

I don't know where it comes from-- --the conviction that I must never dwell in a hot climate where rattlesnakes and black widows without faces lie in wait. The dry lands are not silent: Diamondbacks rattle, coyotes howl, scorpions scuttle across the sand. My body has no way of remembering how to stay alive among such predators—— no craft or lore acquired in childhood: where not to step, which brush piles to avoid, how to discern the fine steel strands of silk suspended from the branches of the night. With arrows, fire and flowers the beasts are beaten back, but fever from forgotten wounds rises in the hours before dawn and I no longer know how to return to winter or a river. (Inspired by Gordon Grice, The Red Hour-Glass: Lives of the Predators. Certain lines and images echo Pablo Neruda, "Poetry", in Isla Negra: A Notebook.)

Trail of Tears: Eastern Terminus Rain clouds hover just above the broken line of peaks that defines the western horizon. It is sunset. The snows have melted and the river is running swiftly through the gathering night. Under the pines, beside a row of barrels laid end on end, sits the man with a furrowed brow and large, deep-set eyes. He is waiting there for his children to return from beyond the mountains. But he cannot yet see the lightning that will tell him they are gone for good.

Historical Entomology Soldier beetles can be found flying in warm sunshine with their colors resembling old uniforms. The day before he died, Stalin feasted on a sumptuous plate of soldier beetles steamed in beer. These insects are of little economic importance, although they may feed on certain pest species. Seventeen years before, an old Georgian peasant had told him of their pungent flavor. Soldier beetles live in meadows on the edges of woodlands. Several Red Army battalions survived on a diet of soldier beetles in the days of the Great Famine. Adult beetles also eat the pollen and nectar of milkweed flowers. When the schoolchildren laid their bouquets on Stalin's bier, a great swarm of soldier beetles flew out of the milkweed blossoms. The larvae are flattened, with a velvet covering of short hairs. Wrapped in his velvet-lined greatcoat, Molotov shuddered as the insects took to the sky over Red Square. Certain species find prey on the ground or in soil and low-growing mosses. Outside the Kremlin walls, soldiers flung themselves to the ground and the vast crowd dissolved in chaos.

Beneath a fortunate moon dark matter shrouds the planet. In the sweet water the fast fever the seven stones of summer warm the body cloud the mind. Slender hands braid optical fiber into silver pathways stretching toward the other shore.

My father rose early that morning donned his double-breasted navy blue suit, put a four-in-hand knot in his wide maroon tie, placed his fedora on his prematurely gray head and set off for the Burlington station behind the Mark Twain Hotel. The Zephyr would not leave for St. Louis until half- past eight, but a large crowd of travelers already filled the sofas and overstuffed armchairs of the waiting room, where they sat chatting complacently, though some were vaguely beset by uneasiness: the novelty of integration, anticipation of the Bomb.

Downstairs The telephones. The vise. The handsaw. The blue willow plate. The cornet. Its mouthpiece. The picture window. The washing machine. The underwear. The red and white metal chair. My father. His striped coveralls. His black rubber apron. The cameras. The photographs. The enlarger. The slide projector. The amber lightbulb. The potassium ferrocyanide.

No Answer It is unnecessary for us both to speak. Let us be silent, serious, contemplative. A bright green feather of cloud looms just above the horizon. This has been given us to help the pain, though we neglect to make use of it. The children have ventured far beyond us. Some people hurt from this, but we are resigned. When the smell of the flowers was overpowering, we held our breath and walked a little faster. This gained us but a few moments, and still I had to fight off so much purple that I missed the small black spot that appeared suddenly in the corner of your eye.

The urgency of light The architects were angry that morning. The craftsmen refused to relinquish the calendar. Detectives waited at the bus stop, forcing passersby to recite from an eye chart. I couldn't stay in the front rooms: they were too green, too cold, and no one was responsible for them. The upholstery was sodden with formaldehyde; bits of bark clung to the wooden table legs. Paw prints of small fierce animals smudged the windowpanes, and a cylindrical magnet threatened to disarrange the solid stacks of dominoes. Science had no answers: The chronometer was locked away in a cabinet. The saxophone spun blindly on its axis, and the slide rule hanging from the pegboard gave a value for pi that everyone knew to be false.

In the western room At the hour when box elder bugs come down from the rafters the mailman has already come and gone leaving nothing but seed catalogs and a postcard from downtown Topeka. Two stories below, the green garden hose coils tightly around its gray steel bracket and the drainpipe shudders against the siding. A rising wind exposes the pale undersides of the maple leaves and translucent clouds turn abruptly opaque.

The flatness of the landscape My hair had grown long. Banished from the marching band, I took refuge among the gatecrashers who gathered daily outside the state prison where the thick walls exuded an odor of mildewed concrete. In the hazy exhaust of a '62 Buick, I exchanged glances with a pickpocket whose mastiff had quietly slipped its leash and was about to defecate on the wrong side of the police barricade. Two minutes to one and not an ambulance in sight; too far to walk to the Boonville Bridge. In the other direction, six crows, a field of soybeans and the Golf Club on Highway 5, where Uncle Doc the optometrist has just lit up another big cigar and started in on his story about the old boy from Memphis who could drive a ball 300 yards even though he was legally blind.

3 places I have lived Behind the red-brick hospital, the pile driver's clang of steel on steel. The baby carriage rolls along across St. Mary's Avenue, past Dr. Verbeck's osteopathy clinic and into the flats along Magnolia Street. Tossing away her cigarette, the girl in the black raincoat runs to catch the 57th Street bus. Through the cold mist the Paramount Building looms faintly as I wander from Midtown to the Upper West Side, until the sun sets behind the ruined orphanage atop the ridge on Levering Avenue. Then the clack of wood on wood, and I hurry down the lawns below the Nelson Art Gallery, across Brush Creek Boulevard, 23rd Street, then 14th, to St. Mark's Place and home.

His Glass Eye Kept Him Out of the Draft But Now His Half-Brother's on the GI Bill Half past noon on a Saturday, two years after the War. Empty coal barges drift downstream. Just north of the Boonville Bridge, Uncle Finn leans against the fender of a '42 Dodge. The 12:15 out of Glasgow clatters through the grade crossing. Finn tips his hat to the fireman, takes a last puff on his stogie and lets it fall to the pavement. "Never should've left Sikeston," he mutters. "That goddam boardinghouse—— what a losing proposition."

5 Lines Steering by firelight in a boat with blue oars. Electricity shoots through the soles of your feet. There is more to the land than nostalgia. This is the white page at twilight. This is the scale-model universe.

Consider an idealized experiment The smell of freshly washed sheets. Motion along a track. Roses on a sunlit trellis. Khaki tarpaulins folded into bundles. A beach strewn with egg-shaped stones. Flaking paint on rusting steel. Dark leaves against a twilit sky. A small aircraft at the edge of a cliff. Moonlight on a choppy sea. Wind passing over a field of grain. A tunnel. Falling rocks. A quarry.

Garbage cabbage Babbage Appealing to an anomalous analogy, Mr. Babbage throws the beets out with the basura, charging the circuit of digital detritus. Electronic eggs, stirred flippantly into the farfalle: garbage or groceries? Hamburgers are hardly intelligent but ice cream implies even less information. (Jules— more jelly, please!) Kale is a killer: let's loose a few more kilobits down the lead pipe. They've mislaid the microchips, Mr. Newton. (And no noshing!) Orange offal; putrid prunes. The quagmire, where quince and raspberry register near the top of the squeamish scale. Techniques for turning trash into turnips—— underutilized since the onset of vegetal variation ——have laid utter waste to the warehouse. (Don't fret: yesterday's Yardbird is tomorrow's Yeats.) ZZZzzzzzzz . . .

Recipe Flour, starch and ether Charred wicks and candle wax Waistbands watchbands and rusty hacksaw blades.

Thirteen Ways to Waste Time in the Western Hemisphere Sample tapas in Tampa Puff a Tampa in Tampico Pick at pico de gallo in the Galápagos Gallop through Gallup. Get wasted in West Orange Peel an orange in Pelham Smoke a ham in Skokie Snort coke in Cahokia. Skulk slyly through Minnesota Measure minnows along the Minnisink Salt salmon in Secaucus Caulk a sailboat in Ho-Ho-Kus. Sink slowly into the Great Salt Lake.

Garden View But what you did didn't matter—— not in that house, where the doors would not close; not on the long driveway, where lawyers rode up in Pontiac sedans with windows rolled up tight and upholstery that smelled of old cigars. Sticks, trees, rain, dogs. A musty odor of pesticide and an immense pile of dead leaves turning to mulch for the rosebushes. Sixteen or twenty years later her fine things were distributed to nieces and nephews; for the neighborhood children, a single wide shallow bowl.

I forgot ... ... how dark it was, how signs stand between mind and matter, how garter snakes practice invisibility, how radios rust when submerged in mud.

Postmadrugada She missed the bus: It came once a century when the pigeons smiled and the sharks' ears peeled. Intensity under the ground, Saturn's plumbline. Unhappy fellows, playing bridge with a marked deck. Where was the eager child? Snap to; wiggle—— respiration that whistles. Whenever she listens, it snows. Apricot seeds for breakfast, tea biscuits for lunch. For dinner, a loose tooth. In the morning we get drunk on heavy water. Dawn is the moment
of exasperation: Insomniacs stagger
through the suburbs; Eagle Scouts
send messages no one answers. Three streets over, the grass is dying. Poison frogs sing after dark when the willows shed their bark and the motorman pulls the hammer down. Too full, too far, too few. Esperanza sin amargura. Pacifícate.

Snap, Whirrr What shall we do with Mr. Land's camera? Dispense with the darkroom. Hold it at arm's length, squeeze the button slowly——steal our own souls. What, a shock of recognition? My father, meticulous shutterbug, despised Polaroids.

Found in Translation The magician of the ounce casts his crystal eye outside the sketch and catalogs the strong waters of the landscape. Two histories down, explorers of the sea conceal their knots behind curtains of pure ivory. In the furnace of the patio the rain is appeased and the sullen nimbus hesitates before the bankrupt line of the western horizon.