Two more poems from Saturday’s Salon

Both of these are by Lisa Rappoport:

Czeslaw Milosz Buys Lion or Tiger Urine at the Oakland Zoo

—or so it has been reported: or rather, so goes the report
of his intent, unaccompanied by any definitive evidence
of whether he did so, or no. He loved the deer, he loved
their musky attendance at his dwelling in exile on the Western
coast of this country, in the hills above Berkeley, at the edge
of the regional park called Tilden. But he loved also his garden,
the trees, the new life that both burgeoned and was encouraged
to burgeon; and the deer loved these also, but after their fashion,
which tended toward destruction. So other than building
eight-foot-high fences to exclude the visitors, the best
modern alternative to discourage their appetite
was to spread the urine of their enemies
about the perimeter of the property.

Although I cannot say whether the intended purchase was made,
the end of the story is that on the morning when news arrived
of Milosz’s faraway death in his once homeland, deer congregated
in the small yard, more than had ever been seen there. I like
to imagine them pushing and milling, crowding, stamping, bidding
a cervine farewell to a poet and a century, creating presence
in a place of absence.

The Death of Longing

In that alternate universe
where desperation is an aphrodisiac,
happiness is visible, palpable, and smells
like bubblegum; but poetry has shriveled
and you see people barfing all day long
from their disgust at reading, viewing,
and living a life of schmaltz. The word
longing means going for a lengthy walk,
and to miss someone is as rare and outmoded
as to contract a case of the vapors. Hearts
don’t break, they bend, like malleable rubber
balls that bounce without bruising themselves
or their targets. The more one is hurt, the more
confidence he gains, and slights are regarded
as compliments and exercise opportunities. Instead of
black holes physicists discuss white mounds: places
of infinite lightness, outside of the pull of gravity,
which reflect and turn back all that approaches.
The few remaining poets write mainly about latitude, longitude
and trigonometry, and are read only by the few remaining
librarians, those specialists whose job descriptions do not forbid
the reading of banned books. Some inhabitants have never returned
from their youthful longings.

Friday Poetry

This poem arrived in my email this morning:

Doubled Mirrors

It is the dark of the moon.
Late at night, the end of summer,
The autumn constellations
Glow in the arid heaven.
The air smells of cattle, hay,
And dust. In the old orchard
The pears are ripe. The trees
Have sprouted from old rootstocks
And the fruit is inedible.
As I pass them I hear something
Rustling and grunting and turn
My light into the branches.
Two raccoons with acrid pear
Juice and saliva drooling
From their mouths stare back at me,
Their eyes deep sponges of light.
They know me and do not run
Away. Coming up the road
Through the black oak shadows, I
See ahead of me, glinting
Everywhere from the dusty
Gravel, tiny points of cold
Blue light, like the sparkle of
Iron snow. I suspect what it is,
And kneel to see. Under each
Pebble and oak leaf is a
Spider, her eyes shining at
Me with my reflected light
Across immeasurable distance.

Kenneth Rexroth

I love how this poem seems to move so simply, almost like a prose paragraph. But every detail is exact, moves the poem forward from a late night on a particular road into immeasurable distance.

And poetry from an unexpected source appeared as an editorial in the NY Times on Derek Jeter by Doug Glanville that Larry read to me. Here’s a sample: “You speed through much of your time just hoping to keep the ooze moving forward, worrying that it may swallow you whole the minute you let up.” Several passages made us almost teary. Not surprisingly, he’s written a book, The Game from Where I Stand, which I just ordered.


Monday, Monday

A friend spent the night last night, and added to our breakfast conversation by reading aloud from the Monday Metropolitan Diary section of the New York Times:

“Practice, practice, practice may be the way to Carnegie Hall, but is it worth it if no one remembers your name, much less the hall itself?
Recently overheard from a couple settling into their seats behind me before a concert: “This is where we heard that guy play the piano, isn’t it?”

That’s the problem with fame in a nutshell!

Then Larry said that there was a place called The Royal Roost in New York where Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Kenny Durham and other jazz greats used to play that was nicknamed The Metropolitan Bopera House.

Then I got to the work of the morning. Every Monday I send a poem to a little group of poets who trade poems each week. We’ve been doing this almost 10 years now! We each have a day. Sometimes we send our poems, but most often a poem we’ve encountered that we like a lot. Today I sent out a poem by Tony Hoagland, one of my favorite poets.

I love the way he mixes humor and the overpowering emotions we each feel, how he takes a situation everyone can recognize—the desire to seduce someone—and elevates it. Then he brings us back to earth, reminding us that we live here, amid the base, confusing and overpowering passions, no matter how much we love literature.

The Collaboration

That was the summer I used The Duino Elegies
in all of my seductions,
taking Rilke from my briefcase

the way another man might break out
candlelight and wine.
I think Rilke would have understood,

would have thought the means
justified the end, as I began to read
in a voice so low it forced my audience

to lean a little closer,
as if Rilke were a limestone bench
stationed on a hillside

where lovers gathered to enjoy the vista
of each other listening.
What a chaperone,

and what a view—is it Susan
I am thinking of?—
how, in the middle of the great Ninth Elegy,

in the passage where the poet
promises to memorize the earth,
her tanned and naked knee

seemed the perfect landing platform
for any angels in the vicinity.
I think Rilke would have seen

the outline of an angel
in the space between our bodies
just before we kissed,

then seen it vanish
as we clashed together
and commenced our collaboration

on another chapter
of the famous, familiar and amusing
saga of human relations—choosing

heat instead of grace,
possession over possibility—trading
the kingdom of heaven

one more time
for two arms full
of beautiful, confusing earth.

This poem is from Sweet Ruin, like all of Tony’s books, worth owning! For those interested in poetics, his book of essays, Real Sofistikashun, is a treat.

Zbigniew Herbert

This Polish poet is one of my favorites. He has many dark poems, having survived the second world war and the subsequent Soviet regime in Poland.  But this is a light, acerbic little prose poem. I disagree with his assessment of the hen, though I love the poem.

The Hen

The hen is the best example of what living constantly with humans leads to.  She has completely lost the lightness and grace of a bird. Her tail sticks up over her protruding rump like a too large hat in bad taste. Her rare moments of ecstasy, when she stands on one leg and glues up her round eyes with filmy eyelids, are stunningly disgusting. And in addition, that parody of song, throat-slashed supplications over a thing unutterably comic: a round, white, maculated egg.
The hen brings to mind certain poets.

More typical is his poem, “Five Men.” This poem astonished me with its power when I first read it, perhaps 40 years ago. In an essay about another poem, Herbert said:

“If a school of literature existed, one of its basic exercises should be the description not of dreams but of objects. Beyond the artist’s reach, a world unfolds–difficult, dark, but real. One should not lose the faith that it can be captured in words…I do not turn to history to draw from it an easy lesson of hope, but to confront my experience with that of others, to acquire something I might call universal compassion, and also a sense of responsibility, responsibility for the state of my conscience.”

This poem seems to me to fulfill that responsibility.

Five Men

They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall 

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them

when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
then those lying beside the wall

I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

Zbigniew Herbert
both of these were translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, and are from the Penguin 1968 edition of Zbigniew Herbert Selected Poems,