Archive for July, 2009

To David Diop, Lines 1-12

and it is true we are wounded
at the lowest point of hope
but hope in us has never beaten its wing
it rises on our human horizons
like a fresh unfolding bud
there lives in us unconquerable hope
snapping at the heels of freedom
in due course it hunts down the dawn with huge supplies
of stones
against the wall that will crack in the end
for we will not leave the smallest scrap
to the demons of despair
by Paulin Joachim (born 1931),
translator unknown

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There is No City that Does Not Dream

There is no city that does not dream
from its foundations. The lost lake
crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers,
the floor of the ravine where light lies broken
with the memory of rivers. All the winters
stored in that geologic
garden. Dinosaurs sleep in the subway
at Bloor and Shaw, a bed of bones
under the rumbling track. The storm
that lit the city with the voltage
of spring, when we were eighteen
on the clean earth. The ferry ride in the rain,
wind wet with wedding music and everything that
sings in the carbon of stone and bone
like a page of love, wind-lost from a hand, unread.
by Anne Michaels (born 1958)

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The Cats Will Know

The rain will still fall
on your sweet pavements,
a light rain
like a breath or a footstep.
The breeze and the dawn will still
flower lightly
as though under your footstep,
when you come back in.
Between flowers and window sills
the cats will know.

There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You will smile alone.
The cats will know.

You will hear aged words,
tired words and empty ones
like the costumes put aside
after yesterday’s merrymaking.
You, too, will gesture.
You will reply words —
face of springtime —
you, too, will gesture.

The cats will know,
face of springtime;
and the light rain,
the dawn color of hyacinth,
that rend the heart
of him who no longer hopes for you,
and the sad smile
that you smile alone.
There will be other days,
other voices and awakenings.
We will suffer in the dawn,
face of springtime.

I gatti lo sapranno

Ancora cadrà la pioggia
sui tuoi dolci selciati,
una pioggia legerra
come un alito o un passo.
Ancora la brezza e l’alba
fioriranno leggere
come sotto il tuo passo,
quando tu rientrerai.
Tra fiori e davanzali
I gatti lo sapranno.

Ci saranno altri giorni,
ci saranno altre voci.
Sorriderai da sola.
I gatti lo sapranno.
Udrai parole antiche,
parole stanche e vane
come I costume smessi
delle feste di ieri.
Farai gesti anche tu.
Risponderai parole —
viso di primavera,
farai gesti anche tu.

I gatti lo sapranno,
viso di primavera;
e la pioggia leggera,
l’alba color giacinto,
che dilaniano il cuore
di chi più non ti spera,
son oil triste sorriso
che sorridi da sola.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
altre voci e risvegli.
Soffriremo nell’alba,
viso di primavera.
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)
translated by Roberta L. Payne

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I remember a tree of a painting.
My whiter rings worn poor from prayer.
Saturday, a fawn wing sung of women and of woods:
“We heap the pearls, we loose the ground,
and some go godward with a rose.”

There sat a little man like a silver birth tree.
A crowd in my ear where a woman with love would mirth me.
Her voice sliding rum from a songbeaker
rang the rimed, gray, waned glass,
and sent me into a drying river.
My young hand in clay, I cocked the swan’s neck,
and, as the old bearer brought to rest
in the tents of the trees, he spoke to me:

“O paint early with your young voice
in the boathouses, in a raft of July
where a man after fifty cups
cool reeds to his face, and knows
the harbor is sane. I am waiting hand
opened to you, a drink in the other,
and my head is sand.”

And I said to him: “I remember you.
Sunday, a wife in your pupil,
white limbs in the kiln.
Why didn’t they show you to us?
We were your children in the brush
and only on the canvas did we fold away
from your likeness into flux.”

And said the swan:
“A mimic’s feeling somewhere sad,
he speaks groundward
mouth on urn
grape broken tongue
and wild grow his bones.”

We feed July to the geese
in jeweled wakes diverging, holding
the sky’s cloth like a mast
while white clovers knot us to the past.
By Jonathan Thirkield. His collection The Waker’s Corridor was selected by Linda Bierds (see post July 26) for the 2008 Walt Whitman Award. The Walt Whitman Award brings first-book publication to an American who has never before published a book of poetry.

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The man who is alone — who has been in prison — returns to prison
every time that he bites into a piece of bread.
In prison he dreamed of the hares that flee
on the winter soil. In the winter fog
the man lives between walls of roads, drinking
cold water and munching on a piece of bread.

One believes that life is born again,
that the breath is calmed, that winter returns
with the odor of wine in the hot inn,
and the good fire, the stable, and suppers. One believes,
until he’s on the inside one believes. You go out one evening,
and the others have caught them, the hares, and they are eating them
in a warm room, gladly. You have to look at them from the windows.

The man who is alone dares to go in to drink a glass
when it’s really freezing, and he contemplates his wine:
its smoky color, its heavy taste.
He bites into his piece of break, which tasted of hare
in prison, but now it does not taste of bread
nor of anything else. And even the wine does not taste of anything but fog.

The man who is alone thinks back to those fields, content
to know that they have already been ploughed. In the deserted room
he tries, under his breath, to sing. He sees again,
along the embankment, the faded tufts of bare bushes
that in August were green. He whistles to the dog.
And the hare comes out, and they’re not cold any more.


L’uomo solo — che è stato in prigione — ritorna in prigione
ogni volt ache morde in un pezzo di pane.
In prigione sognava le lepri che fuggono
sul terriccio invernale. Nella nebbia d’inverno
l’uomo vive tra muri di strade, bevendo
acqua fredda e mordendo in un pezzo di pane.

Uno credo che dopo rinasca la vita,
che il respire si calmi, che ritorni l’inverno
con l’odore del vino nella calda osteria,
e il buon fuoco, la stalla, e le cene. Unco crede,
fin che è dentro uno crede. Si esce fuori una sera,
e le lepri le han prese e le mangiano al caldo
gli altri, allegri. Biscona guardarli dai vetri.

L’uomo solo osa entrare per bere un bicchiere
quando proprio si gela, e contempla il suo vino:
il colore fumoso, il sapore pesante.
Morde il pezzo di pane, che sapeva di leper
in prigione, ma adesso non sa più di pane
nè di nulla. E anche il vino non sa che di nebbia.

L’uomo solo ripensa a quei campi, contento
di saperli già arati. Nella sala deserta
sottovoce si prova a cantare. Rivede
lungo l’argine il ciuffo di rovi spogliati
che in agosto fu verde. Dà un fischio all cagna.
E compare le leper e non hanno più freddo.
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)
translated by Roberta L. Payne

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The Fish

“. . . tomorrow I look forward to a greater harvest.”
—Charles Darwin, 1832

Month after dry month, then suddenly
a brief rain has delivered to the fractured hillsides
a haze of grass. So sparse it might be
a figment of the heart. Yet its path
on the outstretched hand is true—brush and retreat—
like the breaths of a spaniel.

There are buried in the decks of certain ships
melon-sized prisms of glass, dangling their apices
to the cabins below. Through
their forked, pyramidic ziggings, daylight
is offered to the mess tables, to the tinware,
the gun-gray curlings of salt-tongue.
Not rainbowed at all, the light
approaches the face of each sailor
in segments, like the light in a spine of
train car windows. Then fuses, of course, when it
marries the retina, its chopped evolution

lost in the stasis of the visible.
We turn homeward soon. I remember
the seam lines of southern constellations, and the twin
tornadoes of a waterspout: one funnel
of wind reaching down from a cloud,
one funnel of sea reaching upward. They met
with the waist of an hourglass—in perfect reflection,
as we, through the Archer, the Scorpion, the Painter,
call forth from the evening some
celestial repetition of our shared churnings.

We shattered the spout
with shotguns that kicked like the guns of my childhood
when leaves were a prune-mulch and my sisters
stood at the rim of the orchard.
Katty. Caroline. Susan. Marianne.
In the temperate wind, their dresses and sashes,
the variegated strands of their hair, were
the nothing of wood smoke. Steam.

I cannot foretell our conclusion.

But once, through a pleat-work of waves,
I watched as a cormorant caught and released
a single fish. Eight times. Trapped and released.
Diving into an absence, the fish
re-entered my vision in segments, arcing
through the pivot of the bird’s beak. Magnificent,
I thought, each singular visit, each
chattering half-step from the sea.
by Linda Bierds (born 1945)

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Aspens in the fall

Many Mansions

Abba Poeman related that abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.

A brother asked an old man, “What thing is there so good that I may do it and live?” And the old man said, “God alone knows what is good…. Therefore, what you find your soul desires in following god, do it and keep your heart set on him.”

This semester at Vermont College I’m working with a poet named Betsy Sholl. She asked me recently if I ever read the desert fathers. We met later that week, and I showed her my tattered copy, which has the above text in it.  We sat down in the lunch room at the teacher’s table, and I hid the book under my tray. I rarely show that book to anyone, and I wasn’t prepared to show it to the entire Vermont College staff.

When we sat down, they were having a debate about eastern and western philosophy. Even though I read Christian texts, I fall a little more on the eastern side of things. I pushed my book farther under my tray and prayed it wouldn’t fall to the floor when I stood up. I turned to the teacher who was defending eastern philosophy and said, I know what you mean. I have not had a regular doctor for many years. I only use an acupuncturist and Chinese herbs when I’m sick. But if I broke my arm, I’d go to the emergency room and have my arm set.

She didn’t say anything. Like many people there, she knows I do volunteer work at a Benedictine monastery. It is the setting for many of my poems. I wanted to add, In god’s house, there are many mansions. We all need to depend on our own internal guidance system to see what way is best for us. But I didn’t. I felt no matter what I said, she’d only hear it coming from a person steeped in western beliefs.

aspens2 After Betsy and I left the lunch room, I showed her the book along with a second book I carried with me, the Rule of St. Benedict. The desert fathers book is tattered, but the Rule of St. Benedict no longer has a binding and is held together by a green rubber band. Many of its pages are torn.

Why does it look like this, she asked. I didn’t know what to say. She opened it and read out loud, He should grasp his infantile thoughts and hurl them against Christ. I cringed. I was hoping she’d find something a little less derogatory. Both books are based in Christian beliefs but read to me like Zen koans. The stories and sayings appear as statements, but the commentaries seem more like a series of perplexing questions to me. The poet in me likes to find less than traditional meanings and a richer context for the words.

I read these two books every day, and as the words sink into me they seem to change me, not only spiritually but physically. In the same way, tai chi, yoga and meditation affect me on more than one level. Maybe reading any text over and over again does this. Sinking into the words each day, the same words repeatedly, helps me to take in other people and experiences as well.

When you read the same text many times, you realize how little you absorb on each reading. Some phrases only appear to me after years of reading them. And life only happens to us once. We don’t get a second chance to take in and understand many of the things happening around us. Reading these books seems to bind me to those moments more when they are happening.

Of course I didn’t think of any of this when I was talking to Betsy. I was more aware of the students entering the lounge listening in on our conversation. I wished like Kathleen Norris, a poet who wrote the book Cloister Walk based on her Benedictine experience or Joan Chittister who wrote Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, I was more practiced at speaking about this.

aspens1The Aspen Grove

On the land where I once lived in the mountains, there are beautiful aspen groves. A stand of aspens trees is joined by a single root system underground, so that an aspen grove is one of the largest single living organisms on our planet. That’s why a stand of aspens changes color at the same time. The man who lived next door to us thought of aspens as “weeds” and took his chainsaw one day and cut them down. Few things have ever made me angrier. I gathered the slender trees in my arms like children who had been left to die.

When I used to sit in that stand of aspen trees, I thought of each tree as a different poet. Some of us are taller or thicker than others, but we are all connected underground. We write our poems individually and offer something different to the world, but we are all connected to the same source. I like to think of humans like that. We come from diverse backgrounds, we have different difficulties to cope with and privileges to help us, but it is the same spirit that works with us all.

People have been killing each other for centuries because what is “weeding” for one is murder to another. That same neighbor plowed us out many times during heavy snowstorms. I am a poet and read the Rule of St. Benedict and work as a newspaper reporter and am a lesbian. My religious beliefs are some strange mix of east and west. Some deep voice within us helps us each negotiate the waters of our life so that we can move downstream more easily. No one fits in any one slot.

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