Essay Concerning Last Year’s Ashes

My dog of course, now in a can, who saved my life. She’s on my mantle, and I would scatter her to the wind but sadness presses down the tin box, my sadness akin to faith-paranoia, like the superstitious passenger who thinks his mind holds the plane aloft. I must keep my dog’s ashes close just as I maintain books on shelves and worn shoes in the closet.

There was a year in my youth when I was terribly lonely in a strange city. I knew very few people and the ones I did know were the quotidian kind—magazine seller, doorman, a severe librarian at the local university, which is to say they knew me as a creature, and I knew them as living beings but without true culture—we had no shared songs. One may live this way for a season or two. This was that kind of time. I arranged knickknacks carefully on my desk.

Sometimes I went to the botanical garden. It dated from Tsarist times and there were winding paths that seemed to lead nowhere—bafflements for clandestine conversations—and I walked in expanding circles among lilies, ferns, and flowers whose names I’d never know for vandals had long ago stolen the signs. Yes, there were flowers taller than men and they had no names and I liked them a great deal. It’s foolish to say it, but plants are silent the way you wish your friends could be, and this was especially true that year, when I was far from friends back home. The great, drowsy, half shaggy plants of the Tsars…how kind they were. They simply “were” and this was all I needed most mornings.

I had books. Stendahl, Neruda, Harry Martinson. In those days I smoked cigarettes and I’d light up in my imperial bower with its anonymous shrubs and think about what I liked and didn’t like about words. I saw I didn’t like “faith” or “rage” but I could do with “ardor” and “pique”—not because they were literary words but because they had nuance and unless you’re genuinely seasick this is how you want your feelings to be—of or pertaining to intuitions, gut gasps, solitudes in gardens.

Of course I’d put the ashes in my pockets along with the cigarette butts. It was best not to leave a trace. And here I am, forty years later, holding on to my lovely dog’s ashes because I can’t bear to part with even the starkest reminder. What coat might I carry them in? What knowing garment?

Foolish again. The ashes in every instance.

 

Poetry in the Morning

Is best, wrist bone and mystery of it,

Returning now to bio-mechanical frame

After a night of dark herding.

I wish I could tell you

What mind-body means

Like an honest neighbor.

My wife’s horse is just here

Lowering his mouth to grass

Which is cold and wet

A promissory winter

In each grab.

My ribs have a story—

Green as a horse’s jaws,

You’ll not be paid

For saying so—

Ribs outlast most poems.

Narrow Road to the Deep North 

I’ve been turning in the gloom for years

Making vows, Lord, hoping apples,

Skies late winter will turn to spring,

Just enough Rachmaninoff,

Maybe we can really go back home…

I sat in the Cafe Strindberg

December frost on a window

Coffee steaming

Pencils before me—

What might poems be for?

Even then I was half milk

Half iodine, optimistic

And very sad,

The songs on high

Were so cold

Each silent word

Like a spoon in snow.

I learned my work like everyone,

 

To James Tate in Heaven

 

 

I haven’t been followed by a government agent lately, Jim, but I know it will soon happen. I’ll be walking around a campfire with my dictionary and a G-man of small stature will pop out of the underbrush. I’m not sure about the rest, how sad he may or may not be. You never know with those guys. I knew a CIA agent who loved his kids but ditched his family for a shack in the woods. Before he vanished he was quite charming. Then poof! He was gone. I think that’s the way of it after years spent following people, you just snap. Kind of like a cheap banjo. I’d like to write more to you about the suspicious person I think is coming but I’m sure you remember being tired. Sensible paranoia is exhausting. Doctors don’t understand it. If a thing comes true they say it’s a coincidence.

Eucharist 

 

I had a dream last night about old Bill Yeats

Who lived for the heart in an age of knives,

Whose loves came apart like moth wings

Whose nation was cruel

When not boastful, then both, then dark,

So I was swept along by a shade

Who’d suffered much, who even so

Had found my sleeping head

And bending close

He opened his shirt—

Where his heart should have been

There was a hole—

“Believe this” he said,

“In remembrance of me.”

 

The Piercing

“Each of us is alone at the center of the earth”  the poet says—

But we’re alone when a peacock opens his tail,

When merely walking in bright light

Maybe going nowhere

The way people do…I recall

Leaving the hospital…a misdiagnosis…

Doctors thought I was wasting

From digestive illness

But it was teen suicide I wanted

As I was blind, my parents

Were drunks, no true friends anyway…

You can be by yourself

In the heart of a sunbeam

On an ordinary street

Misnamed

Opening and closing your eyes.

 

From a Notebook, Again…

 

Autumn, or, Rain and a Lingering Soft Light of Sleep

 

I brew coffee while steam pipes talk

And my smallness in the scheme of things

Circles cat-like, though I have no cat.

**

Bride’s dress, goat’s wool, side by side in attic.

**

Here we walk now

My dead brother with me—

He’s the one (sensibly) wearing

White rubber boots.

**

Pawnshop in Athens

Not for from Syntagma Sq.

Saw I’d remain half crazy

For one more day…

**

The trick:

There are lots of blind people my age

Who don’t much like themselves

Zig-zag lines of darkness

Make you (on the inside) drift like a leaf

**

Just a bone in a larger collection of bones,

What I am…call it the body if you like,

I know better. Soon now,

Rocks will roll straight through….

**

Mahler’s Fifth.

Never got over it.

Seven years old.

Gramophone. Winter.