Friday, 30 August 2013


It is a big question to pose so early in the morning
or "in the light woven by birds,"
as the Estonians say,
but still I must ask what is my place in life?
my "seat on the invisible train,"
as they say in Hungary.
I mean why am I just sitting here
in a lawn chair listening to a thrush,
"the little entertainer of the woods,"
as the Swiss call him,
while out in the world
mobs of people are rushing over bridges
in and out of the cities?
Vegetables grow heavy in their fields,
clouds fly across the "face of the earth,"
as we call it in English,
and sometimes rockets lift off in the distance -
and I mean that quite literally,
"from the top of the table" as the Portuguese have it,
real rockets rising from the horizon,
or "the big line," if you're an Australian,
leaving behind rich gowns of exhaust smoke,
long, smooth trajectories,
and always the ocean below,
"the water machine," as the South Sea islanders put it -
everything taking place right on schedule,
"by the clock of the devil,"
as our grandparents were fond of saying.
And still here I sit with my shirt off,
the dog at my side, daydreaming -
"juggling balls of cotton," as they like to say in France.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Animals are Passing from Our Lives

It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.

I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers

that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,

suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes

that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife

discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

For The Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

The Hope of Wings

The girl forces the gull’s beak open with 
A spoon and starts to scrape the oil away.
Rampant the sky’s colours, legend and myth
Sustain the attention of those beset by
Traditional hungers, but now I foresee
A bird-emptied sky, the world’s shores
Hilled with crippled things, the thick, black
Smothering of oil murdering the hope of wings.
And this girl – she can’t be into her teens –
Would, if her working now is a guide,
Spend all her years remaking these stunned birds
Littering the sea, dead flops among stones.
She’d give a white-winged creature to the sky
Before black tides drown mere human words.



Three men
On a morning in early summer
Tipped a lorryload of poisoned whey
Into the Line river.

The water opened
And gulped it down.

It was a white poison.
The river swelled with the
Evil milk.
A snowy vein of death
Piercing the land's body.

All through the land
Seeped the scum in a murderous rut,
Through fields and
Meadows waiting to be cut,
Past villages and townlands
Into the sea.


Everything died in the milky river.
Brown trout, eels, fluke, young salmon
Perished, every one.

White bellies to the light
Fish floated down the river
Corpses jostling in the tide.

In the summer morning
Poison entered the sun,
Riddled the light
On land and sea,
Possessed the invisible stars
Turned to dust in the air
Dropped like a gentle malignant shiver of snow
Into the hearts of three men
Standing on a bank
Of the Line river.


Men working in the fields
Saw white bellies of fish.
Pain jabbed at the hearts of some.
They waded in as far as they could go
Collected the bodies in bags
Returned to the banks
Spread the fish in the fields –
Row after glittering row.

Strange to see
In the rivery grass,
Men bending over them
Incomprehension in their eyes.

Looking back at the river
They saw countless trout
Try to leap from the water
As if wanting to be alone,
Preferring to die
In an alien environment
Than in their poisoned own.

A few fish reached the grass, gravel, stones
The air pressing on every side.
They stirred, leaped, flickered in the sun
And died.


Milk of peace, milk of human kindness, sign of the fish –
The fields were strewn with dead metaphors.
Language had fought a pitched battle and lost
And now the choicest of its soldiers
Lay corpsed in the sun,
Their hearts yanked out and flung at random on the grass.
What grass would grow from these abandoned hearts
Would be sour as the words of a man
Whose days were black pits
Of disappointment.
Light that might have been a light of love
Circled like a bird of prey
Above the fields
Where nothing could be done or said
To halt the carrion light
From ravaging the dead.


The men who poisoned the river
Seemed hardly to know what was done.
Would they know what they did
If they poisoned the sun?
When they dumped death into the water
What did they do or say?
They turned their backs on a job well-done
And walked away.


People walking through or near the fields
Were forced to drink the stench.
Implacable as cancer
It pierced their clothes and skin
Lived there
White and vile as leprosy.

The whiter, the viler.

It seemed to many women and men
That God’s air
Would never be clean again.


In time
Fishbodies would be clay and grass,
Pain in the men’s eyes
But the river will never
Its own creatures rotting in light.

The river
And the land it flows for
Will never forget
The summer of poisoned white.

Sunday, 18 August 2013


At the first chink of sunrise,
the windows on one side of the house
are frosted with stark orange light,

and in every pale blue window
on the other side
a full moon hangs, a round, white blaze.

I look out one side, then the other,
moving from room to room
as if between countries or parts of my life.

Then I stop and stand in the middle,
extend both arms
like Leonardo's man, naked in a perfect circle.

And when I begin to turn slowly
I can feel the whole house turning with me,
rotating free of the earth.

The sun and moon in all the windows
move, too, with the tips of my fingers,
the solar system turning by degrees

with me, morning's egomaniac,
turning on the hallway carpet in my slippers,
taking the cold orange, blue, and white

for a quiet, unhurried spin,
all wheel and compass, axis and reel,
as wide awake as I will ever be.

I've lived out tens of thousands of years

I've lived out tens of thousands of years
on Cold Mountain. Given to the seasons,

I vanished among forests and cascades,
gazed into things so utterly themselves.

No one ventures up into all these cliffs
hidden forever in white mist and cloud.

It's just me, thin grass my sleeping mat
and azure heaven my comforting quilt:

happily pillowed on stone, I'm given to
heaven and earth changing on and on.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

If there is only enough time in the final
minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance
I would like to be dancing it slowly with you,

say, in the ballroom of a seaside hotel.
My palm would press into the small of your back
as the past hundred years collapsed into a pile
of mirrors or buttons or frivolous shoes,

just as the floor of the nineteenth century gave way
and disappeared in a red cloud of brick dust.
There will be no time to order another drink
or worry about what was never said,

not with the orchestra sliding into the sea
and all our attention devoted to humming
whatever it was they were playing.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light –
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never 
      even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag, and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps, the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember, it is not poised on the tip of your tongue, not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a 

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. 

The Brooklyn Museum of Art

I will now step over the soft velvet rope
and walk directly into this massive Hudson River
painting and pick my way along the Palisades
with this stick I snapped off a dead tree.

I will skirt the smoky, nestled towns
and seek the path that leads always outward
until I become lost, without a hope
of ever finding the way back to the museum.

I will stand on the bluffs in nineteenth-century clothes,
a dwarf among rock, hills, and flowing water,
and I will fish from the banks in a straw hat
which will feel like a brush stroke on my head.

And I will hide in the green covers of forests
as no appreciator of Frederick Edwin Church,
leaning over the soft velvet rope,
will spot my tiny figure moving in the stillness
and cry out, pointing for the others to see,

and be thought mad and led away to a cell
where there is no vaulting landscape to explore,
none of this birdsong that halts me in my tracks,
and no wide curving of this river that draws
my step toward the misty vanishing point.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.

You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scales
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune.

As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction.

Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do with your next ounce.

How much better to step onto
a simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,

157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.

Winter Syntax

A sentence starts out like a lone traveler
heading into a blizzard at midnight,
tilting into the wind, one arm shielding his face,
the tails of his thin coat flapping behind him.

There are easier ways of making sense,
the connoisseurship of gesture, for example.
You hold a girl's face in your hands like a vase.
You lift a gun from the glove compartment
and toss it out the window in the desert heat.
These cool moments blazing with silence.

The full moon makes sense. When a cloud crosses it
it becomes as eloquent as a bicycle leaning
outside a drugstore or a dog who sleeps all afternoon
in a corner of the couch.

Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.
The unclothed body is autobiography.
Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.

But the traveler persists in his misery,
struggling all night through the deepening snow,
leaving a faint alphabet of bootprints
on the white hills and the white floors of valleys,
a message for field mice and passing crows.

At dawn he will spot the vine of smoke
rising from your chimney, and when he stands
before you shivering, draped in sparkling frost,
a smile will appear in the beard of icicles,
and the man will express a complete thought.

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.