Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poem of the Week 10/20/2008: The Broken Home

The Broken Home

Crossing the street,
I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening's mild gold leaf.
In a room on the floor below,
Sunless, cooler—a brimming
Saucer of wax, marbly and dim—
I have lit what's left of my life.
I have thrown out yesterday's milk
And opened a book of maxims.
The flame quickens. The word stirs.
Tell me, tongue of fire,
That you and I are as real
At least as the people upstairs.

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.

When my parents were younger this was a popular act:
A veiled woman would leap from an electric, wine-dark car
To the steps of no matter what—the Senate or the Ritz Bar—
And bodily, at newsreel speed, attack
No matter whom—Al Smith or José María Sert
Or Clemenceau—veins standing out on her throat
As she yelled War mongerer! Pig! Give us the vote!,
And would have to be hauled away in her hobble skirt.
What had the man done? Oh, made history.
Her business (he had implied) was giving birth,
Tending the house, mending the socks.
Always that same old story—
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.

One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness—was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.

Tonight they have stepped out onto the gravel.
The party is over. It's the fall
Of 1931. They love each other still.
She: Charlie, I can't stand the pace.
He: Come on, honey—why, you'll bury us all!
A lead soldier guards my windowsill:
Khaki rifle, uniform, and face.
Something in me grows heavy, silvery, pliable.
How intensely people used to feel!
Like metal poured at the close of a proletarian novel,
Refined and glowing from the crucible,
I see those two hearts, I'm afraid,
Still. Cool here in the graveyard of good and evil,
They are even so to be honored and obeyed.

. . . Obeyed, at least, inversely. Thus
I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote.
To do so, I have learned, is to invite
The tread of a stone guest within my house.
Shooting this rusted bolt, though, against him,
I trust I am no less time's child than some
Who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom
Or on the barricades risk life and limb.
Nor do I try to keep a garden, only
An avocado in a glass of water—
Roots pallid, gemmed with air. And later,
When the small gilt leaves have grown
Fleshy and green, I let them die, yes, yes,
And start another. I am earth's no less.

A child, a red dog roam the corridors,
Still, of the broken home. No sound. The brilliant
Rag runners halt before wide-open doors.
My old room! Its wallpaper—cream, medallioned
With pink and brown—brings back the first nightmares,
Long summer colds, and Emma, sepia-faced,
Perspiring over broth carried upstairs
Aswim with golden fats I could not taste.
The real house became a boarding school.
Under the ballroom ceiling's allegory
Someone at last may actually be allowed
To learn something; or, from my window, cool
With the unstiflement of the entire story,
Watch a red setter stretch and sink in cloud.

James Merrill

"The Broken Home" reads almost like a American short story, with the puns ("Time was money // but money was not time"), the slightly roughed up family anecdotes, the careful, exact, strange images and details like an avocado in a glass, or the "satyr-thighed" irish setter. This, plus some taste of quietness, interiority, storytelling, and pacing. Enough for an introduction? Well I could go on to say that, thematically, the poem touches on endless repetition of the same within ones own family; by the end of his life, Merrill is planting a replanting an avocado, perhaps a whisper or a new version of his father's own continual development and discarding of wives, of the life and death of family.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Poem of the Week 10/13/2008: Summer Holiday

Summer Holiday

When the sun shouts and people abound
One thinks there were the ages of stone and the age of
And the iron age; iron the unstable metal;
Steel made of iron, unstable as his mother; the tow-
ered-up cities
Will be stains of rust on mounds of plaster.
Roots will not pierce the heaps for a time, kind rains
will cure them,
Then nothing will remain of the iron age
And all these people but a thigh-bone or so, a poem
Stuck in the world's thought, splinters of glass
In the rubbish dumps, a concrete dam far off in the

Robinson Jeffers

Friday, November 14, 2008

Poem of the Week 10/6/2008: Soni


I'm in a bar and someone's name is Soni
The floor is covered in ash Like a bird
like a single bird two old men arrive
Archilochus and Anacreon and Simonides* Miserable
Mediterranean refugees don't ask me what I'm doing
here, just forget that I've been with a girl
who'd pale and right Either way, I only remember blush
the word shame after the word hollow
Soni! Soni! I laid her back and rubbed
my penis all over her waist the dog barked in the street
below there was a theater and after coming
I thought "two theaters" and the void Archilochus and Anacreon
and Simonides sheathing their willow branches Man
doesn't search for life, I said, I laid her back and
shoved the whole thing in something crunched between
the dog's ears Crack! We're lost
All that's left is for you to get sick, I said And Soni
stepped away from the ground the light through dirty glass
rendered like a god and the author
closed his eyes

Roberto Bolaño
translated by Laura Healy

*Archilochus (Greek: Ἀρχίλοχος) (c. 680 BC – c. 645 BC) was a Greek poet and supposed mercenary.
Anacreon (Greek Ἀνακρέων) (570 BC-488 BC) was a Greek lyric poet, notable for his drinking songs and hymns.
Simonides of Ceos (Σιμωνίδης ὁ Κεῖος) (c. 556 BC-468 BC), Greek lyric poet, was born at Ioulis on Kea.

I think this is a wonderful poem--the eroticism and the violence shocking, and there is no clear line of activity; rather, the past and present, or perhaps the past and past, are so intermingled that to tear them apart would also tear apart the poem. In a way I don't think that these events are separate, for I imagine them in the head of the narrator; whatever he lives is crowded with his memories, which present themselves as real and vital. Pretty amazing and true to our lives.

There are more complicated statements about the erotic, poetry, and even some jokes in here too; the three greek references are all classical poets, and I wonder if their visitation is like the visitation of the fates, or whether they are a kind of muse. Moreover, Bolano brings in "the author" at the end of the poem, himself overwhelmed by these memories. What a blending of so many elements (blended but not mashed, if that makes sense; the events and characters are still somewhat identifiable in different scenes).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/29/2008: Kubla Khan

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, November 03, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/22/2008: Underground


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

Barack Obama 1982

I hope that you vote Obama. The rest of his poems, published at Occidental College when he was 19, may be found: