Saturday, May 31, 2014


I’ve seen Polyhymnia called the muse of sacred poetry, but there seems some uncertainty about this, and she, alone of the nine named muses, has no attribute. I suspect the story about sacred poetry is just a cover – the clue to her real nature is in the fact that she has no attribute. No globe, no flute, no scroll, no mask, no sword – nothing. What else can she be, then, but the Muse of the Uninspired? (Surely, if the misbegotten can have a moon of their own, the unispired may have a muse. Who has more need?).

As the Muse of the Uninspired, Polyhymnia has to operate a bit differently than her sisters. I imagine she comes to the uninspired and chats about indifferent things, remarking about the weather and the performance of minor-league ball teams; she may distribute recipes which involve mayonnaise and Rice Crispies. She dresses and means well, but is seldom deliberately evoked. “Sing Polyhymnia, of things oft dreamed by men and voles, and aid me as I tell of a trip to the grocery where quite edible vegetables were on sale at reasonable prices!”

She is not to be confused with her dread brother, the Muse of Uninspiration, whose name is not spoken. He is known to live in Porlock, where the flowers have a disconcerting habit of suddenly unblooming, but travels throughout the world, grimly taking back the gifts his sisters leave their votaries.

Friday, May 30, 2014


Though cats have no king, I am King of the Cats.
Were you born to be a cat, you’d understand this
And show your obedience by making no sign --
No sign at all -- of your unbreakable loyalty.

When I replaced her I had almost everything right
The tone of her voice, the way she walked
The nod that came from nowhere as she agreed
With something that hadn’t been said.
But her eyes– I never got the color right
Fortune had it, though, that no one noticed.

Few jobs for changelings in this new world
This bright 19th century, covered in soot;
But, the old bargain remains – she called; I came.
She had seen her death, many years off,
And liked it not at all. Polidories for you!
Never satisfied. Lately I have come to suspect
That something like a soul has grown in me;
A comfort, perhaps, when I meet her sad demise.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


The day is rainy and chill and drear
Blood runs thick; the heart misgives
The hour’s gods do not hold dear
What moves and breathes or thinks it lives.
Compass needles will not point true
Or north has drifted from its post
And wanders now, just as you do.
A shadow stirs – a mouse? a ghost?
No matter; all within this place are lost
Nor star nor dream to light the way
No anodyne for soul that’s sick
Rainy and chill and drear the day
The heart misgives; the blood runs thick.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


When he was a roving teenager,
Racketing from town to town,
Learned sign language. He wrote Nannerl,
His sister, that, bored in
He was eating  peaches and melons
And amusing himself by signing.
In some other world his old age
Brought forth what many deemed
His finest work: an opera
Made from gesture and silence
And the memory of Italian peaches.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


They say wrong who say there is no love in Hell.
If you have eyes to see, you cannot avoid it. It is built
Into the very foundations of the place,
Which would tumble in an instant without love.
It stands on the street corners, frozen and foolish,
So that you have to shove it aside to pass.
It roars down the dim alleys holding a shining knife,
So bright you blink as it goes by.
Some nights beneath dead stars’ indifferent light
You’ll hear it, padding behind you.
You whirl, but see only shadows.

In the squares of Hell are many men, each intent
Upon fashioning his damnation. A juggler,
As on most days, stands behind his upturned hat.
Three balls at first, yellow, green, white, and then
A fourth, light blue with red speckles.
A fifth, a sixth, a twelfth -- more than you can count.
Your damnation calls to you, insistent, but you watch.
One ball shoots off and bounces off your nose
Then back into the unending circle.
Some one laughs; you find that your damnation
Has wandered off, abandoning you.

Of Heaven and Hell are we the children.
Say you there was no love in our making?

Monday, May 26, 2014


From out the November dark three knocks;
There has been rain; the moon is in the road
But the women in the doorway are not wet.

The young one is a sorceress; she will speak truths,
Go mad and die by water, her pockets
Crammed filled with stones.

The next will never find what she seeks
Will love well but not wisely, she will live long;
St. Peter watches her grave.

The oldest, great-hearted, died young; on this night
All three stand at your door, waiting.
Why have you not bid them enter?

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Sometimes my muse falls silent
Angry with me, perhaps, or on leave
Or busy repotting tomato plants.
Suddenly my poems are in languages
I don’t understand. One winter
A very old muse insisted
That I compose in Linear B.
She would stalk through my dreams
Half unclad – Crete is never cold –
Telling me in that clattery tongue
How Pasiphae had always been
A sweet and very pleasant child.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Long ago I heard or read the story
Of a nun who was possessed by a demon.
An exorcist was called, then two, then three
Then all that could be found in the province.
They labored long days and into the nights.
Crowds gathered; the Abbess threw the gates wide
Lest some child be crushed by those pressing
To see within. It wasn’t Easter but the bakers
Came selling hot cross buns. Under a tree
Puppet devils dragged puppet Faust to Hell.

At last, pale and shaken, the demon came forth
He fell on his knees and kissed the ground;
Would have kissed the Bishop’s hand too except
The Bishop slipped it behind his back.
“Thank you, gentlemen all! A little wine –
Not consecrated, mind you! – and I’ll speak.
Two years ago it was, at least; an August day;
A hot sun; the drone of pollen-heavy bees;
What wonder that I should lie down?
But gardens are dangerous to more then men.

“I am not a large demon; I made myself less
And settled on a lettuce leaf to drowse
Remembering inconsequential things
Musing, half asleep, I was defenseless
When that large white hand swooped suddenly down
Tore off the leaf, and me still on it,
And swallowed us whole! May you never know
The things I have seen, nor experience a tithe
Of my sufferings! Not for all Hell’s riches
Would I return, nor for a share of Heaven
Would I spend one minute more listening
To the dark whisperings of that nun’s heart!”

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Sadness bids me be still and listen.
Alas! The air vent loudly hums;
People keep knocking on my door.

Sadness calls to me urgently
“Examine yourself! Ask why
There are tears in your eyes!”

Sadness drums her thin fingers
Leans against the wall, whistles
Or tries to; she hasn’t the art.

Sadness pulls out some paper, writes
“Sorry I missed you. How does lunch
A week from Thursday sound? (You’ll pay.)”

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Your station, said Habit; get up!
I was dreaming, though, so Habit
Had to make me stand then pilot
The two of us up the steps.
He paused at the corner; crossed
Walked down a street; up another
Bought coffee, saying a few words
To John, the Greek vendor.
In our office he flicked on the light
My nose tickled; “It would be to much,”
Said Habit, “to make me sneeze for you too;
You do that; I’ll see to the coffee.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


“Think of it this way,” said Lucifer (at first we called him Satan, but he objected, telling us it was not his name but a title), “God was like an artist too famous for his own good, who has taken on too many commissions. There was only time for Him to do the initial outline and then the finishing touches – the hands, the faces. Between whiles I, his assistant, filled in the rest. “Let there be flying things!” He’d say, and I’d follow behind, saying “Scarlet tanagers; ruby-crested hummingbirds; vampire bats; pterodactyls; bees.” At the end, He’d make adjustments (my wren was about the size of a condor; my geese had blue-green wings).

“It is the nature of an assistant to want to be a master. ‘Let there be enormous reptiley things!’ I shouted one day. ‘All sorts of them! Flying ones, swimming ones; long-necked, no-necked, ferocious, gentle, two-horned, three- horned, five-horned!’ And Creation listened to me, and there were dinosaurs everywhere, wonderful things. I miss them, but God rubbed them right out and we spent the next three days doing mammals.”

Monday, May 19, 2014



“Having found my soul an encumbrance I could not
Simply give it to the servants to dispose of. Imagine
Riding through Copenhagen and coming upon one’s soul
Dozing in the sun near the harbor! Worse, suppose my cousins
Got hold of it and set it in a field to scare crows? Scarred I may be --
No. Scarred I am beyond denial but pride I have still.
Some rules still apply; a lady – still less a Baroness –
Does not engage in barter. The only course, I saw,
Was to give my soul away. We are a small country
Hell does not maintain an embassy here; the Belgians,
For a fee, represent its interests. I stopped by one autumn day
And filled out the usual forms, using the space left
To indicate the seller’s requested price to write
‘Free-will donation.’ This upset the clerk, did I know
He asked, his left eye burning, how valuable a soul was?
How hard to replace? He stopped just short of calling me a fool
(I can do the blazing eye trick too) and asked me to reconsider
And fill in a price.

                        “ My dear man – if that’s what you are –
My ancestors were thieves and plunderers. They murdered;
They broke oaths; they had cold hearts and deep thirsts
And gripped hard what came their way. But they were not
Traders; no more am I. If you don’t want my soul
Say so, and I will give it to the Church or find a way
To drown it fathoms deep.’ He shrugged finally
And said I should come back; he would meanwhile
Contact his home office. As I left I could hear my soul
Thinking unkind thoughts of me.

“Three weeks and a day later I returned. A tall old man
Whom I had seen at my sisters’ parties was there. As much
As was anyone, he said, he was the Devil. (When I was six
My governess had made me learn proper forms of address.
A bishop is ‘Your Worship,’ the Emperor of China is
‘Most Serene Altitude.” The Devil is ‘Your Dread Eminence’
And is always called upon to chose the first dance
When he attends balls in his proper person.) “I am honored,
Baroness; few there are who make gifts to me. The necessities
Of my position have made me a commercial traveller
Living in a world of shrewd bargaining. One grows hard.”
“No one,” I told him “thinks any the less of you for it.
Whatever else he is, all know the Devil is a gentleman.”
“Ah, you make me two gifts; I am pleased with them both.
You have my gratitude.” Save for a few remarks about the weather
And a desire that I remember him to my sister
That was the end of our meeting.
                                        “It was some years before I realized
That there had been an exchange of gifts. I remain nearsighted
But stopped walking into things and can pick out
Even now, when I am as old as time (but less nimble),
A four leafed clover from the midst of a large meadow.
I am the first to spy a new moon; I sleep well
And all that has happened to me since that day
I have been able to turn into a story.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Old Drummond once saw Night drunkenly
Reeling beyond the hills, shunning the Day
Which was blazing into the world. Of late,
Five centuries steadier; Night pays his tab,
Walks slowly home, but riots in his dreams --
Picking fights, challenging the Moon,
Sobbing because the Sun doesn’t love him.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Hogarth saw at Southwark Fair
The skeleton of a cat.
Sad, yet not too strange
But consider: the skeleton
Stood upright, wore a hat,
Had a sword at its side
(You can see it still
In Hogarth’s engraving).
In that busy scene the cat
Stands near a collapsing balustrade
Which seems like to crush
Those beneath it. Perhaps
Those who died had just time
To reflect that the world
Was odder than they’d suspected

I will go onto a bar someday -- Gavagan's perhaps -- and announce some out-of-the-way fact I've found. "Nietzsche," I'll announce, "played the piano. More; he was highly skilled at improvisation."
"Splendid!" the wizard will say. "I'll conjure up his spirit and ask him to play."
"You forget," the psychiatrist will put in, "that Nietzsche died mad; before we ask him to play I'll have to restore him to sanity."
Another voice -- that of the Countess, I think -- will speak. "Then I'll seduce him and drive him mad again." She'll shrug, charmingly, and sound almost apologetic. "It's what I do."
The Artist will suggest a gigantic mural be commissioned called "The Spirit of Nietzsche Summoned from Beyond the Grave to Play the Piano for some Drunks in a Bar." Not wanting to disturb my friends, and the men's room being out of order, I'll quietly step into the alley out back. A shadowy figure will be checking that his fly is buttoned. "Nietzsche?" I'll say. "No; sorry. Just Franz Kafka. I came by because I heard Nietzsche might be playing ... I have an idea for a musical I want to pitch him."

Thursday, May 15, 2014


If Laertes, the great king of Ithaka,
Had had a book written about him
We would say of Odysseus what Laertes
Often said to his friends: “A good son;
A nice lad, but really – something of a nebbish.”
(You didn’t know Laertes spoke Yiddish?
Ha! The least of what you don’t know of him!)
So it is; you live your life grandly
And then some luftmensch, some poet,
Likes better how your son's name scans.

Today only: a contest!

First, so far as I know, there was Walt Kelly’s:

I was eatin’ some chop-sooey
With a lady in Saint Looie
When a-sudden comes a knockin’on the door
And the knocker he says “Honey,
Roll this rocker out some money
Or your Daddy shoots a baddie to the floor!

Then my father’s:

I was speaking Esperanto
With my baby in Toronto
When a-sudden comes a knockin’on the door
And the knocker he said “Tonto
You had better get out pronto
‘Cause the milk train doesn’t stop here anymore!

Then mine:

I was in the Bight of Benin
With my buddy V.I. Lenin,
When a-sudden comes a knockin’on the door
And the knocker he says “Trotsky
Things are not so hotsky-totsky
Cause St. Petersburg’s not Leningrad no more!

And now, readers few but cherce – mighty cherce – comes your turn. The winning entry will have my approbation – what more could you want?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


This is not the poem I meant to write today
Other words stood here telling a story
About Melancthon the reformer who,
I have read and see no reason to doubt,
Was unaware that he had died. (The dead,
Touched by his good nature, lacked the heart
To tell him). He will not hold it against me
That I have typed over what I wrote. The sky
Is too pale right now, too gray, too unseeing;
He might vanish in its unyielding light.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


When I was ten or 12 I heard the review of a play by SJ Perelman called The Beauty Part which summarized the story more or less, as “A young man sets out in search of truth and justice and beauty and keeps finding Bert Lahr.” I can’t say that I have often come upon Bert Lahr, nor have I looked behind and found God chasing after me, as did the poet Francis Thompson. Robert Benchley recording looking in a mirror and seeing Wimpy, Popeye’s friend, looking back. That experience has not been mine either (though it may yet).

Instead, in going through the many things my father left behind, I keep finding that thoughts I believed entirely mine were his first, but often expressed better and felt more keenly. There is a picture of my mother at the beach when she was two or so. She has a mop of yellow tousled hair and is squinting in the sun. I never thought I looked much like her, but this picture might have been of me at that age, or my brother.

This is both fascinating and disconcerting. I have apparently come to a time when I’m finding out that who I’ve been has not been entirely – perhaps not even mostly -- who I thought myself to be. Emerson wrote that if he had a thought once had by Plato it was now Emerson’s; the road is no less mine when it is one my father walked before me. And it is good to be humbled – within reason. Shakespeare said it first – or perhaps he had it of his father who heard it from his great-aunt – but a man may be ever a stranger to himself, and it is useful to be reminded of this.

Monday, May 12, 2014


If you walk on the Midway to the Lake
You will come upon a stone knight
Meant to honor Thomas Masaryk
Who died many years and 4536.83 miles away..
(Those who killed him are dead too
But have no statues in Chicago.) The man,
Martyr though he was, means little to me.
The statue is an old friend. We do not write,
Even at Christmas; it is enough
Just to remember each other.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


After years of trying to interpret dreams
She found more success interpreting for them
"Last night you visited a bald man who snores;
Rejoice! You are going  to become King of all the cats
In Calabria. Or, just possibly, a strigil in an old museum."
When I interviewed her she said "They can't pay much --
Some acorns, the memory of my grandfather's watch ;
Last week they brought me the winning lottery numbers
For a drawing held three years before I was born."

Saturday, May 10, 2014


What shall I call him? Ten years further on
He’ll be my father but now, 1941, he is fifteen
At one in the morning, as usual
He is awake. The new day expects
To find him reading or thinking
Or raising a casual hand to welcome it.

In the kitchen, his mother sits rapt,
Reading a newspaper she has saved since 1924.
Real news endures though the pages are yellow.
In a few moments she’ll climb to the attic room
Bringing her youngest an apple, a cookie,
Some tea with lemon in a blue glass cup.

In 1905 in Dublin, New Hampshire
Patrick McAleer held a rabbit
I have seen the photograph of them
Captioned Patrick McAleer holding a rabbit
The rabbit – small, brown, alert -- looks untroubled;
He, though, would have called the picture
Rabbit in landscape, with McAleer.
It is hard to tell if McAleer is smiling
His enormous mustache hides his lips
But he is certainly calm; pleased, I think,
That he, the rabbit, the leafless trees behind them
Are so casually become immortal.

(Patrick McAleer was quite real, as was the rabbit. They both worked for Mark Twain. I suspect that McAleer was the Patrick who was Jonathan Swift's servant {see Journal to Stella, which you really should read} -- he has that look about him).