Wednesday, November 26, 2014


The Devil and Death have long concluded
There is no point in talking to the knight;
They think he may be deaf. Mostly,
They talk to each other on indifferent things.
Death thinks the Devil might like his sister
If he had one. When there are no watchers by
The Devil does complicated card tricks
Late at night, Death sometimes sings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


The first day we scarcely knew each other
Soldiers from different units and divisions
Not all speaking the same language and some
Not speaking any language at all. I was pretty sure
The man beside me had been on the other side
But felt it would be impolitic to point it out
By twos and threes, by ones and less than ones
We found each other in the dark, in the cold;
The dead were there, of course, but by morning
Had wandered off. The bugler had lost his horn
So stood on a rock and shouted us awake.
We formed ranks and waited for the corporal
Who thought a bit and pointed south by southeast.

Monday, November 24, 2014


It's shoelaces neatly tied,
Bagehot's soul washes its hands
Untroubled by the circumstance
That it has no body, let alone hands
"That," she says, "is the mind's problem;
Mine is that I have no towel."

Friday, November 21, 2014


“From him [Robert Grant] Darwin acquired a lifelong fascination with the reproductive processes of invertebrates …” The Beagle Letters, Frederick Burkhardt, ed (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), p. xiii.

To the extent I had given the matter thought ere I came across this interesting bit of data, I would have assumed that Charles Darwin’s lifelong fascination with the reproductive processes of invertebrates had been a gift. I could have pictured the scene and probably would have had it occurred to me that it was an alternative to doing my job:

Parent: Wake up, Charlie! It’s Christmas morning, and just look what Father Christmas has left for you!
Young Charles Darwin: A puppy? A spy-glass?
Parent: Much better! It’s a lifelong fascination with the reproductive processes of invertebrates!

But now I find I would have been mistaken; it wasn’t a gift at all but something Darwin acquired for himself. I take it that Grant, in addition to being a medical lecturer, ran a small tuck shop outside the Shrewsbury School:

Grant: Ah young Master Darwin! And how may I serve you today? Toffee? Laudanum? Bullets?
Darwin: Nothing like that; I have saved all my tip money for the past term and I want to acquire something good for it. I thought I might get an inquiring spirit and a heart that laughs at danger. Do you have them in stock?
Grant: We’d have to order them. They don’t come cheap, mind you; 80 pounds or so, and carrying charges.
Darwin: A winning personality?
Grant: 63 pounds and there’s a six-month wait.
Darwin: Ah! Never mind then. How about the power to cloud men’s’ minds?
Grant: Nine pounds thruppence.
Darwin: Too dear!
Grant: It comes with the power to uncloud them too.
Darwin: Still, I can’t afford it.
Gant: And about how much were you thinking of spending today?
Darwin: Anything up to 17 shillings.
Grant (rummaging below the counter): Let me see here … I could let you have an incurable addiction to bad puns; very reasonable at 14 shillings, tuppence.
Darwin: But what if I don’t want to make bad puns? What if I want to make good ones?
Grant: We strive to serve, Master Darwin, but we cannot do the impossible. There are no good puns.
(Blows some dust off a box). AhA! I think this will serve nicely, and a rare bargain at 10 shillings. Very rare, this.
Darwin: What is it?
Grant: A lifelong fascination with the reproductive processes of invertebrates!
Darwin: A lifelong fascination with the reproductive processes of invertebrates?
Grant: Hours and hours of educational fun! Why, with this little gem your popularity at social gatherings will be assured! And, tell you what – for sixpence more we’ll include some late-blooming hypochondria and a passion for beetles.
Darwin: Alright then … I’ll take it. And, while I think of it, a half-pound of bullseye candies, some laudanum and a few bullets …

Thursday, November 20, 2014


How many angels can dance
On the head of a pin is, of course,
A math problem. Angels normally have,
I’m told, position but no mass
When they need a body they make one
From available materials: air, say,
Or water or regret or the color green
The right answer then: all of them
Now if only they could agree
On which pinhead to gather
And what musicians to hire;
(Those who favor a bandoleon quartet
Have not spoken to the oboenistas
In sixteen hundred years)
If only they could decide on whether
They should include the fallen angels;
If only Metraton could be taught
The most elementary sense of rhythm

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Two of them I knew quite well --
One worked next door for thirty years --
But the third twin I mostly knew
Through his absence. Some distracted fate
Had decreed that Don Diego Quervedo
Y Sevilliano de Heisler, a Spanish noble
From the soles of his gleaming boots
To the tips of his thin mustaches
Should be born among Hungarian Jews
Who had made a life in Brooklyn.
He took his exile with dignity. Occasionally
He would glance around in shul and shrug
Almost indiscernibly. In his impeccable Hebrew
Lurked the slightest of Castilian lisps.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


According to the scholar Donald Keene
French trains used to have signs
Urging that windows be opened
Vivement mais sans brutalite
Vigorously, but without brutality;
If my father were here I would tell him this
As well as Junius Brutus Booth’s decision
To play Julius Caesar on tiptoe.

Monday, November 17, 2014


As the well-attested case of Sweeny shows
Mad kings gain the gift of flight, sleep rough,
Perch in trees, speak the language of birds.
Mad princes hover a few inches above the ground
And can follow a conversation among sparrows
A mad archduke gains a modicum of grace
And the grass does not bend beneath his feet.
When a commoner is found doing loops
Five hundred feet up the government
Immediately raises him to the peerage.

Friday, November 14, 2014


Towards the thin end of the year the mishaps
Skillfully evaded earlier make a concerted effort
The tea in the cup insists on spilling itself
Keys slip out of bag or pocket and conceal themselves
Straps will break and knots untie themselves
Someone has taken the old sun for repairs
And left a wafer pasted against the sky;
Wear clean socks; don't give your right name.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Once my father saw a headline saying
"MADMAN BUYS THEATRE" and immediately
Set his heart upon seeing the strange and brilliant things
The madman would produce. He was disappointed
When it turned out he had misread "Mayman."
As long as I have known anything
I have known this story and some of the plays
My father's madman might have booked.
Only tonight, though, has my friend Jane
Given me the clue to how the mistake happened.
It was very shortly after World War Two
And labor was still in short supply. It is no surprise
That when the muse meant to inspire my father
Did not turn up for work a moose
Was hastily sent in her place. He did his best.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


At the memorial service for King Phillip II
We Sevillian magistrates took the best seats
And refused to vacate them even when
The Grand Inquisitor himself declared us
Excomunicate. It is sad to have lost Heaven
But we are the sons of Pride and therefore
Must honor and obey so wonderful a sire.

Late at night Jerome's lion
Visits the library on
Sixth Avenue
Standing hours on the sidewalk
Leaving when Patience, the lion to the left
Of the entrance, shakes his head slightly.
 Later, Fortitude will mutter
"Why not just ask him what he wants?"

Monday, November 10, 2014


          In the Book of Scholars you may read, if you choose, of the learned Han Yu, who was said to have written poetry so rare and fine that it could only be read by moonlight, or by the light of a candle of wax that had been refined seven times over. In sunlight the paper simply looked blank; those who tried to read the poems by tallow saw something indeed, but what it was they never said, nor did they, any of them, repeat the experiment.

          Although he seemed negligent and aimless in his doings, Yu’s matchless poems and fine-wrought calligraphy would soon have brought him to a position near the throne, since the Middle Kingdom placed a high value upon the possession of a fine style and a good handwriting. Perhaps even too high a value (if such a thing can be). This, the Son of Heaven desired to avoid. Though a warlord of invincible strength and a politician of fiendish cunning, his achievements were as ashes to him, since his poems were the veriest doggerel, and he wrote in a hand which a cheesemonger might use to abuse a neighbor’s cat. It would be too bitter a dose to have ever at his side one such as Han Yu.

          Yu was singularly blameless and meek, which made it difficult to have him executed (Not impossible, alas. Such things are never impossible). The best thing to be done, it was decided, was to find an honorable means to send him far from the capital. Thus, the outermost province, a land of poverty and sand whose inhabitants were never sure whether they were part of the Middle Kingdom, or the Outer Realm, or perhaps some other political configuration entirely, found that they had been blessed with a new governor. There old governor had vanished some years back, to the mild regret of those few of his mostly illiterate subjects who had known he existed.

          The mild Han Yu set out at once, leaving the capital as befits a new-made governor, accompanied by bannermen and troops of soldiers, by musicians and dancers and the customary hangers-on and riff-raff. The way was long and difficult, however, and, after unparalleled suffering, the new governor arrived accompanied by only a samisen player and three riffraff, one of whom made tea every afternoon. There was also a cat, but this needs no mention since there is always a cat.

Friday, November 7, 2014


On the shores of far Ohio
Lives a corps that’s strong and true
Leading lives by one stern motto;
“Silver’s letters shan’t get through!

“You may write him in the morning
By a light that’s pure and pale
You may write by misty moonlight
Silver shall not get his mail.

“He can look for them with lanterns
Or perhaps a dowser’s stick
A precious few may dribble through
But they will not get there quick.

“Our lot is hard and lonely
And our numbers sad and few
Still, we have our consolation
Silver’s letters don’t get through!”

Thursday, November 6, 2014


"In dreams," the old muse said, "your father
Visited Kamianka Stromilova
The people there grew used to him
And would just shrug as his curious ghost
Poked his long nose in everywhere.
'One of us,' they'd say. 'Strange, yes,
That he won't be born for thirty years
But unmistakably another Kamionker
So where else should he be?'
I was friends with your grandfather then
He was about 12 and unconcerned
That this oddly-dressed son from
Was several years older than he was."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


          I had been to Heaven a few times, just in the way of business, and while I found the inhabitants to be, by and large, insufferable, the place itself was heartshakingly beautiful. Skies a shade of blue with faint hints of gold, filled with all sorts of colorful traffic -- six winged seraphs, mirrored thrones flashing in and out of existence, random self-important angels; symmetrical paths of veined marble leading in wonderful intertraceries that, a nagel once assured me, were both a reflection of and a clue to the nameless heart of God. The sort of place which almost made me regret not having a soul. Not quite, mind you, since I'd long decided that regrets were useless weight, and there was only so much I could carry in the cart.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


The fifth day I woke to find my muse
Whom I hadn't seen for many years
Rifling through my pack. "In hard times,"
She said "We all do as we must."
Time had been unkind to her
Making her younger now than I
But fever-thin with eyes that shone.
I gave her tobacco and the clean socks
I'd thought to wear when I was buried.
She did her best for me, inspiring
Poems in languages I no longer knew.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Towards dusk on the second day
About when green turns to black
A dog started from the road
And followed close at my heels
Until dawn when it faded away
Except for its shadow which I saw
Companying me still. My father
Could speak with dogs and they
Would come from distant towns
Seeking his counsel for their woes.