Friday, January 30, 2015

January 28

Cold today; my leg clicks when I straighten it.
Four years now; has your name returned to you?
There is snow here ; the slow sift of days
Has brought it round again. I still cannot
Extract an orange leaving the peel whole
Nor take infinite care scrambling an egg --
Both arts I expected long since to master.
Stray dogs and men ask after you.

Your father's watch wound up with me.
The house is sold; the irises were there last spring
Your key ring sits on the dresser. My coffee is cooling
In the yellow cup that came from

Thursday, January 29, 2015


I never mastered it but always knew
There was a gesture -- a certain
Angle of the wrist, or fingers rolled
Exactly so and there would be
Something not there before.
When I lunched with him my better self
Urged me to desist. "It is a trick,"
He said, "and not one worth learning."
Then he reached into thin air
And pulled down a lighted cigarette.
That my better self who, long ago,
I gave up trying to imitate,
Can do magic is unsurprising
But when did he start smoking?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


My father never threw a key away
Long after the locks were gone
The keys remained, safe in drawers,
Deep in pockets of old clothes, in jam jars
Mixed in with miscellaneous nails
And screws and bolts and bits of wire.

Monday, January 26, 2015


My father once read an Indian story
About the origin of the world. It began:
"In the beginning, God was walking with his dog."
Nothing about creating the dog, you'll notice;
The dog is just there. My father felt this was right
Why shouldn't God have always had a dog?
Me, I suspect the dog may have come first
And God turned up to keep it company.
Until then, He had been of two minds about existing
But with a dog around He could be sure someone
Would love Him, even when he loosed hurricanes
Or even on the day He invented cholera.

Friday, January 23, 2015


In Venice, a zoo
In the zoo, an elephant
In front of the elephant,
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Next to her, her husband
Who, every morning,
Hands her a pomegranate
To feed the elephant.

Robert Browning
Thinks pomegranates
Make elephants drunk.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


The night Henry James slept in the palazzo's library
Under a pink canopy, one of the Venetian ghosts
Stood outside the mosquito-netting and gently coughed.
Ghosts were nothing new to James; as a young man,
Newport, he had for a while been an exorcist
Until he found his sympathies were not with the living.
Sleepily he asked the ghost, in fair Italian,
What it wanted -- revenge, perhaps, or a debt's discharge
Which kept the spirit bound to earth or --
This being Venice, -- bound to water?
"I died unwronged, Ser," the ghost said,
"And what debts I had have long been paid.
What I ask of your courtesy is this:
Some day, when time permits, you might perhaps write
Of how careless it is to live so very easily
That other spirits must make it their care
To inform you that, looking the wrong way,
You long ago slipped over death's border."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


If not much too drunk to stand
Li Po's shadow would have been at the funeral
Perhaps this absence was just as well;
He surely would have distracted the mourners
And perhaps stumbled into the grave
When Li Po's ghost came by to talk,
Intending to discuss the funeral
He brought a clay jar of funeral wine;
The shadow was sitting quietly
Wearing a folded red-paper hat
Some god had made for him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Late in the set you can hear when Tatum
Decides his fingers know what they're doing
And he can retreat into his head, lean back
And smoke a cigarette. When he's almost done
The fingers let him know they need him again
And, mid arpeggio, he resumes command.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Things have always been as they are
But when they weren’t, Pierrot was a saint
And Jerome a strolling player. Pierrot
Did his best to translate the Bible
But, knowing no Latin, only into languages
No one understood. When he finally produced
Strings of ones and zeroes, we improvised
And had Ada Byron born centuries too early.
This was probably a mistake; we’re not perfect;
Visigoths with computers are terrifying.
Jerome was good at loving hopelessly
But was not otherwise much of an actor
His lion, too, was always underfoot and once
Chased Columbine up a tree. (In any reality
Jerome has a lion. God only knows why –
At least I assume He does). When Pierrot visits
He remains silent, as he has now for centuries
And Jerome translates the silence without flaw.

Friday, January 16, 2015


The ancient Irish, having a flair for naming, called the cat Luchtigern, which means “Lord of the Mice.” The Ottoman sultan was called (among a very long list of titles) “Lord of the Horizon.” Before Michael Flatley usurped the name, Vishnu was known as “Lord of the Dance.” Vishnu, who preserves and in whose dream we live, can assume any shape he wishes, and why not a cat? And, since time is an illusion, who or what (or what combination of whos and whats, be they never so powerful) could stop him from manifesting in Istanbul some centuries ago, and becoming Sultan? (One presumes that he would not be a slave to custom, so that Bramhah and Shiva would not need to prepare for visits from a mute with a silk bow-string). But how call himself? Lord of the Horizon’s Dancing Mice? A certain fey charm to this, but lacking in the dignity one associates with gods and sultans. Dancing Mouse, Lord of the Horizon? No cat would call himself so (though a ruler called Dancing Mouse would afford considerable relief from such sobriquets as Cruel, Terrible, Drunk, Insane, or Foul-beard). Lord of the Dancing Horizon Mice? Fine, but Vishnu preserves; it is Bramhah who creates, and would he be willing to make horizon mice, let alone ones who could dance?

It is, no doubt, precisely such considerations as these which have prevented a cat from ascending (or, more properly, descending) to the sultanate. It has long been known that a cat may look at a king. It is less known that what the cat is thinking is “Suppose I were to take your throne? What would I call myself?”

Thursday, January 15, 2015


“Of course I knew Alf Tennyson,” said the very old muse,
“I knew everyone. Never did much work with him;
Just once in a ways. His regular muse was a big woman
And wore steel-toe boots. He was six foot or so
But she could have put him in her pocket and had room
For Cat Rossetti and Martin Tupper, with Algy Swinburne
Swinging from that gold-plated watch chain of hers.
I remember Alf and his muse smoking awful cheroots
That smelled like someone was burning rope. He kept hoping
She’d bring him something soft – something with birds
Or fuzzy kittens gambling in a sunshiny meadow but she
Was never much one for kittens. ‘Alfy,’ she would say --
Though he time and again asked her not to call him Alfy –
‘I have something extra good for you here today:
Another poem about your pal Arthur Henry Hallam!’
Alf would sigh; “And how many is that now?
A hundred and six, I think?’ But he knew he was stuck
And did as he’d been told; she was never the sort
Who tolerated much backtalk. No more am I.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Being dead and at loose ends, my mother
Comes by pretty often, urging me
To write about my father. I argue with her --
She would think me altered if I did not --
"Have I not written enough about him
And about you too?" She glances at my muse
Who is sitting idle at her desk. The two of them
Get along disturbingly well. (When I lived at home
My friends who came by when I was out
Lingered, chatting with my mother for hours. )
"He has nothing scheduled today
Nor until next Monday when his totem animal
Has a working lunch with him. Shall I pencil you in
For a  ragged unrhymed sonnet?"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


My father recited poems at night
Or sang stray things – cowboy dirges,
Radio commercials, sea shanties
And some I cannot classify.
Because of this I remain certain
That six lessons from Madame Lazonga
Would  have me doing the rumba
And also La Conga.  I can not dance
Only because we've never met.

Lillith who, over the years, has developed
A taste for the lullabies designed
To keep her at bay, later told me
That she often stood on the fire escape
And sometimes sang along.

Monday, January 12, 2015


Once I dreamed I had lost my wallet
After that, unable to prove who I was while I slept,
I had to take small jobs – one of the audience, say,
When you gave a lecture naked or a stray cousin
Whose name you had forgotten. Occasionally,
I moved scenery or did minor disrepairs.
The car that wouldn’t start when you needed
To take your wombat to the emergency room?
My responsibility; I’d apologize except --
Remember? -- that dream worked out well;
You wound up in a bar; the wombat, recovered,
Bought round after round and, under the table,
You and the lost dauphin held hands.
After a while, some smugglers or, possibly, bears,
Gave me the wallet I now use, stuffed
With very plausible proofs of identity.

Friday, January 9, 2015


            To a great degree, the afterworld was just as she’d been taught to  expect. Day and night were reversed, of course, with the sun making his way across the sky in a small boat which was poled by a great ape. (Though no one had mentioned that the ape wore an eye-patch and had a parrot on its shoulder, nor that the sun kept dipping his hand into a sack and feeding himself raisins and nuts). The moon, save for its annoying muttering, seemed pretty much the way it had when she was alive, though the cat, the rat and the bird who were known to live there seemed all much clearer. The clashing stones, the avenging mice, the sad river had all turned up on schedule.

            “Ironic is saying the opposite of what you mean, in mockery.”

            “So, Pranyanbattishur’s parents were mocking him?”

            “Probably not. They may have hoped he’d turn out better than he did.”

            “Why say the opposite of what you mean?”

            “Why not? It would be boring to always say what you have to say right out, and dangerous if you were talking to someone like my father. Conversation is a game; if you’re going to play it well you have to have a whole arsenal of weapons. You must keep your opponent guessing as to what you’re saying and as to what you’re meaning, which are not at all the same thing. If you’re going to talk much to me, you must wonder if I’m being ironic or straightforward; am I being allusive and flirtatious, or downright and candid? You must recognize my figures of speech as they glance by, and know the happy litotes, and his deadly enemy, the pompous hyperbole, as well as the metaphor, the simile, the synecdoche, the aphaeresis, the metonymy, and a dozen more. You must beware tripping over the sly paradox, or falling into a sudden anapodoton. All this while smiling at me and doing your poor best to keep up your end of the conversation.”

            “That sounds like work.”

            “You get used to it. Start simply. Say something ironic.”

            “The king was a wise and beloved ruler and will be much missed.”

            “Good! Very good, for a first try! Are you sure you haven’t played this before?”

            “Three days ago I was a lump of clay. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to. “

            “I’m not strictly a person.”

            “Well, a princess. There are similarities.”

Thursday, January 8, 2015


After Li Po died
His shadow was often seen
Still drunk, still dancing.

When he finished painting Nighthawks
The artist Hopper had placed two people
At the counter. The third stepped in quietly
And may leave someday. Or a fourth
May suddenly insist it has been there always.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


          Her companion nodded sympathetically. Still, though he wished her no ill, he felt elated. He could see that going from princess to ghost was rather a comedown, but the arc of his career was definitely upwards. Not long ago, he’d been a lump of clay, not even dreaming of having any ambitions, for dreams and ambitions make clay unfit for its important job of lying in the earth until someone feels the need to make a pot. Now he had arms and legs, and a serviceable, if rather stocky body. He had two dark eyes, a straight nose, two ears. He wore a suit of leather armor and had a curved sword hanging at his hip. He had half a mustache, for the hour was late when he was molded, and the potter was tired.

          “Drugashvilli,” he said suddenly.

          “No; I was talking about Ravstasha. I don’t have a brother named Drugashvilli. I’ve never heard of anyone called Drugashvilli.”

          “I just thought of it. It’s my name.”

          “What does it mean?”

          “I don’t know.”

          “It has to mean something. All names mean something.”

          “What does yours mean?”

          “Slightly intoxicated spider, dancing.”

          “All that in ‘Davadina?’”

          “No; I have several more syllables, but I keep them for emergencies.”

          “What does ‘Ravstasha’ mean?”

          “Sword with a few rust spots on it.”

          “And Pranyanbattishur?”

          “Conquering spirit.”

          “Him? That name doesn’t seem to fit at all.”

          “Perhaps it was meant to be ironic.”

          “What’s ‘ironic?’”

          If they’d still been alive, the scene would have been clich├ęd. They were by a riverbank, under a full moon. She was passably pretty, for a princess, and he looked fierce and handsome, in a too-regularly featured way, though he wasn’t sure if the sword by his side could come out of the scabbard, or if there was really a blade attached to the hilt on which he rested his hand. Too, while the princess had lived she had often walked by moonlight, and she was fairly sure that the moon didn’t usually keep up a continual, urgent muttering in an unknown language.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


          The King nodded, but he had long fallen out of the habit of listening to the Minister of Religion, and continued buttering his feet. He then rose to his full height; the courtiers instinctively crouching as he did so. It is not wise to be taller than the king; during the reign of King Kontisharriv the Brief, members of the court were distinguished by their aching backs or lacking heads. Pranyabattishur then tied a silk handkerchief over the royal eyes, and the King backed onto the bridge, taking three full steps before sliding off and disappearing. In the face of all reason, the Cook insisted that it was the King’s sins and not his slippery feet which had led to disaster. “It was the very best butter,” he said stubbornly.

          None of them had volunteered to be sacrificed; not even Pranyabattishur, who was always eager to make a good impression, and always failed. Still, they had – most of them – taken it philosophically. In the bad old days, half the court would have had to die that the soul of the King might have servants and company in the next world. Now, a mere seven were selected, along with any number of clay figurines who, it was alleged, would magically come alive in the next world and do the donkey work (there were several clay donkeys, too).

          Davadina, in only three days, had come to loathe the other members of the party. Fifteen is a hard age at the best of times, and the knowledge that she wasn’t going to get any older was no comfort. Too, she was furious at having been selected to accompany her father (if he was her father; she rather hoped he wasn’t). “Twenty-three other daughters and nineteen sons; you’d think one of them would have had the simple decency to volunteer. Ravstasha, for example; there is absolutely nothing he can do in his life which could equal the simple grandeur of renouncing his chance to be the new king and having his heart cut out with a flint knife to save his beloved younger sister. But no; brothers are just selfish. That’s all there is to it.”

Monday, January 5, 2015


What is time to such as we are?
Say it is more than a thousand years
Since Li Po took a jar of wine
And went drinking one spring night
With only the moon and his shadow.
Li Po sang; his shadow danced clumsily.
They and the moon got quite drunk
Before parting.

In 1921, at harvest time
The moon went looking for Li Po
But could only find Eben Flood,
An old man, singing hoarsely
On a hill above Tilbury Town.

Friday, January 2, 2015


When she was in her teens
My father's mother Esther
Worked in a cigarette factory.
True, hers was in
Lvov, a city
Which, depending on the weather
Was Polish or Austro-Hungarian
Or even Ukrainian, but not Spanish.
Nor, I am fairly certain, did she
Have affairs with bullfighters
Or get sprung from jail by Don Jose.
She sometimes danced by the river
But probably not with gypsies.
For these reasons, and others,
Including Bizet's decision to die
Ten years or so before her birth,
There is no opera about her.