Friday, February 27, 2015



A useful perquisite of being an angel
Is the ability to make bodies when you need
To clothe your inchoate potentiality.
Most of the time you make them from air
Condensed and colored according to taste
But almost anything will do. Fire, say,
Or the sound of footsteps in January.
One I knew generally chose milk products
Another preferred abstractions and the unreal
Carrying out God's will clad in the sad echo of light
From unborn stars. Respect a scrap-iron angel;
Run from one made of copperas and oak-gall.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Warned my infant mother was so very small
That all 1927's art and science might not
Keep her this side of her mother's grave
Her Grandmother Lil and my Great Aunt Kitty
Said they'd no intent of letting her die.
In the grand story of her survival the men
Were shadows. You can see it in the photos;
They have kind eyes but look so tired;
Samael or Azrael would have pushed right through them.
Providence, though, had decreed they'd have
Fierce wives and implacable daughters.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


A milk bottle and a spoon;
Some keys, each with a name;
Spools his father brought home –
All these riches my young father had
As well as two Big Little books:
Popeye and Terry and the Pirates.
My mother? Brass miniatures:
Candlesticks, wine bottles,
A cocktail shaker (this seems odd),
Glasses, and a mortar and pestle.
She probably had a doll but this
I never heard about. Brooklyn children
He played stickball and nine o’cat;
She jumped rope. When a plane flew by
The streets filled with people looking up.
Older, she saw two movies every Saturday
And could remember every one of them.
He saw God once, but later wondered
If this was really so. When I try to think
Of one of them, the other comes too.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


For some years I kept a model of J.M.W. Turner's deathmask next to my bed, but it developed a disconcerting habit of snapping its eyes open and staring at me. It was plainly trying to size me up as a subject, and was none too pleased with the notion. For a while I did my best to look like a full-rigged frigate, or a train racing through the fog, but it was a losing battle. The lips around the toothless mouth grew more and more grim.

Tired of this, I affixed the mask to my front door -- let old Turner watch the world if I wasn't good enough for him! For a few days he just watched quietly, through narrow-slit eyes. Then he began flirting with the high school girls as they passed by, trying to charm them. Disgusting in a man dead since 1851, though also, I admit, rather impressive. I brought him back inside and shut him in my top drawer, but after a week or so he began eating my socks.

A friend of mine finally loaned me his model of John Keats' deathmask, which has so far calmed Turner down. While a very great painter, Turner wrote terrible poetry and he seemed at first a bit cowed by Keats. Lately, though, he has warmed up and has been trying to persuade Keats to commision illustrations, like the ones Turner made for Byron and Scott. I've thought about reminding him that he is, after all, only a mask, but that would be cruel.

It would also, of course, entail the risk of him asking if I really believed I was something more, and then where would I be?

Monday, February 23, 2015


Some time ago, four automatons kept house together in London. The mechanical girl played the harpsichord; the mechanical boy wrote in perfect copperplate; the mechanical bird hopped up and down and whistled. The mechanical wizard held a wand and a book and, if you put a coin in his hand, he would close his eyes and nod back his head and point his wand at a list of answers. He felt fortune telling was beneath him, but there was rent to pay.
A discontented magician, even one who runs by clockwork, is a chancy thing. There was little magic in
London in those days, but somehow he had a share of the little there was. He had a queer relation with the automaton maker Henri Maillardet and always insisted that he had assisted in his own creation. For several years after Maillardet’s death, the magician moped and the fortunes he gave became more and more gloomy. Lovers were told they would forget one another; expectant heirs that their rich and ailing uncles would find unsuspected reservoirs of strength.
Having heard the same songs everyday for many years he one day idly pointed his wand at the girl and grated “Can you not play something else?” She could; no one had ever asked her.  The mechanical boy apprenticed himself to the magician and the two of them – after many failed attempts, one of whom almost became Prime Minister and two of whom had to be hunted down by the men from Bow Street, finally conjured up the ghost of old Maillardet. At night, very late, the boy the magician and the ghost would slip outside and, standing well away from the lamplight, smoke narrow cigars. No matter how windy the night, the smoke would gather around their heads and then slowly drift towards the ground.

Friday, February 20, 2015


By a Welsh mill-race the artist Turner
Is watching the play of light on water
When Sancho and the Don drift by
In a small barque.The Don is speaking;
Sancho, more asleep than not,
Leans against a coiled rope. In those days
You might find anyone on the water;
A few years later Heinrich Heine
Saw Apollo on the Rhine, singing,
And knew immediately that a nun
Had heard that wonderful song
And fled towards it ever after.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Lost in a dark woods, midway through life,
The Florentine poet Dante was met
By Vergil, who felt a trip through Hell
Was just the remedy for a mid life crisis.
The result, as survivors of
Western Civ 1 know,
Was The Inferno. This was not the original plan;
All through medieval times Ovid's ghost, I've read,
Drove an ironwheeled chariot through
Usually after
midnight. Had he not been delayed
He'd have offered Dante a lift from the forest
Taken him to a few bars, dropped into a few parties,
Perhaps introduced him to the Sirens;
Our Civ I classes would parse Naples After Dark
Done all in terza rima.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


In London there was a mechanical girl
Who played the harpsichord.
As a matter of prudence, Paganini,
Who had many dealings with the devil,
Used to leave his soul with her.
It was there when he died in 1840
For which reason he was refused burial
Until 1876 when his grandson Attila got a package
Mailed from
London. There, cushioned by letters
And the crumpled pages of yellowing scores
Was a soul, presumed to be Paganini's
So he was buried at last, in Parma.
A few shrewd scholars, though, suspect
The soul's provenance. Tests done in 1896
When the body was moved, were inconclusive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


As the train pulled out Wilder Dwight
Saw his friend Charles on the platform
And, to amuse him, did a few steps
Of a saraband which Charles,
One of the
Adams boys, echoed.

On horseback, in the Antietam mist,
Dwight began a letter to his mother
Which he finished as he lay dying.
(The bloodstained letter survives;
The handwriting worsens near the end.)

Charles Francis Adams lived to be 80,
Fought in the war, became a brevet general
And wrote  books on railroad administration.
Life taught me much on administering railroads
But I have never danced a saraband. Still,
No Confederate soldier shot me at

Monday, February 16, 2015


Borges did not believe in God and would tell Him so
Over lunch. The two of them would sit at a table
On the banks of the Sambatyon. God packed the food
But trusted Borges to pick the wine. "Tell me again,"
God would say, "about the infinite library
Or maybe the one about the forking paths."
Fond of imaginary beings, Borges would speak until dusk
When Gabriel would appear from wherever he'd been
And drive them home. Borges always sat in back:
God having once and for all cried "shotgun!"

Friday, February 13, 2015


Ming the Merciless had nine brothers and three sisters
All named Ming. Mongo’s stern laws of alliteration
Demanded that each of them have a sobriquet
Beginning with the letter M. Flash Gordon
Could never quite tell them apart and would come
Prepared for battle only to find Ming the Musical
Armed only with a celestina and a thumb-piano
Or Ming the Miraculous, who did card tricks.
Dale Arden would complain to Dr. Zarkov
“What is wrong with him? The Mings look nothing alike!
And three of them are women!”

Thursday, February 12, 2015


My father won New York’s 1942 silver medal
For best public high school Spanish student.
My knowledge, though, is less than a little
And does not go much beyond the words
Once printed on every subway door:
Aviso! La via del tren subterraneo es peligrosa!
(This is sound; the way of the underground train
Is perilous and not to be lightly followed)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


In Spanish the Angel of Death is called Angel de la Muerte
His headquarters take up three floors in central Buenos Aires
And there are branches pretty much everywhere. His brother
La Muerte de los Angels, the Death of Angels, is less busy –
How often, after all, do angels die? Still, Providence
Felt he was a good idea and so he spends long days
Wearing a dark suit and a string tie in a small office
Over a cafe. He used to make plans involving trumpets
And fiery scythes. He still has them in a lower drawer
But now intends, if ever summoned, just to improvise.
On summer nights, he goes downstairs and plays
Bandoneon with a tango orillero group. Then, if you set a pin
Before you on the table you may see angels dancing
Though they prefer the more modern milonguero style.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


The story is always happening
But sometimes the angel
Does not threaten them
But begs Adam and Eve to stay.
His sword is made of flame
And turns all ways but is not
Much use if you want to chat.
Eternities pass by, some fast
And some ambling as if
They have all the time in the world.
Finally, God appears and says
 “What! You’re still here?”

Monday, February 9, 2015


My friend is such that her better self
In striving to stay ahead of her
Has been compelled to grow wings
And not ordinary ones but vast things
All multi-colored like those Renaissance angels
Would wear when they went to disturb Mary.
Quite beautiful they are, but not convenient
For subways or walking the dog on windy days.
People startle from her, fearing she brings them
News of great joy.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Scholars with time on their hands
Argue that Ptolemy XII Auletes
Should no longer be translated
As Ptolemy XII the flute-player
But as Ptolemy XII the oboe-player.
This matters; was Cleopatra's father
Ebullient and suave, like Jean-Pierre Rampal
Or meditative and deep, like Heinz Holliger?
If you wonder, Louis XIV played guitar;
Think of him as Mick Jagger in an enormous wig
Tight pants and extremely high heels.
(Surprisingly easy, isn't it?)
Prince Charles plays the cello. It is no use
To try imagining him as Yo Yo Ma.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


The very old muse has decided I should write
A poem about Gu, who is from Benin and used to be
The god of ironworking. That I know little about him
Deters her not at all. “You have seen his statue
Or a picture of it at least. He carries a large sword,
With holes punched in it. It must whistle
When he challenges the wind. His hat is iron
And worn jauntily. His smile is broad but his eyes
Never quite focus on the world in front of him.”
My folk did not work with iron but with tin
And, when they could get it, silver. (A thrice-great-aunt
Ran off at 19 with a burly redsmith, a copperworker
We speak her name still as something half-remembered)
How should I know of what iron dreams?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


It may chance you find yourself
To be something less than real
But interesting all the same
Say you are the troll king's daughter
His pale and  dangerous daughter
Come in the cold winter of 1943
To a smoky room to hear music
A tenor sax; a pianoman impossibly handsome;
A bass fiddle keeping the night alive
Beating like a great ragged heart.
What matter if you're an illusion
Or if the perfect smile of the pianoman
Is marred by a tooth gone dead and colorless?
The night will last so long as you choose it to;
There! His fingers hesitate over the keyboard
How is it he so surely knows who you are?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


If you leave  out the base on which she stands
The Statue Of Liberty is a few feet shorter
Than Godzilla (the original – not the new one
Who is taller and bulked up on steroids).
In high school they hung out together
And have kept in touch since then
Mostly through email. Occasionally,
Godzilla stands in New York Harbor with a torch
So Liberty can travel incognito. He keeps trying
To persuade her to visit him in Japan
“You’ll like Mothra!” he says, “And then
We can trample downtown Tokyo together.”

Monday, February 2, 2015


About 20 minutes or so into the set
And 1 minute, 35 seconds into Body and Soul
The pianist startles, pauses, and then
Launches into Hall of the Mountain King
Though he had been planning on
An elaborate bit of flashy noodling
But –he never saw her come in --
The King of the Troll’s beautiful daughter
Is in  Mesner’s tonight! Sitting alone
Towards the back of the crowd
Having ducked once more out of Peer Gynt.
Of all the places she could have gone
This cold midwestern night, she is here!
Pleased at the compliment, she finishes her drink
And climbs on the table. Her dress is simple –
Where can she have been hiding
A vibraphone? Still, she has one now
And flourishes a pair of mallets. The tenor sax –
It is, after all, his trio -- nods consent;
He blows out the notes of Paper Moon
And gestures her the first solo.
There is a recording of that night
Rare – almost impossible, in fact, to find
And different every time it is played.