Friday, December 29, 2017


When she slept in Brooklyn, her rest scant and uneasy,
My grandmother Esther walked the streets of Lemberg. There,
In 1922, she met Joseph Conrad. Not the version who still
Walked in daylight but the one who'd taken
His uncle Tadeusz' advice to forget the sea
And go to the famed
University of Lemberg.
He'd become a lawyer and married a Magyar flautist
Who died on a cold February afternoon
4:35; he'd written down the exact time
And always kept the note in his wallet.
As he aged he became unhappy at being unreal
He'd sleep for weeks then walk through dreams
Desperate for food and a bit of company.
Through two years -- he and his other both died
In 1924 -- she read him Yiddish translations of his works.
Their favorite was always Nostromo;
They wept together over the fate of Martin Decoud.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


More real than most things
The train made of its passengers
Shadows and sea glass.
Its high tracks are gone,
 Hauled away with the motormen
And the conductors. The night
Says nothing; get on board
Since you will have it so.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Tearing down the el on Third Avenue
The contractors skimped on the work;
The market in shadows was poor
So they were just painted over and left.
Sometimes, during the debatable days
Between year’s end and year’s beginning,
The shadows cast the great work up again
Mile on mile of track and platform, girders,
Turnstiles, machines selling gum for a penny
Or soda for a nickel. The trains rumble by,
Passengers idly watching the street
Or lives lived beyond uncurtained windows
Look! There I am, holding my father’s hand
Looking at myself, pretending I’ve grown up.

Friday, December 22, 2017


The minor official
Who became the God
Of calligraphy
Was the first to respond.
To the ad: "I
Am old
And lonely
And will answer all letters."
Being not busy
He writes her often
Since he’s not
Received a prayer
Since 1963.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Opening one eye, Jerome sees that someone --
Probably Brigid -- has drawn a halo over his head.
It shines so that he cannot possibly sleep
No more can the others huddled against the cold
On the
Seventh Avenue grating. The halo
Shifts colors as he watches it, never the same
For more than a few seconds. He lifts one finger,
Planning to undraw it but hesitates.
Finally, he adds triangle ears, a few whiskers,
Narrow eyes and an odd shape apparently meant
To include the nose and mouth, It lacks something;
One of the others offers an expiring cigarette
Which fits the mouth perfectly. The men
Pull the smoke around them and wait
For sleep to find them again.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


He always stood
Braced to sustain
The weight of all he knew.
His voice rasped, hoarse
From raw certainty.
He knew the answer
To all our questions
And to questions
We didn’t know to ask.
I've forgotten most
Of what he taught
But at need I still
Can stand as he did
My eyes glittering;
I can speak with his rasp
As if bored beyond words
From always being right.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


There seemed no end to my mother’s family
She’d casually mention some uncle
Of whom I’d never heard as if from always
He and I had known each other’s secrets.
Mention a place, no matter how obscure,
And some cousin had colonized it.
All her childhood summers had been spent
Among relatives whom now she rarely saw
Yet all their doings were known to her.
Perhaps she had a mystic link
Running back to the 1930s: Lillian’s son
Will leave New York to study in Chicago;
Give Menachem another daughters
So someone can be there to greet him.

Monday, December 18, 2017


My father's cat once found
An old halo, one of those Brigid
Used to impatiently draw
On the air with a long finger
And then hang over her head

Friday, December 15, 2017


In your dream a car rolls up;
You enter and are driven
Into another dream.
Where you're not the star -- are,
In fact, simply staffage, employed
To put things in scale
And liven the background.
five a.m. you're paid
In what looks like cabbage leaves.
The same car takes you back
But your dream has its lights off
And every door is locked.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


I was writing a poem to my mistress' eyebrows
When a cat, resting in the third stanza
In the shade of a hemistich, said
"You have no mistress and if you did,
She would like as not have no eyebrows."

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


"a cartilaginous fish,
two feet in length,
and of somewhat
and hake-like form"
arrives in chapter 14
and drops its card:
Chimæra monstrosa
but must make way
for a ringworm cure

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Once, when I threw a stone at Death’s broad back,
He whirled, snatching it from the astonished air,
Weighed it a moment, then flipped it back to me
Smiling, quite gently – as if we were friends
Since then whenever Death and I meet
He acknowledges me with a half-salute,
Or bow or the flicker of a supple hand

Monday, December 11, 2017


While he can still recall her face
He draws it on a piece of brown paper
With red chalk and black and a bit of white
Catching the faint shine her skin showed
When she'd been working. From the page
She smiles at him reassuringly.
Even dead, she’ll interrupt her work
Because he asks it of her.

Friday, December 8, 2017


There was to be, my notes tell me, a poem
About the trumpeter Columbus brought with him
To play a fanfare for the Chinese Emperor.
In China, three ghosts and a raven
Were waiting to whirl him and his horn
To a different court entirely. I believe
The God of Calligraphy had agreed
To make an appearance halfway through.
Alas, the trumpeter or I missed our time
And the poem sailed off without him.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


A reader from Ohio writes
"What sort of zoning laws require
That garrets have bath houses
Built next door to them? Also,
Is one of the ghosts named Trevor?
If so, I think I met him once
Floating down the
Rio Atabapo."
Dear reader, the zoning laws
Are not quite so simple. The area
Is what is called a "mixed used district;"
The uses it allows are garrets,
Gazebos, bath houses, bird baths,
And giant naked statues of Napoleon.
(It happens I am quite well acquainted
With a giant naked statue of Napoleon
But he lives in Apsley House, in
The birds in my poems are dayworkers
Who mostly choose to bathe at home.
Thus, most of the district is simply garrets --
Whole buildings composed only of garrets.
(We're offering very attractive terms
If you're a starving artist looking
For a basement garret.) The main bathhouse;
It moves about, or did until the Princess Sophia
Took it over.  I’m not on the Zoning Board;
Most of its members are cats. I do not intrude
Upon the business of cats.

                                                    None of the ghosts
Is named Trevor or anything remotely like Trevor.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


The stone over her grave lists her virtues
Saying she was loved and loving but
It's carved in reverse so that a mirror
Is needed to read it. Also, her birth
Takes place 28 years after her death.
Such things happen to some folk.

Monday, December 4, 2017


Somewhere -- -a bar? A lecture? -- my muse met
George's daughter, the blind Princess Sophie,
Who spent many of her last dark years
Tearing up books under the impression that torn paper
Comforted the sick. Who knows how many pillows
She sent to puzzled ill people? It was a slow season;
I had no work for her. Still, she seemed a quiet soul
And blind! And princess! So I let her live
In an imaginary garret room. Unfortunately, zoning laws
Required I construct a bath house next door
(If you have bath house ghosts, sooner or later
There must be a bath house for them to haunt)
The garret bored her; she frequented the bath house
Where she mastered Minnesota Whist. I don't see
How a blind woman can win so often, nor what
She means to do with her indentured ghosts.

Friday, December 1, 2017


4:05; November's last day
Sky grey up high shading to white
At the horizon. A single leaf stirs
In a breeze only it feels. Until now
The universe has gone as planned
But this moment, this leaf,
This breeze from a direction
Never previously suspected
Is as far as the planning goes.
Think carefully; listen to spiders;
Practice looking through walls.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


In tenth grade I read Sinners
In the Hands of an Angry God
There, Jonathan Edwards
Posits that every man is,
For all intents and purposes,
An unusually loathsome spider
Appallingly ugly, unable
To tell a joke without
Laughing at it himself
A spider who never
Pays child support ;
He probably smokes
And spits in spider soup.
This awful bug
Is being held by God
Over a roaring fire
By a very thin thread --
Since even God does not
Wish to touch spiders.
As if this isn't enough
God really, really hates
This particular spider
Who is -- remember? --
You. Your only hope
Is that God decided
Before you were born
That this wasn’t a day
For burning spiders.
Too cloudy, perhaps,
Or too clear, or a cloud
That looks like a dog
Makes Him uneasy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


At night we built huge fires
From whatever lay to hand
Fences and doors and bones,
Bits of asphaltum and vows
We'd carried on our backs
Mile on mile, though we
Had broken them almost
As soon as they were made
Thinking someday we'll find her
The maid who fixes all things
Making our promises whole.

Monday, November 27, 2017


Towards the end of my watch the North Star
Hissed and guttered in its socket.
What blood I still had froze;
I didn’t wake my replacement but stood
Witnessing it die, witnessing the other stars
Tremble a bit before a very old star –
You could see how gaunt and stiff it was –
Shuddered itself into position, shining
With light that turned from cold green
To resigned and reluctant silver.

Friday, November 24, 2017


In disgrace with fortunate men's eyes
My heart hung all upon a silken dress
But the old wind in the old anger
Had gone over the river and through the woods
With the news that alone could save Aix from its fate
O lost and by the wind grieved ghost
The Gobelins will gut you
Effen you don't watch out!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Because I am my father's son
God occasionally posts my bail
Or writes letters recommending me
For jobs I cannot really do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


There are always ghosts in a bath house
They flirt in the shadows, complain
That the moon no longer loves them,
Drink tea they brew from dead leaves
And slantwise words. That one there --
So old it remembers my father as he was
Before he was born -- is no longer certain
Whether it was a cat before or after
Its great success on the vaudeville stage.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Types in my line recur
If I'd not been, some other
Might have, at need,
Personated me well enough.
Perhaps when I come again
The new version will think
I could stand some polishing.
Making my vices gaudier
My virtues taller and more lonely.
Some things I wished to say
She will decide I said. Perhaps
It will turn out I could fly.

Friday, November 17, 2017


Before committing his more serious sins
Ahashueros would loudly bid his soul
To go bide elsewhere for a time
Lest it be offended or incur some stain.
Who disobeys the King? The poor thing
Would slip past the soldiers at the gate
And visit with the bathhouse ghosts
From whom he learned to gamble --
At which he became surprisingly good --
And to swear, unconvincingly.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


No wind; a few branches shift
Perhaps the tree dreams badly or
Wants me to think a breeze blows
That I'm too palpable to feel. A leaf
Falls, describing a plumb line.
I gesture just so, stretching my hand
So the scar on my left index finger
Shows white where a car's door
Decreed it would never quite straighten
The spells that made me may alter;
Who will finish this poem to you?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Joe Lampert could reach his open hand
Into mid-air, clench it shut and find,
Without fail, a chessman in his fist.
His watch was always five minutes fast
His shadow six minutes slow. My mother,
His daughter, told me his childhood friends
Mostly grew up to be gangsters.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


The golem, if she is one, felt I should write
A poem about the bronze statue of Achilles
Which stands in
Hyde Park and is reputed
To be the ugliest public statue in
It’s 18 feet tall and made from melted cannons
Captured from the French by Arthur Wellesley.
It weighs 33 tonnes, which is, if you must know,
Seventy three thousand, nine hundred twenty pounds.
Originally nude, it somewhere acquired a fig leaf.
Its head belongs to the Iron Duke. He looks irate
At being exhibited nude in
Hyde Park. How the golem
Got it through customs I cannot guess. She lugged it
Into my dreams two weeks ago and refuses to take it away
Last night, the standard anxiety dream I'd ordered
Turned into a farce. My accusers kept bursting into laughter
Or whispering "My God! Where did you find that thing?"

Monday, November 13, 2017


Twelve below; the sidewalk
Rang as I walked on it.
I wore a three piece suit
Made of brown corduroy
Which had fooled no one.
Because I was cold,
Because I was unemployed,
I was eating ice cream.
This made sense at the time.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


The wide, shallow cup believes itself
To be immeasurably old.
The flowers running around it
Are from a place that isn’t here.
Its handle remembers gold paint
Drink from it quickly; only sentiment
Keep its atoms from flying apart.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Turns out the bird is what matters
You take a Noah -- pretty good seaman,
Family man, likes his alcohol --
And he sends out, say, an auk.
Auks are all gamblers at heart so
He'll bring back a deck of cards
Or maybe some loaded dice.
Next thing, he owns the
Noah has to start pawning animals
Planning to redeem the zebras
And wapitis and elands and aardvarks
Once his luck comes back. Captain Auk
Steers the boat on and on.
Dry land? What use is dry land to him?

Monday, November 6, 2017


When Noah sent out a raven
He expected it to return so
When a dove came back he knew
Something was wrong. Plainly
Another ark was out there
One whose captain liked doves
Which Noah had deliberately
Left off his boat. Years later
The raven hosted the two Noahs
In a dream from which all three
Woke no longer certain
Which of them he was. The trouble
With doves? They never
Have such dreams and always
Know exactly who they're not.

Friday, November 3, 2017


If you must write about her
Prepare; reinforce your punctuation
With heavy-gauge copper rivets;
Make your lines drag; hidden caesuras
May slow her down. Like enough
The morning will find
Eulalie Echo
Sitting amidst flindered words
A few inches above the ground.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


The fickle pensioners of Morpheus
Have their bars in the lower world
Which we call home. Dangerous once
They do little harm now. Brigid --
Saint, goddess and, most importantly,
Bartender -- occasionally does a miracle
And they sleep without dreaming
That once they were faithful.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Sir William Oldys, Norroy King of Arms,
Never denied that his grandmother
Was a cat. His friends didn't ask
If this had always been so
Or was the result of diligent study
Or the operation of an enchantment.
They lived well together. He often
Brought her home bits of fish;
When he was knighted, she gave him
Three-quarters of a field mouse.

Monday, October 30, 2017


The unread poem
Eats punctuation
Until there is none
The words look
Uneasily at each other
Weren’t there more

Friday, October 27, 2017


Suppose your Monday self is only somewhat like
The man who has to be you on Tuesdays
And Wednesdays’ version doesn't think much
Of either of you. Thursdays have to make do
With damaged or irregular souls, paid by the hour.
Fridays -- you have no idea what happens on Fridays.
During the summer, Saturdays and Sundays
Are worked by versions of you when you were a teenager.
Once school starts, though, you take who you can get
Grateful if an imaginary friend or ancestral ghost
Holds the fort until you turn up again on Monday.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


For convenience he always
Kept some pallbearers. with him.
They occupied their evenings
With cards or drinks.
Mornings were spent training
Carrying coffins with them
While running errands.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


The unread poem deteriorates;
Children break in, stealing punctuation
To sell as scrap. A lone comma remains,
Frantically trying to make it appear
That the poem's still a going concern.
Vagrant words slip in; the metre,
Once stern and unforgiving, is humble,
Running errands in exchange for drinks.

Monday, October 23, 2017


God exists sometimes.
It depends
On His mood. Still,
He has no days off.
When He calls in sick
He always gets through
To Himself, saying
"Who do You think
You're fooling?"

Friday, October 20, 2017


Given the circumstances
If I stay up until 3 or so, like as not
Some poem will wander up the steps
To knock very quietly at the door.
Bound elsewhere, perhaps not mine to write
Looking for a kind word, an apple,
Perhaps a cheese sandwich, Velveeta
With tomatoes. My father would be
Wide awake at this hour, like his mother.
I am not native to the night but stay there
On sufferance. I leave the poem asleep
Slumped over its food; if morning
Finds it here still maybe we'll see just what
The two of us can make of each other.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


It has been long established that unborn babies
Know everything and that administering angels
Make them forget it all just before they're born.
This is best done by a touch on the philtrum --
The indent just above the upper lip.
Your angel, distracted, made a poor job of it
So you are born knowing how to polish shot,
Mend old china almost invisibly and make
A very decent varnish for violins. Also,
You are fluent in several languages
Which have been extinct for centuries.
Your job is to so construct your life
As to make each of these talents essential.
You will have -- oh, eighty seven years and change.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


When God goes for a walk He first
Has to incarnate himself. The universe
Is His, of course, but if He goes out
As the universe there is no place left
For Him to walk, nor anything left over
To make an umbrella in case it rains.
Accordingly, God throws together
Things He finds at hand -- old prayers,
Soup cans, remorse, hope, the battery
From the 1898 St. Louis Perfectos,
And a few cats to liven things up.
I know a cat who is inordinately proud,
Even for a cat, because she has twice
Moseyed around the docks as part of God.
I have questioned her closely but all
She has been willing to disclose so far
Is that bean soup and fried rice were served
On both occasions. This is bad news for me;
I cannot abide even the very best bean soup.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Old semi-colons were a drug on the market.
At the yard, we'd let the upper dot go free
(They never really work as periods. You can tell
When people use them anyway; their voices
Rise inappropriately at the end of a sentence,
Tugged upward by the dot straining to fly.)
The lower half we would repaint and then sell
As heavy gauge commas, fit for use in sentences
Where those flimsy modern ones might buckle.

Monday, October 16, 2017


One dark and almost moonless night the Agora
Made its escape, leaving an empty space behind
Since then it has led a fugitive's life,
Turning and trimming and rarely sleeping
In the same place twice. It distributes itself
For safety's sake, becoming the Agora 

Only when there is absolute need. Its stallholders
Whisper offers of drugs in
Union Square
Waiting to be artisans and merchants once more.
Its inquirers live underground, ranting in subway cars.
Their philosopher's robes stuffed in shopping bags.

Friday, October 13, 2017


Fool! You've lent your angel's wings to Caravaggio?
He'll shed its feathers in half the taverns in
And, if he doesn’t use his own dice, will lose the wings
To some one-eyed sailor or a pimp from
You will not see them ever again, Gentileschi;
Signor Merisi will clap them onto his back one day
And be off. Who knows what he'll say of us
After he's had a few drinks in Heaven?

(for those who are interested in such things, there stil exists a letter from Orazio Gentileschi to his friend Caravaggio, seeking the return of the angel's wings Caravaggio had borrowed.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The woman on the left is trying
To see past the photographer,
Wondering who I am and why
I act as though it is my right
To approve her posture
Or her curious left ear
Peeping out from her hair
She is not hostile, hoping
I am her grown old or perhaps
Some descendant who smiles
To recognize his own ear.

The woman on the right, though,
Does not like me one bit.
Let him stare! she thinks;
Poor unborn thing! Never
Will he know what book
Lies facedown on this table:
Never will his fat fingers
Reach past me to straighten
The blurred picture of fruit
That hangs on the wall over my head.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Jane Morris has wandered from where Rossetti left her
Over into one of Caravaggio's paintings. There,
She has plonked the baby Jesus-- himself a refugee
From middle-stage Rubens -- on her lap and fallen asleep.
She's so tired that she takes her surroundings
For granted. Next to her, a wing brushing her shoulder,
A teen-age angel plays the violin for Joseph and a donkey;
Joseph holds the music up but the angel's gaze is inward
The donkey watches over Joseph's shoulder
Gravely attentive, following the melody.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Though W. H. Auden had a teacup
Whose crack opened a lane --
Quite a narrow one, mind you --
To the land of the dead, do not
Expect this crack in this teacup
Also leads there. Most of the time
Such cracks lead to alleys
In places with names like Slurry
Or Fliednersham's Folly.
By the time you make it home
Your tea will be stone cold and,
Like as not, your replacement
Will have thrown your shoes away.

Monday, October 9, 2017


The picture is dated 1928 so
The smiling woman is not
My mother, who was a baby
In New York and not yet qualified
To do office work in
An alternate version, perhaps.
Her desk is immaculate --
Another strike against her.
Right angles were never friends
To my mother. A typewriter sits
In a lowered part of the desk.
My mother typed so fast
Her fingers blurred while words
Scrambled and tumbled toward her
Trying to reach her before
She needed other ones entirely.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


When John Thomas Smith was two
Nancy Dawson, the hornpipe dancer,
Died and was buried under a stone
Bearing only her name. It is still there,
Behind the
Foundling Hospital.
Sixty years later, Smith noted her death
In his sort of an autobiography.
There she is, a few pages after
The goose Smith's mother once knew
Who worked with a cheesecake woman
Greenwich, honking at regular clients,
Moving on if they said "Not today."
Immortality comes on its own terms.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


How strange! My mother's voice
From sixty years ago, reading
The first lines of a children's book.
My Noah's ark is my favorite toy
It has a little girl and a little boy.

Reading my father's journal about a trip
Iowa to see my wife's parents
Where he saw the picture that now
Looks at me from across the room.