Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Sometimes I am reassembled in haste
And, having gone to sleep a Polish Jew,
I awake a Jewish Pole, spending the day
Half in many-named Lemberg, around 1900
Reciting on the banks of the River Bug
The names of poets then unborn. I still
Know no Polish but it is a pleasure
Just to hear me pronounce Czeslaw Milosz,
Wislawa Szymborska, Tadeusz Rozewicz.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


When the Ming lost the mandate of heaven
Some who had opposed them became
Furiously loyal, retreating in one way or another
From the victorious Tatars. Some became hermits
Or birdlike men who stepped lightly, leaving no footprints.
Of those who fled further one skipped through time
Like a rock across water, turning up first
In a small town in
Essex in the 9th century
Where they assumed he'd fallen from the sky.
They called him "the green man." He married
And had six children whose descendants to this day
Have nothing good to say of the Tatars.
Next, he looped about and was born
In a shtetl ten miles from Lemberg. The Baal Shem
Offered to bargain for his release from his fealty
To the last Ming Emperor but the Lvoviner refused
Asking who if not he would say kaddish
For the vagrant soul of the Chongzhen Emperor
Or the soul of the beautiful Princess Kunyi?

Monday, May 29, 2017


The day gods wish each other good night
As they clock out, except for those few
Working late and, of course, the Unmoved Mover
Who never goes home. Aristotle recommended him
But he is not a team player, attends no meetings
And refuses invitations to be a Secret Santa.
Sometimes the night gods invade his office
And cover him with rude graffiti. Inexplicably,
The clerks and secretaries are all in love with him.

Friday, May 26, 2017


In Wilno they teach you
Do not point at the Moon
Nor pee where it can see you.
Most importantly:
Do not fall in love with the Moon.
Some nights the streets
Are filled with furious Balts
Pointing and peeing
And writing love poems.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


When I submitted the latest design
For my ghost I included a note
That many things were negotiable
I am willing to be real or imaginary
Or some combination of the two.
Palpable? Impalpable? No great matter.
I am willing to wear full armor
And walk battlements armed cap a pie.
On the other hand, I can manage
As a trick of light or a pale shadow.
There is just one thing: I must have pockets
Or where will I put stones and bits of metal?
Where, when I visit my parents' grave,
Will my left hand go while my right
Swoops and points, unfolds and clenches?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Their virtues went armed
Patrolling the streets
In pairs. Honesty itself
Sought my blood
And would have had it
If some well-formed lies
Hadn’t come to my defense.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


William Blake had a chat with St. Joseph
Who advised him that he should mix
Tempera, varnish and carpenter’s glue
With just a touch of gold leaf
Before painting on canvas or copper.
Unfortunately, Joseph knows nothing
About painting. Had Blake checked
With St. Luke he’d have been warned
That the gluie would make his pictures
Fade and darken and vanish until
Only ghosts could see them.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Though dead since living memory runneth not to the contrary
Professor Longfellow tries to keep up with modern poetry
Reading it in English, French, German, Italian, Greek
And Proto-Uralian, which is not really a language
But a conjuration of  parti-colored singing molluscs.
If Harvard summons him back (he was chairman
Of the Department of Modern Languages) he intends
To begin lecturing as if his death in 1882 was merely
A species of inconvenience.

                                                            Though he tries hard
He cannot keep up and so has only recently reached
The Collected Poems of Babette Deutch, published
In 1969 by Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY.
He enjoyed the pale old men playing chess by a squalid window
And thought he could have done something with her three nuns
Listening to Chopin. On the whole, he approved. Then, conscientious
As he always was and still is, to the extent that he is anything now,
He read the front and back blurbs and was startled to see his name
In her brief biography: “She was composing verse before
She could write, and likes to recall that in primary school
She preferred Blake to Longfellow.”

                                                                        Likes to recall!
Did she sit, then, by an old mirror whose glass was thick
At the bottom and thin at the top, sifting memories,
For a young interviewer and, with a smile, saying “Yes,
It is quite true; even in primary school I preferred Blake
To Longfellow?” Perhaps she worked it into bedtime stories
For her two children, five grandchildren and the one great-grandchild
Who hastily had himself born just in time to get a look-in’
In her obituary on the New York Times of November 15, 1982:
“Then the clever child led the prince, the porringer, the pedagogue
And the enchanted pump-handle back to the palace, telling them
That, though still a girl in primary school, she had decided
That Henry Longfellow could not hold a candle to William Blake.
And they all lived happily ever after.”

Friday, May 19, 2017


Arriving just too late to save her, Irina’s angel
Gave her company the entire way from the roof
Of her apartment building to the pavement
In the courtyard. My great aunt
Had excellent reasons for stepping off a roof.
Her angel had his reasons, too, for being late:
There was something wrong with his visa;
His wings did not match, one being longer
Than the other, so that when he wasn’t careful
He’d fly long, lazy circles, repeatedly finding
The Bug River beneath him when he’d meant
To trace the Vistula. Also, he was absent-minded
Once saving an old woman in
When he was scheduled to rescue a child

                    Irina, my grandmother’s older sister,
Listened to the angel as they fell, occasionally
Trying to get in a few words. She was a musician
Though what sort I don’t know. For years
My imagination gave her a violin but now
It demands stranger things, as if she deserved
Krumhorns and sackbuts and tall therebos.
It could be that she sang; perhaps her angel
Provided some sort of counterpoint.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


On days he doesn't hunt Prince Tamino
Dances for an hour before breakfast
With a servant insufficiently nimble
To be elsewhere when the call comes.
Pamina is long gone, having joined
One of Hogarth's prints: Actresses
Dressing In A Barn. (She understudies
The faithful bunter in A Harlot's Progress.)
Tamino has had the castle mirrors covered
Since the day he combed his hair --
Still a pleasant shade of tarnished gold --
And saw Sarastro looking back at him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Since my brother had cornered the market
In imaginary friends, I made do one summer
With an imaginary associate, seen by appointment.
He was an offwhite polar bear, nearsighted
But impressively big. He sometimes growled
At Gucko and Foofoo when they visited my brother.
To a bear, two year olds are adults. We discussed
Politics and sports. He was frankly critical
Of my taste in clothing and advised me
That eating crayons was unlikely
To impress people or advance my career.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


The recording hisses and pops
Every violin is playing in its own key
Or underwater. The soprano
Died in 1937. She'd forgotten her name
But not that she'd been a soprano.
The baritone was last seen
Climbing into a cab with a companion
Variously reported as having horns
Or a pistol or being shockingly handsome.
None of this matters; Don Giovanni
And Zerlina are singing. As always,
It is the very first time.

Monday, May 15, 2017


If you magnify it ten million times
You can just make out, by a railing,
My old high school principal,
Leonard J. Fliedner. The photo,
Taken from a balloon over Paris,
Shows Dr. Fliedner looking as he did
When I knew him a century later
Excerpt that his mustache is dark
And his coat has a comically high collar.
He is not smiling. He is, perhaps,
Recalling his wild youth or regretting
That he did not, at the last,
Rescue Francois Villon or die
When St. Joan offered him the chance.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


On Seventh Avenue I saw
One of Stevie Smith's tall
And spiky angels. It was
Something over eight feet tall
And narrow as a sword.
No one else seemed to notice
When it brushed aside traffic lights
Or casually plucked a soul
From an aged lawyer hasting
To the First Department knowing
His case was lost already.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Because Anthony ran about the desert,
Hiding from people, never speaking
And living on uncooked roots
The folks of
Antioch made him a saint.
Heaven spruced him up,
Issued him a card entitling him to draw
Upon the illimitable power of God,
And gave him a pig. (Every St. Anthony
Has a pig. It is a universal constant.)
The other St. Anthonys -- there
Are ten of them --worry about him.
He is, by default, the patron saint
Of those who have no patron saint.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Esther was named
After her grandmother
Who was named after an aunt
Who bore the name
Of a half-sister who carried
Her own mother's name
For three days and a half.
The progression
Is long, not endless.
You can trace this line
Back and back and back
Until you are in Babylon
With Ishtar, the lion-rider
Who made an angry trip
To Hell and came back
Still angry but without
Any clothes.

Monday, May 8, 2017


The Emperor dreamed he was a vagrant
Sleeping in a doorway. He dreamed
He was a wall guard watching the stars
Rearrange themselves. He dreamed
He was the Emperor, waking just
As a curtain fell back in place;
The Mandate of Heaven leaving.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


All who know how Tibb --
A small grey cat of uncertain breed
And questionable morals -
Became a saint never speak of it.
Experts believe it may involve
St. Cajetan's wager that he
Could make a functioning world
From oatmeal and fuller's soap.
Tibb's Day, which varies in length
From a few minutes to ninety six hours,
Comes at any time he chooses
Though rarely in summer.
He is the patron of broken promises,
Bad debts and short pieces of string.
It is unlucky to be hung on his day.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


It's not better or worse to be a bear
Instead of a monkey, just different.
I, too, walk upright when I choose.
Scampering is not for me; I lumber.
When angry I am brutal, not malicious.
Bribe me with honey or with praise.
Bright things do not last in my hands.
What you can make, I can repair.
Grace visits me, coming seldom;
I can never make it stay long.
What I seek I find at last. Run now;
Hide among your shadows.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017



The camp followers were with us still
But oddly changed. The sutlers had horns
And hoofs and limp braided mustaches
Tied with small bright bits of string.
They remained reassuringly surly
And did not allow credit. Our clothes
Were mostly ragged but washerwomen
Competed for our  business; tired feys
With black eyes and tattered wings
That could lift them a few inches
Above the rocks and hardpacked snow.


All that winter Death lay sick.
We had no heart to leave him behind
So he rode in a cart, half-conscious,
Groaning now and then.
When we had to abandon the carts
His attendants – bats and voles
And bears who wore clothes and expected
To pass as men – heaped blankets on him
And carried him in a wicker basket.

Monday, May 1, 2017


Tea was drunk with lemon and sugar;
One spoonful for the ascetics, two
If you treated yourself kindly.
If you were sick -- or my brother --
There might be a dollop of honey.
No one outside a book would ever
Drink tea with milk or without sugar.
When I meet my old self nothing
About me startles him more
Than my pouring warm milk
Into a cup of unsweetened tea.