by Peter Menkin
Another in the series of ongoing interviews with American poets. This interview with University of Delaware Professor Jeanne Walker is part of the special subset in this series called American Anglican poets. This writer talked by phone in June, 2011 with Jeanne from his home office north of San Francisco to Jeanne, who was in that morning time at her home in the Philadelphia, PA area. We spoke for an hour, and the poet was forthcoming about her work as a poet, and as an experienced University Professor of English (35 years). About being a teacher she says, “I’m fortunate not to live only with my peer group; I get to know people who are twenty-one and twenty-two. I go to class on Tuesday afternoon and it’s the only Tuesday afternoon we have. It’s our real life, and I talk with them about what they think about the text. The text is a meeting place for us to talk about what’s important.”
- 1. Your email note of this week to me says,” At my most recent poetry reading I went back to read from older books–a decade old. Then I read some poems I had been working on in the last several months. It was a very sympathetic audience. I always find out something about the poems by reading them to an audience.” In looking over your University of Delaware notices regarding you as Professor and poet, I see you will be giving poetry readings at the University in September (the 29th, in fact). Intrigued as I am by the artistic and creative process, talk to us some about how a reading is done. For example, when reading before students and faculty mostly, do you choose different works than other readings? Tell us what you may read in September, and if you work on a specific oral style that you can describe when reading?
I choose poems that mean something to the group I’m reading for. I usually don’t decide what I’m reading until several hours before, because then I generally have a better idea of whose going to be in the audience. I’ve read my own poems often enough so that I don’t need rehearsal. Above all, I think a poem should be clear to the audience. Getting the music into their ears involves reading slowly, pausing frequently, and annunciating clearly.
I’ve…to tell the truth…I’ve learned a great deal from the actors I work with in the theatre. I usually introduce each of the poems with a story, or an explanation of some kind. That gives the audience time to reflect between poems. It also gives them a sense of who wrote the poem and why. Poetry reading should be fun…not fun…but they should give pleasure. You want to connect with the audience, so they know it’s as human…they know there’s a connection to you. A poetry reading should give the audience time to ponder the great truths like: love, death, redemption, the mysteries of time and eternity. Because we live such fast lives, we don’t get much time to reflect on what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. In the end what’s more important than that kind of reflection?
Let me give you an example of a reading I did on Whidbey Island, (off the coast of Seattle, WA USA). I was reading to students and faculty in the Seattle Pacific Masters of Fine Arts Program, which is the low residency program where I teach. We know each other very well. It’s a small elite program with about 7 faculty members, and about 50 students. So I read poems that I had recently been working on. I told the audience that they’re new. That’s unusual. I don’t read new poems to a general audience, but I sometimes do read them to my students. I’m always reading and commenting on what they’re writing and they get a kick out of hearing and commenting on what their mentors are doing.
Here’s one of the poems I read, which may not, even now, be in its final draft:
Then my mother became my child.
I’d felt so light on the teeter-totter
that I was surprised by sudden power,
holding someone so important
in the sky with nothing but my weight
on the other side. It was kind of thrilling,
kind of strange. And I noticed the earth
is jagged with faults and fractures.
Grass staggers in uneven dirt and
the shoreline zigs and zags. You
can never glue the two uneven pieces
of a broken teacup perfectly together.
When she died, I worried about her
as if I’d driven her to her first day
of school and left her there alone.
For weeks I wondered, did she find
her class room? Is she making friends
in heaven? I’m trying to glue pieces
of the cup together. Heaven is roughly
what I mean. If God ever used that word,
he spoke in Hebrew. Nothing, it turns out,
has a simple surface. Maybe it’s the
missing and the faults we have to love.
- 2. In our conversation by phone this week in June, 2011, we talked a little about the business of poetry. After all, poetry books are written to be published, and published to be read, but also to be sold. You mentioned some of the general numbers various poetry books of kinds sell. Tell us a little about that, and do mention some of your own successes with their titles? Mostly, though, explain if poetry is a business to you, or if it is a business of writing and as in the book you worked on by Abilene Christian University Press, is the business of literature and poetry for the writer like you a matter of, “Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith?”
Poetry doesn’t make any business sense in this culture. Most books of poetry are published in small press runs usually not over 3,000 copies. There’s no mass market for poetry. Most small presses that publish poetry don’t even have marketing departments. And the trade presses that publish poetry don’t pitch it to the public, even if they have big marketing budgets. Although children naturally use metaphors and they love wordplay, by the time they get to junior high, that’s mostly been educated out of them. We tend to think of English as a practical affair. In hip hop that kind of razzle-dazzle wordplay has come back, but basically English in this country is for ordering pizza.
In places like Romania, and Iran, and even in Sweden, vast numbers of normal people read poetry. And they memorize it. There is a saying in Romania: Every Romanian is a poet.
Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith, is an anthology of spiritual literature written between the English renaissance and about the year 2000. I agreed to help edit that volume, because a collection like that didn’t exist. We’re working on a third edition now. I believe we need that kind of collection in our culture. It reveals the quest for God in a number of cultures and religious traditions. It’s startling to read John Donne, for example, writing in the early 17th century about his very problematic faith, sounding almost like a contemporary.
- 3. You say in an email to me, “I’ve taught for my whole career at The University of Delaware. That’s 35 years.” When it comes to teaching University students, what advice have you both for your students and for younger poets on the practice and the writing of poetry? Please offer something tangible when answering, like “create a chapbook” and what a chapbook means to you as an artist. If not a chapbook, how a book in its development has meaning for you, and what is some process of its beginning work.
The most important advice I give my students is to read, to read everything they can get their hands on. I tell them to go back to the Anglo Saxon poets. Read Beowulf, and move forward through the tradition. Once you finish the English and American traditions and poetry from Canada, start reading in other languages. If you can’t read in the other languages, then read in translation. Read poems aloud. Think about the sounds and the rhythms and be aware of the metaphors. Take the poems you love apart, to see how they’re made. Use them as models to sit down and write from. Work seriously, and revise.
I would say, the same kind of work goes into a poem as goes into a musician’s performance of a violin concerto. Like a musician, a poet needs to practice her scales. Then in the middle of all that work, the muse might show up and you can move toward a real poem. The books come later. That’s not so difficult. It’s the writing that’s the real work. A lot of poets want to skip that part. You work hard and you practice, then you hide all the work and make it look effortless.
- 4. This writer notes that you’ve a number of poetry books published, and the usual question for a writer can be, “What is your favorite of the lot?” Have you a particular poem in that book you’d like to tell us about, as it is an expression of the creative spirit, the Holy Spirit, and shows how it as literature reflects the poets life?
I don’t have a favorite book. They’re all my children. This summer and fall I will be putting together a new and selected volume which will be brought out by WordFarm Press next year. It’s a small press whose editors have all worked at other presses. They knew one another and liked each other and decided to start this press to fill a niche. They have a wonderful taste and the work they publish is good. They make beautiful books.
Yes, I do feel dependent on something when I am writing well. Like Milton and Spenser, I think of it as the Holy Spirit. But I am not sure the mystery is much different for poetry than for anything we do. How do our ideas spin out? How do the words keep materializing from nowhere? How do we keep breathing, even when we’re not thinking about it? The fact that we can name the parts of our brains that are doing the work doesn’t mean we can control them. The fact that we’re here at all is a mystery. God is perpetually engaged in the act of creation.
I believe everyday events are sacramental. It isn’t just the bread we eat on Sunday or the ashes on Ash Wednesday. The world is full of objects that are signs: Like signposts that point to meaning beyond themselves.
I remember with sitting with a senior chemistry major in my office at the University of Delaware, where I teach. He gestured at a very big tree on the mall; it’s not solid he told me. It’s made of rapidly moving atoms. In the end, poetry and chemistry may come down to the same thing—the mystery that lies at the center of our existence. It makes you believe there’s got to be a creator, doesn’t it?
- 5. Are you a believer? Is your faith something that informs your life? How so? But mostly, tell readers how your faith informs your poetry, especially the more devotional work like that you sent me for consideration as part of the Addendum to this interview-article? The interest basics of this series of interviews are also directed at how you as a poet view God, and I assume as a Christian, how you see Christ acting in your life in your art? By this I mean, not only Christ’s presence, but influence of the Gospels and importantly your life in its devotion and worship? Your personable response is welcomed.
Yes. I’m a believer. And I am a member of St. Peter’s Episcopal in Philadelphia. It’s a church which is 250 years old, with a graveyard around it, so those of us who walk into the church every Sunday have some contact with “the great cloud of witnesses” who came before us. It is a wonderful place to sit and reflect. With a group of about 50 people at St. Peter’s I’m reading the Bible in 90 days this summer. I’ve read it
many times, but it’s wonderful to go through it again. We’re in Leviticus now, and moving towards the great history books.
I think of poetry as particularly … well, let me see … in America we love what we can hold onto:. A new blazer, keys to a house, and especially money. Poetry is inherently about a world that isn’t certain in that way. It isn’t literal. Poetry is at its heart, metaphor. Jesus taught in metaphor. He called himself the “bread of life”, for instance. You say, how can that be? How can a guy walking around with his friends in Galilee be bread? Well, poetry uses metaphor, exactly like the metaphor of Jesus’ bread.
I would say good poetry always reveals the world of what we can’t see and touch. It’s the spiritual world that lies in us and around us, that patiently woos us all our lives, and tries to get us to pay attention. Most of us, I think, feel a deep longing for something. We don’t know what. It isn’t going to be satisfied by a new blazer, or a lifetime achievement award. That kind of longing [for the spiritual world] is in itself hopeful. I think it’s planted in us as a sign-post, an arrow, pointing us to what we need. Wasn’t it Augustine who said, “Our hearts are restless until we come to rest in You?”
Poetry…good poetry…always talks about that world. The world that’s not literal. I don’t think it delivers dogma or theology. It’s not about doctrine. Explaining doctrine is the job of priests and pastors and theologians. Poetry bears witness to the way of seeing that’s not literal and not dogmatic. Since Americans tend to be so literal and materialistic, poetry is fairly radical in this culture.
- 6. In a recent interview with poet Luci Shaw, you said, “I think finally writing poetry is an act of prayer, or certainly an act of faith.” Let’s talk about faith again. In our era, in this American nation, it seems faith is in short supply. Is it the poet’s job to tell us something about faith and Christian hope, too? Speak to us about the poet’s job: in its various dimensions, as you’ve known it.
The poet’s job is to be aware of that other spiritual world. And to be able to talk about it in terms of images our bodies experience—smells, sounds, sights. It’s a matter of making the spiritual world plausible to the reader. In order to do that a writer has to hone her craft by writing and reading.
There are many craft issues. But perhaps the three most important areas, the big craft issues, are how to write metaphor, how to use rhythm, and how to pick up music in the lines you write. There are exercises that can make a writer better at all of these. To become more aware of the “music” in the language, for example there are ear training exercises. In addition to exercises, when a poet is reading in the tradition, it’s important to notice how the great poets have managed metaphor and rhythm and music in their work.
More recently, I’ve come to believe that part of the job of a poet is to argue for poetry in the public square. This goes back to something we were talking about earlier. Poetry by its very nature argues against the speed of the culture, argues that we need quiet, we need reflection. Human beings need poetry to help us think deeply about what matters. In America we need poetry because we have such an infatuation with surfaces. Poetry argues for deeper thinking, for quiet and reflection to think beyond the surface.
As a poet, I do a lot of things other than sitting and composing poetry. But when I’m at home, I do go to work. I sit down in a chair in my office early in the morning and work the same way anybody else does, all day. What do I do? I write craft lectures for my classes, do interviews, draft talks and lectures, and answer letters and emails from readers. Today I’m writing cover copy for the first books of two fine young poets who were my students. I’ve just finished writing a 300 page book of prose, which has taken over a year. I revise poetry, email editors, and get ready to run writing workshops. Sometimes I’m on the road; I travel to speak around the country and do readings. (Email Jeanne here: email@example.com ).
Being a poet is a job like any other job in the sense that you do it whether you’re excited about it on any given day or not. You’ve made a commitment. If you don’t make a commitment, if you don’t fulfill the promise you’ve made to actually do the work, you find yourself thinking a lot about writing, but not writing.
- 7. Your Vita is so long and detailed, it tells of a healthy and productive life in literature, a strong interest in other poets, and many, many years as a teacher at the University of Delaware. To my surprise, you translate Romanian poetry. What about it interests you? Tell us something of this unusual, at least to my ears, work: How it informs your own poetry, both the work of a poet and the poetry, as well as living a life of faith?
I’m not really a translator. At the request of a Romanian poet, I traveled with [the poet] Luci Shaw to Cluj about five years ago to meet with about 20 or 30 young poets who gathered there from all over Romania.
First Luci and I flew to Vienna, then drove through Hungary to western Romania. That was a harrowing trip. We passed through three country’s border controls. We were nervous because we had in our suitcases 200 disposable syringes for one of the poets who required a daily injection for hepatitis. I also brought along 20 pairs of jeans. People all over the world love jeans and they’re expensive in Romania.
Luci and I absolutely fell in love with those poets. We wanted to make their work available in English. We asked the translators who had worked with us at the conference to give us rough translations of their poems.
When we got home, Luci and I sat down at my dining room table and argued out the translations together. We both enjoyed it enormously. Most of those poems have been published over here. In its international issue, Image magazine brought out a poem by Ionatan Pirosca, for example, who was the head of the conference. This is part of Ionatan’s poem:
On the expecting sidewalk
the garland of the cross is growing
you pick it up and slowly
it becomes all that you have
and you don’t understand
how come so suddenly
the sky has cleared.
That explains why I’ve translated from Romanian, even though I’m not, actually, a translator.
- 8. In the event I’ve left something out, or missed something, or you want to add some words, please do.
I can’t think of anything more. But thank you for this interview, Peter. It’s been a pleasure talking.
PORTRAIT OF THE VIRGIN WHO SAID NO TO GABRIEL
This is the one Giotto never painted.
She looked up from baking that morning, hearing
his feathers settle and his voice scatter like gold coins
on the floor. He told her, his forehead sweaty
from the long trip. Me? she breathed, Oh sure!
But after he walked away, she couldn’t forget his look,
the strange way his feet rang like horseshoes on the stones.
What she’d been wanting before he interrupted
was not the Bach Magnificat, I can tell you, not stained
glass. Nothing risky. Just to keep her good name.
Small as she was, how could she keep in her heart
those centuries of praise? But I praise her,
anyway, for wanting a decent wedding
with napkins folded like hats and a good Italian wine.
I praise her name, Lenora. I praise the way
she would practice carefully, making the L
like a little porch, where she could imagine standing
to throw a red ball to some children she loved.
I praise the way, year by year, she let herself see
who that visitor was. Think of her collecting
belief slowly, the way a bird builds her nest
in an olive tree. Then finally how one year,
after the leaves fell, she was an old woman
looking at the truth, outlined against
the salmon sky, knowing it was true.
For not despising her own caution then, I praise her.
For never feeling envy. And for the way, once,
she stepped past her fear to hand a cup of water
to a thirsty carpenter fainting by her door.
In every room of this gallery I think I see her picture.
-for Henry William Griffin
A Deed to the Light
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International
Convention of Atheists. 1929
Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say
all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t
there that makes the notion flare like
a forest fire until I have to spend the afternoon
dragging the hose to put it out. Even
on an ordinary day when a friend calls,
tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,
wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which–though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.
Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up
and a voice you love whispers hello.
–Originally published in Poetry
JESUS AND THE CABBAGE
His friend Martha’s making soup, because you still
have to eat. Meanwhile, back in the Garden
cave, the same Garden where he prayed to let
this cup pass from him, He comes to Himself lying
on a stone shelf in the cool dark, all 200 pounds
of Him, only changed. Minus mass, maybe,
or impervious to gravity. He doesn’t understand this
as a physics problem. He lifts his hand and stares
at it. In town Martha’s trying to keep her tears out
of the soup. The cabbage offers her its tough pale green
handles to steady her wobble. She strips its layers
down to the heart, while Jesus—whoo-ee! His astonished face,
chisel it in marble!—lasers through the swaddling
grave clothes. Heaven’s volatile physics draws him up.
In the deepest dark of winter when I hold a cabbage,
peel off its outer leaves, before I plunge the knife in,
I think when I take that kind of journey,
I might light my path with this green moon.
I have promised to pray for a friend
the way one promises when there are no solutions.
Here in Vermont the cold is slowing things down–
the way a squad car parked along the shoulder
slows traffic. The birches are migrating
to precincts of yellow. From there
they’ll take their permanent leave.
I pull into a lane to study how they do it.
Beside the road a cat stretches, pouring herself
towards her paws. Birds scatter, fanning out
as if flung into the sky, as if someone
wants to demonstrate the physics of motion,
nothing about bones and muscles, just a flawless
gesture upward. The leaves float down so slowly
it feels as if my car is sinking under water.
I am a fish, watching the sea turn
gold. Like the sole of a foot, a yellow leaf
steps on the windshield, then another,
and another, like feet, walking on water.
Anglican Theological Review
New Tracks, Night Falling
I am at the movies, practicing the discipline
of the sane, taking the characters
to my heart, while reminding myself
they’re not me. Red scarf flying against snow
like a flag of happiness. Their looks meeting
across a table in the café. That blessing of first love,
to have your gaze returned. Then later,
the misunderstanding, that bewildering
shift. His face looming big as a baseball field,
his eyebrows flying like hysterical seagulls.
He has just begun to shout when the film gets stuck,
the same ugly word, ugly word he can’t call back,
a word she can’t forgive. In the booth
a kid bends over the projector,
a god now, performing small maneuvers of love
as we stare at the palpitating hooha
of the man’s mouth, the cruelty in her eyes,
watching how habit can harden the heart, how
it’s possible to cross into a country beyond choice,
beyond remorse, beyond forgiveness,
how even Pharoah didn’t know exactly when,
between the first and tenth plagues,
he found himself inside the answer he could never
change, the way we are stuck in the film’s repeating
stutter. Until the boy cuts it. We go home early.
I turn the key in the lock, hearing the wind in the trees,
the sound of God weeping, His heart shattered on
the stubborn mystery of the human will.
New Tracks, Night Falling
It must have been a windy night like this
the trees swaying and hissing,
tossing their hair in desperate gestures,
when he broke out of the spell
and realized it wasn’t fair.
He never chose her.
When he woke up, she stood before him
like a bright goblet filling up with water.
He was thirsty. How splendid
it can be to drink when you’re thirsty,
was what he thought. He was that young.
Now he realizes there is a stain
spreading on his heart, that the name
she gave the Yak chafes him
and she sings off key. He never chose
her. He’d like to grab his knife
and cut off her song
but rain is slanting down
and she is running toward him, her eyes terrified
under the bending, cracking maples
and a curtain pulls back in him
and he takes her into his arms
and begins the long journey toward
learning to love what he’s been given.
New Tracks, Night Falling
–for Marjorie Maddox
The holly bush stands by the peeling door
she stumbled through last night, under the stare
of curious eyes. She didn’t make it far
beyond the first stall, so she lay down there
to let her body have its way with her.
Rubbing her back, he braced himself against the door.
Maybe she wished that she could give it up–
the greeting of the angel on her stoop,
her yes, the thousand future paintings. She would swap
it all to stop this lava. Not to erupt
with God. To halt the bleeding of the Infinite
into that barn. Peaceful? Silent? It was abrupt,
loud, violent. She was blown apart. Body went
one way, she went another. Just to keep her blunt
place in the world, she sent her eyes hunting
the holly: that woman, sister, aunt, waiting
patiently outside to help. As God came ripping
through–a wild train–her eyes kept holding
that tree. She rests now. Wind is leaking
into the barn, the animals are sleeping.
Outside, the holy holly bough is breaking.
New Tracks, Night Falling
LITTLE BLESSING FOR MY FLOATER
-After George Herbert
This tiny ruin in my eye, small
flaw in the fabric, little speck
of blood in the egg, deep chip
in the windshield, north star,
pole star, floater that doesn’t
float, spot where my hand is not,
little piton nailing every rock
I see, no matter if that image
turns to sand, or sand to sea,
I embrace you, piece of absence
that reminds me what I will be–
all dark some day unless God
rescues me, oh speck
that might still teach me how to see.
New Tracks, Night Falling
PRAYING FOR RAIN IN SANTA FE
–for Don Murdoch
This is the end of the world, slow motion, this burning,
burning till earth is parched, the cypress crisping,
cactus brown, brown grass, brown horizon.
Through the Cathedral hands of the faithful pass a candle.
Feel the pull of prayer in the hot dark.
Tell God nothing can live without water,
water, which is 70% of what you’re praying with,
rivers longing through you for more water.
That’s when it comes to you:
in prayer lies prayer’s answer. In the calling out,
the visitation. In the arrow lives the target’s eye.
So water rises from its knees, believing water
will come. When rain starts, a fat drop
joined by her sisters, the sound of dripping like
a shy nun sneezing, your heart stops with pleasure
and you pick up the cantaloupe you’ll have for dinner
to shake it. The promise inside: flesh
the color of sunset, the slosh of a whole ocean.
New Tracks, Night Falling
I think he planned it, sort of, from the start,
whether he knew they’d choose the fruit or not.
He scattered hints around the garden, what to do
in case they got themselves kicked out. A shirt
of fur around the lamb. The stream converting
water into syllables. Bamboo pipes.
The caps of mushrooms round as wheels.
Bluebirds composing tunes. He knew nothing
they started later would be new. Except he
didn’t factor in the thorns, how they would smart
as Adam—leaving–drove one through his foot.
How clever Romans would invent a crown.
He didn’t figure weeds could break His heart.
New Tracks, Night Falling
– Good Friday, 2004
Since time flies one way like an arrow,
the sugar can’t be stirred out of your oatmeal,
and no matter how long the murderer sobs
on the median strip—sorry!–she can’t reverse
her swerve, cannot rescind her drink
before the crash. Was Jesus heartsick
to find history’s not a zipper running both ways?
He who loved eternity–its roominess,
its reversibility—did he have to learn
as he grew up that he never could unsay a thing,
once said? And yet today, like all Good Fridays,
He hangs on the cross again. On altars
he hangs. On necklaces. His death is like an x
that rides the wheel of time, showing up again
in ritual, that miniature eternity, that spring
re-sprung. Dear God, there in your big eternity,
remember that your hands and feet can never
be unscarred again. Hear these words spoken
by a body that suffers, by a tongue
that will stiffen and be gone.
Have mercy on us who love time.
May this prayer be a tire that rolls
over every inch of whatever way
to find You. May it be a bell
which can never be unrung.
New Tracks, Night Falling
–After Gerard Manley Hopkins
for September sun like a sharp thread
that strings and pulls me
down the footpath, nearly blind, toward
the dark woods, for the hawk kiting
on high sheen above the field
as I cross the footbridge.
For the water’s slather, for bittersweet,
stoneflowers, slagmire, silt, sediment
rushing into the slurp of gravity. Thanks even
for seek and cover, for the seam that
opens in the hay, mouse tail splitting the gold,
ears sleeked back, frozen against
the plummet, wings folding silent
as umbrellas, bill hooked, steel
cables grabbing, hauling up. Thanks
for fierce, fast, for finality,
for let-go, limp, at last. Thanks for not
covering up what I can’t grasp,
and for sunlight holding earth
to heaven, still as strong as harp strings.
New Tracks, Night Falling
After against, among, around. How I admire
prepositions, small as they are, nothing
but safety pins, their lives given to
connecting. They are paid help,
maids in black uniforms who pass
hors d’oeuvres. Or better, they’re the joy
that leaps between us when we get to
know them. Without connection, what
can survive? Because the lawn
waits for the sun to wake it from
its winter nap, we say sunlight
lies on the grass. Even the simplest jar
connects—jar under moonlight, on
counter, jar in water. It was prepositions
in the Valley of Dry Bones that stitched
the femur to the heel, the heel to the foot bone.
And afterwards, they got up to dance.
Between, beside, within may yet keep
the chins and breasts from tumbling off
Picasso’s women. If I could, I would
make prepositions the stars of grammar
like the star which traveled the navy sky
that night sweet Jesus lay in his cradle,
pulling the wise and devious kings
toward Bethlehem, and us behind them,
trekking from the rim of history toward Him.
Books and Culture
New Tracks, Night Falling
HELPING THE MORNING
After the graveside, after the ride home, after
a winter of drought, the chain
and padlock on my heart,
morning shows up at my bedside,
almost too late, like a big sister
holding a glass of water
and I drink, glancing through the window
at the tiny red barn flung
into the lap of the brown valley below.
I am amazed at the silent, terrible wonder
of my health. I am giddy at the lack of war.
I want to help the morning.
I pray the bedpost, the windowpanes.
I put our children on two doorknobs,
Our sick friends in mirrors.
Like the aperture of a camera, the morning opens
and keeps opening until the room is filled
with rosy light and I could believe
anything: that grass might turn green again,
that cloud the size of my hand
might swell, might drift in, bringing rain.
New Tracks, Night Falling
LOOKING FOR RUBY EARRINGS ON PORTOBELLO ROAD
Not to want it all is a sort of defect–
the porcelain cows, socks made from flags,
scarves fluttering against the blue throat of the sky,
hot dogs, broaches made of forks, paper cockatoos,
an organ grinder with three blind cats,
a lover wrapped around a saxophone.
Listen as he coaxes it to love him.
The perfect earring, if I could find it, will tumble
through a sidewalk grate soon enough,
and yet I drift across the street, waiting
to be gulled, trying to catch fire again.
Then the notes of the full-throated sax
rise, and my eyes rise with them
to stones gleaming on black velvet
in a stall cluttered with celestial junk
and I laugh as the saxophone is laughing,
because the stone is the least of it–
cheap glass or plastic—just an instrument
to play on. And the holy river of desire
runs wide. I buy the earrings,
which call me to the world we can never keep
but must, nevertheless, adore,
it being all we know of eternity