Charles Simic Poetry

All by Charles Simic, 2009 Featured Poet

Favorite Poetry Sayings

“Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.” – Charles Simic

“I’m in the business of translating what cannot be translated: being and its silence.” – Charles Simic

“Even as I concentrate all my attention on the fly on the table, I glance fleetingly at myself.” – Charles Simic

“A poem is an invitation to a voyage. As in life, we travel to see fresh sights.” – Charles Simic

This Morning

Enter without knocking, hard-working ant.
I’m just sitting here mulling over
What to do this dark, overcast day?
It was a night of the radio turned down low,
Fitful sleep, vague, troubling dreams.
I woke up lovesick and confused.
I thought I heard Estella in the garden singing
And some bird answering her,
But it was the rain. Dark tree tops swaying
And whispering. “Come to me my desire,”
I said. And she came to me by and by,
Her breath smelling of mint, her tongue
Wetting my cheek, and then she vanished.
Slowly day came, a gray streak of daylight
To bathe my hands and face in.
Hours passed, and then you crawled
Under the door, and stopped before me.
You visit the same tailors the mourners do,
Mr. Ant. I like the silence between us,
The quiet–that holy state even the rain
Knows about. Listen to her begin to fall,
As if with eyes closed,
Muting each drop in her wild-beating heart.

Country Fair

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,
It doesn’t matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.
And that was the whole show.

Eyes Fastened With Pins

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death’s laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death’s supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can’t figure it out
Among all the locked doors…
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death’s side of the bed.

In the Library

for Octavio

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Late September

The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter.
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down.
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making.

Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door.
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting,
So you went out to find out.
Barefoot, wearing just shorts.
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere.

This morning, it felt like Sunday.
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages,
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers.

My Shoes

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
Two gaping toothless mouths,
Two partly decomposed animal skins
Smelling of mice-nests.

My brother and sister who died at birth
Continuing their existence in you,
Guiding my life
Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

What use are books to me
When in you it is possible to read
The Gospel of my life on earth
And still beyond, of things to come?

I want to proclaim the religion
I have devised for your perfect humility
And the strange church I am building
With you as the altar.
Ascetic and maternal, you endure:
Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,
With your mute patience, forming
The only true likeness of myself.

Pigeons at Dawn

Extraordinary efforts are being made
To hide things from us, my friend.
Some stay up into the wee hours
To search their souls.
Others undress each other in darkened rooms.

The creaky old elevator
Took us down to the icy cellar first
To show us a mop and a bucket
Before it deigned to ascend again
With a sigh of exasperation.

Under the vast, early-dawn sky
The city lay silent before us.
Everything on hold:
Rooftops and water towers,
Clouds and wisps of white smoke.

We must be patient, we told ourselves,
See if the pigeons will coo now
For the one who comes to her window
To feed them angel cake,
All but invisible, but for her slender arm.

Read Your Fate

A world’s disappearing.
Little street,
You were too narrow,
Too much in the shade already.

You had only one dog,
One lone child.
You hid your biggest mirror,
Your undressed lovers.

Someone carted them off
In an open truck.
They were still naked, travelling
On their sofa

Over a darkening plain,
Some unknown Kansas or Nebraska
With a storm brewing.
The woman opening a red umbrella

In the truck. The boy
And the dog running after them,
As if after a rooster
With its head chopped off.

Secret History

Of the light in my room:
Its mood swings,
Dark-morning glooms,
Summer ecstasies.

Spider on the wall,
Lamp burning late,
Shoes left by the bed,
I’m your humble scribe.

Dust balls, simple souls
Conferring in the corner.
The pearl earring she lost,
Still to be found.

Silence of falling snow,
Night vanishing without trace,
Only to return.
I’m your humble scribe.

The Initiate

St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses
As he passed me on the street.
St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
Turned her back on me.

“Soulmate,” they hissed. “It’s high time.”

I was a blind child, a wind-up toy . . .
I was one of death’s juggling red balls
On a certain street corner
Where they peddle things out of suitcases.

The city like a huge cinema
With lights dimmed.
The performance already started.

So many blurred faces in a complicated plot.

The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am . . .

The Redeemer and the Virgin,
Their eyes wide open in the empty church
Where the killer came to hide himself . . .

The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints
That could have been made by bare feet.
Some unknown penitent guiding me.
In truth, I didn’t know where I was going.
My feet were frozen,
My stomach growled.

Four young hoods blocking my way.
Three deadpan, one smiling crazily.

I let them have my black raincoat.

Thinking constantly of the Divine Love
and the Absolute had disfigured me.
People mistook me for someone else.

I heard voices after me calling out unknown names.
“I’m searching for someone to sell my soul to,”
The drunk who followed me whispered,
While appraising me from head to foot.

At the address I had been given.
The building had large X’s over its windows.
I knocked but no one came to open.
By and by a black girl joined me on the steps.
She banged at the door till her fist hurt.

Her name was Alma, a propitious sign.
She knew someone who solved life’s riddles
In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen.
We had a long talk about that
While shivering and stamping our wet feet.

It was necessary to stay calm, I explained,
Even with the earth trembling,
And to continue to watch oneself
As if one were a complete stranger.

Once in Chicago, for instance,
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!

After we parted, the night, the cold, and the endless walking
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.

There was the East River; there was the Hudson.
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.

Something supreme was occurring
For which there will never be any words.

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

The Something

Here come my night thoughts
On crutches,
Returning from studying the heavens.
What they thought about
Stayed the same,
Stayed immense and incomprehensible.

My mother and father smile at each other
Knowingly above the mantel.
The cat sleeps on, the dog
Growls in his sleep.
The stove is cold and so is the bed.

Now there are only these crutches
To contend with.
Go ahead and laugh, while I raise one
With difficulty,
Swaying on the front porch,
While pointing at something
In the gray distance.

You see nothing, eh?
Neither do I, Mr. Milkman.
I better hit you once or twice over the head
With this fine old prop,
So you don’t go off muttering

I saw something!

Watermelons

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

Clouds Gathering

It seemed the kind of life we wanted.
Wild strawberries and cream in the morning.
Sunlight in every room.
The two of us walking by the sea naked.

Some evenings, however, we found ourselves
Unsure of what comes next.
Like tragic actors in a theater on fire,
With birds circling over our heads,
The dark pines strangely still,
Each rock we stepped on bloodied by the sunset.

We were back on our terrace sipping wine.
Why always this hint of an unhappy ending?
Clouds of almost human appearance
Gathering on the horizon, but the rest lovely
With the air so mild and the sea untroubled.

The night suddenly upon us, a starless night.
You lighting a candle, carrying it naked
Into our bedroom and blowing it out quickly.
The dark pines and grasses strangely still.

Hotel Insomnia

I liked my little hole,
Its window facing a brick wall.
Next door there was a piano.
A few evenings a month
a crippled old man came to play
“My Blue Heaven.”

Mostly, though, it was quiet.
Each room with its spider in heavy overcoat
Catching his fly with a web
Of cigarette smoke and revery.
So dark,
I could not see my face in the shaving mirror.

At 5 A.M. the sound of bare feet upstairs.
The “Gypsy” fortuneteller,
Whose storefront is on the corner,
Going to pee after a night of love.
Once, too, the sound of a child sobbing.
So near it was, I thought
For a moment, I was sobbing myself.

Paradise Motel

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.

I lived well, but life was awful.
there were so many soldiers that day,
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.

On the pay channel, a man and a woman
Were trading hungry kisses and tearing off
Each other’s clothes while I looked on
With the sound off and the room dark
Except for the screen where the color
Had too much red in it, too much pink.

Pocket Theatre

Fingers in an overcoat pocket. Fingers sticking out of a black leather glove. The nails chewed raw. One play is called “Thieves’ Market,” another “Night in a Dime Museum.” The fingers when they strip are like bewitching nude bathers or the fake wooden limbs in a cripple factory. No one ever sees the play: you put your hand in somebody else’s pocket on the street and feel the action.

The White Room

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.

They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me–
And then didn’t.

Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild

Storytelling. We were
Entering dark houses,
Always more dark houses,
Hushed and abandoned.

There was someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The fear of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.

The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn’t leave her room.

The sun pointed to one or two
Things that had survived
The long night intact.
The simplest things,

Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People described as “perfect.”

Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins, a hand-mirror,
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn’t it.

Just things as they are,
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light–
And the trees waiting for the night.

The Wooden Toy

1

The brightly-painted horse
Had a boy’s face,
And four small wheels
Under his feet,

Plus a long string
To pull him by this way and that
Across the floor,
Should you care to.

A string in-waiting
That slipped away
In many wiles
From each and every try.

2

Knock and they’ll answer,
Mother told me.
So I climbed four flights of stairs
And went in unannounced.

And found a small wooden toy
For the taking

In the ensuing emptiness
And the fading daylight

That still gives me a shudder
As if I held the key to mysteries in my hand.

3

Where’s the Lost and Found Department,
And the quiet entry,
The undeveloped film
Of the few clear moments
Of our blurred lives?

Where’s the drop of blood
And the teeny nail
That pricked my finger
As I bent down to touch the toy

And caught its eye?

4

Evening light,

Make me a Sunday
Go-to meeting shadow
For my toy.

My dearest memories are
Steep stair-wells
In dusty buildings
On dead-end streets,

Where I talk to the walls
And closed doors
As if they understood me.

5

The wooden toy sitting pretty.

No, quieter than that.

Like the sound of eyebrows
Raised by a villain
In a silent movie.

Psst, someone said behind my back.

Shelley

for M. Follain

Poet of the dead leaves driven like ghosts,
Driven like pestilence-stricken multitudes,
I read you first
One rainy evening in New York City,

In my atrocious Slavic accent,
Saying the mellifluous verses
From a battered, much-stained volume
I had bought earlier that day
In a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue
Run by an initiate of the occult masters.

The little money I had being almost spent,
I walked the streets my nose in the book.
I sat in a dingy coffee shop
With last summer’s dead flies on the table.
The owner was an ex-sailor
Who had grown a huge hump on his back
While watching the rain, the empty street.
He was glad to have me sit and read.
He’d refill my cup with a liquid dark as river Styx.

Shelley spoke of a mad, blind, dying king;
Of rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know;
Of graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

I too felt like a glorious phantom
Going to have my dinner
In a Chinese restaurant I knew so well.
It had a three-fingered waiter
Who’d bring my soup and rice each night
Without ever saying a word.

I never saw anyone else there.
The kitchen was separated by a curtain
Of glass beads which clicked faintly
Whenever the front door opened.
The front door opened that evening
To admit a pale little girl with glasses.

The poet spoke of the everlasting universe
Of things … of gleams of a remoter world
Which visit the soul in sleep …
Of a desert peopled by storms alone …

The streets were strewn with broken umbrellas
Which looked like funereal kites
This little Chinese girl might have made.
The bars on MacDougal Street were emptying.
There had been a fist fight.
A man leaned against a lamp post arms extended
as if
crucified,
The rain washing the blood off his face.

In a dimly lit side street,
Where the sidewalk shone like a ballroom mirror
At closing time –
A well-dressed man without any shoes
Asked me for money.
His eyes shone, he looked triumphant
Like a fencing master
Who had just struck a mortal blow.

How strange it all was … The world’s raffle
That dark October night …
The yellowed volume of poetry
With its Splendors and Glooms
Which I studied by the light of storefronts:
Drugstores and barbershops,
Afraid of my small windowless room
Cold as a tomb of an infant emperor.

Toward Nightfall

for Don and Jane

The weight of tragic events
On everyone’s back,
Just as tragedy
In the proper Greek sense
Was thought impossible
To compose in our day.

There were scaffolds,
Makeshift stages,
Puny figures on them,
Like small indistinct animals
Caught in the headlights
Crossing the road way ahead,

In the gray twilight
That went on hesitating
On the verge of a huge
Starless autumn night.
One could’ve been in
The back of an open truck
Hunkering because of
The speed and chill.
mily: ‘Times New Roman'”
One could’ve been walking
With a sidelong glance
At the many troubling shapes
The bare trees made—
Like those about to shriek,
But finding themselves unable
To utter a word now.

One could’ve been in
One of these dying mill towns
Inside a small dim grocery
When the news broke.
One would’ve drawn near the radio
With the one many months pregnant
Who serves there at that hour.

Was there a smell of
Spilled blood in the air,
Or was it that other,
Much finer scent—of fear,
The fear of approaching death
One met on the empty street?

Monsters on movie posters, too,
Prominently displayed.
Then, six factory girls,
Arm in arm, laughing
As if they’ve been drinking.
At the very least, one
Could’ve been one of them:

The one with a mouth
Painted bright red,
Who feels out of sorts,
For no reason, very pale,
And so, excusing herself,
Vanishes where it says:
Rooms for Rent,
And immediately goes to bed,
Fully dressed, only

To lie with eyes open,
Trembling, despite the covers.
It’s just a bad chill,
She keeps telling herself
Not having seen the papers
Which the landlord has the dog
Bring from the front porch.

The old man never learned
To read well, and so
Reads on in that half-whisper,
And in that half-light
Verging on the dark,
About that day’s tragedies
Which supposedly are not
Tragedies in the absence of
Figures endowed with
Classic nobility of soul.

Against Whatever It Is That’s Encroaching

Best of all is to be idle,
And especially on a Thursday,
And to sip wine while studying the light:
The way it ages, yellows, turns ashen
And then hesitates forever
On the threshold of the night
That could be bringing the first frost.

It’s good to have a woman around just then,
And two is even better.
Let them whisper to each other
And eye you with a smirk.
Let them roll up their sleeves and unbutton their shirts a bit
As this fine old twilight deserves,

And the small schoolboy
Who has come home to a room almost dark
And now watches wide-eyed
The grown-ups raise their glasses to him,
The giddy-headed, red-haired woman
With eyes tightly shut,
As if she were about to cry or sing.

Leaving an Unknown City

That mutt with ribs showing
We left standing near a garbage truck
With a most hopeful look,
His tail on the verge of happiness
As the train picked up speed
The outcome left open

With the dusk falling rapidly
Making the dusty windows reflect
Our five traveling companions
Sitting with hat-shrouded eyes,
The absent-minded smiles
Already firmly set on each face.

“I am the last…”

I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.
The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.

The Old World

for Dan and Jeanne

I believe in the soul; so far
It hasn’t made much difference.
I remember an afternoon in Sicily.
The ruins of some temple.
Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.

The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious
And so did the wine
With which I toasted the coming night,
The darting swallows,
The Saracen wind and moon.

It got darker. There was something
Long before there were words:
The evening meal of shepherds …
A fleeting whiteness among the trees …
Eternity eavesdropping on time.

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

Watch Repair

A small wheel
Incandescent,
Shivering like
A pinned butterfly.

Hands thrown up
In all directions:
The crossroads
One arrives at
In a nightmare.

Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.

Other wheels
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.

Tools
That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.

Tiny golden mills
Grinding invisible
Coffee beans.

When the coffee’s boiling
Cautiously,
So it doesn’t burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest
Ear.

Autumn Sky

In my great grandmother’s time,
All one needed was a broom
To get to see places
And give the geese a chase in the sky.

The stars know everything,
So we try to read their minds.
As distant as they are,
We choose to whisper in their presence.

Oh Cynthia,
Take a clock that has lost its hands
For a ride.
Get me a room at Hotel Eternity
Where Time likes to stop now and then.

Come, lovers of dark corners,
The sky says,
And sit in one of my dark corners.
There are tasty little zeroes
In the peanut dish tonight.

Cameo Appearance

I had a small, nonspeaking part
In a bloody epic. I was one of the
Bombed and fleeing humanity.
In the distance our great leader
Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,
Or was it a great actor
Impersonating our great leader?

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.
I’m squeezed between the man
With two bandaged hands raised
And the old woman with her mouth open
As if she were showing us a tooth

That hurts badly. The hundred times
I rewound the tape, not once
Could they catch sight of me
In that huge gray crowd,
That was like any other gray crowd.

Trot off to bed, I said finally.
I know I was there. One take
Is all they had time for.
We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,
And then they were no more
As we stood dazed in the burning city,
But, of course, they didn’t film that.

Charon’s Cosmology

With only his dim lantern
To tell him where he is
And every time a mountain
Of fresh corpses to load up

Take them to the other side
Where there are plenty more
I’d say by now he must be confused
As to which side is which

I’d say it doesn’t matter
No one complains he’s got
Their pockets to go through
In one a crust of bread in another a sausage

Once in a long while a mirror
Or a book which he throws
Overboard into the dark river
Swift and cold and deep

Concerning My Neighbors, the Hitties

Great are the Hittites.
Their ears have mice and mice have holes.
Their dogs bury themselves and leave the bones
To guard the house. A single weed holds all their storms
Until the spiderwebs spread over the heavens.
There are bits of straw in their lakes and rivers
Looking for drowned men. When a camel won’t pass
Through the eye of one of their needles,
They tie a house to its tail. Great are the Hittites.
Their fathers are in cradles, their newborn make war.
To them lead floats, a leaf sinks. Their god is the size
Of a mustard seed so that he can be quickly eaten.

They also piss against the wind,
Pour water in a leaky bucket.
Strike two tears to make fire,
And have tongues with bones in them,
Bones of a wolf gnawed by lambs.

*

They are also called mound builders,
They are called Asiatic horses
That will drink on the Rhine, they are called
My grandmother’s fortune-telling, they are called
You can’t take it to the grave with you.

It’s that hum in your left ear,
A sigh coming from deep within you,
A dream in which you keep falling forever,
The hour in which you sit up in bed
As though someone has shouted your name.

No one knows why the Hittites exist,
Still, when two are whispering
One of them is listening.

Did they catch the falling knife?
They caught it like a fly with closed mouths.
Did they balance the last egg?
They struck the egg with a bone so it won’t howl.
Did they wait for dead man’s shoes?
The shoes went in at one ear and out the other.
Did they wipe the blood from their mousetraps?
They burnt the blood to warm themselves.
Are they cold with no pockets in their shrouds?
If the sky falls, they shall have clouds for supper.

What do they have for us
To put in our pipes and smoke?
They have the braid of a beautiful girl
That drew a team of cattle
And the engraving of him who slept
With dogs and rose with fleas
Searching for its trace in the sky.

*

And so there are fewer and fewer of them now.
Who wrote their name on paper
And burnt the paper? Who put snake bones
In their pillows? Who threw nail parings
In their soup? Who made them walk
Under the ladder? Who stuck pins
In their snapshots?

The wart of warts and his brother evil eye.
Bone-lazy and her sister rabbit’s-foot.
Cross-your-fingers and their father dog star.
Knock-on-wood and his mother hellfire.

Because the tail can’t wag the cow.
Because the woods can’t fly to the dove.
Because the stones haven’t said their last word.
Because dunghills rise and empires fall.

*

They are leaving behind
All the silver spoons
Found inside their throats at birth,
A hand they bit because it fed them,

Two rats from a ship that is still sinking,
A collection of various split hairs,
The leaf they turned over too late.

*

All that salt cast over the shoulder,
All that bloody meat traveling under the saddles of nomads …

Here comes a forest in wolf’s clothing,
The wise hen bows to the umbrella.

When the bloodshot evening meets the bloodshot night,
They tell each other bloodshot tales.

That bare branch over them speaks louder than words.
The moon is worn threadbare.

I repeat: lean days don’t come singly,
It takes all kinds to make the sun rise.

The night is each man’s castle.
Don’t let the castle out of the bag.

Wind in the valley, wind in the high hills,
Practice will make this body fit this bed.

*

May all roads lead
Out of a sow’s ear
To what’s worth
Two in the bush.

Empire of Dreams

On the first page of my dreambook
It’s always evening
In an occupied country.
Hour before the curfew.
A small provincial city.
The houses all dark.
The storefronts gutted.

I am on a street corner
Where I shouldn’t be.
Alone and coatless
I have gone out to look
For a black dog who answers to my whistle.
I have a kind of Halloween mask
Which I am afraid to put on.

Factory

The machines were gone, and so were those who worked them.
A single high-backed chair stood like a throne
In all that empty space.
I was on the floor making myself comfortable
For a long night of little sleep and much thinking.

An empty birdcage hung from a steam pipe.
In it I kept an apple and a small paring knife.
I placed newspapers all around me on the floor
So I could jump at the slightest rustle.
It was like the scratching of a pen,
The silence of the night writing in its diary.

Of rats who came to pay me a visit
I had the highest opinion.
They’d stand on two feet
As if about to make a polite request
On a matter of great importance.

Many other strange things came to pass.
Once a naked woman climbed on the chair
To reach the apple in the cage.
I was on the floor watching her go on tiptoe,
Her hand fluttering in the cage like a bird.

On other days, the sun peeked through dusty windowpanes
To see what time it was. But there was no clock,
Only the knife in the cage, glinting like a mirror,
And the chair in the far corner
Where someone once sat facing the brick wall.

Fork

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.

October Arriving

I only have a measly ant
To think with today.
Others have pictures of saints,
Others have clouds in the sky.

The winter might be at the door,
For he’s all alone
And in a hurry to hide.
Nevertheless, unable to decide

He retraces his steps
Several times and finds himself
On a huge blank wall
That has no window.

Dark masses of trees
Cast their mazes before him,
Only to erase them next
With a sly, sea-surging sound.

Old Couple

They’re waiting to be murdered,
Or evicted. Soon
They expect to have nothing to eat.
In the meantime, they sit.

A violent pain is coming, they think.
It will start in the heart
And climb into the mouth.
They’ll be carried off in stretchers, howling.

Tonight they watch the window
Without exchanging a word.
It has rained, and now it looks
Like it’s going to snow a little.

I see him get up to lower the shades.
If their window stays dark,
I know his hand has reached hers
Just as she was about to turn on the lights.

Past-Lives Therapy

They explained to me the bloody bandages
On the floor in the maternity ward in Rochester, N.Y.,
Cured the backache I acquired bowing to my old master,
Made me stop putting thumbtacks round my bed.

They showed me an officer on horseback,
Waving a saber next to a burning farmhouse
And a barefoot woman in a nightgown,
Throwing stones after him and calling him Lucifer.

I was a straw-headed boy in patched overalls.
Come dark a chicken would roost in my hair.
Some even laid eggs as I played my ukulele
And my mother and father crossed themselves.

Next, I saw myself inside an abandoned gas station
Constructing a spaceship out of a coffin,
Red traffic cone, cement mixer and ear warmers,
When a church lady fainted seeing me in my underwear.

Some days, however, they opened door after door,
Always to a different room, and could not find me.
There’d be only a small squeak now and then,
As if a miner’s canary got caught in a mousetrap.

Prodigy

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

Puppet-Maker

In his fear of solitude, he made us.
Fearing eternity, he gave us time.
I hear his white cane thumping
Up and down the hall.

I expect neighbors to complain, but no.
The little girl who sobbed
When her daddy crawled into her bed
Is quiet now.

It’s quarter to two.
On this street of darkened pawnshops,
Welfare hotels and tenements,
One or two ragged puppets are awake.

Stone

Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

Tapestry

It hangs from heaven to earth.
There are trees in it, cities, rivers,
small pigs and moons. In one corner
the snow falling over a charging cavalry,
in another women are planting rice.

You can also see:
a chicken carried off by a fox,
a naked couple on their wedding night,
a column of smoke,
an evil-eyed woman spitting into a pail of milk.

What is behind it?
—Space, plenty of empty space.

And who is talking now?
—A man asleep under his hat.

What happens when he wakes up?
—He’ll go into a barbershop.
They’ll shave his beard, nose, ears, and hair,
To make him look like everyone else.

The World Doesn’t End (excerpt)

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.
*
The stone is a mirror which works poorly. Nothing in it but dimness. Your dimness or its dimness, who’s to say? In the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket.

Errata

Where it says snow
read teeth-marks of a virgin
Where it says knife read
you passed through my bones
like a police-whistle
Where it says table read horse
Where it says horse read my migrant’s bundle
Apples are to remain apples
Each time a hat appears
think of Isaac Newton
reading the Old Testament
Remove all periods
They are scars made by words
I couldn’t bring myself to say
Put a finger over each sunrise
it will blind you otherwise
That damn ant is still stirring
Will there be time left to list
all errors to replace
all hands guns owls plates
all cigars ponds woods and reach
that beer-bottle my greatest mistake
the word I allowed to be written
when I should have shouted
her name

A Book Full of Pictures

Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.

There was a black raincoat
in the upstairs bedroom
Swaying from the ceiling,
But what was it doing there?
Mother’s long needles made quick crosses.
They were black
Like the inside of my head just then.

The pages I turned sounded like wings.
“The soul is a bird,” he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
With my heart spiked and bleeding in its branches.

Against Winter

The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?
The birds are silent; there’s no one to ask.
All day long you’ll squint at the gray sky.
When the wind blows you’ll shiver like straw.

A meek little lamb you grew your wool
Till they came after you with huge shears.
Flies hovered over open mouth,
Then they, too, flew off like the leaves,
The bare branches reached after them in vain.

Winter coming. Like the last heroic soldier
Of a defeated army, you’ll stay at your post,
Head bared to the first snow flake.
Till a neighbor comes to yell at you,
You’re crazier than the weather, Charlie.

Heights of Folly

O crows circling over my head and cawing!
I admit to being, at times,
Suddenly, and without the slightest warning,
Exceedingly happy.

On a morning otherwise sunless,
Strolling arm in arm
Past some gallows-shaped trees
With my dear Helen,
Who is also a strange bird,

With a feeling of being summoned
Urgently, but by a most gracious invitation
To breakfast on slices of watermelon
In the company of naked gods and goddesses
On a patch of last night’s snow.

Private Eye

To find clues where there are none,
That’s my job now, I said to the
Dictionary on my desk. The world beyond
My window has grown illegible,
And so has the clock on the wall.
I may strike a match to orient myself

In the meantime, there’s the heart
Stopping hush as the building
Empties, the elevators stop running,
The grains of dust stay put.
Hours of quiescent sleuthing
Before the Madonna with the mop

Shuffles down the long corridor
Trying doorknobs, turning mine.
That’s just little old me sweating
In the customer’s chair, I’ll say.
Keep your nose out of it.
I’m not closing up till he breaks.

Summer in the Country

One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in jar after dark.

Here is a stable with a single black mare
And the proof of God’s existence riding in a red nightgown.
Devil’s child–or whatever she was?
Having the nerve to ask me to go get her a whip.

Talking to Little Birdies

Not a peep out of you now
After the bedlam early this morning.
Are you begging pardon of me
Hidden up there among the leaves,
Or are your brains momentarily overtaxed?

You savvy a few things I don’t:
The overlooked sunflower seed worth a holler;
The traffic of cats in the yard;
Strangers leaving the widow’s house,
Tieless and wearing crooked grins.

Or have you got wind of the world’s news?
Some new horror I haven’t heard about yet?
Which one of you was so bold as to warn me,
Our sweet setup is in danger?

Kids are playing soldiers down the road,
Pointing their rifles and playing dead.
Little birdies, are you sneaking wary looks
In the thick foliage as you hear me say this?

The Bather

Where the path to the lake twists out of sight,
A puff of dust, the kind bare feet make running,
Is what I saw in the dying light,
Night swooping down everywhere else.

A low branch heavy with leaves
Swaying momentarily where the shade
Lay thickest, some late bather
Disrobing right there for a quick dip–

(Or my solitude playing a trick on me?)
Pinned hair coming undone, soon to float
As she turns on her back, letting
The dozy current take her as it wishes

Beyond the last drooping branch
To where the sky opens
Black as the water under her white arms,
In the deepening night, deepening hush,

The treetops like charred paper edges,
Even the insects oddly reclusive
While I strained to hear a splash,
Or glimpse her running back to her clothes . . .

And when I did not; I just sat there.
The rare rush of wind in the leaves
Still fooling me now and then,
Until the chill made me go in.

The Oldest Child

The night still frightens you.
You know it is interminable
And of vast, unimaginable dimensions.
“That’s because His insomnia is permanent,”
You’ve read some mystic say.
Is it the point of His schoolboy’s compass
That pricks your heart?

Somewhere perhaps the lovers lie
Under the dark cypress trees,
Trembling with happiness,
But here there’s only your beard of many days
And a night moth shivering
Under your hand pressed against your chest.

Oldest child, Prometheus
Of some cold, cold fire you can’t even name
For which you’re serving slow time
With that night moth’s terror for company.

The Partial Explanation

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.

Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.

A glass of ice-water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering.

And a longing,
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks.

The School of Metaphysics

Executioner happy to explain
How his wristwatch works
As he shadows me on the street.
I call him that because he is grim and officious
And wears black.

The clock on the church tower
Had stopped at five to eleven.
The morning newspapers had no date.
The gray building on the corner
Could’ve been a state pen,

And then he showed up with his watch,
Whose Gothic numerals
And the absence of hands
He wanted me to understand
Right then and there.

To the One Upstairs

Boss of all bosses of the universe.
Mr. know-it-all, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller,
And whatever else you’re good at.
Go ahead, shuffle your zeros tonight.
Dip in ink the comets’ tails.
Staple the night with starlight.

You’d be better off reading coffee dregs,
Thumbing the pages of the Farmer’s Almanac.
But no! You love to put on airs,
And cultivate your famous serenity
While you sit behind your big desk
With zilch in your in-tray, zilch
In your out-tray,
And all of eternity spread around you.

Doesn’t it give you the creeps
To hear them begging you on their knees,
Sputtering endearments,
As if you were an inflatable, life-size doll?
Tell them to button up and go to bed.
Stop pretending you’re too busy to take notice.

Your hands are empty and so are your eyes.
There’s nothing to put your signature to,
Even if you knew your own name,
Or believed the ones I keep inventing,
As I scribble this note to you in the dark.

Wherein Obscurely

On the road with billowing poplars,
In a country flat and desolate
To the far-off gray horizon, wherein obscurely,
A man and a woman went on foot,

Each carrying a small suitcase.
They were tired and had taken off
Their shoes and were walking on
Their toes, staring straight ahead.

Every time a car passed fast,
As they’re wont to on such a stretch of
Road, empty as the crow flies,
How quickly they were gone–

The cars, I mean, and then the drizzle
That brought on the early evening,
Little by little, and hardly a light
Anywhere, and then not even that.

The Supreme Moment

As an ant is powerless
Against a raised boot,
And only has an instant
To have a bright idea or two.
The black boot so polished,
He can see himself
Reflected in it, distorted,
Perhaps made larger
Into a huge monster ant
Shaking his arms and legs
Threateningly?

The boot may be hesitating,
Demurring, having misgivings,
Gathering cobwebs,
Dew?
Yes, and apparently no.

White (A New Version: 1980)

What is that little black thing I see there
in the white?
Walt Whitman

One

Out of poverty
To begin again:

With the color of the bride
And that of blindness,

Touch what I can
Of the quick,

Speak and then wait,
As if this light

Will continue to linger
On the threshold.

All that is near,
I no longer give it a name.

Once a stone hard of hearing,
Once sharpened into a knife…

Now only a chill
Slipping through.

Enough glow to kneel by and ask
To be tied to its tail

When it goes marrying
Its cousins, the stars.
Is it a cloud?
If it’s a cloud it will move on.

The true shape of this thought,
Migrant, waning.

Something seeks someone,
It bears him a gift

Of himself, a bit
Of snow to taste,

Glimpse of his own nakedness
By which to imagine the face.

On a late afternoon of snow
In a dim badly-aired grocery,

Where a door has just rung
With a short, shrill echo,

A little boy hands the old,
Hard-faced woman

Bending low over the counter,
A shiny nickel for a cupcake.

Now only that shine, now
Only that lull abides.
That your gaze
Be merciful,

Sister, bride
Of my first hopeless insomnia.

Kind nurse, show me
The place of salves.

Teach me the song
That makes a man rise

His glass at dusk
Until a star dances in it.

Who are you? Are you anybody
A moonrock would recognize?

There are words I need.
They are not near men.

I went searching.
Is this a deathmarch?

You bend me, bend me,
Oh toward what flower!

Little-known vowel,
Noose big for us all.

As strange as a shepherd
In the Arctic Circle.

Someone like Bo-peep.
All his sheep are white

And he can’t get any sleep
Over lost sheep.

And he’s got a flute
Which says Bo-peep,

Which says Poor boy,
Take care of your snow-sheep.

to A.S. Hamilton

Then all’s well and white,
And no more than white.

Illinois snowbound.
Indiana with one bare tree.

Michigan a storm-cloud.
Wisconsin empty of men.

There’s a trap on the ice
Laid there centuries ago.

The bait is still fresh.
The metal glitters as the night descends.

Woe, woe, it sings from the bough.
Our Lady, etc…

You had me hoodwinked.
I see your brand new claws.

Praying, what do I betray
By desiring your purity?

There are old men and women,
All bandaged up, waiting

At the spiked, wrought-iron gate
Of the Great Eye and Ear Infirmery.

We haven’t gone far…
Fear lives there too.

Five ears of my fingertips
Against the white page.

What do you hear?
We hear holy nothing

Blindfolding itself.
It touched you once, twice,

And tore like a stitch
Out of a new wound.
Two

What are you up to son of a gun?
I roast on my heart’s dark side.

What do you use as a skewer sweetheart?
I use my own crooked backbone.

What do you salt yourself with loverboy?
I grind the words out of my spittle.

And how will you know when you’re done chump?
When the half-moons on my fingernails set.

With what knife will you carve yourself smartass?
The one I hide in my tongue’s black boot.

Well, you can’t call me a wrestler
If my own dead weight has me pinned down.

Well, you can’t call me a cook
If the pot’s got me under its cover.

Well, you can’t call me a king
if the flies hang their hats in my mouth.

Well, you can’t call me smart,
When the rain’s falling my cup’s in the cupboard.

Nor can you call me a saint,
If I didn’t err, there wouldn’t be these smudges.

One has to manage as best as one can.
The poppies ate the sunset for supper.

One has to manage as best as one can.
Who stole my blue thread, the one

I tied around my pinky to remember?
One has to manage as best as one can.

The flea I was standing on, jumped.
One has to manage as best as one can.

I think my head went out for a walk.
One has to manage as best as one can.

This is breath, only breath,
Think it over midnight!

A fly weighs twice as much.
The struck match nods as it passes,

But when I shout,
Its true name sticks in my throat.

It has to be cold
So the breath turns white,

And then mother, who’s fast enough
To write his life on it?

A song in prison
And for prisoners,

Made of what the condemned
Have hidden from the jailers.

White–let me step aside
So that the future may see you,

For when this sheet is blown away,
What else is left

But to set the food on the table,
To cut oneself a slice of bread?

In an unknown year
Of an algebraic century,

An obscure widow
Wrapped in the colors of widowhood,

Met a true-blue orphan
On an indeterminate street-corner.

She offered him
A tiny sugar cube

In the hand so wizened
All the lines said: fate.

Do you take this line
Stretching to infinity?

I take this chipped tooth
On which to cut it in half.

Do you take this circle
Bounded by a single curved line?

I take this breath
That it cannot capture.

Then you may kiss the spot
Where her bridal train last rustled.

Winter can come now,
The earth narrow to a ditch–

And the sky with its castles and stone lions
Above the empty plains.

The snow can fall…
What other perennials would you plant,

My prodigals, my explorers
Tossing and turning in the dark

For those remote, finely honed bees,
The December stars?
Had to get through me elsewhere.
Woe to bone

That stood in their way.
Woe to each morsel of flesh.

White ants
In a white anthill.

The rustle of their many feet
Scurrying–tiptoing too.

Gravedigger ants.
Village-idiot ants.

This is the last summoning.
Solitude–as in the beginning.

A zero burped by a bigger zero–
It’s an awful licking I got.

And fear–that dead letter office.
And doubt–that Chinese shadow play.

Does anyone still say a prayer
Before going to bed?

White sleeplessness.
No one knows its weight.
What The White Had To Say

For how could anything white be distinct
from or divided from whiteness?
Meister Eckhart

Because I am the bullet
That has gone through everyone already,
I thought of you long before you thought of me.
Each one of you still keeps a blood-stained handkerchief
In which to swaddle me, but it stays empty
And even the wind won’t remain in it long.
Cleverly you’ve invented name after name for me,
Mixed the riddles, garbled the proverbs,
Shook you loaded dice in a tin cup,
But I do not answer back even to your curses,
For I am nearer to you than your breath.
One sun shines on us both through a crack in the roof.
A spoon brings me through the window at dawn.
A plate shows me off to the four walls
While with my tail I swing at the flies.
But there’s no tail and the flies are your thoughts.
Steadily, patiently I life your arms.
I arrange them in the posture of someone drowning,
And yet the sea in which you are sinking,
And even this night above it, is myself.
Because I am the bullet
That has baptized each one of your senses,
Poems are made of our lusty wedding nights…
The joy of words as they are written.
The ear that got up at four in the morning
To hear the grass grow inside a word.
Still, the most beautiful riddle has no answer.
I am the emptiness that tucks you in like a
mockingbird’s nest,
The fingernail that scratched on your sleep’s
blackboard.
Take a letter: From cloud to onion.
Say: There was never any real choice.
One gaunt shadowy mother wiped our asses,
The same old orphanage taught us loneliness.
Street-organ full of blue notes,
I am the monkey dancing to your grinding–
And still you are afraid-and so,
It’s as if we had not budged from the beginning.
Time slopes. We are falling head over heels
At the speed of night. That milk tooth
You left under the pillow, it’s grinning.

That Little Something

               for Li-Young Lee
The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It’s like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.
She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, Not in a million years. . .
It’s one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?
And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late?

Encyclopedia of Horror

Nobody reads it but the insomniacs.
How strange to find a child,
Slapped by his mother only this morning,
And the mad homeless woman
Who squatted to urinate in the street.
Perhaps they’ve missed something?
That smoke-shrouded city after a bombing raid,
The corpses like cigarette butts
In a dinner plate overflowing with ashes.
But no, everyone is here.
O were you to come, invisible tribunal,
There’d be too many images to thumb through,
Too many stories to listen to,
Like the one about guards playing cards
After they were done beating their prisoner