Barry Tebb |
It was Karl Shapiro who wrote in his ‘Defence of Ignorance’ how many poets
Go mad or seem to be so and the majority think we should all be in jail
Or mental hospital and you have ended up in both places - fragile as bone china,
Your pale skin taut, your fingers clasped tight round a cup, sitting in a pool
Of midnight light, your cats stretched flat on your desk top’s scatter
Under the laughing eyes of Sexton and Lowell beneath Rollie McKenna’s seamless shutter.
Other nights you hunch in your rocking chair, spilling rhythms
Silently as a bat weaves through midnight’s jade waves
Your sibylline tongue tapping every twist or the syllable count
Deftly as Whistler mixed tints for Nocturnes’ nuances or shade
Or Hokusai tipped every wave crest.
You pause when down the hall a cat snatches at a forbidden plant,
“Schubert, Schubert”, you whisper urgently for it is night and there are neighbours.
The whistle of the forgotten kettle shrills: you turn down the gas
And scurry back to your poem as you would to a sick child
And ease the pain of disordered lines.
The face of your mother smiles like a Madonna bereft
And the faces of our children are always somewhere
As you focus your midnight eyes soft with tears.
You create to survive, a Balzac writing against the clock
A Baudelaire writing against the bailiff’s knock
A Val?ry in the throes of ‘Narcisse Parle’.
When a far clock chimes you sigh and set aside the page:
There is no telephone to ring or call: I am distant and sick,
Frail as an old stick
Our spirits rise and fall like the barometer’s needle
Jerk at a finger tapping on glass
Flashbacks or inspiration cry out at memory loss.
You peer through a magnifying glass at the typeface
Your knuckles white with pain as the sonnet starts to strain
Like a child coming to birth, the third you never bore.
All births, all babies, all poems are the same in coming
The spark of inspiration or spurt of semen,
The silent months of gestation, the waiting and worrying
Until the final agony of creation: for our first son’s
Birth at Oakes we had only a drawer for a crib.
Memories blur: all I know is that it was night
And at home as you always insisted, against all advice
But mine. I remember feebly holding the mask in place
As the Indian woman doctor brutally stitched you without an anaesthetic
And the silence like no other when even the midwives
Had left: the child slept and we crept round his make-shift cradle.
At Brudenell Road again it was night in the cold house
With bare walls and plug-in fires: Bob, the real father
Paced the front, deep in symphonic thought:
Isaiah slept: I waited and watched - an undiagnosed breech
The doctor’s last minute discovery - made us rush
And scatter to have you admitted.
I fell asleep in the silent house and woke to a chaos
Of blood and towels and discarded dressings and a bemused five year old.
We brought you armsful of daffodils, Easter’s remainders.
“Happy Easter, are the father?” Staff beamed
As we sat by the bedside, Bob, myself and John MacKendrick,
Brecht and Rilke’s best translator
Soon to die by his own hand.
Poetry is born in the breech position
Poems beget poems.
Karl Shapiro |
Save for a lusterless honing-stone of moon
The sky stretches its flawless canopy
Blue as the blue silk of the Jewish flag
Over the valley and out to sea.
It is bluest just above the olive tree.
You cannot find in twisted Italy
So straight a one; it stands not on a crag,
Is not humpbacked with bearing in scored stone,
But perfectly erect in my front yard,
Oblivious of its fame. The fruit is hard,
Multitudinous, acid, tight on the stem;
The leaves ride boat-like in the brimming sun,
Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes.
Now on the lawn
The olives fall by thousands, and I delight
To shed my tennis shoes and walk on them,
Pressing them coldly into the deep grass,
In love and reverence for the total loss.
Karl Shapiro |
In the mid-city, under an oiled sky,
I lay in a garden of such dusky green
It seemed the dregs of the imagination.
Hedged round by elegant spears of iron fence
My face became a moon to absent suns.
A low heat beat upon my reading face;
There rose no roses in that gritty place
But blue-gray lilacs hung their tassels out.
Hard zinnias and ugly marigolds
And one sweet statue of a child stood by.
A gutter of poetry flowed outside the yard,
Making me think I was a bird of prose;
For overhead, bagged in a golden cloud,
There hung the fatted souls of animals,
Wile at my eyes bright dots of butterflies
Turned off and on like distant neon signs.
Assuming that this garden still exists,
One ancient lady patrols the zinnias
(She looks like George Washington crossing the Delaware),
The janitor wanders to the iron rail,
The traffic mounts bombastically out there,
And across the street in a pitch-black bar
With midnight mirrors, the professional
Takes her first whiskey of the afternoon--
Ah! It is like a breath of country air.
Karl Shapiro |
The beauty of manhole covers--what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable,
Not like the old electrum, chased and scored,
Mottoed and sculptured to a turn,
But notched and whelked and pocked and smashed
With the great company names
(Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States).
This rustproof artifact of my street,
Long after roads are melted away will lie
Sidewise in the grave of the iron-old world,
Bitten at the edges,
Strong with its cryptic American,
Its dated beauty.