David Berman |
I know it's a bad title
but I'm giving it to myself as a gift
on a day nearly canceled by sunlight
when the entire hill is approaching
the ideal of Virginia
brochured with goldenrod and loblolly
and I think "at least I have not woken up
with a bloody knife in my hand"
by then having absently wandered
one hundred yards from the house
while still seated in this chair
with my eyes closed.
It is a certain hill
the one I imagine when I hear the word "hill"
and if the apocalypse turns out
to be a world-wide nervous breakdown
if our five billion minds collapse at once
well I'd call that a surprise ending
and this hill would still be beautiful
a place I wouldn't mind dying
alone or with you.
I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.
My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments,
popping tar bubbles on the driveway in the summer
a certain amount of pride at school
everytime they called it "our sun"
and playing football when the only play
was "go out long" are what stand out now.
If squeezed for more information
I can remember old clock radios
with flipping metal numbers
and an entree called Surf and Turf.
As a way of getting in touch with my origins
every night I set the alarm clock
for the time I was born so that waking up
becomes a historical reenactment and the first thing I do
is take a reading of the day and try to flow with it like
when you're riding a mechanical bull and you strain to learn
the pattern quickly so you don't inadverantly resist it.
I can't remember being born
and no one else can remember it either
even the doctor who I met years later
at a cocktail party.
It's one of the little disappointments
that makes you think about getting away
going to Holly Springs or Coral Gables
and taking a room on the square
with a landlady whose hands are scored
by disinfectant, telling the people you meet
that you are from Alaska, and listen
to what they have to say about Alaska
until you have learned much more about Alaska
than you ever will about Holly Springs or Coral Gables.
Sometimes I am buying a newspaper
in a strange city and think
"I am about to learn what it's like to live here.
Oftentimes there is a news item
about the complaints of homeowners
who live beside the airport
and I realize that I read an article
on this subject nearly once a year
and always receive the same image.
I am in bed late at night
in my house near the airport
listening to the jets fly overhead
a strange wife sleeping beside me.
In my mind, the bedroom is an amalgamation
of various cold medicine commercial sets
(there is always a box of tissue on the nightstand).
I know these recurring news articles are clues,
flaws in the design though I haven't figured out
how to string them together yet,
but I've begun to notice that the same people
are dying over and over again,
for instance Minnie Pearl
who died this year
for the fourth time in four years.
Today is the first day of Lent
and once again I'm not really sure what it is.
How many more years will I let pass
before I take the trouble to ask someone?
It reminds of this morning
when you were getting ready for work.
I was sitting by the space heater
numbly watching you dress
and when you asked why I never wear a robe
I had so many good reasons
I didn't know where to begin.
If you were cool in high school
you didn't ask too many questions.
You could tell who'd been to last night's
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallway.
You didn't have to ask
and that's what cool was:
the ability to deduct
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don't know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.
A yearbook's endpages, filled with promises
to stay in touch, stand as proof of the uselessness
of a teenager's promise.
Not like I'm dying
for a letter from the class stoner
ten years on but.
Do you remember the way the girls
would call out "love you!"
conveniently leaving out the "I"
as if they didn't want to commit
to their own declarations.
I agree that the "I" is a pretty heavy concept
and hope you won't get uncomfortable
if I should go into some deeper stuff here.
There are things I've given up on
like recording funny answering machine messages.
It's part of growing older
and the human race as a group
has matured along the same lines.
It seems our comedy dates the quickest.
If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes
I hope you won't be insulted
if I say you're trying too hard.
Even sketches from the original Saturday Night Live
seem slow-witted and obvious now.
It's just that our advances are irrepressible.
Nowadays little kids can't even set up lemonade stands.
It makes people too self-conscious about the past,
though try explaining that to a kid.
I'm not saying it should be this way.
All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.
We will travel to Mars
even as folks on Earth
are still ripping open potato chip
bags with their teeth.
Why? I don't have the time or intelligence
to make all the connections
like my friend Gordon
(this is a true story)
who grew up in Braintree Massachusetts
and had never pictured a brain snagged in a tree
until I brought it up.
He'd never broken the name down to its parts.
By then it was too late.
He had moved to Coral Gables.
The hill out my window is still looking beautiful
suffused in a kind of gold national park light
and it seems to say,
I'm sorry the world could not possibly
use another poem about Orpheus
but I'm available if you're not working
on a self-portrait or anything.
I'm watching my dog have nightmares,
twitching and whining on the office floor
and I try to imagine what beast
has cornered him in the meadow
where his dreams are set.
I'm just letting the day be what it is:
a place for a large number of things
to gather and interact --
not even a place but an occasion
a reality for real things.
Friends warned me not to get too psychedelic
or religious with this piece:
"They won't accept it if it's too psychedelic
or religious," but these are valid topics
and I'm the one with the dog twitching on the floor
possibly dreaming of me
that part of me that would beat a dog
for no good reason
no reason that a dog could see.
I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don't disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.
I can't trust the accuracy of my own memories,
many of them having blended with sentimental
telephone and margarine commercials
plainly ruined by Madison Avenue
though no one seems to call the advertising world
"Madison Avenue" anymore.
Have they moved?
Let's get an update on this.
But first I have some business to take care of.
I walked out to the hill behind our house
which looks positively Alaskan today
and it would be easier to explain this
if I had a picture to show you
but I was with our young dog
and he was running through the tall grass
like running through the tall grass
is all of life together
until a bird calls or he finds a beer can
and that thing fills all the space in his head.
his mind can only hold one thought at a time
and when he finally hears me call his name
he looks up and cocks his head
and for a single moment
my voice is everything:
Self-portrait at 28.
Edgar Bowers |
The angel of self-discipline, her guardian
Since she first knew and had to go away
From home that spring to have her child with strangers,
Sustained her, till the vanished boy next door
And her ordeal seemed fiction, and the true
Her mother’s firm insistence she was the mother
And the neighbors’ acquiescence.
So she taught school,
Walking a mile each way to ride the street car—
First books of the Aeneid known by heart,
French, and the French Club Wednesday afternoon;
Then summer replacement typist in an office,
Her sister’s family moving in with them,
Depression years and she the only earner.
Saturday, football game and opera broadcasts,
Sunday, staying at home to wash her hair,
The Business Women’s Circle Monday night,
And, for a treat, birthdays and holidays,
Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald.
The young blond sister long since gone to college,
Nephew and nieces gone, her mother dead,
Instead of Caesar, having to teach First Aid,
The students rowdy, she retired.
For the empty rooms she gave to Thornwell Orphanage,
Unwed Mothers, Temperance, and Foster Parents
And never bought the car she meant to buy;
Too blind at last to do much more than sit
All day in the antique glider on the porch
Listening to cars pass up and down the street.
Each summer, on the grass behind the house—
Cape jasmine, with its scent of August nights
Humid and warm, the soft magnolia bloom
Marked lightly by a slow brown stain—she spread,
For airing, the same small intense collection,
Concert programs, worn trophies, years of yearbooks,
Letters from schoolgirl chums, bracelets of hair
And the same picture: black hair in a bun,
Puzzled eyes in an oval face as young
Or old as innocence, skirt to the ground,
And, seated on the high school steps, the class,
The ones to whom she would have said, “Seigneur,
Donnez-nous la force de supporter
La peine,” as an example easy to remember,
Formal imperative, object first person plural.
Andrew Barton Paterson |
Awake, of Muse, the echoes of a day
Long past, the ghosts of mem'ries manifold --
Youth's memories that once were green and gold
But now, alas, are grim and ashen grey.
The drowsy schoolboy wakened up from sleep,
First stays his system with substantial food,
Then off for school with tasks half understood,
Alas, alas, that cribs should be so cheap!
The journey down to town -- 'twere long to tell
The storm and riot of the rabble rout;
The wild Walpurgis revel in and out
That made the ferry boat a floating hell.
What time the captive locusts fairly roared:
And bulldog ants, made stingless with a knife,
Climbed up the seats and scared the very life
From timid folk, who near jumped overboard.
The hours of lessons -- hours with feet of clay
Each hour a day, each day more like a week:
While hapless urchins heard with blanched cheek
The words of doom "Come in on Saturday".
The master gowned and spectacled, precise,
Trying to rule by methods firm and kind
But always just a little bit behind
The latest villainy, the last device,
Born of some smoothfaced urchin's fertile brain
To irritate the hapless pedagogue,
And first involve him in a mental fog
Then "have" him with the same old tale again.
The "bogus" fight that brought the sergeant down
To that dark corner by the old brick wall,
Where mimic combat and theatric brawl
Made noise enough to terrify the town.
But on wet days the fray was genuine,
When small boys pushed each other in the mud
And fought in silence till thin streams of blood
Their dirty faces would incarnadine.
The football match or practice in the park
With rampant hoodlums joining in the game
Till on one famous holiday there came
A gang that seized the football for a lark.
Then raged the combat without rest or pause,
Till one, a hero, Hawkins unafraid
Regained the ball, and later on displayed
His nose knocked sideways in his country's cause.
Before the mind quaint visions rise and fall,
Old jokes, old students dead and gone:
And some that lead us still, while some toil on
As rank and file, but "Grammar" children all.
And he, the pilot, who has laid the course
For all to steer by, honest, unafraid --
Truth is his beacon light, so he has made
The name of the old School a living force.
Billy Collins |
Tonight the moon is a cracker,
with a bite out of it
floating in the night,
and in a week or so
according to the calendar
it will probably look
like a silver football,
and nine, maybe ten days ago
it reminded me of a thin bright claw.
But eventually --
by the end of the month,
I reckon --
it will waste away
nothing but stars in the sky,
and I will have a few nights
a little time to rest my jittery pen.
Vernon Scannell |
They did not expect this.
Being neither wise nor brave
And wearing only the beauty of youth's season
They took the first turning quite unquestioningly
And walked quickly without looking back even once.
It was of course the wrong turning.
First they were nagged
By a small wind that tugged at their clothing like a dog;
Then the rain began and there was no shelter anywhere,
Only the street and the rows of houses stern as soldiers.
Though the blood chilled, the endearing word burnt the tongue.
There were no parks or gardens or public houses:
Midnight settled and the rain paused leaving the city
Enormous and still like a great sleeping seal.
At last they found accommodation in a cold
Furnished room where they quickly learnt to believe in ghosts;
They had their hope stuffed and put on the mantelpiece
But found, after a while, that they did not notice it.
While she spends many hours looking in the bottoms of teacups
He reads much about association football
And waits for the marvellous envelope to fall:
Their eyes are strangers and they rarely speak.
They did not expect this.
Henry Lawson |
You ask me to be gay and glad
While lurid clouds of danger loom,
And vain and bad and gambling mad,
Australia races to her doom.
You bid me sing the light and fair,
The dance, the glance on pleasure's wings –
While you have wives who will not bear,
And beer to drown the fear of things.
A war with reason you would wage
To be amused for your short span,
Until your children's heritage
Is claimed for China by Japan.
The football match, the cricket score,
The "scraps", the tote, the mad'ning Cup –
You drunken fools that evermore
"To-morrow morning" sober up!
I see again with haggard eyes,
The thirsty land, the wasted flood;
Unpeopled plains beyond the skies,
And precious streams that run to mud;
The ruined health, the wasted wealth,
In our mad cities by the seas,
The black race suicide by stealth,
The starved and murdered industries!
You bid me make a farce of day,
And make a mockery of death;
While not five thousand miles away
The yellow millions pant for breath!
But heed me now, nor ask me this –
Lest you too late should wake to find
That hopeless patriotism is
The strongest passion in mankind!
You'd think the seer sees, perhaps,
While staring on from days like these,
Politeness in the conquering Japs,
Or mercy in the banned Chinese!
I mind the days when parents stood,
And spake no word, while children ran
From Christian lanes and deemed it good
To stone a helpless Chinaman.
I see the stricken city fall,
The fathers murdered at their doors,
The sack, the massacre of all
Save healthy slaves and paramours –
The wounded hero at the stake,
The pure girl to the leper's kiss –
God, give us faith, for Christ's own sake
To kill our womankind ere this.
I see the Bushman from Out Back,
From mountain range and rolling downs,
And carts race on each rough bush track
With food and rifles from the towns;
I see my Bushmen fight and die
Amongst the torn blood-spattered trees,
And hear all night the wounded cry
For men! More men and batteries!
I see the brown and yellow rule
The southern lands and southern waves,
White children in the heathen school,
And black and white together slaves;
I see the colour-line so drawn
(I see it plain and speak I must),
That our brown masters of the dawn
Might, aye, have fair girls for their lusts!
With land and life and race at stake –
No matter which race wronged, or how –
Let all and one Australia make
A superhuman effort now.
Clear out the blasting parasites,
The paid-for-one-thing manifold,
And curb the goggled "social-lights"
That "scorch" to nowhere with our gold.
Store guns and ammunition first,
Build forts and warlike factories,
Sink bores and tanks where drought is worst,
Give over time to industries.
The outpost of the white man's race,
Where next his flag shall be unfurled,
Make clean the place! Make strong the place!
Call white men in from all the world!
William Matthews |
"First, do no harm," the Hippocratic
Oath begins, but before she might enjoy
such balm, the docs had to harm her tumor.
It was large, rare, and so anomalous
in its behavior that at first they mis-
"Your wife will die of it
within a year.
" But in ten days or so
I sat beside her bed with hot-and-sour
soup and heard an intern congratulate
her on her new diagnosis: a children's
cancer (doesn't that possessive break
your heart?) had possessed her.
I couldn't stop
it had a clouded heart, like Iago's.
It loved disguise.
It was a garrison
in a captured city, a bad horror film
(The Blob), a stowaway, an inside job.
If I could make it be like something else,
I wouldn't have to think of it as what,
in fact, it was: part of my lovely wife.
Next, then, chemotherapy.
Her hair fell
out in tufts, her color dulled, she sat laced
to bags of poison she endured somewhat
better than her cancer cells could, though not
And indeed, the cancer cells waned
more slowly than the chemical "cocktails"
(one the bright color of Campari), as the chemo
nurses called them, dripped into her.
three hundred days of this: a week inside
the hospital and two weeks out, the fierce
elixirs percolating all the while.
She did five weeks of radiation, too,
Monday to Friday like a stupid job.
She wouldn't eat the food the hospital
"Pureed fish" and "minced fish" were worth,
I thought, a sharp surge of food snobbery,
but she'd grown averse to it all -- the nurses'
crepe soles' muffled squeaks along the hall,
the filtered air, the smothered urge to read,
the fear, the perky visitors, flowers
she'd not been sent when she was well, the room-
mate (what do "semiprivate" and "extra
virgin" have in common?) who died, the nights
she wept and sweated faster than the tubes
could moisten her with lurid poison.
One chemotherapy veteran, six
years in remission, chanced on her former
chemo nurse at a bus stop and threw up.
My wife's tumor has not come back.
I like to think of it in Tumor Hell
strapped to a dray, flat as a deflated
football, bleak and nubbled like a poorly
There's one tense in Tumor Hell:
forever, or what we call the present.
For that long the flaccid tumor marinates
in lurid toxins.
Tumor Hell Clinic
is, it turns out, a teaching hospital.
Every century or so, the way
we'd measure it, a chief doc brings a pack
of students round.
They run some simple tests:
surge current through the tumor, batter it
with mallets, push a wood-plane across its
pebbled hide and watch a scurf of tumor-
pelt kink loose from it, impale it, strafe it
with lye and napalm.
There might be nothing
left in there but a still space surrounded
by a carapace.
"This one is nearly
dead," the chief doc says.
"What's the cure for that?"
The students know: "Kill it slower, of course.
They sprinkle it with rock salt and move on.
Here on the aging earth the tumor's gone:
My wife is hale, though wary, and why not?
Once you've had cancer, you don't get headaches
anymore, you get brain tumors, at least
until the aspirin kicks in.
Her hair's back,
her weight, her appetite.
"And what about you?"
friends ask me.
First the fear felt like sudden
weightlessness: I couldn't steer and couldn't stay.
I couldn't concentrate: surely my spit would
dry before I could slather a stamp.
I made a list of things to do next day
before I went to bed, slept like a cork,
woke to no more memory of last night's
list than smoke has of fire, made a new list,
began to do the things on it, wept, paced,
berated myself, drove to the hospital,
and brought my wife food from the takeout joints
that ring a hospital as surely as
brothels surround a gold strike.
I drove home
rancid with anger at her luck and mine --
anger that filled me the same way nature
hates a vacuum.
"This must be hell for you,"
Hell's not other people: Sartre
was wrong about that, too.
L'enfer, c'est moi?
I've not got the ego for it.
no hell if Dante hadn't built a model
of his rage so well, and he contrived to
get exiled from it, for it was Florence.
Why would I live in hell? I love New York.
Some even said the tumor and fierce cure
were harder on the care giver -- yes, they
said "care giver" -- than on the "sick person.
They were wrong who said those things.
I hated it, but some of "it" was me --
the self-pity I allowed myself,
the brave poses I struck.
The rest was dire
threat my wife met with moral stubbornness,
terror, rude jokes, nausea, you name it.
No, let her think of its name and never
say it, as if it were the name of God.
A E Housman |
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man's soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder 'tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.
Marriott Edgar |
Joe Dunn were a bobby for football
He gave all his time to that sport,
He played for the West Wigan Whippets,
On days when they turned out one short.
He’d been member of club for three seasons
And had grumbled again and again,
Cos he found only time that they’d used him,
Were when it were pouring with rain!
He felt as his talents were wasted
When each week his job seemed to be
No but minding the clothes for the others
And chucking clods at referee!
So next time selection committee
Came round to ask him for his sub
He told them if they didn’t play him,
He’d transfer to some other club.
Committee they coaxed and cudgelled him
But found he’d have none of their shifts
So they promised to play him next weekend
In match against Todmorden Swifts.
This match were the plum of the season
An annual fixture it stood,
‘T were reckoned as good as a cup tie
By them as liked plenty of blood!
The day of the match dawned in splendour
A beautiful morning it were
With a fog drifting up from the brick fields
And a drizzle of rain in the air.
The Whippets made Joe their goalkeeper
A thing as weren’t wanted at all
For they knew once battle had started
They’d have no time to mess with the ball!
Joe stood by the goal posts and shivered
While the fog round his legs seemed to creep
'Til feeling neglected and lonely
He leant back and went fast asleep.
He dreamt he were playing at Wembley
And t’roar of a thundering cheer
He were kicking a goal for the Whippets
When he woke with a clout in his ear!
He found 'twere the ball that had struck him
And inside the net there it lay
But as no one had seen this ‘ere ‘appen
He punted it back into play!
'Twere the first ball he’d punted in anger
His feelings he couldn’t restrain
Forgetting as he were goalkeeper
He ran out and kicked it again!
Then after the ball like a rabbit
He rushed down the field full of pride
He reckoned if nobody stopped him
Then ‘appen he’d score for his side.
‘Alf way down he bumped into his captain
Who weren’t going to let him go by
But Joe, like Horatio Nelson
Put a fist to the Captain’s blind eye!
On he went 'til the goal lay before him
Then stopping to get himself set
He steadied the ball, and then kicked it
And landed it right in the net!
The fog seemed to lift at that moment
And all eyes were turned on the lad
The Whippets seemed kind of dumbfounded
While the Swifts started cheering like mad!
'Twere his own goal as he’d kicked the ball through
He’d scored for his foes ‘gainst his friends
For he’d slept through the referee’s whistle
And at half time he hadn’t changed ends!
Joe was transferred from the West Wigan Whippets
To the Todmorden Swifts, where you’ll see
Still minding the clothes for the others
And chucking clods at referee!
James Lee Jobe |
Charlie, sunrise is a three-legged mongrel dog,
going deaf, already blind in one eye,
answering to the unlikely name, 'Lucky.
The sky, at gray-blue dawn, is a football field painted
by smiling artists.
Each artist has 3 arms, 3 hands, 3 legs.
One leg drags behind, leaving a trail, leaving a mark.
The future resembles a cloudy dream
where the ghosts of all your life
try to tell you something, but what?
Noon is a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Midnight is an ugly chipped plate
that you only use when you are alone.
Sunset is a wise cat who ignores you
even when you are offering food; her conception
of what life is, or isn't, far exceeds our own.
This moment is a desert at midnight,
the hunting moon is full, and owls
fly through a cloudless sky.
The past is a winding, green river valley
deep between pine covered ridges;
what can you make of that?
Night is a secret plant growing inky black against the sky.
When this plant's life is over, then day returns
like a drunken husband who stayed out until breakfast.
A smile is a quick glimpse at the pretty face of hope.
Hope's face is framed by the beautiful night sky.
Hope's face is framed by the gray-blue dawn.
This is your life, these seconds and years
are the music for your only dance.
This is the eternity that you get to know.