How wonderfully it was all arranged that each
Of us had not too long to live. This is one
Of the main snags—the shortness of the day.
The whole wood was whispering, “Dash it, dash it….”
What joy—to walk along that path! The snow
Was so fragrant in the sun! What a fish!
Whenever I think of death, the same stupid
Question arises: “What’s to be done?”
As for myself, I can only speak of what
Made me marvel when I saw it for the first time.
I remember my own youth when I was in love.
I remember a puddle rippling, the insects aroused.
I remember our own springtime when my lady told me:
You have taken my best. And then I remember
How many evenings I have waited, how much
I have been through for this one evening on earth.
At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.
There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.
—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.
Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.
And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land
I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—
Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
Ode to the Republic
It’s going to be so great when America is just a second fiddle
and we stand on the sidelines and watch the big boys slug it out.
Old men reading the Times on benches in Central Park
will smile and say, “Let Brazil take care of it.”
Farmers in South Carolina will have bumper stickers that read
“One nation, with vegetables for all” and “USA:
Numero Uno for grade A tomatoes!”
America, you big scary baby, didn’t you know
when you pounded your chest like that in public
it just embarrassed us?
When you lied to yourself on television,
we looked down at our feet;
When your left hand turned into a claw,
when you hammered the little country down
and chanted the pledge of allegiance,
I put on my new sunglasses
and stared at the church across the street.
I thought I had to go down with you,
hating myself in red white and blue
learning to say “I’m sorry,” in more and more foreign languages.
But now at last the end of our dynasty has arrived,
and I feel humble and calm and curiously free.
It’s so good to be unimportant.
It’s so nice to sit on the shore of the Potomac
and watch Time take back half of everything.
It’s a relief to take the dog for a walk
without body armor and stun guns, without frightening the neighbors.
My country, ‘tis of thee I sing:
There are worse things than being
minor player, ex-bigshot, former VIP, drinking decaf
in the nursing home for downsized superpowers.
Like a Navajo wearing a cowboy hat, may you learn
to handle history ironically.
May you look into the mirror and see your doubleness—old blue eyes
in a brown face.
May your women finally lay down
the law: No more war on a school night.
May your shame at failing be cushioned by the oldest kind of chemotherapy:
stage after stage of acceptance.
May someone learn to love you again.
May you sit on the porch with the other countries
in the late afternoon,
and talk about chickens and rain.
Orders from the Invisible
Insert coins. Mind the gap. Do not disturb
hung from the doorknob of a hotel room,
where a man begged to die entwined in my arms.
He once wrote
he’d take the third rail in his teeth, which is how
loving him turned out.
The airport’s glass world
glided me gone from him, and the sky I flew into
grew a pearly cataract through which God
lost sight of us. The moving walk
is nearing its end.
The diner jukebox says, Choose
again, and the waitress hollers over,
“All them soul songs got broke.”
She speaks from the cook’s window, steam
smearing her face of all feature.
The tongue is a form of fire, the Bible says,
and in the computer’s unstarred blue
the man’s brutal missives drag me along by my throat.
Press yes to erase.
Like a net my fingers skim
tap water, cleaning mung bean sprouts
the way you showed me.
From my palm I find the whole
ones, fetal curvatures with scalps
blossoming on tiny yellowed skulls.
My nail bisects the vertebrae
from primordial tail, roots
cast away in the sink.
Though I never learned
the purpose, it’s a habit that reminds me
of a time you let me in.
A Happy Birthday
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs –
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Taking a Walk with You
lacking the wit and depth
that inform our dreams’
through which we walk
is no less beautiful for being only what it seems.
rising from the dyed
pool of its shade,
the tree we lean against
was never made to stand
for something else,
let alone ourselves.
nor were these fields
and gullies planned
with us in mind.
we live unsettled lives
and stay in a place
only long enough to find
we don’t belong.
even the clouds, forming
are cloudy without
resembling us, and, storming
the vacant air,
don’t take into account
our present loneliness.
and yet, why should we care?
already we are walking off
as if to say,
we are not here,
we’ve always been away.