Personal webpages are self-indulgent by definition. And so, some poems:
The runes I cast:
scattered stones telling the story and future
of my scattered life.
Above the clouds the sky is blue, they say.
Don’t listen to them,
or at least put them to one side,
and let the rain fall.
The end of a maple leaf is more beautiful that that of a nail.
But it is the nail that holds our houses together.
The wheel touches the road only an instant before going on.
It is the not touching that makes it useful.
How long is the road home?
How many years have you walked it?
“If you lived here, you’d be home now.”
Make the road your home.
These old eyes can’t always read distant signs.
I guess their meanings from the shapes and lengths of the words,
not knowing if I’m right till I’m quite near
If I’m wrong, then I’m lost - -
Well, lost isn’t such a bad thing.
The cold metal rails cut the curving land.
The dead wooden ties press down the soft dirt.
The spat-out smoke blackens the sky.
But oh, the journey!
Rough rubs smooth with time.
Grey soft stone walls in the woods
were rocks dragged with curses
out of fields being cleared.
Beauty from tired muscles and frustration.
Rough rubs smooth with time.
They meant to make them straight,
piling stone upon stone to make borders and field edges.
But nature always wins.
Time and wind and frost and the passage of deer
greyed the granite
cracked the stones
cast them down from place to place,
squiggling the straight
which, even when new-built
rose and fell as it crossed hills and valleys.
Today’s clouds will tonight cover the stars.
But if one should shine through a wind-torn hole
how beautifully it will shine!
Even though the hedge would be easy enough to push through,
the gateway, with white posts and grey lattice sides, is beautiful,
and is used out of courtesy.
Each time we draw on our past
we overwrite it with the present,
and each recalling
both destruction and recreation.
(for such I have held you,
thus held you in my heart,
rolling our enmity over and over with love,
savoring its taste):
I set you free.
I release you from the bonds I formed to tie you to me.
(for such I must now hold you):
I set myself free.
I release myself from the bonds I formed to tie you to myself.
No longer will I hold any enmity toward you in my heart.
I confess; it was sweet.
I give it up now for the sweetness of forgetting our opposition.
My beloved enemy, I greet you as friend.
Waiting long years for my life to begin,
and me all the while living it.
Grey sky, grey sea,
join without seam.
Wind-blown pine needles
left behind after a storm
fall on me like rain.
The sun going down
casts pine-shadows on the lake.
Listen: the loon calls!
Rain on my windshield
swept away by the wipers
falls a second time.
Framed by my window
the evening sky has eyebrows:
two white pine branches.
Poetry is in the thing observed,
not in the poet,
who writes it down.
The hard part of poetry is the seeing;
the words, like Jill, come tumbling after.
The birds’ songs sound confused in the false dawn,
but the sun still understands them,
Being a child of culture more than nature,
the flow I strive to become one with
is rush-hour traffic.
All the room
you will ever need
is the inside of an acorn
rotting under a tree.
I saw a wonder today:
fire riding water,
speaking across a valley
from ridge to ridge.
So much to pay
for this morning sun:
one less day.
My poems are single sentences:
full stop, and nothing more.
When a poem gets longer
than one sentence,
I don't know when to stop.
A flower, however small,
can have its beauty;
a poem, however short,
A one sentence poem
is still a gift,
even though small.
I could always say
that they're unravelled haikus:
these one-sentence poems.
Snow, sleet, rain:
They call it “precipitation,”
as if they do not know what it is.
I know it.
It fell on me this morning:
Snow, sleet, rain.
in late March
melts as it touches the ground,
Red leaves sigal the end of summer
The first snow winter's beginning
There is neither beginning nor end to spring.
Spring rains are cheeery,
feeding earth and hope.
"April showers bring May flowers,"
the saying goes.
Fall rains feed despair,
the grey sky promising only coming cold.
Both are heralds of the coming season,
telling us more of what to come than what is.
Outside my home prophetic rain is falling.
The peepers had told me spring had come.
Why then this cold rain
this late April morning?
This warm rain
must be pleasing to you,
flowers of spring.
So many of them
the snowflakes which had fallen –
where are they now?
New birds are seen -- the same ones every year,
the robin with blazing breast.
New flowers are seen -- the same ones every year,
the daffodil with blazing blossoms.
A new Spring appears -- the same one every year,
the Sun blazing higher in the sky,
the warmth burning in our bones.
The river is dark and turbulent,
roiling from snow melt,
which I walked across dryshod,
from rock to rock, last summer.
Grey clouds in summer
hiding the sun, pouring rain
are tearing at my heart.
Crows among the pines
are laughing at the setting
of late summer's sun.
Summer is dying,
A fall-flamed maple:
my heart cries,
"Not yet, not yet."
No one ever sees
the last robin of fall.
Cool is the weather,
and shorter the days;
dark descends earlier
and earlier each night.
It is the year's setting;
the warmth we find in the sun
only a hint, a memory,
of what has gone before.
And yet, and yet, the fields are ablaze
with grain and pumpkins;
the apples shine, red and gold,
from the trees,
the maples, the birches,
burn, struck with the sun.
There is warmth from them still,
and fire, enough to last
through the cold times to come.
We will keep it in our hearts
in winter's nights;
as we sit close to the hearth
we will remember these things,
looking forward, to light's return
in spring's unconquered glory.
I’d thought the mewing gulls sounded perfect on the summer’s beach,
but in the leaf-carrying wind I realize I was wrong.
The maple leaves
are a blanket of fire,
to keep the ground warm
through the winter.
I heard geese today,
flying, mourning summer's end,
fall's feathered heralds.
The geese are flying
over the maples
which I wish to praise.
With each leaf fallen,
slipping calmly, self-willed,
or wind-torn, forcefully,
more of you is revealed,
no longer blending, one into another,
with the surrounding trees,
Now you are shown as you are,
the framework beneath the leaf-skin,
the growth of years behind a summer's production,
truth without decoration,
the pattern gives form to the leaves.
Winter snow to give water for summer.
Spring’s showers to help them become plants.
Summer’s rains to continue the plant’s growth.
Why this fall storm, if not the world mourning its losses?
The geese are in motion.
The trees are bare.
Death is all around, and it’s so cold.
It gets dark early;
I climb out of bed into it each morning
and drive home from work in it each evening.
The gray sky never brightens,
the grass which cushioned my bare feet in the summer
cracks brittle under my shoes.
The world is harsh,
one minute withholding itself,
the next striking with more cold:
Nothing makes sense.
Summer’s soft beauty is gone,
Winter’s crystal beauty not yet come:
and I see no beauty here.
People are meant for light,
and home, and warmth,
so no one would think worse of me if that’s what I prayed for.
But then the thought comes that between beauty and beauty there should still be beauty,
that this time of locking up for winter must have beauty,
even if I don’t see it,
a fierce beauty,
a beauty of emptiness.
Empty of summer and winter, and fall’s produce, and spring's promise,
this time strikes without pity
and won’t help me understand.
Unless in between summer and winter spirits, and after the autumn spirits,
there are spirits of empty, dark, and cold.
Perhaps they are themselves cold and dark and empty.
Perhaps offerings would not fill their emptiness.
They are just who they are.
If I wish to understand them I will have to stop trying to fill the emptiness
to light the darkness
to warm the cold.
They come on their own terms or not at all.
I stand in the empty, cold dark and wait for them,
empty, cold, and dark:
May they come and fill my emptiness with theirs.
The first snow's flakes
brush my face as I walk:
they dance together with my heart.
and coming the cold.
They say light and warmth return,
but how hard the believing
in the night.
Yule, and from the suddenly illuminated houses
the ringing of bells
and the singing of people
and the spreading glow of lights (flame and electricity),
push the cold back into its emptiness,
leaving the only darkness
the shadow cast by light.
Go light fires on hill tops high,
or if there are no hills around,
light fires on the holy hearth,
or if there is no hearth in home,
then candles on your countertops,
and if no candles, nor countertops
go out and watch the fair stars burn.
Even so, let flame fill the night,
through this night may fires be seen;
let flame, let flame, let lovely flame,
let living flames burn to celebrate Yule.
All through the longest night my heart struggles to believe in light’s return,
and perhaps by dawn has succeeded.
Science says that cold isn’t actually a thing,
but my body disagrees,
going out the door,
this December evening.
Snow flies around me,
blown in the winter night’s wind.
Man, it’s friggin’ cold!
The spruce’s boughs
are a roof
thatched with snow.
From distant houses
there are lights shining on me
alone in the snow.
Snow softens the blow of winter’s hammer,
beauty payment for death.
Clouds which fall,
onto my lawn,
don’t last much longer
than they would have if they had stayed
in the sky.
The spirits of snow riding,
flakes to the waiting earth.
My feet leave prints in the snow
which will be melted by tomorrow noon.
This winter snowfall
that covers the dried-up plants
is the sap of spring.
The leaves we loved all summer
had hidden the shattering beauty of the branches.
Trees without leaves aren’t dead skeletons
but the trees’ truth,
Leaves move with the wind.
Bare branches move on their own,
dancing with the grey sky.
The trees kindly bare their branches
so winter’s weak sun can shine through.
Pray with me, wind-stripped trees,
raising your branches with me,
traced against the darkening sky:
speak with me of winter.
The trees have withdrawn from each other
their interlocking leaves
and stand, stripped,
against the evening sky.
In my little boat floating on the pond,
the hot air cooling with the sunset:
Listen! A loon greets the night!
They were used for masts,
these white pine trees,
Now they stand rooted
and it is my mind they propel
across the great sea.
It I should come upon Thee unawares,
bathing in Thy pool, O Goddess,
Do not treat me roughly.
I am no impious Actaeon,
come to ravish.
Thy nymphs may keep their innocence
and Thy sanctity remain unstained.
It is for Your presence I am thirsting,
come from the great desert.
And if Your hand will not be stayed,
I am still content.
It is enough to have felt Your touch
and to be taken in by You at last.
"The show must go on" --
and so it will
even if some actors must leave the stage
I know many things --
there, I have said it.
Let those who wish call me arrogant;
it is a hard-earned prize, paid for dearly,
of which I am proud.
But when I am among those
who gather at parties, making pleasant conversation
who pass each other on the streets, with friendly greeting
who at concerts sing along freely, and sway with their hands upraised,
the energy coursing and tingling inside,
then I envy those who know the ways,
kept secret from me,
who watches without.
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow ...
a tale told by an idiot."
And so we sink into the sun
looking for light,
looking for the source.
But like Gollum under the mountain
we find there are no roots,
no roots worth seeking:
My youth is
turned to leaves,
on that wind
which doesn't die.
I'm losing weight as I grow older,
not on my waist, but on my head,
each day less hair.
The sea wind blew her words away,
on the beach that afternoon,
and all that was heard was wind and wave,
and weed, and shell, and dune,
as the sea gull etched against the sky
the sea foam's cryptic rune.
“Do you want fries with that?” is not a shameful thing to say,
nor a job behind a desk something necessarily to be proud of.
Better good food, delivered with energy,
and a concern to earn one’s way,
than a poorly-executed business deal,
or, come to that, a poorly-written book,
no matter how profitable or famous.
(The next two poems were written when I was in college and in Air Force ROTC)
War Poem I
In the beginning was the war.
And we fought to end wars
And we killed to save the world.
The war ended
and in time begat a son,
whose whose face was grey,
the grey of mud and death,
whose name was "war."
So once again we fought.
And, when at last it was won,
we joined together to stop all wars,
to form "one brotherhood of man."
Oh, wars were started still
but the brotherhood stopped them,
as a mother might end a game,
by sending the children to bed.
But they were not finished,
and the hate they bred lives on.
And so we wait, we who fly,
the warriors of our age.
For once again to mount our steeds
and leap, screaming, into the sky.
We go forth not as those of old
who fought with honor those like themselves:
we kill the women, and the children, and the old men,
hiding in a shelter, waiting.
We will survive:
no noble death in battle for us.
We will return in victory,
as befits the warrior,
thinking of our families,
thinking of glory which we have not earned.
But we will have forgotten:
that as we killed, so did others:
we will be met by burning earth.
Someday, perhaps, we will meet them,
those who killed our wives, our lives.
We will ready our weapons,
poise for the kill,
and stop --
knowing that we share
with these our fellow warriors
that which all men share,
that which all men takes,
that one end of all our dreams,
For we are the Death-Makers,
and this is our lot --
to live when all we love is dead,
destroyed by our own hand.
War Poem II: A Composition in Three Parts
Dragons are there still,
but the swords are all gone:
where valor once sufficed
we use missles now,
Yet where valor won,
over us the dragons fly.
Was it ever true,
was honor found,
withing this game of death.
Did we ever see nobility
in this game of gross absurdity,
that leads the youth to waste their lives
on the dreams of elder statesmen?
Youth wants not war:
it wants to laugh.
Youth wants not war:
it wants to love.
But the tune is called
and down we go,
into the night.
A woman in red
standing on a chariot,
"This thing you do
will end in death."
But still I live
following the tracks
knowing the end
which I did not need to hear
Standing on the border of a land
to which I am not native born
defending a people my adopted own
ford after ford
fight after fight
against friends for foes with whom I was born
blood flowling freely.
(I heard the first sentence of this poem over the PA at a mall.)
A little lost boy in a black leather jacket
has been found by the fountain in the center of the mall.
He just stayed behind, for a moment, to watch
the water go up and the water come down.
He stopped there to watch, for a moment (that’s all),
but a moment’s enough for your parents to go.
And they did, while he stayed and the water went up
and he stayed a while more, while the water came down,
and he turned to say, “Look! See what I’ve found!”
But no one was there --at least no one he knew.
So the little lost boy in the black leather jacket
asked the man in the booth to send out a call
that a little lost boy in a black leather jacket
could be found by the fountain in the center of the mall.
Cabbages, with kings, too
I met a man on a wasteland plain
and asked him what he knew.
But all he did was sit and smile
and gaze with fixéd view.
I asked of him what he could tell
of days and men of old.
And sadly now he seemed to smile:
he spoke, and this he told:
Of days, of nights, of things long dead,
of long forgotten songs,
of men who thought to save the world,
of never-righted wrongs.
He seemed to speak most urgent then,
and in his eyes I saw
that this one had betrayed a dream
that at his soul did gnaw.
I left him there, upon his plain,
and slowly walked away
and never asked again of man
what makes so long the day.
To see a captive goddess stand
in chains and bound must make one weep.
And I must cry to see such waste,
and say goodbye, and leave in haste,
the rock that is but sand.
The man has taken off the mask
but slips another in its place.
We only for a moment see
what truth, if any, on his face.
If life's a never ending race,
I'm quickly tiring of the pace.
I look off cliffs, and think to fly,
or maybe jump, and maybe die.
I dared to love a goddess,
and this is my reward:
not that of a wizard with magical sword,
not that of a ruler upon a high throne,
but that of a fool, walking alone.
The wind’s roaring across the ocean in a storm
are words in a language I don’t speak,
a song’s notes I can’t reach.
Watching giraffes flow effortlessly across the savannah
I envy the smooth, uninterrupted motion,
while I fall and catch myself,
that old biped gait.
The eagle of Dyḗus Ptḗr
soars under his eye
which glints on him
as it does on us all.
I quoting one's own words
shows poverty of mind,
who makes self-reference?
We read of his wanderings and pity Ulysses.
But sometimes the road is so straight
that what I wouldn't give for a Scylla or two,
or a Cyclopes to outwit,
or a Siren to sail past,
singing secret songs.
What a trick!
A wooden horse.
What a trick!
A non-one's name.
What a trick!
Ten years lost.
I tried to avoid it,
I did, I admit it,
reluctant to leave my wife
to recover another’s,
a fool who did not know better
than to marry for beauty.
You never touched him, did you Goddess,
with the slightest of fingertip brushes:
certainly he never looked into those grey eyes,
to see you, or anything, clearly.
But even I, with your many blessings
could not devise some clever words
with which to escape the ones I had spoken in oath.
There’s a story I’ve been told,
that Helen herself stayed in Egypt;
that a phantom went to Troy in her place;
that my comrades and I fought, and wandered, and died,
for an untruth.
Well, men die for less.
I’m not sure I wanted her at all.
Anyway, Penelope was there after the choice,
to be the dream of campaign nights’ sleep,
an image on the waves when I woke.
Let Menelaus have her.
I hope she will make him happy,
the ungrateful bride for whom Troy burned;
for whom blood flowed through the streets that night,
that terror-filled night when we ran from house to house
with torch and sword,
seeking our own booty while we sought for his,
all of it lost before I reached home.
Yet there she was,
the treasure for whom I had fought
and wandered, lost,
over wine-dark seas.
Hard to blame him for wanting her;
Aphrodite had promised her to him,
And who can stand in the way of a goddess?
And why should I care whose bed she warms:
let the slut sleep where she wants.
But there was this oath thing.
The craftiest man cannot escape his words’ traps.
He had been Menelaus’ guest,
and stole that which was his host’s.
At that violation of Zeus’s Law we all shudder,
and it is for that violation that Troy must fall,
obedient to the Thunderer’s Law, and to the demands of Fate.
He deserved what he got,
not knowing enough
not to steal from his host.
Zeus's law is not to be broken,
and his judgment is sure.
If I were a subject of Troy, though,
I would have wondered what I had done
to bring upon me the armies of Greece
and fire in the night.
My spear arm an instrument of Fate:
My strength in the service of the King of the Gods:
what a thing!
And here I thought I was just a man.
Now I find myself an instrument of the divine:
who’d have thought it!
Me, embodying Eternal Law.
And all I have to do is kill and burn:
What a petulant child!
A good warrior, I will give him that,
but how we laughed at him behind his back,
Akhilles, raised among women.
But how good a warrior was he, really?
Anyone can rush in among spears he knows cannot pierce him.
We sang in the camps at night the feats of the day,
rehearsing for Homer his long-told tales.
And each day we danced in the battle steps of future days to come,
when our fame, imperishable, would guide the feet of future men,
These our songs, these our dances, we left for you,
these our tales for you, these our lives.
Your voice, Akhilles, was clear
as sword on sword, ringing around the fire.
Mine, I fear, was like a shield dropped
on hard ground, a thud and a clang.
But stories -- that's where I had you,
Killer of Hektor.
They poured out of my mouth from my treasure-store mind.
Don't worry, though, hero, some will be of you
in the days of peace.
Your fame will be imperishable, just like you wanted,
secured by wit and words
as it was by sharpened blade.
Those who mocked my cleverness, calling it cowardice,
were happy enough to hide in a horse's belly
outside the walls their bravery had not breached in ten years' fighting.
Who, then, defeated the forces of Troy?
Who brought, at last, an end to a blood-filled decade?
A clever mind is sharp as bronze
and no shield may deflect it.
I could hold my place in the battle line
when we fought before the ships
when the Trojans attacked at night.
Oh, I knew a strategem when I saw one!
With spear and sword, bronze ringing on bronze,
I drove the foe back.
I could stand upright, head high,
among the warriors,
my skill undoubted.
Which of them could stand with me in cleverness?
They but followed the gods' commands:
I outwitted even their sons.
The robbers deplored the thief
who stole glory from them with guile.
It mattered to him, of course,
and who could deny that it was a good show,
the riders trooping round and round,
the torches carried in the dark,
the cattle and captives tossed on the flames,
at last quenched by costly wine and sweet.
A good show, I said,
but for whom did petulant Achilles mourn?
His dead friend or his endangered reputation?
Agamemnon was a monster,
killer of his daughter,
Ajax a fool, made mad by pride,
Achilles a spoiled child, pouting in his tent,
and I a master deceiver.
How could such as we bring noble Priam down?
Without Achilles Troy could not be defeated,
and so I lied.
Without Philoctetes and his bow Ilium’s topless towers would not fall,
and so I lied again.
Without a stratagem we could never have passed the gates in the high wall,
and so with a Greek-bearing gift I lied yet again.
The success of the warrior troop was based on my lies;
without deception they would never have won through.
They needed my lies, all those bronze-weaponed heroes.
Why then do I wander,
with them already safely home?
How happy they were to see us gone!
Even hidden away,
wooden walls between us and them,
we could hear the songs.
Too happy, they, to listen to a nay-sayer's words:
even without Apollo's curse they would have refused her.
So, still rejoicing, they broke down those walls
that had defied our attempts after such long years.
Doing our job for us, they rolled us in,
and brought upon themselves the flames that night.
Thus does ignorant and self-willed delusion bring us our deaths.
The god-fueled flame that shadowed the walls
the night we took the towered city:
on Whose altar was it lit,
to Whom the sacrifice offered,
of those opposed us?
Who was satisfied with the offering we made,
and Who unappeased,
against Whom blasphemed;
who to bless us and who to curse?
To Whom must I now light an altar, then,
and burn the sacrificial beast,
to bring my ships safely home?
Crafty Odysseus had nothing to set against the scheming god but his wits.
And the wits of the most crafty of men were barely enough to save himself;
certainly not enough to save those around him, who went to their deaths in his adventures.
Each night around the fire, or dozing at their oars, did none of them ever look around at the dwindling company and think, “I’m next?”
Did none ever think, “It’s Odysseus Poseidon hates; let the god take him – it would need just a small push to topple him into his wine-dark sea.”
The tales don’t tell us whether they did, but then tales are like that.
But I would be surprised if they had. How could they?
A group of men, at sea, wandering, homeless – they were each others’ homes.
You might as well expect someone to sacrifice their child to save themselves.
And most of them all, Odysseus knew this. Each night, awake long after all but the watch were asleep,
each time he took his turn at the oars, or looked to see what lay between himself and the horizon,
he must surely have thought of it.
He must surely have been rolling it over and over with the waves.
He must surely have been thinking, “It’s me he wants. I would let them go if they would let me go. Their love will kill them.”
Crafty Odysseus in his boat, whose desperation grew as the company dwindled,
and the oars sang in their locks, and the ropes groaned in the wind, and the water slapped against the hull, and the spray dried on his salted skin,
piled scheme upon scheme to bring them harbor-safe
and marveled at the craftiness of the Shaker of Worlds,
outwitting him cruelly.
The victim, it seems,
that the gods prefer,
is man himself,
and demand them each day
as my comrades dwindle.
"Wandering" is an unfair name for it,
my labyrinthine journey home,
from island to island, blown by unlucky winds,
washed by waves sent by the blue-maned lord.
"Wandering?" No, that would grant me too much thought,
too much will
of one who could choose not to travel in a straight line.
Not wandering, not traveling directly home,
I journey aimlessly,
for surely the aims of those who befuddle my way
were long ago spent.
I wasn't lost, I was delayed;
each time I set for home I was driven astray.
Always knowing the way,
my hulls were blocked,
my sails gone limp,
or blown by storms to unintended ports.
Each step homeward thrust aside,
as my men slowly died
and I died anew with each new death.
Against wave and wind I’ve turned my face
and set arms to oar, hands chafing on rough wood
before use wore them smooth.
Through sheets and curtains of rain lit by Zeus’s falling fire
I’ve sailed and adventured till time and toil have worn smooth my jagged heart.
I have sung and prayed, braying my life into the gale,
all the tales that forged my soul’s shape,
the journey in the end wearing my name smooth:
I can no longer tell you what it was,
so changed am I by seat and storm,
all I was worn smooth.
How pretty the stars
in the Mediterranean night.
How pretty they must be
in an Ithakan sky.
I sleep on the oar bench,
my dreams woven at night
unravelled in the day.
A fire-hardened shaft was all I needed
to defeat old Wheel-Eyed Polyphemus:
a rude weapon perfect for a rude host,
a primitive bane for a primitive mind.
No smith-worked bronze:
wood we good enough for him,
destroyer of guests.
Death was too good for him,
so I condemned him to live without light
that he had already refused.
What a trick you played on old Wheel-Eye,
robbing him of sight with a thrust of the hardened wood shaft.
Clever man, a clever ploy.
Only No One left to bear the tale.
What a joke!
What a jest!
"No man has blinded me!"
What an epitaph
for men devoured.
When I said I was “No One,”
my shipmates laughed at the joke I had played
on the inhospitable giant who had demanded dinner of his guests.
The joke was on me, though,
lost in the captain of warriors and sailors I had become.
Now bereft of men I am shorn of name as well:
my wife was right not to have known me,
her long-dead husband, gone with my men to that other world,
the captain with no ship with which to go down
into the unmarked ocean grave
reserved for unnamed me.
You won't see Ithaka
until all your ships are flotsam,
broken to matchsticks;
until all your comrades are dead,
who stood with you before the walls on the plains of Troy,
until the sea spews you up naked on a foreign shore
bereft of all but your treasured wit.
Where did it get them?
It will get you home.
It doesn't do much good
to make friends with the Winds
if your crew is too foolish
to let this gift alone.
It was they, in the end, I suppose,
who sealed their own fate,
slaughtering the cattle of swift-running Helios
while I dreamt in accurséd sleep;
their deeds, their hands, that brought them down.
So much I had done, and all for naught
their own sins damning them.
But I was their commander,
I was their chief,
I the king on whom glory is heaped:
on me must all condemnation be laid as well.
My rescue must not be counted as success.
I only wanted to sleep,
but a commander must never sleep
or lose his command.
Happy those who died in battle,
spear in hand:
a glorious death,
not to end up in a giant’s belly
or that of a she-monster guarding the straits
or consumed by fish, their ships battered.
Lucky those who did not set sail
with hopes of home,
never to be reached,
I was tossed up naked on a sandy shore
to be discovered by a king’s daughter and her maidens,
come to wash.
Naked, bereft, alone --
nothing left that I took to Troy
and nothing taken from it.
Just myself, as if that was all,
as if I should be grateful that I didn’t have to pay with life too.
But grey-eyed maiden, why did they have to pay?
You who see all, why couldn’t you have seen them,
and stopped them
before they committed blasphemy.
They were hungry sailors
and you cursed them for a sin you could have prevented.
Is it so much pleasure to punish,
more than to prevent?
For as long as I live I must see the Sun,
and remember my men whose death it proclaimed,
the final god whose hatred brought me here,
who beats down on my salt-caked skin
while I lie here on the sand,
naked, bereft, alone,
with all of them gone.
Human flotsam from a storm-smashed ship
lies washed up, naked, on the shore,
all that is left of a dozen crews,
all that is won by ten years' journey.
They would have died right there,
eaten by a giant
(as some of their number were)
if not for your craftiness,
But they died anyway,
on Circe's island,
or torn away by Scylla,
or in that final storm when they thought themselves home at last.
How few reach their final goal?
How many grow old, dozing at their hearth?
And those who do, what have they lost,
what has died to them,
what in them,
who for them?
Success was return to Ithaka:
was it worth the death of friends?
Next to pass were Scylla and Charybdis,
death-dealing guardians of the sea’s passage.
The one a monster, Lamia’s spawn,
whose triple-toothed jaws were eager to feast
on those who drew too near;
the other Charybdis, the whirlpool
which sucked down ships which came too close:
their fame so widespread, their danger so great,
that people would say “between Scylla and Charybdis”
when they wished to speak of a choice to be made
between two things, each too much to bear.
And this was what lay before Odysseus and his crews.
And the clever man, goddess-protected,
who sat in the stern, guiding the fleet wisely,
was left to decide, his men looking to him,
which danger to choose:
Whether, trusting to skill of sail and oar,
and a momentary lapse of the World-Shaker’s notice,
or a sudden release of the hate he held,
they could make their way through Charybdis’ pull.
Or whether to challenge the man-eating monster
whose jaws closed tight on those who dared pass.
And so, knowing the hate of the Lord of the Sea,
he chose certain death for some
over possible destruction for all.
And Scylla struck, and drew Odysseus’ men
into her open maw,
devouring all, leaving behind
not even their white bones to be gathered
and reverently laid in their family tombs.
And the ships sailed on, with frantic rowing,
to escape the passage before the monster,
could strike again.
And reaching calm water, the men carried on
alive and grieving,
their deaths postponed,
if only for a while,
their lives prolonged,
if only for a time,
their fates still certain on their voyage home.
Between Scylla and Charybdis was no proverb, let me tell you,
when I came to that choice,
when the screams of my men rent the sky.
Some for the rest was the bargain I made.
Useless: only one returned.
My dog knew me,
hidden and disguised,
by my protecting goddess,
an old man in rags,
when I finally returned
to Ithaka my home.
And old I felt,
not overlaid with illusion,
from all my journey
and all that had happened
and all who were not there
to share the moment.
With grateful heart I offered up
with my loyal servant
to the Immortal gods,
the smoke rising
from the splanchna on the fire.
Sweet smell, sweet moment,
to an aged mind,
in too-soon-aged flesh.
Reaving suitors, you sit bloated, in Penelope’s hall,
preying on the wealth of her missing lord,
seeking unlawful marriage to an unwidowed wife.
Enjoy your feasting, wolves in Ithaka:
the time will come for arrow and sword.
Does the wine taste sweet?
Blood will be sweeter still.
There at the altar I prayed
for strength for the task to come,
for the strength I would need,
for the wits I had known
and had been known for,
and the goddess provided,
and I went to the hall.
When my bow rang in the hall,
its arrows piercing the inhospitable guests
who had so unwelcomely pressed upon my wife and son,
I sang with it a battle song,
learned on the plains that ring about Troy.
That bow was mine; one only I could draw,
and that blood was theirs, which only they would shed,
the only blood shed in the hall that day
as I cut them down like wheat
with my harvesting sickle arrows.
My arms were strong then, and I used them well,
meting out punishment on those who had stayed behind:
one last glorious deed, even if performed against boorish cowards.
And my battle rage frightened my faithful wife
until I calmed her fears with my intimate knowledge of our marital bed.
The blood still stains the hall which I hallowed that day
to Zeus, protector of strangers;
I who had come as a stranger to my own home,
to know and be known again,
wonderously changed, but still old Odysseus.
My dog knew me, and my bow as well,
as I claimed again my rightful place
with the thrilling of arrows and the sound of the string,
my instruments to accompany battle deeds
which would one day be sung by a poet who was blind,
who saw them well,
who knew the truth of my fight that day
with arrows, with bow, against human targets
become sacrificial sheep.
They wanted me, they or their fathers,
to marry them, or at least just to stay --
Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa.
I had a wife though, and the wandering was my return to her;
to Penelope, my Ithaka, my home;
she waiting, I wandering,
Why did you keep going Wanderer?
The lotuses were sweet.
Circe begged you to stay.
I'm sure Alcinous' daughters would have welcomed the presence
of the naked man they'd found washed up on the beach.
"While my ships wove their net between isands,
and futilely undid it again,
she wove her tapestry each day,
and each night picked it apart with flying fingers.
I wove desperately, hope dying,
she unwove desperatey, keeping faith:
How could I not hurry home,
how not hunger to see her again
to touch those hands tired with weaving and unweaving,
to mine, hardened by oar and rope?"
When Odysseus returned,
after ten years of war,
and ten years more of wandering,
his own wife didn't know him.
"Prove it," she said;
"Prove to me you are my own dear husband."
"In twenty years gone,
our marriage bed never moved."
With opened eyes she kissed him home.
Almost half of our lives had been spent apart
before we could once more laugh at night
as we lay together in bed,
learning again each other’s ways,
knowing each other anew just as we were new.
Fingers interlaced we seek in each other’s gaze
what each has lost,
looking to cross the time alone
to trace the threads of our weaving and unweaving.
It was best, I think, for my war-bought wealth
to go beneath the waves to sea-bottom rest,
to enrich the god who shakes the earth,
an unintended offering.
My loss brought home to me
the true gain to be won for my return:
a faithful wife, weaver and unweaver
of men’s destines.
She would never boast, as Arachne did,
that her weaving surpassed your own,
Yet I hesitatingly praise her skillful unweaving
that saved us both.
The nights were long for her in bed alone,
or seated at the loom picking out threads,
and the days long too as she sat in the hall,
a noble queen, hospitable as I would have been,
even to guests who, Cyclopes-like, gorged themselves,
lusting for her,
and for the throne they would win by wedding Ithaka’s queen.
A clever wife I had to hold them off,
keeping faith for twenty years that I would return,
even the days dark.
Ah, Penelope, bride of my youth,
we should have had the years together,
drinking from the same cup.
But now we are almost strangers,
all those days dead.
We sit together in the hall, enthroned,
our chairs abutting more than our minds,
separated so long,
me not as faithful as you would have hoped,
you more than I could dream or deserve,
we struggle daily to regain what we had.
But know this, forever-loved,
that I chose you over her, that goddess’s gift,
and would have betrayed my oath for you, if not compelled.
So only smile for me,
only call me your dear Odysseus,
and I will account all those years as nothing.
I lie in the sun
of late afternoon
who killed my men.
With the stars at night,
With the daytime sun,
With the help of encountered strangers,
human and divine,
was I ever lost?
with sun and wave and wind
conspiring against me.
That I even made it home,
alone as I was,
was surely a miracle,
wrought by my goddess.
Surely no human effort could have defeated such foes.
Two grains of incense, then,
on this offering fire:
one in memory of dead comrades
and one for the saving goddess.
Surely neither will be jealous of the other’s gift.
Against the law of the regulating sun
even Athene could not weave a shield to protect
my blaspheming crew,
even for my sake,
for years of love between us.
I admired that crafty one.
But even a goddess is only one,
and even the might of her is not without end.
And so, against Zeus’s brother, World-Shaker,
and the anger of an offended sun,
even my aegis was not enough protection,
even for the loved ones of my loved one.
With breaking heart I watched as they died,
one after another,
crying with my Odysseus.
How quick my mind to devise each day strategems;
How strong my arm to hold a spear,
to man the shield walls about the ships;
How clear my voice to sing in the camps
the heroes' tales:
such life we had then.
Even now my blood burns to remember.
Who could not have loved the song of the wind in the rigging,
the rhythm of the oars
now up, now down,
with splash and wave sweep as its background?
Who could not love the dolphin's leap,
trailing jewel drips in the light?
Who could not love those lost days on the soft sea,
Even so far from home
and wandering from landfall to landfall,
far from home,
who could not have loved that time among war-tested brothers,
muscled backs brown with the sun?
Bliss it was, though empty.
On rough-weathered days, the waves’ percussion against the hull.
With softened breeze, a thrumming of the cables.
When wind-bereft, the drumming of oars against the sea,
and drops falling back from the heights of the strokes.
Ceaseless noise, even when we were not singing against fears and longing,
as if my journey would itself speak to me
who had heard the sirens’ music’s call.
I'll admit it:
when the sea was smooth
and schools of fish shimmered just below the surface
and dolphins sported around our ships,
I was glad to be there,
sailing, with my brothers around me.
Even the rough oars felt good in my hands
as we sang in rhythm
voices joined together to guide the rowing.
It was good to be among such men,
all of them gone.
Come, winds, over white-capped sea,
and blow away the blood that stains my hands
and drips before my eyes when night closes them,
and blow out the flames that rose from the walls
and rise in my mind before dreamless sleep can come,
and blow me home when I am finally clean,
stripped to bleached bone.
to die like that,
falling from Circe's roof,
not to gain the glory of a battle-death,
or at the hands of an angry god,
or even a Cyclops' maw.
He deserved better;
he deserved glory,
he deserved his own song:
he had earned it in Troy's long war many times over,
and in the voyage as well,
his shoulders bent over the oars,
He deserved better:
he deserved a better captain.
So did they all.
A god who hated me
And one who hated them:
when two gods unite in hateful intent,
how can we mortals hope?
Without you, wise Athene,
I could never have come through.
As it was it was a close scrape,
saving only myself.
I don't want to seem ungracious,
or without gratitude,
but couldn't you have helped them too?
Or was the fault mine;
did I sacrifice only on my own behalf,
or on that of my family?
I do not recall.
Missing words can be as dangerous as ill-formed ones.
My grey-eyed goddess was just strong enough to keep me alive
when sun and sea conspired against me.
But those men who sailed with me:
were there no gods with attention to spare
to bring them, too, safely home?
To Athena’s altar I shall guide my flocks;
let those of other gods be as empty
as the homes of those left behind,
their fires as cold.
They were babies, some unborn even, when the ships set out,
carrying their fathers to war.
They cluster about me, asking for tales
of the men who sailed with me, fought with me,
whom they cannot ask for stories;
stories of those left behind before the walls
or on scattered islands
or at the bottom of ther sea,
their bodies rolling like waves.
I could tell them anything and they would believe me.
I tell them what they want to hear;
how each of their fathers was a hero who died with glory,
with laughter half-formed in their mouths.
Do you ask my judgement as I sit in the hall
with my rod of office held in agéd hands?
Listen, then; I shall give you such wisdom as I know:
that a man grown old, his goal attained, is already dead
that a royal crown is not as sweet as hair washed in salt
that my sought-for hearth is my cremation fire, ashes in my mouth
that I would give all of this for a hope unfufilled in a wandering heart.
You have asked, I have answered.
Now go, and leave me here, I who had thought this would be bliss
and who now dwell at night on the frustrated hope
that comes from dreams attained.
I hear this bard trying to tell my story with his plectrum-plucked lyre.
I could show him how to do it right,
with a plectrum oar, and cable strings, and canvas sounding board:
I know the true story.
But I smile as I sit in my chair
and throw coins and award wreaths
for the best lies.
Lies are prettier than truth anyway.
It could be either spear or oar:
either shaft would suit me better
than this sceptre I now hold,
the Liar dispensing justice.
When I sailed for Troy I couldn't have known
that I would be ten years at war.
Nor did I know when I left behind the battle-scarred plain
that I would be ten years more at sea.
And now the years stretch out before me,
their end again unknown.
After so many years asleep
the bitter taste of lotus flowers is all
that remains to comfort my cooling years,
It was my right as captain, I thought, to be the one
who with unstopped ears could listen,
straining against my bonds,
the only one to have heard their song and lived.
Clever me, to have thought of a way.
And now, this night, this day, and all which I am given,
their voices creep through that cleverness
still begging me to come.
My hands were callused from shield and spear,
by swinging of swords,
then by oars' wood covered with salt.
I could have picked up a flaming brand without crying out;
I did it, too, to amuse my men at night.
But now -- the hands of a maiden.
Even the bristles of the boar prick them,
my blood preceding his, the sacrificial victim,
into the oak-fed flames.
Wandering o'er long,
I find the wandering sucked quite into my belly,
and although my longed for home is attained,
I listen still in the quiet nights
for the change of wind, the ebb of tide,
that will give the signal of the proper time for setting out again.
Fearing that unwelcome sound, I gather myself closer to the hearth
and draw from it what warmth might be gained
from its once wildly blazing coals.
Filling my veins with its moving forms,
I set sail again on its living flames.
Hated sea, which kept me so long from home,
from my longed-for wife,
what brings me again and again to your shore,
to gaze across the waves
as if I could see the distant isles of my wanderings,
the waves a galley drum calling me back to the oars.
When I see the port filled with spectral ships
I will board and set sail,
with Hermes for helmsman,
with no other oars than my own.
To hear the Sirens' song
was almost worth the wandering.
I know I shall hear it again,
when the cattle-thief plays it ahead of me
on Leto's son's borrowed lyre,
leading me down the road.
A winnowing fan, they will say,
of my unknown oar,
no ship in sight to tempt or taunt me.
And so far from the sea I will lie down at last,
and die shipless on shore.
After all the years I've spent at sea,
how odd it will be to die on land,
my ashes laid in some old tomb
to be remembered there, so far from waves.
But my soul will rise on the pyre's smoke
to sail with the stars in their unending round
to wander again, without goal or home,
away from that so dearly found.
As lost on land as I was at sea,
I find the harbor prepared for me,
and laying down my winnowing oar,
sea-released, far from shore,
I find at last my final rest.
Remember this when you dream to set out like Odysseus,
it wasn't his idea.
He was god-driven.
Do not go unless you have a god at your back,
nipping at your heels.
Of the ship's company that set out for Troy,
only one (damn him!) returned.
Some fell in battle.
Some monsters killed.
Some were drowned by the Earth-shaking Lord of Waves.
Most died nameless, cheated of the immortal fame they had sought.
But I am Elpenor: I fell off Circe's roof, an inglorious death.
But you know my name.
She mourned, Persephone; yes how she mourned,
when she lost you, stolen beneath the ground
by the dark god, king of shades,
a maiden taken, ravished away.
She tore her hair, your goddess mother,
and raged at the gods, and starved mankind,
refusing to let grow the grain.
Consumed with fury she rejected their pleas
when they came, the immortals, to beg of her,
refusing all, one goal in sight, one demand made, your safe return.
But what of you? Did he treat you well,
that grave god, there in his land of shadows?
What of him, the desperate immortal,
enclosed and shunned, in his bronze-walled land?
What promises did he make, what wooing peformed, to win your love?
A maiden in title, a maiden in fact, with a clinging mother
might well grasp the chance to wed
and sit on a throne beside a strong husband.
When you held those seeds there, red in your hand,
did you know?
And, torn between adulthood and a beloved mother,
did you yet eat them willingly, eagerly even, knowing their end,
taking the chance to seize your fate;
bound, it is true, but by your own choice?
Pomegranate seeds are sweet, with a sour edge.
Washed up on a beach in a foreign land,
I lie naked, my bones exposed to the sun.
Far from my birthplace, far from fabled Rome,
my flesh, decaying, mingles with the sand,
and Pergamus is reborn.
The cold is coming:
I know this for sure.
Each year it has come
and each year gone away.
But a cold is coming that will stay,
and not turn to warmth again.
My bones know this,
my ageing bones wait.
I lose these things, and these,
and yet again more:
the wind through broken windows.
This city deserves as fine a poem
as fields or trees.
But I, who can not call it home,
can’t hope to please
the spirits here,
with anything of mine.
(This is a song written by Bill DeMarco and me. Ask me to sing it some time.)
Bury My Bones: A Country and Westron Song
A soldier of Gondor lay dying
out on the Pelennor plain
and as I drew near he was crying
the words of this plaintive refrain:
Oh, bury my bones in Minas Tirith,
lay me under the stone.
Bury my bones in Minas Tirith,
and don't let the orcs dig me up.
Bury me deep in Rath Dinen,
lay be down on my bier.
There I will be the envy of men,
right next to Denethor's pyre.
Bury me next to Aragorn, king,
who people call the Elfstone.
He helped to get rid of that awful ring:
I know I won't be alone.
Gandalf will write my funeral song,
Queen Arwen will sing
'bout my labors hard and long
in the War of the Ring.
Breaking down he looses an ocean of tears
that cascade down over his face,
and, riding the flow, there appears a salmon,
swimming its way over his cheeks
towards his chin.
Then suddenly, with no directional signal,
it reverses its path and upstream it swims
towards a nostril (seeking what? seeing safety? sexual release?),
the left nostril,
the one nearest his heart.
My ancestors came on leaking boats,
and fell to their knees,
making grateful prayer,
and, swearing their journeys done,
never wandered again.
Whence, then, this song in me,
set to the rhythm of wave and tide’s flow?
“Branches” and “antlers” are the same word in French.
Abroad in the woods,
I see that they’re right:
Your form in every tree.
The serpentine carousel loops around the pillars
and through its mysterious door,
carrying the same damn bags
that aren’t mine.
Mound of Arbeth
Sit on this hill, they said,
Spend the night,
and see a wonder or go mad.
The stars have turned,
and Orion is high,
and I begin to wonder how to tell the difference.
The wind has blown my prayers away
and knocked over my libation
and extinguished my fire of offering.
And now it comes for my soul.
My net was cast, and drawn back empty
of all but the sound of her voice
filled with silences into which my words might fit.
You can't know what could come to you throught the fog
when you lie so still you feel each tap of the little waves against your little boat.
You can't know what could come to you from the water under your keel
as you wait with furled sail, with shipped oars,
with unset anchor, with a prayer dying in your mouth,
on a windless sea.
If two parallel lines meet at infinity,
perhaps there is still hope for you and me.
A long journey starts with a single step, they say.
But o how weary each one after that can be!
Tourists from Italy
Tourists from Japan
stand on a plain in Wiltshire,
saying, “So this is it.”
They take their pictures and go home to show their photos –
“See, here it is. We went to Stonehenge.”
And back in England,
under a grey sky stand grey stones
that neither ask questions nor answer them.
Their souls are immune.
It’s all one piece.
The Universe is all one piece.
They tried to break it up,
with God up there (out there? anywhere but here.)
and us down below (where we belong).
But we knew better.
Something brought us back.
We went home again:
where else could we go?
“Hi, honey, we’re home.”
And honey took us back
and wrapped her arms around us
and it was as if we’d never left.
The Burning Times: An Apology
Taken to her death, uncomprehending:
What had she done to deserve this?
Entrapped by inquisitors’ lies,
the leading questions while under torture,
she butchered the truth in search of relief,
now found in the comforting rope at the stake.
Martyred to lies once, her questions remain unanswered,
sending echoes that sound through the years,
eagerly snatched up by us now.
Martyred to lies once, we martyr her again
in dreams of persecution sized to politics’ frame.
All movements need martyrs,
and we have claimed her,
martyred her to our own ideology,
deprived her death of its own meaning.
Her life once robbed to fit another’s needs –
we steal her death to make it fit ours.
And still the echoes ring across the intervening years,
demanding recognition for themselves,
while we, blinded by our doctrines,
let them fade unanswered.
He hadn’t driven me to college alone before.
I don’t remember why he did this time.
Ninety minutes of driving; not long, but long enough.
My father’s drawer of memories slides open.
He takes one out and holds it for my inspection:
“This was me, when I was your age.
These were my dreams.
Did they come true?
Most did not, but I do not regret them.”
Over a third of my life gone since then,
I wrap my dreams carefully to protect them from time
and put them in my drawer to rest
until I can display them to my daughter.
“Most did not come true, but I do not regret.
What happened was more wonderful
than a dreaming child could have imagined.”
The spirit in the rock near my mother-in-law’s condo
has survived without offerings for too many years.
Sleeping, it waits, for someone to notice
who remembers old customs, who recites old prayers.
A stone in the forest that could not quite make the grade
but thinks itself a megalith, or at least one in training,
stands, topped with oak leaves, as an altar for a squirrel,
who makes his oblations and chants mystic phrases.
Seeking asylum from a yard too well-lit
we find our refuge among the offices of the mighty
where your mahogany eyes might mock the walls
and prove the ascendance of love and laughter.
I walk, grumbling, up the stairs,
answering my daughter’s call.
She shows to me a mystery:
a perfect shadow on the wall.
Maybe I didn't see water spirits playing on the pond.
Maybe it was just light bouncing off small waves,
But light doesn't laugh.
How the maple’s limbs
bowing to me in the rain
still block my way through.
It takes no effort to open your hand
and let the universe fall in.
It takes no effort to open your hand
and let the universe fall out.
Only open your hand.
Make simplicity a presence,
not an absence.
When there's nothing to soften the bashing wind,
you're moving in the right direction.
When nothing obstructs your sight,
you're facing the right way.
When there's nothing to give shelter,
you've found your home.
No roots, only growth.
In ancient times people thought the rainbow a messenger from the gods.
Now we know that it comes from the sun and moisture,
from fire and water.
each point the same.
The scrub oak on Cape Cod
possesses all the glory
of its soaring-canopied cousin
"Thank you" is the noblest prayer,
"Please" last of all.
Truth is the play,
we the actors,
the gods the critics.
There have been thousands of poems
written about the rain:
I refuse to add one more.
If all the wonders we seek were really in ourselves,
the species would become extinct.
My own epitaph
At last that mind that couldn't sleep,
yet cried for peace
Manannán at Desert Magic
In this dry land, no ocean,
his wheels still roll on grass,
still beneath them deep water,
beyond the shelf.
Still beneath them deep wisdom,
old, cold, no currents,
the dark troughs into which all dead things are pulled,
the only rain that withered land knows;
of snakes who hold the gathered in their coils,
withholding life-acquired wisdom in the death-ringed jaws.
Until his wheels-passing rumblings shake loose fragments of the dissolved past,
and draw them in the wake across this dry land
to our ocean selves.
The wind doesn’t know
through the torii.
Nowhere to go,
nothing to be gained.
Since everything is by nature perfect
what need is there of salvation?
The cypress tree is still standing in the courtyard,
the very body of the Buddha.
The sun rises every morning:
and still no one wonders!
A sledgehammer's blow and it is unharmed.
A feather's stroke and it opens.
A thought and it crumbles.
A no-thought and it was never there.
If you smash the mirror you are left with many new ones,
shattered on the ground,
scattered in disarray --
Manjushri’s sword cuts so finely
that all that’s left is the nothing that was there to begin with.
I ask Manjushri to cut through the illusions which block my way,
and to my horror the sword cuts straight through me.
Cleanly, with no resistance:
the valley mist dissipates when the sun rises.
The thinner the blade the sharper the knife.
A no-blade can slice through anything.
I fear Death:
What is feared?
Can Void fear Void?
Why be afraid, standing on the edge of the Abyss?
Void into Void is no fall at all.
Inside nothing but Void.
Void within Void within Void --
Void without number or limit.
Nowhere to place my feet,
and no feet to be placed.
Adrift in the Void,
my little boat sinking.
I face the dragon’s mouth,
filled with fear
and nothing else.