Posts Tagged ‘poems’

Now It Is Finished

October 6th, 2012

This is a poem I wrote for a friend who was dying of cancer.  She asked me to read a poem at her memorial.  I asked why.  She said because she liked my way with words and she was curious to know what I would say.  So here it is, Jane.  I don’t like the way Word Press insists on messing up the formatting.  It’s going to look a lot better on the printed page.  But here are the words.  We’ll just have to do without little fripperies like indentation in all the places I wanted it.


Now it is finished
and you have stopped withdrawing
into a self that cannot be found anywhere

now the pink bathrobe
is uninhabited like the body
and the clear plastic tubes that fed you
enriched air these last months are discarded

now your lips have pursed
the last time on sweetness and tartness
and the last laugh has left your belly

now memories grow uncertain
as cigarette smoke and
piercing as the tang of wine that
hovers above the empty goblet

we will carry you

when we asked you about the afterlife
you said “remains to be seen”

and I think you might have laughed
had somebody said,
“we don’t want to know about the remains
we want to know about what’s unseen”

I can hear you laughing
in all its charming variety your laughter

of all of us who knew you
who cannot hear it

you hired a doctor to give you the right poisons
you hired a nurse to care skillfully
you asked a poet to find words for when it’s done

here’s what’s carved on Billy Butler Yeats’s stone:
 Cast a cold eye
    On Life, on Death.
    Horseman, pass by!
and here’s what Rilke composed for himself:
Rose, oh pure contradiction,
    joy of being, No-one’s sleep
    under so many lids
and here’s what you thoughtfully said:
it’s very important to be nice

polite, certainly
never consciously unkind
plenty – perhaps a bit too much – of turn the other cheek

but not the smiling lying kind of niceness
nor namby pamby, no:
the kind of niceness that is stamped in steel

you tended each of your dying parents with desperate assiduity
sacrificing peace of mind, health, livelihood,
and truth be told
(a Jane phrase –truth be told –
I think it in your voice)
a certain amount of marital harmony
to ensure that through that long subtractive process
which ends with everything lacking and nothing wanted
no day would be empty of attentive loving
because it’s what people do, dammit

your face heart-shaped
your mouth small and potentially prim
but it was so often merry
I don’t mean “glad” or “happy” I mean “merry”
as in Dickens certain characters – Fezziwig, for example
or the Cheeryble brothers are merry –
the easy overflow of a generous heart

Damariscotta girl, your husband denominated you
something to do with whitewashed mullions
seawashed granite
knowledge of which fork and where to put it
the unyielding kernel of humanity
wrapped in just the right shade of social exchange

before I met you, a union activist
a labor leader a contract negotiator
imagine facing across the conference room that
politely intransigent reasonableness

when we met you had restrung your bow
to play a rather different sort of chamber music

admirer of formal British gardens
collector of McCoy Pottery
interior designer – that is one who makes
order and harmony
aesthetically pleasing and life enhancing

(didn’t you wince a little when
we hung the plastic tubes from the trim
over your bed in the parlor to which
your world had narrowed to see the open
eye screw pierce the fine white glossy
paint job Mr. Lou did for you
– never a drip – long ago)

and when the design business went bust
librarian – no profession more evocative of
just how close we poor animals can come to
giving some part of ourselves to life eternal and
how delicate the leaves in which we preserve it

your vices were the costs of your virtues

a tendency to become overwhelmed and frustrated
consequent upon the unremitting unconscious effort
to be what you should be and do what you should do

a certain waspishness when overwhelmed or frustrated
at the unaccountable recalcitrance of things and people
to be what they should be and do what they should do

(not to imply that you were unworldly
to the contrary, you down-to-earth down-easter,
bewildered not that badness exists but by its stupidity)

a sometime resort to the grape
for relief from knowing how inevitably
we must fall short

if only by leaving before those we leave are ready for it

an immoderate taste for televised British mysteries
in which evil however clever is rooted out by
understated mildly emotionally repressed
clear thinking keen observation and humane values


how ironic that the thing which at last would lay you low
most civilized of persons
full of all the civilized decencies
attached to civility like a mussel to a boulder
(as Thomas More was attached to the law, because
what else will stand between you and the devil)

that what took you from us
was a few cells throwing off the compact
whereby the body’s constituent parts agree to respect their mutual
roles and places in the service of long and amicable coexistence
and in riotous anarchy bringing the whole house down

sweet and kind and loving to the end
if everyone were like you, there’d be no more war
and we’d all have nicer homes.


August 15th, 2011

This weekend I found myself among a group of people who were talking about prayer and meditation.  The commonly expressed viewpoint about meditation was that, as opposed to prayer, it is very hard to do.  People said, it’s so hard to quiet your mind, to turn off your thoughts, to achieve that state of near oblivion that most people seem to think is the goal of the practice.

My experience is almost the opposite.  Prayer does not come easily to me.  More to the point, I don’t think that meditation is about any of those things, no more than golf is about going out and hitting a hole in one.  It’s nice if it happens, but it’s not why we play the game.  I’ve been meditating for about a decade, now, and the hardest thing about it, I think, is that it requires patience and discipline.  Like any practice requiring patience and discipline, the more you do it, the more of those qualities you find you possess.

Basically, meditation is a process of listening to your life.  Your life in the room around you, and the places around that room, the refrigerator whirring on, a grasshopper thunking into the window, the dust dancing in the light.  Mostly, you listen to that voice in your head.  Or voices.  Let’s say “voices;” it makes my next metaphor easier.  I don’t mean “listen” in the sense of active empathy.  I’m talking about a much more passive sort of listening.  You listen to them the way you listen to people talking in a movie theatre before the show.  You’re not part of the conversation, it just goes on around you.  Well, within you, but you know what I mean.  If you start getting drawn in to the chatter, you remind yourself not to.  Just let it happen.

Even at the early stage of meditation I’ve just described, it’s surprising what can happen.  One notices things.  A few weeks after I first started meditating, I noticed lights floating around the room.  The border of the carpet I was sitting on began to glow in a strange way.  Sitting next to a room where recently an angry scene had taken place, I saw black smoke seeping under the door.  I told my meditation teacher about the things I’d seen, the lights.  I asked him what they were.  He laughed and said, “Enlightenment.”  After a while they stopped occurring.  I missed them at first.  They had been a nice distraction from the work.  You notice thoughts, ideas, feelings, patterns, urges.  You get to know what is in your heart with a clarity and comprehensiveness that weren’t there before.  Solutions to problems and conundrums appear out of nowhere.  You notice that you are somehow separate from all that, and bigger.

After a while – weeks, months, years – you start to notice when the voices (yeah, them again) pause to catch a breath or exhaust one idea or topic and have to cast about for another.  These spaces in the conversation are ever so brief, yet in them you notice there is something huge.  It is the universe, unobscured.  Or it is you, unobscured.  Take your pick.  After a while – weeks, months, years – you maybe catch a glimpse, for one of those brief instants, of what it is like when you are quiet.  I’ve had this happen, oh, maybe maybe a dozen or two dozen times.  It is a clearer taste of eternity than orgasm, but no less hard to describe.  Here is a poem, in the form of linked haiku, about that:

Sinking earthward through
layers of thought, how will I
know when I’ve touched down?

And here it is – a
creak in the wall, a sun-stroked
floor.  Wind shakes the frame.

Once or twice I have managed to slip into one of those spaces, for just the briefest instant, and look back, and see my ego, the chatterer, running around and around like a puppy chasing its own tail.  I saw what it is scared of, but I wasn’t scared.  Here’s a sonnet about that:

In its ivory cage the winged dog chases
its own tail with swoops and loop-de-loops, soars
intricately at its varied paces
past the speed-blurred bars and just-ajar door.

Drugs might help you see its flight in trails that
curlicue and dash with almost meaning,
weaving finer than the Book of Kells. But
this once at the door it stops careening,

pokes a quivering snout outside – The air hums.
Sheets of scent it had torn through now stretch un-
ending, undulating, full of what comes
him who waits.  The seconds slowly stretch. – then,

sensing immense space unflapped by dogwings
snaps back to embroidering its nothings.


Cape Smokey

March 26th, 2011

I heard recently from a friend who lives part time in Novia Scotia, that blessed land.  She was crowing about having just eaten a three pound Nova Scotian lobster.  That’s a lot of lobster, but she’s a dancer.  I’ve been up that way a few times, with the then-wife and kids.  We used to camp in Cape Breton National Park.  I remember particularly one sunset I stood watching a pod of Minke whales from our sea-side tent site,  their arched backs black and massive and numerous, passing only a couple of hundred yards offshore, somehow putting me in mind of a buffalo herd.  I’ve been a lot of beautiful places.  Vermont, where I live, is by all accounts beautiful, but every time I came home from Nova Scotia I felt as if I were returning from the truly beautiful to the merely pretty.  There is a different quality to it.  Rilke liked to emphasize how terrifying angels are.  I think he was on to something.  On the Cabot Trail, the road that follows the shore around Cape Breton, there is a high place called Cape Smokey.  With a nod to Rilke, this poem is an attempt to bring home something of Cape Smokey back to the Green Mountains:

perhaps the way a gull
may beak a clasped shell
up beside the headlands

up and then drop it to shatter
upon the rounded rocks
that contain mere rock

and swoop then to the meat
among the shards a tan
bit it carries off

so the headlands misting
blued in their plunge to the sea
still and empty words

shuck them of what sustains
the rock the heaving foam
the hidden trembling Name

City with a wounded heart

November 7th, 2010

During my week and a half in New Orleans, I heard people talk about Katrina only once.  That was while waiting for the Everette Maddox Memorial Poetry Reading to begin.  This reading has been held weekly since 1979 at the Maple Leaf

Everette Maddox

Bar, except for a few weeks after the storm.  Now hosted by Nancy Harris, it was started by beloved local poet and legend Everette Maddox, who died  at age 45 the year the Berlin Wall fell.  Some of his ashes are buried in the outdoor terrace at the back of the bar, where the readings are held, with the epitaph, “He was a mess.”

I arrived at the bar at 3:00 in the afternoon, the advertised time for the reading, but the Saints game was still going on and it was clear that nobody would be reading poetry any time soon.  The Maple Leaf consists of a long, narrow wooden bar under a high, pressed tin ceiling, a long, narrow back room with a stage from which great music can be heard many evenings, another squarish room in back of that, and behind that the outdoor terrace, furnished with wrought iron tables and chairs and lush vegetation.  On the stage in the back room was an enormous TV screen, supplementing the TVs in the bar, all turned up loud, with a rapt and vociferous audience at every one.

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