Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Poetry Reading

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Poetry Reading

Article excerpt


I read these poems, a retrospective from early work to the most recent, at the meeting of the American Philosophical Society in November 2014. The poems meditate on experiences both personal and historical, although that distinction can feel arbitrary: the personal cannot help but be historical. The first poem, "Max Jacob at St. BenoÎt," is from my first collection, Each Leaf Shines Separate (W. W. Norton, 1984), and imagines the French poet Max Jacob, a Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1915 and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. He died of pneumonia in the concentration camp of Drancy outside of Paris. He was lucky; his name was on the list for the next transport to Auschwitz. "Porta Portese" is the name of the flea market in Rome but is really about Wall Street. "Fire" expresses grief and rage at the American invasion of Iraq. In the private realm, "Mediterranean" recalls my dead mother, "Aftermath" sorrows for a friend who died of cancer, and "Man in Stream" ponders a failing marriage. I hope the poems, taken together, create a complex harmony of grief, passion, illumination, and hope.

Max Jacob at Saint BenoÎt

The noonday square. Plane leaves, dust:

they scurry in heat shimmering gusts.

Even shadows rustle. The Belgians are gone.

The tiny terrier trots alone.

Max prayed here, le grand poseur,

salon mystic and littérateur,

but fourteen years, remember, that's one hell

of a pose for a Paris swell.

He had an infallible sense of scene.

See that stone soul torn limb from limb

between the devils and seraphim?

Romanesque, of course, for Max to preen

his own soul's pretty plumage here

year after tiresome dusty year.

And still, it wasn't easy. Quel ennui!

This flat, hot land, the sluggish Loire;

daily, nightly, daily: prière, devoir;

no more blue-yellow visions of Christ on the tree

(from Max's aquarelle), no more cinémathèque

blue movie Maries scolding "pauvre Max"

(to scandalize confessors),

no more dandified mystics dogging his tracks.

At Saint BenoÎt, just dust. The trek

to God? Beyond the crypt, it led

from boredom to boredom to prison camp bed

in Drancy. There, the Nazis let him die

-an old Jew with pneumonia-"naturally."

The Twelfth Day

For Pam Cantor

It is the twelfth day

The hero will not take food

He refuses wine sleep women

How can the body not spoil?

Dragged by chariot

gashed smeared

in mud and horse droppings

Mutilate Mutilate

cries the hero's heart

as he lashes the horses

around and

around the tomb

If he can just

make his mark on this

corpse whose

beauty freshens

with each lunge

as though bathed

in balm Even the gods

in gentle feast are

shocked: Is there no

shame? The hero has

no other life

He has taken

to heart a body

whose face vaulting

through gravel and blood

blends strangely

with the features

of that other

one: the Beloved

For this is

love: rigor

mortis in the

mortal grip

and never to let

go Achilles hoards

and defiles the dead

So what if heaven

and earth reverberate

release So what

if Olympian

messages shoot through

cloudbanks sea

chambers ether

So what if everything

echoes the Father let go let

go This is Ancient

Poetry It's supposed

to repeat

The living mangle the dead

after they mangle the living

It's formulaic

That's how we love It's called

compulsion Poetry can't

help itself

And no one has ever

explained how

light stabbed

the hero how he saw

in dawn salt mist

his Mother's face (she who

Was before words she

who would lose him)

Saw her but heard

words Let him let

go Saw her and let

his fingers loosen

from that

suspended decay and


too quietly

turned away


Don't say that word, comfort

Wherever the splendid sun beats down on sorrow

no one will

hear, but the blind

beggar already totters from chamber to chamber

in the vault, murmuring, embracing urns

that have yet to be filled with

a story that has yet to spark or char the mind

John Walker)

It's not as simple as rhyming "mud" and "blood"

as Owen did and does ("I, too, saw God through mud")

in his "Apologia. …

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