September 11th, 2001

New York American Spell, 2001
by Tom Sleigh

I / omen

What was going on in the New York American
Black/red/green helmeted neon night?
The elevator door was closing behind us, we were the ones
Plunging floor after floor after floor after floor
To the abyss-but it was someone else’s face
Staring from the screen out at us, someone else’s face
Saying something flashing from the teleprompter:
Though what the face said was meant to reassure,
Down in the abyss the footage kept playing,
All of it looping back like children chanting
The answers to nonsensical riddles, taunting
A classmate who doesn’t know the question:
“Because it’s too far to walk” “Time to get a new fence”
“A big red rock eater.” And as the images rewound
And the face kept talking, the clear night sky
Filled up with smoke and the smoke kept puring
Itself out into the air like a voice saying something
It can’t stop saying, some murky omen
Like schoolkids asking: “Why do birds fly south?”
“what time is it when an elephant sits on the fence?”
“What’s big, red and eats rocks?”

2/ in front of st. vincent’s

A woman hugging another woman
Who was weeping blocked the sidewalk.
Nobody moved for a moment.
They were an island caught at the tide turning:
Such misery in two human bodies.
Then the wearing away of the crowd
Moving flowed over them and they”
Were pulled swiftly along down the sidewalk.

3 / joke

Faces powdered with dust and ash, there they were
In the fast food place, raucous and wild, splitting
The seams of their work clothes, weary to hysteria
As they hunched in their booth next to the buffet
Under heat lamps reflecting incarnadine
Off pastas and vegetable slag. Then the joke
Ignited, they quivered on the launch pad,
Laughter closed around them, they couldn’t
Breathe, it was as if they were staring out
From a space capsule porthole and were asking
The void an imponderable riddle
While orbiting so high up in space
That the earth was less than the least hint
Of light piercing the smoke-filled, cloudless night.
(What was the joke about? Nobody knew.)
And then they stopped laughing and stared into their plates,
Ash smearing down their faces as they chewed.

3 / spell spoken by suppliant to helios for knwledge
from the Greek Magical Papyri

Under my tongue is the mode of the Nile,
I wear the baboon hide of sacred Keph.
Dressed in God’s power, I am the god,
I am Thouth, discoverer of healing drugs,
Founder of letters. As god calls on god
I summon you to come to me, you
Under the earth; arouse yourself for me,
Great daimon, you the subterranean,
You of the primordial abyss.
Unless you tell me what I want to know,
What is in the minds of everyone, Egyptians,
Greeks, Syrians, Ethiopians, of every race
And people, unless I know what has been
And what shall be, unless I know their skills
And practices and works and lives and names
Of them and their fathers and mothers
And brothers and friends, even of those now dead,
I will pour the blood of the black-faced jackal
As an offering in a new-made jar and put it
In the fire and burn beneath it what’s left
Of the bones of all-praised Osiris,
And I will shout in the port of Busiris
The secrets of his mysteries, that his body,
Drowned, remained in the river three days
And three nights, that he, the praised one,
Was carried by the river into the sea
And surrounded by wave on wave on wave
And by mist rising off water through the air.
To keep your belly from being eaten by fish,
To keep the fish from chewing your flesh with their mouths,
To make the fish close their hungry jaws, to keep
The fatherless child from being taken
From his mother, to keep the pole of the sky
From being brought down and the twin towering
Mountains from toppling into one, to keep Anoixis
From running amok and doing just what she wants,
Not god or goddess will give oracles
Until I know through and through
Just what is in the minds of all human beings,
Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, Ethyopians, of every race
And people, so that those who come to me.
Their eyes and mine can meet in a level gaze,
Neither one or the other higher or lower,
And whether they speak or keep silent,
I can tell them whatever has happened
And is happening and is going to happen
To them, and I can tell them their skills
And their works and their names and those of their dead,
And of every human being who comes to me
I will read them as I read a sealed letter
And tell them everything truthfully.

5 / from brooklyn bridge

Sun shines on the third bridge tower:
A garbage scow ploughs the water,
Maternal hull pushing is all out beyond
The city, pushing it all out so patiently—
All you could hear out there this flawless afternoon
Is the sound of sand pulverizing newsprint
To tatters, paper-pulp ripping crosswise
Or lengthwise, shearing off some photo
Of maybe a head or maybe an arm.
Ridiculous flimsy noble newspaper,
Leaping in wind, fluttering, collapsing,
Its columns sway and topple into babble:
All you’d see if you were out there
Is air vanishing into clearer air.

6 / from the plane

Pressed against our seats, them released to air,
From the little plane windows we peered four thousand feet
Down to the ground desert-gray and still,
Nothing seeming to be moving on that perfect afternoon,
No reminder of why it was we were all looking,
Remembering maybe the oh so flimsy
Wooden sawhorse police barricades, as the woman
In front of me twisted her head back to see
It all again, but up there there was nothing to see,
Only the reef water feel of transparency
Deepening down to a depth where everything
Goes dark and nothing moves unless it belongs
To that dark, darting in and out or undulating
Slowly or cruising unblinking, jaws open or closed.

7 / spell broken by suppliant to helios for protection
from the Greek Magical Papyri

This is the charm that will protect you, the charm
That you must wear: Onto lime wood write
With vermilion the secret name, name of
The fifty magic letters. Then say the words:
“Guard me from every daimon of the air,
On the earth and under the earth, guard me
From every angel and phantom, every
Ghostly visitation and enchantment,
Me, your suppliant.” Enclose it in a skin
Dyed purple, hang it round your neck and wear it.

8 / roll of film: photographer missing

Vines of smoke through latticework of steel
Weave the air into a garden of smoke.
And in the garden people came and went,
People of smoke and people of flesh, the air dressed
In ash. What the pictures couldn’t say
Was spoken by the smoke: A common language
In a tongue of smoke that murmured in every ear
Something about what it was they’d been forced
To endure: Words spoken in duress,
Inconsolable words, words spoken under the earth
That rooted in smoke and breathed in the smoke
And put forth shoots that twined through the steel,
Words plunged through the roof of the garages’
Voids, I-beams twisted; the eye that saw all this
Tells and tells again one part of the story
Of that day of wandering through the fatal garden,
The camera’s eye open and acutely
Recording in the foul-smelling air.

9 / lamentation on ur
from a Sumerian spell, 2000 BC

Like molten bronze and iron shed blood
          pools. Our country’s dead
melt into the earth
          as grease melts in the sun, men whose
helmets now lie scattered, men annihilated
by the double-bladed axe. Heavy, beyond
          help, they lie still as a gazelle
exhausted in a trap,
          muzzle in the dust. In home
after home, empty doorways frame the absence
of mothers and fathers who vanished
          in the flames remorselessly
spreading claiming even
          frightened children who lay quiet
in their mother’s arms, now borne into
oblivion, like swimmers swept out to sea
          by the surging current.
May the great barred gate
          of blackest night again swing shut
on silent hinges. Destroyed in its turn,
may this disaster too be torn out of mind.

Poetry Wednesday – Muriel Rukeyser

[Murmurs from the earth of this land]
by Muriel Rukeyser

Murmurs from the earth of this land, from the caves and craters,
       from the bowl of darkness. Down watercourses of our
       dragon childhood, where we ran barefoot.
We stand as growing women and men. Murmurs come down
        where water has not run for sixty years.
Murmurs from the tulip tree and the catalpa, from the ax of
        the stars, from the house on fire, ringing of glass; from
        the abandoned iron-black mill.
Stars with voices crying like mountain lions over forgotten
        colors.
Blue directions and a horizon, milky around the cities where the
        murmurs are deep enough to penetrate deep rock.
Trapping the lightning-bird, trapping the red central roots.
You know the murmurs. They come from your own throat.
You are the bridges to the city and the blazing food-plant green;
The sun of plants speaks in your voice, and the infinite shells of
        accretions
A beach of dream before the smoking mirror.
You are close to that surf, and the leaves heated by noon, and
        the star-ax, the miner’s glitter walls. The crests of the sea
Are the same strength you wake with, the darkness is the eyes
        of children forming for a blaze of sight and soon, soon,
Everywhere, you own silence, who drink from the crater, the
        nebula, one another, the changes of the soul.
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This poem just feels so rich. None of the imagery in this poem is commonplace. Every line has something strange about it, something that on the first read might not strike you as odd, but upon a closer look, really stands out as being out of the ordinary. “A beach of dream,” or “our/dragon childhood” and “The sun of plants speaks in your voice.” I love the new meaning this poem gives to different words, using them in a way that is unusual, but still retaining the meaning.

 

Poetry Wednesday – Michael McClure

Mexico Seen From the Moving Car
by Michael McClure

THERE ARE HILLS LIKE SHARKFINS
                                  and clods of mud.
The mind drifts through
in the shape of a museum,
in the guise of a museum
dreaming dead friends:
Jim, Tom, Emmet, Bill.
—Like billboards their huge faces droop
and stretch on the walls,
on the walls of the cliffs out there,
where trees with white trunks
          makes plumes on rock ridges.
My mind is fingers holding a pen.
Trees with white trunks
             make plumes on rock ridges.
Rivers of sand are memories.
Memories make movies
             on the dust of the desert.
Hawks with pale bellies
             perch on the cactus,
their bodies are portholes
             to other dimensions.
This might go on forever.
I am a snake and a tiptoe feather
at opposite ends of the scales
as they balance themselves
against each other.
This might go on forever.
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I go back and forth on adding commentary to my Poetry Wednesday posts. After all, shouldn’t I just let the poem speak for itself? And as much as I like to read poetry and I like to speak about poetry in the abstract sense, when I am facing a poem and expected to discuss, sometimes I am at a loss for words.
I read a lot of poems for Poetry Wednesday. Rather, I read a lot of first lines of poems. Much like judging a book by its cover, I’m a relentless judger of poems by their first lines. But how could you could you read this first line and not read the rest of the poem? I couldn’t. I was rewarded, because the rest of the imagery is as unique and rewarding. This poem is at once about Mexico and the scenery and about the “dreaming dead friends,” an almost painfully sad alliteration, that, tragically, might go on forever.

Poetry Wednesday – Sci-Fi by Tracy K. Smith

Welcome to the return of Poetry Wednesday! I know, it was a little ridiculous of me to let Poetry Wednesday slide during National Poetry Month, but April is always so hectic. Plus, National Poetry Month is probably the one month of the year where you are seeing a lot of poetry elsewhere, so I didn’t feel too bad. In any case, here is today’s poem in a happy nod to Star Wars Day! Science fiction poetry isn’t really something you see very often. Clearly it exists and someone is writing and reading it, but I’d love to see more of it. I love the concept behind this poem and the way it really plays with some of the more common tropes of science fiction, like curved lines, but then makes its way into something unique. There are one or two couplets that don’t really convince me, but as a whole, this poem is well-crafted.

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Sci-Fi by Tracy K. Smith

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned

To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once

And for all, scrutable and safe.

Poetry Wednesday – April is National Poetry Month!

I don’t know how I let the time get away from me like this. We are already well into National Poetry Month, but I wanted to remind you that now is the time to sign up for the Academy of American Poets daily poem! This is really how  I make sure I’m reading enough poetry. No, I don’t get to it every day, but if I have even just five minutes to spare, I can read a lovely poem chosen by the Academy. They choose a variety of poets, styles and forms.

So that’s your friendly reminder of the year, now onto Poetry Wednesday!

Oh, what a happy find this poem is! I’ll be honest, when I don’t have an idea for who I want to feature for poetry, I’ll usually read through a bunch of shorter poems until I find one that is right. Mostly I prefer short poems, but also I think more people will read the poetry I post here if it is short.

Well, break out your attention spans kids, because this poem is awesome. And it is long, but it does not feel long. I love poems that play on languages and being bilingual and “Cultural Stakes” does this perfectly. (Please also see one of my absolute favorite poems “Speaking of the Devil” by Leslie Adrienne Miller.) This poem is beautiful, gritty and surprising.

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Cultural Stakes; or, How to Learn English as a Second Language by Kevin A. González

Wait on the corner of Isla Verde & Tartak
for your father to pull up in his Bronco.
Your mother will be right: he will not show up
at noon. At 12:20, you will recognize the horn,
its wail like an amplified conch,
but you will not recognize your father—
the gray stubble, the violent tan.
When he asks where you’d like to go,
say the movies, say La Feria, say the moon:
it won’t matter. You will go to Duffy’s.
When your father says, We’re only here for lunch,
his voice will be as straightforward
as a sandwich menu. The bartender
will greet him like a cousin
in a language you cannot understand.
A stick of incense will burn slow
& its ashes will sprinkle into the tip jar.
Fruit will be rolling inside the slot machine;
darts will flash by like hubcaps. There will be
mirrors with bottles drawn inside them
& not a word of Spanish in the air.
When your father gives you a Coke
with two cherries in it, bite the stem
& bite the stem & swallow the juicy red wounds.
When he gives you a stack of quarters for pinball,
recall the chips he’d stack on the counter
after the casinos closed. Recall the night
your mother left him on the loose stitching of a chair,
the living room as silent as a funeral mass
where nobody stands to give the eulogy.
Don’t ask him what compelled him
to call you today, eighteen months later,
& never admit that his absence
was a moist towel stuffed in your chest,
a constant fatigue of wanting. Don’t tell him
what the nuns at school said about divorce,
that tin bruise on the spirit, & don’t recount
your mother’s remarriage to a man
who is as plain as his own mustache.
Your father will tell you many times
he is not perfect. There will be a sunset
on his cheek & a bonfire in his Adam’s apple
& a coaster beneath his drink like a giant host,
the Scotch putting his tongue to sleep
like a pale stingray on the ocean floor.
When your mother asks what you did,
tell her you watched baseball all weekend
& bury your smoke-swamped shirts
in the bottom of the laundry. Every Friday,
she will watch you climb into that Bronco
& slide away till Sunday, your face
eclipsed by the tinted window’s twilight.
At Duffy’s, the women will be blonde
& they will seem as lonely as broken barstools.
When they speak to you, wait for your father
to translate, then reply to him in Spanish
& wait while he translates for them, & smile,
always smile. There will be something soulful
about this: the way your words become his
& his words become yours, as if the two languages
were shaking hands, casting one long shadow.
When your father brings a woman home, know
that laughter will leak through the doorframe,
that the body is an office always on the verge
of quiet. If she stays the night, the next morning
she might pull out a chair & gently say, sit
& this is how you will learn to concede
whenever a girl with sunlight digging into her cheek
taps your shoulder at the water fountain at school.
There, you will sit in the back row of catechism
& wait for the bell to trill its metal tongue.
You will stumble on the words of prayers
as if the short rope of your faith
was hindered by knots, as if religion was a field
with landmines scattered across. At Duffy’s,
shed the red skin off the bull’s-eye
with the lethal tips of your darts,
slide the smooth grain of the cue stick
over the wings of your thumb. Call all your shots.
Touch the chalk to your forehead
& trace a blue cross. When your father
begins to feed the slot machine’s pout,
remind him to save a ten for the Drive Thru.
He will sit on a stool, pushing the Bet button
as if he believed that if he pushed it enough
he would fill with an air that could raise him.
When the language comes, it will be
as if it had always been inside you.
You will look at things & their names
will drip from your tongue. Abstractions
will be archived as events, & there will be
a history you can instantly shuffle through
whenever a word is uttered. For example,
hustle will be the night your father challenges
a stranger to beat you at darts. Discretion, the night
two of the blondes who cooked you breakfast
sit on stools on either side of you. Impulse
will happen over a rack of pool: your father will say
you have an invisible brother who is better than you
& you will spend the rest of your life competing
with a ghost. Abandon will be your first beer,
a squeezed lemon wedge inside the empty bottle.
Independence will be the moment you realize
the only hands reaching out to you belong to clocks.
Irony, you will come to understand, will be
when you ask your father about those expatriates:
who are they & what are they doing here,
so far from home, & why would anyone
ever leave the place where they were born?
Fortune will be every time your father hits
All-Fruits on the slot. Innocence
will come right after Fortune—every time
you say, Let’s quit while we’re ahead,
not knowing how far behind you really are.

 

Poetry Wednesday – Rhina P. Espaillat (2)

I know I just posted another poem by Rhina P. Espaillat last Wednesday, but when I read this one, I couldn’t help but feature another one. You’re going to see immediately why I like it, I guarantee it. Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo regime. Her and her family moved to New York when she was a young woman and she began writing poetry, in Spanish and then in English. I love the way she treats bilingualism as the blessing it really is here. Absolutely beautiful.

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Bilingual/Bilingüe by Rhina P. Espaillat

My father liked them separate, on there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was – his memory, his name
(su nombre) – with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basata.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda);  late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

Poetry Wednesday – Rhina P. Espaillat

This poem sold me with its opening conceit, but won me over with its language. I’ve never read a poem by Rhina P. Espaillat before this one, but it seems like I am truly missing out.

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Weighing In by Rhina P. Espaillat

What the scale tells you is how much the earth
has missed you, body, how it wants you back
again after you leave it to go forth

into the light. Do you remember how
earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock
you in their arms, warm in the flow

that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began
to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick
at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,

and finally to stoke you, body, drumming
intimate coded messages through music
you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming

and your poems and your obedient blood.
Body, how useful you became, how lucky,
heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,

sometimes, imagining that greedy zero
you must have been, that promising empty sack
of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.

But look at you now, body, soft old shoe
that love wears when it’s stirring, look down, look
how earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.