Poetry

Poetry

The ground of being

The artist’s eye caught the bent iron grating intended to separate
the living from the dead, the bars pulled apart as though a wandering
      specter

had recovered his human form, escaped a deadened community. The
      camera
lens focused the rows of tampered vaults, doors nearly askew, lines

of dead diminishing to infinity. Framed by pillars past, the photo pressed
      into time
absence of brass bands blowing funereal dirges, colorful umbrellas
      swaying

to the beat, second-liners celebrating release. I thought of reading old
      Creole stories
of George Washington Cable and Grace King, the scourge of yellow
      fever,

the cycle of death and renewal acted out in another century. Or my own
      death
and renewal in the sixties, the damp breeze blowing across the iron bed
      frame

where I lay reading Paul Tillich one Saturday afternoon. His text called
into question all that Pleasant Bethel Baptist Church had taught me,
      questions

I had never allowed to take root, Noah’s flood, the sacrificial testing of
      Abraham,
Esther’s dubious path to the throne. Driving past Lafayette Cemetery

to seminary classes, I pondered the rationale for burying the dead
above the ground, the belief that levees would hold, the cockeyed
      certainty

that the mystical combination of voodoo and faith would somehow
render the Big Easy indomitable. Katrina changed all that,

but New Orleans has always shunted bones to the rear, reopened
      tombs
for the newly dead, believed in resurrection.

















Was blind, but now I see

You have your sight, and yet you cannot see.
        —Tiresias, Oedipus Rex



Driving into the city to teach
in gray-green late summer,
I see one flaming red maple
and think of Oedipus
standing dangerously above the hoi polloi.

But it is Moses’ tree,
a call story on a highway hillside.
I want to stop traffic,
shout, “Take off your shoes, people!”

For the world is on fire
with a beauty so fragile that,
like the thread of ash
after the stick of incense burns,
one breath can topple it.











On hearing my young student in Britten's parable opera Curlew River

Somewhere in the sacred opera,
in a sea of men, the little voice,
        fearless in the face
        of the foreign marketplace of sound
        booming in the maw of the basilica,
came forth, the little voice,
like the water bird above the river.

The lost child’s chant, meant to take away
a mother’s grief, came at us
from behind.

His form, white, diaphanous, backlit,
wafted from the narthex down the nave,
one flaming wing trembling,
his treble sure, sure, soaring,
pinning my lapsed heart
to some small certainty:

All shall be well.
The ears of the deaf
shall be open, as well
as the gates
to the house of doubt.





A parable of marriage

Disregarding the heat, we settled down to it:
clearing a path through the elmwood and oak.
It’s slow going—an all-day job. Stones fat

as watermelons. Quick, gray blades of limestone
layered into the ground a foot or more.
We rooted them out with crowbars, a shovel,

or dug them free by hand, then tossed
the rocks into a wheelbarrow. Tomorrow,
they’ll be put to use: load by load we’ll haul them

up the hill for a border, follow
our new trail straight on to the high west
pasture. Where late in the day sun breaks

against shade, burns whitest fronting the treeline
of the woods—light upon shadow—we
stopped work for the night. Passing you

the last drink of water from the canteen,
I nodded toward home, and we traced the way
back down in silence, the only sounds

a locust, the snap of twigs, our workboots
scraping over rock shards and dust.
We kept close to ourselves, listening.











Hunger

You can feel his heartbeat slow
            as he loiters just off the Expressway,
                     by the Okoboji Swamp
looking casual as an old purse
            under the Spanish moss,

his eyes envisioning some delicacy
            —a family of small newts
                     with a salad of green scum,
or several whiskered catfish.
            Under his gorgeous skin his brain is moving,

as mine and yours are moving now
            with joy at hunger,
                     joy at hunger filled.
Suddenly he opens his mouth
            of magnificent stalactites and stalagmites,

astonished at the power
            of his new hunger. He rises and
                     like a bee bumbling into a flower,
staggers sideways toward the Expressway.
            As guards gather,

drawing guns, he is lost in bliss
            imagining
                     the turquoise swimming pool
down the road,
            stocked with children.