Here we are, in a library, this treasury of human thoughts and imaginings, mappings, descriptions, blunders, desires. Every book, every article, map or film in this library came from the minds of other human beings, from all over the globe and many different points in time. It is more than we will ever learn ourselves. We can reach into these books and find the lives of others and discover how little human beings have changed since the time of Homer, yet also how various we are, how colorful in our skin tones and genders and languages and cultures. What a privilege it is to join you in this library and talk about a few things I love, as I love the freedom of imagination, as I love books and sometimes even the people who made them.
Suddenly there we were—
a hillside in the cloud
where thunder racked the air,
The earth we used to know
flickered to memory.
Below, the river shone
and mutable as he
who moves in the between
so few of us can see,
like a stranger’s dreaming.
This was not in Rome
but the southern hemisphere
which other gods call home
to love and fear.
And there we were
in that electric flash
and rain-wet ash,
wishing we knew a tale
that would make sense of this.
The rain turned into hail
leaping with a hiss.
Where will it end?
Night is leaving and it is not night.
The dawn is coming but it is not dawn.
It’s something in between. Not yet decided.
Like the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
Like a door you haven’t stepped through yet.
Like me. I live in the between.
You know the story. But do you believe it?
It’s like a dance, a circle—
turn, counterturn, stand—
but there is no stand. There is no stop,
no still. Not in your world, not in mine.
I’m the conductor god. I escort the dead
to the Underworld. When you receive
their messages, I heard them first.
This green heart, afloat
in Earth’s more-watery half,
bears like everywhere else
its lacerations, but the land
takes flying lessons from the air
and the air’s great cleanser, the sea.
That cry in the near-dark
has yet to be identified.
Open the window and listen.
It comes to us
like the earliest memory
when we lay with no name
at creation. But the world is not
dew-wet and new. The continents
are islands too, dividing like cells
in a microscope.
Between here and Patagonia
titanic volumes of air,
the whorls and currents
cover the distances
known to the whales
and migrating birds.
Unscrew the hatch and look down in the hold:
ten thousand purple crab in a living cast,
clicking the air with slow claws or clinging
to each other’s horny shells. In boots and gloves
I’d stand on their backs, bend down and throw them
two at a time into the lowered mesh,
two hundred to a bag to be hoisted away
and kept alive in the sharp brine of the bay
till it was time to butcher them . That job
was harder, breaking a ten-pound crab apart
on a chest-high blade. They sensed death coming
and slowly fought the blade with claws like fists,
and when their shells were gutted empty things
thrown in a grinder, there was still a smell,
my own grim smell from a day of taking lives—
never a very happy enterprise.
My Theory of Language
Poetry is both incarnation and metamorphosis. It begins in the beginning with absence. Darkness on the face of the deep, then a flash of light—an unfolding into being, or covalence and dividing cells. As Ovid’s Metamorphoses put it (in Charles Martin’s translation):
Now when the god (whichever one it was)
had given Chaos form, dividing it
in parts which he arranged, he molded earth
into the shape of an enormous globe. . . .
Under the tall peppermint gums
with rain-dark skin and upraised limbs,
I see her choose her body’s way,
pausing to stare out at the grey
of the Huon’s water, and beyond
a cloudy wilderness. Now her blond
hair tied in a mop appears,
her eyes that might be full of tears
as they are brimming with the world,
the color of the sea gone cold.
I could be a hunter in a blind
but she’s no prey. She’s another kind
no one has quite identified,
though doubtless many men have tried.
Enough to love and let her be
between daydreams of sky and sea.
for an anniversary
I have always loved wood,
the smell of it, the grain
under the hand, the sinew
of living wood upright
in its roots, the green
it breathes to the world,
the crazy salad of colors,
blossom and leaf,
and the eyes where branches were,
knots and boles,
the way as Mark said,
men are trees, walking.
My whole heart is walking,
love, to you, on this,
our day of wood,
the grain of us, the rings
remembering, the way
you will feel like time
in my two hands
when I touch you again.