Teaching the Tigers

Arms folded, wearing tiger masks,
students sit. Questions? No one asks.

Loss and grief, exile, return:
how much of it can they take in?

The Iliad: to go to war.
The Odyssey: and come back home.

Epic’s relentless forward motion,
lyric’s gossamer attention,

adventure parsed as allegory,
the iterations of the story,

and then to choose the right translation
for a fearful generation.

May poetry keep finding ways
of piercing the miasmal haze

and reclaiming a clear space
behind each young and guarded face

and washing through the walls that hide
whatever’s bubbling inside.

Same Screen

The summer they produced The Bald Soprano
at the Bread Loaf School of English,
I was a faculty brat.
A line from that play has remained a favorite:
A stone caught fire.
Today that line came true.
It rang in my ears as soon as I saw
the cathedral in flames.

A cathedral in flames?
Hard to believe even when it’s seen.
How much do we believe these days
of images that reach us on a screen?
Most images do reach us on a screen.
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen,
Hart Crane wrote. Aristotle understood
that poetry’s less unlikely than history.
Poetry, which encompasses everything
that might have happened or that still might happen,
can be prophetic. History looks back.

Riders, Parthenon Frieze

These riders have almost no space,
caracoling from A to B,
wrist shoulder elbow hoof and knee,
the horses rearing back in place,

almost no space but endless time,
sheltered from weather, nervously
grouped in close proximity,
their cluster here a kind of home.

Where are they going? You can see
light strike the faces; they move on
out of the shadows toward dawn.
Or is that radiance sun on stone?

All of them pointed the same way,
a muscled chest, a close-clipped mane,
a mantle flung over an arm,
quivering, eager, barely reined

Translated Objects

When my son Jonathan moved from our West End Avenue apartment to Brooklyn, he took a surprising amount of furniture with him – heavy, dark brown furniture mostly, from his late father’s side of the family.  Furniture I’d failed for years to notice I no longer needed. But once the dresser, table, chair and whatever else had been loaded into a van and taken away, on a rainy December night in 2014, the West End Avenue apartment where I now lived with my new love began to breathe.  Corners of rooms, newly empty, stretched themselves, plumped themselves out with air.

Cento on the Beach

The people along the sand,
somnambulists along the promenade,
all turn and look one way.
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée:
I have seen it over and over,
the same sea, the same.
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
the waves fold thunder on the sand,
the wetter ground like glass
reflects a standing gull.
And then blue heaven spread
its crystalline pendentives on the sea.

Threshold and Mirror: The Biography

For Langdon Hammer and James Merrill

If merely to read the massive biography
of a poet is arduous, then to write
it beggars the imagination. To stand
both close and far, to look forward and back,
to measure experience through the mirror
of pages, poems, letters….Poised at the threshold

of such a life, a chronicle features several thresholds
including the biographer’s,
who sometimes peers into the cloudy mirror
of his own past and writes
in a crabbed cipher like Leonardo’s. Back-
ward slanting letters stand

Departure

Just as even weeks before it is time to leave
you begin to think about packing,

about what you will take for the two-week trip –
what to take, which means how much to take,

and how to cram that too much into your luggage,
and what you can reasonably leave behind,

and what it will be like when you arrive
in that still vague new place

which you can neither envision nor avoid imagining:
the contours of each day,

where you will sleep, what and where you will eat,
and as the scheduled date of departure approaches

On Translation

On a muggy morning in Corfu, at Ionian University, some of whose departments are housed in what, if I understand correctly, was once a lunatic asylum, I find myself in a classroom drawing an arc from left to right across a whiteboard. The marker’s running out of ink – a familiar dilemma that brings back One Washington Park, the Business School building at Rutgers-Newark where I taught only last week and will teach again next week. I enjoy smuggling a literature course into this building under the radar of finance. My literature students are the outliers at the Business School; the black-suited business majors rarely make eye contact in the elevators. An aging poet like me is invisible. But here on a Greek island, in this long, narrow classroom, all eyes seem to be fixed on what I’m scribbling.

Skin Care

Broadway and Fifty-first. December gloaming.
A neon glare spills out of a boutique,
brilliant cube, door open to the street,
from which a black-clad figure darts and pounces.
Lithe, lightly bearded, younger than my son,
and standing at my shoulder
before I reach the corner
(I’m abstracted, waiting for the light),
insinuatingly with serpent tongue
he purrs “May I ask you a question?
What kind of product do you use on your skin?”
With which magic words, this messenger
(an angel, but what kind of angel is he?)
lures me into his realm.
He has been trained to recognize the signs:
I’m tired and hungry and preoccupied.
I’m aging, parched; I’m turning to a mummy.
In a flash he has me where he wants me,
seated in his white box, my coat still on.
Piercing light and an alarming mirror
magnify each pore and fleck and vein:
blue cords, brown freckles floating in skim milk.