A selection of Richard Moore's poems, with introduction and commentary by the author

Most of the following poems have appeared in one or another of Moore's published collections. All of these poems have appeared in periodicals.





THE NEW CLASSICISTS / RICHARD MOORE

(reprinted from Hellas, A Journal of Poetry and the Humanities, Volume 8, No. 1)

 

There are several senses, I suppose, in which it may be said that I aim in my poems to be a classicist. One of these seems primary and the others consequences. Central for me is the conviction that poetry should be social, should somehow be good for us as members of a group---city, clique, cult, nation---which it serves. Thus Aristotle in his Poetics tells us that tragedy purges, helps us to transcend our destructive emotions; and this is good, not just for us as individuals, but for the society as a whole. He may have been replying to Plato, that romantic in classic clothing, who had said that the comic and tragic poets should be expelled from the ideal city because they were irresponsible, wrapped up in their mystical states, and only confused issues.

The classically minded poet writes, not primarily for himself, but for others. He---Sappho, Emily Dickinson, and many others of their sex are to be included in that pronoun---wants to entertain us and has things to tell us, or show us. If he talks about himself, it is to use himself as an example, to show us things about ourselves. If he sometimes seems malicious, like a Pope or a Swift, the unpleasantness is ultimately for our own good, regardless of how it first arose in the poet's mind. After all, it is sometimes painful to learn things. Maybe it is always painful, since the process changes us. This is how wit and humor get involved. Laughter eases the bad news, which must be told. Thus it happens that humor, when you stop and think about it, can sometimes be grimmer than the deepest tragedy.

We have gotten very close to what I aim at in my poetry. It is like the difference between Berlin and Vienna in a story that Germans tell about the difference between their two capitals. In the crisis that led to the outbreak of the First World War, Berlin wired Vienna: "The situation is serious, but not hopeless." Vienna wired back: "The situation is hopeless, but not serious." In my gloomy moments I have occasionally felt that I am a solitary Viennese in a nation of Berliners. As a Russian remarked in the Moscow subway, "Those asshole Americans are always smiling."

It seems to me that the social requirement accounts for the other characteristics that poetry should have, according to our New Classicists, New Formalists, New Narrativists, New Expansionists...with whom I have now and then been classified. Poetry that has a social role must be comprehensible and perceived to be poetry by ordinary people, not just by habitues of poetry slams or experts on college faculties (where nonsense is safe in the fortress of peer review). So it must be organized either like an essay, where instances support a proposition, or like a story that has a plot of some kind, events related by perceived or felt necessity; for these are the only generally known ways that writing can be put together. From that comes the "new narrative," which is to say, the old way of telling stories.

Verse forms---rhyme and meter in English---also arise from the need for poetry to be available to all. We all think of poetry as speech that is somehow special, striking, memorable. We want to remember, not just the idea, as with prose, but the actual words that utter it. Sound effects like rhythm and rhyme are the easiest, most recognizable ways to accomplish this. I would add: Let the rhythms be strict and the rhymes exact lest they slip by unnoticed. Of course, there are other ways to be memorable. Like Milton or Hopkins, one can put sentences together in unusual ways and use strange words, but this threatens comprehensibility; or like Whitman or Ginsberg, one can go on passionately through long lists, risking tedium. There is always the temptation for the poet to think: What I have to say is so fine, no device is needed to make it unforgettable. This thought is especially tempting in an age when attention to routine skill and mundane detail are thought to be too troublesome for the busy writer to bother with. But as so often happens, the apparently easy way turns out to be the hard way. So it is difficult---and grand---to carry off and act like that.

This last idea, coupled with the politics of democracy, has given rise to the free verse so disastrously practiced in the schools for the last couple of decades. If we affirm the ultimate worth of every individual, no matter how humble, then must we not also affirm the ultimate value of what he says, no matter how stupid and tedious? He must be above devices and beyond criticism. To say that someone's writing is inept is mean- spirited and undemocratic. I have encountered students who have been deeply shocked when I said that some writing is absolutely better than other writing. The fact may be imperfectly known, but it is a fact. Losing sight of that is one more death for us to endure.

So, poet, if you are going to write prose, at least let it be versified, at least let it be clear. At least tell us something.

Let me begin my display of wares with a poem from my first book about a subject which males find unpleasant and about which females lack expertise. But for all that, it seems to me a poem about how life begins.

 

THE CONQUEST

A curious place you found finally to please our senses
after the Continent had witnessed your defenses,

to lead me up that hill where daws and eagles roost
above that town where holy pageants are produced,

as if you'd show me all the kingdoms of the world.
The sun licked over swells of skyline; darkness curled

its long exploring shadows through the waiting hills.
Winds blew, and I lay helpless in the evening's chills.

You were untouched....What could I do there, face-to-face
with countries watching me, and sky, and wordless space

as empty as this solitude in which I live?
Your silence said, "If they are you, what can you give

of them? Those shadow kingdoms in you? Watch them pass!
Can all that space find one white body in the grass?"

Then over a carved table later on that night,
I looked into your face, subdued, saddened, and white,

and was uncomfortable, and became almost cross,
stiff, like a mourner, mourning primly his great loss.

 

I try to avoid being the hero of the stories I tell. They are more credible that way. (This is one more instance of the urge to art being the same as the urge to truth.) Having begun with love, let us proceed to war: the war inextricably intertwined with so many attitudes in recent years. My poem about it, which was unpublished since it offended everyone, shows a role (a Viennese role) that a poet can properly play in such events.

 

POEM ABOUT VIETNAM THAT DIDN'T SUIT ANYBODY AT THE TIME

The very skies grow soiled and clammy.
Autumn has come to 1967.
Thunderous Yellowbirds climb south to Miami,
the shrill vacuum cleaners of Heaven.

The ducks rise up in careless ranks
and disappear into the Great Beyond;
I stand where shrinking water bares its banks
and skip flat stones across the pond.

Lyndon is in his great white mansion;
peace-loving students storm the Pentagon.
I stay right here, coiled up inside my scansion,
while all these dreadful things go on.

Lyndon, no matter how adept,
no matter how proficient the machine,
the floor of Heaven still remains unswept,
there are some things we cannot clean.

There is a destiny that fails.
Asia has felt the heal of our empire,
clung to the heel, sucked out the shiny nails
(such is the virtue of a mire),

and now the boot is falling off;
I think the white and naked toes grow fungal;
I do not think our minds will ever doff
what they put on in Asia's jungle.

I hear a mother's anxious tears
who supplicates her decorated hero
to throw away that nasty bag of ears
that she found, cleaning out his bureau.

The dandelions that rule my lawn
are difficult to search out and destroy;
their buried roots remain, and when I'm gone
new seedlings secretly deploy.

Good weed killer, dumped on en masse,
Lyndon, I hope will work with greater ease---
distinguishing intruders from true grass---
on dandelions than Vietnamese.

Though rioters shall feel the rod
and half the banks in Texas feed you profit,
though you have Sunday-breakfasted with God
and Billy Graham, His hired prophet,

Lyndon, things haven't gone so well
for you, for me, and for this hectic Nation.
You've worked too hard. Why not go home now, sell
the ranch, the banks, the TV station,

and join me here beside the pond,
pitching these skipping stones? Catastrophe
will come, need not be wrested, begged, nor conned.
It needs no help from you or me.

Forget the poor and how they house;
forget the protocol, the Paris gowns;
watch how the clever stone skips, skips, then plows
so gracefully before it drowns.

 

I am very proud of the fact that I advised President Johnson to retire long before he probably thought of it himself. Evidently my rhyming or sleeping mind can sometimes clarify matters that my consciousness finds too complicated or too scary to deal with. Here is another poem from those times:

 

SPRING 1968

Yes, I, too, feel an irrational fear,
seeing those bearded boys sprawl on the Common
beside their stringy girls in pungent jeans---
men with unrecognizable new terrors,
strange fashions and unclean philosophies.
Why do the generations go so quickly,
leaving me derelict on the park grass,
properly dressed, writing my proper verses?
Puritan, sprung from old white racist stock...
the colonists that came here with a dream.
God never came. When we'd worn ourselves out,
killing red devils in the woods, we settled---
for bright forked tails, TV, high-powered washers.
It's good clean fun: ask any bomber pilot.

The suburbs whir with motors; every year
fresh progress; newer, subtler disappointments;
police pursue yet madder maniacs
down faster highways to the head-on crash
with the full family on a pleasure drive---
all stopped. The mother, who ripped open, bore,
creating problems for the coroner:
from seven deaths eight corpses were produced.
Still, the police had stopped their man---bemedaled,
fresh from the jungles and his brother's wedding.

Buried hypocrisies breed violence.
When the boil throbs, someone soon comes to squeeze it.
It's best not to go driving on hot nights.
It's best to stay at home, drink gin, and wait.
And so, like a true capitalist house owner,
I squat in my wall-to-wall speculation,
self-regulating and self-censoring,
ready to vote for the Convention's choice,
while through the tropic thickets of my mind
crawl little yellow men with hand grenades.

Our malfunctioning washers turn us bitter.
We live; the gritty moments still collect.
Pilgrim, thy numerous progeny shall be
sands of the desert...
Prophecies are spoken;
they come through the warm springtime like the oily
breath that exhausts from a Good Humor wagon
throughout the long hot summer. Gathered there,
frivolous bearded saints assume the earth.
It's theirs. And I, for one, have staked no claim.

 

The first time I read this poem in public, someone in the audience gratified me greatly by exclaiming, "This is horrible. Why am I laughing?" Once again the speaker in the poem is at least as detestable as the world he detests. To act wisely and reasonably, one must have the bad news.

Here is a poem that got into my first book that combined love and war:

 

JUNGLE WAR

Weak sun-rays out of winter cloud;
the dusty windowpane crossed once by a dark bird.
In a far room the baby cries aloud;
between us two, no word.

But heightened by the lonely cry,
tropical silence in us sets its traps and harkens.
Old grudges deepen and intensify,
and outside the sky darkens.

Under the books, the knickknack shelves,
the shreds of cobweb that still hold our lives together,
we penetrate the jungles of ourselves.
Bombs burst, touched by a feather.

Can no one stop this dull, mad war?
Each still avoids the other's unimpassioned kiss.
O, we no longer know what we longed for.
Maybe it was this.

 

That poem continues a process of seeing metaphorical relationships between public events and happenings in my personal life which had begun a little earlier when I returned with a new wife and new-born children from four years in Europe. The 58 sonnets I wrote about living with them on an abandoned hill farm in Vermont, a gift from my father, are my second book. When one accepts a strict form like that, all sorts of wild things become possible. Here, for example, is another poem about President Johnson, which is also a parody of Milton's sonnet on "Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud / Not of war only, but detractions rude, / Guided by faith and matchless Fortitude..."

 

36

Lyndon, our chief of men, who through a cloud
not of death only, but elections rude,
guided by guile and shameless platitude,
thy way to huge majorities hast ploughed,
and on the neck of bumptious Barry cowed,
hast reared thy trophies and thy work pursued,
riding with Hubert, that ferocious dude,
while columnists resound thy praises loud:

Milton deserts me now; yet much remains
besides the memory of Bobby Baker.
We've seen a leader with style, verve, and brains
shot down: a pity if his ghost complains
that the bold brightness of an image-maker
is clouded by a dull consensus-taker.

Again the Muse was right-on: consensus-building, which he learned in the Senate, was Johnson's (and the Country's) downfall. I think poetry is a perfectly rational discipline of knowledge and, when it is handled properly, can deal very usefully with the world of fact.

But the main emphasis of the sonnets book is personal.

11

You were so solid, father, cold and raw
as these north winters, where your angry will
first hardened, as the earth when the long chill
deepens---as is this country's cruel law---
yet under trackless snow, without a flaw
covering meadow, road, and stubbled hill,
the springs and muffled streams were running still,
dark until spring came, and the awful thaw.

In your decay a gentleness appears
I hadn't guessed---when, gray as rotting snow,
propped in your chair, your face will run with tears,
trying to speak, and your hand, stiff and slow,
will touch my child---who, sensing the cold years
in your eyes, cries until you let her go.

 

Beyond the Petrarchan form, there's an odd rhythmic effect in this one. Each of the closing six lines has a pause after the fourth syllable except the last, where it is after the third. The change in the established pattern, emphasized by the internal rhyme, helps the poem, I think, to its horrifying conclusion. A stroke of luck, that. The title of the collection is Word from the Hills. Here's the title poem, which incidentally expresses my philosophy as a teacher: when you address people, you have to use, not your language, but theirs.

 

53


Gee-gees were horses, ta-ta her first word
for her dark faeces, when through hay and heather
toddling, we stopped to see, as dry as leather,
a heap of lumps, a hummock of horse turd;
and, Da? she questioned, who had only heard
meaningless names till then---when like a feather
a thought struck and I put her words together,
not once daring to hope for what occurred:

she stood there, silent, puzzled, open-eyed,
as if I'd handed her some shiny token,
then, Gee-gee ta-ta...gee-gee ta-ta! cried,
as if a shell surrounding her had broken,
and shouted still, till all the hills replied---
till the dark hills surrounding us had spoken.

My next book in order of publication (it was also later in the writing) was Empires, four long narrative poems in blank verse spoken by well-known players on history's tragicomic stage: Aaron Burr and Jay Gould from the American past and Archimedes and Cleopatra from the ancient world to give the image of a possible American future. I quipped in an Afterword that I went from the sonnets that were openly personal and covertly historical to these openly historical Browningesque monologues that were covertly personal. Speaking in the voices of others, I found it possible to say things that it would have been an effrontery to say on my own. Burr's politically incorrect opinions of even better-known personages, for example:

Good revolutionary---Jefferson,
who've since become our stately deity---
rebel---as long as property's protected--
what good you did in office violated
your own theories, and everything from theory---
that mad embargo---was catastrophe.
Your pious harping on the Rights of Man
with scarce a word about the state of slaves
mocked the perceptions of the simplest child.
We'll suffer for these quaint hypocrisies---
suffer already in our silent hearts,
where unadmitted lies breed agony.
Burr got the slaves their freedom in New York,
Burr first, and not from any principle:
mean practicality, low common sense
declared it decent, sensible, and just.
The beggars might have felt, say, gratitude---
seeing I didn't make them Presidents.

"Life, Liberty, and the pursuit," you wrote,
"of happiness." Happiness? Jefferson,
you should have left it reading, "property."
Cross out "happiness." "Property" was honest.
O, but it wasn't ringing; it was low.
Safer to make the sentence meaningless.
How can a Nation gather and be founded
without grand-sounding words? When low men lead,
how can they tell the truth? And so the Myth
of the Republic blunders fondly on,
till the compacted lies on which it rolls
crumble to sand and leave us derelict,
obliged to contemplate ourselves at last.

Or here is Burr, defending his eighteenth-century satirical attitudes:

O yes indeed, governments must be solemn;
yet without humor, where's solemnity,
where's noble ritual? It is a game,
my friends, played with a duelist's precision:
you need a touch of lofty irony
and laughter in your heart to do it right.
But they, upholders of our dignity,
munching their apples on the Senate floor,
dealing in greasy waistcoats with the State,
cried shame because I dared magnificence,
loved women, laughed in money-lenders' faces,
and was at home with Old World subtleties.
O, the conclusion's obvious: not man,
no, money is the measure of all things.

And finally we see in this passage from "Burr" how poetry can surpass the plodding historian, who must have "documentation" to justify whatever he ventures to utter.

Ah, what were my deep motives, after all?
I loathe your undertakings with results
patly predictable. Give me some doubts
and a gay splash of possibilities.
Think what you will, but ask: what was the clearest
witness of Jefferson's hypocrisy?
Where does it shine more for the world to see
than in the farcical conspiracy
and shameful trial of Aaron Burr? The proof
demonstrable: the man's manifest lust
not only to undo me, but to hang me.

Similarly the absence of documentation, which stymies the scholar, allows the poet's imagination to discover in Jay Gould's inner life authoritative criticisms of the capitalist system.

And yet my profits maimed no Union soldiers.
Nor have I probed, like Morgan, other countries,
buying up this and that from simpletons
too innocent to realize what they own,
and when they learn, asked Congress to protect me.
We need those markets for stability,
he says. We'll need a bigger army too.
In this the Southerners deserve some praise,
who wanted outright slaves and honest conquest
and scorned this Northern pussyfooting empire.

Where's any joy in snuffing out the helpless?
Give me professionals, good competition,
smart men greedy as I. I never plundered
a corporation that had not been well
plundered already, and I never gave
profound justifications for my thefts
nor tried to wipe them clean with pieties.
For that, no minister can pardon me.

And dear God, save me from your Cyrus Fields,
your grand developers, your noble builders!
To think it helps the mind and health of men
to lay a cable underneath an ocean
so continents can lie to one another.

* * *

My books, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, and Dickens,
authors who would have hated what I was,
and histories that told how such as I
age after age lay heavy on each land.
Is there no other order possible?
We'll multiply our laws, enact controls,
but Goulds will rise and master any system,
until all systems crumble into ruin.

 

In the second half of the book, images of the ruin that Gould sensed fill the scene. Here is Archimedes foreseeing his own death in the fall of Syracuse, based on a picture waiting in my mind through the many years since I had encountered it in a child's encyclopedia. ("He" refers to Marcellus, the general of the besieging Romans.)

He'll send for me; he is a cultured man.
I'll be the learned monkey at his triumph.
And when they triumph in all cities, all
wisdom will be as monkeys in a circus.

We see those petals falling from the stem,
but who has guessed what roots are shriveling
or what will be when every god's been emptied?
People will write their poems, play their flutes,
dance; but the excellent discoveries
we made will cease abruptly when complete.
In all those shapes there's not one living thing.

I was the greatest of geometers,
a mere savage mechanic loosed in thought.
What is this itch to know the rule of things
and follow logic to its flaming end?
In triumphs of the mind we were as gods
who can escape all touch, all pain, all life.
What are these numbers but oblivion?
What were our cities but the sand that boys
shape to their dreams and nightmares by the shore
were centuries like tides wash them to nothing?

The gates cave in; blood raining in the streets;
men groan there, bleeding; screams of women fastened,
and children gently fettered for the market.
There'll be an angry soldier in my study,
angry to have this labor, fetch this dry
old man, balding and shriveled, from his chair,
while all his fellows rush in blood and plunder.
"By order of Marcellus, come!" he grunts.

"Do not disturb me, sir; I contemplate."

"Come to the general. Now. Move!"...All still.

I've seen the short patience of bloody men.
He raises his nicked sword. "Look up, old man!"
Only my silence, and it maddens him....

Indeed it was ourselves that we discovered
in forms we felt in things, their order, poise.
And when the life's complete, the corpse remains.
It's clear now. I bequeath my corpse to Rome.

 

Some of the book's generally favorable reviewers questioned the presence of Cleopatra as the speaker of the last poem. How dare I follow in the steps of Shakespeare and Liz Taylor? My cynically sophisticated, politically insightful speaker of eight languages bears no resemblance to Shakespeare's magnificent aging love goddess, as mythologized by Plutarch, nor to Shaw's improbably silly school girl. In fact, she was not Egyptian at all, but Greek. Here's a typical taste of her:

 

Yes, but my girlish years were not so easy
among the muffled sounds of family murders.
My little father, Ptolemy, "The Piper,"
who fluted sad sobriety away
between his banquets, orgies, poisonings,
and anxious trips to Rome to bribe the Senate,
murdered my sister to regain his throne.
His formal title, "Neos Dionysos,"
commemorates his taste in love and wine.
What wit we had in names we gave ourselves!
Old Philopater, "Lover of his Father,"
murdered his father to assume that title.
Some said we Ptolemies were decadent
and half Egyptian after all these years.
I helped Caesar perceive that we were brilliant
and proper creatures of a dynasty
that had survived in peace for centuries,
while the free cities hacked themselves to pieces.
Though we were gory cats among ourselves,
wasn't our Alexandria the most
magnificent creation of the Greeks?
Were we not patrons of the arts? And though
the arts have died, I am their patron still.

We learned from the Egyptians, but our secret
was Alexander's, who first taught the Greeks
empire and oriental ways of power:
deification of the murderers
and madmen in the palace. Rome, how else
can your prim sons of liberty be ruled?...
What are those laws by which they claim they govern?
Tricks written for the rich and powerful
to gloss and misinterpret as they please---
I'll never understand them, I confess.
People need love, hate, something personal
to show the hope and hopelessness of life
unwearied by this drab pretense of justice.

 

If I hurry through the next three books, which are still in print, I may have space for a very recent poem or two at the end. No More Bottom mainly and rather irreverently commemorates a divorce and has aroused some ill feelings in my doctrinaire feminist friends. Even the title is objectionable. (But, ladies, it refers to the fact that in these marital cataclysms, the very bottom on which one stands seems to be swept away.) Most of the poems are epigrams, a form I have always loved.

 

IN WINTER

A wife and children gone, one grieves
and watches storm-tortured trees, hale,
flexible, whipping in the gale.
They manage. They have shed their leaves.

 

That concludes a section. Earlier items include

 

AFFLUENCE

Your ample house has amplified your plight.
The wife who sang once, charmed you, seemed so right
is now a toilet flushing in the night.

 

and this rewriting of Catullus' "Odi et amo":

 

PSYCHOPATH

My love for her is utter.
Daily my love increases.
Then why do I long to cut her
up into soggy pieces?

 

When the poems move on to other subjects, Catullus reappears--- this time his great line, "nox est perpetua una dormienda" (in V: imitating the Latin meter, "night comes always together then for sleeping"---but English can't recapture the highly expressive dropping of a syllable between "perpetua" and "una").

 

FOR A TELEPHONE ANSWERING MACHINE

I speak, an empty room.
You speak now too! Entomb
your voice and what you mean
with mine in my machine.

Thus death, old lovers rave,
unites them in their grave,
clasping, still growing older,
still mixing as they molder.

The sequel volume, Bottom Is Back, adds yet another meaning to the infamous word, reminding the reader on the title page of the character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: "He thinks himself too grand, / this ass in fairyland." The book contains several extended meditative poems and, of course, more epigrams. Let it be represented here by one of the poems which mix literary-social satire with a sad sense of the impermanence of human relationships. The title is derived from the words in the Catholic Mass, Credo in unum Deum, "I believe in one God." Unum, by itself, means "one thing," as in "I know what you believe in."

 

CREDIT IN UNUM

To fill the moral void
when God Almighty dies,
some shall believe in Freud,
some in the Nobel Prize.
All-yielding, nothing loath,
Sibyl believed in both.

Her faith was eager, touching;
it made my heart glow warmer.
I liked to see her clutching
that holy man, the former,
but I could best get at her
by lashing at the latter.

"A Nobel Prize for him?
Why, Frost---like several fellows---
shines bright enough to dim
glimmers from twenty Bellows."
She, waking to a jury,
lept from the bed in fury.

Her kitchen pots went bang.
"Loving relationships
cannot survive," she sang,
"such jabs, such brutal quips."
I tried to soothe, finagle
at breakfast---a stale bagel.

I bit its crust and---tasting
truths that my crunching bruited---
departed, shriveled, wasting,
remorselessly uprooted,
who'd been a happy weed in
her lush and lovely Eden.

God of our winter chill,
why must You be so dead?
Had You been living still,
Sibyl had stayed in bed
and love, forgetting wrath,
bloomed in her primrose path.

 

Next I have to say something about a kind of world unto itself, a 220-page mock epic, mock Bildungsroman, in rhyming trimeter couplets. It was finished ten years before any of my other books were published and finally published itself in its entirety last year as The Mouse Whole. During the three years I spent writing it, I thought I was discovering a way to make poetry popular again, whereas I was only discovering the egregious unpublishability of mouse epics. The protagonist is a mouse in a world of mice, a sewer world in which he dreams of a sunlit ocean. He finally reaches it, disastrously, in the poem's closing lines.

Confronted with sewer food, the mouse has an eating problem, much to the annoyance of his father, who has lost his tail to a .mb7 rat while hunting for food to feed his family. The young mouse has transcendental longings, and when he finds an envelope in a drain and has a dream which instructs him how to use it as a canoe, he sets off in search of the fabled ocean. Most of the poem deals with his adventures along the way, and most of the scenes are too long to quote, but here is one which occurs after Samson (the reader of the poem has just learned his name) has met Genevieve's family in their Populous Modern Drain and learned from her mother that it is the custom in that country for males when they marry to visit a mysterious machine which cuts off their tails:

 

O her nasty insufferable talk!

"Hey Jenny, let's go for a walk."

"Daddy dear, we'll come back soon,"
said Jenny....
Outside it was noon;
and the whole world looked new-made,
as if by machine. No shade
was anywhere in view,
no green, and nothing that grew.
Where was I? Where had I been?
And where did this nightmare begin?
"Jenny," I said.
"Yes, honey."
"Your family seem kind of funny."
She whimpered. "They make me ashamed.
They're poor. They can't much be blamed."
"Their beliefs seem a little bit queer...."
We walked on in silence. "My dear,
I won't make a long recital...
but my tail...I regard it as vital...."
I cleared my throat with a cough.
"I'd prefer not to have it cut off...."
That last sentence seemed to entrance her.
"Genevieve, can't you answer?...
The tail is a vital part
of a masculine mouse. His art,
his bearing, the modes of his thought
are involved....In a universe fraught
with falsity and sham,
I need it to be who I am.
It acts as a subtle salve
to my spirit....It's all I have
in a world that I didn't choose,
this organ which, if I lose..."
"Would it really be such a fatality?"
"Well darling, my personality,
balance, innermost virtue...."
"O Sammy, I know it'll hurt you,
but everyone here expects it,
and it seems like the only exit."
"Do you mean 'the only way out'?"
"O I s'pose!..." (She'd started to pout.)
"Love, love, and what do we get?
Despised like an unwanted pet!
First I have to deliver
my flesh to his lusts...then shiver
with chills beside the river
exposed to that swampy ground...
then get in some gadget he's found...
and flounder...and almost get drowned....
Just as well: he'd planned to heave me
overboard down there, and leave me
anyway...innocent Jenny,
the first of no doubt many
for clever and handsome Sam,
who'll keep his member, and scram
as soon as my health starts to fail...."

"I won't, Jenny, cut off my tail!"

A dreadful silence ensued.

"Jenny dear...Jenny?...If you'd
just say something, Jenny....I know
you can talk...." (Poor mouse, she was so
inarticulate.)
"What can I say?
You have to have it your way...."
She sat by a bottle and wept:
"O honey, I'm so inept.
I know I'm too weak to stop your
refusing to let them lop your...
I don't understand your affairs.
The males here who chop off theirs
all look so clean and snappy....
You know best. I just want you happy....
But honey dear...please be discreet
and..."
"And?"
"Well..."
"Well, my sweet?"
"Hide it between your feet.
If you have to keep it to be you,
hide it so no one will see you."

I stared; and as we faced
in that barren mechanical waste,
I saw the thoughts that obsessed her....
O God, did I really detest her?

And yet my motion had carried:
with my tail intact we were married---

 

The book being published by Orchises Press in 1998 is another unified oddity: a collection of related verse essays, lyrics, and epigrams, all done in an accentual imitation of classical elegiac couplets. The book opens with a personal introduction which sets the tone and gives an idea of the motion and swing of the whole:

 

PYGMIES


I

Praised be The Lord who, along with my bad teeth, blessed me with patience,
and, when the patience was gone,
knotted my heart with despair:
fear of it stirs me to dream up these eerie magnificent verses,
that, without readers, will cause
deeper despair than they cure,
which will, in turn, urge out more verses, until I'm a tombstone.
Such is the fever that still
burns for the poison and drinks.
Is it not thus that my perverse lusts and desires would have it?
Is it not suitable thus?
Sadness that darkens my heart,
think of the vacant and trivial eyes of the spirits in Heaven,
joyously singing to God
Johann Sebastian Bach
all week long---and on days off, Mozart, purely for pleasure.
Angels have need of our song.
What could they think up themselves,
steeped in desireless bliss and the unpained loves of the Blessed?
Bone-deep suffering here
deepens our frivolous hearts
when they survive it; and then, when they don't one day, it is over,
Heavenly music and God,
all our absurdities, gone
out of our cold heads, as from its tomb the cadaver of Pharaoh:
sealed in its coffin of gold,
royal decay that attracts
masterful robbers, as shimmering Heavenly images, poets:
emptiness draws men in,
vacuums them up with the dust.

 

To close this presentation, we have some very recent poems in the satiric-epigrammatic vein: images of decay in the social order, exemplified by deterioration in the relationship between the sexes: an outdated moral view, perhaps one ought to say nowadays.

 

WHAT FALLS AWAY

What falls away is always. And is near.

---Roethke

1

God, what a gas, to play the dope an hour,
pretending I was Arthur Schopenhauer,
full of tart dicta, dialectic,
puns, witticisms, wild and hectic!

She too with wit---no lack, no lack!---
and wittiest upon her back,
O, understood each twist and turn
for which we dirty old men yearn.

Freed there from "drab Christian morality"
into our "cult of personality,"
we rolled and laughed, scratched every itch.
I was the wise man, she the witch.

 

2

Then we touched deeper mysteries, locked
squirming in our Walpurgisnacht.
"Promiscuous" she has been billed---O,
but has a son: her private dildo.

When full-grown lovers leave the scene,
he comes, as it were, in between,
learns much: then, turned out of her curls,
educates smaller boys and girls,

to whom thus playfully connected---
what fun!---till dumb parents objected;
for prudery is on the increase.
Answer the phone. It's the police.

 

3

The affair grows, frisks and cavorts
with lawyers, therapists, and courts,
and for his services our sonny
is costing mamma lots of money.

But evils have attendant goods.
The two have fled now to the woods
far from the scene of sonny's crimes
and left a lover with these rhymes.

There mamma works her spells and charms,
secure in sonny's growing arms,
strong now, unlike his poor lame soul.
But look: the victim's in control---

 

4

was all along, when pranks of his
drove lovers from the premises
and kept his mother free to mother him,
her way: belittle, muddle, smother him.

Thus mother gets him his desire,
this little Nero his empire:
rules it through him. His rages stir...
At last, I think he'll murder her---

her first. He'll find her there alone
and demand money from the crone.
Dear God, I wake, hearing her scream.
Is there no waking from this dream?

 

And here a mockery of attempts to extract moral values from science:

 

THE SHORTCOMINGS OF DARWINISM AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE

"You're shocked? Well then, consider this
Darwinian analysis:
old men who raped young girls, my goose,
were more likely to reproduce
---weren't they?---than those who loved them dearly,
respected them, and lusted merely.
We're caught in evolution's dance.
So curse God, and take down your pants."

 

BURIALS

The children grown
to rage, disaster,
having long known
they wouldn't last her,

declared my sweet,
my erstwhile lover:
Our life? Complete.
Finished now. Over.

Therefore we sever.
Such things, diminished,
far gone, but never,
we have found, finished.

To the archives
that wrench and rend
of broken lives
there is no end.

Still, still they haunt us,
in every breath
breathe on us, taunt us,
dance on our death.

 

A QUESTION OF IDENTITY

She's full of antidepressants.
They open her throttle.
Depressing to think that her essence
comes out of a bottle.
This genius, quips an old meanie,
is only a genie.

 

WINE

Patience! Her disposition may get sweeter
after her daily liter.
She grows talkative, gay, loses her cares
and footing on the stairs.
I watch, hoping she'll fall and bust her kisser,
forgetting how I'd miss her.

 

FASHION MODEL

When she pulls out her stops
and smiles, pouts for the camera,
it is enough, sir, to enamour a
slavering horde of fops.

She needs no nether cheeks
to clear the laden shelves
of high-priced garments, as by elves,
in ten thousand boutiques.

So pay her what she asks.
Her magic rules the day,
in darkness shall be cleared away.
Toast her! She drinks, she basks.

 

MAKING LOVE IN PRINT

Why should I mind that she, impervious to curses,
fishes for foppish gurus with her baited verses?

High in the branches, crowlike, my excited squawking,
celebrates tabby, through the orchard softly stalking.

 

WHAT SOME OLD MEN HAVE TO OFFER

Each girl, young, slim,
when he met, he'd ask her
to fly with him
to Madagascar.

He'd say, "Listen, honey,
it ain't no crime.
I got the money.
You got the time.

I've a banner here.
I have rejoiced it
still flies. You, dear,
have the power to hoist it."

She answers sassily,
"Purveyor of shames,
you propose too facilely."
"No!" he exclaims,

"Venturesome-hearted
and ready to hop,
once we get started,
we might never stop.

Don't be no Spartan.
Let's wine. Let us sup.
Your time's just startin'.
Mine's nearly up.

I'll hire a navy,
a choir, a nave.
Swim in my gravy.
Dance on my grave."

 

YET ANOTHER APOLOGY

Why's he so cutting, ironic, unkind,
like those bitter old pagans of Greece?
"A positive mind is a turbulent mind."
My negative mind is at peace.

 



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