Author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. Other poems in print and online journals. Adjunct professor creative writing George Washington University.
The Sense of Wonder
Somewhere I do my job,
which is, amazingly, poetry,
but also sowing culture
across an empire.
Perhaps my true vehicle
is that in which I descend
to new Arts Centers,
where I read.
(The form of the craft changes
annually, like cars.)
Rotors tilt, we hover,
the noise is tremendous –
(and someday, when we achieve
the silence of antigrav,
that too will be a sign).
Our dust coats the Resident
who dutifully ignores it,
shaking my hand
before a local version
of Johnson Embracing Ho
(Lyndon as ever bearlike,
Ho somewhat wolfish – not
the usual fading wisp).
We stand, gazing at the sculpture;
then I shake hands
with many brown people
robed in a jumble
of their clothes and ours,
their medals and ours,
beneath our flag –
the white infinity-sign
on blue, the broad stripes
handsome in the wind
that lifts the wet heat.
Across the Center grounds
bamboo bends, and trees
sway over the streets
that climb, neon-lit,
past clinics and temples
toward hilltop malls.
That night, after the storm
and my adequate reading,
I roam, slightly drunk,
the Resident’s park.
So gentle is the night,
so stable this province,
that I’m almost surprised
when the assassin springs.
Old man with big sword
is part of his problem –
another, his ornate
costume and scream;
worse are the skills
even its poets –
I disable him with a kick.
“You tear the son from the father, make
the daughter rebellious,
bury truth beneath your mud” –
I’m not sure that’s what he’s yelling
but have heard the like before,
and have seen the sudden
age and horror
that eat his face
as, under a lamp,
the guards race up,
and I loosen my grip
on the shattered arm
and swing him to them
with an odd dance step.
They probably got by on one-third
our calories, except when someone killed
a deer. In a well-proportioned canyon,
a naturally flat stone twelve meters wide
has dimples worn over two thousand years
of grinding nuts and seeds; the effect
is pure Noguchi. There are pools
in the rocks, streams under, if you know where
and when. At night, beneath the Milky Way,
when the temperature dropped sixty degrees, they
burned creosote or smeared themselves with mud.
Infant mortality 80%, not counting
exposures. If you lived:
intestinal parasites, somebody’s knife,
teeth worn down by hard grain, witchcraft, snakebite.
The cabins, spare and surprisingly tasteful,
stand under tall pale trees. Beyond a fence
a golf course begins; the green, the daily sprinklers
have that breathtaking effect
the rich like. The longer day-tour offers
two guides with jeeps, who seem
to launch into space – the countless swells and troughs
of grey-pink vanish briefly, then speed past.
An old mine: rusted rail and a pump.
The unrelated shack five miles away.
A creosote bush. At evening,
I tried to correlate several planes
of space comprising faint dead smells
and early-appearing stars. Two nights were enough.
How often I’ve wanted to write something
without symbols and with only the flimsiest
metaphors. Then buses, pills, dogs and leaking
pipelines would at last be themselves,
without aura, seen as fleas, spreadsheets, and they
themselves see. Viewed without finicky,
ever-doubtful ever–improvised detachment,
but from the same sort of head, stuffed
with the same sort of mucus as anyone’s.
A shrink – he was a Jungian and had
his reasons – said when I was thirty
that such an art, like a ripped balloon,
wouldn’t get off the ground. Whether we view
time as a metaphor, or timeless moments, timeless
truths (like what he said), what he said
was true. We may regard, therefore,
this poem, like any poem about poetry
or the poet’s hesitations, as dead for eternity.
As such it sails, like a ghost galleon
or Marie Celeste, past my friend Mike
in Berkeley, heroic aging activist
who, unprovoked on a recent visit, said
“In however small a way one can always act”
(or “must,” whatever). I mentioned neither
inertia, illness, fear, nor impacted
self-flattering despair but nodded,
partly in pious agreement, partly with tact.
It also, or the prosaic and sullen
theme it bears, sails, or let’s say crawls
past Mike’s constituents, housed in the faith
and packing cases of the upper class,
endlessly stringing Styrofoam beads. Oh
there is ecstasy (say better clarity or sleep)
in knowing that you cannot help or punish
anyone; the knowledge is like wind
in a poem’s sails or up its ass.
It’s autumn, after protracted summer.
Brown facts fall on brown lawns.
I have an image of a kind of palace
with many balconies, in a landscape farmed
by robots. I haven’t filled it
with anyone yet. What matters
is the breeze, which would have to remain
sweet. It’s a compensatory fantasy
and nobody’s business. Like a business.
My calmest most sequential thoughts involve
the End. Fundamentalists, plague.
Millions of tons of methane released from tundra.
Leopardi in his notebooks
remarked that such reflections comfort old men.
In ‘82 I knew a German girl.
I was a tourist fling, she was a symbol.
and a mean drunk, she used to look at my books
and growl, “Why do you care
about so many things? I care about nothing.”
In Roman times, Sparta survived,
barely, on tourism. Young aristos
on the Grand Tour rode down from Corinth,
complained of the bad wine and flea-ridden inns.
They watched some sort of communal dance
in which degenerate heirs
of the hoplites mimicked the endless spear-
and phalanx-drill of the old days.
The high point, apparently,
was a bloody beating and caning
of youths, who bore it impassively,
and of slaves representing the ancient serfs, the helots,
who were expected to cry.
When I teach, I feel a suspect ease
that also comes when I mention teaching
in poems. I have five kids this term.
The department should have cancelled the class
but hasn’t, and goes on paying me
my smidgen. We meet in a room
with no chalk, broken blinds,
and an amazingly skewed chair
in a corner. Outside, the new Science Center
goes on being noisily built,
an institutional whimsy: they can’t afford
to hire famous faculty for it,
however much they raise tuition.
One of my girls has read Great Expectations.
A boy, an ex-jock, thinks he started it.
The black kid, son of a preacher,
alone gets biblical references.
None of them knows any history.
I’ve long since had to learn to distinguish knowledge
from brains and pitch to the latter.
The course is Poetry Writing.
The black boy yearns
for some fiery unclear apotheosis.
The girl who read Dickens has always wanted
to hold a book of her own; in high school
she copied and bound her “very angsty” work.
The jock has some horror in his past.
The other two, both girls, take frenzied notes.
They all feel sorry for themselves and sometimes for others.
©2014 Frederick Pollack