A good poem, like a good riddle, May take a long time to unwind, And in that time we find its pleasure. The old nautilus shell—spiraling, Whorled, and iridescent—shows at once Its bright chambers to light And hides its cavities in shadow. Turn the thing, and find its great eye Watching like a riddle, or a poem, To see whether its strange bearing can be found. They are ancient and pearly, these things, Found in the icy depths of profound waters: Hard without, soft within, cryptic and fascinating— A verse in a nautilus, a nautilus in verse, Two marvelous twists in an ocean of poetry.
I know there are some others Who still prefer nature’s sweet light To the glare of the television set And who like mournful Tom Waits songs And can imagine what life was like Centuries before the Industrial Revolution, When the Natives on the plains Lived in teepees and the Mayans Were still constructing pyramids.
Sometimes I see a hummingbird flying And I remember hearing about How quickly its swift heart beats And I see the moon in the daytime Behind hammerhead clouds that still, With effort, look like floating castles.
I guess that the world’s just gotten tougher. The facts squeeze the youth Right out of you. Genocides, war, pollution, Disease, global warming, you name it— Everyone’s got an opinion and wants you to take a side. Hell, even the people who bury their heads In the sand and don’t harm a soul Get outed for not helping. But it makes it a little better somehow, to listen to old jazz With the music turned down real low And a hand-rolled cigarette between your fingers With a little bit of lamplight and A half-decent book written by a barely decent man, And a cold bottle of beer, To steal a few seconds from the world— It’s a guilty pleasure, made all the worse by knowing That outside the world is going up in flames, And you’re nestled in to the semi-darkness Enjoying a few moment’s peace.
In this heat,
With the cicadas buzzing
And the dogs panting
There is nothing to do
Until you wash yourself
In the warm ocean
Until the rain falls
And turns the land green
Until the moon rises
And the heat
Like a cat
Curls up for a nap.
And then, only then,
Can you breathe.
“The Housefire” is a short narrative poem written in free verse. It describes a moment caught in time.
She had skin
As a watermelon’s
Frozen for a moment,
With her mouth open,
So that her round white teeth
And the tip of her pretty
Were just visible.
Her arm was outstretched,
Like a medusa
Under a deep sea.
I could understand her.
I suppose that’s
I might stand too
If I came home,
And I, like her,
Found my home
This poem is about the prisons that we make for ourselves.
It’s written in free verse.
It was just a little prison,
But its walls were hard as iron
And its jailers were resolute bastards.
They hung men, day and night,
Hung them even in my dreams
So that as I lay sleeping, fearful,
I watched ghostly rebels
Swinging by their necks,
Dozens of them,
Swinging through the mists,
From nightmare gallows.
It was just a little prison,
But it kept me from being free.
It stopped me from doing
The things that I wanted to do.
It was just a little prison,
But I made it bigger
With bricks of fear
And mortar made of doubt.
The bars were of ignorance,
And I paved the floor
With missed opportunity.
I roofed the ceiling
With a broad sheet of discomposure
That covered up the sky.
Because why the hell not?
I thought I might as well.
I can’t see any distance anyway,
When I lose my temper.
It was just a little prison,
But at least I was my own warden,
And my own jailer too.
I could deny those visitors,
Courage and wisdom.
It was just a little prison,
But I made it
All by myself.
It is a request that passion teach no more hard lessons. No broken hearts, no scars or scabs, just love.
Passion, amid that fair skulduggery that is Time,
Teach me no more hard lessons;
I need no more legions of tormenting lesions.
Leave me only love—soft as a pheasant,
Enduring as space—until my passing.
An old green glass bottle is opened at a lakeside party. Fireworks burst in the night. Above the revelers, a good spirit sits upon the clouds, fishing for kind deeds and words.
The poem is written in free verse.
An old olive green bottle with its label faded and worn
Is shaken by its neck. Its contents churn and whisk.
Its settlings rise up and whirl in the heaving swirl.
There’s a sharp pop as its cork is unstoppered,
Then an eddying flow as the amber liquid is poured.
From out its mouth comes a dear beverage
That fills the glasses which are toasted
To fireworks in the night sky and which set to riot
The lakeside revelers who dance beneath
Moonsilvered racks of billowing clouds.
Up above them, a good spirit is fishing.
He’s dropped his line from the sky to earth.
His beard is of curled cloud, and his eyes are twinkling stars.
His body is made of mist.
From time to time he catches, from the people below,
What he’s fishing for:
A kind word, a bit of hope,
Something to lead another
Through dark days.
He reels up such a catch, this kind spirit, and he
Observes what he’s got, there on the end of the line.
It glimmers, gleams, and shines.
When he laughs, he laughs with joy,
And all go running to get out the coming rain,
For they can hear the thunder rumbling
The Luthier Alone in His Workshop tells the story of a solitary old violin maker who, when he is fixing a violin, suddenly decides to play it in his shop. He plays a song by Johan Sebastian Bach. The music fills the room, and when he stops, there is an echo, then silence.
The poem’s written in free verse.
ear to horsehair strings
(pluck, pluck, twing)
The luthier: polar, hoary hair
rivuleted, waxen face
This is a poem about the reflections of a people and their city, both the reflections of their lives and the reflections of their place.
In April when the cherry trees bloom,
City folk are reflected in the spring rain’s puddles,
By water that serves as mirrors for impressions.
Wind whips billowy clouds into an approaching eastern gloom,
While upon the shiny street, a poor wayfarer huddles
Beneath imposing windows that reflect metropolitan professions.
The sunbeams leave long, plum-shaded shadows beyond buildings
Whose western walls are washed by beams in apricot and tangerine
While in this gleaming twilight, a black cat’s lime-gold eyes glint,
And hazy rays catch the rich institutions’ burnished gilding.
Night falls abruptly upon folk fat and merry, lonely and lean.
The cat leaps, and houses’ windows glow with a lemony tint.
People’s reflections disappear.
Darkness washes the edifices in shades of coal and emery.
In the night, people’s luminous private lives appear,
And the recollection of the day disintegrates to circadian memory.
“The Bleak and Wild Desolate Shore” describes a beach along the Olympic Peninsula and tells of the indigenous Makah people whom I took an interest in during 2017. The free verse poem relies on imagery. I found the book The Sea Is My Country by Josh Reid and the Makah Cultural and Research Center to be good sources of information about Makah culture.
Along the very tip of the Olympic Peninsula—
harbored by sea stacks,
washed by the ablutions of frequent rain,
and scrutinized by the salmon-keen eyes of fierce eagles
who sit perched with feathers made wet and salty by ocean spray—
lies a beach spliced by piney evergreens and the wintry Pacific Ocean.
It wears as its mantle a cloak of becoming fog:
wide filaments of thick mist wreathe the beach’s shoulders,
narrow wisps tuck into the crevices of teeming pine,
and, like a stole, that pale brume softly embraces
the necks of the majesterial, protruding stones.
The beach’s curvaceous, serene form lies upon its side
with its back to the land, knees tucked up against the tide,
with its stone lips ever kissing the briny, icy waves.
Water is its heart. In the rain, in the sea and spume,
throbs the lifeforce that begets the beach’s growth and decay,
shapes its projecting stone fingers, and creates its austere beauty.
In the night, the wan moon with its grey craters
beams down on sword ferns glowing nearly phosphorescent
and flashes on the bottle-gold eyes of great horned owls.
The moon turns milky the evergreen forest that adorns
the beach’s hips, and the moon tints the bleached driftwood
from day’s ivory to an iridescent alabaster of night.
That moon casts upon the beach’s cliffs a lustre
that speaks of shining rock, and, with its hushing silence,
it seems to make the surf’s voice boom.
With wind, the beach’s trees move sinuously and with susurrant song.
In the moonlight, upon the beach’s damp and footless shore,
lie whips of bull kelp, washed up and drying,
with algae blades like Medusa’s chaotic hair, their origins
in the marine forests of stone mantlepieces and rocky shelves.
The crows cackle madly in their rookery, the wind whishes,
surf roars, eagles scream, seals honk and bark and cry,
clouds morph then rework their hues, tides ebb and rise,
marshy mushrooms rise and rot with the sun’s circling,
the fragrance of evergreen sap freshens the air, salmon run,
gulls bed their island colonies with bones, osprey preen and fish,
glossy baneberries bear fruit like murderous scarlet pearls,
and purple mountain saxifrage color the cliffs.
In antiquity, the Makah resided here
using yarrow for childbirth, red cedar for dugout canoes,
yellow cedar for clothing, spermaceti for candles,
stones buffed by water to high polish and wound
by withy willows for anchor stones, having halibut for dinner,
sea otter teeth and whale fins for art, cherry bark for basketry
which tightens as it dries, and bones for awls and adze handles.
They used tides and stones and fences to catch fish,
laid white clam shells on the tidal floor for better contrast
to see the fish in their traps. On a crisp, windy spring night
six hundred years ago, the tribe gathered on the damp beach
after partaking in a feast of salmon, octupus, and halibut
for a sacred ritual conducted to send its rowers and harpooners offshore
in a twelve-seater canoe to hunt whale. A chief chanted,
sang, worked the crowd into a frenzy before the night fire,
and when the throng felt most animated, the chief
poured whale oil onto the fire, so that it soared, crackling to
a crescendo, rose like the wave of a tsunami, and
in the dark night the bellowing and shrieking
of the Makah were swallowed up by the forest.
Over this desolate beach there is a kind of peacefulness:
gently lapping waves, the soft pattern of rain,
the rustle of a crow’s wings. It appears desolate, Shi Shi,
here in winter.
A poem about lovemaking, which is like a ghost that lives in a home.
Lovemaking haunts our spirits,
The way a phantom inhabits a home.
The sex is at first tormenting,
A rattling of the pots and cabinet doors of our hearts.
What could cause our bodies to shake so?
We curse, not knowing quite what shakes us.
Then when the lovemaking, the phantom, is gone—
We miss it, we desire it.
We silently invite it back.
We miss the banging, the crashing, the confusion,
The chaos—all that the ghost, the sex, has brought.
Where could that spirit have gone?
We wonder, arbitrarily, if the ghost, the lovemaking,
Has gone to inhabit someone else’s home.
We shiver, thinking, “Someone else is fucking—and it’s not me!”
Jealousy invades our hearts,
Then we whisk the jealousy away again.
We think, “It is not productive to have such thoughts.
Not when there is work to be done—
There are chores to be attended to,
Families to be raised, and
Things to do. There’s no time to be thinking about sex.”
But still, like the phantom in our homes,
Unseen, the lovemaking anguishes our spirits.
Where could that ghost of lovemaking have gone?
And when at last we find it again,
We are soothed, for a brief moment,
And we leave our suffering, for a while,
Abandoned next to our clothes,
And we embrace the spirit, the lovemaking,
In an exultation of joy and delight.