Robert Pinsky: Online Poems
On "Eve Tempted by the Serpent" by
Defendente Ferrari, and in Memory of
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of
Rare spirit remembered with a pang
Of half forgotten clarity or density
A quality, quilled, a learned freshness
Unshattered though not perfect not Eden
No rippled meander through new islands
The parentless leaves and branches
The green marsh the blue the white feet
Of our adolescent mother, myth of
Perfection painted just before
Itself as if by impulse nor have we any
Where bright spirits are culled from, our
Admiration is a form of self exculpation--
Who is this strange bird we say as if that
Excellence were accident as in the
About a guady parrot escapee from
Some domestic cage into azure margins
Of California with its green wing and
It joined a band of crows flew with them
Fed with them conducted itself as one
Crow accepted by them we prefer that to
Realized soul excellence eloquence made
Same eggs and flowers and waters
As we are no scaly or feathered exception
Immune to that first of all Aprils where
The serpent spiraled in his tree
Has a man's head bignosed bearded
Stuck onto the tube of body already
Limbless old partner helpless knowing
Beholder leering full of our childish
Legend of our imperfection we fell
We fowl of a feather we feel we fail
And not that she made it look difficult
Or easy but possible and we fall
from The Figured Wheel. © Robert Pinsky. Online Source
A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinitely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In Sax's Belgian imagination
And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two
Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin's child
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled
By decree of the Czar and founds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails
In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing
His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths--the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:
It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face--the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.
© Robert Pinsky. Online Source
Impossible to Tell (My Two Joke Elegy)
to Robert Hass and in memory of Elliot Gilbert
Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Bashõ and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,
The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing. "Bashõ"
He named himself, "Banana Tree": banana
After the plant some grateful students gave him,
Maybe in appreciation of his guidance
Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher's heart: live, rigid, fluid
Like passages etched in a microscopic cicuit.
Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture
Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:
In the court-culture of jokes, a top banana.
Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother,
Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child
And her new baby in a squalid apartment
Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.
She tells the child she's going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,
The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father
Gets home from work, they'll be okay till morning.
It's laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.
What is he in his efforts but a courtier?
Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East
From California and had to leave a message
On Bob's machine, I used to make a habit
Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,
I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,
Or make believe that I was interrupted--
As though he'd be so eager to hear the end
He'd have to call me back. The joke was Elliot's,
More often than not. The doctors made the blunder
That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message
On my machine from Bob. He had a story
About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together
They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them,
And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy,
Impossible to tell--a dead-end challenge.
But here it is, as Elliot told it to me:
The dead man's widow came to the rabbis weeping,
Begging them, if they could, to resurrect him.
Shocked, the tall rabbi said absolutely not.
But the short rabbi told her to bring the body
Into the study house, and ordered the shutters
Closed so the room was night-dark. Then he prayed
Over the body, chanting a secret blessing
Out of Kabala. "Arise and breathe," he shouted;
But nothing happened. The body lay still. So then
The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles
And danced around the body, chanting and praying
In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic. He prayed
In Turkish and Egyptian and Old Galician
For nearly three hours, leaping about the coffin
In the candlelight so that his tiny black shoes
Seemed not to touch the floor. With one last prayer
Sobbed in the Spanish of before the Inquisition
He stopped, exhausted, and looked in the dead man's face.
Panting, he raised both arms in a mystic gesture
And said, "Arise and breathe!" And still the body
Lay as before. Impossible to tell
In words how Elliot's eyebrows flailed and snorted
Like shaggy mammoths as--the Chinese widow
Granting permission--the little rabbi sang
The blessing for performing a circumcision
And removed the dead man's foreskin, chanting blessings
In Finnish and Swahili, and bathed the corpse
From head to foot, and with a final prayer
In Babylonian, gasping with exhaustion,
He seized the dead man's head and kissed the lips
And dropped it again and leaping back commanded,
"Arise and breathe!" The corpse lay still as ever.
At this, as when Bashõ's disciples wind
Along the curving spine that links the renga
Across the different voices, each one adding
A transformation according to the rules
Of stasis and repetition, all in order
And yet impossible to tell beforehand,
Elliot changes for the punchline: the wee
Rabbi, still panting, like a startled boxer,
Looks at the dead one, then up at all those watching,
A kind of Mel Brooks gesture: "Hoo boy!" he says,
"Now that's what I call really dead." O mortal
Powers and princes of earth, and you immortal
Lords of the underground and afterlife,
Jehovah, Raa, Bol-Morah, Hecate, Pluto,
What has a brilliant, living soul to do with
Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac
And troughs of smoking blood? Provincial stinkers,
Our languages don't touch you, you're like that mother
Whose small child entertained her to beg her life.
Possibly he grew up to be the tall rabbi,
The one who washed his hands of all those capers
Right at the outset. Or maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga
The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight. It was a routine
Procedure. When it was finished the physicians
Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded,
But Elliot wouldn't wake up for maybe an hour,
They should go eat. The two of them loved to bicker
In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish,
On Sandra's to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.
When she got back from dinner with their children
The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement
Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment
Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent,
Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes,
Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper
Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures
Toward their preposterous Ithaca. There's one
A journalist told me. He heard it while a hero
Of the South African freedom movement was speaking
To elderly Jews. The speaker's own right arm
Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.
He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots
For the ANC--a group the old Jews feared
As "in with the Arabs." But they started weeping
As the old one-armed fighter told them their country
Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote
Could make a country their children could return to
From London and Chicago. The moved old people
Applauded wildly, and the speaker's friend
Whispered to the journalist, "It's the Belgian Army
Joke come to life." I wish I could tell it
To Elliot. In the Belgian Army, the feud
Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious,
So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men
In one great room, to deal with things directly.
They stood before him at attention. "All Flemings,"
He ordered, "to the left wall." Half the men
Clustered to the left. "Now all Walloons," he ordered,
"Move to the right." An equal number crowded
Against the right wall. Only one man remained
At attention in the middle: "What are you, soldier?"
Saluting, the man said, "Sir, I am a Belgian."
"Why, that's astonishing, Corporal--what's your name?"
Saluting again, "Rabinowitz," he answered:
A joke that seems at first to be a story
About the Jews. But as the renga describes
Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals
And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer
The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl,
So in the joke, just under the raucous music
Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance
Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow,
Over the banana tree the moon in autumn--
Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.
© Robert Pinsky. Online Source
At Pleasure Bay
In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price's Hotel and Theater.
And here's where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whiskey,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch,
The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filling
The humid August evening near the inlet
With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies
Not moving in the open car among the pines,
A sliver of story. The tenor at Price's Hotel,
In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered
In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers
That hold like splashes of light on the dark water,
The aria's closing phrases, changed and fading.
And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause
Audible in the houses across the river,
Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted
Inside the music. Never the same. In Berlin
The daughter of an English lord, in love
With Adolf Hitler, whom she has met. She is taking
Possession of the apartment of a couple,
Elderly well-off Jews. They survive the war
To settle here in the Bay, the old lady
Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels
And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi
Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures,
The elegant story that was theirs and now
Is part of hers. A few months later the English
Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park,
An addled, upper-class girl, her life that passes
Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives--the Chief and Mrs. W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver's barrel,
Shivers of a story that a child might hear
And half remember, voices in the rushes,
A singing in the willows. From across the river,
Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again,
Ranging and building. Over the high new bridge
The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack,
With one boat chugging under the arches, outward
Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here's where the people stood to watch the theater
Burn on the water. All that night the fireboats
Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already
Soaking back into the river. After you die
You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs
Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing--maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was--
Here's where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.
© Robert Pinsky. Online Source
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