The Monday subway station’s

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The Monday subway station’s
full of faces
fair as flowers

– See!

Then the rush, the push,
the train’s electric flexing
the shut doors’ hush

the deliberate departure

and upon the vacant station
silence settles:

the bough stripped of its petals

 

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That morning you had reassured me

(after Yosa Buson)

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That morning you had reassured me
before we said goodbye.
At evening my heart was in a thousand pieces
and the pieces scattered.

Thinking of you, I wandered.
The world had been so full of you
it didn’t occur to me to wonder
that the hills themselves were in mourning:

Pathfinder in shade, prairie stars white in sun –
and no one to look at them.
I heard a pheasant calling and calling
fervently.

Crossing the river, I thought:
once you lived on the other side.

You left in the evening,
at morning my heart was still,
my heart that you had steadied,
in a thousand pieces.

Ghostly smoke rises a little before
the north wind that blows it away
across the deadgrass fields,
through the winter-stripped coppices.

Once you lived across the river;
You were everywhere, like smoke,
like memory, so when you are gone,
who can I be, stripped of a past?

I stripped dead leaves from branches
wove a hut to sit in
sat there alone all day
and long into the invaluable evening.

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The Joiner Had a Vision of God’s Glory

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Tell how you came to drudge in my kitchen
you child of the sheltering sky.
Who were your people?
Where did you get that hair, those blue eyes?
And that we’ll all of us be worms’-meat one day—
is that why you scoff at us?

The wildflowers were abashed
when the fountain burst from frozen ground
and the ice formed complicated branches
as if to demonstrate how much remained to be done.
They have scattered to the far fields,
and now must be counted again.

The roofer practices his trade,
he grows strong off his need for others.
The reseller of goods heard the drone of the chanting,
and the night grew pale.
The conference of geologists has been disbanded:
the earth is strong enough without them.

 

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Which of the angels (Duino Elegy #1)

(Rainer Maria Rilke: Duineser Elegien – Kapitel 1)

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And say I screamed aloud, let it all out —
Which of the angels, orderly and chaste,
Would even hear? And say one did, what then?
Say one broke ranks, took me in its embrace—
I’d be undone, as surely as a matchstick thrust into the sun.
Such beauty, unrelieved, could wreck our minds.
It’s why we worship them. Still, every angel terrifies.

And so I hold myself together: never cry,
Swallow my sobs before they have a chance to rise.
Anyway, who’d sympathize? Not Angels; people, no;
Nor yet the clever animals, who realize
That we’re beyond their help, we think too much to be
At home here in their world. What’s there
To cling too, then? — perhaps that solitary tree
Perched on the hillside, that we see day in, day out?
Maybe that street we walked down yesterday; maybe
A comfortable habit that wears us the way we’d wear
A favorite shirt threadbare — perhaps we can rely on these?

But then Night comes on — like a wind from space
Slapping and chafing the faces we display,
Night comes — and always slightly disappoints — but stays;
Before whom each must stand with downcast gaze.
Loners, lovers, we share a common fate.

Now do you understand? Then throw your two arms wide,
And fling the empty space, that fills you, to the sky!
– the while imagining the birds in flight
Buoyed up, and up, on the expanding air!

The springtime itself needed you. Also, the stars –
They twinkled when you noticed them.
Oh, and that wave — remember it? —
That heaved up from the ocean toward you, long ago?
And then the time you passed the open window,
And the violin shuddered its strings
And sang to you alone… It’s what those things
Were meant to do. But did you take it in?
Weren’t you rather waiting, always waiting, waiting
As if for your one true love to come? (Yet — had she come,
Could you have hidden from her those strange thoughts
That wracked your sleep, then haunted you by day?)
Do you long so for love? Well, then,
Extol the star-crossed lovers, surely they
Could stand to be a bit more recognized;
Yes, sing the lovelorn, whom you find
So much more satisfactory than the satisfied;
But think on this ere you begin
The usual lamentation: that heroes strive and die
To earn the right of being born a second time;
When lovers fade, it’s because Nature’s done with them:
They’re all used up, the sap’s dried in their veins,
They’re good for nothing. Gaspara Stampa—
You remember her? Then you’ll recall
How many young girls, jilted, thought she was the all-in-all,
Thought: “Now, like dear Gaspara, I have lived!” And there:
Isn’t that wisdom, of its sort? Shouldn’t such pain
Be put to use? It’s high time we, who suffer so for love,
Got free of any one particular beloved. For, you know,
You don’t see arrows cleaving to the bow
That sends them forth:
To stay put is — of course — to go nowhere.

These voices, voices — Oh, my heart! Would you could hear
As the saints heard — who, being called, were taken up
Still kneeling, raised bodily to heaven
But all the while so intent on their listening
They knew not they were taken. Not that you,
My own un-saintly heart, could thus endure the voice of God.
It’s just that – listen! There’s that sound! It rises
Out of silence, never ending; it’s speaking yet,
With all the tender voices of the newly dead.
Hear, how they call to you, my heart!
As in that quiet church in Naples,
Or the chapel once in Rome —
As in those words carved in the stones
Of Sant’ Formosa, where the voices spoke before;
They’re speaking; can you hear? My heart!
Are not they clear? And thus they bid me: that I must
Absolve the dead, remit the sin that clings
To them like cobwebs, hinders them like dust.

So strange not to inhabit the world anymore,
And to abandon customs barely learned;
Not to read omens in a rose’s blossoming,
Nor hope, nor anything else of that sort;
Not to be what one was, back when everything
Seemed infinitely fragile; yes, even
To lay aside one’s own name like a broken toy.
Strange, to be a stranger to desire; strange,
To see each thing that seemed to matter so, cast loose
To flutter away in the wind. And also, death
Is tedious: one dithers, hems and haws,
Before accepting that this is — as it is — eternity.
The living are mistaken if they think death’s not about the same
As life. Indeed, the Angels (so I’ve heard) can hardly say
If they’re among the living or the dead, since the same tide
Sweeps them the same; rocks them the same;
And drowns them all the same.

At last they have no need of us, these too-soon-dead.
They wean themselves from worldly things,
Just as a child outgrows its mother’s breast.
But we, who need a sense of Mystery —
We, for whom grief sometimes shows the forward path —
We need them—how else could we get along?
Here’s no vain tale: when god-like Linos — best
Of all men living — died,
And when the mourners came to cry him to his rest—
Then Music filled the emptiness he’d left:
Shivered the dying land, shocked space,
As it entered the world for the first time,
Then, as ever after, to enrapture us; enfold us; give us aid.

 

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Scylla and after

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Εὐρύλοχος:

… and said, “Trust me so all ends well!”
So we prepared to follow, yet again, Himself.
Turned out he was no wiser head, who, wanting but support,
Would steer us safely through the strait.
We hesitated once, though, I recall

And might have done any of three things, then:
The first thing, or the second one,
Or else what finally we did, which now
At least we can rule out
As an effective plan.

We could have fled; we could have gone
A longer way around; or else we could have done
What, as I said, we did, which was
To follow orders, rise above,
Pull oars, and carry on —

Only to see our shipmates, one by one,
Grabbed up and gobbled as their ship raced on.
Now, our surviving few starved and marooned,
Captain Nobody having gone off to commune
With some god or another, what’s there to be done?

Meantime these farting cattle, said to be the Sun’s,
Grow fat as we grow leaner. I say, Come!
Has any sign we’ve had yet been this clear?
Men live on beef, not prayers.
Then let us do what’s clearly to be done.

***

Their Captain slumbering in the hills, his men
Put flint to iron, steak knives to the hone;
Meanwhile the gods, as ever fanciful and grim,
Brush up on animating carrion,
Seeing (they always see) what’s to be done.

 

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September, midnight

(after Li Bai)

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Ten thousand September winds were blowing.
Ten thousand slivers of moon
peered through ten thousand windows of Chang-an,
where ten thousand women were pounding out silk
so every Chang-an household
could send warm clothes to the front.

Ten thousand September winds froze us at Yuguan Pass,
ten thousand slivers of moon
shone their feeble light
into ten thousand foxholes,
silvering the living and the dead like early frost, although
the living and the dead alike
were dressed warmly, anyway.

All that month I prayed I would meet my enemy soon,
so that one of us, at least,
could go home to see his wife again.

 

 

 ~

A prompt from NaPoWriMo.net (“Today I challenge you to write a poem in which you explore what you think is the cruelest month, and why”) jibed nicely and prompted me to finish my version of this poem from Li Po:

長安一片月
萬戶擣衣聲
秋風吹不盡
總是玉關情
何日平胡虜
良人罷遠征

Chang-an + one + slice/sheet + month/moon
10,000 + household + pound + clothing + sound
autumn + wind + blow + never to be + exhausted
(total + yes) | always + (jade) | (off love) (turn off situation)
what + day + level | (ripening) + Hu + prisoner
(good + man) | beloved + stop + (far + levy) | expedition

If you prefer a translation… there are any number out there. Here is a representative one:

Chang-an — one slip of moon;
in ten thousand houses, the sound of fulling mallets.
Autumn winds keep on blowing,
all things make me think of Jade Pass!
When will they put down the barbarians
and my good man come home from his far campaign?

Image (because great poetry is anachronistic): Chinese soldiers in fox holes, (ca. 1942), from the U.S. Office of War Information, via U.S. Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/98517523/). This photograph, as a U.S. government work, is unprotected by copyright.

 

He said we would meet

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She lingered by the marble stair
till it was full night
and the dew had soaked her stockings
quite through.

Waiting for what?
As it turned out,
only to sit at her window later
watching the moon go down.

 

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The crows all night

(after Li Po)

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And the crows
flew out of the storm
and took their places
among the branches;

and the sun
at the world’s edge
broke through the clouds;

and she paused at her loom,
the cawing of the crows reminding her
that she was alone,
the jaundiced light
reminding her how far behind
was her home by Qin River.

The mist-green thread she wove
had neither beginning nor end.

The crows called all night long
while the rain fell like her tears.

 

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The Swan

(after Ranier Maria Rilke)

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Despite having so many things still left undone
(Important things, things you were meant to do)
You spent the hour observing swans.

Swans waddle; are awkward; you hadn’t known. One—ungainly thing—
You watched slowly approach the verge, like one would who
Faced death by drowning—till, resigned to sink,

It pitched into the pool at last
With an undignified, un-swan-like splash.
Then bore up, unsurprisingly, upon the waves.
The water endless came—oh, but the swan
Glided, glided, glided on and on
As if it were no miracle it had been saved.

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A Trick

(a translation from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges)

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Fifty-two cards push real life aside:
flimsy, parti-colored charms
that make us forget where we’re bound to end up in the end.
And who cares where? —we’ve stolen this time, anyway,
let’s build a house of cards,
decorate it, move in, and then play
as we were always meant to play.

Nothing beyond the table’s edges
carries any weight.
Inside, it’s a foreign land
where bluff and bid are high affairs of state:
The Ace of Spades swaggers authoritatively
like Lord Byron, capable of anything;
the nine of diamonds glitters like a pirate’s dream.

A headlong rush of lethargy
slacks conversation to a drawl:
our slow words come and go
the while chance exalts some, lays others low;
the while the players echo and re-echo all the tricks they know:
until it seems that they’re returned—or nearly so:
the crones and cronies and their bony friends
who showed us what it meant to be true Americans
with the same old songs, the same old works for idle hands.

 

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