An Apology (of Sorts)

You must not believe I am unhappy.
How could unhappiness live in the
Same house, eat at the same table,
Sleep in the same bed as you?

You must not believe though I have
Given you cause enough and proof.
Those words are serpent’s venom
I suck and spit. Or else the serpent
Himself, whose fangs I’ve plucked
From my arm, and examined cold
Eye to cold eye, saying “Why hello
My dear. What can I do with you?”

I am a thousand voices of absolute
Ambition and I don’t much care if
The sounds are mine. They inhabit
Me and I use them for my purposes.
My work is not the catalog of my soul
Writ down to battle marauding time.
That work, love, I do with you alone.

A Cheerful Poem

I feel the panic in the
Drift of my days, in the
Wash of time tumbling
Me like a grain of sand
In a ceaseless wave, in
My old heart so full of
Joy and sorrow I can no
Longer tell one from the
Other, in the weary dark
Of every morning, in the
Legions of faceless dead
Among whose numbers
I shall fall uncounted, in
Mourned loss dull habit
Makes unmourned, in
The small corner where
Defeat exults over me
Whispering “Let it end.
What does it matter?”

Are there enough words
In the world to bleed me
Dry of this black humor?

I have learned what we
Are and that knowledge
Has proven useless. The
Last lie is wisdom.

Business Advice

I’ve looked into these poems of yours,
Sir, and I see nothing in them. I mean
No offense. I am glad you like them.
Every man should have his pleasures
And I have neither the time nor the
Inclination to judge yours. I’m a busy
Man. My contemplation of the human
Condition is largely limited to why we
Keep or cast away our monies. I don’t
Believe I need to apologize for that.

I will say I find this cult of your own
Consciousness a little amusing and a
Little offensive. This moaning in forms.
I could cry you an epic of the five years
It took my wife to die of breast cancer,
But I think I won’t. It would cheapen her
Suffering to tart it up in fancy phrases,
Parade it through the gawking streets.
I would no more do that than I would
Run through town with a silly girl in a
Silly dress on my arm. By comparison,
Your trials of love I read there seem
Trifling and light, although I respect
Their weight felt heavy to you. Pain,
Sir, does not gain consequence from
Being so nicely described, nor lose it
By remaining in silence.

Come, don’t look so glum. I’ve hurt
Your feelings more than I intended.
Walk in here. Sit down. We’ll have
Two and see the menu. Every poet
Needs beef to give him ballast and
Wine to soothe his soul. You’re too
Thin from the scribbling-scrabbling.
I’ve made it my business to live in
This world. Make it your business,
Too, first. Then put it in your poems.
Both of you will be the better for it.

Levon Helm

Lie down and rest, Levon, in the green
Unspoiled country you sang into being.
How did you hear what we could not?
The strong secret pulse of the soft dew,
The fresh peerless morning, the plowed
Fields, the warmth of the blessing sun,
The cut wheat, the lovely shimmering of
The leaves, the bright moss on wet stone,
You voiced and told with skin and wood.

How could a flame so pure consume the
Candle? Tell me youth and joy in making
Are enough to stun time and free us from
The ticking clock of flesh. I will not believe
Age and sickness ravaged you though I saw
Them with my eyes. You will always be on
Scorsese’ stage, in your Woodstock barn,
Before us swirled in beat and harmony,
Songs intensely blue like a summer sky,
Luminous, invincible.


What have I done that you’ve
Laid me in this battered boat?
The dry sea knocks me side to
Side, and my frail bones ache
At the blows. Does death take
Our senses one by one? The
Air is close and dark and it is
Silent as Queequeg’s coffin.

What have I done that you’ve
Pushed me to drift alone this
Endless sea? I’ve been tardy.
I’ve faked the forms. My love
Wearied before my youth was
Gone. Is this judgment? This
Rolling black the fabled hell?
I am sick and would be well.


I apologize: this one is a bit grim. I can offer a slightly funny story in compensation. I woke up in the middle of the night the other week and thought I feel like death. I can’t move. Wait that gives me an idea! I crawled out of bed, found paper, wrote a rough draft of the first stanza, then crawled back. Anything for art, apparently.

Evensong, King’s College Chapel

Our days are longer than glass, longer than
Stone, longer than light and air, longer than
The waters of this softly flowing river that will
Pass, rise, fall, and pass again while we speak
These words, sing these words. Our days are
Longer than prayer or scholarship, than ambition
Or boasting or riot or sleeping or waking or food
Or kisses or the bright exalting summer of youth.
They are longer than sorrow or rejoicing or love
Or bones turned to powder. Our steps trace and
Retrace the paths of echoing generations, and
We are indistinguishable among them. For a
Thousand years has the black-haired girl sat in
Choir and stared black-eyed, and for a thousand
More will she sit and stare. We will speak these
Words, sing these words. For centuries the man
Has sat dry in his faith, and for centuries more
Will he sit. We will speak these words, sing these
Words. The dry man will find his faith and the
Black-eyed girl will look up. We have no need
For rushing. With our words and our singing
We make this glass and this stone the great
Still center of creation. The long grass moves
From the breath of our words. The trailing
Willows sway from the breath of our singing.
The river flows softly while we speak and we
Sing. These words and this singing pass from
Mouth to mouth and their living is continuous.
We do not matter at all. Our broken ineluctable
Particulars are translated into these words and
This singing, and we are made whole by them.
When the windows are blank cold darkness we
Speak. When the stones glow skin warm we sing.
There is confidence in our words and endurance
In our singing. The softly flowing river passes.
We speak and we sing.

Along the Cam walking toward the Clare College bridge and King's College Chapel

Along the Cam walking toward the Clare College bridge and King’s College Chapel


The British Museum

We came and we conquered. We made
Careful catalog, and we carted the world
Away. Everything was ours to take under
Our benevolent protection. How well we
Appreciate our plunder, and how gratefully
We display it to those from whom it was

All power was mere prologue to our own.
We make trophies of other empires with
Tact and good taste. We exalt in the king
Of Egyptian stone, not that we seized it.
We exhibit the mightiest Assyrian ruler in
A respectful nook. The glory of the great
Athenians rounds our hall of air and light.
The head of Alexander sits a little lower
Than our own, his proper height.

Ozymandias’ dynasty is three thousand
Years in the dust, but we have endured
Ten centuries since William had his romp
And shot poor Harold in the eye. We ruled
The waves and ruled the world, for a little
Time, until our rambunctious cousins took
Their turn; and though we are diminished,
We are not in despair, and are doing quite
Nicely for ourselves in The City, thank you.
If comes a day we fall, thank us with grace.
We piled the good stuff all in one place.

British Museum

Clockwise from Top Left: (1) Head of Alexander (2) Ashurnasirpal II, King of Assyria (3) Horsemen from the Parthenon marbles (4) seven-ton bust of Ramesses II, inspiration for Shelley’s “Ozymandias”.


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