If you ever stumbled across the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters — popular with high school drama classes, because you can shoehorn everyone in — then you have run across Petit, the Poet, who tick-ticked out his little iambics “while Homer and Whitman roared in the pines.”
Mama Sled respects roaring, but loves the stamp of a good metrical foot.
Here is the poem cycle she wrote for the man she married, divorced and saw into the next world.
1. What my Heart Sang
Repulsed to windward:
Upon conflicting elements
My heart is foundered.
The river that I dare not swim
Glistens with shallow light
Fragmented by the gale
That buffets on brink of flight
The bird that on the willow-branch
Utters its piercing cry:
O day, O day, O day, O day,
O day, I die.
2. Das Muhlenrad
The boat is balanced on the water’s skin,
The west a haze of burning:
O quiet, hist,
The earth has ceased the turning
That grinds our lives to bitter grist
Between what is to be and what has been.
Behold the day suspended in each drop
Shed from the blades of oars drawn up to rest:
Breathe, o awaken,
Time is a mill between whose stones are pressed
Our hopes of every road not taken;
Yet here the roads redouble, merge and stop.
Between breath’s intake and excursion
Within a place unharrowed by the current,
Spared by the wheel,
Where all the heart’s dimensions are apparent
While you, and I, and all our lives, are real,
In the small but infinite time before reversion
To merciless despotic dawn and sunset,
Speak but a greeting
That I may carry back into the mill-race
Distinct redaction of this corporeal meeting,
Unhindered face to face:
O now, speak now, the wheel is silent yet.
3. BRIDGE SPIDERS
Between the railings of this work of man
The spider’s filamentous bridge extends:
A geometric span
Dependent on the goodwill of the winds.
With daily cruelty some casual gust
Obliterates the architectrix’ net
Requiring that she must
Deploy again the tireless spinneret.
The little weaver on the iron railing
Is greater than the bridge; her ancient brain
When all the bridge’s rusted struts are failing
Will build her web again;
Just so, each time the circumstantial world
Demands we part,
The intact net within which we are furled
Suspires reflected in your heart, my heart.
4. HARBOR LIGHTS
The flowers of foam that punctuate the harbor
Are luminous in the encroaching dusk:
O cold the wind off water: draw me closer.
Lights swim in a flotilla of reflection:
Far down the river single boats are plying,
Veering to shoreward.
The figures that surround us are mute, moveless,
O they are statues:
It is the sculpture garden of Bomarzo
That they become, distorted in the gloaming.
Only the water chuckles, the far creaking
Of oar approaching landslip breaks the stillness,
A whiteness of cupolas and facades
Looms in the twilight;
Here in the sudden wordlessness
My heart is like a great wild bird inside me,
Threshing its wings against my breast, your breast,
And on the river’s brink, brighter than sun
In nightly conflagration, with a clamor
That only I can hear — O touch and sense
How with a violence beyond mere flesh
In your arms I am burning, burning, burning.
5. A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME
Up in the shadows of a little spinney
A motley bird sang twopenny, twopenny,
I sing my song the livelong day, said he,
For all who take themselves too earnestly.
I skipped a pebble out upon the water,
I pulled the stodgy pins out of my hair,
Knotted my neckerchief on a branch to flutter
In sign to you that I was waiting there.
O I will hang head downward from a bough
And sing the rudest songs that I know how,
Trusting my Muse to wholesale me so many
That I can hawk them all at two-a-penny.
And spare my little motley bird a crust
For his reminder that I too might be
Comical in my posture of mistrust,
Like all who take themselves too earnestly —
When any little silly bird could tell
That none but you could suit me half so well,
And I should rather have your kiss than any
That I could get, for gold, or two-a-penny.
I’ll probably post more of this crap, trust me.
06/07/09: More Crap
I’m in the process of getting all my poems into digital format. Some smack of the Great Goddess (however you imagine Her) and some are, well, just poems, which makes them appropriate addenda to this page. This one dates from my time in massage school, weirdly enough.
Arise, and grapple day;
Address its tasks;
Write the redundant play,
Assume the masks.
One stage, a thousand plays;
The King in one
Another’s Knave portrays;
Some go, some come,
Some wait for evening’s end,
Knowing that all
Knights and knaves link hands
At the curtain call.
I am adding this on June 22 2009 because someone was unwise enough to mention mermaids. The pinhead I wrote it for didn’t deserve it: he started expecting a new poem whenever I came to visit.
Tout pret, the family mermaid says,
Mirror and comb held high, a touch
distracting from the finny undercarriage
That doesn’t seem ready for much.
Sharp knives, or so the story goes,
await if she casts up on foreign shores
for love, and trades her bottom half for legs–
I’m here to testify that’s how things are,
except to say it’s much too neat
to claim the stab’s felt in the feet.
Get out with fluff like that: John Donne,
Garrulous old cocksman, took the foot
As a surveyor’s mark: he knew
About putting to sea, and where and what to put,
And all I can say is, having knocked a few myself
like the old sailor, two at a time, it’s hell
on wheels to get the mermaid treatment
just when your heart’s pealing like a hysterical bell:
It’s a pain I know, but it’s been quite half
a lifetime, and I thought it was done
Once I’d flung the mirror and comb to either side,
Bit into the pillow and ordered myself, bear down,
So maybe this was a first time in some way I don’t yet
Given your mermaid,
Chucked ashore by some wave that tilts her whole
Perspective, her scales half flayed,
Deciding, Walk? Why not? Go for broke!
You might or might not imagine
That the pain that follows is like a surge
of drums, like the crazy freedom that comes when
You know you’re falling, so far past
even the show of hanging on
That it’s a bleeding blazing joy
To just fall: that it could be ten
Thousand times worse and never be
too much for me to want, so long as you
are the wave smacking the breath out of me,
and if that blows the story, I always knew
That bimbo with her vanity-tackle
was fishy even though classically pretty:
Tout pret my (shall we say) foot, the entire point
With this type thing is that you’re never ready.
Here is another romantic poem from the portion of my manuscript collection headed “Love Cankers All”: I realize that the reference to pay-phones operated by dimes makes it charmingly dated, but all the more reason to enter it into the record. Never mind the details, just trust me that the spaghetti-spined, excuse-making target of this one deserved it.
Be damned and double damned, you cur,
Whelp of all hounds that ever were,
May all in your existence be
As false to you as you to me.
May stairs give way beneath your tread,
May sleep disdain your wretched bed,
May laces part and clothing rend
In sign that you betrayed a friend.
In every house you occupy
May all the plumbing go awry:
May every car you drive excrete
Uncanny parts upon the street.
May fillings from your teeth take wing
In fits of fervent hiccupping:
May all your watches keep strange times,
May telephones reject your dimes,
May diarrhea, cramps and piles
Plague you through weary freeway miles
Where frigid comfort-station stalls
Boast empty rolls upon the walls.
May household outlets give you shocks,
May keys break neatly off in locks,
And each December thirty-first
May all your radiators burst.
May all on which you most depend
Sustain you as you did your friend:
And may the laugh you hear be mine
At every step, you cur, you swine.
As my ransom from my undergraduate education I wrote a novel titled All Saints’ Day.
I don’t know whether I should apologize for it or not. It was callow and sententious, but it drew a solid moral: that honest friendship is remission for all our sins; that owning our own hearts, and their desires, is the price of redemption. I have always been gripped by the concept of sainthood, and when all’s said and done it seems to me that a saint is someone who cannot pretend to be other than what he or she is. If you look at the legends, saints are rogues. They do random, appalling miracles at times. They offend monarchs and vex their relations. I empathize.
Two Poems From All Saints’ Day
1. Can we unite with innocence and not
Destroy its innocence? The arrow shot
At throat or flank, the bounding leap of doe
Are harmony in motion: when they meet
For half a second purity and sweet
Unknowing hang on heaven: too soon they
Crash earthward: from that moment all’s decay.
The liquid eye, proximity of Fate
Inspiring what is neither Love nor Hate
Nor Fear nor Joy, the arrows as they go,
Are all the union that we ever know.
2. Dragged by the scruff or bravely leaping
We lose our innocence whenever
That which drives us from within
Decrees it: pleas, protests and weeping
Transform the guilelessly sought act
From sacrament to mortal sin:
Love has drawn his line so thin.
He that would act and yet not act
Wallows in a would that never
Heals unless he drives upon
The wounding weapon like a bride
Until the blood and pain are gone:
The King Of Fishers stands beside
The pool below the cataract,
And we make our desires a fact
Dragged by the scruff or bravely leaping.
More, because I can’t shut up.
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine
Wedded and bound upon a fiery wheel
Are much the same: no wonder, then, perhaps,
That as a bride upon the marriage bed
She mounted the horrific instrument.
Hieros gamos of suddenly pagan forms
Shone forth from the mundane and mortal flesh
As the wild-eyed, white, virgin noble’s daughter
Spreadeagled naked, called upon her God:
The executioners flinched.
Filled with a lambence too attenuate
For human lust, her body blazed
At touch of a bridegroom more attenuate:
With a hymeneal convulsion her limbs strained
And on her back the thick spokes cracked asunder.
Fallen to earth, the sudden brilliance gone,
Nothing other could she do but meekly
Raise up her hands, frail wrists still rope-garlanded,
as if entreating the frightened soldiery
Not to be frightened. They plucked up courage
Slowly, first one approaching, then another,
And led her from the courtyard. Smiling,
eyes downcast, she came at least before the Emperor
And only then looked upward:
Maxentius gave one low groan and a shudder
And without more deliberation ordered
His senior officer to strike off her head –
Not in religious outrage or insecure
Tyranny, but in terror that that gaze,
Filled with too indecently divine a light
For living flesh, should blight the soul of Rome
And all of comfortably fat heathendom
Long careless of the Mysteries, with a true
Remembrance of the hieratic consummation:
Seeing his cities swept with madness, matrons
Loosening Bacchic locks, men and youths trembling
Before a glance more fearful than Medusa’s.
A section of the typescript of my poems is headed: Love Cankers All.
“To Carmen, Upon Belting Him One”
[Yes. There was a fortyish life-path-changing undergraduate at the strange Catholic college where I worked for three years as an administrative secretary, who hung out in my office, mornings, in a transparent attempt to chat me up. Toothsome yet obnoxious, he once felt the need to pull my chain way too hard and I reacted by kicking him square in the ass way too hard. He flew out into the corridor without touching the office carpet. And slunk back a week later to ask me to dinner.]
Come back for more, you son-of-a-bitch,
There’s more than one place where you make me itch:
The flat of my hand and the toe of my shoe
Are burning for better acquaintance with you.
Some girls like pearls, some girls like lace,
I’d like just to wipe that grin off your face:
Stand back while I take off my watch and my rings —
I like to observe etiquette in these things.
You think that you’re smart, well I’d say pretty clever,
You’ve got the best ass that I’ve seen in forever,
I can’t decide whether to drag you to bed
Or welt you another right upside your head.
If you’ve spoke your opinion or rather, attack,
You can get off my (well, metaphorical) back–
You should have expected I bite when I’m goaded
(Gee, Officer, I didn’t know it was loaded!)
Come back for more, don’t run off, little brother,
I’ll get you for this one way or another,
You make up your mind if that’s promise or threat,
You son-of-a-bitch, I’m not through with you yet.