Center of the earth


We were scrambling through an endless cave,
Mark Trail & I, in the
cartoon – wait – uh...
that was a dream!  Mind, now – behave!

There was an independent chap with spear
all gold, atop a globe-
sized turtleshell, adobe –
yodeling (with shimmering lyre)

Good Will I am Good Will...
There was a lowly, sketchy
mule, named Eeyore, following
his master, Donkey Haute, until

they reached the center of the earth
– a vernal O, encompassing
an M, a W (whelmelding
vertiblur upon a sunlit hearth

all rosorangled in Pacific dawn).
& then I felt wings purring
in my sleep... a chirring
flutter-by of monarch (milky-spun

cocoon-shade of the teeming soil);
a turtledove was crooning
too, for old George – leaning
on his scythe, worn with grave toil. 

The axle of the earth, the axle...
muttered he – of rusty
us the icon, see.
Light waves from Chartres pinnacle.



A fleece of milky rain


Like a brown wren building a nest
with twine camouflage,
or a Joan in the Stone Age
on her inexplicable quest

to sketch the lineaments of splendor
(milky star-field in a barn
or Jason with a ball of yarn)
– how the sea calls Jonas under!

The booming surf his Book of J,
the figure on the prow
with heavy eyes... mild Io?
coaxing him to low brown clay

in gloom, beneath an ancient bridge...
where a rose may lie.
An olive shade skims by
overhead (a palm sweeps its edge).

Between bullhorns, he marks the twain.
Gaunt Maximus, in Colchis,
ancient of days (his
beard like a fleece of milky rain)

burbles an almond-scent breeze
he feels, not sees... melting
aria of everything,
snow-knot of spring (Persephone’s).

Like high sea-gates in sunlight, in salt air...
feathers of jasper & bronze
filigree one true coin’s
moss-green (Lincoln mite... kind fare).



Lilacs in West Branch


Soon the lilacs will be blooming
in West Branch, Iowa.
Old John Brown’s hideaway
among earth Quakers (humming

his grave tune, without the guns).
There Harriet’s railroad
tugged through Negus-made
tornado shelters – Grandma’s cousins

too.  I trace an equilibrium
through reams of loveletters
in turquoise blue (scatters
from Scattergood to end of time).

The clay looms closer on those farms.
Isis herself unveils
just past our Hoovervilles –
beckons with Everlasting Arms.

A refuge from the storm, where corn
& flowers grow.  Mild Shaidlock
led a mighty woolly flock
from Ohio to Muscatine, in 1849

(they write); his great-granddaughter Mary
married Jack Ravlin, & thus
they came to Minneapolis...
they rest, remain.  Spring memory.

The silence of unvarnished truth
glances from shepherd eyes.
Proud histories of lies
axed by one pine (standing on earth).


Henry Negus farm (Springdale Township, Iowa, ca. 1900)


Dark backward & abysm of time


Like a Prince Hal of the Iron Age,
surrounded by a full staff
of devices (every gaffe
in the book) Henry took a page

from Stealing Drums in Trinidad
as they slubbered through the murk
of a flood plain, like turkeys
in a hurricane.  It was that bad.

Had to go, blind fool, from Addis Ababa
to Babylon – from Lake Tana
to Concrete Cavern (ah,
Bull-Dance of Hummy Blah-Blah!)

& recapitulate his fancy
infancy – in a shed
built of old dry blood
& scarecrow straw, with Nancy

the Cow & Her Yodeling Shepherds
making rustic hay.
He lived a year & a day
on all fours – eating grass, curds

& whey, locusts, honey, in a swamp
by the Jordan, in Judea...
It’s all there, Maria –
in Miriam’s mandorla (under the lamp).

Henry wandered thus through drowsy realm
plucking mandolin...
one silver star over dark green pine,
one cirque of gold at the Argo helm.



Once upon a time

Once upon a time there lived a Mississippi riverboat captain, named Mr. Lawrence, who had two daughters, Jessie Ophelia and Cleopatra Desdemona (not kidding)... Jessie Lawrence married my great-grandfather, George P. Gould.


The hobo-poem stumbles out of Itasca,
a somno-ambulant mutter
just west of Superior
like a Nile-canoe in Minnehaha

or Thesée-en-Argo, lost at sea
in a maze older than time.
A stone-barrow, or lime-
burnt spacetime spruce-vortex (little tree

Apollinaire chased down in Paris
listening to Stravinsky
on the 29th of May).
Distant thunder... blessed senseless

mote.  What acorn happiness
coils beneath necrolithic
MoscowWhat lithe
Pocahontas limns Potomac offices?

Lightning rives gnarled raven limbs.
One glint from gold iris
shakes the paralysis
from icebound Neva aisles – low hymns

drone from limestone fish-caverns;
there is no place on earth
where Psyche’s sighing hearth
cannot ray lamplight (ask Jules Verne,

or Edgar Allan – ask St. Joan).
My Delta Queen glides on
toward perihelion
engulfing sorrow in her zephyr-zone.



On the blue horizon line


You see a cat stripe-shadowed
by the slats of a fence.
One of those incidents
from Mendelssohn, out of childhood

infinity... flicker of memory.
Today.  Mid-April air
and sunlight.  Barely there –
a plainness of weathered cedar, sea-

bells.  Sea-salt.  Far away
two splendor-pillars
mark the Gate of years
& gravity – shine, wave goodbye...

& on the blue horizon line
mother & father join
two hands (bright axle-sign
– a double-axe) under the sun.

Man & Woman, O (M-W)...
Come forth, my son,
my daughter, only one
Time & Space unfold in You.

The mysterious heir of heaven
danced a masque before
Magdalen’s cave-door –
mothering the grainy leaven,

heavy loom of Here & Now.
Under faded barn slats,
hidden in straw, the cat’s
prowling a kingdom’s simple prow.


A stone fallen from heaven

I'd just like to sketch out some quick unrehearsed responses to Joshua Clover's recent piece over at the Harriet blog ("Unfree Verse").  This is a plain-spoken, straightforward personal essay about some of the dreary aspects of working in academia, and of contemporary work-life in general, and of the effort to be a poet and write poetry in this time & place.  I respect Clover for his honesty, but I have to register my disagreement with his conclusions.

Clover sums up, near the end of the piece, like this : "In the society of ambient discipline, all verse is unfree."  He defines "ambient discipline" as : "I don’t mean Foucault-type discipline like sovereigns and regimes of power. I mean political economy basically. How our shared and fragile lives are structured according to the imperatives of the economy’s self-remaking."

Now this may not be Foucauldian, but it seems to be describing a structural, pervasive economic determinism.  We are not in control of our economy; it is in control of our "shared and fragile lives."  This appears to be an underlying principle of Clover's sense of what he terms "political economy".

There is no argument to be made against the fact that freedom, for each of us as individuals, is limited.  What I question here is the implied global determinism, structuring human social life in its totality.  The history of the 20th century offers numerous examples, from the political left and right, of theories of determinism put to use as means of denying the differences between liberal democracy, on the one hand, and political authoritarianism or tyranny, on the other.

I would argue that a belief in forms of government which provide limited, yet very real, freedoms - those freedoms we associate with basic norms of human rights and liberty - is not naive or delusory.  In the treadmill of economic necessity, so plangently evoked here by Clover, we can lose sight of these fundamental political conditions.  Moreover, cynicism will always rush to the aid of our discontent, if we let it.

I would also argue that there is an analogy (though imperfect) between political freedom and the freedom of art and poetry.  I was struck by Clover's remark : "Poetry can stand for freedom so intensely that people start to worry there is too much freedom."  This gets at something important, but then Clover deflects it into a gibe at Robert Frost (and, by extension, at the neo-formalist school of poetic "discipline").

Let's think for a moment about poetry as free expression.  For poets, this involves the very marrow of our vocation.  We are creatures of the dream of fabulous inspiration : we wait and work for the moment when the poem bursts forth with unaccountable force.  It is on this kind of "charismatic" experience that we have based our whole sense of poetry's cultural importance, its authority.  We believe poetry is the ultimate form of human verbal expression; that poetry is how human beings express living truth.

Even the cherished, exalted fountain of pure, living Truth, however, must subsist and be understood within shared limitations : of mortality, of biology, of history, of politics, of economics, of cognition, of cosmology...  - thus the Chaplinesque, tragicomic biographies of the poets (paralleled by the tragicomic destinies of the cultures which produce them).  Our experiences of poetic free expression, then, are elusive - perhaps never equal to the imagined ideal.

However, once again, this mixed situation does not negate the reality of freedom in poetry, just as economic necessity or political divisions do not of themselves preclude the (limited, embattled) existence of democracy, equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty.  As a poet, I believe in the effort, the labor, of making room for creative freedom and inspiration in one's practical life.  I believe this effort is justified, even if not everyone, yet, has equal access to creative opportunities.  Because it does take work.  It involves actual life-decisions; it requires some devotion, some faith, some self-discipline.  Most of our commitments, of course - along with our whims - may prove eventually to have been mistakes; but this does not disqualify the effort.

No one, as poet, has to take a job in academia.  No one, as poet, has to play the mercenary games of networking and self-promotion (I'm not suggesting that these games, and academia per se, are the same thing : they are not).  Poetry is a distinct labor, which is sometimes rewarded with inspiration, and even more rarely with public recognition.  The freedom to make the original poem - unmediated by necessity of any kind - is the honor, and the ultimate social value, of the trade.  The "autonomy" of art, which Clover derides, is part and parcel of this limited, experiential, laborious, earned freedom.

"The poem is a stone fallen from heaven : no one will judge it." (Osip Mandelstam)  This, it seems to me, is the credo of every real poet.