1.20.2003

"Race" - sort of a vague shibboleth-word, shorthand for the most interesting stories, shorthand for the most painful, infuriating, hopeless, hopeful stories in the history of the USA. Happy Birthday, MLK (Melchior, Melchizedek, Milky Way). I have many, many of those stories too.

Here's something from the sonnet sequence Island Road for today.

I few decades ago I wrote this little poem:


IMPERIUM

The Roman guards
cast lots for your clothing,
the way time and fortune
throw bones for kings' crowns;
you left them the shreds
of the Lord's farewell gift,
awaiting the shroud and the
spices of paralyzed women.

Your voice remains hidden
beneath the black mirrors,
diffracted, diffused by the
cold bones, the cold bones.


Then a few years later, I wrote this more ambitious poem (as I mentioned somewhere in the archive, during the early 1990s I was searching for a rhetorical level of address, mostly unsuccessfully, as here I guess). This poem tries to combine a Russian ode-form (used by Mandelstam in "Flint Ode" & "January 1") with American material. MLK dies on April 4. 4/4: the Chinese number for death. On April 5 my parents and I walked around the very circular Lake Calhoun, and on through the city & the neighborhoods in Minneapolis, in memory of Dr. King. I remember it was raining & gray. We went with my best friend Tom Fleming & his parents. Tom later died of AIDS in his late 30s. The last lines came along & felt curious, as if Milton were suddenly walking next to me (see "Lycidas").


BLACK MIRROR


I have a dream. . .


Amid the confused rustling, creaking of summer nights,
the stars' unspoken audience -
builders of kingdoms share out their blood-light
with cries, with a slow radiance.
As when a star, tearing, burning the ripened sky,
plummets behind mid-May lilacs. . .
- afoot by the shore, the sea's troubled reply:
apples - golden; mirrors - black.

Your hand grips a golden orb, the serious apple;
your voice, uttering sleepy cries,
moves like droning August through the people -
but star crumbles. Man dies. . .
and the sea, unraveling your voice between two shadows,
wears out the green glass,
and rubs in waves of salt across the light windows
this black sandpaper loss.

Buzzing of years, growls of unremembered kings,
breakers heaving curt answers -
we are cast out among detritus of things.
Under the white moon's pincers,
a green star quivers in the cloudy dome,
the black sail's insignia;
your voice in the mirror, piercing the dire foam -
one kingdom's echoing regalia.

I will walk as we walked twenty years ago in the rain
arm in arm through the cinders,
around those hopeful lakes again, and once again.
Friendship. Memory. Dry tinder.
Oh to seal finally the dismal eyelids of the age
will a perilous, windy spiral;
to take a child's first step across the clean page,
eyes lit with incandescent coral!

Along a bright trail ringing the grass mountain
voices, feet striking sparks;
at the hillside's foot - celandine, plantain.
Some ghostly shoulder, framing an ark's
limber keel - ebony plumbline over the scattering falls
of cloudy speech; sparkling rain,
curved limbs muscle and horn below the walls,
until your trumpet levels the plain.

And the wind tears the grass, and the wavering shore
herds the sand back and forth,
while reverence of glass and silver blows no more
emblems over doorway, hearth. . .
green pools of broken mirror suffer the long junkyard
years, glinting along the path
of your river-song - Memphis blues, Nile shard
still afloat, on a matrix of wrath.

To remember - day of rest, word singing out of sleep,
limbs rocking, a tender song.
Tall cradling hills of stone, rugged and steep,
fossilize the hopeless wrong,
inscribe in flint and tumbling falls your memory.
Monuments, marble chariots,
swirling of broken veins, of unknown infantry -
such things of time appropriate -

like this unruly amulet raked from the ocean,
a whispered Sunday in the sand,
where a wind-cut lilac spirals in slow motion,
and a cloud, like a heavy hand,
surges with shady blessing toward the disputed slopes -
shouldering aside the idols
and drawing taut the circular tent-ropes
over the offered animals.

Young lambs leap from the stalls there, near the sea;
old men and the dodging kids
fortify the streets with Saturday glee,
while in the shade, trembling eyelids
close in silence. On the graveyard hillside, blossoms
of cherry and apple crowd the blue
crown of your garden - this prism of Jerusalems,
these meadows pacing shepherds knew.

5.18.88

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