A Jewish Cemetery

Recently, as I found myself laboring over the latest stretch of poems in the ongoing projective geometry of Ravenna Diagram, it struck me that the materials & means that I use to compose poems might perhaps be remote & unfamiliar to many people who read & traffic in what is understood as poetry these days.

I realized, for example, that I was writing some poems which were actually examples of "widerruf", or parodic inversions of previous poems (Celan, for example, did this) - in this case, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport".

Longfellow is a wonderful poet.  (My mother was a childhood friend of his great-granddaughter.)  One stanza runs as follows :

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
      And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
      Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

I played around with this stanza in particular, because while it refers, ostensibly, to God - providentially looking after the forlorn Jewish graves - it can also be understood as referring to some of my relatives, the early Quaker Goulds of Newport, who befriended the Jewish community there & were involved in the caretaking of the Newport synagogue grounds & graveyard.  My versions are parodic, however, in that they invert some of Longfellow's dated - though considerably complex & empathetic - attitudes toward the Jews; & I completely flip his concluding line ("And the dead nations never rise again").

All these things are not very visible in the poems in question.  They are hidden, imbricated, implicated.  This is how I understand poetry.  It's a wrestling inward toward some kind of mystical condition of utter freedom & truth-telling.  I feel a kinship with Wallace Stevens in this sense.  "Poetry is a health."

But who today would  be in a position to be even close to noticing such things in poems?   Civil War re-enactors, maybe?  Brass rubbings collectors?

It seems to me that the whole fun of poetry involves overcoming self-chosen obstacles.  At the same time, the poet should be shedding the borrowed idioms & slang & mannerisms which pass for poetry in the slick media all around us.  Obstacles help block out the glib, the cardboard.

I wrote this poem on my little "Neo" keyboard today, on a secret park bench along the Blackstone/Seekonk River.  Roger Williams & Wm. Blackstone paddled down below there just yesterday (380 yrs ago).  It's another installment, another diagram, in Ravenna Diagram.  It's full of obstacles.  It's an iceberg.

What is poetry?  I keep working on it, though it seems like a very solitary way to behave.  No one pays any attention.  But that may be for the best, in the long run.


White swans on Blackstone
tiptoe across the water.
Wing├Ęd liftoff.  Were
angels perched in that April midden,

or only Morpho blues?  No one
will say.  Of course
it might have been a Paris
rain... nitrate of mafia drone

in Dallas haze... an ordinary
human end.  Design
from nature, grim, benign –
the maker’s nick (encaustic jay).

This park’s a quiet hideaway.
Oaks on the steep ridge
cast a shadow-bridge
for Andes orioles.  Say,

Francisco, if you can – why
the proud builders missed
the mark?  I would have kissed
you, cuz, who embraced the sky

too soon (Psyche, Persephone...
ravined by gravity).
One eucalyptus tree
(Eeyore, Eurydice...) must (line

by limb) restore your salty skein
of handprints, raveled
veins – Eureka, you have
found me! (jade Cuzco refrain).


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