By Adam Zagajewski
Waiting for the Dead
Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain
wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,
assuring no revelation
spilled past the allotted hour.
He held my right wrist and traced
two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.
“You have the ability to transgress boundaries
and enter the world of the dead.”
This I already knew.
The paths inscribed in the body
mirror those I walk in the wooded past—
trails marked with faded red ribbons
blurred by rotting and growing.
I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,
the crude warnings nailed to trees,
the collapsed wedding altar.
But where are the dead?
Should I watch for them
or feel them
rise and fall in every step?
I hear that the dead often appear
just beyond the borders.
So I follow the cold stone walls
up and down the leaf-strewn hills.
Once I dreamed that they wait for us
at places of transition—the parting of two roads
or the benches of lonely depots.
I remain alert when traveling alone.
They’re attracted to still, late hours
and fragments of their bright voices can be heard
in moments of our greatest joy.
But most often the dead enter through sorrow
that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees
in a forest of undeciphered lines,
of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.
(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)
If you like poetry, sign up for the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day e-mail. It’s pretty great. I loved today’s poem by Albert Rios. It reminded me of the first time I saw “Jaws” and how all the cigarette smoke rose from the front row creating wraiths of fog around the screen.
When There Were Ghosts
On the Mexico side in the 1950s and 60s,
There were movie houses everywhere
And for the longest time people could smoke
As they pleased in the comfort of the theaters.
The smoke rose and the movie told itself
On the screen and in the air both,
The projection caught a little
In the wavering mist of the cigarettes.
In this way, every story was two stories
And every character lived near its ghost.
Looking up we knew what would happen next
Before it did, as if it the movie were dreaming
Itself, and we were part of it, part of the plot
Itself, and not just the audience.
And in that dream the actors’ faces bent
A little, hard to make out exactly in the smoke,
So that María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz
Looked a little like my aunt and one of my uncles–
And so they were, and so were we all in the movies,
Which is how I remember it: Popcorn in hand,
Smoke in the air, gum on the floor–
Those Saturday nights, we ourselves
Were the story and the stuff and the stars.
We ourselves were alive in the dance of the dream.
In my endless quest to combine the most unlikely texts possible, I have joined in holy linguistic matrimony a pamphlet called “Stigmata and Modern Science” and the user manual to my Oster TSSTTR6329 Toaster. I hope this inspires you to write an experimental poem or at least make some toast.
IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS: Young children or incapacitated persons should not bear the external marks of the wounds of Christ or the material element of stigmatization, except to the extent prohibited by law.
Warning: Atheists reject the stigmata as an aggressive form of miracle. Never insert your fingers into the holes. Handle with Care.
1. Spontaneously, in ecstasy, and during complete suppression of will and suggestibility, insert the crumb tray into the slot.
2. If living for years without earthly food, lightly tap the sides to dislodge any crumbs lodged in the toast chamber.
3. After the desired level of darkness has been reached the wounds must not vanish.
4. When the wounds bleed they must emit fresh blood. Accumulations create unsanitary conditions and the possibility of fire.
5. The nail-shaped formations of the wounds should be of equal size and freshness and glow more brightly than others.
6. The frozen light will illuminate the crust in the middle of the wound and the brighter edge to assure even browning.
7. English muffins cannot be created by mystical contemplation alone.
8. It is normal for non-Catholics to create an odor.
9. To reduce the risk of electrical shock, bleed during a vision of the Crucifixion and wipe with a damp cloth.
10. SAVE THESE INSTRUCTIONS
Poetry is a brutal art. One (meaning me) slaves for hours and hours trying to finish a poem that is nearly there. What am I not doing? Am I thinking too much? Pursuing instead of waiting? Filling up instead of emptying out? Oh the pressure of the final stanza! Oh the need for transformation, the weighty promise of the unwritten. I wanted some sharp outline of the knowable unknowable. I wanted a final image that resonates in the body as much as the mind. I wanted a poem that shimmered with intellect like T. S. Eliot regurgitating The Upanishads, its edges limned with a the ghost of Robert Frost holding a delicate pane of ice over a swollen stream in March. That kind of poem. All that suffocating desire.
So I stopped writing poetry and wrote an e-mail to my school asking them not to offer employee discounts to SeaWorld. I wrote and rewrote the e-mail. I added things and took things away. I wondered what magical syntax or brutally economical description would be enough to make Recreation Connection re-think the idea of a killer whale living in a cracked aquarium. I started off cheerily! Happy New Year! Thanks for adding Whale Watching to the list of Employee Discounted Activities! Sure beats watching the aforementioned animals perform tricks in a chlorinated pool! I didn’t use so many maniacal exclamations, but I did make an attempt at friendliness (Hello, I am not insane and soon you will warm to my politics).
I wonder about all the writing we do. All the many non-poems, non-public pieces that we nevertheless compose with compassion and conviction. I think of the journals occupying the shelf on my closet. I think of burning each one, records of my life made long before “journaling” became a verb.
Keats had the best epitaph: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. His epitaph is better than any line of poetry I will probably ever write. A name writ in water is then inscribed in stone. Moss fills the letters. E-mails vanish into the ether. The blog posts accumulate behind burning links.
If I destroy those journals, will I stop feeling the weight of accumulated unread years? I’ll wrench pages from spines and light them on fire with adolescent glee. Or maybe just toss them casually in the garbage or donate them to Goodwill and dream of some hipster finding them. But first I’ll transcribe a line or two. A few words from each entry. A record of each vanished day. Some sort of path from there to here.
Today’s creation is a combined effort from “How to Do Automatic Writing” by Edain McCoy & one of those great old volumes (#13, I believe), from the series The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau entitled “A Sea of Legends.” (I can’t believe this book is only 85 cents on Amazon. I love the messy early 70s color of the pictures and the illustrations are a nice mixture of Greek antiquities, Medieval woodcuts, modern painting (Paul Klee) and random delights like a photograph from a weird, experimental ballet called Sea Shadow) The automatic writing book is a nice beginner’s guide, and a creative way to bypass the inner critic or nag one’s spirit guide. I’ve used it once and had a nice conversation (transcribed with my left hand in weird, sprawling ransom note script), with some unknown entity who seemed to have my best interests at heart.
Xeno-escrite: The rare phenomenon of writing in a language unknown to the writer.
Why the deities who live vividly in our minds
cannot be projected onto paper
Venus could only be produced by the sea,
but the sea had to produce also a being more popular,
more accessible than a goddess.
She appears on the water looking into a mirror
to see if she is closer to becoming a fish.
Allow…energy to flow gently into your writing arm
Some people like to imagine that this is the life-giving energy of a benevolent deity
A soft, dreamy half wake focus.
Pliny wrote that when winter has been severe,
many fish are taken in a state of blindness
& all seas are purified at the full moon.
Asking about the Far Future: Moon phase: Full or early 3rd Quarter
Retrieving Information about the Past: Moon Phase: 3rd or 4th Quarter
Contacting the Dead: Moon Phase: Any
Xeno-glossy: the rare phenomenon of speaking in a language that is unknown to the speaker.
Everything on the earth and in the sky had been listening to the Great Master of Song
and choosing a specific language for itself,
but the fish had been quite helpless.
Never blindly follow any commands but those of your own heart.
The Sirens called for Ulysses, for they had knowledge of the past and future and could give him happiness.
Jonah sank…but as his breath failed,
he began to remember
the blue and shining sky,
the sweet odors of the desert
and the happy dreams of childhood.
Keep practicing until you can go fairly deep at will.
Write your name over and over.
If necessary, write the name of the entity you wish to contact
or write the word WRITE.
When you have received all the communication you want
or if it has stopped of its own volition,
sit in front of a mirror in a darkened room,
repeating the undeciphered tablets
to your reflection.
This is a great exercise to defeat writer’s block. Take lines or groups of lines (selected at random or purposefully) from two different texts and combine them in a poem. What’s fun about this is that each text (especially two very different sorts of books) begins speaking in the cadence of the other and correspondences are revealed between music and also subject.
For this poem, I combined lines and whole stanzas/paragraphs from Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things (circa 1st century B.C.) and a 1975 book by George A. Llano called “Sharks: Attacks on Man.” I loved seeing how these two books spoke to one another—Lucretius discussing the nature of the soul and the body, Llano recounting the sometimes gruesome and terrifying accounts of shark attacks. There’s a tension I found between the fear of death and an attempt to understand the nature of existence thereby extinguishing that universal dread. Here is a longish excerpt of my “poem”:
All the wounds were full of sand.
The rest of the soul dispersed through all the body
Half moon incisions, leaving the bones exposed
Are we to say that the soul resides complete in each of the pieces?
I dove from the wharf and headed out into the sound.
There was a constant cloud of minnows
Earth, and sea and sky and life in all its forms
From a shark’s point of view all humans must look like dreadful swimmers.
I don’t know if it was a fin or a tail.
I knew it was some kind of fish.
But things are made of atoms; they are stable
until some force comes, hits them hard, and splits them.
I saw the shark throw the woman out of the water and then I saw it grab her again.
I’ve shown that things cannot be made
from nothing, nor, once made, be brought to nothing….
The shark let go disappearing in a cloud of blood.
“Let me die, let me die, I am finished,” she said on the beach.
Words pass through walls and slip past lock and key,
And numbing cold seeps to our very bones.
The reports of men adrift at sea
imitating liquid notes of birds
little by little the men learned
As it was a moonlit night, and during some moments very clear, I was able to observe that strange figures crossed very close to us..until at a given moment I felt they were trying to take away the corpse, pulling it by the feet…I clutched desperately the body of my companion and with him we slid…
For if in death it’s painful to be mauled
and bitten by beasts, why would it be less cruel
to be laid on a pyre and roast in searing flames
or to be put to smother in honey, or grow stiff
with cold atop a slab of icy stone
or be squeezed and crushed beneath a load of earth?
When the body and soul have been divorced
then nothing whatever to us, who shall not be
Keep close to your companions.
Swim smoothly in retreating.
Keep your eye on the shark.
Once in a while you read the poem that articulates something you’ve been trying to say your entire life. This is one of those poems for me.
Animals & People: The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself
by Pattiann Rogers
Some of us like to photograph them. Some
of us like to paint pictures of them. Some of us
like to sculpt them and make statues and carvings
of them. Some of us like to compose music
about them and sing about them. And some of us
like to write about them.
like to write about them.Some of us like to go out
and catch them and kill them and eat them. Some
of us like to hunt them and shoot them and eat them.
Some of us like to raise them, care for them and eat
them. Some of us just like to eat them.
them. Some of us just like to eat them.And some of us
name them and name their seasons and name their hours,
and some of us, in our curiosity, open them up
and study them with our tools and name their parts.
We capture them, mark them and release them,
and then we track them and spy on them and enter
their lives and affect their lives and abandon
their lives. We breed them and manipulate them
and alter them. Some of us experiment
upon them.We put them on tethers and leashes,
in shackles and harnesses, in cages and boxes,
inside fences and walls. We put them in yokes
and muzzles. We want them to carry us and pull us
and haul for us.
and haul for us.And we want some of them
to be our companions, some of them to ride on our fingers
and some to ride sitting on our wrists or on our shoulders
and some to ride in our arms, ride clutching our necks.
We want them to walk at our heels.
We want them to walk at our heels.We want them to trust
us and come to us, take our offerings, eat from our hands.
We want to participate in their beauty. We want to assume
their beauty and so possess them. We want to be kind
to them and so possess them with our kindness and so
partake of their beauty in that way.
partake of their beauty in that way.And we want them
to learn our language. We try to teach them our language.
We speak to them. We put our words in their mouths.
We want them to speak. We want to know what they see
when they look at us.
when they look at us.We use their heads and their bladders
for balls, their guts and their hides and their bones
to make music. We skin them and wear them for coats,
their scalps for hats. We rob them, their milk
and their honey, their feathers and their eggs.
We make money from them.
We make money from them.We construct icons of them.
We make images of them and put their images on our clothes
and on our necklaces and rings and on our walls
and in our religious places. We preserve their dead
bodies and parts of their dead bodies and display
them in our homes and buildings.
them in our homes and buildings.We name mountains
and rivers and cities and streets and organizations
and gangs and causes after them. We name years and time
and constellations of stars after them. We make mascots
of them, naming our athletic teams after them. Sometimes
we name ourselves after them.
we name ourselves after them.We make toys of them
and rhymes of them for our children. We mold them
and shape them and distort them to fit our myths
and our stories and our dramas. We like to dress up
like them and masquerade as them. We like to imitate them
and try to move as they move and make the sounds they make,
hoping, by these means, to enter and become the black
mysteries of their being.
mysteries of their being.Sometimes we dress them
in our clothes and teach them tricks and laugh at them
and marvel at them. And we make parades of them
and festivals of them. We want them to entertain us
and amaze us and frighten us and reassure us
and calm us and rescue us from boredom.
and calm us and rescue us from boredom.We pit them
against one another and watch them fight one another,
and we gamble on them. We want to compete with them
ourselves, challenging them, testing our wits and talents
against their wits and talents, in forests and on plains,
in the ring. We want to be able to run like them and leap
like them and swim like them and fly like them and fight
like them and endure like them.
like them and endure like them.We want their total
absorption in the moment. We want their unwavering devotion
to life. We want their oblivion.
to life. We want their oblivion.Some of us give thanks
and bless those we kill and eat, and ask for pardon,
and this is beautiful as long as they are the ones dying
and we are the ones eating.
and we are the ones eating.And as long as we are not
seriously threatened, as long as we and our children
aren’t hungry and aren’t cold, we say, with a certain
degree of superiority, that we are no better
than any of them, that any of them deserve to live
just as much as we do.
just as much as we do.And after we have proclaimed
this thought, and by so doing subtly pointed out
that we are allowing them to live, we direct them
and manage them and herd them and train them and follow
them and map them and collect them and make specimens
of them and butcher them and move them here and move
them there and we place them on lists and we take
them off of lists and we stare at them and stare
at them and stare at them.
at them and stare at them.We track them in our sleep.
They become the form of our sleep. We dream of them.
We seek them with accusation. We seek them
with supplication.And in the ultimate imposition,
as Thoreau said, we make them bear the burden
of our thoughts. We make them carry the burden
of our metaphors and the burden of our desires and our guilt
and carry the equal burden of our curiosity and concern.
We make them bear our sins and our prayers and our hopes
into the desert, into the sky, into the stars.
We say we kill them for God.
We say we kill them for God.We adore them and we curse
them. We caress them and we ravish them. We want them
to acknowledge us and be with us. We want them to disappear
and be autonomous. We abhor their viciousness and lack
of pity, as we abhor our own viciousness and lack of pity.
We love them and we reproach them, just as we love
and reproach ourselves.
and reproach ourselves.We will never, we cannot,
leave them alone, even the tinest one, ever, because we know
we are one with them. Their blood is our blood. Their breath
is our breath, their beginning our beginning, their fate
our fate.Thus we deny them. Thus we yearn
for them. They are among us and within us and of us,
inextricably woven with the form and manner of our being,
with our understanding and our imaginations.
They are the grit and the salt and the lullaby
of our language.
of our language.We have a need to believe they are there,
and always will be, whether we witness them or not.
We need to know they are there, a vigorous life maintaining
itself without our presence, without our assistance,
without our attention. We need to know, we must know,
that we come from such stock so continuously and tenaciously
and religiously devoted to life.
and religiously devoted to life.We know we are one with them,
and we are frantic to understand how to actualize that union.
We attempt to actualize that union in our many stumbling,
ignorant and destructive ways, in our many confused
and noble and praiseworthy ways.
and noble and praiseworthy ways.For how can we possess dignity
if we allow them no dignity? Who will recognize our beauty
if we do not revel in their beauty? How can we hope
to receive honor if we give no honor? How can we believe
in grace if we cannot bestow grace?
in grace if we cannot bestow grace?We want what we cannot
have. We want to give life at the same moment
we are taking it, nurture life at the same moment we light
the fire and raise the knife. We want to live, to provide,
and not be instruments of destruction, instruments
of death. We want to reconcile our “egoistic concerns”
with our “universal compassion.” We want the lion
and the lamb to be one, the lion and the lamb within
finally to dwell together, to lie down together
in peace and praise at last.