Poem – Burnt Bus

Burnt Bus

Left in a lot, one where a building stood
or one widely fenced and piled with odd iron,
one where the scrap man spits from his tin shed,
left in these unruly lots is the bus,
burnt, or half–demolished, propped up on blocks
but looking still in all this wilderness
like a bus. No matter its vacancies,
glass burst into random, unmelted hail
in the ribbed rubber aisle and fraying seats,
all the engine innards ransacked and loose;
no matter its vacancy at the wheel,
the great, flat wheel which so many times I
would have swung into wide, flat revolvings,
turning round and through the narrow canyons
precisely, with precious inches to spare––
this is not a vague, derelict metal:
the rust is bus–like, and can still compel
pedestrians with pockets of nickels
to run. The placard spells 11th STREET;
someone must have driven it here, of course,
and it looks as though he will be right back––
the door is open. I imagine how
he parked here with that particular skill
of bus drivers, using the wide mirrors
and the various signaling lights; then,
taking the keys, how he pulled the handle
and descended as he would step slowly
from a train to the platform at Cripple
Creek or Canyon Gulch, and walk, uniformed
and solitary, listening for wheels
on the rails as the sun–filled coach pulls out.

-Published in SWINK, and winner of the SWINK Literary Award in Poetry, chosen by Tony Hoagland.

Poem – Poem with Crow

Poem with Crow

for my daughter

I give you
in morning a man splitting wood
in March a man’s cut breath sudden
and the perilous beauty of steel arcing
around him

see how the
plaids of his coat are busy they
gather and flex for the keen wedge,
gather him to the greens and browns of
the pasture

I say the
greens and browns of sleeping horses
greens and browns of wet wood
this man stables for the splitting edge
in this March

I tell you
I am this man in morning
I am the wood and horse stabler
and it is my work unharnessed
in the axe

O the axe!
its bright weight a word for wood,
its quick insistent
talk in the ear, in the struck and
plied fibers

and how the
fresh hewn logs yield a fragrant hue,
yield such filaments of flesh I
cannot taste, cannot yet embrace
nor ignite

into this
(now the sharp waking of wood and axe
beneath the early mottled trees
beside the pasture-mantled mares)
March scene walks

jet, one crow
jet he is charcoal, he is his shadow
he is nearly not, an inked and
unblinking pupil at the center of
my fancy:

think of me
busting limbs by the waking sires
bursting steam in the unbuttoning sun
by the bark-strewn stump and the axe
as I say

this black stroke
this impudence of sheen, this concentrate
of crow crutching across the roots
grotesque as a straight-jacketed
lunatic

was for me
a figment of a child I’ve not conceived,
a girl bearing what resemblance? to
this masked crow, eyeing me, turning
now its back;

such magic
in the burning March mid-morning
in the soft piles of flushing wood
in the right dominion of the horseshoe
and the axe

I saw my
black-bound daughter unmanacled as flame
in the pomp of every feather, mighty
in the muscling of flight, galloping, split-
ting the air

-Published in Wild Plum, winner of the Wild Plum Poetry Award.

Poem – Waiting Up

Waiting Up

There’s a table in the center of the room,
and the ceiling is ochre and very close.
There’s the sound of rain and nobody is home—
nobody else who can help hold up the house.

There’s a black lacquer table and it’s holding
a candle that stands beyond the windowpane;
its fire is polished brass and barely moving,
and the midnight sitting room is dark as rain.

Upstairs the air is dark but the bed is made,
there’s a book somewhere I haven’t been reading.
Downstairs the bookshelves have been newly arranged,
and the black lacquer tabletop is peeling.

Wax has been tarnishing the brass candlestick,
and the edges of the flower are folded.
Although the sharp edges of the flame reflect
in the picture frame the faces are clouded.

All the room’s dark furnishings conserve their strength;
the black table bears what I need to survive—
the taper, the portrait, and the hyacinth.
When I get up, all the windows throw their knives.

-Published in Best Poem and Plains Poetry Journal. “Waiting Up” was a finalist in the Art in the Air (WPON, Detroit) and the Spoon River Review poetry contests.

Poem – After Shunning

AFTER SHUNNING

                                     -for the Treuherzigen

i. Out of the Dark

The footprints I follow to my door
are mine, and the clutter on the table.

This poem is wrong, because I
have been straightening up for months.

Today when I woke, the air held
the packed silence of snow.

If you came tonight, out of the dark,
snow would slide from my roof.

ii. Just This

Pines on a February afternoon.
Is this enough?—the salt–white road, the half-
hearted walls piled with cinders, a few leaves
leaping up. No one has been kissed, nothing

written. Between towns, an ocean glimpse
is aqua-marine, extravagant. Leaves
leap up. There is water, and sky, then just this
wide light on the needles beneath the pines.

iii. Past Places

These roads again, empty, winding past places
I have known: the frozen shipyard;
the fish house, shuttered up;
the burial ground, still swallowing itself.

Downtown, February snow dozes on doorsteps,
but the avenues here are salt-dry, and rows
of whitewashed houses are remembering the sun.
Every sunlit clapboard is a pang.

iv. What if Bass

In the wood duck’s wake the cypress dimples;
red-winged blackbirds are thrilling the cattails;
wind or water striders ripple the doubled shore.

So what if bass make their unfathomed rounds
or if the moth scribbles his erratic map?
The beaver’s tail is the mad slap of hope.

v. Who Would Not

This October woman crossing a stubbled field,
her hair black and her daughter blowing,
her hair blacker far than the stripped limbs;

who, when she looks up in that field to ask,
(her hair black as crow, blacker yet) who would not
furnish her from his breast one fire-tipped cigarette?

vi. This Birch

Civility rises as this birch
lifts its face, and stretches.

There is remembrance in these limbs,
of wind, and rain, and mute kisses.

All the gestures of the branches say
the gifts I bring must be refused.

Let this tree be dressed as light allows;
let it be white amid dark boughs.

-The poem entire. Winner of The Shine Journal Poetry Contest.

Poem – A Stadium Full of Bears

A Stadium Full of Bears

There are 7,500 bears in Pennsylvania. If you put
all those bears in a stadium—that’s a lot of bears.
-my dad

As the rows fill up, there would be the usual
jostling and scuffles over seats. Even before
the kick-off, imagine the noise from the stands.
Think of the lines to the women’s rooms,
to say nothing of the tussles outside Gate E
to the cheap seats. Vendors hawk fresh peanuts
over a din of growls and complaints about
parking or ticket prices; chums discuss Greenpeace
or annual weight gain; someone points out how
you could make a killing here on smoked salmon;
and everyone is generally ignoring the scoreboard
and adjusting their scarves and seat cushions as they
assemble, everywhere a bear, a common species,
a stadium full of bears growling and shrugging
and sucking their paws, negotiating for a little
space and a decent view, getting ready—the bears
are getting ready for something to happen, something
important, something truly out of the ordinary.

-finalist in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Competition, and published in Imago Dei.

Poem – Bob’s Big Boy

Bob’s Big Boy

comes in
where the miracle happens
again today,
sidles up to the conversation
which never changes like the menu
except for the specials
and hears his name handled confidently
in quadruplicate
and glances over impressed and humble
faces of not-so-regulars
like boring headlines
and fumbles in his shirt for a smoke
and takes a light and a deep drag
before tossing out “Thanks” like a quarter tip
then sees her,
coming toward him,
and sets his watch again as she comes forward
forward bringing his water
right up across the counter
so that he must notice it slide
slightly on its wet cushion and the
square circle ice goes slosh against the
glass with the love handle around its
sweaty waist
and reaches knowingly to accept it
then watches her hands that
dip and feel in the
folds of her orange apron,
down and hidden in
and out again with a pad and pen
and waits for her to ask and says the usual
and she says what’s that and he straightens
and repeats it looking at the pad and wiggling pen
and rolls the glass between his fingers
as she pours his coffee and drops a couple of
Half and Halfs
then walks away with a walk that
makes him hurt.

He reaches for his cigarette and sucks his coffee
in the sound that is his thought
and thinks a while of silverware and glasses
and wonders for a moment in the ache of bacon if
he might just–what was it?
when her hands come bearing plates of food for him
a refill and presto one two no three!
Half and Halfs from her apron
and he smiles back at his eggs
and lovingly begins to eat his number 5 with hash browns
and oh the eating fills him up and makes him hungry
in this friendly restaurant where he brings
his need.

And the salt flows free
and the ketchup rolls slow
until at last again she comes,
his waitress,
wiping spills, wiping round under ashtrays
rainbows round,
wrists dipping softly in her apron
for a pad or pen and things and things
and maybe if he asks who knows she’ll
pull a rabbit out or even–dipping
and wiping and scooping up
tips all at once, all at once, and
he sips his cigarette and smokes
his coffee as she tames him with her
vanishing hands he knows would smell like
dawn if he could only
cig his siparette and cough his smokee
and laugh with the ring of the register and the
talk of plates and glasses being
swung around so easy in this
busy neighborhood and where the
streets all smell of bacon and the
cabbies call him Mayor and the
weather’s on the menu and the
sunny side is orange and the
whole confounding world is round and round and round
and round.

-Published in Literal Latte, and winner of a Literal Latte poetry award. Written when you still smoked in restaurants, and servers brought water without being asked.

Poem – The Amish Boy Cruises through Bird-in-Hand

And I become the unleaded god,
rebuking the wind with my foot,
giving and taking life according to
the flex of my whim.

Let me be speed, I say;
I am:
air calms into my face,
unblows my mane back.

In my chariot I hear
in the pulse of pavement
the one heartbeat of the multitudes—
expectant tribes of corn—

When suddenly they part before,
like my thinnest siblings,
bangs in their eyes,
waving palms

And kneel, pious
as I ride by,
what seem to be tongues
of fire upon their heads.

And for myself I’ll have
the bloody reflection of the sun
caught on the lake so like
the side of an 18-wheeler.

-Published in Sharkpack Poetry Review Annual, and finalist for the Prospero Poetry Prize.

Remarks – on the poems of John Updike

I discovered John Updike’s poetry before his prose, as a college student, reading The Carpentered Hen and Facing Nature on the rocks of West Beach a few miles north of here.

I wrote him a letter praising his work, quoting lines like

“Hosannas of cotton and hallelujahs of wool,” and
“The elms seemed swaying vases full of sky,” and
                                             “They smile because
They know we know, they know we know.”

And he wrote back saying, “Thanks for your kind words about my poetry, which I’ve been neglecting lately, probably due to a dearth of kind words.”

He wouldn’t neglect it for long, of course.  Poetry comforted him, he said, “with its hope of permanence, its packaging of flux,” its “triumphant sense of capture.”  He called his poems “my oeuvre’s beloved waifs.”

I love the humor and the metaphors in his poems—his eye for resemblances, for connecting dissimilar things to help me see them better, which is a mark of genius, according to Aristotle.

You get his genius (and his humor) in this short poem, one he wrote when he was 21.

Why the Telephone Wires Dip and the Poles are Cracked and Crooked

The old men say
young men in gray
hung this thread across our plains
acres and acres ago.

But we, the enlightened, know
in point of fact it’s what remains
of the flight of a marvelous crow
no one saw:
Each pole, a caw.

collected in The Carpentered Hen, 1958, Harper & Brothers. “I still remember the shudder, the triumphant sense of capture, with which I got these lines down, not long after my twenty-first birthday.” J.U.

 

And again, his metaphor-making, in this poem, the last I’ll read.

Before I read it I’ll say:
I loved living near him, bumping into my absolute my favorite writer in the world, at the post office or Harry’s or KC’s or The Book Store—a shop, I expect, he single-handedly put on firm footing.  That he was living and writing and driving his gray Taurus around here ennobled this shore, and me, in some way—

     “as in some mythologies [to quote him]
     beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
     among our mortal apprehensions.”

Alas, this is not the same place without him.

 

The Melancholy of Storm Windows

We touch them at the raw turns
of the year—November
with its whipped trees and cellar sky,
and April, whose air
promises more than the earth
seems willing to yield.
They are unwieldy, of wood, and their panes
monotonously ask the same question—Am I clean?

No, the answer is.
They fit less well, we feel, each year.
But the weather lowers,
watery and wider than a tide,
and if a seam or leak of light shows, well,
nothing’s perfect under Heaven.
Our mortal shell,
they used to call the body.

In need of paint, they heave
up from the cellar and back down again
like a species of cloud,
shedding a snow of flakes and grime.
They rotate heavy in our hands; the screwdriver
stiffly twirls; the Windex swipes evaporate
in air ominous of coming worse
or, at winter’s end, of Easter entombment,
of cobwebbed storage among belittling ants
while the grasshopper world above basks.

Stacked, they savor of the crypt,
of the unvisitable nook
and the stinking pipe, irreparable.
In place, they merely mitigate
death’s whisper at the margins,
the knifing chill that hisses how
the Great Outer cares not a pin for our skins
and the airtight hearts that tremble therein.

We, too, are warped each fall.
They resemble us, storm windows,
in being gaunt, in losing putty,
in height, transparency, fragility—
weak slabs, poor shields, dull clouds.
Ambiguous, we have no place
where we, once screwed, can say, That’s it.

collected in Tossing and Turning, 1977, Knopf
-remarks delivered at Lynch Park in Beverly, Mass. Some of John’s children were present, including Michael Updike, who is a sculptor. He had not known the “Telephone Wires” poem, he said, and later carved it onto the back of Updike’s gravestone in Plowville.

Poem – Elvis in Intercourse

Elvis in Intercourse

for the Rumspringe

Grossdaadi utters Ach,
winnowing his lot
of all mediated chaff;
he cuts the laughter off.

In consecrated barns
a verbal vermin runs
without restraint or heed
for what the bishop said—

innervating dust,
the pious custom tossed,
2 batteries for the show:
go cat go.

-published in Baltimore Review, winner of a Baltimore Review Award. The picture above is from the cover of my dad’s book, Growing Up Amish, also published in Baltimore, by Johns Hopkins University Press. Mom’s book is Beyond the Plain and Simple, published by Kent State University Press.

More Updike Remarks, More Updike Poems

Like John Updike, I grew up in Pennsylvania (in my case Lancaster County instead of Berks) and then came to New England for college; and until 2009 we lived here in Essex County together in view of Great Misery Island and Bowditch’s Ledge.

Of course, there the similarities between us end.

Or do they? No winner of Pulitzers or other laurels, I nevertheless find in John Updike’s poetry moments that I recognize as certifiably me. Here’s an instance:

 

Thoughts While Driving Home

Was I clever enough? Was I charming?
Did I make ay least one good pun?
Was I disconcerting? Disarming?
Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

Did I answer that girl with white shoulders
Correctly, or should I have said
(Engagingly), “Kierkegaard smolders,
But Eliot’s ashes are dead?”

And did I, while being a smarty,
Yet some wry reserve slyly keep,
So they murmured, when I’d left the party,
“He’s deep. He’s deep. He’s deep”?

-Collected in Telephone Poles and Other Poems, Knopf, 1963.

This piece of light verse from the ‘50s is obviously me, just better turned out, more winningly and memorably voiced. (You’ll know already that John Updike considered the publication in The New Yorker of such light verse, first in 1954, as launching his professional writing life.)

Thirty years later, reading these poems on the beaches of Manchester and Beverly Farms, I repeatedly, reliably felt a “triumphant sense of capture”—which is how he described the shudder he felt after writing a good poem. A splendid man!, I thought, to feel these things, as he himself wrote about James Joyce, in “Wife-Wooing”: “A splendid man, to feel that. Splendid also to feel the curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutably magical life language leads within itself.”

Exactly.

Here is another light poem, gamely led by language’s life.

 

I Missed His Book but Read His Name

“The Silver Pilgrimage,” by M. Anantanarayanan . . .
160 pages. Criterion. $3.95.
– The New York Times

Though authors are a dreadful clan,
To be avoided if you can,
I’d like to meet the Indian,
M. Anantanarayanan.

I picture him as short and tan,
We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan,
I’d say, with admirable élan,
“Ah, Anantanarayanan,

I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran
A notice on your novel, an
Unusual tale of God and Man.”
And Anantanarayanan

Would seat me on a lush divan
And read his name—that sumptuous span
Of “a”s and “n”s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”—

Aloud to me all day. I plan
Henceforth to be an ardent fan
Of Anantanarayanan,
M. Anantanarayanan.

-Also found in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. He later learned he’d been mispronouncing the name and therefore stopped reading the poem aloud.

In the first poem, it’s the word “smarty” (“and did I, while being a smarty”) that’s spot-on, while not merely rhyming with “party.”

In the second, I enjoy (and I think he did) the flat, deliberate inexactness of the word “tan” (“I think of him as short and tan.”)

As a college student tossing and turning through the pages of Midpoint and Facing Nature and Telephone Poles, it was hard not to want to be John Updike. Still, “I had the timid sense to see that you do not will to be John Updike; you fall into it at birth, ripe from the beginning” (to appropriate The Centaur).

I’ll finish now with a poem set in a place many of you know well, Cape Ann Golf Course. I expect John Updike and I played Cape Ann at the same time on occasion, though I never bumped into him. There I never fail to say “the ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in”—or, on that peerless fourth hole, to recite the paragraph that contains the equally peerless “A divot the size of an undershirt was taken…”

Here’s the poem: “The Great Scarf of Birds,” written in 1962.

 

The Great Scarf of Birds

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.

Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.

Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.

The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great scarf.

-Collected in Telephone Poles(The title poem also lodged itself in me permanently.) In his Collected PoemsUpdike cut the first and last stanzas from this poem, which I chastised him for at a church fair in Beverly Farms.
These remarks were delivered at the Congregational Church in Ipswich, with Updike family members also speaking.
Today is the anniversary of his passing, on January 27, 2009.

Remembering – Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

[from an interview conducted by Bryan Parys]

bp: You studied with Derek Walcott in grad school; how much did his tutelage affect your own work?

Mark S: Let me admit here for the good of my soul that I didn’t really know Derek’s work when I applied to Boston University’s graduate creative writing program. Or Robert Pinksy’s either. Just their names, which had appeared over poems I’d seen in Norton’s. I knew a bit of lore about Lowell and Sexton and Plath, and even Starbuck, but I also appreciated that their ghosts weren’t going to help me with my poems (James Merrill notwithstanding). What mattered most to me was that Boston University was only an hour’s train ride from my house. So my pedestrian (or commuter rail) motives were rewarded out of all proportion.

But what did Derek teach me? To rise at 5 and write for hours. To make the beginning of a line as vigorous as its end. To labor not merely for the line or word, but even for the letter. To write longhand. To read aloud both poetry and prose for their training rhythms—Edward Thomas, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway… One time Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky came in to argue with Derek about the poems of Thomas Hardy—whose work they all loved and which we all read aloud. These things Derek taught, although they’re not necessarily things I learned. I don’t rise, as he does, at 5 and write for any amount of time. But my work was affected by his tutelage. I became more accountable for each word or phrase in my poems, so they got shorter, denser, better. And Derek liked my poems, which allowed me to believe in them. When he told me to send them out to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, I went ahead and did it. Derek didn’t believe me when I said they hadn’t landed. “Show me the rejection letters.” I showed. “It doesn’t matter. I’d publish them.” So I put that in my pipe and smoked it for a good long time.

He was an extremely alert and agile reader of one’s stuff. Once I brought him a poem which I felt went awry somehow at the end, and when he got to that spot he started saying, “Oh no, no, no, no!”—while I was saying, “I know, I know.” And that’s all we said about it. I was pleased and gratified by our mutual un-enumerated horror. Then there was his most impressive reading moment.

bp: Which was?

MS: You’ve heard this before, and you’ve probably made fun of me for repeating it. But, OK, briefly: once in a sit-down in his office Derek was quietly reading a poem of mine, one that was composed entirely of eleven-syllable lines. On that first reading—the first time through it, mind you—he looked up from the line “and the black lacquer table is peeling,” and said, “Top, I think. Table top is peeling”—thus bringing my errant 10-syllable line into the poem’s overall pattern. I hasten unnecessarily to add that he did this without counting on his fingers, as anyone who hears this anecdote must do.

bp: I remember that story.

MS: I know you do—but it was kind of remarkable. A bit like “The Princess and the Pea” in its way. And now my poem includes a word “written” by a Nobel laureate. It appears unattributed, of course.

-The poem Derek amended is here. Bryan and I did this interview a decade ago. My friendship with Derek warrants an essay I hope to write.

Poem – Just This

ii. Just This

Pines on a February afternoon.
Is this enough?—the salt-white road, the half-
hearted walls piled with cinders, a few leaves
leaping up. No one has been kissed, nothing

written. Between towns, an ocean glimpse
is aqua-marine, extravagant. Leaves
leap up. There is water, and sky, then just this
wide light on the needles beneath the pines.

-Published in The Lyric.

Tribute Poem – for ADF

Poem for Ann Ferguson

-upon her 50th year of teaching-

One score and a sesqui-score of years ago,
after battening books and folders into cartons,
she hitched the bumper up and made the slow
remove from Fenway northward into Arden.

Princemere was defunct: the railman had pitched
his monolithic ruin to the new U.N.—
little knowing that his ponds, his pine and birch
would be much better kept by Ferguson.

But nary an easel, nary a student center
in that lean hour—a barn door for a table;
but many the grace, and many the young apprentice
remarked what Ann could fashion in a stable.

E.g. should Oedipus Rex want staging there,
then she’ll direct it, and not some musical;
and should she count some wars worth waging there,
she’ll opt for beards, and champion The Crucible.

When fire sacked those vaguely equine quarters,
and all her files, and Grady’s, in one white swoop,
she was unbowed: her actors without borders
rekindled as a traveling theatre troupe.

Look how when want or prospect called for action
over the years, she hastened to that place,
so that now the works of our Fine Arts Division
engender from her steadfast willingness.

Kudos to Ann—for teaching oil painting
without a decent studio or gallery,
for summoning students and going gallivanting
through all the museums of France and Italy.

Kudos, I say, for gaggling them into Boston
for plays, then breaking curfew on return;
for standing up to such old-fashioned custom
as frames a room but leaves it unadorned.

Oh, a hundred-hundred tables she has laid
and set each hundred feasts before her guests,
and of all the finals her scholars have assayed,
it was the one at Ann’s they relished best.

Ever the vines that effloresce about her
are chastened into fruit beneath her steel,
and perennial from the riotous soil around her
are cuttings that bloom with her own daffodils.

See how when need or crisis called for tending,
over the years she harkened to that place:
to younger writers anxious for befriending,
or ailing kin—she modeled sacrifice.

Now at this jubilee it is most fitting
we further the remembrance of these things;
we toast you, Ann, your modesty permitting,
and wish you joy—we wish you, Ah! bright wings.

-with thanks to Ann for teaching, mentoring, and promoting me.