The following poems first appeared in Poetry East
There was nothing they could do that day
when the world broke through their fences
like some dumb animal
hungry, random, and godless.
There was nothing they could do to stop
the outsider with his wire, nails, and guns
or their daughters dying
among the blood and broken glass
in that small one-room schoolhouse,
the bonnets still hung on pegs in a row,
the gunshots ringing into the bell.
The inert sun hung in the sky lifeless
over the road and line of black buggies –
black as beetles with hard casket shells –
driven by fathers with long, blotted beards,
and even when they lowered their daughters
into the same earth worked by their hands,
Death could not take their Gelassenheit,
comfort and compassion freely given
to the outsider’s wife and children.
The world easily understands death,
as it feeds upon it every day,
but not this selfless absolution
or patch of earth where the school stood
before it was torn down in the night,
this empty gap in a peaceful pasture,
earth so unadorned yet with purpose,
where men of darkness and light both walk.
WHY I HATE THE BUDDHA
I guess I can’t hold it against him,
every luxury at his fingertips –
the finest clothes, food, and young women –
every whim satisfied for twenty-nine years.
And it’s not that I’m envious of his marriage –
one of unparalleled sexual intensity –
to his cousin and their lewd, ten-year honeymoon
climaxed by rolling out of their silken sheets,
out onto the roof and into the garden below,
all the while obliviously embraced in coitus.
It’s not that he turned his back on his family,
rejecting his father’s wishes to become king,
or was a deadbeat dad leaving his wife and baby
who would all be trampled to death by elephants.
And you would think what would really get to me
was all that wasted time searching for enlightenment
driven by chronic dissatisfaction –
the Vedic worshipping of gods and planets,
the emaciated ascetic renunciation,
the endless hours of meditating in a thong,
when all he had to do was simply touch the earth
to realize this moment is Nirvana.
It’s not exactly his old age that bugs me,
plump in his eighties surrounded by doting servants.
It was the final night when he slept on his side –
after eating that dreadful meal without complaint,
when the sal trees suddenly burst into bloom
releasing coral flowers and sandalwood –
and that smile – etched so perfectly, so serene.
My attention this morning was drawn to a bird,
its species unknown as its aria
singing its tiny heart out by my window.
But what really had me wondering
was why the bird sang for no apparent reason.
I listened carefully for a distant return
but no far off mate returned the call –
there were no other surrounding fowl
in the thick woods to either attract or attack.
I wondered why it bothered with all that effort,
and on days like these, considered its larger purpose
as we drift together pulled by the current
of this cold and darkening universe.
I questioned why life itself bothered at all
to appear only then to disappear
like bubbles off a geothermal mudpot
rising briefly before bursting back into the clay.
I considered the watchmaker argument
that life is created by grand design
no matter who is the watchmaker,
or the reason why the watch is made and for whom.
But then, does a reason really need to exist?
Does the bird sing for its own joy?
Satisfied with my reflective treatise,
I stand upon my writing desk
and with chest billowed and head cocked upward,
release the magnum opus of my existence.
THE SMALLER WORLD IS MAKING A COMEBACK
I had to throw away today’s paper
filled with entanglements of foreign threat
and complexities of the looming debt crisis.
Even the Arts section offered no solace
with its endless parade of celebrities.
But there was one article that caught my eye,
“The smaller world is making a comeback,”
about keeping it simple, keeping it small,
about how we try to do too much
and how our wants overwhelm our needs.
I thought about my own expanding agendas
and grand plans for an erudite masterpiece.
How delightful it would be to return
to that peaceful and uncluttered system,
a Ptolemaic cosmos of seven tiny spheres –
just a moon, one sun, and five planets –
beautiful glass balls, white, blue, red, and yellow,
gently revolving in concentric circles
like a mobile suspended from the firmament.
And if you were to take the time to look closely –
at your leisure, of course – through the Earth’s cornea
while cupping an ear, you may hear me
reading aloud this poem to a group
in Pirahã having abandoned English.
RES IPSA LOQUITUR
I love strolling in this cemetery,
this world of the dead so excluded from the other –
the hurried one just outside these peaceful gates –
down the paved path among the willows
always weeping like the marble angels
perched atop rows of stones chiseled with epitaphs.
I pause and read a few of those who lie beneath –
glimpses of greatness, summaries of achievements –
no less poignant than Donne’s, “For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies,”
or the simple, “O rare Ben Johnson.”
They all had the same brief handfuls of time,
the same longitudes and latitudes of choice,
each pulled by their own destined tidal force,
each provided with the same canvas to animate.
Did they all reach their destinies?
Did they do all the things they were meant to do?
Did each say all the things that needed to be said?
The air is now full of dusk and it’s time to leave,
and as I return down the paved path I consider
the time when the hands on my clock disappear,
and the things of mine that will remain:
people I loved, what was said and what wasn’t,
the works completed and all the works left undone.
And what shall my final words be to sum it all up?
Or is an epitaph necessary?
Would not the birdsong, the streaming sky,
and the damp earth below be enough?
The thing speaks for itself.
Excerpts from, Sunbathing on the Bottom of the Atlantic, MK Publishing (2005)
My daughter is deep in concentration, quietly engaged
in activity at her miniature table sprawled with crayons,
a palette of watercolors, and a large drawing pad.
Poised above, I look down upon her squiggles of lines
portraying a cockeyed house surrounded by broccoli trees.
“This is our house. That’s me. And that’s you, daddy.”
She points to a figure with an oval head, gray hair outcrops,
and stick fingers clasping smaller ones of her own depiction
like a child’s rendering of Michelangelo’s Creation of Man.
I am pleased with my little creation’s devotion to me,
her giver of comfort, her giver of punishment,
an omniscient entity amused with her ruminations,
her making sense of the universe through art –
or has she invented me, a two dimensional Jehovah
beneath the yellow swirl of sun and coiled heaven
who could never exist independent of her imagination.
AN ABSENT LIFE
The strands of past and future tied in one
Tough, weather-beaten, salted twist of hemp,
The present – Then
I shall be able to refind myself,
And also, you.
-Anne Morrow Lindbergh
What if things happened differently on that cold spring morning
in 1932, the year your parents fell to pieces
and the world stood still when you vanished?
What if there were more angels than insects
surrounding you that night as you slept deep in the woods
just four miles away from your toys and teddy bear?
What if, like in the stories of children’s books,
you were retrieved and nursed by a kind animal,
or perhaps discovered by an elderly couple
who lived alone, never bothered with newspapers,
never knew your father was the first to fly
across the dark eternity of the Atlantic?
And they raised you, gave you a new name,
fed you full of vegetables, potatoes, and pork,
taught you how to read and write and do math in your head.
Some years later you went to Princeton on a scholarship
studied law, listened to jazz, and met a women
who loved to run her hands through your thick curly hair.
You married her and bought a six bedroom house,
filled it with children, all with thick curly hair,
and they played with their mother while you worked at the office.
When the children grew up and went off to college,
you spent more time working in your garden
and traveled abroad to Paris and Venice.
You lived a full life, now at seventy-three,
yet there were always those disquieting feelings,
that hollow sound your footfalls made upon the earth,
and those strange unexplained impulses
every time you hear propellers overhead
that had you standing outside in the backyard,
your watery eyes searching the blue air for planes,
infant passengers on their way towards the Atlantic,
while you rub the back of your neck with your absent hands.
UNABLE TO SLEEP, I CLEAN THE HOUSE IN MY MIND
Lying here in a patch of moonlight,
eyes closing, eyes opening,
the bed has become my enemy
and will not give me solace
from the torment of the night’s silence.
Last time I tried to count the pairs
on Noah’s manifest
making their way up the plank
between drops of rain
and laughter of the dammed.
Tonight I am cleaning the house,
sweeping away yesterday’s sand,
dusting rows of molding books,
their spines cracked and covers torn,
their iniquities concealed.
I tenderly place the china
into the sink’s warm bath.
As the suds graze the chips
and seep in between the fissures,
I can hear indistinct cries –
the echo of an argument,
its anger like a print
fired into the porcelain –
or perhaps the soap has stung a wound
inflicted by rushed packing.
I will then take my furniture oil
and polish the cherry wood,
the oak, the mahogany,
caressing the dark surfaces
like a hand over a lover’s back.
The arc of my face pressed close
to the breath of sweet lemon,
I will whisper into the small gashes
a soothing lullaby,
a song of forgiveness.
I have been staring at this blank sheet of paper all day
and have become snow blind by its emptiness.
There is so much I could write – so much history –
yet this glaring white paper reminds me
I have forgotten everything
and how much there is I do not know.
So I begin by shoveling away the snow,
and underneath emerge the black specks of these words,
and underneath the words are the wasted leaves
of fallen days I had raked up into piles
before a blizzard buried them in its blanket.
I pause and glance up at the moon,
a transparent wafer dissolving into dawn,
as another slab of white slides off the rooftop –
perhaps the names of a few friends –
calving away from the glacier of memory
and the bare tree branches bend and clack in laughter.
But there is something about all this white – its wholeness –
that makes me think this is how I would like it to end –
with me curled up under these twenty-one lines,
frozen in this poem, in this age of ice.
A N T H O N Y T A Y L O R D U N N