“You can feel your whole life begin to shake,” goes a line from a poem here. I may not have shown as much, sitting alone on the couch or bed or standing on the crowded train car, but each of these poems left me vibrating inside, dizzy but mixing toward some better consistencies. At first reading, I intended to write about every one, enough to bookmark or dog-ear a page and save the notation in a deskside or virtual stack.
But weeks or months went by, and the stacks gathered dust, deskside or virtual (cleaner but more insidious). Fall arrived, and the collection of thoughts began to feel like hoarding — not a roomful of cats and paper but still obstacles in one’s daily paths and over-inked white on unfurled draft-table blueprints. If I couldn’t convert the poems-as-experience to something new, they had to go, opening space to what would be new.
Then, sometime this fall, PEN talked to Don DeLillo. By fax, the author raised questions: “Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words?” And then, “Does poetry need paper?”
I stopped in my mousing, in my chair rocking, in grasping with the pads of my fingers whatever glass of orange juice (early in the morning) or wine (late in evening) I would have been pulling to my lips and nerves. How could DeLillo ask that question? Or, very next, how could he not?
It was easy to assume DeLillo’s answer was yes, that poetry needed paper, that the medium was a relevant carrier, that his predicted White Noise was destructive and a “phony palliative” like Franzen said it was. But importantly for me, DeLillo didn’t answer his own question. He had the opportunity, sitting at his writing table or walking down or upstairs to the fax machine; and he didn’t. In his restraint, I felt understanding. I hoped and could even imagine that, during summer, he had found a poem on his screen or on a train with elbows to his back and paused.
So, on screen, here are 16 poems from my summer, for your fall.
1. “Eagle Poem,” Joy Harjo.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
2. “Koheleth,” Louis Untermeyer.
I waited and worked
To win myself leisure,
Till loneliness irked
And I turned to raw pleasure.
3. “Tornado Child,” Kwame Dawes.
I am a tornado child.
I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day;
I whip it all into my womb, lift you and your things,
carry you to where you’ve never been, and maybe,
4. “Private Equity,” Sophie Cabot Black.
To put one and one together making
Two and so on. A house appears, room
With a bed in it. To configure anyway,
Even without enough information.
5. “Following a Stream,” David Wagoner.
Don’t do it, the guidebook says,
if you’re lost. Then it goes on
to talk about something else,
taking the easy way out.
6. “The Lightkeeper,” Carolyn Forche.
A night without ships. Foghorns called into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but not death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea wrack, through heather and torn wool
7. “Titian vs. Roadrunner,” Dan Chiasson.
If you are made for flight, intended for it
you had better find a pursuer, fast.
Otherwise all that fleeing is going nowhere.
This bull, he’s got a bad intent, he wants
8. “The Sea Shell,” Marin Sorescu.
I have hidden inside a sea shell
but forgotten in which.
Now daily I dive,
filtering the sea through my fingers,
9. “Roots, ” John Piller.
It’s easy to believe you can go back
Whenever you desire, jump in the car
And drive, arrive at dusk — the hour
You recall most vividly — and walk
10. “Before Parting,” Algernon Charles Swinburne.
A month or twain to live on honeycomb
Is pleasant; but one tires of scented time,
Cold sweet recurrence of accepted rhyme,
And that strong purple under juice and foam
11. “Crossing 16,” Rabindranath Tagore.
You came to my door in the dawn and sang; it angered me to be awakened from sleep, and you went away unheeded.
You came in the noon and asked for water; it vexed me in my work, and you were sent away with reproaches.
You came in the evening with your flaming torches.
You seemed to me like a terror and I shut my door.
12. “Shy Boy,” Greg Sellers.
I wait for my shadow to forget me,
to take that one phantom step that I keep
from taking. I wait for the simple flash
of a dancer’s spat upon this one moon
13. “Marriage Morning,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Light, so low upon earth,
You send a flash to the sun.
Here is the golden close of love,
All my wooing is done.
14. “Dust to Dust,” David Baker.
Footfalls on the brickwork road many fathers laid
by hand and heavy mallet make a sandy sound.
You can hear, in the dusted scuff, a kind of gasp
as from the crumpled lungs of those bent double
15. “Fire,” Matthew Dickman.
Oh, fire — you burn me! Ed is singing
behind the smoke and coals, his wife near him, the rest of us
below the stars
swimming about Washington state,
16. “The Masked Face,” Thomas Hardy.
I found me in a great surging space,
At either end a door,
And I said: “What is this giddying place,
With no firm-fixéd floor,
That I knew not of before?”
“It is Life,” said a mask-clad face.