POETRY USED TO LIVE IN A FORBIDDEN STATE OF COURAGEOUS GRACE
Poetry used to live in a forbidden state of courageous grace
but now it’s palpably culpable of cowardice.
Paper-mache lifemasks with all the characteristics
of a gaping sin of omission. As F.R. Scott said of E.J. Pratt
in his poem about the building of the CPR
where are the coolies in your poem, Ned?
The ten thousand that died lining and tamping track.
Now the real subject matter of most works of art
is not what was put in, but what was left out,
where’s the heart, the soul, the imagination,
where’s the grief and the longing that slowly matured
into the black flames of the charred roses
that immolated themselves in their own fires
for the love of someone they couldn’t live without
like the other wing of the song of a bird
maimed by the oversight like a tree in chains.
The applause of trained seals isn’t praise
and celebrity isn’t fame. Everyone’s good
at divining the well, but who takes the time
to dig one any deeper than their own shallow grave?
Maybe there’s a sleeper out there who’s fighting
for his life in a dream, enduring excruciating transformations
as experience shapeshifts his voice into poems
we’ll get to overhear one day after he’s dead
like the sound of distant water in a mindstream
or the ashes of an unknown soldier
that couldn’t be contained by a broken urn
or buried under a monument to anonymous violence.
A hero or a heroine who didn’t play to the crowd
like an acrobat of words faking it as a wizard
in a literary scene of very unsacred clowns.
Tiger-striped arsonists that couldn’t burn
their way through a matchbook. Where are
the thieves of fire, the Promethean criminals,
the fore-ordained demons of nihilistic doom,
the mad who used to sacrifice their shadows
on the altars of the mountains of the moon
and came down into the valleys in tears
with a message like an avalanche of the underwhelmed?
Are there no more Druids? Is the bloom off the mistletoe
of myriad moons that have lost their atmosphere
to the bright vacancy of the vacuum on the reflected side of things
and forgotten the dark abundance of the occult originality
of the true face that’s turned away like a perennial eclipse
of the black sheep of a severely depleted family
that doesn’t want to talk about such things in public?
No more shamans risking death in the cradles of the treetops
at the hands of the visions that cut them to the bone
to see if they’ve marrowed suffering into lunar gold
they scatter on the waters like feathers and bread?
Even the deer miss their hunting magic more than they realized.
Now the flies stalk lions in zoos that know better
than to fight back. And poetry reads like a tourist trap
for expired prophets glad-handing their coveted awards.
Bleed a bit, damn it. Weep like a mountain. Write a poem
like an amputee in a straitjacket with the pen in your mouth.
Pour the ocean into a seabed, not a teacup
that tastes vaguely of life, and down a deep draft
of your own blood in a single gulp from the vessel of your skull,
then wipe it from your lips like the petals of a rose
that knows how the heart feels when it’s sealed
like a blood bank and the hungry ghosts of ideas and ideals
have been summoned to it like a seance of vampires in lieu
of the living metaphors that animate the lives of real things.
I’m not saying that the morning is without singers,
or that one should only listen to the night birds
or that the old stumps aren’t sprouting tender green branches
out of their Medusa-headed roots. There’s fire
in every generation if you get close enough to it
sufficient to singe your eyebrows on or at least
walk toward on a cold night in a cruel landscape
to spread a few stories around to scare the children
into listening to their imagination unbound
from the usual lullabies that keep their parents lyrically young
in a state of arrested development. Where are
the dangerously dissociated ones who yell Merd!
at the choirs of cant and stab an established
pigeon of a poet through the hand like an osprey
then walk off the stage into oblivion as if
a mediocre morality play were beneath his felonious dignity?
Where are the black-robed, outlaw, poet priests,
the sybils, oracles, witches and warlocks,
the vatic rebels hiding out in caves to amplify their voice
like the anarchic mountain they’re trying to bring down
on everybody’s heads like a meteoric shower
of portentous space junk in a degenerating orbit
that cremated their body parts separately as if each
had nothing in common with its fellow asteroids
except they couldn’t keep their cornerstones together long enough
to establish a small planet they could live on in anarchic accord.
I can remember when poems were written in blood,
not bleach and fabric softeners. Not anti-bacterial detergents
that shoot at their own troops over the heads of the enemy.
And how the poetic toads that hibernated for seven years
in the dry creek beds suddenly woke up one day to a flash flood
and started singing sexually naked in the downpouring rain,
not these isolated ripples and trickles of acidic dewdrops
that burn the tongues of the flowers with trademarks and name brands.
Where the savage mystic who wanders in out of the desert
reeking of stars and the wisdom of a snakepit
that could make a whole village stop work, and listen
to the unexpurgated desert wind that spoke through him?
Where are those who ennobled the miseries of life
by living their way through them like diamonds in a black lung?
Now it’s the association of the sensibilities into elitist cliques
of enculturated memes with homogeneous life themes
that never leave home to save their children, as Rilke rightly observes,
from having to do it for them. Domesticated lapdogs
never very far from the begging bowls that feed them
like the awards and grants of an institutionalized paternalism
that lets them know when the silver-tongued should be heard
at the table, each in their proper place, and when
Skinnerian censorship, like repressive tolerance, is golden.
Poetry’s as old and as dead an art as prostitution.
It’s been dying since the first shaman
imitated the song of a bird with its feathers on fire
or the first stripper teased her nakedness with boas.
Or the first wounded wolf let out a warcry
that chilled the moon with its unwaning sincerity.
And the ultimate angle? To be the thing itself
until it breathes you in and out like a way of life
the petty won’t risk aspiring to for fear of falling
and being found out like a candling parachute
tangled in its own life lines like a labyrinth of axons
that have lost their nerve for heights. Twenty-five million
children dying of starvation every year on the planet
and you’re lying in the lap of the luxury of literature
writing about the rustic quaintness of making home-made jam,
the same way they turned totem-poles into telephone booths
and minor domestic tragedies into recyclable myths of origin.
Let the stars burn deeper into you. Befriend the darkness
like the largest room in your house. Salt your tears
with oceans where your sorrows can learn
to swim like fish without ever swimming out of your eyes.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is it, this onceness,
of the dirge and the lyric you’re never going to hear
the same way twice, this mystic specificity
that encompasses us wholly in the mystery
of what we’re doing here, what we’re saying
and thinking and feeling and shrieking and seeing here
in the presence of each other bearing witness everywhere
as if even the void we flash out of like the morning dew
and return to with the dust of the sunset all over us
were also in some inconceivable way, though
we can’t put our lips to its eyelids, sentient
and playfully absurd, but never frivolously recognized.
Don’t live like the dress rehearsal of a play you didn’t write.
In the pursuit of an earthly excellence that expresses
our human consternation of who we are and are not,
neither this, nor that, say deeply what you mean
so that we can all draw water from it like the sun.
So there’s lightning in the clouds of your depression
and the fireflies take over where the starmaps leave off.
Be a great high priestess of the sacred syllable
and when you enter your venerated groves
like the night wind among the crowns of the trees
be at least as engaging and beautiful as they are
and as at home among warriors as you are homeless among saints.
Awake and alert in the unsayable silence. Wait.
And the metaphors will come like bridges that burn
and go up in flames like an orchid and bridges
that collapse under their own weight into the river
they were trying to cross to the colder, lonelier shore
where purity’s just a long, slow annihilation
of everything you still insist upon cherishing.
Let go. Fall. Revive. Return. Go up the mountain.
Find the mother lode. Bring it back down into the valley
like a strong river brings its knowledge of gold within.
Behind every explorer is a child who likes to discover
and share things. So what’s worth finding that you can’t?
You just have to look into one eye to see the history
of everything that can be seen. And when you open your mouth
prompted by a rush of stars, you sing
for thousands of dead poets who used to occupy
these green boughs and leafless branches, you sing
as if you were the last surviving member of the choir,
and the silence, the enraptured silence, were listening.