A selection of poems from The Collected Poems 1955 - 1995
'You have to inhabit poetry
if you want to make it.'
And what's 'to inhabit?'
To be in the habit of, to wear
words, sitting in the plainest light,
in the silk of morning, in the shoe of night;
a feeling bare and frondish in surprising air;
familiar. . . rare.
And what's 'to make?'
To be and to become words' passing
weather; to serve a girl on terrible terms,
embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren hiss of publish, success, publish,
success, success, success.
And why inhabit, make, inherit poetry?
Oh, it's the shared comedy of the worst
blessed; the sound leading the hand;
a wordlife running from mind to mind
through the washed rooms of the simple senses;
one of those haunted, undefendable, unpoetic
crosses we have to find.
I thought you were my victory
though you cut me like a knife
when I brought you out of my body
into your life.
Tiny antagonist, gory,
blue as a bruise, the stains
of your cloud of glory
bled from my veins.
How can you dare, blind thing,
blank insect eyes?
You barb the air. You sting
with bladed cries.
Snail. Scary knot of desires.
Hungry snarl. Small son.
Why do I have to love you?
How have you won?
Spring comes little, a little. All April it rains.
The new leaves stick in their fists; new ferns still fiddleheads.
But one day the swifts are back. Face to the sun like a child
you shout, 'The swifts are back!'
Sure enough, bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther
two hundred miles an hour across full-blown windfields.
Swereee swereee. Another. And another.
It’s the cut air falling in shrieks on our chimneys and roofs.
The next day, a fleet of high crosses cruises in ether.
These are the air pilgrims, pilots of air rivers;
a shift of wing, and they're earth-skimmers, daggers,
skilful in guiding the throw of themselves away from themselves.
Quick flutter, a scimitar upsweep, out of danger of touch, for
earth is forbidden to them, water’s forbidden to them,
all air and fire, little owlish ascetics, they outfly storms,
they rush to the pillars of altitude, the thermal fountains.
Here is a legend of swifts, home-made, a parable:
When the Great Raven bent over earth to create the birds,
the swifts were ungrateful. They were small muddy things
like shoes, with strong legs and short wings.
So they took themselves off to the mountains to sulk,
and they stayed there. 'Well,' said the Raven, after years of this,
'I will give you the sky. You can have the whole sky
on condition that you give up rest.'
'Yes, yes,' screamed the swifts, 'We abhor rest.
We detest the filth of growth, the sweat of sleep,
soft nests in the wet fields, slimehold of worms.
Let us be free, be air!'
So the Raven took their legs and bound them into their bodies.
He bent their wings like boomerangs, honed them like knives.
He streamlined their feathers and stripped them of velvet.
Then he released them, Never to Return
inscribed on their feet and wings. And so
we have swifts, though in reality, not parables but
bolts in the world's need: swift
swifts, not in punishment, not in ecstasy, simply
sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world's breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur.
And watch the miracle.