World Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine
Richard Deming’s collection of poems, Let’s Not Call It Consequence (Shearsman, 2008), received the 2009 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches at Yale University. He was the Spring 2012 John P. Birkelund Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.
Whether or not
Then this: the house burns with a kind of panic—
flames claim its heavy drapes,
the banisters, soot-blackened porcelain cups
strewn across the landing. Things
coin an incontestable end.
This, then, an antic landscape and above this
then, the sun is blindsided by a day-glo
Come back, now
come back to me. On a gray day
voice is a lethargy. Though
I meant to say litany, didn’t I?
This a meaningful slip or what
some then might
anger. I blink
and the morning weatherman with perfect teeth
says all conditions are
thereby subject to change
and you, Judas Iscariot,
brother to shatterings uncountable,
the grasses in that field are covered with ice:
your dawn is unlike any other’s.
This then is an eye,
a center, the lake: what’s subject
to sudden loss.
And where is my own pale Virgil who once turned
away from the dark wood toward
the wide river, every drop
a forgiving, forgetful syllable?
My name is a hollow boat. Speak this,
Ode to Paxil
000after The Exorcist
Paramour, discrete, I’ll mouth your name
when the day’s a dazzle of lists and panic
and thus violence takes so many events unto itself—
the sound of a refrigerator door closing,
a bottle of wine upturned,
its contents flowering into the sink.
The pen is the right hand
clicking and clicking and clicking.
Morning’s failures are no longer unique
as the books on the shelves haw and
crack like an AM radio on a sailboat far off
the coast of Halifax. Show me the way to go home.
Remember when we wanted the best
for everyone? And then. And then.
There are so many of us now, too many
for everyone to be recollected—I should say
saved—so time doesn’t stand
at attention, or heap into a pile.
It overwhelms us, as humidity overwhelms
the chickens in the pasture, which collapse
one by feathered one—each their eyes, their whitening
tongues, covered with dust. The young girl’s forearm
blossoms with burns and scars. She would
say the body’s no song. Do tell.
A gaunt, carved monolith in Northern Iraq
unsepulchered, its great jaws unclamped,
awaits some once-intended moment
its secrets shaped in stone by a forgotten hand.
Standing on a distant hill, its weather is all its own.
Archeologists snap their photographs and later
they’ll eat cucumber sandwiches and visualize
kisses placed upon the eyelids, right then left.
Tenderness has its own rhetoric. When
I grasp your hand like this, it means, how could
Placing my fist
across your eyebrow means, this is the distance
memory takes. My palms against
my chest means, the world’s a gossip. In its dread
revisions, we are such tiny thirsts.
000For Cathy Eisenhower
The week is an almanac of denials—
sow, not reap;
rain, not sun.
The fetid water from a French restaurant’s kitchen
flows into the gutter’s grates.
And as in any small town
nothing lonelies like the self.
Calling it uncanny doesn’t
help things or so
Narcissus tells himself
the same story over and over and I wonder what
boredom is to him.
Is it a strange man’s
kisses in quick succession that leaves
a wine dark lesion on the hand? Why not
lift the eyes?
I was thinking of repetition again as a young girl’s
rocky road melts onto her dress in the shape
of the tears Peter shed, which, it is said,
formed salt-rough furrows
across his face signing
a dazzled weakness.
I’ve never been here before.
The body at middle age is a set of echoes
trapped underground in some
forgotten subway tunnel—
the old “what of” that is
some seismographic recording too late,
too late. The X says
you are here and, for a moment, means it.
Hold, hold, mutters the ghost on the stair.
For night to be anything but
the uneven first blush of a bluish hour
dismantled in late talk, the cold air disembodies.
Below my window, a woman grasps her love like a new
screenplay. Dawn, when it comes, is still
the very shape
of surprise; it starts like a guilty thing.
A man in a blue serge suit—I didn’t know
they still made them—coughs into his sleeve. The torn
and faded poster for Fritz Lang’s Scarlet
just how much past has passed.
Some days are like that: heavy painted canvases laid alongside
the walls of lofts in the meatpacking district.
Once I was afraid, not of dying but of the fat-bellied blue jays
that scream and dive and scream and dive. My friend is
right not to mention phobias and fixations and the night
she spent tied to a hospital bed.
As I watch, several tan men scrub with wire brushes
the bronze bricks of the Park Avenue armory,
the last dull sound among
the shadows of an unfortunate September.
Day for Night
000“I wander all night in my vision…”—Walt Whitman
All night I walk as a ghost
among the lost and the living.
From the dark river, swollen past its banks,
up through to the city’s center,
there where people ebb and flow, singly,
or in groups, choosing their means
haltingly, like a nearly forgotten catechism,
call it love or anger, I make my way.
There are nights woven from thick hours
spun during daylight’s fretfulness.
Stand out of the sun, someone says
and evening ripens like a fig.
Think now of what fashions the hour:
what comes from what. The moon
waxes and wanes. I didn’t ask
to be here, to become this thing
that becomes its own end.
What if life is just that: leaning at the horizon.
By that I mean a wished-for hurtling forward,
the only solution a dissolution.
The streetlights each curve downward,
and stretch far past the bridges and avenues,
past the café where the student opens then
closes her book. More light, she says to the waiter.
Some days it’s easier to tally
those furtive things that have no future
rather than those, such as the noon sun’s glare,
that swallow every shadow beneath our feet.
I place a branch upon the palm of my right hand
and cannot in certain terms prove to myself
I am not dreaming. The smell of burnt pork
carries through the alleyway behind an atelier.
A man I want to believe walked past a bay window.
I wanted to believe most of all that he remained
there because that proves, simply, I am at this place
at any ordinary hour of any ordinary day.
This is what it means to be someone.
If I were to speak just now,
my throat would catch, my voice
falter and stammer. It couldn’t be
colder, a father on some sitcom
playing in the late night health club insists.
On the contrary, there’s no end
to how things never do measure
the shape of enough, mein Freund.
Divide what you will listen to
by the ratio of all you have lost.
From mud and sticks and twine and error,
I built a shameful twin
to move through this squalid winter,
to share all manner of guilt.
I’ll watch as he steps forth,
smelling of ash and amnesia, of sex
and leaves, of all the things I needn’t feel.
This one will never sleep nor walk a crooked mile.
I forget that it isn’t simply a way to avoid
another’s outrage. Sitting quietly, hands
folded, one over the other: this only seemed
like waiting. The fingernails lengthening
and hardening into fine gray slate.
All this nextness fills window after window
—one thing, then another—
with a disappointment or wonder.
An eyelid flutters involuntarily.
Not even this in vain.
With our eyes we distinguish
everything—night from day, thus
days from weeks to years. And if time,
then loss—hence love. There are such gifts
we are given so they may be taken away.
At the edge of the forest beside the city
wild boars, black as pitch,
drag small animals into the brush.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Alright, a still life, perhaps:
Compotier Flush with Cruelty.
Paint, a pear, glass, and so much green
aghast with longing.
It makes a claim, already, for beauty—
a reason for looking that telescopes
the night past the edges of the table.
It needn’t have been so bad, and it isn’t, not really.
Given enough time. This afternoon, for instance,
there were lemons in a bowl
filled with water and the scent
hung thickly on thick red curtains. I slept. And so.
Cigarette smoke brushing the skin is enough.
The lone maple tree in the yard is enough.
The crow on the dock at the lake’s edge
and the rowboat, moving and rocking,
and the long cloud above, these are enough.
Your breath, even now, is enough.
In late summer, from a dry field will come
some persistent tune, locusts, perhaps,
or the husk of longing tends toward a dwelling-place,
some subtler music to frame the way
onward. All of it anyway to read the boundaries
beyond which nothing is found. So, tonight
on the subway, a businessman slips into sleep,
his left eye half-open. Who would place a kiss there?
The very human sound of limitation and what,
being human, it allows us.
I glance along the roof of the train. A bulb flickers
above a young woman in combat boots. The dog
at her feet is not well, pants and trembles.
I imagine calling out name after name until she turns her head.
In this light everything looks bad, but some things worse.
I blink once, twice as I step out of the florescence
of the underground station and move through
a crowd of teenagers, workers. Every word,
for a moment, is other, unrecognized. I am now
another space passing through the present.
Almost over now, says a bartender,
reaching for a beer soaked rag.
A dime descends elegantly through a lawyer’s rum
and coke to the bottom of the glass.
It’s easy to become lost among all these things,
among dishes and chairs, among pens and porcelain,
books, and dried flowers—the sickening smell of incense
and Mop & Glo hovering about it all. And more.
I can choose to be here and I do. Or I go
to an all-night diner, steel counters and padded booths.
The coffee’s sweet and thick with milk and
the mind’s anywhere. Everywhere.
Two women, both with gray hair, sit
near the door eating toast and jam while the air
around them trembles in neon. It’s a sign. Snow
begins to fall and it would keep falling, were the earth
not there to stop it. Gravity catches us all, beginning
and end. Some day. The material life of things merit
praise, whatever we can muster. It provides a sheen.
I go outside again to meet it.
Some indifferent late winter, one irreconcilable night,
what steps forward is what, in passing, any can call
a world—not that these are the only things that are,
as they are, but one possible sounding such as you or I will
organize, as an old man standing on a bridge passes
a hand back and forth before the face of what
we recognize, willingly or otherwise, and arcs
into a dialect or patois. Saying so becomes it.
From the things that happen and do not happen
we collect ourselves; for instance,
lying abed, nights wasted, given to sleep
or stupor. How did it get so late so quickly?
In the afternoon, on the subway platform,
a beautiful stranger with a microphone
asked me about my favorite fragrance.
Now the scent of alder and pine, wet pavement
and burnt espresso adjust each small response.
Then I forget the time. Head tipped back
I close my eyes and the dark becomes darker.
Or perhaps there behind the lids it all
starts over. I acted as if.
Streaming between the battered doors of an old club comes
Patsy Cline’s voice, high, almost lost. It reaches
the street where a cab sits and waits, the meter running.
The smoke from the exhaust rises, becomes the snow.
To be all these things, I light another cigarette.
Where at this moment is that twin? I wonder.
Would I become him, now or ever?
That’s what the city’s for. Some nights, hope blooms
like rent boys along the middle avenue
in early spring. But people also sleep and dream.
There is this life, thrown or found,
it takes a shape and makes its time. Yet,
why becomes want again and again.
In a hotel lobby, someone cleans a mirror
cut into the shape of the downtown skyline.
There’s a genre of hours—some hone,
some wreak havoc; others circle and circle, then tire.
Some knit a home from heartbeat and expectation.
I conjure a breath, first, then some words.
What remains? Wait for it, now.
People move in and out of doors
without a story, without a promise.
Still, there’s the moon and those stars.
Empty branches scratch a private name
against brick buildings filled with lives
I will never live enough to find.
Three floors up, a figure stands at a kitchen window.
I am almost tired enough and yet it’s colder still.
Belonging’s not like a song, but a murmur.
And when, as it does, evening comes,
there’s a hope it will not let up
and the night’s so long.
I will read to you, read to you from
this book of forthcoming, this
text in variations:
an index to ask
you meant to answer, but
then was gone like a breath
or a hope.
Before there was any of this,
there was you.