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World Poetry Portfolio #2: Chris Agee

Chris Agee was born in 1956 in San Francisco and grew up in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. He attended Harvard University and since 1979 has lived in Ireland. He is the author of three books of poems, In the New Hampshire Woods (The Dedalus Press, 1992), First Light (The Dedalus Press, 2003) and Next to Nothing (Salt, 2009), as well as the editor of Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe, 1998, Poetry Society Recommendation), Unfinished Ireland: Essays on Hubert Butler (Irish Pages, 2003) and The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland (Wake Forest University Press, 2008). He is currently completing a collection of essays, Journey to Bosnia. He reviews regularly for The Irish Times and is the Editor of Irish Pages, a journal of contemporary writing based at The Linen Hall Library, Belfast. He holds dual Irish and American citizenship, and spends part of each year at his house near Dubrovnik, in Croatia. Next to Nothing was shortlisted for the first Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, funded by the Poet Laureate and organized by the Poetry Society in London.

TEN  POEMS

S U M M E R   P L U M S

In the valley before Srebrenica the corn was the tallest
I’ve ever seen. Someone was reaping by sickle
what looked like lavender. Another was scything silage.
Several places, women in kerchiefs and pantaloons
were sat on grass before their houses, looking out.
Low steep hills ringed the valley

with thick woods. There were domed Bosnian
haystacks pinnacled with poles and shells of ruined houses
colonized by undergrowth. It seemed right to return
to renew fields and gardens amid beckoning ghosts
of family and neighbours. A cow was led
on a rope by an old woman in the same dress

and a girl in shorts walked the road
to Potočari. A windfall of apples was
down in an orchard and silken plums scattered
on a forested lane. Two headstones stood
in a cornfield like a summer host
of thousands of splendid ears.

O

L I G H T S C A P E:   A F T E R M A T H

All the hay’s up high
like rusted memory
of Jugoslavia at heyday –
or was, cut here for summer.
Seeded in the heart’s derelict eye

like a patch of old peasant ground
by a shed door bearing one board’s
truncated  red  S  L  A  V  I  A .
Or a quartermoon sickle at midday
vanishing like a ghostly helmet

through the blue afternoon.
Or Cavafy’s moon of nocturnal desires
washed up on the foreshore of noon.
Or the same late Moon like
a beautiful amber peach-slice

descending through almond branches.
Or even a cumbersome Communist sideboard bespeaking
the final dismantling of that household ensemble
that was with you that first summer of aftermath.
Landscape, timescape, heartscape, lightscape –

who can say where
one begins, another ends,
or all conjoin, commingle
as if the world’s every thing
was its own image for something else?

A F T E R   R A I N S

A large parachute seed from a plant’s pod
floated up from the night yard
and rose into the door’s lampshine
on fresh air’s slightest breath
like thistledown in slow motion,
a snow-crystal, or some sea creature
out of the abysmal depths. I knew before I tried

I would never find it.
It was so linty and delicate, so immaterial,
it would vanish as spider’s web
on the wet Earth’s solidities.
It reminded me instantly of that first May
thistledown after apocalypse.
When I moved forward, it moved off and down

towards the dark beyond the table legs.
When I searched the verandah flagstones, half-lit
in penumbra, it was nowhere
to be found. When I shone a flashlight
close-up on the stone, there was still no trace
of its image, a trout-fly reeled in.
Some low undercurrent

probably took it from my ken.
It felt like a last omen,
approached and touched me,
and returned to the night.

O

N E R E T V A   R E S T A U R A N T

I’d forgotten that half-an-hour-or-so
until a few days before our bus swung in again
to the sloping roadside restaurant
perched on an overlook high above
the dazzling Neretva threaded below
the white conical minarets and strip fields, the Yugoslav pylons

of beautiful Jablanica. A pumped and cobblestoned rill
was bubbling from top to bottom, through a series
of gutters, waterwheels, pipes and cement fish-tanks
where trout were penned in dappled beauty.
Eight lamb-spits filled the air with woodsmoke and its smell.
I remember a quick lunch and nothing of Miriam

but love and presence. At the back, in the woods
below the dining deck, a breath of presence,
ash-flicker and mapleleaf flutter
in the high heat of Central Europe.
I stood perspirant with Jacob and watched far below
a brown, pebbled, submarine sandbar

like a trout’s speckled belly
in the crook of a wooded bend –
depths turquoise, shallows green,
under another day’s
dazzling
blue river.

O

C A N A D A   P A C I F I C

for Gilles and Marie

Québec – dawn –
and I was remembering,
for some reason,
the doorstopper at Richard’s,
that last night in New Hampshire
on the eve
of “our fucking epic” –
through “sweet New England”
north into
silo and sugar shack, multicoloured
villages, the Black Lake
(huge hole)
and toxic slag-hills near Asbestos
and Thetford Mines –
to your house and hospitality
in the old city
of New France. Leaving now
the sheet metal, dawn’s tôle,
and silver spires, forests,
dark rivers, brickworks and cemeteries,
the great St Lawrence
itself, shimmering
and metallic, like time
between the darkened banks
of metaphysics
spanned by our trestled cultures.

An Indian axhead,
enormous artefact,
stupendous
technology of polished heft,
its ringed midriff
of carved declivity
for the ligature of an imagined shaft –
a stone tear
dug up from a nearby meadow,
maybe decades ago,
stranded for years between
the compost pail
and threshold-slamming
of the screen door.

In minutes
the sun’s a blazing ball –
raking a new day
between the Laurentians
and a last finger
of Appalachia, as it exists here
and now and always,
our No Man’s Land
between the world-that-is
and the world-that-was.

It came down to you, mes amis,
to refloat the heart’s sinker
on a bobber
buoying
up
the leader of new life’s lure.
It fell, somehow,
to you
to shift the weight
to its final resting place,
its right alignment,
between the two times,
the two worlds –
at every moment
flowing
in tandem, shimmering
ensemble,
upstream, like
little whirlpools
against the entropy.

Tôle: sheet metal, the main material for roofs in Québec.

O

E U RO P E,  O C T O B E R  2 0 0 8

Suddenly Holland –
the lit necklaces
of its polders

out of the dark.

Schiphol, land
of The Hague, Blaeu’s
coloured atlases –  the African

on the vacant platform,
a hard row to hoe.

The second hand glides
like fluid time.

Time is short. Nearby dwells
Karadžić, Banquo’s ghost

at the table of the nation.
ABN AMBRO, FORTIS

the world’s thin newsprint
swimming up

in liquid night

out of daylight’s
tulip-bubble
of booming bloom.

O

I N   T H E   H A G U E

OOOLate bright

sunshine
the fountain’s
recycled Calder
the Court
breaks
universe of pain
the screening
at Potočari
in
evidential rules
I discern
your small act
of unkindness

OOOAt the Tribunal

prosecutors
in pearls

in the Mauritshuis
Girl
with a Pearl
Earring
her lips open
turning
to face you

each thing
so
so human

OOOBlown along

the bike-track
drifts of fluttering
heart-shaped beige catkins
like legions
of the lost
thronging
and imploring
the gates
of the living
Tribunal

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

The Hague
May 2009

O

from ACHILL TRIPTYCH

Böll’s Fuchsia
(Heinrich Böll)

Let’s begin, say, with this blow-in from the Japanese Pacific,
windbreak weeping  blood-red, globe-empurpled lanterns: exotic

pagodas of the old Irish hedge, companion to hart’s-tongue
and flag-iris, the verge’s trench and the mossy ditch,

famine’s rhododendron, the post-war electrification …
And let us ask, say, why we would ever need

to find the place of Golgotha if the reality
of textdom – its meaning – give it us already?

O lovely Ireland! writes Hein with irony (fondly). And in
his journal’s epilogue: Honour and glory are due to the Irish

women who bring such lovely children into the world,
to the Irish tinkers, and to the fuchsia hedges – the same country,

he adds, that gave us lynch.
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOr boycott. Still, it’s hard squaring
all this downtrodden charm with that cemetery at Letterfrack.

O

That cemetery at Letterfrack: Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard, Co Mayo, where 77 boys were buried between the 1920s and the 1960s. The school is now infamous for its brutal regime, administered by the Church and funded by the State.

O

B E F O R E  0

There is no salvation from life.
– Petar Šegadin

Eggs, months, Apostles: for the Babylonian factor, of course,
Is 12 {noon terrace, three figs}, or its halving to the fish-hook of 6.

Food, time, salvation: pretty much all there in the one
Time-capsule, or life-root, buried on the daily tongue.

Before (more of course) the Greek zero, or a peeled fig’s π,
Or even that Evangelized factor: this plain day’s three magi . . .

(π: pi)

O

MOONRISE, NEW YEAR’S EVE

The moon rose behind us.
We turned to face

its full large dial
low over Bloody Foreland.

It cast its wavering
phenomenological foil over

the bay’s whale-road and seal-road.
A wisp of cloud

twisted a half-veil
over its shadowy

seas. A scudding bank
first topped it

like a matador’s hat,
then blocked it

with a backlit darkness.
Spindrift’s suds

fled the rising tideline
in a tumbleweed

of moments
whitening the night.

Glad your old Dad’s
still here? Give me a kiss.

It’s good being
together, huh?

That was always, of
course, the real reason

for our time
in Donegal.

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