1. The Kingdom of Satan, 1985

    Back in the suburbs it is always autumn.
    The leaves perfume the lawns with wine as they turn.
    We share only our holes and our bones in common.

    Husbands like leaves get shriveled and rotten;
    Like leaves, before they fall they burn.
    Back in the suburbs it is always autumn.

    The wives form committees to blazon the problem
    Of schoolbooks perverse with the wet of the learned:
    We share only our holes and our bones in common.

    Children wear faces less scary than solemn,
    With blood-streaks like tears and funereal horns.
    Back in the suburbs it is always autumn.

    Frost-headed teenagers perish of boredom
    Across leather-bound cushions, blazingly spurned:
    We share only our holes and our bones in common.

    They say the cathedral has fallen where Christ was the column:
    Now televised legions devour what we’ve earned.
    Back in the suburbs it is always autumn.
    We share only our holes and our bones in common.

  2. A knack is embodied singing
    in the brain’s right wing:
    to twirl a frail fire
    out of a stick
    gives measure to warm breath
    from the first snow evening
    and human history
    reignites from the trick.

    It’s only the left mind
    says before you die
    you and all you love
    will be obsolete —
    our right mind, that shaped
    this poem, paper, type-face,
    has powerful if wordless
    arguments against it.
    Les Murray, “From the Other Hemisphere”
  3. At the whizz of a door screen
    moorhens picking through our garden
    make it by a squeak into the dam
    and breasting the algal water

    resume their gait and pace on
    submerged spectral feet, and they nod
    like that half-filled Coke bottle
    we saw in the infant river

    as it came to its affliction
    in the skinny rapids. There
    it made a host of dinky bows,
    jinked, spun and signalled

    till it was in the calm again.
    Riding wet in a wide reach of glare
    it made us think of icebergs
    towed to a desert harbour

    for drink and irrigation,
    stranded incongruous wet mountains
    that destroy the settled scale there,
    but, imported in a billion pieces

    that’s how the Coke world is.
    And though, as immemorially,
    all our dream-ships come,
    and go, to Cervix Paradise,

    now when day puts us ashore
    we walk on gritty ice
    in wideawake cities
    with tower flats and smog horizon

    and there we work, illusionless,
    scared lest live rhyme with naive
    till the evening lights come on.
    That’s the Enlightenment: Surface Paradise.

    It cures symptoms, and is fun,
    but almost any warmth makes floes
    those caught on them must defend
    as the inner fields expand,

    floes with edges like a billion.
    Strange, that wanting to believe
    humans could fully awaken
    should take away the land.

    Les Murray, “The Billions”
  4. Occult Diptych, for the Children’s Room

    [My amateurish dabbling in formal poetry continues with two more villanelles. Something about the restriction and repetition leads one on to these legendary-fantastical themes that are otherwise not to my taste. Maybe there is a future in YA verse?]

    The Seer

    The seer hears the pulse flutter under the stone.
    As a boy he bundled each sheaf with twine
    And said, “My soul’s a leaf, spirit is in a bone.”

    His first books were the heroes, brave and alone,
    Who’d breast the lightning to save the lowest of kine.
    The seer hears the pulse flutter under the stone.

    His first loves were the women, ugly, disowned:
    All men eat fruit; seers savor the rind
    And say, “My soul’s a leaf, spirit is in a bone.”

    They’d summon him to tombs: “Call back the flown!”
    Each resurrection was a gain in time:
    The seer heard the pulse flutter under the stone.

    The priests proscribed reseeding what once had been sown:
    Only a mage would show the timeless in time
    And say, “My soul’s a leaf, spirit is in a bone.”

    His monument lows with the moaning of crones.
    Now who will bind the large life to the life that is mine?
    The seer hears the pulse flutter under the stone
    And says, “My soul’s a leaf, spirit is in a bone.”

    The Prophetess

    "If the prophetess screams, we will drown her tonight in our fear."
    Girlhood was bird entrails, glistening and bloody.
    And the prophetess dreams that the harvest will fail the next year.

    She read of the witches—love spells, cursed births, spoilt beer—
    Slouched home each night, the hem of her skirts all muddy.
    "If the prophetess screams, we will drown her tonight in our fear."

    Men were so frail, they could be had for a tear;
    The satisfaction of lust was not worth her study.
    And the prophetess dreams that the harvest will fail the next year.

    She raved the course of the war at the end of the pier:
    The sea in her mind, all wreckage, foamed ruddy.
    "If the prophetess screams, we will drown her tonight in our fear."

    "Does she spy our disasters—or summon them here?"
    "Bequeath us a blessing!—corn, wine, and honey!"
    And the prophetess dreams that the harvest will fail the next year.

    She laughs in the night when she feels the goddess come near.
    Blessings for weaklings?—not while time was like putty.
    "If the prophetess screams, we will drown her tonight in our fear."
    And the prophetess dreams that the harvest will fail the next year.

  5. The New Formalism

    is a villanelle to be read, I emphasize, as a fiction, with all the irony you deem just, in the voice of an exceedingly cultivated and now, in age, utterly reactionary citizen of the Old World, whether geographically or mentally, after he or she has spent a week or so on Twitter and Tumblr:

    The prep-school boys sing Ave Stalina;
    Our new scholar-gypsies pound on their drums;
    And all the girls, they think they’re Anna Karina.

    They would have jeered as she said her Ave Marias
    Who leak false drunkards’ tears on the grave of a nun:
    Prep-school boys singing Ave Stalina.

    They weep for the ruins of old Tenochtitlan—
    Not blood-sated fields where their skirts come from,
    All of those girls who think they’re Anna Karina.

    To pious Aeneas, God’s command was “Destina!”
    But the children of empire just carp at the scrum:
    The prep-school boys sing Ave Stalina.

    Hoist that black flag, O men of Crimea!
    Show our snide-eyed schoolboys here how it’s done—
    And all the girls who think they’re Anna Karina!

    Will honor return to us—our exiled Perdita?
    For now the mockers’ crusade, double-tongue hum:
    Prep-school boys singing Ave Stalina
    And all the girls thinking they’re Anna Karina.

  6. I hold the dear spade in my hands,
    Its vibrant lightnings strike and move along my arms,
    The ghost of Shaw climbs up through me
    I feel a fiery brambling of chin
    I feel my spine
    Stand straight as if a lightning bolt had struck
    His old voice whispers in my ear, dear boy
    Find Troy, go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy!
    Ray Bradbury, “GBS and the Spade” (qtd. here)
  7. Vidal asks us rhetorically, “When was the last time a poet made enough noise to be threatened with censorship?” The U.S. government has no reason to censor anyone for expressing widely accepted ideas in a marginalized art form. Our government censors, or puts on a watchlist, only those who express support for a contrary worldview. This was once the case for Communism, back when Communism was felt to be a threatening worldview; today it is the case for jihadi Islam, because that is felt to be a threatening worldview. Basically no poet or writer in our society has a problem with democracy, or women’s rights, or freedom of speech, or freedom of religion; writers do not have to be censored because they aren’t really dissenting. They are simply pushing for better/fairer/kinder versions of capitalism and democracy: More rights, fewer bombs. Our political system is well-equipped to absorb this kind of agitation; any Daring Poetic Utterance is likely to have been more directly and angrily expressed already, on a blog or in a newspaper editorial. Today’s truly daring political poet would write against the prevailing notions of the day regarding equality and peace. That’s the kind of poem that would court media blowback—not some well-meaning, right-thinking free verse screed about police brutality or racial inequality.

    Amit Majmudar, "Political Poetry" (via)

    (I recommend the whole article—remarkably sensible.)

  8. Goodreads Review Round-Up & Fall Teaching

    I miss the old Internet days when one just had a blog (or a livejournal!) and it all went there: the pretty pictures, the book reviews, the ancient quotations veiling political fears, the notes on pedagogy, etc.  But we must adapt to this multi-platform age if we want to continue to promote every aspect of our lonely lives to strangers.  

    So here, if you want to follow along as if reality were just one big MOOC, are .pdfs of my fall syllabi for Readings in the Graphic Novel and Introduction to Poetry.  Happy first day of school, kids!  

    And here, if you even care, are a month’s worth of Goodreads reviews (I also read William Giraldi’s excellent new novel, Hold the Dark, but didn’t review it as I’m writing a review-essay on Giraldi for Rain Taxi; the Woodrell and Hannah below are there as background reading for my Giraldi essay since he’s counted them among his influences—I am now an admirer of Woodrell’s and not much of an admirer of Hannah’s):

    Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

    Barry Hannah, Ray

    Vergil, The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden)

    Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again: Two Stories

    Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone

    Gayl Jones, Corregidora

    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality

    Euripides, The Bacchae and Other Plays

    Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

    I think that’s all I have to share for now, unless the hackers turn something up in “the cloud.”  Have a good day, gentle reader!

  9. Appalled now by her fate, poor Dido prayed
    For death; she wished to see the sky no longer.
    Other things also drove her from the daylight:
    Her gifts on incense-burning altars rotted,
    Horrible to describe: wine turned to black
    And filthy gore the second that she poured it.
    No one was told. Her sister did not know it.
    There stood inside her home a marble shrine
    To her late husband: there she worshiped him,
    Spreading white fleece and hanging holy wreaths.
    She thought she heard his voice there, echoing, calling.
    When the night’s darkness covered all the earth,
    She listened to a lone owl on the rooftree
    Whose song of death kept trailing into sobs.
    Many grim warnings of the long-dead seers
    Panicked her too. In dreams a fierce Aeneas
    Chased her. She raved in fear or was abandoned,
    Friendless, forever walking a long road,
    Seeking her Tyrians in a lifeless land.
    It was like Pentheus seeing bands of Furies,
    And a pair of Thebes, and a sun split in two;
    As in a play the son of Agamemnon
    Runs from his mother’s torches and black snakes
    While vengeful demons lurk outside the door.
    Madness and grief filled her defeated heart,
    And she chose death.
    Vergil, The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden)
  10. CHORUS:
    You who in earnest ignorance
    Would check the deeds of lawless men,
    And in the clash of spear on spear
    Gain honour—you are all stark mad!
    If men, to settle each dispute,
    Must needs compete in bloodshed, when
    Shall violence vanish, hate be soothed,
    Or men and cities live in peace?
    Euripides, Helen (trans. Philip Vellacott)
  11. (Art, to state it beforehand, for I will come back to it sometime in greater length—art, in which precisely the lie hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was sensed instinctively by Plato, this greatest enemy of art that Europe has yet produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism—there the “otherworldly one” with the best of wills, the great slanderer of life; here its involuntary deifier, golden nature. An artist’s subservience in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the truest corruption of the artist there can be, unfortunately one of the most common: for nothing is more corruptible than an artist.)
    Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
  12. For pride like that we here must pay the fine;
    Nor yet should I be here, but that contrition
    Turned me to God while the power to sin was mine.

    O empty glory of man’s frail ambition,
    How soon its topmost boughs their green must yield;
    If no Dark Age succeed, what short fruition!

    Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
    In painting; Giotto’s all the rage to-day;
    The other’s fame lies in the dust concealed.

    Guido from Guido wrests our native bay,
    And born, belike, already is the same
    Shall chase both songsters from the nest away.

    A breath of wind—no more—is earthly fame,
    And now this way it blows and that way now,
    And as it changes quarter, changes name.

    Ten centuries hence, what greater fame hast thou,
    Stripping the flesh off late, than if thou’dst died
    Ere thou wast done with gee-gee and bow-wow?

    Ten centuries hence—and that’s a briefer tide,
    Matched with eternity, than one eye-wink
    To that wheeled course Heaven’s tardiest sphere must ride.

    Dante, Purgatorio XI (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  13. So when the stair had dropped, long flight on flight,
    Away beneath us, then did Virgil turn
    On the top step and fix me with his eyes,

    Saying, “The temporal fire and the eterne
    Thou hast beheld, my son, and reached a place
    Where, of myself, no further I discern.

    I’ve brought thee here by wit and by address;
    Make pleasure now thy guide—thou art well sped
    Forth of the steep, forth of the narrow ways.

    See how the sun shines here upon thy head;
    See the green sward, the flowers, the boskages
    That from the soil’s own virtue here are bred.

    While those fair eyes are coming, bright with bliss,
    Whose tears sent me to thee, thou may’st prospect
    At large, or sit with ease to view all this.

    No word from me, no further sign expect;
    Free, upright, whole, thy will henceforth lays down
    Guidance that it were error to neglect,

    Whence o’er thyself I mitre thee and crown.”

    Dante, Purgatorio XXVII (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  14.                                                         “I am
    Guido Guinizzelli, purifying myself
    already because I repented before the end.”

    As the two sons became during the sorrow
    of Lycurgus, when they saw their mother again,
    I became, without rising to their expression,

    hearing my father and the father of others
    my betters and whoever has come to use
    sweet graceful rhymes of love say his own name,

    and without hearing or speaking I walked on
    a long way, thoughtful, gazing at him,
    but because of the fire went no closer.

    When my sight had feasted enough upon him
    I offered my self at once to his service
    with that earnestness that makes others believe.

    And he to me: “You leave a mark so deep,
    through what I hear, and see clearly, in me
    that Lethe cannot wash it out nor fade it.

    But if it is the truth which you have promised,
    tell why it is that your face and speech
    make it apparent that you hold me so dear.”

    And I to him, “The sweet song of yours
    that so long as our present words endure
    will make precious the ink in which they were written.”

    "Oh brother," he said, "the one at whom I am pointing
    with my finger,” indicating a spirit before him,
    “was a better workman in the mother tongue:

    verses of love and stories of romance,
    he was peerless in all of them, and let the fools babble
    who believe that the Limousin writes better.

    They attend fashion rather than the truth.
    and in that way they make up their opinion
    before they give heed to art or reason.

    That was the way many did with Guittone,
    shout after shout all giving the prize to him
    until the truth overcame most of them.

    Now if so vast a privilege is yours
    that you are free to walk on to the cloister
    in which Christ is the abbot of the college,

    recite to Him there a Paternoster for me,
    insofar as we need one in this world
    where the power to sin is ours no longer.”

    Then, it may be to make room for another
    who was close to him, he vanished through the fire
    like a fish going into the deepest water.

    I moved forward a little toward the one
    who had been pointed out and said to him
    that my wish had made a welcome for his name.

    Freely he began to speak to me:
    “Your courteous question gives such pleasure to me
    that I will not and cannot conceal myself from you.

    I am Arnaut who weep and go singing.
    With anguish of mind I see my old folly
    and with joy see before me the hoped-for day.

    Now I beg of you by that power
    that is leading you to the top of the stair,
    while there is time remember how I suffer!”

    Then hid himself in the fire that refines them.

    Dante, Purgatorio XXVI (trans. W. S. Merwin)
  15. Most poets have given up on epic as a grand narrative… but to me the lyric has two options left, personal or impersonal truth of our emotional lives… but most of it has been done. What I seek is something more expansive, the epic frame of comic intelligence, an Aristophanean galaxy of comic parody and critique bounded and framed by the contours of ancient Epic battles of tragic heroism and the ethical judgments of the Biblical prophets… yet, within a more equitable and ironic universe of posthuman / transhuman comedy of Shakespearean plenitude…