Perhaps it was glass, a little globe
coated inside with a film of fish scales
by some clever, vulpine Venetian.
The young woman who wore it,
her mouth open to speak -
was she about to tell us that?
No, she looked across the room
in that house in The Hague.
She looked clear through us,
to where there hung a view of Delft,
the only place she’d ever been.
She’d never seen a real pearl.
Every brick in the old town wall
had been blurred until beautiful,
monument to nothing more lasting
than mud. How many colors
to convince us each brick existed?
The wall was painted deep in shadow,
under the only Dutch mountains there were,
the wet dark clouds of history.
Would she say Vermeer had cheated
and moved a church steeple? It wasn’t
the pink but a gray green that gave
the lie of life to her cheek.
Not far from the Mauritshuis
was a bookstore where you could buy
a teapot decorated with judges’ robes.
And, a little farther on, the courts
where the latest war criminal
claimed he knew nothing. Or, if he did,
he’d had no influence. And, besides,
all the charges against him were lies.
Published in Salmagundi #141/142 (Winter- Spring 2004)
Image: The Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.
The slight jar, the lurch forward from a high
position above the ground - it feels
like riding a camel. The driver is switching gears.
I see the top of a tree from a downslope
as the hillflank unfolds within our forward movement -
the tree exploding outward,
like the head of a young woman,
proud, confident, issuing up to the pavement
from the mouth of a subway station,
the flowers of the kerchief her slim arms lift to tie,
the uncurling leaves of this tree.
Behind me a baby plays with mouth and throat,
ah, ah, aaarghh, eeeeyaii -
the pats and tappings of her busy tongue,
a little curl of spittle on her chin,
language wet within her.
Should there be more?
Elision, expansion, and succulence.
A coming-to-be so impossibly daring and full of joy -
In the square of my window
the clouds break apart like fresh bread.
In the towns,
magnolia already browns at the edges,
littering in a gone circle at the foot of the trees
where the red petals of the tulip, blown,
arch back from their centers like teased hair.
In the bad dream, I go on a journey
in which I can never retrace my steps
The longing to turn back unslaked, unslakeable;
What I have seen is what I have seen,
it is not returned to me, a parcel,
the book of sayings, slices,
perpetually gliding away from me,
the trail of a long skirt on the pavement,
a woman turning the corner, out of sight -
each apparent repetition of my life
fresh error, a different insolvency! And then
the elusive future: all
the familiar estrangements,
the interlocking, is, is, and never persuasively
will be: a tenuous new
melting forever within the aging jaw.
On the bridge I can look
all the way down to the floor of the Hudson.
Below the bus wheels
I can feel the plank of water, its ripples
barely ruffling an immense and flatly hopeful surface.
As if breath had to gasp upward.
Off to my right, blue violet, the mountains surge…
To the fish the floor’s the ceiling.
In the lower depths of their volume,
the crumpled river bottom goes on folding
and unfolding beneath us, keeping
its homemade secrets, daring us to describe them.
Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has ever remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.
They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.
They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.
Published in Salmagundi # 31/32, 10th Anniversary Issue (Fall 1975- Winter 1976)
In the morning 2 roses in
a thin ceramic vase by the bed
as in that childhood story
twin sisters - Rose Red &
Rose White - who were pricked &
bled & fell asleep in glass coffins
later waking to twin husbands
A new frog in D’s tank has laid eggs long strings
of jelly with little black eyes
none of the captive frogs will fertilize -
such is life behind glass
Walking the beach at the tip of the peninsula
I notice the nudists have erected
a dazzling tinfoil amphitheatre
that will fortify their tans
like shadows on a sundial
each hour they move their bodies a few degrees
Telling this at Easter dinner
I am chastized by a nudist friend
They don Ί want you gawking
The rules so complicated
2nd degree burns on my wrist
lifting the scalding pan of tofu-chicken
from the oven
Conversation turns to the man with full use
of his legs who entered the wheelchair race
took third place & then was disqualified
Everyone outraged at God or the judges
maybe not in the sky anymore
this morning twin roses unfurled
above our sleeping heads -
Published in Salmagundi #130/131 (Spring- Summer 2001)
Painting: Roses in a Vase (1910-1917) by Pierre Auguste Renoir
Childhood begins with your first good line -
a spider waiting for its kill,
turned back into a blood cocoon. How to feed
trapped in its solarium of air-
eight-eyed and benign in a jar full of holes?
Let Jesus wait
as Lazarus did in the tomb,
childhood like that row of mummies we saw
at the Rosicrucian Museum -
the one undone
charred to the bone, its bed of linen wraps
as each of us assumed the shape
of a hieroglyph inside the walls of that model
more real than any Bible
story we knew by heart - hands touching
when no one else was looking.
Published in Salmagundi #123 (Summer 1999)
for Catherine Scherer
"I’ll go to Santiago
in a coach of black water”
- Federico Garcia Lorca
In answer to your question: Yes,
time does go faster here.
The light above the Hudson changes
with a scintillating rapidity.
Such a display, I am told,
can cause seizures in the susceptible few.
Dogs do well though, chasing
their ever-changing shadows
and squirrels quickly learn to sit
open-mouthed beneath a tree
while November shakes acorns
and the season earns its name.
With cats, however, it’s an entirely
different story. My own Emily
has found a suitcase which smells
of that place we most recently left.
She’s wrapped herself around it
in the dark corner of a closet,
waiting to be returned. I check the mirror
each morning to assure myself
that it is not I who hovers there.
Thank you for the note from Lorca.
We have those same black water coaches here.
When it rains the herringbone pattern
of the red brick fills and obliterates
the sense of space. This can be confusing.
Just yesterday I wrongly connected
two people in the laundromat - a man
reading a newspaper and a woman
folding clothes. I myself avoid
the washers with the small windows.
I want no one here to see the worn,
the ragged, the missing.
Published in Salmagundi #108 (Fall 1995)
"No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had."
-Gabriel García Márquez
Taking into consideration all your loveliness
why can’t you burn your bootsoles and your
draft card? How can you sit there saying yes
to war? You’ll be a pauper when you die, sore
boy. Dead, while I still live at our address.
Oh my brother, why do you keep making plans
when I am at seizures of hearts and hands.
Come dance the dance, the Papa-Mama dance;
bring costumes from the suitcase pasted Ile de France,
The S.S. Grvpsholm. Papa’s London Harness case
he took abroad and kept in our attic laced
with old leather straps for storage and his
scholar’s robes, black licorice - that metamorphosis
with its crimson hood. Remember we played costume . .
bride black and black, black, black the groom?
Taking into consideration all your loveliness,
the mad hours where once we danced on the sofa
screaming Papa, Papa, Papa. Me in my dress,
my nun’s habit and you black as a hammer, a bourgeois
priest who kept leaping and leaping and leaping.
Oh brother, Mr. Gunman, why were you weeping,
inventing curses for your sister’s pink, pink ear?
Taking aim and then, as usual, being sincere,
saying something dangerous, something egg-spotted
like I love you, ignoring the room where we danced,
ignoring the gin that could get us honestly potted,
and crying Mama, Mama, Mama, that old romance:
I tell you the dances we had were really enough,
your hands on my breast and all that sort of stuff.
Remember the yellow leaves that October day
when we married the tree hut and I didn’t go away?
Now I sit here burying the attic and all of your
loveliness. If I jump on the sofa you just sit
in the corner and then you just bang on the door.
YOU WON’T REMEMBER! Yes, Mr. Gunman, that’s it!
Isn’t the attic familiar? Doesn’t the season
trample your mind? War, you say. War, you reason.
Please, Mr. Gunman, dance once more, commenting
on costumes, holding them to your breast, lamenting
our black love and putting on that Papa dress.
Papa and Mama did so. Can we do less?
Published in Salmagundi #9 (Spring 1969)
Dark herald, self-conceived in the desert waste,
What yang or yin enfolds your enigma best?
Memory, whose wing of fire displaces the past -
Or the present, brooding in its ashen nest?
Singing in the flames of Hell, triumphant Christ
Harrowing with Being the Nihil of the Beast -
Or, one foot lifted, one foot planted in dust,
Lord Shiva dancing, hammer in his fist?
You are the emblem of emigrants who crossed
Ocean and continent on their long flight West,
And Entropy’s immobile image: chaste
And labile, fluent at rest and saved when lost.
Is time your circle that never comes to rest,
Or the long flight of an arrow Brahma released?
Shakespeare appoints the swan your funeral priest,
The dove your spouse, at rites that you outlast -
Your true counterpart is Speech, the profane ghost:
The quick boy brandishing his lightning-burst.
Published in Salmagundi #124/125 (Fall 1999- Winter 2000)
RB: With your recent birthday (your 49th), you are entering what Mac Neice called “the middle stretch.” Do you feel you are at a pivotal point in your work?
SH: Ever since I published a book, I have felt at a pivotal point. Publication is rather like pushing the boat out; then the boat/book turns into a melting ice floe and you have to conjure a second boat which again turns into a melting floe under your feet. All the stepping stones that you conjure disappear under the water behind you. So the condition of being on a moving stair that gets you only as far as you are is constant. But like everyone else, I have the sense of two special moments, in your 30s, and then some where later down the line-in your 40s or 50s; in fact, you have to start three times. First, you start to write and that’s one initiation, the sine qua non of the other two, obviously.
RB: Are you drawing here on the Wordsworthian format you mention in your TLS piece on Plath?