ORACLE AT DELPHI
King Croesus bribed Apollo's sibyl
with gifts golden to the core––
her every syllable must be infallible.
Battle-hardened, Croesus knew the score.
Truth comes at a stiff price, like war.
Hexameters dictated by the god
wafting up from her cave below
promise Croesus he'll ride roughshod:
BY STRIKING PERSIA THIS GREAT BLOW
YOU'LL BRING A MIGHTY EMPIRE LOW.
Exultant Croesus swung her guarantee
like the honed blades of his ax––
and galloped off on a killing spree.
But his linguistic skills proved lax
when it came to parsing Attic syntax.
His armies charging Cyrus' hordes
compose a treacherous palindrome:
Reading left, glittering Lydian swords
hack Persian limbs to bloody foam.
But reading right, his cavalry heads for home!
The tide of battle turns in his stomach––
that sibyl's song was poison-laced!
She's paralyzed his attack.
His aides are retching, ashen-faced,
all confidence in their king erased.
For Cyrus had sent forth a phantom
weapon: his stilted, stinking, reptile-snouted
camel corps shrivels every stallion's scrotum.
It's Croesus' empire that's been routed!
Apollo promised!––and how could he doubted?
Pyre aflame, Croesus had one last shot.
Hoping Apollo was appalled
at what his Delphic underlings had wrought,
he yelled at the clear blue sky and called
for a cloudburst––and that's exactly what he got!
Drenched, but divinely spared, Croesus spied
Cyrus' troops on the march, and asked where to?
"To rape your city," the winner replied,
"they'll steal anything of yours they care to."
"But it's your city now––they'll be plundering you."
Bemused by this flash of gallows badinage
Cyrus abandoned his animus––
welcoming Croesus to his entourage
as living proof that even the imperious
can be impulsively magnanimous.
A CONVERSATION WITH MY HAIR
Not many days ago I asked my hair,
"Are all of you going entirely gray
immediately, and not some distant day?"
They answered, "How much do your really care?"
"A lot, Guys. Are you comfortable with
my conscripting the whole army of you
to my transparent, age-dissolving myth?"
"Hey fella, you're the skipper, were the crew,
but please don't drown us all in some faux hue––
thinking you'll zip back to the day verse-lipped
Sylvia , writing her pal Lynne, called you
"enigmatically blue-eyed, butterscotch-dipped
Bob Bagg." What I became, when Sheri spun
me around, was a breeze-ruffled gent, no trace
of gray, Sheri saying, "Here's looking at ya, Hon"––
but still confronted by the same old face
and instantly accosted by my skin
and other organs I've denied such bliss,
who, feeling ugly as original sin,
let me know, they'll soon put a stop to this.
I'm five or six. A boisterous party pulls
me half-way down the stairs, to sit peering
under the banister at Mom and Rick Larkin
face to face, arms reaching––not dancing
not talking, just floating closer––till I
catch Mother's roving eye … she lets go,
deflecting handsome, handlebarred Rick's
attention up at me … who takes her wet
gin kiss back up to bed, too young to know
why everything feels, suddenly, out of place.
This memory has jagged edges. Like those
clay ostrakoi Athenians attached
to unwanted newborns left out to die,
so if rescued and brought up by strangers
they might, fate willing, chance on whoever
holds the other broken half, make the match,
discover who their parents really were.
It's six years later. Rick loses his job
(selling Iron Lungs that cures for polio
would soon make obsolete). He and I spend
rainy afternoons playing pouncing chess.
"I am an opportunist," Rick liked to say
when he reached for my queen, not grasping
that capturing her would lose him the game.
I could see four or five chess moves ahead,
but grownups playing life were beyond me.
I didn't know what opportunist meant,
not then, till adolescence broke out
in a rash of hormonal entendres.
I'm rerunning Rick's verbal jousts, to feel
now, each of his galloping shots to my ribs.
He once spoke up for household nudity.
"We Larkins are too pretty to be prudes,
we love walking naked around our house."
Wow! Red-haired Ginny, his elegant wife?
Tomboy Katie? My mind slipped off their clothes,
gingerly fixed on flaming pubic hair.
Once striding from his bathroom Rick
startled a houseguest. She was shocked.
"So I said to her: 'Do I frighten you?'"
I couldn't figure why he'd scare anyone
––such a happy-go-lucky bon vivant––
not yet seeing the stark fact he'd left out
of his account … And now, freed-up erotic
noises and images come into play…
Mother, husky-voiced at bedtime, calling Dad
to turn off the news and come up to her.
Once she pulled her nightgown over her head
so I could see for myself how different
women are from men. When at nineteen I sailed
for Europe, she kissed me goodbye, saying
"Now don't be afraid to come home a man."
Not till my late thirties did she confide
Susan and I had a half-sister, born
when Mom and the father were seventeen.
No one in her own family was willing
to take on Mom's burden. Perfect strangers
had to step in. She knew the girl's life
thereafter, only by photos and clippings.
She did her best to help me see: It's so
hard for us––meaning girls––to say no.
Having heard a ton more nos than yeses
all through a stuttering adolescence
I was incredulous––where were those girls?
The only stunner who ever hissed yeses
my way, was Molly Bloom in Ulysses.
The morning Mother died, Dad walked me
through her roses: "It's so unfair … Mom dying
at sixty-two." (She wrote the book on low-
salt cooking, which kept his blood pressure down.
Dad thrived, remarried, lived to eighty-nine.)
"I was never unfaithful to your mother.
Maybe I should have been …" said a minute
later, out of the blue. I wondered why
ever would he want to be unfaithful?
I knew she'd seen psychiatrists early
in their marriage. Dad never said why.
What therapy is it that cures desire?
As a child, I knew how selfish she could be.
But she never hit or belittled me.
Except, if she thought I was being stupid
or lazy, well, that got her ire up.
More than once she told me she'd tried
to be a good mother. I told her: she was.
The day my first serious girl dropped by––
both of us home from college at the time––
all at once Mom left the house, leaving us
astonished, ourselves alone, to take as much
advantage of the moment as we dared.
If we don't dare, we start to die: Prufrock's
white trousers sit in judgment on us all,
whether we roll them up or take them off.
Mom did her best to raise a by-the-book
Christian gentleman. And did. But I knew
no book for the passion in her—not till
away at college, I found it in Greek myth:
Aphrodite, Helen, Phaidra––Furies
poets envision giving birth to murder,
war, tragedy … a sex still unforgiven.
Mom's sexual dramas got no one killed.
Yet cast in one I felt it gripping me.
I was fourteen, out dripping from the shower.
She'd brought me a towel. "You're such
a good looking boy," she said, "it scares me."
The potshard pieces come together. Mom
stares at me. My shivering nakedness
covers itself up. Hers lights up with a flash
so blinding all I see is the darkness.
PLAYING THE WHEEL
We are leaving the Casino at Juan-les-Pins
the roulette marbles still tumbling over numbers
about to lodge in somebody else's stomach.
By a hotel full of the Rolling Stones
arrogantly parked is a black Maserati,
the mild swale of its transparent fastback
frosted smooth by the August dawn.
There a suave finger––speaking, I supposed,
for the whole woman––had written,
"Dear Luc, I waited for you since three hours.
Your anger not incurable anger?
Biot 479 310"
My fingers are spinning the dial
around like the wheel of fortunate numbers
ticking into a perfect parlay
just as she answers—Daisy! with a voice
full of money which I spend in the dream
Je suis Luc J'arrive J'arrive
THE WORST KISS
I ask you for it.
You look unhappy and surprised
but lean forward to touch my lips
with a reluctant brush of your own.
I say: "That is the worst kiss
I've had since I was seven."
The moment veers toward a smile,
we say goodnight.
A night later by Grasmere in rain
your mouth buries in my sweater,
hiding. "The worst kiss?" you say,
unwilling to part with another.
But you do. Your kissing is tireless,
expectant, as though you woke up
from walking all day through London, still
overflowing with its pleasure, and so loving
every morning we nearly miss breakfast.
The facts of our lives flow freely,
we're guides to our own arrested pasts,
wondering whether we still live there.
We do. Our last kiss
holds nothing back, except our lives,
which empty of each other as slowly
as rain dries from damp wool.
Inscriptions on Greek tombstones intrigued him,
the way stones spoke to the dead with sure words.
This little stone, good Sabinus, records
our great friendship––which I still need. Don't dim
your memory of me by drinking Lethé.
Sometimes the dead answer. Please don't worry
long over me. Work. Live. At nineteen
cancer killed me, and I leave the sweet sun.
We both had strong Platonic appetites
for ripe symposia of grapes and plums—
whose power Aristotle found in their pits—
tiny grenades, packed with earth-driven blossoms
which stun the World of Forms. When a calm mirror
lake absorbed us, we dove underwater,
blew out mouthfuls, swam until the honey
of exhaustion sweetened every cell in the body.
From a frame normally tense and restless
a tennis ball exacted gracefulness
by skipping on the tip of the net's tongue.
The dust kicked from our reflexes in long-
winded rallies. Sharp satisfying plocks,
both of us bent on keeping play alive,
we'd silence with a forehand drive,
let sweat cool, and drink harsh gulps from our Cokes.
His death ten seconds in my ears, I stalked
past our friends, making of grief a dumb show,
striding as if I had somewhere to go,
so blindly thirsty for Ron's life, I hawked
up rain I'd swallowed, then spit through chilled teeth;
sat for a while in a bus kiosk
recalling the times Ron would ask
me what I'd study, faced with early death.
That Spring, at Epidauros, I heard mist
hiss off marble harangued by the rain.
When it's wordless, grief can drive you insane,
so talk to him. Tell him he's keenly missed.
Trust words to carry in this magical air;
this theatre to cure pity and fear.
Ask both laurel and myrtle leaf
to help bring him back from the afterlife,
then set two stones speaking. Let him go first.
"Sometimes we doomed seek death––I was coerced.
Though I loved math, Greek, philosophy, song
I mastered none. In all lives much goes wrong;
to love your own––then die––is the worst."
"Ron, the Olympian Bastards stopped cold
the life that your genius foretold––
except for friendship, in which you are versed."
Yeah, I was sassy––confrontational
even—but it would have been criminal
not to give Wilbur a clean open shot
at a blindsiding critic, the day
he visited C. L. Barber's poetry class.
"Sir, Randall Jarrell wrote that your poems
(I paraphrase) reminded him of something
a thoughtful tailback said about football––
how a good runner makes a choice, as each
play develops, to plunge ahead for six
or eight safe yards, or, dodging and weaving,
he goes for a possible touchdown, maybe
getting stopped cold for a big loss. Jarrell
thinks too often you, uh, settle for six."
Barber reddened, Wilbur smiled, I was thinking,
That's got to provoke a riposte mordant!
What it provoked was a mild concussion––
"I don't think Randall Jarrell wrote that review.
I believe it was Horace Gregory."
Graciousness (his) rescued embarrassment
(mine) before I could follow my faux pas up:
how a poet of Wilbur's caliber
should respond to a thrown gauntlet hitting
print––and whether playing it safe or going
for broke was ever a problem for him.
In the years since, I've tried to put on tape
how ABC's Wide World of Poetry
would broadcast highlights of Wilbur's career:
"Wilbur runs wide, the pigskin tucked away,
facing that famous Wall of Stone defense––
Lowell, Stevens, Roethke, Dickey, up front;
linebackers Nemerov, Berryman, Frost;
Junkins and Hecht at the corners; Wright and Strand
deep. No snarks on this team, just brash-talking
go-for-brokers, no way they'll back off!
"'The mind is like some bat,' is the first slick
move Dick puts on the lads who think it's a hawk.
This Wall of Stone can't handle Wilbur's bat,
it's weaving rings around these groping bards!
"Now Dick shows all who've been there, done that,
'there's something new to see:' Rome reimagined!
He turns spumanti into holy water;
from various mundane ingredients
he rebuilds his own City of the Soul.
But has he trapped himself inside a cul de sac?"
Cameras freeze the action, spectators
wonder en bloc, "Can Wilbur, Stupendo
Numero Ottanta, shake himself free
from his thoroughly pagan infatuation
with that Baroque Wall Fountain, drenching all
parties concerned––nymph and faun, goose and us––
in permanent, diaphanous pleasure?
Can he slip back inside the Christian fold?
"Not a problem! Dick laterals himself
across the city, over the heads of stunned
opponents, pleased readers––much as Deborah Kerr
lateralled herself, in Prisoner of Zenda,
from one Stewart Granger to another.
Within St. Peter's outstretched arms he touches
down running; two sky-high spumes remind us
gravity sucks to earth all human life,
that failure's inherent; but wait! He doesn't
abandon us before God's huge locked door,
he cuts back through the walls of Villa Schiarra,
whose fountain now pours pure reassurance
through minds drinking its bottomless waters."
Meanwhile, downstream, deadlier dangers
loom, whose full measure he will take: He en-
tertains a godlike drunk who reads minds;
God's own mind he suddenly, perilously,
reads; a child's eyes peer out from his death bed
at something true––unconditional love!––
we never outlive. And, when the end zone's
breached, he enters, betraying no outward
elation as though he's been there before,
just as Coach Vincent Lombardi advised.
THE SEWER DARE
The April I recovered from measles––
quarantined for weeks in a darkened room––
the outdoor sun intimidated my eyes
but dazzling cardinals and forsythia
soon lit up everywhere I looked. From lilac
and honeysuckle, my breath pulled sweetness
in through my nose. Weather turned warm as though
won by the flowers' graceful example.
After a sweat-provoking tennis game
I took my first cool shower of the year.
Screen doors—pried open rickety—held back
their slam until I pushed off the top step
of the porch, staggering under my own weight,
eager to run myself back into shape
against buddies, jackrabbits, butterflies;
every competitor set a harsh pace.
No matter how lightheaded after races
through backyards and woodlots, I balked at
being conned by Reichert's provocations.
Haul ourselves hand over hand on telephone
wires, biceps shivering with exertion
but our legs scissoring uselessly? That
was one sure way to join Pete Reichert's gang––
or get ourselves electrocuted. Screw yous
got my head pummeled, pugnacious fist feints
brought my guard up, but the real killers
clenched in Pete Reichert's fists were bottle caps.
He flinched when I smacked the hand that struck me
lucky, relaxed, and opened on a Pepsi cap.
Reichert broke its news grimly while he lodged
that opaque monocle in his eye: "You know
the old storm sewer runs under Sagamore?
I've bellied through it during thunderstorms.
So you guys better hope it doesn't rain."
McCornack, hunched over his sunken chest,
volunteered. He had failed to recite
the Lord's Prayer yesterday while, pinned squirming,
a hen pecked chickenfeed off his bare belly.
A Nedicks top whose luck lay undivulged
Reichert stuck in his other leering eye,
then both caps dropped off his frozen zombie
stare focused on something a mile away.
Maybe Nedicks meant Mountain Avenue
strapped in Mike's buggy, with a running start,
one wheel loose, and me steering with my knees.
By deadpan razzmatazz they tried to haze
chickenhearted refusals out of me,
pulling the laces out of my sneakers
so when I raced I ran them off my feet.
Disgraced, there was no place to go but down.
McCornack teamed with me, and the iron grill,
crowbarred upright, tottered over our fingers.
We let go of the street; the grill clanked shut.
Reichert peered through the manhole: "Hey, little rain
comin' down." He quieted to let us listen.
Somebody's leak tumbled on the macadam,
superbly timed. "Bastards, I still see blue,"
Mac whispered. Bastards was fed back to us
amplified. Reichert's hollering laughter
hollowed the sewer out ahead of us.
Unforeseen water drops glanced off our necks.
Holes sucking at our palms in the leaf slime
left by runaway rainfalls, ghouls of the cold air,
spider webs and rust flakes, increased our sense
of the sewer's impassive narrowness—
constriction of being bound and gagged
without anything firm to fight against.
Nothing to do but elbow into it,
worming the way a jointed finger does
squirming inside a glove. But open-eyed
blindness put pressure on our lungs, as though
we were swimming underwater, knowing
we had to come up for air pretty soon.
My fingers grabbing both McCornack's ankles
stopped him. My own thighs loosened and my neck
ligaments eased. A lit match showed Mac's hands
flailing to kill invisible vermin;
water drenching our pant legs swirled chills
up through our privates, encouraging leaks
through our khakis and cloudbursts in our minds.
Mac tried to pivot and crawl back the same way
we came, but his buttocks jammed his forehead
flush against stone. His scrawny arm muscles
grappled and strained, resisting python-like
peristalsis. McCornack's fist jabbed
as if for Reichert's jaw. "Easy!" I said,
thinking, We're dead. Reichert had bullshit us;
we'd become mutinous excrement
propelling itself through an intestine.
Neighborhoods, parents, friends sank out of sight;
my sister's curls sagged in sodden languor
below me, trapped in a swift rising tide.
I couldn't hear a word my mother called
from our porch, which floated out of my mind.
Auroras opened their colorful fingers
whenever my twisting head smashed my nose.
At last the fiery hand that palmed me turned
to clammy mud. I groveled in knowledge
I still believe: Bravado can kill you.
A steady spray of water drenched our faces,
then subsided. The brass nozzles of hoses
bumped kneecaps; sunlight broke through as Reichert's
whinnying buddies pried the cover up.
Our minds, pounded into our stomachs,
reawakened to blinding sunshine, which we
got used to, hand over hand up the slick green
hoses toward the blue manhole-rounded sky.
There, towering in a human pyramid,
was Reichert's roaring gang, topped by Reichert
rollicking in his personal glory.
His was the biggest swindle of our lives.
We stood sullen, each holding a live hose.
Reichert pounded his fist on the asphalt,
but for once I had a good grip on water,
filling his nostrils with its blinding blast.
Cynthy and Abigail arrived breathless,
sleepy-eyed, the bedspread's tassels still pocking
their cheeks, just too late to see what happened.
"Those beasties don't even know they're alive,"
he yelled at the gang. For weeks the word death
seeped through everything I loved, then dried out
soon as baseball season got underway.
First a variety of shorter poems, followed by a longer one about Greg Corso, then some sonnets about a foxy lady, and finally some poems about my wife
Although I didn't say so then,
I want quite honestly to die.
She's gone, and there were a lot
of tears when she said, Can you
still feel how we touched each other,
Sappho—I hate leaving you.
Don't you see (I said) listen,
why not leave radiant
as if you remembered the
honey of it? Why make me tell you
things you can't have forgotten?
How lazy and sensual we were,
busy with headbands of violets
roses crocuses—all you bunched
in rings and piled over me,
silly necklaces full of silky
petals, slippery damp on my
soft neck. And your palms, wet with
rare royal myrrh shampoo, would
massage and rinse out my lovely hair . . .
When I take hold of your alpine hand, I feel
your mind shifting its weight from thought to thought,
the mountain rattling under your skis—
and my mind drops
through an old darkness: not this winter night
but at sixteen on Pocono Lake
with summer friends, dazed by beer,
pine blaze and folk songs.
John D and I sit sharing Linda between us
behind our backs we each search
her hand out, we hold it for two beers
and some tunes, raw, moist, and eager.
But when John rises, I rise, we let go
each other's stunned disowned grip—
having glanced, my blood-brother of those years,
in a savage mirror, having felt male
desire flowing to us as a girl felt it.
Viola wears a boy's brave clothes,
speaks her lines with masculine pluck;
runs rings around the Duke, who, quite
immune to her impulsive puns
won't feel her love for three acts yet.
If music be love's food, disguise
must be love's speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry—
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.
Our play was reading poems: you read
me, I you, till, turning the page
we took the place of poems, shedding
all of our expertease
gracefully as poems paraphrase.
At thirteen my parents
let me stop eating meat.
I had been asking them
since I was eight or nine.
I trained my appetite
never to kill anything.
I wouldn't own leather.
I'd let mosquitoes
torture me. But last year
I started to slap them
the second they drew blood.
To be pure anything
is difficult—the world
outsmarts you. I fed my cat
nothing but vegetables
until I felt her flesh
starving when I stroked her.
When you told me White Shoulders
came from the testicles
of a musk ox, I stopped
wearing it. Always before
White Shoulders had risen
from my skin like your hand.
It was pleasure between us.
You wanted me to see: love
matters, principles don't.
Creatures die everywhere
for us, we can't stop it,
there's no safe life, no one's
clean. Would you stop writing
if it caused pain? I would.
When you were trying not
to love me, I put White
Shoulders back on my body.
I wanted us to smell
love and death, when we were
talking about other things.
We haven't slept together for ten months.
Avoiding collisions, we steer clear.
Whenever I see a white VW
entering traffic, peeling off, or parked,
I look for some sign that it's yours,
soon finding a rusted rocker panel,
Montana license, impacted fender,
raucous muffler, or grimy skin, to tell me
you're elsewhere; but there are days
when a Volks bright as a kitchen sink
will stay white, slowing for a STOP sign,
engine throbbing in strong teutonic tune,
I BRAKE FOR WHALES on the bumper,
a pigeon feather rising from the dash;
curled in the window well, a sick cat;
and you, lost in your organized hurry—
on errands, once shared, I must guess at,
off now on my own errand, reacting
daily to a white Volks coming up
beside me, long after you've sold yours,
long after the last one rusts from the road.
THE NAMES OF PERFUMES
Abruptly slams the bathroom door.
Water explodes from both taps, then a sound
I do not recognize at first, impacts
like rock crunching as it hits porcelain,
seven, eight shatterings. Then silence
tightens the skin of the door's huge bass drum.
I pound it, she unlocks; a fragrant barrage
lavender, lily, pine, grass, musk
invades me. She stands naked, right foot braving
water savagely hot, jagged with glass,
the labels tearing in the swirl, Chamade,
the roll of drums before surrender, Arpège,
Arc de triomphe, Fleurs du mal, Vol de nuit,
Prends-moi, Huitième voilette, Force majeur.
Sliding gently down the tub's curvature,
glass shards cutting her buttocks, she turns
to look. I pull her upward, thighs and back
blood-pocked. She spits out Tarc, Majette,
Malheur, Têtehuit, Cège, Corf, Phiore,
Maudeur, T'aime, t'aime, t'aime!
Glazed eyes, a scream that crazes them, woman
in pain, all things I once squeezed into sense
are nouns disintegrating, consonants
lacerating, vowels melting in my brain.
—a beast created from parts of other beasts
A crop duster opens its wing pods,
aerosols exhale from a briefcase hissing
in an airport lounge or subway station.
EbólaPox is so ethereal
we'll have no clue a countdown has begun.
It will take us a few infinite days
to die––we will blacken, then melt away.
I'll spare you further symptoms. But terrorists
won't, nor will their feisty microallies
who gather inside us like a slow motion
nuclear bomb turning lovers and friends,
ever widening circles of strangers,
to silent singers, our bodies mouthing
hatred so primal it screams through our flesh.
THE EIGHTEENTH BOOK
—for Martin Klingerman (1936–1970)
Marty's life. It was touched by the Iliad
on a stony hillside pasture
in Tyringham, Massachusetts, in June '57.
A week before graduation
We picnic after rehearsing Nausicaä.
Green Maiden is with us (her name in the play),
she will drive south to Fire Island
in twenty minutes; a car is stashed for her
in a Safeway parking lot.
We admire the momentum building in her life.
"Green Maiden" says Marty, so reckless
we cringe for him
"May I rest my head in your lap?"
She's silent then seems to answer
chillingly more than he asked
Just this once she says and his head
goes down to her lap a brief glorious while
Just that once his buried wrath
demanded of her who knew how much life
how much life the gods
would let him have