Photo by Katy Brown, Davis
I used to wander through life amid
an ill-starred love: I used to keep
a little page of quartz
to rivet my eyes to life.
I bought kindness, I was in the market
of greed, I inhaled envy's
most sordid waters, the inhuman
hostility of masks and beings,
I lived a sea-swamp world
in which the flower, the lily, suddenly
consumed me in their foamy tremor,
and wherever I stepped my soul slid
toward the teeth of the abyss.
That's how my poetry was born, barely
freed from the nettles, clutched
above solitude like a punishment,
or its most secret flower sequestered
in the garden of immodesty until it was buried.
And so isolated like the dark water
that inhabits its deep corridors,
I fled from hand to hand, to each
being's alienation, to daily hatred.
I knew that was how they lived, hiding
half of their beings, like fish
from the strangest sea, and in the murky
immensities I encountered death.
Death opening doors and roads.
Death gliding along the walls.
DEATH IN THE WORLD
Death kept dispatching and reaping
its tribute in sites and tombs:
man with dagger or with pocket,
at noon or in the nocturnal light,
hoped to kill, keep killing,
kept burying beings and branches,
murdering and devouring corpses.
He prepared his nets, wrung dry,
bled white, departed in the morning
smelling blood from the hunt,
and upon returning from his triumph he was shrouded
by fragments of death and abandonment,
and killing himself, he then buried
his tracks with sepulchral ceremony.
The homes of the living were dead.
Slag, broken roofs, urinals,
wormy alleyways, hovels
awash with human tears.
"You must live like this," said the decree.
"Rot in your substance," said the Foreman.
"You're filthy," reasoned the Church.
"Sleep in the mud," they told you.
And some of them armed the ash
to govern and decide,
while the flower of mankind beat
against the walls built for them.
The Cemetery possessed pomp and stone.
Silence for all the stature
of lofty tapered vegetation.
At last you're here, at last you leave
us a hollow in the heart of the bitter jungle,
at last you lie stiff between walls
that you won't breach. And every day
the flowers, like a river of perfume,
joined the river of the dead.
The flowers untouched by life
fell on the hollow that you left.
Here I found love. It was born in the sand,
it grew without voice, touched the flintstones
of hardness, and resisted death.
Here mankind was life that joined
the intact life, the surviving sea,
and attacked and sang and fought
with the same unity of metals.
Here cemeteries were nothing but
turned soil, dissolved sticks
of broken crosses over which
the sandy winds advanced.
Words are inseparable from poetry and forever ready to release unforeseeable magic into the poetic performance. But no poem is made of words alone. Just as no thought exists in words alone. Feelings, suggestions, images arise out of the words and run free of them.
—John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?
(Today's poetry was translated from the Spanish by Jack Schmitt.)