WHITMAN, MOTH, AND BUTTERFLY
(i.m. Clive James, 1939-2019)
Clive James, whatever sins you repented of,
No doubt the world remembers you as the fresh
Present-tense mind applying constant love
Or quick shove to seeing how lives and things enmesh.
I’m reading your Walt Whitman poem, writ late
In your own poet’s life, about late life
For this great poet, not long since passed through war
In hospitals, fighting the after-trauma of strife,
The pity and terror without the bannered spar.
You’d know a thing about hospitals and recovery.
You celebrate his ease at pondside, in mud,
His undiminished knack for fresh discovery,
Short-breathed now in poetry, not the gay young stud
Of Leaves’ first edition…and yet a moth flutterby-
Flits to his wrist, scenting with feelers a winged thing.
Good that Walt gives you material for your verse,
Authentic without a photograph; you bring
To your lines the flex of live wingbeats. So much worse
Whatever I could indite now of you or him:
Compared with your natural lilt, I write as if
Aspiring to create a Whitman-hymn
Cameradoing you. My lyric reads quite stiff,
Like that old photograph: Walt posing with butterfly,
Forefinger-alit, wing-rigid cardboard ply?
Poet Clive James published The River in the Sky
last year, just when I was issuing my first book.
We both know something of what cancer can do,
though not I, but James, experiences real suffering.
Big C, for him? Retribution’s metaphor.
Maybe I ascribe my bout with it to chance, not sin,
for my sins, largely fantasy, stream shallow,
exact slight surface abrasions—I like to think,
and probably err. Both he and I drop names
of famous or near-famous influences,
acquaintances. I trawl my few pet names,
Edward de Vere, composers Arnold Bax, John Adams,
these fantasy chums, to net my schools of verse-chum.
But Clive’s the prince of purposeful name-dropping,
near Clive-of-India-level in that sport.
The difference is, he’s really cultivated,
husbanded, convivialized, commiserated
with, all these A-list friends, made something poignant
of this one who died on skate blades failing to rescue
his doomed daughter. That Duke Ellington aficionado
whose lavish house burned down. It’s James’s Dante!
That oddly successful, willfully perverse translation
(in quatrains! not in terza rima!?). Through this lens,
what else is River in the Sky but Clive’s new Inferno?
James and his trend-setter friends, each consumed
by that one special gift, that precise largesse,
that bought them their distinction, flaring up.
Crown fire, as it were, fueled with molten gold crowns.
My life, in comparison, seems a Paradiso.
Yet…opposite ends of the room, same banquet table?
Much early Bax, built on the minor second,
Most grating of all intervals in music.
As if his recklessness came fully reckoned,
Fate-meted as if decreed by laws of physics.
For instance, his fanfare, Viola Phantasy:
Bassoon trolls out the dour off-key note; trumpet,
Cheerfully voiced enough, pitched eerily
Two octaves, one half-step higher, snared in some net
Of sinister-thin suspension, albeit relaxed
One discord-level deeper, lyrical,
Lilting, yet not without an aftertaste
Of minor second, inverted, strained and taxed,
To looking-glass minor ninth. More diabolical
Yet, Bax’s Second: this dissonance just lays waste.
IN ROUSSALKA’S HOUSE
(Natalia Skarzhinski, 1910)
And all the somber tale of Rurik’s race
Is become holy to us since you came.
Can all the evil told of her be true
Who bore so beautiful a thing as you?
—Arnold Bax, “To a Russian Girl”
Two things you noticed about Her: ice-blue eyes
and golden hair. In time, you sensed caprice;
submitted to being played with; was it wise
to render your life into hands white as these?
You caught the Ukrainian chaos of her house
in Kruglik, not the company’s high distinction.
Ignored the rarefied intellect-talk; each louse
or flea in your woodblock quarters caused you friction.
Not knowing her language, any more than yours, She…
Music, yes, in particular Russia’s idiom;
did ease with that Muse betray you into thinking
as you knew Balakirev you could know Starzhinski?
We have the advantage, knowing better wherefrom
her mother, praised in her motherland; just an inkling…
(You took to Vassili, fine crafter of mandolins;
do such stewards haunt homes of debauch and sins…?)
[With thanks to recent original research in Ukraine by Alan Sutton, who posted 11/4/19 on the Sir Arnold Bax Website.]
IN MEMORY OF DON KESSLER
Musician, founder of Davis Brass
You started musical life with a trombone.
The richness of its sound, the fully cored
Presence a mere slide, tube, and bell can hone,
Made you a lifelong brass-man. Not for reward.
You found, as we mostly do, the horn alone
Would not sustain a career. The ten-part brass
Ensemble you founded functioned on its own,
Yet you were its prime persona. Critical mass
Could not have surged without your voice’s weight.
You carried the stands, provided the repertoire,
Made the phone calls, text messages, elate
Simply to hear your own smooth group explore.
Your steely handshake’s warmth proclaimed you friend.
You kept us rehearsing and playing, past your end.
THE DUKE OF BRILLIANT CORNERS
(On Reading New Selected Poems of Thom Gunn)
Your cool “Ben Jonson” clarity
Comes off, at first glance, autocratic.
Detachment; yoked, though, to charity:
Both traits with you seem axiomatic.
You mixed with “linkboys” of the street,
Mingled with punks, with auto mechanics,
Skateboarders we’d not deign to meet,
Gave to their human the casual-dramatic.
A guest in the home of Yvor Winters,
At ease in the Bay’s mild green outdoors:
Your life seemed split in crystal splinters,
All pieces of mirrors, if not your portals
To strange new pleasures. Of sharp corners
Shall we term you a biker duke?
We say that, though—because straight not gay?
Unable to comprehend the play,
Our default setting Aloof? Rebuke
Quite meet for us who’ve never lurked
In bathhouses or leather bars,
known what that strange man means, index crooked.
Your codebook lost, we can’t fathom your stars.
Duke of odd comrades, one great vision:
Union, no, family, clasping all comers
Into your welcoming sphere. Precision
Demands we salute you as you were:
Language master, lover and friend
In any milieu, drugged lord and monk
Of your humane creed, agape without end.
A duke you are, true, but of “brilliant corners”;
The title suits you, it comes from jazz,
A bebop tune by Thelonious Monk.
Sharp-angled diamond, coal-dark disguise.
Poet faces glare; so I glare back.
The Poetry, Copper Canyon ones
Intimidate, irritate. Not from lack
Of charisma. In their gaze, what shuns
Me—and I take it personally—
Is their faint smugness, artiness.
Not so, your cover. Sharp stare, free
Of artifice. I read intent to bless,
As it were: unfeigned, unwinking humor.
The calm assessment, critical-keen,
Discerns me right now, discards all rumor,
Trusts to the eyes’ out-spearing sheen,
The eyebeams’ embrace of eyebeams in Donne.
It’s of course not me you’re gazing at.
Your special Du mußt dein Leben ändern:
From Rilke’s Torso? It might be that,
Or is it that your brother Ander
Snapped your living portrait bust?
Direct look, challenging, all candor:
Whatever your verdict, it will be just,
Part fully disclosed judicial decree,
Part passed from eye to camera
(Sidebar in white-noised secrecy),
Part fact-solid, fleet-phrased never-chimera.
Part of doing something is listening. We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.
―Madeleine L'Engle, Swiftly Tilting Planet
Our thanks to Tom Goff today for his fine poetry!
The Placerville version of Poetry Off-the-Shelves meets tonight at the El Dorado County Library on Fair Lane in Placerville, 5-7pm. Also tonight is the debut of the new reading series, Thee Word Thing, hosted by Lob and featuring Patrick Grizzell this month, plus open mic, 7:30-9:30pm. That’s at the Shine Cafe, 1400 E St., Sac.
And ALSO tonight is the Invisible Disabilities Open Mic at Luna’s Cafe and Juice Bar on 16th. St. in Sac., a chance to share poetry, music, comedy, etc. about your own disabilities. Scroll down to the blue column (under the green column at the right) for info about these and other upcoming poetry events in our area—and note that more may be added at the last minute.
—Medusa, celebrating the music in poetry, and the poetry in music ~
By the way, National Moth Week (NMW) is July 18-26.
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